What to expect when Christ returns

[A talk given at Grace Church Haywards Heath on Sunday 21 May 2017 with extended notes and Bible references added]

Read 1 Thess 4v13-5v11

A thief in the night
You probably know I used to be a policeman. And it taught me that some criminals – well, they’re not always the sharpest tools in the box. The one t­hat made me chuckle most was a bank robber. He came in wearing a motorbike helmet, held up the cashier, demanded money, put it in his bag, turned round to walk out, but forgot that on the back of his helmet – was his name!

So it really wouldn’t surprise me at all if a thief did phone ahead when planning a burglary. “Hello. Hi. I just wanted to check you’re going to be out.” But take a look at chapter 5 and verse 2.

Most thieves don’t announce that they are coming. They come suddenly – unexpectedly. And if you’re not ready? If you haven’t bought the alarm or locked up the house – well you can find them doing you great harm, as they steal what is most precious to you.

Paul’s illustration comes from Jesus. It was Christ’s way of saying that he could return at any time. And his point? We need to be ready. Because that day will be “the day of the Lord.” That’s the Bible term for the day of judgment (2 Pet 3v10).

This is the third in our series on what to expect around the end of life and history. But God’s word to us as we think on Christ’s return is a simple one. “Be ready.” Read chapter 5 and verse 6.

The Millenium
Now I have to say that Christian thinkers do not all agree that Christ could return at any time, nor that when he does judgment will immediately take place. And so before thinking further we need to turn to Revelation 20 and try and make some sense of what’s called “the millennium.” Would you turn there?

We don’t have time to deal with this passage in detail, but do need to pause to consider it for moment. Verse 2 speaks of Satan being bound for 1000 years – a millenium. Verse 3 tells us he will be locked in an abyss so that he cannot deceive the nations.

Now the book of Revelation is highly symbolic. So it’s no surprise that Christians differ on exactly how they understand these ideas and the rest of verses 1-10. But there are three main views.

The first is called “post-millennialism.” It holds that at some point in history Satan will be restrained bringing about a golden age in which the majority are converted and the world Christianized. Whether this period lasts a literal thousand years or is just a long period of time figuratively described as 1000 years, Jesus will come back after (post) this “millennium.”

Now the problem with this view is that we’ve seen Jesus teach that although no-one knows the exact time of his return, it could be in any generation (Matt 24v29-51). And take another look at 1 Thessalonians 4v15. Paul thinks it is possible within his lifetime and so urges his hearers to be vigilant (5v6, 2 Thess 2v1-15). If it wasn’t to be until after a long period that hadn’t even started in the first century, the writers of the New Testament would not have expressed the urgency they did. Moreover, although Jesus did teach that his kingdom will spread throughout the world, our understanding of Matthew 24 outlined in the talk on “what to expect before Jesus returns” is that future history will not lead to a golden age but be accompanied by an intensification of the trials Jesus describes as labour pains (Matt 24v4-14).

The second view is called “pre-millennialism.” It holds that the millennium refers to a 1000 years or long period of time after Jesus returns, but on this earth as it now is. So Christ comes before (pre) the millennium. This view teaches that dead believers will be raised to reign with him, and they will live amongst unbelievers who will remain as they currently are. Of course, many of these unbelievers will be converted. But not all. And it is when the millennium is over that unbelievers will be raised and everyone will be judged.

The problem with this view, is that in 1 Thessalonians 5v2 we’ve seen Paul equates Jesus’ return with “the day of the Lord” when he will come in judgment. There is no great epoch of history to expect between Christ’s return and the judgment day. Rather they come together (Matt 24v29-31, 2 Thess 1v5-10).

The view I am most convinced by is known as “a-millenianism.” In truth, this view also holds that Jesus will return after the millennium, but states that the 1000 years is a figurative way of describing the church age - the period we are in now, between Christ’s two comings. It is therefore called “a” (greek for “no”) millennialism because it doesn’t hold to literal 1000 years.

This view finds strong support in Jesus teaching that he had already bound Satan during his ministry (Matt 12v24-29), implying that this began a time in which Satan is restrained. So he explained his disciples’ ability to cast out demons by saying he “saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven” (Lk 10v17-18). And he taught that his death will mean that Satan will be driven out and people drawn to faith (Jn 12v31). Now this is incredibly significant as Revelation 20v2-3 tells us the restraining of Satan that begins the millennium is one of binding and one which will enable people to come to faith. 

