Dear Church Family,
Continuing in our Sunday school lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), this past Sunday we covered question 56. Here is a brief review.
WLC 56 How is Christ to be exalted in his coming again to judge the world?
A. Christ is to be exalted in his coming again to judge the world, in that he, who was unjustly judged and condemned by wicked men, shall come again at the last day in great power, and in the full manifestation of his own glory, and of his Father’s, with all his holy angels, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, to judge the world in righteousness.
This is the last, and only future, element of Christ’s exaltation as described in the WLC: Christ’s coming again to judge the world. Unfortunately, there is much confusion regarding Jesus’ second coming. For instance, classic dispensationalism has taught that there are at least three future judgments of God: (1) “The Judgment Seat of Christ” which is only for believers (2 Corinthians 5:10); (2) “The Throne of Glory” which is for the nations (Matthew 25:31-32); and (3) “The Great White Throne” which is for the wicked (Revelation 20:11-12). However, when one examines these texts, it is clear that these are all references to the one final day of judgment. God has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through His Son, Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-31); this is the same day of judgment in which He will appear for the salvation of His people, for those who eagerly await Him (Hebrews 9:27-28).
The Events of Christ’s Coming in Judgment on the Last Day
When examining the teaching of Scripture with regard to Jesus’ second coming, there are some things which we are not told (e.g., the day or hour of His return, Matthew 24:36). That said, the New Testament does teach us about many of the events that surround Christ’s coming in judgment. Here is a brief outline sketch of some of these events.
(1) Christ will descend with a shout, bringing those who have died in the Lord with Him and the dead in Christ will be raised (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16; 1 Corinthians 15:52)
The church in Thessalonica was concerned about those believers who had died before Christ’s second coming and wondered if they would miss the blessings of the resurrection. So, the Apostle assured them that when Jesus returned, He would bring with Him the souls of those who had died in the Lord to be reunited with their resurrected bodies (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16). The dead will be raised imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:52).
(2) Believers who are alive at Christ’s second coming will be changed and caught up (together with those raised from their graves) to meet the Lord in the air (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17)
For those believers who are alive at Christ’s second coming, they “will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52) and they will be “caught up together with them [those who had died in the Lord] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In this latter passage, the Greek word “harpazo” (which means “to seize or to take by force”) is translated in English as “caught up” in most English translations. In the translation of the Latin Vulgate, the word is “rapturo” from which we get the English word “rapture.”
Sometimes, this passage is interpreted as teaching a secret rapture of the church as a separate event from Christ’s coming in judgment. Yet, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this recent teaching of “rapture theology” (which is only a little more than 150 years old) is incorrect.
To better understand the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord” – we must recognize the technical use of the Greek verb (“apantesis”) which is translated here as “to meet.” The word is used in Scripture to describe the event when a bridegroom or a royal dignitary would enter a city. As he drew near to the city, people would come out to meet him and then enter the city with him and his entourage, usually with much fanfare.
We find this technical use of this verb in other places in Scripture. For instance, this word is used in Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins who go out “to meet” the bridegroom (Matthew 25:6). Likewise, when it became known that Luke, Paul, and others in their party were coming to Rome, the brethren from the surrounding area came “to meet” them and then entered the city of Rome with them (Acts 28:15-16).
To put it as simply as possible – and perhaps a bit bluntly – 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does not teach a secret rapture of the Church in which Jesus does a U-turn and returns to heaven, taking His people with Him. Rather, this verse teaches that at Jesus’ second coming in judgment, the Church does a U-turn and returns to this world with Jesus, the triumphant King… “and so we shall always be with the Lord” – in the new heavens and new earth!
(3) Christ will judge all mankind (Acts 17:30-31; Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Corinthians 5:10)
The Scriptures teach that there is only one future judgment; this judgment of all mankind will take place at Jesus’ second coming. “Inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (Hebrews 9:27-28). God has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Acts 17:30-31). Jesus describes this “judgment seat of Christ” before which we all must appear (2 Corinthians 5:10) when He teaches about the coming of the Son of Man in His glory to judge the nations and His separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
(4) The present heavens and earth, including the ungodly, will be destroyed by fire (Romans 9:22-23; 2 Peter 3:5-12; Revelation 21:1b)
In Noah’s day, the world was judged and destroyed by water. The New Testament teaches us, however, that “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter3:5-7). Indeed, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). “The heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat” (2 Peter 3:12). On this coming day of God, the first heaven and first earth will pass away (Revelation 21:1b).
(5) The new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells, along with the holy city (the new Jerusalem, the Church triumphant) will come out of heaven from God, and so we shall always be with the Lord (Revelation 21:1-7; 2 Peter 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 4:17)
The destruction of the present heaven and earth (or the first heaven and earth) will give way to the new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). In this new heaven and new earth, the holy city, the new Jerusalem – which is the bride of Christ, the Church – will worship God on His throne. God’s people will receive the fulfillment of the promised eternal life in the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21:2-7; Matthew 5:5; Hebrews 11:8-10). Jesus speaks of this future great renewal of all things as “the regeneration” (Matthew 19:28).
Much teaching on the second coming of Christ on the last day instills, and is accompanied by, great fear. Yet, this not ought not to be so for believers. “Blessed,” writes John at the beginning of the book of Revelation, “is he who reads and those who hear the words of prophecy, and head the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3). Likewise, after teaching about the hope of the resurrection at the second coming of Christ, Paul writes, “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
With this in mind, let us continue to pray “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). And let us take comfort in knowing that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:20-21).
*Note: If you’re interested in reading a more in-depth examination of what the Bible teaches about the end times and the second coming of Christ, I recommend this article, “Amillennialism” by Anthony Hoekema. Or, for a shorter summary by the same author, see Hoekema’s, “A Brief Sketch of Amillennial Eschatology.”
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch