When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we frequently hear the words ‘until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11:26). We are thus reminded, if at no other time, that along with the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension, Christ’s coming again is a fundamental part of the gospel which we ignore at our peril. Yet ignore it we do. Preachers seldom preach on it, and few mention it when discussing their basic beliefs. Perhaps it is something of an embarrassment which, in view of the weird and wonderful ideas that it has engendered, is hardly surprising.
It has been claimed, however, that the second advent is predicted some 300 times in the NT and referred in almost every book. Clearly then it was regarded as being of prime importance in the early church, a time of severe persecution; and it surely merits close attention in our own times.
Few have done more in recent years to stress Christ’s second coming than Premillennial Dispensationalists, found mainly among the Plymouth Brethren in the UK but quite widely, it appears, among Baptists in the USA. In this they are much to be commended. Regrettably, they have disputed among themselves about various aspects of the issue such as the millennium and especially the tribulation. They have also come up with ideas which appear to undermine the teaching and the credibility of the Bible. But more on that below.
Three words are used in the NT to define the second coming:
parousia, a Greek word used regularly in English, which means arrival or presence (e.g. 1 Thes. 4:15);
apokalypsis, revelation (1 Cor. 1:7);
epiphaneia, appearance (1 Tim. 6:14; Tit. 2:13).
With these in mind we shall be able to appreciate better what is involved. But that is precisely the question, What is involved? There seems to be a good deal of difference of opinion and confusion about this, and it is worth our while spending time trying to sort it out.
First, if we take Jesus’ life and death on the cross as read, we need to focus attention on his resurrection. Though it is frequently denied, there can be little doubt that the Bible teaches a physical resurrection. The mangled, crucified body that was entombed is the one that three days later was raised as Jesus predicted (John 2:19; 10:17f.). The gospel writers, Luke and John in particular, go out of their way to underline this. Luke appears to be concerned to show at the beginning of both his gospel (1:1-4) and his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-3), that the accuracy of his reporting is of paramount importance. At the end of his gospel he leads us to believe not only that Jesus rose again but, having done so, appeared in the flesh to his disciples. In chapter 24 he describes the walk to Emmaus and its dramatic impact on Cleopas and his companion. And even as the latter were narrating the story of their encounter with Jesus to the eleven, he came to them, drew attention to his physical scars, invited them to touch him, ate with them and proceeded to teach and commission them (24:36ff.).
It is worth noting that at a later date while talking to Cornelius, Peter focussed explicitly on this incident and thus underlined its veracity (Acts 10:39-42).
John also is concerned about truth (21:24), and seems intent on demonstrating to his readers the physical reality of Jesus after his resurrection. He portrays Mary Magdalene visiting the empty tomb, then holding on to him when he comes to her (20:17). Later, John’s description of Doubting Thomas is calculated to impress on us the fact that Jesus had not only risen but was both spiritually and physically alive. Thomas’ hesitations were overcome by audible, visible and tangible evidence that could not be denied by a rational man. In chapter 21 John presents us with yet more details which confirm the basic truth of Luke’s portrayal in his gospel (24:36-42).
When we add to the testimony of Luke and John, not to mention that of Matthew and Mark, the emphasis that Paul puts on the physical resurrection of Jesus especially in 1 Corinthians 15, it is perhaps surprising that even in evangelical circles there has been a tendency on the part of some to undermine the orthodox view at least by implication. F.F.Bruce, for example, apparently believed a la Bultmann that Jesus’ exaltation (enthronement) coincided with his rising from the dead and, as a consequence, that his later appearances were “visitations from that exalted and eternal world to which his ‘body of glory’ now belonged” (p.40). The more liberal J.A.T.Robinson expressed his view as follows: “All the appearances, in fact, depict the same phenomenon of a body identical yet changed, transcending the limitations of the flesh yet capable of manifesting itself within the order of the flesh. We may describe this as a ‘spiritual’ (1 Cor. 15:44) or ‘glorified’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:43; Phil. 3:21) body … so long as we do not import into these phrases any opposition to the physical as such.” It would seem to me, however, that Robinson’s ideas are positively quixotic, containing within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Though they perhaps fall short of the notion of ascension from the cross (see e.g. Reymond, p.577), the lines along which both Bruce and Robinson think undermine the traditional view that Christ rose physically (in the flesh) from the dead which has all the hallmarks of truth on its side, as we have seen above.
In light of what has just been said, there is little wonder that N.L.Geisler, despite harbouring extremely serious errors of his own, rejected so vehemently the ‘spiritual’ view of M.J.Harris. Having dealt more or less successfully with the sudden and sporadic post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, he concludes his chapter on the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus with the assertion that it is overwhelming confirmation that he rose again in the same visible, material body he possessed before (p.141, cf. p.165).
While, in view of this evidence, I find myself compelled to support Geisler’s strong advocacy of the physical resurrection of Christ, at the end of the day I am nonetheless forced to regard Geisler as a very dubious ally in general. The truth is that his ‘victory’ over those who adopt a spiritualising view comes at too great a cost. For against all reason, and certainly the evidence, he seeks to differentiate between mortal and glorified flesh especially when dealing with verses like 1 Corinthians 15:50 (see e.g. pp.41,122,185) which was apparently a view held by Berkhof, for example (p.346). The consequence of this is that he attributes to Jesus an imperishable physical resurrection body but denies that it was invisible and immaterial (p.128). In taking this position Geisler would seem to be flatly contradicting what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18. For there the apostle insists that what is seen is transient and what is unseen is eternal (cf. Rom. 8:24f.; 2 Cor. 3:11). So it becomes clear that in the last analysis Geisler and many others, especially premillennialists, are trying to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they want a Christ with a genuine ‘flesh and bones’ resurrection body which by its very nature is both visible and mortal (1*), while, on the other, they want a transformed, even glorified, Christ who has not yet ascended to his Father and become invisible. Unwittingly, Geisler is hoist on his petard. Having criticised Harris in particular for spiritualising Christ’s body, for all his protestations to the contrary he has implicitly done the same himself. For it is impossible, biblically speaking, to have a fleshly physical body which is immortal and imperishable. And no one stresses this fact more than Paul (1 Cor. 15:35ff.; 2 Cor. 4:7-5:10, etc.). The sad truth is that Geisler, along with many others, has a radical problem with his worldview. For him, material transience stems from sin; in the Bible it stems from nature as God made it (Isa. 51:6,8; John 3:1-8; Rom. 8:19-25; Heb. 1:10-12; 7:3,16,24; 12:26-29). According to Scripture, Adam, as representative man deriving from the earth (Gen. 2:7), was born mortal (Gen. 2:17; 3:19) into a world characterised by mortality. But as one who was also made in the image of God he was promised (eternal) life if he kept the commandment. He failed, and thus brought death to himself and to all who followed in his footsteps (Rom. 3:9,12,23; 5:12ff.).
Having established the genuine physicality of Jesus after his resurrection, I want now to examine the ascension.
First, it is important to note what can be learnt from the somewhat matter-of-fact account of what was really a stupendous and significant event in Acts 1:1-11. Jesus is taken up from the apostles (cf. Mt. 28:16) in the power of the Father, symbolised by the cloud. Verse 11, which records the words of the two men (angels), tells us that the Jesus whom they, the apostles, have seen ascend into heaven will come (eleusetai) in the same manner they have seen him go into heaven. Contrary to Bruce who says they had seen him go in glory and in glory would he return (p.41), we learn here that Jesus, who went visibly from their presence then disappeared (became invisible?), will eventually return. This low-key, unembroidered description of what occurred in fulfilment of Jesus’ own predictions (John 3:13; 6:62) informs us basically that his eventual return from heaven will be personal and visible (cf. Rev. 1:7). Questions like the following are not answered: Will he come back looking exactly as he did when he ascended? Or, Will he resemble an ordinary, non-descript thirty-three-year-old man of flesh and blood who has simply been immortalised and rendered incorruptible (cf. Isa. 53:2)? Or, As the King of kings will he have a crown on his head and reign on David’s throne in Jerusalem for a thousand years? Or, Will he come back to earth at all? It is only elsewhere that some important details and clues are provided.
From Luke 21:27 we learn of something that was conspicuously absent at his ascension, that is, on his return Jesus will be seen on a cloud in power and great glory or, in the words of Matthew, he will come in the glory of his Father and accompanied by his angels (16:27; Mark 8:38). Furthermore, far from being visible only to a few, his appearance will be revealed to all who are alive at the time (Rev. 1:7). (Glimpses of the glory of God appear in the OT, e.g. Ex. 24:16f.; 2 Chron. 7:1-3. Re Jacob and Moses, see below.) What this adds up to is that further examination of the teaching of Scripture soon makes it apparent that his return, though similar to a degree, in other respects stands in violent contrast to his departure from this world. We need to learn to what extent and why.
In Acts 2:36 Peter tells his hearers that God has made the Jesus they had crucified Lord and Christ. In other words, Jesus, the Man, had been raised and exalted apparently to the Godhead, and this idea seems to receive support from Revelation 3:21, which clearly represents him as sitting on his Father’s throne. Even ordinary believers are seen to be reigning with him (see also 2 Tim. 2:12) and glorified with him (Rom. 5:2, cf. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). Hebrews 1:3 virtually identifies Jesus with God (cf. John 1:1-4), and Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 tells us that the fullness of deity indwells him bodily making it possible for his servants to see the ‘face’ of God whom no one has seen or can see (Rev. 22:4; John 1:18; 1 Tim. 6:16). When Jesus himself in his so-called high priestly prayer talks of being glorified with the glory that he shared with the Father before the world began (John 17:5) and, what is more, praying that those who had been given to him should see his glory (17:24, cf. Isa. 33:17ff.; 66:18f.), various questions are prompted regarding his appearance and his nature in heaven. These become all the more pertinent when we realise that contrary to the widespread assumption that resurrection implies immediate transformation, exaltation and even glorification, the evidence points to the fact that Jesus was NOT glorified until his ascension (cf. John 20:17). For, if he was still visible and ‘flesh and bones’, he could not, according to Paul, enter the kingdom of heaven without being changed (1 Cor. 15:50-53).
In light of the information we are given in John 17:5 and 24, it would seem that we are forced to this conclusion. But there is more. John 7:39 informs us that the Spirit could not be poured out until Jesus had been glorified. This is supported by Acts 2:2f.,33 when the Spirit comes in recognisable form after the ascension in fulfilment of the promises made in John 14:16 and 15:26, for example. Again we are led to infer that Jesus was not glorified till he reached heaven. This is well, since it is difficult to believe that the glorious body or body of glory that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15:43, and which is in contrast with the one that is sown in dishonour (cf. Phil. 3:21), is to be regarded as being identical with Jesus’ resurrection body. Indeed, the latter was so unremarkable that it did not even merit description. In other words, Christians have all too willingly adopted the view that all glorification involves is immortality and incorruptibility. But there is surely more to it than that.
Let us listen for a moment to Berkhof: “The resurrection of Christ did not consist in the mere fact that He came to life again, and that body and soul were re-united. If this were all that it involved, He could not be called ‘the first-fruits of them that slept,’ 1 Cor. 15:20, nor ‘the firstborn of the dead,’ Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5, since others were restored to life before Him. It (the resurrection of Christ) consisted rather in this that in Him human nature, both body and soul, was restored to its pristine strength and perfection and even raised to a higher level, while body and soul were re-united in a living organism. From the analogy of the change which, according to Scripture, takes place in the body of believers in the general resurrection, we may gather something as to the transformation that must have occurred in Christ. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:42-44 that the future bodies of believers will be incorruptible, that is, incapable of decay; glorious, which means resplendent with heavenly brightness; powerful, that is instinct with energy and perhaps with new faculties; spiritual, which does not mean ethereal, but adapted to the spirit. From the Gospel story we learn that the body of Jesus had undergone a remarkable change … it was nevertheless a material and very real body, Luke 24:39. This does not conflict with 1 Cor. 15:50 … but He was endowed with new qualities perfectly adjusted to His future heavenly environment” (p.346).
If we accept Scripture as our authority, we cannot but conclude that Berkhof is guilty of error at various points here. At the very least, what he says prompts a number of pertinent questions. First, his reference to human nature being restored to its pristine strength and perfection reflects his uncritical reliance on the wholly unbiblical ruminations of the sin-obsessed Augustine who apparently saw Adam as some sort of physical and spiritual Adonis (cf. e.g. City of God, 14:26). Next, the change he talks about is not nearly so remarkable as he claims, as we have already seen above. When we compare the post-resurrection Jesus, scars apart, with the Jesus as he was before his crucifixion, there is little apparent difference between the two. Where is the splendour and majesty that Berkhof leads us to expect? There is nothing even comparable with the transfiguration, let alone anything that we might anticipate to be celestial glory. All we have, apart from clear indications of continued earthly corporeality, are some sudden appearances and disappearances which, in light of the Acts of the Apostles (e.g. 8:39), are not even necessarily miraculous, and certainly no evidence of his perfect adjustment to his future heavenly environment. The latter in any case begs serious questions, for how can Berkhof know this is the case?
Difference Between Heavenly and Earthly Bodies
This brings us to the next point. Apart from inferences we can draw from what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, as it happens we are given other clues in Scripture that heaven and heavenly bodies are considerably different from earth and earthly bodies. First, it is noticeable that Paul’s encounter with the ascended Christ, his then unacknowledged risen Lord, is in strong contrast with Jesus’ appearances to the rest of the apostles. This is only hinted at in 1 Corinthians 15:8, but Acts 9,22 and 26 present a fuller picture. What, as opposed to whom, Paul actually saw we are not told, but whatever it was, the light, which was brighter than the mid-day sun, blinded him. Apart from noticing that this did not occur at the transfiguration, nothing comparable eventuated during the time that Jesus spent with his disciples after his resurrection. It was surely here after the ascension that the change in Jesus’ body would seem to be, to use Berkhof’s word, ‘remarkable’. It reminds us of the OT emphasis on the fact that no one could see God and live (Gen. 16:13; Jud. 6:22), thus both Jacob (Gen. 32:22ff.) and Moses (Ex. 33:12ff.) respectively were protected by the darkness and the hand of God himself. Paul, however, is temporarily blinded. (It is noticeable that Paul’s companions were unaffected even though they saw the light, Acts 22:9. Such ‘vision’ as they had was clearly limited, cf. Marshall, p.355.)
Perhaps even more to the point is the picture painted in the book of Revelation, full of symbolism though it is. Apart from the contrast between the Lion and the Lamb, we need no great powers of perception to note how Jesus is not only identified with God the Father at many points (e.g. 6:16; 7:10,17), but actually resembles him as a consuming fire. Thus in 1:14, 2:18 and 19:12 (cf. Dan. 7:9) Jesus has eyes like fire. More will be said on this below.
Before going any further it is important to take up another point mentioned above by Berkhof. He says that we can gather something of the nature of Christ’s transformed resurrection body from the analogy of the change that occurs in the bodies of believers in the general resurrection. But can we? The truth is that there is no analogy. Berkhof seems to have forgotten that whereas the bodies of the saints who die return to dust (cf. Gen. 3:19), that of Jesus did not experience corruption, as both Peter (Acts 2:27) and Paul (13:35) are at pains to point out. Why? I believe that there at least two reasons: (a) if Jesus had not risen from the dead, we would have no knowledge of the acceptability of his atoning sacrifice on our behalf. The resurrection was proof positive that Jesus was a man approved by God (Acts 2:22), if not the Jewish leaders (Acts 3:17).