People object to this view for two key reasons:

(1) They ask how Satan can be locked up and sealed in an abyss when we are told to be on our guard because he prowls like a lion seeking to devour (1 Pet 5v8). A close look at Revelation 20v3 helps. We are told the abyss is specifically about keeping him from deceiving the nations – explaining the growth of the church. Our problem may be that we think of the abyss with respect to being locked out of earth rather than heaven. If we think of the earth influenced from two spiritual dimensions – from those in heaven and those in the abyss, Satan’s confinement to the abyss is a figurative way of saying that he no longer has any influence in the heavenly sphere because Christ now reigns there. Revelation 12v7-9 may support this. And in the book of Revelation it is the heavenly sphere that governs the events of history, and so the response the nations may have to Christ.

(2) People object that the idea of coming to life in Revelation 20v4 must be the same as that of verse 5 and so refer to a physical resurrection. But Revelation is highly figurative and elsewhere we explicitly told all will be raised at the same time (Dav 12v1-2, John 5v28-29), so these verses cannot refer to two physical resurrections. Moreover, we are told those experiencing the first resurrection will "reign with Christ" for 1000 years, which is pictured as being seated on thrones (20v4). But although the book does speak of our destiny as reigning on earth, it consistently refers to the "thrones" of believers as in heaven (3v21, 4v4, 11v16), implying that 20v4 describes souls alive there. The best explanation is that "coming to life" in Revelation 20 therefore refers to being released from death and Hades (20v13) where all are destined by nature. So martyrs (and wider believers) "come to life" because they are immediately released from the power of death and Hades and brought to heaven. However, unbelievers don't "come to life" in this sense until Christ's return because until then they are experiencing the torment of remaining in death and Hades. The two resurrections are therefore of a smiilar type because they both refer to release from this particular realm. And they mirror the first and second deaths (20v14) for which all agree the first occurs when physical life ends and the second when Christ returns. Of course, when death and Hades give up unbelievers in the resurrection to judgment, they will then be cast into the lake of fire which is the secon death (20v14). 

So when and how will Christ return?
In the talk on “what to expect before Christ returns” we mentioned there are certain events the Bible suggests will take place before Christ returns. For example, at the moment there is no single evil person ruling much of the world, nor a co-ordinated attack on all Christians (2 Thess 2v1-8). So, although it’s possible Jesus will return today – we have to say it’s unlikely. But let’s be clear. It would only ever take a few years for these things to come about. When we say Jesus could return at any time we therefore mean he could return in any generation. We mean there is no golden epoch of Christianization to come first. And we cannot be complacent because when he comes he will come in judgment as well as salvation. So every generation needs to be on their toes that they may receive welcome rather than wrath.

At this point, let’s return to 1 Thessalonians 4. In drawing together the Bible’s teaching about this great event, three things are to the fore.

(1) Jesus will come in GLORY – a glory to be marvelled at
Just cast your eyes over to 2 Thessalonians 1v10.

Comic books geeks will tell you there are lots of parallels between Superman and Jesus. Superman is an only son, sent by his Father to save humanity. And the last image of the 1978 movie has Superman in the air watching over the world – keeping it all safe.

Well if you know the films you’ll know that as he was growing up, Superman’s glory was hidden. He looked just like every other boy. In fact, he chose to be particularly insignificant – the weak Clarke Kent.

Of course every now and again he would display his glory – picking up his parents car, throwing a football out of the atmosphere, racing a train. But generally it was hidden. No, only when the world faced its greatest need, did Clarke arrive in glory as superman – coming on the clouds, bringing justice and salvation.

Well so it is with Jesus. When he first came he came as a lamb. Then he will come as the lion. First, he came on a donkey. But Revelation 19 pictures him returning on a war horse.

The point is that then every knee will bow – everyone will see his glory – that means they will see the excellence of his majesty on display to all. It won’t be hidden. He said it would be like lightening in the sky (Matt 24v26-27). And it will be displayed in six key events. We’ll run through them quickly.

1) A majestic arrival.
Have a look at 1 Thessalonians 4 verse 16.

The word translated “coming” is “parousia.” It is the word used to describe the arrival of an emperor. And that’s the sense here. Forty days after he rose, Jesus was seen to ascend up into heaven on a cloud. And we’ve learnt that he is now reigning there from his throne. When he returns he will therefore come down the way he went, as a way of showing he’s coming FROM heaven TO the earth – the earth that is his – that he rules.

