Some time ago, in reaction to premillennialism I wrote an essay arguing that Jesus would never return to earth again. I followed this up with a summary of my arguments one of which was a reference to Acts 13:34 which reads: “And as for the fact that he (God) raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption (1* Harris (p.230) accepts Weymouth’s translation: “never again to be in the position of one soon to return to decay”. ), he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David’ ” (ESV). The point at issue here is whether this verse is relevant to my thesis?
First, BAG (p.855, cf. p.189) says that ‘return to corruption’ means ‘return to the grave’. This hardly makes sense, since Paul is at pains to indicate that even though he died (but will not do so again, cf. Rom. 6:9), Jesus, in contrast with David, did not experience corruption when he was entombed (cf. 13:37). Not having done so, he could hardly return to it.
Next, among the commentators Marshall suggests that Paul’s concern in verse 34 is with the fact that when God raised Jesus from the dead he entered on a new existence which would not lead back to death and the consequent corruption of his body (p.227). While at first blush this sounds convincing, it nonetheless raises questions. What does Marshall mean by ‘new existence’? Is he like many implicitly denying Jesus’ restoration (cf. John 2:19; 10:17f.) and hence his physical resurrection? Marshall comments more appropriately when he says that the Messiah’s permanent dominion depends on his living forever and never seeing corruption (pp.227f.). Again it must be said that Paul, like Peter before him in Acts 2:24-28, is stressing the point that since Jesus had God’s promise that he would never see corruption (Ps. 16:10; Acts 13:35), he was never in danger of experiencing corruption as a consequence of death and therefore could not return to it. This implies that Paul has something else in mind.
In comment on 2:24, Marshall further suggests that Peter believed that death could not retain its hold over Jesus because he was the Messiah. Again, the prospect of corruption after death is implicitly discountenanced. So what is the apostle getting at?
A clue as to Paul’s meaning is perhaps to be found in the rest of the verse which refers to the sure blessings of David originally expounded by the prophet Isaiah (55:3, LXX, cf. 2 Sam. 7:10-16; 23:5; Ps. 89:20-37; 132:11-18). Here commentators have little hesitation in asserting that these are the eternal blessings (see e.g. Oswalt, pp.438f.) which David himself by virtue of his death and corruption could not inherit. In other words, just as James claims that David’s tent has been “restored” (fulfilled) in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, transformation and exaltation (Acts 15:16), so Paul claims that David’s blessings are inherited by the now incorruptible Jesus and absorbed into his heavenly throne (cf. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). If this is true, then return to corruption, that is, to life on this corruptible earth in the flesh, which is the only corruption that Jesus ever experienced, is impossible! Again it must be stressed that Jesus never underwent corruption in the grave and so could not return to it.
At this point I am tempted to assert unequivocally and definitively that the idea of not returning to corruption must mean that the ascended, transformed and exalted Jesus (Acts 2:31-34), who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:14, cf. Ps. 8:1; 113:4; 148:13) and is forever in a state of spatial separate(d)ness from sinners (Heb. 7:26), will never return to earth (least of all in the flesh!) which is by nature given over to corruption (Rom. 8:20, cf. Heb.1:10-12). Since this is so, the human body as deriving from it must necessarily be so too (Gal. 6:8). It might also be added here that, according to Hebrews 8:13, what is growing old is ready to vanish away. Since the earth from which physical bodies derive is growing old (Heb. 1:11), both are subject to obsolescence. Furthermore, since Jesus was incarnate (flesh), even he was not exempt as John 8:57 (cf. Mt. 5:36; Luke 2:41-52) makes clear (2* Paul’s use of diaphtheiro in 2 Corinthians 4:16 is worthy of note. There it refers to man’s fleshly body before death. In view of John 8:57 we are forced to recognize that Jesus was included. After all, as a son of Adam, born of woman, he was a product of the naturally corruptible earth. As the author of Hebrews tells us, the latter in contrast with God (1:11, cf. 7:3), is subject to aging and what is growing old is ready to vanish away (8:13). ). No wonder he urged on Nicodemus the need to be born again (from above), implicitly as he himself, who had uniquely kept the law and inherited life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5), had been at his baptism (NB Mt. 3:17).
It is reasonable to ask, however, if there is more support to be found for the view that Paul’s denial implies that Jesus will never return to earth again.