But (b) why was it not possible for Jesus to be held captive by death (Acts 2:24)? We are not told specifically but the reason must be that Jesus did not die for his own sins but for ours. This means that so far as he himself was concerned, as the second Adam he had kept the law, lived a sinless life in the flesh and was not liable to death in accordance with the promise made to the first Adam (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11.13.21; Mt. 19:17; Rom. 2:13; 10:5, etc.). What Ezekiel refers to as the statutes of life (33:15) had been kept in his case which means that, once his work of expiation and propitiation had been completed, death no longer had any claim on him personally. Thus he rose again in the self-same body in which he died to continue his life until the time set by the Father (cf. Gal. 4:2) for his ascension and transformation.
If Adam Had Not Sinned
This, of course, prompts what for some is the thorny question of what would have happened to Adam if he had kept the commandment and not sinned. Geisler, who is a thoroughgoing restorationist, tells us that he would have lived forever in the material body in which God created him (p.167). In saying this he is following Augustine for whom corruption is the consequence of sin, and transformation simply consists of endowment with immortality and incorruption (see Hughes, p.171, who quotes from Civitas Dei, X1V,3 and De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione, 1,2). But this simply cannot be correct if it is true that the entire material creation has been subjected to death, corruption and ultimate destruction apart from sin (Mt. 5:18; 24:35; Rom. 8:19-25; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:26-29, etc.). This inevitably includes the earthly body which like the material temple suffers physical destruction (Mark 14:58 and 2 Cor. 5:1 on which see especially Hughes, p.164, who notes the remarkably similar language of these two verses). The unavoidable inference then is that just as the material temple, “made by hand” is replaced by a one “not made by hand” (John 2:19; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Rev. 21:22) so the physical body is likewise replaced by a spiritual one. We should not wonder at this since our present earthly body, the body of our humiliation, would seem to be ill-suited for the freedom and glory we anticipate will be ours in heaven (cf. Phil. 3:21).
(Do writers on this theme ever consider the implications of John 6:27; Matthew 15:17 and 22:30, for example?).
Jesus’ Post-Resurrection Body Adamic
My conclusion then is that Jesus post-resurrection body was still first Adamic, manifestly adapted to earthly conditions and still in need of transformation or replacement to fit it for the presence of the Father (John 17:5).
If it is asked why this is so, the answer doubtless is to be found in the nature of the plan of salvation as may be inferred from what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4 and I Corinthians 15:35ff. In the former passage believers are confronted by the problem of those of their loved ones who have already died and are in the process of decomposition. Will the latter miss the wonder of the parousia, the appearance of the Lord of Glory? No, says Paul. As a matter of fact they will rise first and (implicitly) be changed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:37,42-44). In other words, their resurrection and their transformation will not only be instantaneous but simultaneous. So far as survivors at the parousia are concerned, there will be no resurrection since they have not died, but, stresses Paul, they will certainly be changed (1 Cor. 15:51-55). When we bear these things in mind, it becomes immediately apparent that Jesus, whose own resurrection and transformation are a two-stage affair like conversion (i.e. repentance and faith) and regeneration in the early church, is at once (pace Berkhof) the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep and also the first-fruits of those who, like a sinless Adam, never die. In other words, just as Abraham was at once the father of both his physical and his spiritual children, so Jesus is the forerunner or pioneer of both the dead and the living. However he is viewed, he is pre-eminent in the salvation of all (cf. Rom. 14:9).
It seems to me that traditional theologies have run into trouble because they have involved the confusion of nature with sin, physicality with corporeality and resurrection with transformation. If these elements of confusion like that of flesh and spirit and sin and grace, are overcome, then much that has been difficult to understand in the past becomes relatively plain, as I think I can demonstrate below.
Nothing is more clearly taught in Scripture than that God became man. The incarnation is a fundamental reality apart from which Christianity does not make sense (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7). According to Hebrews 2, for example, the purpose of this was that Jesus should be put into the position of being able to bring many sons to glory (2:10). The author thus presents him to us as reigning in heaven (Heb. 1:3,6; 2:5; 6:19f., etc.) as the author and pioneer of his people’s salvation who, having prepared the way for them into his Father’s house (Heb. 9:23f.; John 14:2) will return not to deal with sin but to complete their redemption and deliverance (9:28; 1 Thes. 1:10. In comment on the latter Bruce also refers to 4:16; 2 Thes. 1:7 and Phil. 3:20 and adds, “Christ is at present exalted with God; it is from the presence of God that he will be revealed in glory”, p.19. At the end of his note, p.20, he refers to 5:10 where we are told that Christ died for us in order that we might live with him, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18. Bruce says that this is the most explicit statement in the Thessalonian letters of the saving purpose of the death of Christ, p.114).
What Happens When Christ Appears?
First, it is worthwhile recapitulating what we have discovered so far:
Jesus rose physically from the grave and was essentially as he was before his crucifixion which was, after all, an interlude in his life undertaken on our behalf.
He had NOT and could not have undergone transformation.
After 40 days his visible, hence his physical (2 Cor. 4:18), ascension occurred. However, in view of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:50, it was immediately followed by his transformation and glorification.
