Written by Don K. Preston
Without question, the nature of the parousia is at the heart and core of the controversy surrounding Covenant Eschatology. Did Jesus predict that He was to return physically, bodily, on literal clouds at the end of time, or did he predict a “spiritual” coming?
Recently, Thomas Ice and Gary DeMar engaged in a debate on the question “Are We Living in the Last Days?”. Thomas Ice, in an attempt to show that Christ’s coming could not have occurred with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, insisted (repeatedly) that the Incarnation is the definitive proof that Jesus must return physically at a yet future end of the age. Because Christ’s first coming was in the flesh, his second coming must be in the flesh he argued. This article will show that in fact, the Incarnation is the very reason why Christ’s parousia could not be in the flesh.
The Parousia and the Nature of the Kingdom
Historically, one of the greatest failures in eschatological exegesis is the failure to correlate the nature of the parousia with the nature of the kingdom.
There is, of course, a tremendous controversy in the eschatological world between the millennialists, who insist that the kingdom predicted by the Old Covenant prophets must be a restored nationalistic Israel, and the amillennial and postmillennial camp that insists the kingdom was established in the church and is a spiritual reality.
Several things testify to the spiritual nature of the kingdom.
1.) Old Covenant Israel was the shadow of good things to come and not the substance (Colossians 2:14-17; Hebrews 9:24-25; 10:1-4, etc). The shadow is never the thing hoped for and never supersedes the “body.” As the mere foreshadowing of the reality, Old Covenant, national Israel was never the goal of God’s Scheme of Redemption. The failure to honor the shadow versus reality of Old Covenant Israel is the root cause of many of today’s eschatological misunderstandings.
2.) God’s modus operandi has always been from the natural to the spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:46). The millennial view of a restored national kingdom says that God established Israel, cast her off in favor of the spiritual entity of the church, and then will ultimately restore the “natural” kingdom. This implies that the natural is favored by God over the spiritual.
3.) Jesus’ rejection of the Jewish offer of the kingship (John 6:15). One of the most overlooked — or ignored — truths is that the Jews offered to make Jesus their king, but it was He that rejected them. Clearly, Jesus came to be king; it is equally patent that the Jews wanted a king. Yet when He fed the multitudes and the crowd was about to make him king, Jesus withdrew from them. Their nationalistic fervor was precisely what millennialists insist must be necessary for Jesus to reign in the future. Yet, again, it was Jesus who refused the offer.
4.) The Jewish rejection of Jesus’ kingship. This sounds almost antithetical to the point just made. However, when properly understood it is a dynamic point. The Jews did not reject Jesus as king until they understood His rejection of their offer to be king. Without doubt the Jews wanted a militaristic king to restore their former national glory. Yet when they offered this to Jesus he refused. It was at this juncture that the reality of the nature of Christ’s kingship began to dawn on the Jews and they began to reject His offer of the kingdom.
5.) Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Pilate had Jesus on trial because the Jews had threatened to tell Caesar that he, Pilate had refused to try a would be king. In the Roman world many things could be overlooked; political rivals against the emperor could not.
Pilate found Jesus “not guilty” of any political charges even though Jesus admitted that he came into the world to be King! Pilate was acutely aware of the nationalistic hopes of his Jewish subjects. Why would he endanger his own life and career–something he was paranoid about protecting in all other cases — by releasing a political and military king over the troublesome Jews?
It can only be that he took Jesus seriously when Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The fact that Pilate did kill Jesus does not negate Jesus’ innocence in regard to the kingdom. Pilate was notorious for killing innocent people. His testimony “I find no fault with this man” stands as powerful testimony to the fact that Pilate did not see Jesus as a political and national rival to Caesar.
6.) Jesus declared “the kingdom does not come with observation…the kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). This was stated in direct response to the inquiry of the Pharisees as to when the kingdom was to be established. They fully expected a nationalistic restoration; Jesus flatly rejected their expectation.
7.) The elect of Israel was receiving the fulfillment of Israel’s hope (Romans 11:7). This is an insurmountable fact. If the hope of Israel was the kingdom–and that kingdom was nationalistic restoration per the millennial view–then the nationalistic kingdom of Israel was being restored when Paul wrote Romans. This clearly is not the case. Israel was finding her Messianic kingdom hopes fulfilled in Christ. The nature of the kingdom has to be spiritual.
These and many other facts establish the spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ.
