One Interpretation of the Parousia: Part Two

I am often asked if I believe in the Second Coming. My response is, “l believe in the parousia which is what the New Testament teaches.” Now that is not just a smart-alecky answer. As we shall see, what the New Testament teaches about the parousia (what most call “the Second Coming”) is deeper, broader, and more sweeping than popular thought allows.

We must first do some word study. The Greek word parousia is best translated “presence” as opposed to absence. “Appearance” is also an acceptable translation of the word. It’s interesting that in Colossians 3:4 and I John 3:2, the Greek verb phaneroo which also means “to appear” is used to refer to this event. Those passages do not refer to when Jesus arrives but when he appears—in other words, when he is unveiled, when the final secret of the world already announced in the gospel is made clear to all creation and when all acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

We should note that the church did not invent the word parousia. In fact, the word was used by non-Christians in two ways at the time of the New Testament. Both meanings influenced the way Christians understood the word. The first meaning was the mysterious presence of a god – especially when that god’s power was revealed through healing and deliverance from danger. People would suddenly become aware of a supernatural and powerful presence. The word they used for this experience was parousia. The Jewish historian Josephus used this word when he talked about Yahweh, the God of Israel, rescuing Israel from disasters or foreign enemies. For example, God’s powerful and saving presence was revealed when Judah, during the reign of Hezekiah, was miraculously delivered from the Assyrians.

The second meaning of parousia used in the New Testament period referred to when a person of rank and nobility made a visit to a subject state, especially when an emperor visited a colony or province. The word used for such a visit was parousia, meaning royal presence. Normally the emperor was not in the colony or province. In the case of the Roman Empire, the emperor resided in Rome. When he visited his provinces or colonies to deliver them from their enemies, to check up on them, or just to do some good public relations to increase his popularity, the word used for this imperial visit was parousia.

At this point I want to quote Biblical scholar N. T. Wright who explains so well how the church appropriated this word parousia from the pagan culture and applied it to their hope in Jesus. Those early Christians modified the pagan use of the word in light of what they had experienced in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Here is what Wright says:

Now suppose that Paul, and for that matter the rest of the early church, wanted to say two things. Suppose they wanted to say, first, that the Jesus they worshipped was near in spirit but absent in body but that one day he would be present in body and that then the whole world, themselves included, would know the sudden transforming power of that presence. A natural word for all this would be parousia.

And at the same time, suppose they wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand was the rightful Lord of the world, the true Emperor before whom all other emperors would shake in their boots and bow their knees in fear and wonder. And suppose they wanted to say that, just like Caesar might one day visit a province like Thessalonica and appear in person, so the absent but ruling Lord of the world (Jesus) would one day appear and rule in person within this world, with all the consequences that would result. Again, the natural word to use for all this would be parousia. This was particularly significant in that Paul and the others were keen to say that Jesus was the true Lord and Caesar was a sham. (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, P128-129)

Parousia is itself one of the terms Paul used to say that Jesus is the real Lord and Caesar is not. In other words, parousia is political theology. It is a radical belief. By proclaiming their hope in Jesus’ parousia, they were exposing the emperor and the Roman Empire for what they truly were— an evil, greedy, violent, idolatrous sham.

I want us to look at several passages from the New Testament which help us understand the parousia. The first is I Corinthians 15, the famous resurrection chapter of Paul. In verses 23-27 Paul writes of the parousia of Christ as the time of the resurrection of the dead and the time when Jesus’ present rule, though unrecognized by the world, will become manifest in the conquest of the last enemy, death. In verses 51-54 Paul writes of what will happen to those who, at Jesus coming, are not yet dead. They will be changed, transformed. In Philippians 3:31 Paul likewise writes about the transformation of the present lowly body to be like Jesus’ glorious body. All this will be a result of Christ’s all-conquering power.