He was now characterised not only as the first to rise (permanently) from the dead but also as the pioneer or precursor of those who will be alive at his coming (2*).
I have already noted above that on his entrance into the presence of his Father, Jesus was to all intents and purposes identified with God and was seated with him on his throne (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; Rev. 3:21; 22:3, etc.). It follows naturally from this that when he returns, it will be in the glory of the Father (Mt. 16:27; 24:30; Mark 8:38; 14:62). But not only so. On his arrival like a thief in the night (1 Thes. 5:2; 1 Cor. 1:8), he will be accompanied by his angels and the ‘naked’ souls of those who have already died (1 Thes. 3:13; 4:14).
Rescue and Redemption
In light of Mark 13:27 and 1 Thes. 4:14,16, we can conclude that having issued a universal call (cf. Mt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52), he will first of all raise and transform the bodies of the dead (note 1 Cor. 15:23,37,42-44), that is, ‘redeem’ the bodies of the souls who accompany him (Rom. 8:23). Though many will have reigned with him in heaven, that is, been at home with him (2 Cor. 5:8) for a ‘thousand years’ (Rev. 20:4), their salvation will now be complete. They will not merely see him as he is but be like him (Mt. 13:43; 1 John 3:2; Phil. 3:21).
Then, with our eyes fixed firmly on 1 Thessalonians 4:15,17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, we learn that believers who are still alive will be summoned into his presence by ascension (note the word) in the air in instantly transformed bodies. In this way all will be together – a vital situation since, in accordance with the plan of salvation, all must be harvested (Mt. 13:24ff.; Rev. 14:14ff.) and presented together as one, as the body of Christ, the Bride of the Lamb (Eph. 5:27, cf. Mt. 22:1-10; Rev. 19:7-9). This teaching is seldom recognised or, at least, acknowledged, but it is clearly taught in Scripture (1 Cor. 15:24; 2 Cor. 4:14; 11:2; 1 Thes. 4:17; 2 Thes. 2:1). Paul talks of presenting the Corinthians as a pure virgin to her one husband (2:11:2), and in Colossians 1:22 he claims that Christ’s own intention is to present his people holy, blameless and irreproachable before God (cf. Eph. 1:4). So, while it is true that we are perfected individually (Col. 1:28), we are also presented as a body, perfect before our God (Eph. 5:27; Heb. 11:39f., cf. 12:22-24).
The order of events presented above is vital for another reason: for if Jesus comes in the glory of the Father like lightning (Luke 17:24; Mt. 24:27), he also comes in wrath (Mt. 24:29f.) and as a consuming fire which no material thing can withstand (Heb. 6:7f.; 1 Pet. 1:7; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). Thus, as at Sodom and Gomorrah when the cities themselves were destroyed (Gen. 19:25, cf. Mt. 22:7), creation as such is overwhelmed by fire and removed (Heb. 12:27-29; Rev. 16:18-21; 20:11; 21:1). While believers love the appearing of Christ (2 Tim. 4:8) since it betokens their redemption, disbelievers succumb to the avenging Lord in flaming fire (Luke 3:17; 2 Thes. 1:7f.; Heb. 10:27, cf. Rev. 14:18) along with the lawless one who will be slaughtered by the fiery breath of his mouth and annihilated by the sheer splendour of his glory (2 Thes. 2:8, cf. also Isa. 66:14ff.).
(On Rev. 14:18 Mounce’s comment is apposite: “The angel who had charge of the fire commands the angel with the sharp sickle to gather the vintage. This follows closely the parallel command in the previous vision to reap the harvest of the earth. Joel 3:14 is the model for both. Like the grain that has turned golden and must be harvested immediately, the grapes are fully ripe. The time for judgment is now!, p.280).
The picture is one of rescue (Jude 23a, cf. Isa. 43:2), deliverance (Heb. 9:28) and corporeal redemption for all believers throughout history (Heb. 11:39f.) and total destruction for disbelievers. On the one hand the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of Christ where he will reign eternally (Rev. 11:15), on the other, the material realm symbolised by Babylon on which so many set their store collapses, is judged and is permanently destroyed (Rev. 17:16; 18:1-24; 20:11; 21:1).
It would appear that only after creation has been dispensed with does the general judgement, pictorially described in Matthew 25:31ff. and Revelation 20:11f., take place. It is a judgement by works, and while believers may suffer loss (1 Cor. 3:12-15), only disbelievers will experience the second death (Rev. 2:11; 20:6). Whether this involves eternal conscious punishment or not is disputed, but it is clear that character is fixed for ever (Rev. 22:11) (3*). There is no second chance.
Finally, there remain certain other matters to be cleared up. Berkhof apparently thought that unless Jesus underwent transformation at his resurrection, he was not its first-fruits. This conclusion is surely erroneous. At least two points need to be made: (a) the NT is at pains to indicate that Jesus’ death was genuine; it was both for real and for sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and hence it was followed by a genuine resurrection; (b) deaths like that of Lazarus, as I have half-jokingly said elsewhere, were not mortal in that they did not involve sin. They were temporary restorations for the glory of God (John 11:4). Lazarus rose only to die again thereby reaping the wages of sin and experiencing corruption (cf. Rom. 8:10). The difference between him and Jesus is fundamental.
