The Meaning of Christ’s Return
Should we expect a literal return to this planet? What does his return mean for mankind?
RECENTLY a Canadian newspaper interviewed a number of clergymen of different faiths as to their understanding of the meaning of Christ’s return. One said that the second coming of Christ was accomplished by the acceptance of Christ’s teachings by individuals and not by his returning to earth. A Presbyterian minister said that he believed “there will be a physical return of Christ.” Yet another expressed belief in two comings: one to receive the Christians in the air and take them to heaven, and the second to come back to the earth and then reign there forever with his followers. And, finally, one minister admitted that he did not understand the doctrine.
Obviously there is confusion on this subject among the world’s religions. In view of the importance of the Bible teaching on this subject we do well to investigate the real meaning of Christ’s return and learn how it takes place.
Christ’s return does not mean, as some clergymen imply, that as the world becomes more Christian Christ’s coming becomes more complete, and that when world conversion is accomplished Christ will have returned in the fullest sense. If that teaching were correct, we would be obliged to say that Christ is leaving rather than returning, since, not only is the world becoming less Christian in proportion to world population figures, but even the nominal Christian sectors are steadily drifting farther away from his teachings and example. Jesus’ own answer to his apostles’ question about his return shows that he did not believe such world conversion would take place.—See Matthew 24:3-14.
Does that leave us with only one other alternative: a literal return of Christ Jesus to our planet Earth? Not at all. Again Jesus’ words rule out such idea. At John 6:51 he says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and, for a fact, the bread that I shall give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world.” Jesus thus gave up his fleshly body in sacrifice for mankind. For how long was that sacrifice to be in effect? The apostle Paul answers: “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time.” (Heb. 10:10) Christ Jesus will therefore not take back what he gave up, namely, his fleshly existence.
Those who hold to the idea of a reign by Christ Jesus from an earthly throne are thereby downgrading the grandness of the heavenly hope Jesus set before his anointed followers. Such persons would make it appear that the heavenly abodes he promised to prepare for his disciples are only to be places of temporary sojourn until they return to this earth with him, as though it, after all, were the better place to be. (John 14:2, 3) Jesus encouraged his followers to faithfulness, holding out as a reward the privilege of sitting with him near his Father’s throne. His Father said: “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.” (Acts 7:49) So why would Jesus bring these followers down to the footstool again?—Rev. 3:21; 2 Cor. 5:1, 16; Col. 3:1, 2.
IN WHAT SENSE HE RETURNS
Much of the difficulty apparently lies in the failure to realize that the word “return” can mean something else besides a going back bodily to a previous geographical location. Yet, in everyday speech, we often speak of “returning” in other senses. For example, we say that a person has “returned to normal health,” or that a deposed ruler has “returned to power” (although he may never have left his palace).
Note the Bible’s use of the word at Genesis 18:10. There Jehovah God told Abraham: “I am surely going to return to you next year at this time, and, look! Sarah your wife will have a son.” He kept this promise, not by making a literal visit to Sarah, but by extending his power toward her so that in her old age she could conceive and give birth to Isaac. (Gen. 21:1) The Bible tells of a number of occasions in which Jehovah “visited” the nation of Israel. Thus we read concerning Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, that “she had heard . . . that Jehovah had turned his attention to [“visited,” RS] his people.” How? “By giving them bread.” So his visit was not a literal going to their land but a turning of his attention to them or taking certain action toward them.—Ruth 1:6; Gen. 18:21.
Therefore, since Christ’s return does not mean a literal coming back to this earth, it must mean that he takes Kingdom power toward this earth and turns his attention to the earth. He does not need to leave his heavenly throne and make a bodily descent to our small planet to do this, any more than the president of the United States has to go to all the fifty States of the Union in order to preside over them. Before his ascension to heaven, Jesus told his disciples: “Look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matt. 28:20) How was he with them? Not literally, but by means of holy spirit, poured out at Pentecost, he continued to guide and instruct them so that wherever even two or three gathered together he could be “there . . . in their midst.” (Matt. 18:20) However, his return in Kingdom power would mean much more and result in the accomplishment of certain definite purposes affecting all mankind.
