Part of the message of Jesus of Nazareth has always involved His future return (Matthew 24:37-25:46, John 21:23, Acts 1:11). Jesus’ return represents the grand transition in God’s eternal plan, and fosters the hope of our ultimate redemption, restoration, and salvation (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).
Nevertheless, the nature of and events surrounding Jesus’ return have been hotly disputed and variously imagined as long as Christianity has existed. Many eagerly wait for that day; others fear it. All manner of ideas have been put forward to describe how Jesus will return, but, as always, it is best to understand from Jesus and His Apostles what will take place on that day.
Many Scriptures speak of the return of Jesus Christ. It is difficult to entirely reconcile all of them, and many times we are left with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it is good for us to attempt to make some kind of reconciliation of all the passages that speak of the Lord’s return, recognizing that we know what will ultimately take place even if we do not have an entirely accurate understanding of the precise sequence of events.
The Scriptures make it evident that the creation and the Kingdom will continue until the day of the Lord’s return just as they have for the past 2000 years (Matthew 25:1-13, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 2 Peter 3:1-8). At some point, known to God but not to us, that glorious day will come–the day when the Lord Jesus will return just as He left (cf. Acts 1:11). For many, it will come like a thief in the night, when they least expect Him to come (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
If we are to understand 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 literally, at the moment of Jesus’ return, all the dead in Christ will rise, and those alive will join them, and they will all meet Jesus in the air as He comes in the clouds. It would then seem that the believers will be with Him as He returns to the earth to save those who waited for them and pronounce judgment (cf. Hebrews 9:26-27).
This is the time of resurrection, when the physical body of everyone will be re-animated or re-created (John 5:19-29, 1 Corinthians 15). Those bodies will then be transformed for immortality, akin to our Lord (cf. 1 John 3:2).
The Lord will then pronounce judgment on every soul (Acts 17:30-31). While it is not revealed precisely how this judgment will be accomplished, we do know its nature and result. This judgment is based on what everyone has done in the body, whether good or ill (Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-10). The standard of judgment will be the word of Christ which He has spoken (John 12:48). The saved and the condemned will be entirely separated, with the latter entering the lake of fire and eternal torment (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 20).
The Lord Jesus will then return the Kingdom to the Father so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). The present heavens and earth will then be destroyed in a heat beyond comprehension, one that leads to the destruction of all matter at the elemental level (2 Peter 3:9-12).
God will then “create” the “new heavens” and the “new earth,” however those concepts are to be understood in the new reality (cf. 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1). The “heavenly Jerusalem,” the Kingdom of God, will descend from Heaven, and its participants will enjoy unimaginable glory and honor (Revelation 21:1-22:6, Romans 8:18-25, 2 Corinthians 4:16-17). The Father and the Son will dwell in their midst, and there will be no more night, pain, sin, misery, or any other evil, sin, or difficulty. The grand story of God’s eternal plan comes, in a sense, full circle: man will again enjoy the opportunity to share in unbroken association with God in His presence, just as God intended from the beginning in the Garden. Hope and faith will be realized; love will rule forever (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:13).
These are the promises which those who believe in Christ eagerly await. God has been faithful throughout time, especially when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth: all that God promised regarding Him, so far, has come to pass, and we have every reason to believe that these yet future events will take place. While some may speak of a “rapture” and a “tribulation,” the Scriptures establish that the Lord will come quickly and without warning (Matthew 24:37-25:30). Therefore, God calls upon everyone to repent and obey Jesus Christ, for we do not know the day or the hour of either our death or the Lord’s return (Acts 17:30-31, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10). We are not to live in complacency or paralysis because the Lord will return at any moment; instead, God would have us live prepared lives, so that if Jesus returns today, tomorrow, or in another thousand years, it will have no bearing on our salvation (Matthew 25:1-13). As we remain and wait for the Lord’s return, we must realize that the Parable of the Talents/Minas is operative in our existence: we ought to be the servants, Jesus is the Master, and the day of His return is the day of settling accounts (cf. Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). Will we receive the commendation or condemnation of our Master? Let us obey God, be prepared for His return, and get busy in His Kingdom today!