We believe as all believers have
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Joel D. Otto
When will Jesus come again? What will happen when he comes again? There is a long history of false teachings that have attempted to answer those questions. Some of these ideas have their roots in Jewish thinking centuries before Christ when the Jews were anticipating an earthly Messiah who would establish a new kingdom of Israel. While there is a great deal of variation in these false teachings (broadly termed millennialism), most of them state that Jesus will come again to establish an earthly kingdom of peace lasting a thousand years. Then he will leave for a while before returning again to judge all people.
The Nicene Creed confesses clearly what most Christians throughout history have believed on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture. Since the day he ascended into heaven, Jesus has been living and reigning over all things for the good of his church (Ephesians 1:22,23). Since the day of his ascension, all of history has been moving toward the day when Jesus will return visibly (Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7).
Jesus will not return in secret so that only some will be “raptured” into heaven. Jesus’ return will be in spectacular glory (Matthew 25:31). Few witnessed Jesus’ first coming in lowliness and quietness. No one will miss Jesus’ second coming in glory with the sound of angelic trumpets (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
And his glorious return will have a purpose—a final judgment of all people who have ever lived (Matthew 25:32). This will be a solemn and serious occasion (Daniel 7:9,10). It will be scary for many. The Bible speaks clearly about condemnation and eternal punishment in hell for those who do not believe in Jesus (Matthew 25:41). But the Father has entrusted the final judgment to his beloved Son (John 5:22,27). The same Jesus who was born for us in a manger and lived for us perfectly and died on the cross for us is our judge. He won forgiveness, redemption, and eternal life for us. He sent his Spirit to bring us to believe in God’s grace. On the Last Day, he will give to his believers the blessings of his saving work fully and forever (Romans 5:9-11).
God wisely has chosen not to reveal to us the exact day of Jesus’ return (Matthew 24:36). He has, however, given us signs in the world around us and in the church that serve as reminders that Jesus is still coming (Matthew 24:4-14). Every generation since Jesus’ ascension has the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. The signs are all around us. So we believe as all believers have that Jesus will come soon in glory. We believe the words of Jesus, “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:12). In confident response we join the prayer of John and the church throughout history, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
Exploring the Word
1. What are some of the dangers of millennialism?
Millennialism seeks a “heaven on earth”—something which God has not promised in the Scriptures. God has not promised that life will be perfect this side of heaven. In fact, he has said the exact opposite. Do we really want to be seeking something God has not promised? Millennialism also leads to uncertainty. If there is a “secret rapture,” have I missed it? What happens if I’m not among those raptured?
2. Why is God wise in not permitting us to know the exact date of Jesus’ return?
If we knew the exact date of Jesus’ return, our sinful nature would lead us to spiritual complacency or turn us to an immoral lifestyle while we wait for the day. We would think that we could just wait until the last minute to get our spiritual house in order (of course, death could come at any time). The signs God has given us that the Last Day is still coming (see Matthew 24:4-14) should always serve to remind us that judgment day is on the horizon and could come at any time. Therefore, we need always to be ready.
3. How does a Christian remain ready for Jesus’ return in glory?
We are ready for Jesus’ coming by faith in Jesus and his saving work. Faith in Jesus is given and strengthened through the means of grace, the gospel in Word and sacraments. Therefore, we remain ready when we devote ourselves to the regular reading, studying, and hearing of the Word of God; the reception of the Lord’s Supper; and the remembrance of our baptisms. We demonstrate our readiness by striving to live a life of repentance and good works (see 2 Peter 3:11).
4. Compare Jesus’ words in John 3:16-18 with his words in John 5:28,29 and Matthew 25:34-46. What is the basis for Jesus’ judgment?
John 3:16-18 is clear. Whoever believes in Jesus will not be condemned but will have eternal life. In John 5:28,29, however, Jesus says that those who have done good will rise to eternal life and those who have done evil will be condemned. Matthew 25 sounds similar as the Judge points to the good things the “sheep” did and the good things the “goats” failed to do. While these might seem contradictory, the context of John 5 and Matthew 25 demonstrate that there is no contradiction. In John 5:24,25, Jesus talks about how those who hear the Word and believe in Jesus will have eternal life and not be condemned. In Matthew 25:31-33, Jesus describes the Last Judgment as simply a separation of people into two groups. The “sheep,” those who are saved, hear the Judge tell them that their inheritance has been prepared for them. It is a gift. They are described as “righteous.” In other words, Jesus is really teaching the same basic truth in all three sections. We are saved through faith in Jesus’ saving work, a faith that is worked in us through the Word. In Matthew 25 and John 5, Jesus is speaking about judgment day. That will be a public judgment. Since faith is a matter of the heart, something which can’t be seen, the Judge points to what can be seen, the evidence of faith, our life of good works. Our good works are not the basis for Jesus’ judgment. They simply prove the truthfulness of his judgment which is based on whether or not someone believes in Jesus and his saving work. There is no contradiction.
5. Why can Christians face judgment day without fear?
On the one hand, the descriptions of judgment day can be scary: Jesus coming in glory with all the holy angels and the trumpet call of God (Matthew 25:31-33; 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17); the dead rising to life (John 5:28,29); the heavens and earth destroyed by fire (2 Peter 3:10); the great judgment (Daniel 7:9,10; Matthew 25:31-33); unbelievers condemned to the fires of hell (Isaiah 66:24; Matthew 25:41). But on the other hand, we have nothing to fear because we are among the sheep who have been given life through the waters of Baptism. We have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb and clothed in his righteousness (Revelation 7:9-14). We are children of God who will hear that we are blessed and have an inheritance of heaven that has been prepared for us (Matthew 25:34). We will be raised and glorified (Philippians 3:20,21). We will enjoy eternal life with our Lord, seeing him with our own eyes (1 Thessalonians 4:17,18; Job 19:25-27). We will enjoy the full and final redemption when we will be eternally set free from sin and all its effects (Luke 21:28; Revelation 7:15-17, 21:1-4). The Judge is also our loving Savior. Therefore, for believers, judgment day will be a day of rejoicing and victory.
Contributing editor Joel Otto, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee.
This is the eighth article in a 13-part series on the Nicene Creed. Find this study and answers online after June 5.
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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 102, Number 6
Issue: June 2015
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