Next, I find it necessary to underline still more firmly the fact that Jesus could NOT have been transformed until he ascended for two basic reasons: first, he himself said that he had the power to lay down his life and take it again. Clearly, in so doing, he was fulfilling his own summary of the law which was to love God and his neighbour as himself. Indeed, he was going further, for his love resembled the perfection of God himself (Mt. 5:44-48). He was not merely laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13) but for his enemies (Rom. 5:8,10). The point at issue, however, is this: in claiming to lay down his life and take it again John 10:17f.) he is implying that there is no change involved. The life he surrenders is precisely the life he receives back. His was a true resurrection (restoration) from the dead. His putative transformation, however, would have been a denial of his physical resurrection.
Secondly, if Jesus was the second Adam, he had to be perfected as such in strong contrast with the first who manifestly failed to achieve perfection. Jesus’ earthly work culminated on the cross when he uttered the words “It is finished” (tetelestai, John 19:30). As we saw above, if the first Adam had never sinned, he would have eventually, that is, in God’s good time (cf. Gal. 4:2), have inherited the promise implied in Genesis 2:17 and been perfected by transformation to fit him for the divine presence. The same must be true of the second or true Adam of whom the first was only a type (Rom. 5:14). If it is a fact that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50, cf. 1:29, etc.), then Jesus necessarily underwent transformation at his ascension. (To deny this is to deny his incarnation, 1 John 2:22; 4:1-3; 2 John 7.) And it is at this point, and not a moment before, that life in the flesh on earth ceased forever for him who was already morally and now permanently or spatially separated from sinners by being exalted above the heavens (Heb. 7:26, cf. Bruce, p.157 n.88, deSilva, p.75, Robertson, p.79).
As Hebrews 7:28 indicates, Jesus was perfected forever, and consequently there can be no possibility of his coming back to earth to reign over sinners (cf. 9:28; Acts 13:34). So, to contend that his transformation occurred at his resurrection is at one and the same time to introduce contradictions into the teaching of Scripture and to disqualify Jesus from his status as the second Adam, the first-born of creation (Col. 1:15) and the very image of God (2 Cor. 4:4) in whom all things are united (Eph. 1:10). And that is manifestly to go beyond the pale.
If what has been written above is anything like the truth, it is in stark contrast with much of what passes for biblical teaching today. Historically, lack of an adequate covenant theology has done much to blind the eyes of writers on eschatology as on a good deal else. Added to this has been the huge problem created by the false worldview arising out of Augustine’s dogmas of original perfection, righteousness, sin, fall (usually spelt with a capital ‘F’ to emphasise its importance!) and cosmic curse. These five are all deeply suspect and interlinked, and when they are allied to an almost universal Docetism (4*) which in effect, if not in intention, has denied the true humanity of Jesus, it is inevitable that our understanding of basic elements of the total gospel message has been obscured. Indeed, whole ‘theologies’ have been devised that fly in the face of the plain meaning of crucial texts. Thus John 3:6, not to mention 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 1 Peter 1:23, on its own rules out the widespread notion that there can be physical regeneration; 2 Corinthians 4:18 requires us to jettison a purged and restored material universe; Deuteronomy 24:16 excludes the Augustinian understanding of original sin; Romans 8:20, and arguably Genesis 3:17 itself rightly interpreted, undermines the universal ‘cosmic curse’ accepted by many, and so on (5*).
Perhaps one of the worst errors has been the idea that Jesus underwent transformation when he rose again from the dead making him immortal and incorruptible while still visible and in the flesh – and on earth to boot, thus opening up the way for him to return from heaven to reign on what will, according to Scripture, be a non-existent throne in a non-existent Jerusalem on a non-existent earth. The plain fact is that, biblically speaking, immortal and incorruptible flesh, physicality or materiality is a contradiction in terms. We must then in the interests of truth abandon all ideas of a millennial earthly reign by Christ, glorified in the flesh(!), on logical let alone exegetical grounds. (To say this, however, is not to abandon without further consideration the hope of still further evidence on earth of Christ’s rule from heaven. We still do not know the time of his return, nor do we know exactly how things will pan out in the rest of history assuming the second coming does not occur in the near future. Since the interpretation of the NT always remains open to correction, we do well to be cautious, not least because various misapprehensions held sway at the time of Christ’s first coming.)
To cut a long story short, I would contend that the following are simply wrong:
The perfection of the original material creation
New, that is, fresh creationism
A literal interpretation of the OT apart from NT spiritualisation.
A literal millennium
A secret rapture
The church’s non-participation in the tribulation at the end of the age
The identification of the flesh with the body
The identification of what is sown with what is raised, or, in other words, the idea that physical seed produces spiritual bodies (cf. 1 Cor. 15:37. 43f.; 1 Pet. 1:23; John 1:13)
Denial of spiritual corporeality
The idea that in heaven flesh is essential to manhood
Physical regeneration or re-incarnation of some kind
Material incorruptibility and fleshly immortality
The simultaneity of Jesus’ resurrection and transformation.