The amillennialists and postmillennialists are adamant in teaching that the kingdom arrived on Pentecost and did so as a spiritual reality. It is even taught that Christ came in a spiritual sense at that time according to Mark 9:1. Thus, in this paradigm the coming of Christ in the kingdom is an unseen reality because of the spiritual nature of the kingdom.
A strange thing happens however when the parousia is discussed. The amillennialist and postmillennialists believe that the “everlasting kingdom” (2 Peter 1:11) comes at the time of Christ’s parousia. Instead of the kingdom coming without observation this time however, it is insisted that Christ will be visible to every person on the globe at the same instant and the everlasting kingdom of heaven will be revealed in visible glory.
What principle of hermeneutic change the unseen, spiritual coming of Christ in the kingdom on Pentecost into the visible to every eye, physical coming of Christ in the kingdom at the end of the age? Is the kingdom to come at the parousia different than that of Pentecost? Does the kingdom change from a “not with observation” nature to a “come with observation” nature?
Does the kingdom change from a spiritual to a physical nature?
The amillennialists says that Jesus’ Pentecost kingdom coming (Matthew 16:28) was perceptual, not optical. Yet they then insist that Jesus’ end of the age kingdom must be “optical” (2 Timothy 4:1). This is nothing less than a total change in hermeneutic.
The Coming of God in the Old Testament
The nature of the coming/manifestation of Jehovah in the Old Testament is important as a backdrop for understanding the parousia of Jesus. This fact is sorely misunderstood or ignored by most Bible students today.
In the Old Testament Jehovah came many times. He came on the clouds, with fire, with angels, in judgment, and “heaven and earth” passed away. He came when he delivered Israel from Egypt (Exodus 3:8). He came in the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13-14). He came in the fall of Edom (Isaiah 34). He came in the destruction of Egypt at the hands of the Assyrians (Isaiah 19-20). He came with fire and the shout when He defeated the Assyrians as they besieged Jerusalem (Isaiah 30, 37).
Each of these events was the coming of the Lord. They were “theophanies,” manifestations of the majesty and glory of God in judgment. They manifested God’s sovereignty and justice (Isaiah 26:9). The fulfillment of His predictions to “come” showed Him to be the true God (Isaiah 41:21f).
Jesus’ Parousia and His Deity
Jesus came into the world claiming to be the Son of God. He claimed to be the Son of the God of Israel. By His resurrection, he was declared to be “the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness” (Romans 1:4). However, Jesus also claimed that His parousia would show Him to be God indeed.
In Matthew 24:30 Jesus said: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” (NKJV). The NASV says, “then the sign of the Son of Man in heaven will appear in the sky.” This is a somewhat unfortunate rendering. The ASV says, “Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.”
DeMar has shown that “In heaven does not modify sign. Jesus was not telling them to look for Himself in the sky. He told them that they would see a sign that proved He was in heaven, sitting at His Father’s right hand.” In other words, Jesus was telling them that in the events he was foretelling they would come to realize that He truly is the Son of God.
As the Father had manifested His sovereignty by judging the nations, the Son had been granted judgment (John 5:21ff) and would judge in the same way as the Father. The leaders of the Jews recognized this, even though they did not like it.
When Jesus was on trial before Caiaphas, that conniving agent challenged him “I adjure you by the Living God that You tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). Jesus’ response shocked the high priest “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). Jesus’ claim to come on the clouds elicited an immediate response “He has spoken blasphemy!” Why did this instigate such a vehement response?
Caiaphas understood that only Deity rides the clouds (see Psalms 104:3). Jehovah makes His way in the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3). Only Jehovah rode the clouds into Egypt (Isaiah 19:1). Only the Almighty makes His abode in the clouds (Psalms 97:2). The coming on the clouds of heaven was inextricably linked with Deity (Cf. DeMar, 154).
For Jesus, therefore, to claim that He was going to come on the clouds of heaven was not a claim to come physically, nor visibly with the human eye. It was a claim to Deity. Jesus would come on the clouds just as His Father had.
Paul confirmed that the parousia was associated with Jesus’ claim to Deity. In 1 Timothy 6:14-15 the apostle told his favorite disciple to remain faithful until the appearing of Jesus “which shall manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Jesus’ parousia would prove that He is the Son of God because He would be doing what the Father had always done!
This is confirmed in Revelation. The Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven in judgment against Babylon (Revelation 1:7; 14:8ff), and is revealed to be “King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 17:14 and 19:11-16).