The “return” of Christ in general is perhaps relevant to the point at issue. As Dunn (p.296 and n.10), for example, says, this theme is quite prominent in some of Jesus’ parables and among those he cites is Luke 19:12-27. On examination, this proves to be pertinent, since the word for ‘return’ (hypostrephein) in the NT is used almost exclusively by Luke (1:56, etc.), and significantly in Luke 19:12. (3* Bock says the word is significant, even unique (pp.1532f.). He claims it is used by Luke (21x), Acts (11x) and the rest of the NT (3x), though he denies that it is a technical term relating to Christ’s return.). However, Dunn goes on to add that it is not entirely clear why the idea of Christ’s return, which was not actually necessary to complete the process of salvation, emerged. However, his assumption is apparently that Jesus will come back to earth! But can this be a reasonable proposition? Apart from references like John 14:2f., 1 Thessalonians 4:16f. and Hebrews 4:14, 7:26, 9:28, which would seem to preclude it, Paul, as recorded by Luke in Acts 13:34, appears to be implying the same thing. To come back to earth would be to return to corruption, specifically to the flesh (cf. the premillennialist view) which is by nature corruptible. But surely Paul is saying the exact opposite: since the naturally impermanent (corruptible) cannot inherit the permanent (incorruptible, 1 Cor. 15:50) or the visible the invisible (Rom. 8:24f.; 2 Cor. 4:18), or the imperfect the perfect (cf. 1 Cor. 13:10), Jesus was (re)transformed and glorified at his ascension thereby recovering the glory he shared with his Father before the world began (John 17:5,24). This clearly excludes another transformation involving re-incarnation and susceptibility to earthly corruption and intrinsic impermanence. It is definitively ruled out by Scripture’s teaching on Christ’s perfection (Heb. 2:10), heavenly session (Acts 2:33,36; Heb. 1:3,13;8:1; 10:12; 12:2; Rev. 3:21) and eternal high priesthood to go no further (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:3,16,24f.,28).
Furthermore, Dunn also notes (p.296 n.11) that the term ‘parousia’ was never used for Jesus’ first coming on earth and never has the sense of “return”. In other words, we must infer that the idea that Christ will return to earth at his parousia is out of the question. Rather at his parousia Christ, at present invisible (Mt. 28:20), will make his long-awaited appearance (2 Tim. 4:8; Tit. 2:13) and revelation (1 Cor. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:7) in glory. It is then that every eye will see him (Rev. 1:7) and be either destroyed along with all created things (Heb. 12:27; Rev. 20:11; 21:1) or saved (Tit. 2:13).
The author of Hebrews in particular strongly emphasizes Jesus’ present rule at God’s right hand (1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2, cf. Mt. 28:18) and especially its present exercise in what is for us the world to come (1:6; 2:5). It is from there that he puts all his enemies under his feet in this world (1:13, cf. 1 Cor. 15:25) completing what he representatively achieved while he was on earth. Having been glorified (2:9) with the glory he shared with the Father before the world began (John 17:5,24 cf. Rev. 4:11; 5:12f.), a return to earthly corruption is clearly beyond the pale. On the other hand, his return in the glory of the Father, who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) and who cannot dwell on the earth (1 K. 8:27), in a rescue mission (cf. 9:28) involving plucking brands from the burning (Jude 23, cf. Amos 4:11; Zech. 3:2) brings physical annihilation to his enemies (2 Thes. 1:7-9; 2:8) but transformation for his friends (2 Thes. 1:10, cf. 1 Cor. 15:51ff.).
All things considered, then, it would seem that the best interpretation of Acts 13:34 is that Christ, who was once incarnate (flesh) and hence part and parcel of the earth’s temporality (Heb. 2:7,9) and natural corruption (cf. Rom. 8:20f.), will never return to it again in any form. For Paul, as for the author of Hebrews, the perfected Christ has undergone permanent transformation, glorification and enthronement (Eph. 1:20-22; Heb. 1:6; 2:5; Rev. 3:21; 5:12f.). Having dealt with sin while in corruptible flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 3:18) and overcome the world (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9), he will not return except in the glory of the Father (Mt. 16:27; 26:64, etc.), whose generic nature he has once more assumed, to complete his people’s salvation (Heb. 9:28, cf. 1 Cor. 15: 51ff.; Phil. 2:6,9-11). When he does so, the truth of Revelation 20:11 and 21:1-4 (not to mention Rev. 20:9f.; Mt. 22:7; Lu. 17:29; 2 Thes. 2:8; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) will be a reality.
Just as the Israelites were never to return to bondage in Egypt (Ex. 14:13; Dt. 17:16; Jer. 42:15-20, etc.), so we may assume that Jesus will never return to the bondage of creation (Rom. 8:18-25). For him to do so would suggest that apart from going backwards (Jer. 7:24) he loved this world (1 John 2:15-17; 2 Tim. 4:10) as rebellious Israelites loved Egypt (Ex. 16:3; Num. 11:5). A literal thousand-year millennium during which Christ will reign on an earthly throne in Jerusalem is out of the question!
To sum up then it may be asserted that just as Jesus is never to die again (Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:18), so he is never again to return to corruption (Acts 13:34). As Paul indicates, it is he precisely who has brought life and incorruption (Gk.) to light (2 Tim. 1:10). Alternatively expressed, he who as man was once mortal and corruptible now shares the immortality and incorruption of God (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16).
A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (BAG), Chicago, 1957.
D.L.Bock, Luke 2, Grand Rapids, 1996.
J.D.G.Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London/New York, 1998.
M.J.Harris, Raised Immortal, Basingstoke, 1983.
J.N.Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 40-66, Grand Rapids, 1998.