All these seriously hinder our understanding of Scripture and our eternal destiny. While a great deal more evidence needs to be scrutinised with care, we need to recognise that tradition, especially when it is enshrined in creeds and confessions, must always be subjected to rigorous criticism. As Jesus implied in John 16:13 (cf. 14:26; 15:26), while the gospel may not change, our understanding of it certainly does.
1* If Jesus was ‘flesh and bones’ when he rose again, he was still technically mortal. (I take it that Romans 6:9 is a general comment which, though true, is not specifically relevant to the point at issue.) What needs to be remembered is that, as one who had passed the test, completed his work and never transgressed any commandment, Jesus inherited the promise of life and could not reap the wages of sin which is death. He was preserved from death by God himself, as Adam would have been if he had never sinned. But the mere fact that he was getting older (John 8:57) in conformity with the corruptible creation from which he physically stemmed (Heb. 1:11) made his ascension and transformation a necessity (John 20:17, cf. 1 Cor. 15:50ff.). The view expressed by Grudem that Jesus rose to a life in which his physical body was perfected and no longer subject to weakness, ageing and death but able to live eternally must be rejected (p.609) along with other related ideas (e.g. pp.831ff.,859). Physical perfection or maturity is attained in this life as the whole of nature testifies (cf. B.B.Warfield on the Human Development of Jesus. See too Travis who is equally mistaken when he says, “The resurrection body of Jesus is the designer’s pattern for the resurrection of his followers. After Jesus rose from death he was no mere ghostly figure, nor was he simply a physical body returned to life. His body was transformed, suitable for life in a new and glorious environment.” Cf. Berkhof above. Again, how can Travis know this? Has he been to heaven (cf. Rom. 8:24f.; 1 Cor. 2:9; 2 Cor. 4:17)? Jesus’ visibility excludes his view.)
2* As a matter of fact Jesus was preceded by Enoch and Elijah. Why? We can only guess. Since Enoch was a Gentile, Elijah a Jew and Jesus a Christian, so to speak, perhaps we are meant to infer that each covenant group is represented among the men and women of every tribe and nation that are saved. Having said this, we must consider that Elijah’s ascension was not strictly parallel. First, there were perhaps polemical reasons for the demonstration of God’s power involved (cf. Lazarus’ resurrection, John 11:4), and, second, in some ways Elijah’s ascension resembled Christ’s return rather than his exodus from the earth. See Dillard’s thought-provoking comments and references. Perhaps both these ascensions were intended to inspire hope in OT saints.
3* If punishment is eternal, Revelation 22:11 (cf. Dan 12:10) perhaps gives us a clue as to what it is like. The wicked, according to the general teaching of Scripture, live lives dictated by the flesh (see e.g. Rom. 1:18ff.; 1 Cor. 6:9f.; 15:32b; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7f.; 2 Pet. 2:12-14; Rev. 21:8; 22:15). When fleshly bodies and appetites that dominated their lives on earth have been destroyed (cf. Rom. 16:18; 1 Cor. 6:13; Phil. 3:19; 1 John 2:15-17), their spirits are left with nothing but empty craving and unfulfillable dreams. Like the kings and merchants of the earth (Rev. 18:9-19), they hunger, or rather burn as Dives did (Luke 16:19ff.), for satisfaction. But if their character is fixed, there can be none. Inside the kingdom of God there is fullness of joy and eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:11); outside it there is darkness, anguish and gnashing of teeth. Clearly the subject requires more thought and study.
4* If the liberals did nothing else for us, they taught us to recognise the true humanity of Jesus.
5* It is disturbing to learn that the belief that all creation will be transformed is common in evangelicalism (see Hosier, p.16). This supplies yet further evidence that the teaching of John 3:6, Romans 8:24f., 1 Corinthians 15:50 (cf. vv. 53,54), 2 Corinthians 4:18 and 1 Peter 1:23 has not been taken to heart. It also suggests that false understanding of Romans 8:19-23 is prevalent, along with failure to appreciate that the new heavens and the new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22) are a somewhat earth-centred OT way of referring to the eternal world which, like the age to come, already exists (cf. John 14:2f.; Heb. 6:5, etc.) along with its righteousness (1 Pet. 3:13; Mt 6:10) but which has still to dawn for us. As Paul said, to remain in the (fleshly) body is to be away from the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, London, 1959.
F.F.Bruce, The Book of Acts, London, 1954.
F.F.Bruce, Commentary on Hebrews, London, 1964.
D.A.DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, Grand Rapids, 2000.
R.B.Dillard, Faith in the Face of Apostasy, Phillipsburg, 1999.
N.L.Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, Nashville, 1992.
W.Grudem, Systematic Theology, Leicester and Grand Rapids, 1994.
M.J.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
J.Hosier, The End Times, London, 2000.
I.H.Marshall, Acts, Leicester, 1980.
R.H.Mounce, The Book of Revelation rev. ed., Grand Rapids, 1998.
R.L.Reymond, Systematic Theology, Nashville, 1998.
O.P.Robertson, The Israel of God, Phillipsburg, 2000.
S.Travis, End of Story, Leicester, 1997.
The quotation from J.A.T.Robinson appeared in D.Geivett and G.Habermas, In Defence of Miracles, Leicester, 1997, p.273, from Interpreter’s Dictionary, 4:48, Nashville, Abingdon, 1962.