The association of the cloud coming of Jesus with the claim to Deity and therefore authority of judgment is critical to understanding the nature of the parousia. Just as Jehovah came on the clouds many times but was never visibly seen, Jesus, the Son of God, would manifest His Deity by coming on the clouds in judgment.
Jesus’ Second Birth and His Parousia
In an earlier article, I showed that Jesus experienced two births. Part of that article is reproduced here.
Jesus was born into the Old Covenant world of Israel. He was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). He was “the son of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:4). He appeared in the last days of that Old World (Hebrews 1:1f; 9:26). Jesus was not born into the world of the Gentiles. He was “not sent, except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
This limitation of Jesus’ incarnation is often overlooked because of the emphasis placed on his “universal” kingdom. But we should never lose sight of the fact that Jesus “was a minister of the circumcision, for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers” (Romans 15:8). Jesus’ incarnation “restricted” him to the Old Covenant World and at the same time denied Him the ability to function as Messiah in that world.
The Limitation of Service
Being born into the Old Covenant world of Israel had a definite restricting element in regard to Jesus’ work as Messiah. The Messiah was to be both king and priest, (Zechariah 6:12-13). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14). As a physical Israelite Jesus could never be the priest foretold by Zechariah, because “if he were on earth he should not be priest, seeing there are priests that offer gifts according to the law” (Hebrews 8:5). Jesus’ earthly (incarnate) ministry prohibited him from fulfilling the prophecies of the priestly function of the Messiah because his fleshly birth placed him outside the sanction of that Old Covenant in this regard.
The Necessity of Jesus’ Physicality
While the incarnation placed definite restrictions on Jesus’ ability to function as Messiah in the flesh, nonetheless, the physical appearance of Christ was absolutely necessary. What cannot, yet tragically is being, overlooked however, is the reason why Jesus had to appear in “flesh and blood.” He had to be the physical lineage of David to fulfill God’s promise (Psalms 89; Isaiah 11:1. Etc). In addition, “forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise, took part of the same” and, “it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:14, 17).
The Father sent the Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh, to destroy sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). Through His incarnation Jesus entered the world of the flesh; He entered the world of sin to deal with the problem of sin.
Paul discusses the problem of the Old Law. It was added that transgressions might abound (Romans 5:20). It was through the Law that there was the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20; 7). The Old Law was powerless to deliver from sin (Galatians 3:20-21) to such an extent that Paul called it “the ministration of death written and engraven in stone” (2 Corinthians 3:6f).
Jesus was incarnated into that Old World of sin and death (Galatians 4:4). He appeared in the world of sin, in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with the problem of sin. His incarnation identified him as “the Son of Man”; and it was absolutely essential that he appear in the flesh to accomplish these purposes. Yet, as seen above, while in the flesh, Jesus was restricted in what He could do.
Jesus’ Second Birth
Clearly, Jesus could not completely fulfill the Messianic prophecies in his physical ministry. He could not be a priest, therefore he could not be a king on earth. But Jesus was born again into a realm/sphere where he could fulfill those prophecies.
In Acts 13:27ff Paul preached about Jesus and his resurrection. In that resurrection, the apostle said, “God hath fulfilled this for us their children, in that he has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: You are my Son, Today I have begotten You.'” Note that the Father, speaking of the Son’s resurrection says, “Today I have begotten You.” The resurrection of Jesus was his second birth. In Romans 1:3-4 Paul contrasts the “births” of Jesus. He was “born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Clearly, Jesus’ resurrection was another “birth;” a birth directly contrasted with his physical birth into the Old Covenant World of Israel.
The Hebrew writer tells us “Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Christ’s resurrection unto enthronement and priesthood was a birth into the heavenly realm where he can serve as king and priest. The Mosaic limitation of Christ’s physical birth is not applicable in the heavenly realm.
Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” (NASV, I Peter 3:18). William Bell observes “in the flesh” and “in the spirit” of I Pet. 3:18 are both locatives and “refer to the realm or sphere in which the actions put to death’ and made alive’ occurred.” Michaels concurs insisting that Christ resurrected “not as a spirit” but in a new sphere in which the Spirit and power of God are displayed without hindrance or human limitation. …Jesus is set free to complete a mission of utmost importance for the readers of the epistle.” Jesus’ resurrection situated him in a new realm of existence — his world, the world above. King says “Christ’s resurrection by the power of the Spirit was not merely a coming back to life, but a birth into a new life which He did not have in His fleshly mode of being. He was not raised to resume the life that He had when He was crucified, but to take up the exalted, heavenly mode of existence that is affected by the Spirit — the life of the New Covenant age.” His parousia would be to reveal him, not in the world of sin, nor with the world of sin, but as King of Kings in His New World.