We have the same ideas in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, the passage which has been the primary proof-text for the ridiculous notion of Rapture. (Read passage.) What we have here is a different way of saying the very same thing Paul was saying in I Corinthians 15 and Philippians 3. In I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4, we have the trumpet and the resurrection of the dead. Paul is talking about the parousia, not some Rapture. He is just expressing it in a different way. Why then did Paul write in this strange manner in I Thessalonians about the Lord descending, and the living being snatched up in the air? Paul is using three metaphors in these verses referring to three stories or scenarios well known to the Christians at Thessalonica. The trumpet sound and the loud voice heard goes back to the story of Moses coming down the mountain to see what had been going on in his absence.

Being raised up in the clouds reminds Paul’s readers of Daniel 7 in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemies by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. Paul applies this metaphor to those Christians who are presently suffering persecution.

The third story has as its background the visitation of the emperor to a colony or province. Thessalonica was the commercial and cultic center of the province of Macedonia. Rome had been its patron since 167 B. C. Thessalonica had been granted the status of a free city which meant it enjoyed its own independent government. The inhabitants of Thessalonica knew they had to curry the favor of the Roman Emperor and prominent Roman citizens if they were to continue to enjoy their status as a free city. Their position depended on the loyalty and obedience they showed to the emperor. Residents of Thessalonica knew the drill—when the emperor came to visit, the important people of the city out of courtesy and respect came out to meet the emperor and escort him back into the city.

In a similar way Paul is saying that the Christians will go to meet Jesus coming from heaven and accompany him back to earth—to escort him royally into his rightful domain where he will rule over the new heaven and the new earth. Meeting the Lord in the air is not a way of saying “we will escape this wicked world.” It is the first stage of Jesus’ triumphant return to earth where he will rule with his people. I Thessalonians 4, I Corinthians 15, and Philippians 3 are all talking about the same event. Paul is simply writing about the parousia in different ways. (We might notice that Paul in other places mixes his metaphors in ways that are not always easy to follow. For example, in I Thessalonians 5, he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labor, so you must not get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armor. All these are metaphors for the same event. N. T. Wright quips, “As the television programs say, don’t try that one at home.”)

[Those who maintain this passage is about the Rapture would ask, “Then what about meeting the Lord in the air? The Greek word Paul uses for “meet’ is a very specific word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times. The word is apantesis and refers to the practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then escort him into the city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids going out to meet the bridegroom and then accompanying him into the feast. It is also used in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who went out to meet Paul as he arrived in their city. The use of this word never means to meet and then change directions and go back where the person came from after the people come out to meet him. In Matthew, the bridegroom doesn’t kidnap the bridesmaids and take them away with him after they go out to meet him! No, the bridegroom goes to the wedding feast. Paul does not meet the Roman Christians and then turn around and return home taking them with him. He goes with them back into the city.

Following the custom of going out to meet important people and dignitaries is a courtesy. Paul was saying that both those who are alive and those who have died will go up to “meet” Christ in the air on his way to earth, and then they will escort him the rest of the way back to earth as he descends. At that point Paul says the resurrection will occur. This passage has nothing to do with Rapture. It’s about the Parousia and the resurrection of all those faithful to Jesus. [See my two articles on the blog entitled “The Rapture Hoax.”]

Two more passages dealing with the parousia are also helpful. In Colossians 3:1-3, we have a brief summary of Paul’s theology regarding the resurrection. (Read passage) Notice that instead of the words “present” or “parousia,” Paul used the word “appear.” It’s the same concept but from a different angle. In I John 2:28 and 3:2 we have similar passages from another New Testament writer. (Read the passages.) In these verses we have the words appearing and parousia side by side. When Jesus appears, he will be present.

These are the major passages in the New Testament dealing with the parousia. We must now ask how Paul and those early Christians understood the parousia would happen. New Testament scholars are not unanimous in how they understand the way Paul and others from the New Testament thought all this would happen. Here are a couple of options. Some think Paul and the early church expected Jesus literally to descend like a spaceman from the sky. At some point in history Jesus would come from heaven and the parousia would occur. (Realize that throughout this article we are not talking necessarily about what we believe will happen or how we might understand the “Last Things” in our own post-modern context. Paul was expressing the hope of resurrection within the limitations of his own 1st century context using metaphorical language he and his readers understood. We are referring to what Paul and others may have expected to happen.)

