Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Affirming the Glorious Return of our Lord!
Having already affirmed much of the work of Christ, we come now to an essential belief of the Christian church- the glorious return of our Lord and King. Certainly, we have a living hope that is secured in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but there is a further joy in the truth expressed in this statement of the creed. To be precise, there are two important truths expressed. First, Christ is coming again from heaven. Second, He will come in righteous judgment.
Truth # 1: Christ will Return Triumphantly
The future return of the King is a major theme of the Scriptures. While there are various eschatological systems which seek to understand these truths (which often disagree on the details), the church has long agreed upon the reality of the parousia (or glorious appearing) of Christ. This is the truth expressed at Christ's ascension into Heaven when Luke records:
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” Acts of the Apostles 1:9-11
The angelic testimony was that just as Jesus had ascended, so too would He one day return. We find this as a present hope of the church throughout the testimony of the New Testament Scriptures. In fact, the widespread testimony of the church in agreement on this doctrine is demonstrated in the fact that it is included in the Apostles' Creed.
It is important to reiterate that the church does not hold this doctrine because it is in the Creed, but the church recognized this doctrine in the Scriptures, thus it was collected in the Creed. Where can it be found in Scripture? All throughout the pages of the New Testament. It is found in the teachings of Jesus (places like Matthew 16:27 and Matthew 24). It is emphasized in the apostolic witness (such as Titus 2:13). The author of Hebrews speaks of it to a congregation in need of hope (Hebrews 9:28). John records Jesus as speaking of His return in the Revelation (1:7). It is emphasized in the doctrine of the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 11:26). These are but a few examples, there are many others.
In fact, the timing and nature of the parousia is at the heart of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians. It seems that the Thessalonians had misunderstood the return of the Lord and many had feared it had been missed by those who had died. This is one of the main points addressed by Paul. In other words, this doctrine was so essential to the early church that Paul had to write a letter to ensure that a misunderstanding of it did not rob the Thessalonians of the hope found in a true understanding of the parousia.
The key is, after all, hope! The Thessalonians lived in a world that offered them no hope; neither does it offer it to us. Entropy ensures that the universe is breaking down and dying. This is why materialists have nothing other than utter hopelessness to offer, because the universe that they worship must ultimately bring death and devastation. If natural annihilationism were all that awaited us, then this would be bad enough, but the truth is worse yet. For all mankind is alienated from the righteous God who created them; without reconciliation to that God, mankind awaits not annihilation, but judgment.
Those who stand in Christ have a better hope. We are reconciled to God by His Son, thus our hope is not tied to the offerings of the material universe, but to that offered by the Creator of that universe. Neither do we stand in fear of judgment; all in Christ Jesus stand before God in the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus. Further, we rest in the promise of glory that is the end of all true believers. Christ's return, then, is the ushering in of all of the promises upon which we longingly wait. It is not an event for us to fear, but to eagerly anticipate in joy. That is why it was a message of hope to the Thessalonians; one that, when misunderstood, led to despair. What an encouragement it was to know that Christ would return triumphantly to deliver His people.
Christ Will Judge Righteously
In fact, Paul utilizes the hope of the parousia as a motivation to persevere for the Thessalonians, who were facing persecution. Paul makes clear that the return of Christ will be a decisive moment and will include judgment. Of course, the judgment will be both right and righteous for it comes from a perfectly righteous Judge. This idea is, again, testified to in the Apostles' Creed. The traditional wording of the Creed's statement is:
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
This statement recognizes that the Scriptures clearly state that when Christ returns, it will be in judgment. Furthermore, that judgment will encompass the "quick and the dead"- both the living and the dead. All will stand before the righteous Judge of Glory.
While it is a frightful thing to stand in the presence of a righteous Judge, believers need not fear. Again, we do not stand in our imperfect righteousness, but in the Advocate's righteous standing which was imputed to us. Paul, having proclaimed this, taught the Thessalonians that they had nothing to fear and everything to gain in hoping for the return of Christ. In fact, as we stated a moment ago, Paul used the parousia as an encouragement to stand fast in their trials and tribulations. Why? For the return of Christ would be vindicating to the people of God.
Those who trusted in Christ were enduring great trial and tribulation, but all of that would be ended by the return of the King! Certainly, Christ's people would be vindicated for their faithfulness and they would receive a gracious reward. On the other hand, those who had treated them brutally would answer for their ill treatment of the King's faithful servants. It is this promise of both deliverance and judgment that made the hope so sweet to a people enduring suffering (II Thessalonians 1). In fact, Paul calls the persecution itself a 'manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God." In other words, the persecution is, itself, the evidence that there are lines of divide. As Paul develops that chapter, he explains the two results. Believers will be given rest, while those who trouble them shall be repaid with affliction. That is not just a promise for the first century church; wherever the people of God suffer, they find hope in the promise that one day the faithful shall be gathered up to their gracious reward, while the wicked enemies of God shall meet their just end.
In the end, it is this message of judgment that is at the heart of the Gospel. This is because the wicked enemies of God are not all equally obvious. Certainly, it includes those all of society disdains- noted men of evil. It also, however, includes those men of evil all too accepted by our society and culture- those whose rebellion against God is acceptable to the majority of mankind. Even more shocking, it includes the moral unbeliever who simply goes about his life ignoring the God who created him. All of mankind is sinful! All of mankind has rebelled against God! All men need a Savior to reconcile them to a holy and righteous God. That is true of those society hates, as well as those society embraces. In the end, we all need Christ! Those who truly trust in Him will be delivered on that day; those who do not, will fall under the righteous judgment of the King of glory!
It will happen when...
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I pray that you are ready, for His coming will be unexpected (Matthew 24:42); He will truly come as a thief in the night. (I Thessalonians 5:2). Those unprepared have much to fear. Those prepared in Christ have nothing to fear.