WHAT HIS RETURN ACCOMPLISHES
Bible evidence and the historical facts in fulfillment prove that in the year 1914 C.E. God’s due time arrived for his Son to begin ruling from his heavenly throne and that the cry was then heard in heaven: “Now have come to pass the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ.” (Rev. 12:10) What would the exercise of Christ’s authority now mean? It meant that not only his loyal disciples on earth but all the nations would be “gathered before him” and would come in for survey, inspection and judgment. From his glorious throne in the heavens Christ has turned his attention toward all of them and he does not need to send out a satellite equipped with television cameras to do this. He thus accomplishes one of the purposes of his return, that of judging the nations and separating the people as “sheep” or “goats.” (Matt. 25:31-33) Not by angels alone but also by faithful Christian witnesses does he accomplish this, sending them into all the inhabited earth to announce the good news of his established kingdom.—Matt. 24:14.
Christ’s return additionally means that he turns his attention to his surviving disciples and to other joint heirs who sleep in earthly graves. The apostle tells us: “We the living who survive to the presence of the Lord shall in no way precede those who have fallen asleep in death; because the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet, and those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:15, 16) When on earth Jesus stood before the door of Lazarus’ tomb and called for him to come out. Now, from his heavenly position of power he can send down this call simultaneously to thousands of graves all over the globe and, by means of God’s spirit, cause his anointed followers to rise from death to life as spirit sons of God and to join him in his heavenly rule. (Rev. 14:1) Bible evidence indicates that he began to do so from 1918 C.E. onward.
His return also means a time for showing favor to the faithful Christians yet alive on earth, and so, in the verse following those just quoted, we read: “Afterward we the living who are surviving will, together with them, be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:17) This does not mean that these living Christians will be exempted from having to prove faithful until death, but, rather, means that their King now expresses his approval of them and unites them with himself spiritually, in a way that is as invisible to human eyes as the air itself is. He frees them from any captivity to modern “Babylon the Great,” the world empire of false religion, and elevates them to a position of honor aS the approved representatives of his glorious kingdom. Revelation 11:11, 12 symbolically shows that even their enemies are obliged to behold the evidence of the King’s favor manifested toward these loyal subjects.
Eventually his return will also mean complete relief from all persecution and suffering for such faithful Christians who now fearlessly witness about his kingdom. The apostle Paul promised: “To you who suffer tribulation, relief along with us at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels.” (2 Thess. 1:7) In this age of electronically controlled “ground-to-air” and “air-to-ground” missiles, Christ Jesus, with ‘all authority in heaven and earth’ invested in him, will not have to abandon his heavenly throne and travel to a position geographically near the enemy opposers of his servants on earth in order to eliminate such wicked ones. Like a “sharp long sword” and a rod of iron, his power by God’s spirit and through the mighty angelic hosts will reach all such ones and crush them like ‘grapes in a winepress.’ His return will therefore mean destruction for them at the coming battle of Armageddon.—Matt. 28:18; Rev. 19:11-15; 16:14-16; Ps. 2:8, 9.
Christ’s return in Kingdom power will have a wonderful meaning for an unnumbered multitude of persons who love righteousness and who will serve him as earthly subjects. To these he will say: “Come, you who have my Father’s blessing, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world.” (Matt. 25:34) Christ’s thousand-year rule over them will raise them to human perfection and qualify them for everlasting life in the paradise earth.—Rev. 20:4-6; 21:1-4.
The nation of Israel waited fifteen long centuries for the coming of the Messiah and then missed its meaning when it occurred. Do not miss the meaning of Christ’s return today. Study God’s Word daily and let it guide your thinking.