While in the process of writing the above, I had begun to read O.P.Robertson’s “The Israel of God” (see references). I did not finish it until after I had completed my work. Robertson’s final chapter on Romans 11 (pp.167ff.), however, prompts further comment.
Robertson, leaning to some extent on Ridderbos (pp. 359f.), produces a cogent argument in favour of the view that ‘all Israel’ in Romans 11:26 means the fullness of Israel (11:12) and the Gentiles (11:25) TOGETHER.
I myself have always tended to this understanding and over the years have annotated my Bible with references like Romans 2:28f.; 9:6; Galatians 6:16 and others relating to Israel’s repentance like Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 50:20; Ezek. 16:60-63, etc.). Yet another reference, which to my knowledge seems to be regularly overlooked, is Revelation 6:11, and it noticeably underlines the togetherness and interdependence of Jew and Gentile that is Paul’s concern. What is more, it impinges directly on the parousia. On examination, there can be little doubt that the martyrs stem from the ‘servants’ (normally the Israelites) and their brethren (Gentile Christians?) together, and it is only when their tally, to use Beasley-Murray’s word (p.136), is complete that the judgement (6:10) will occur along with the parousia (6:12-17).
The point that needs to be stressed is that the church or Israel of God seen in Revelation in OT terms (note especially 7:4-8 and see Wilcock, p.80, and his quotation of Morris, p.114) is made up of both Jews and Gentiles who are indissolubly related. Yet historically and even presently Israelites and Gentiles have been at loggerheads despite the fact that the dividing wall of hostility between them has in principle been broken down (Eph. 2:11f.). The official church, the medieval church in particular, has even savagely persecuted the Jews. So, what, humanly speaking, is the root of the problem? I would suggest that the fault lies on both sides. First, Paul himself makes it clear that the Jews have been blind to the significance of their own covenant (2 Cor. 3:14f.) and hence have been involved in inevitable disobedience (cf. Jer. 31:32). Elsewhere, Peter indicates that all is not well in the Christian camp either (2 Pet. 3:15ff.), since many have failed to understand the depths of Paul’s writings which deal particularly with the status of the Jews. And history makes all too plain the fact that the church itself has been signally judaised and Christians disobedient.
When we consider that just as Israel began in babyhood, grew but failed to attain the maturity required (cf. Ezek. 16; 43:1; 46:3, etc.), so, recapitulating the Jewish experience, the church too began in babyhood (1 Cor. 3:1-4; Heb. 5:11-6:3, etc.) and has also failed to reach maturity. On reflection the reason is by no means surprising, for maturity for both depends on their being one, becoming one new man (Eph. 2:15) in the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:4f.;11-16). But one has only to be aware of the chaotic state of affairs in evangelical theology today to recognise that maturity, implying consensus in the faith (Eph. 4:4-6), is, to use the old cliché, conspicuous by its absence. However, if we love Christ’s appearing, we must all examine ourselves and rectify the situation. It is simply not good enough for us as Christians to expect the Jews to accept Christ as their Messiah and join forces with us. We must clean out our own Augean stable. As I expressed it in my booklet “The True Faith” “Above all, when the church repents and owns it blindness, we can hope that the Jews will do so too (cf. 2 Cor. 3:14ff.). If they do, we may well look for great blessing (Rom. 11:12,15,25f.).”
It is vital then for us to ensure that we Christians, on the one hand, outgrow some of the blatantly unbiblical beliefs that are perverting our understanding of the faith as a whole and, armed with the true gospel, seek, on the other, to bring light in repentance, humility and compassion to the Jews who are an essential constituent of the election of grace. While it is true, as Robertson says, that “the conversion of the Jews will enrich the experience of the gospel by the Gentiles immeasurably” (p.191), it is even more important for us to recognise that apart from them we cannot be made perfect (Heb. 11:39f.).
This postscript, which doubtless requires great elaboration, is intended to make at least five basic points:
The traditional Dispensational hiatus between Israel and the church is biblically speaking impossible; together they form one man (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:15; 4:13);
The earthly land of Israel (like the earthly Davidic kingdom, cf. Luke 1:32f.; Acts 2:29ff., etc.), which is as subject to spiritualisation as it was in the days of Abraham (Heb. 11:10,14,16), is largely irrelevant to God’s salvific purposes. As Robertson and countless others have indicated, Paul does not regard it as worthy of mention in Romans 9-11. The destiny of both believing Jew and Gentile is heaven and the presence of Christ, not a spot on the modern political map;
Jews and Gentiles are mutually dependent. We need eachother just as disobedient children we both need the mercy of God (Rom. 11:32);
The riches of the world are dependent on our unity;
This unity must occur in its intended fullness prior to the return of Christ.
Finally, it strikes this present writer at least that Robertson himself evinces a strange inconsistency in denying restoration with respect to the land of Israel and the earthly Davidic kingdom (p.191) but embraces it so far as the cosmos is concerned (pp.113,194f.).
(For a convincing overview of Romans 11, see Reymond, pp.1024ff.)
G.R.Beasley-Murray, Revelation, repr. Grand Rapids, 1983.
L.L.Morris, Revelation, London, 1969.
H.Ridderbos, Paul An Outline of his Theology, Grand Rapids, 1975.
M.Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, Leicester, 1975.