Did you ever rent a house as a student? We did’t treat ours very well. We managed a hole in the wall from a bundle, and dead rats behind the cooker – electrocuted from chewing the wires. Well, Jesus taught his return to earth will be like your landlord coming to see how you’ve looked after his house. Pretty terrifying if you’ve wrecked it.

2) A kingly command.
Can you see that in verse 16. What is the command? Jesus tells us in John 5v28-29: a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”

This is Jesus exercising his authority – the same authority that spoke light out of darkness. A word from him and the dead will come to life.

3) A royal welcome.
The protocol with emperors visiting a city was for the residents to go out of the walls to meet him and escort him back in. You saw this on Palm Sunday as the crowds came out of Jerusalem to escort Jesus in (Jn 12v13). Now read 1 Thessalonians 4v16-17.

On Sinai a trumpet blast was heard just as it will be on this day. And it did two things. It signalled God coming down to the mountain – but it also signalled for the people to come out to meet with him. Well, so it will be when Jesus returns.

And can you see the order? First, the spirits of believers, who have been with Jesus in heaven, will receive their resurrection bodies. Jesus’ words in John suggest they will come up from the ground as a sign it is the dead who are being raised. They will then rise up into the air to meet Jesus. No doubt they will have been prepared for that in heaven.

But what if we are still alive when Jesus returns? Our bodies will be transformed without them needing to die. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15v52 – “in the twinkle of an eye” these people will rise up into the air too – joining those they have loved and lost with Jesus.

Elsewhere we read how angels will gather God’s elect and cast out unbelievers (Matt 13v39-42, 24v31). That may be why the archangel is mentioned. Perhaps like Christ’s general he is sending his angelic troops to this end.

4) All this means a mighty victory.
It’s great news for believers. But 1 Thessalonians 5v3 tells us what it will mean for unbelievers.

Remember the weatherman Michael Fish in 1987. "Earlier on today apparently," he began, "a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well,” he went on, “if you are watching, don't worry, there isn't."

And so the nation went to bed. The weatherman had proclaimed “peace and safety,” so we slept soundly. Then it happened. 15 million trees uprooted, 18 dead, untold houses destroyed and roofs ripped off.

Now we’ve already noted that in verse 2 Paul uses the Old Testament expression, “the day of the Lord.” It’s the day the prophets spoke of when God would finally judge the world and prove that those who were his were right all along.

What seem clear in Revelation 20 is that just before Jesus returns the world will rise up against Christians. But Jesus will then come back and put an end to this (Rev 20v7-10). Indeed, when he raises his people to join him, we might expect some kind of environmental disaster that will destroy those who have massed against the church.

This is what we mean by this fourth point about Jesus’ return: It will mean a mighty victory. Elsewhere, we are given hints that this will cause those remaining to be terrified in the realization that judgement is about to take place (Rev 9v15-17, 11v13, 2 Thess 1v6-9). And it’s at some point in all this that dead unbelievers will also be raised so that everyone can be judged by Jesus.

5) Jesus’ return will also therefore mean a sovereign judgment.
Followed, 6) by an everlasting reign.

That leads us to the second key thing that describes Jesus coming:
(2) He will come in JUDGMENT – a judgment we will praise him for.

Here we’ll note five things:

1) The nature of judgment: completion and cleansing.
As we saw last time (see "what to expect when you die"), those raised for judgment will have already been experiencing their reward or punishment. So judgment is not primarily about granting those things. No, it is to finally display to the universe that God is just in what has been experienced. It is to finally glorify Christ as God’s Son and King. And it is to finally close off this age and bring in the age to come.

The backdrop to judgment is therefore a picture of the earth and heavens fleeing away (20v11). This may be to imply that because they’ve been tainted even they run from Jesus. But there are so many references to cosmic events at the judgment, that there is every suggestion that it will be accompanied by what might be called an extinction level event - that will wipe this world clean ready for a new start.

Here we must be clear the new heavens and earth does not refer to an entirely new cosmos and planet, but this one renewed (see "what to expect in the new creation"). So in Matthew 5v5 Jesus teaches that the meek will inherit this “earth.” In 1 Corinthians 7v31 Paul adds that it will not be “in its present form.” And in 2 Peter 3v10 Peter explains: “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

I have lived almost my whole life near Ashdown forest. I’ve therefore grown up seeing the devastation brought about by forest fires. Everything is destroyed. The land is left blackened. Ruined. Not a single plant surviving. But the land is still there. And it is not long until God renews it with lush greenery – often even more lush than it was before.

