Could Christ Return Without Being Seen?
WHY should this question arise? Simply because Jesus himself said to his disciples: “The sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matt. 24:30) But later on while eating his last supper with his disciples, he said: “A little longer and the world will behold me no more, but you will behold me, because I live and you will live.” (John 14:19) This seeming contradiction is further complicated by the revelation given to the apostle John some six decades later. It reads: “Look! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and those who pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in grief because of him.”—Rev. 1:7.
Is all this ‘seeing’ and ‘beholding’ to be taken literally? Or could there be some deeper meaning to it? The importance of these questions is illustrated by what happened in the first century of our Common Era, when many Jews were expecting their Messiah.
APPEARING, BUT NOT RECOGNIZED
Back then the lead question might have been, ‘Could the Messiah, or Christ, appear without being recognized?’ Obviously he would be visible as a man, but would the Jewish public distinguish him as the One sent by God?
The Bible record clearly indicates how the majority of the crowd reacted. On his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they were crying out: “Save, we pray, the Son of David! Blessed is he that comes in Jehovah’s name!” When others asked: “Who is this?” the crowds kept saying: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee!” It looked to them as if this miracle man was going to go into action and free the Jews from the Roman yoke. But it did not turn out that way. Jesus was not a political revolutionary, but, rather, promoted spiritual freedom and religious purity. What a letdown for the nationalistic ambitions of many back there! This “messiah” did not fit into their preconceived idea of a savior for Israel. What a contrast between the friendly crowd of Nisan 9 (Sunday) and the bloodthirsty mob of Nisan 14 (Friday)! “They all said: ‘Let him be impaled!’ . . . ‘His blood come upon us and upon our children.’”—Matt. 21:9-11; 27:22-25.
Because of their shortsightedness the majority of the Jewish people missed out on the glorious privilege of being kings with Christ in his heavenly kingdom. Their political and patriotic ideals beclouded their vision of spiritual blessings that could have resulted in good for them. They wanted a messiah only for their generation and for their particular problem—the Roman occupation of their land. They failed to recognize the true Messiah in spite of all his credentials.—Matt. 1:21–2:6.
IS THERE A MODERN PARALLEL?
Is it possible that something similar has occurred in our 20th century? Could it be that millions are wrongly expecting to see Christ arrive literally on the clouds?
We have an immediate clue to these questions in Jesus’ warning to his followers: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Christ,’ or, ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will give great signs and wonders so as to mislead, if possible, even the chosen ones. Look! I have forewarned you.” (Matt. 24:23-25) This indicates that Christ’s presence will not be visible at this or at that geographical location. Therefore, those claiming to be the returned Christ, or to have seen him “here” or “there,” are either deluded or frauds.
The key to understanding the whole matter lies in the question that four of Christ’s disciples posed to their Master as they viewed Jerusalem and its temple from the nearby Mount of Olives. Jesus had startled them by prophesying that the temple, the very center of Jewish worship at that time, would be utterly destroyed. So they asked him: “Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence [Greek, parousía] and of the conclusion of the system of things?”
Now, maybe you would like to compare that text, quoted from the New World Translation, with your own copy of the Bible. According to the Authorized Version and the American Standard Version, this text reads: “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” The New English Bible reads: “What will be the signal for your coming and the end of the age?” And The Living Bible says: “What events will signal your return, and the end of the world?”—Matt. 24:3.
The various translations noted here have put many people off the track with regard to the true meaning and application of Jesus’ answer to his disciples. It is one thing for events to indicate that someone is coming or returning, and something entirely different for events to prove that the awaited person has already arrived. Perhaps you have experienced this while waiting for someone at an airport or a train station. There is the same subtle shade of difference between Christ’s returning and the “presence” of him as being already here. Does that surprise you?
But how can we know which is the more precise translation—“presence” or “coming”? Let us turn to another text that uses the same Greek word parousía and see how it is translated in certain previously quoted Bibles. For example, at Philippians 2:12 we read: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence [Greek, parousía] only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Authorized Version) Now here The New English Bible says: “So you too, my friends, must be obedient, as always; even more, now that I am away, than when I was with you.” Compare Philippians 1:26, which uses parousías.a
What words are here used as the translation of parousía? “Presence” and “with you.” “Arrival” or “coming” would not fit. Incidentally, the specific Greek word for “coming,” eleúsis, was used by the Christian martyr Stephen when he presented the following forthright question in his defense before the Jewish Sanhedrin court: “Which one of the prophets did your forefathers not persecute? Yes, they killed those who made announcement in advance concerning the coming [Greek, eleúseos] of the righteous One.”—Acts 7:52.
VISIBLE OR INVISIBLE?
Now the question is, If Jesus gave visible signs to indicate his presence, his effective return, would he then be personally visible or invisible? Rather than accept traditional ideas on this, let us be guided by what the Scriptures indicate. For example, the apostle Peter wrote in his first inspired letter: “Why, even Christ died once for all time concerning sins, a righteous person for unrighteous ones, that he might lead you to God, he being put to death in the flesh, but being made alive in the spirit.” (1 Pet. 3:18) The apostle Paul adds to the testimony, saying: “Consequently from now on we know no man according to the flesh. Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, certainly we now know him so no more.”—2 Cor. 5:16.
If Jesus were to return in the flesh, would this really benefit mankind, or would it be contrary to our best interests? It would, in fact, put in question the validity of his sacrifice and the purpose of his first coming to the earth. Christ himself said: “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 [not loan temporarily] is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world.” (John 6:51) His sacrifice is the basis for mankind’s redemption, and his resurrection to spirit life means that we have a compassionate advocate to plead on our behalf. Thus Paul wrote: “Christ Jesus is the one who died, yes, rather the one who was raised up from the dead, who is on the right hand of God, who also pleads for us.” Mankind would gain nothing if Christ were to abandon that position in order to appear in the flesh on earth.—Rom. 8:34.