Paul emphatically tells us that Christ would no longer appear in the visible world of the “flesh.” In 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:16 the apostle discusses the eschatological hope of the New Tabernacle “not made with hands.” This is the tabernacle contrasted with the earthly tabernacle made with hands. The apostle’s discussion actually began in chapter 3 with his contrast between the flesh that kills — the Old Covenant — and the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:5f). This is Paul’s typical contrast between the Old Covenant and the New World of Christ (see Galatians 3:1-5).
In his discussion of the transition from the “outer man” to the inner, from the temporal to the eternal, Paul says “we do not look on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:16f). He cannot be saying that the resurrection change would be unperceived. It would be seen (perceptual) but unseen (not optical).
When he discusses the appearing of Christ in judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10f) the apostle then immediately says “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Paul quite simply denies what the world affirms — a future “fleshly” appearance (reappearance) of Christ. Specifically, Paul is saying that Christ would never again appear in the Old Covenant World of Israel — the world of the flesh. Yet it was Christ’s incarnation that identified Him with that Aeon.
Finally, one of the key texts normally used to prove a yet future visible physical coming of Christ proves just the opposite. In Hebrews 9 the author affirms that Christ appeared “to put away sin” (v.26). This is an unequivocal reference to his incarnation (cf. Romans 8:3). This is Christ’s appearance in the world of sin, in the likeness of sinful flesh, for the purpose of dealing with sin.
However, in verse 28 the writer affirms that Christ would appear “a second time, apart from sin.” It is generally understood that this means Jesus would come again triumphant over sin, or “not for the purpose of atoning for sin.” While there is validity to this view, it does not totally satisfy.
As seen above, Jesus’ incarnation into the world of the flesh was absolutely essential. Yet he “died unto sin once”(Romans 6:10). Through His resurrection and ascension, Jesus left forever the world of sin and the flesh. He will forever be “apart from sin.” When He was “made alive in the spirit” he “entered in once into the holy place” (Hebrews 9:12, my emp.).
The word translated “once” is from “hapax” and means once for all time. It is highly suggestive and powerful therefore, that Christ, in his ascension departing from the world of the flesh, entered the heavenlies “once for all time.” Ellingworth says the force of Christ’s entrance into the heavenly Most Holy Place “once” means: “The implication is, however, that Christ, having offered himself as sacrifice, does not return to earth, but remains in theta hagia” (the holy place, DKP). Christ could not return to the world of His sacrifice. He had to be revealed — His parousia — as the minister of the Heavenly Holies.
Instead of Christ’s incarnation being the reason why He must appear physically at His parousia therefore, the incarnation of Christ is the very reason why He could not be manifested in the flesh at His parousia. To reappear in the flesh would be to re-identify with Old Covenant Israel and the world of the flesh. Yet as seen above, Christ’s parousia would be to manifest His deity as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” and He could not serve as fleshly King over Israel. He had to be revealed as King to be sure; yet that was not to be on earth (Acts 2:29-33). He had to be revealed as “the minister of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched and not man” (Hebrews 8:2).
It is the failure of the futurist camp to understand and honor Christ’s two births–and their covenantal context–that gives rise to the insistence on a future physical appearance of Jesus. The question is appropriate: Will Christ reappear “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” or was He to be revealed in the glory of the invisible God? For Christ to reappear in the flesh would be to re-enter the Old World of the Flesh. For Jesus to reappear in the flesh would be to die to the World of the Spirit into which He was born through His resurrection. In essence this would be to re-enter the world of sin and death. This He can never do. Paul affirms that the hope of the early church was “the glorious appearing of the Great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
It is imperative that Bible students today begin to understand and appreciate the purpose of His incarnation and the purpose and realm of Christ’s parousia/ revelation. Jesus’ incarnation was to reveal him as the Son of Man (Hebrews. 2:14); His parousia was to reveal Him as Son of God (1 Timothy 6:16). He was not to return to the flesh, not in the flesh, not for the flesh. Thus, whereas many, if not most, Bible students today believe that the incarnation and fleshly existence of Jesus provides the ground for His yet future physical return, Christ’s incarnation is the very reason why He could not come back in the flesh.