That seems to be the kind of thing Peter has in mind – but on a massive scale. Following Jesus, earlier in the chapter he likens this destruction to Noah’s flood. So the things of this present time destroyed – perhaps even rearranged as by earthquakes and volcanoes – but a transformed nature then breaking through and renewing the earth ready for Christ and his people.

All this means that it is likely that judgment will take place in heaven (v11) because the earth and the heavens (cosmos) will be in turmoil. That would explain why, following the judgment, it is from heaven that God’s people descend to the new earth (21v2).

2) The dispensers of judgment: Christ and his church. 
Verse 11 doesn’t tell us who is on the throne. But Jesus was clear that judgment has been delegated to him (Matt 25v31-46). And the witness of the throne implies the purity of the one reigning there.

Of course we can’t imagine what judgment of all who have ever lived will look like, nor how long it will take. Matthew 25v32 implies it might be as simple as a separation of the faithful from unbelievers.

But what is clear is that believers will also sit in judgment. This is a bit of a brain stretch. But look back to verse 4 of chapter 20. It seems one of the ways those who die in the faith will share in Christ’s reign is by judging the world. Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 6v2-3. He says we will not just judge people, but angels too. I don’t know exactly what this means. The context to Paul’s comments imply it could involve determining what is just which would suggest some measure of what each has done, even if not an awareness of every detail.

3) The subjects of judgment: angels and people.
Verse 10 shows it is preceded by Satan being cast into hell. Jude 6 speaks of rebel angels being kept in Hades ready for the judgement. And verse 12 pictures everyone who’s ever lived, raised to stand before Jesus.

4) The measure of judgment: deeds and motives. 
The image used is of books recording everything that has been done. Jesus taught our acts, our words – even the motives of our hearts will be weighed up somehow (Matt 12v37, 1 Cor 4v5). It is not at all clear this will all be made known to the universe, which would be to the great shame of believers. That language may simply refer to the gospel being made know in the present (Lk 12v2, Matt 10v26) or our deeds and motives being revealed to God (1 Cor 4v5). Whatever the case, the fact that he knows, should impact us. 

It’s always just a little embarrassing isn’t it, when the postman arrives and you’re still in your dressing gown? It’s embarrassing because we’re not suitably dressed. But also because it suggests we are lazy and unprepared for the day.

It’s the point we began with. True Christians live their lives dressed in readiness to meet Christ. They are not half-hearted. They are not complacent. They are ready. They know he could be back soon. And if not, they could die and their chance to be ready will have passed.

5) The results of judgment: rewards and punishments. 
Another book is opened – the “book of life.” In Revelation this lists those God has chosen and so kept safe from Satan’s influence so that they persevere in faith. They have nothing to worry about. The book of deeds will not show them to be perfect, but it will show deeds that prove their faith – and perhaps determine the reward they will receive in the life to come. I mentioned it last time (see Rev 11v18, 1 Cor 3v12-15, 4v5, 2 Cor 5v10, Lk 19v17-19).

But what of the rest? Verse 13 describes the releasing of souls from torment in Hades for judgment – and verse 14, them then being cast forever into hell. Now fire is a picture of God’s burning anger inflicting punishment. So a “lake of fire” implies total immersion in his anger. It was language Jesus used again and again. But he also spoke of hell being a place of darkness implying isolation in the awareness of forever being shut out of God’s kingdom of light – and all the good things bound up with it (Matt 18v6-9, Lk 13v28-30).

If we are tempted to cry unfair, we should remember that heaven and the new creation is all about Jesus – loving him, living for him. So it is only just that those who want nothing of him or his life, receive exactly that.

But we should note. Because deeds have been weighed, the experience of hell will be proportionate to the individual’s sin (Lk 10v12-15). It will be entirely just. As Paul puts it: the more sin, the more wrath is stored up (Rom 2v5-6).

(3) Jesus will therefore come in SALVATION – a salvation to be relieved by.
There can be no new creation free from all evil unless all evil is finally and permanently cast out - so that it can no longer corrupt the universe. Israel could only enjoy their promised land if its occupants were destroyed so they could not corrupt or oppress them. Christ's return will therefore mean that finally, salvation can be enjoyed in its fullness. And what that will look like is our theme next time (see "what to expect in the new creation").