Then what is the alternative to Christ’s second coming in the flesh? Simply stated, it is his presence, or parousía, as the invisible Son of God, invested with Kingdom power and directing his attention to the earth. That is why he gave us visible signs by which to verify his invisible presence.—Matt. 24:3–25:46.
HOW ‘SEEN’ AND ‘BEHELD’?
With these points in mind, let us go back to the texts we quoted at the beginning of this article. One of them was John 14:19, where Jesus said: “A little longer and the world will behold me no more, but you will behold me, because I live and you will live.” Yes, his followers, but not the general public, beheld him on various occasions after his resurrection. It was not that he had taken up again his sacrificed body but, rather, that he had materialized fleshly bodies according to the needs of the occasion, as angels had done previously. (Luke 1:11, 26, 27; 2:9-14) In two instances, he appeared to his disciples when they were together in a room “although the doors were locked.” Certainly no normal flesh-and-blood creature could appear and disappear in such circumstances.—John 20:19, 26; 1 Cor. 15:3-8.
Of course, there is a much greater meaning to Jesus’ words “you will behold me” than just his appearances as the resurrected Christ. He himself had said a little earlier: “In the house of my Father there are many abodes. Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going my way to prepare a place for you. Also, if I go my way and prepare a place for you, I am coming again and will receive you home to myself, that where I am you also may be.” Here was a clear indication that his anointed followers would share his heavenly dwelling and behold him on that plane of life.—John 14:2, 3.
But how are we to understand Revelation 1:7, which indicates that even unbelievers would “see him”? That scripture states: “Look! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and those who pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in grief because of him.” Is that to be taken literally? If Christ rides with the literal clouds, how can every eye see him? If he is visible in Australia, then he certainly will not be visible simultaneously in Europe and most other parts of the earth, regardless of his altitude. The fact that Christ’s presence is associated with the figurative use of clouds in various texts helps us to understand that his presence has to be invisible, since clouds do not aid visibility, as any airplane pilot or air-traffic controller well knows.
Now, who are those who have pierced him? Literally, Roman soldiers did this, but they have long been dead. (John 19:23, 32-34) So these words must have some other significance. Jesus himself supplies the clue in his parable of the ‘sheep and the goats’ when he says: “To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:31-46) Therefore, those nations and individuals that mistreat or ‘pierce’ Christ’s disciples on earth in this 20th century are counted as ‘piercing’ Christ during this time of his invisible presence. And they will be made to know the seriousness of what they have done and who is judging them. Yes, “all the tribes of the earth” will “see,” or mentally perceive, Christ’s presence and revelation by reason of the sudden change of circumstances that will come upon them. They will come to realize that Christ is ruling in judgment, but not in their favor. They will have good reason to beat themselves in grief.
On the other hand, millions of persons around the world have come to recognize Christ’s presence since the eventful year 1914. Although they know that wars, famines and earthquakes have been common to many generations, they recognize that no other generation experienced even one world war, let alone two. No previous generation has gained the potential virtually to destroy human society. Although they know that Christ’s prophecy had a minor fulfillment prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they also realize that the wording of the prophecy pointed to something more. The many facets of the sign Jesus foretold are apparent now, and some of the generation that saw the start of these calamities in 1914 are still with us.—Matt. 24:34.
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
So now the question is, What attitude will you take toward Christ’s invisible presence, his parousía? In this age of growing cynicism many have chosen to show indifference or scorn. But can you afford to do that when dealing with God’s purpose of salvation for mankind? Is it wise to dismiss lightly the Sovereign Lord Jehovah’s guarantees and provisions for the future of the human family? In this respect Peter’s warning is appropriate: “You know this first, that in the last days there will come ridiculers with their ridicule, proceeding according to their own desires and saying: ‘Where is this promised presence of his? Why, from the day our forefathers fell asleep in death, all things are continuing exactly as from creation’s beginning.’ ”—2 Pet. 3:3, 4.
When the time comes for Christ’s manifestation or judicial action toward this world, there will be no room for pleas of ignorance or indifference due to circumstances. Jesus himself spelled it out clearly, saying: “Then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” That obligatory recognition of Christ’s presence will come too late for their good. This will mean destruction for those who have not paid heed.—Matt. 24:30; Rev. 1:7; 11:18.
So what can you do to receive God’s blessing now? Humbly seek Jehovah while he may be found. Read and study the Bible with a view to knowing how Christ became the perfect redeeming sacrifice at his first coming, and a glorious spirit king at his presence, during which we now live. This can mean life and joy for you. Get in touch with Jehovah’s Witnesses at their local Kingdom Hall without delay. They will gladly help you to understand your Bible, free of any charge. If you do not know of the Witnesses in your neighborhood, then feel free to write to the publishers of this magazine at the nearest address indicated on page 2.—Zeph. 2:3.
a If you would like to check all the 24 occurrences of parousía, they are as follows: Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 16:17; 2 Corinthians 7:6, 7; 10:10; Philippians 1:26; 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 8, 9; James 5:7, 8; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28. It is also interesting to note that, of the five writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures who used the word parousía, three were of the group that raised the question to Jesus on the Mount of Olives.—Mark 13:3.
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Though the crowds at first hailed Jesus, he did not turn out to be the kind of messiah many had expected
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Expecting someone’s arrival differs from experiencing that one’s presence
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If Jesus gave visible signs to indicate his presence, then would he personally be visible or invisible?