But there is another option, one that makes more sense to me in light of the New Testament’s understanding of heaven and the overall purpose of the parousia. It’s entirely possible that Paul and others thought like this when it came to the parousia. (This option is not restricted to N. T. Wright. Others thought the same thing years ago. Wright, however, expresses it in the most user-friendly way, so I will primarily use his words. (Wright, pp.123-137) Paul and other early Christians understood Jesus as presently being in heaven. Heaven in the New Testament is understood as God’s space. It’s not somewhere within the space of our world/universe. It is a different space, a different dimension. Heaven and earth interlock, but they are not two different places on the same time and space continuum. What Paul, John, and others may have thought was this: God’s promise is not that Jesus will reappear within the present world order at some point in history. God’s promise is that when heaven and earth are joined together in the new way God has planned, Jesus will appear to us—and we will appear to him and to one another in our own true identities. He will be appearing right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven. The Bible understands heaven as different from earth but intersecting it in countless ways. These two dimensions are destined to be integrated and to relate to one another so as to allow the transformation both Paul and John promise. Paul did not literally expect Jesus to reappear in time and space at some point in history. He expected him to appear when the resurrection will occur, when the new heaven and earth will come into being, when God will heal, emancipate, and make whole all of creation.

So, what were those earliest Christians trying to say when they referred to the parousia? What did they mean? What did they expect? What’s parousia all about? The New Testament writers were saying that “the time” will come when the whole creation will be renewed and transformed. The resurrection of Jesus was a foreshadowing of this great transformation. What happened to Jesus will happen to us and to all creation. Jesus himself will be personally present for this great transformation. Indeed, he will not just be present—he will be the agent by which this transformation will occur.

But let’s go deeper into the meaning of the parousia. The parousia marks the completion of the way of Jesus Christ. All he began during his lifetime 2000 years ago will be completed in such a way that the whole creation will experience his saving, healing, reconciling work. His way will become the way of the new heaven and the new earth. All people and all creation will acknowledge him as Lord and his way as God’s way. What will happen in the parousia is the final accomplishment of God’s will through the person of Jesus Christ for all the world. At last God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. The way of Jesus will become the way of the world.

But what is the way of Jesus? We have already seen his way in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. We have seen his way in the forgiveness he offers, the outcasts he seeks out for blessing, the peace he models, the justice he demands, the compassion he demonstrates, the sacrificial love he pours out on Calvary. His way is the way of love. The Jesus we meet in the New Testament is the Jesus who will appear to us in the parousia. He defines the event and what we can expect. And from what we know of him, we realize there is no place for revenge, violence, arrogance, greed, and fear. The parousia was good news to the early Christians. They hungered for the time when God’s will shall be done on this earth—when justice and peace will reign— when love and joy will season every aspect of life. They looked forward to the parousia because they understood it would be the completion of the way of this Jesus they knew and trusted. But somewhere along the way the parousia unfortunately became linked with a cut-and-dry idea about judgment. (See my two blog articles on “the Last Judgment.”) What I want to emphasize in this article is that people fear the parousia because they forget that it is Jesus who appears and whose will shall triumph. Those who understand who Jesus is and what comprises his way know there is nothing to fear in his parousia. The parousia is the completion of the good news that began 2000 years ago—good news which will encompass the whole creation.

[Much of this article depends on insights from N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. I think Wright is perhaps the best New Testament scholar writing today. However, I question the ways he applies his understanding of the Bible to our post-modern world and its perspectives and challenges. Paul was doing the best he could within the constraints of his own time to express the Christian hope of resurrection. In doing so, he lacked the insights we have today regarding science, culture, and the vast sweep of history. We must both include and transcend the early church’s theology regarding the “Last Things.” I am impressed by works by scholars like Jurgen Moltmann, John Polkinghorne, Elizabeth Johnson, and John A. T. Robinson in rethinking Christian hope. Robinson’s little book entitled In the End God, although written in 1968, has been very helpful for me. I find Wright to be an excellent Biblical scholar. However, I do not find him that helpful as a systematic theologian who must integrate Scripture, tradition, reason (including science, psychology, culture, sociology, etc.), and experience in ways that take seriously the continuing revelation of God.]

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