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At a time when so many different ideas about Jesus are being circulated, what more authentic source for learning about him than the Gospels? And what better way of studying the New Testament than with an expert who has spent his life pondering and teaching it? Scripture scholar Father Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is our guide.

Jesus: A Historical Portrait

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When He Comes Again

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

The traditional profession of faith we Catholics and other Christians recite every Sunday concludes the section devoted to Jesus with these words: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” This faith statement concerns the Second Coming of Christ and his role in the Last Judgment and in the eternal Kingdom of God.

The first coming of Christ involved Jesus’ birth, life and death in the land of Israel some 2,000 years ago. Through the Gospels we can learn a good deal about the historical Jesus. The result is that we can know as much—if not more—about Jesus as we know about almost any other figure from antiquity.

The Second Coming of Christ, however, is different. It is still to come, and it will involve the end of this age or world as we know it. This topic is the domain of prophets, not of historians, who generally deal with the past and assume that it was much like the present. Nevertheless, historical study can at least tell us what people in the past imagined the future would be like, and in particular what early Christians believed about the Second Coming of Jesus and his place in the end times.

Eschatology and apocalypse

Eschatology is the study of the “last things.” In the context of ancient Judaism and Christianity, eschatology concerned the end of human history, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and subsequent rewards and punishments. The early Christians believed the risen Jesus would play a pivotal role when these events take place. This led to belief in the Second Coming of Christ.

Eschatology is often the theme of many apocalypses. An apocalypse (derived from the Greek word for “revelation”) is a narrative or story that describes a revelation about the future or the heavenly realm. It can take the form of a dream or a vision. There is often an angel who helps the visionary to interpret the experience. Many apocalypses claim to describe the future course of history and the unfolding of eschatological events.

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Images of Hope

Two books in the Bible are generally regarded as apocalypses: Daniel and Revelation. The Old Testament book of Daniel consists of reports about dreams and visions that gave hope and encouragement to Jews in the second century B.C. They were undergoing severe persecution at the hands of the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The message of Daniel was this: Hold on, stay faithful and wait for God’s help. Then the Kingdom of God will be made manifest to all creation, and the wise and righteous will shine “like the stars forever and ever” (12:1-3).

The Book of Revelation also arose in a time of persecution. In the late first century A.D., Christians in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) were being forced to participate in rituals honoring the Roman emperor as a god. The visions granted to John and recorded in Revelation take as their starting point John’s experience of the risen Jesus. They describe in various ways how the enemies of God’s people will be overcome and how in the New Jerusalem the Lamb of God, the risen Jesus, will reign in glory with his heavenly Father. Both Daniel and Revelation emerged from situations of oppression and suffering. Both provided images of hope about the future and reasons for remaining faithful in the present.

The glorious ‘Son of Man’

In the seventh chapter of Daniel we see an imaginative and influential portrayal of divine judgment, where the prophet is allowed a glimpse of the heavenly court complete with a number of thrones. God, described as the “Ancient One,” takes his place on the most glorious throne of all. All the heavenly beings are gathered “in judgment, and the books were opened” (7:10). These books presumably contain the records of the deeds of those who are to be judged.

In this case the one to be judged is the wicked persecutor of Israel in the second century B.C., King Antiochus IV, along with other enemies of God’s people. In the midst of the court session, Daniel sees one “like a human being” (probably the angel Michael) approaching the Ancient One. In response, the Ancient One gives the angel “dominion and glory and kingship” (7:14).

A more literal translation of “like a human being” is “a son of man,” meant to describe any human person and, in a sense, applicable to every one of us. However, the context of this chapter in which “son of man” occurs endows it with the sense of a glorious being who is at home in the heavenly court and the recipient of “dominion and glory and kingship” from God.

Jesus and the Last Judgment

When early Christians thought of the risen Jesus as the Son of Man, they envisioned him not so much as an ordinary human being as they did the one raised from the dead, exalted to the heavens and worshiped as “our Lord Jesus Christ.” And they associated him with the Last Judgment (for which resurrection was a precondition).

This idea of a worldwide Last Judgment—one that will mark the end of human history as we know it and involve rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked—developed from the Old Testament theme of the “day of the Lord.” Prophets such as Amos sought to console the oppressed Jews by focusing on a time when the God of Israel will punish the wicked within his people and/or the enemies of Israel (see 5:18-20).

The Second Coming of Jesus Christ

The Second Coming of Christ is sometimes called the “Parousia.” The Greek word parousia means “presence,” “arrival,” “advent” or “coming.” It originally described the arrival of a king or high government official at a village or town for some kind of inspection. But parousia took on new meaning for early Christians. They used the word to describe the role they envisioned for the risen Jesus at the Last Judgment and the events surrounding it.

Again, a look at the earliest document in the New Testament—Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians—written in 51 A.D.—shows that belief in the Second Coming of Jesus was part of Christian faith from earliest days. Paul regarded the Thessalonians as a special source of hope for himself “before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (3:19).

In his scenario for the end of this age and the Last Judgment, Paul assigned a prominent role to the risen Jesus and envisioned eternal life as being with him forever (see 4:13-18). He also warned that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:2), that is, suddenly and when it is least expected. For Paul and the early Christians, the Second Coming was certain. But since no one knows the exact time, we should be prepared for it always.

‘Our Lord, come!’

Early Christians looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ as a stage in the fulfillment of their hopes for eternal life in the Kingdom of God. They even devised a short prayer in Aramaic, Maranatha, which means “Our Lord, come!” This prayer appears in Aramaic at the end of 1 Corinthians (16:22) and in Greek translation in Revelation 22:20. The use of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, suggests that the prayer originated very early in the history of the Christian movement. Its occurrence at the end of two New Testament books, among other prayers and greetings, suggests that it was well known and widely accepted.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke contain apocalyptic sermons in which Jesus outlines the events leading up to his Second Coming and the fullness of God’s Kingdom. These discourses contain many features and themes found in Daniel and Revelation, as well as in other Jewish apocalypses not contained in the Bible.

These apocalyptic accounts in the Gospels insist that while these future events will take place, no one except the Father knows their precise time. As with Paul their constant message is: Always be prepared. Live as if the Last Judgment were to occur in the next moment. Then you will have no need to fear that judgment.

The Last Judgment

These Gospel accounts also give a prominent position to the glorious Son of Man. The imagery comes from Daniel, where the one “like a son of man” (7:13) is given “dominion and glory and kingship” (7:14). However, it is clear that the Gospel writers identified the glorious Son of Man as the risen Jesus and viewed his role in these future events as his Second Coming.

The climax of the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew is the judgment scene in 25:31-46. In it, the glorious Son of Man—the risen Jesus—serves as the judge of “all the nations.” His task is to separate the righteous (the sheep) from the wicked (the goats).

The criteria that the glorious Son of Man uses in judging are deeds of kindness to “the least.” Those deeds include the traditional works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned. Those who have done these deeds to “the least” will get to enjoy eternal life with God and the Son of Man, while those who neglected them will face eternal punishment. And in these scenes of handing out rewards and punishments, the one who passes judgment is the glorious Son of Man, the risen Christ.

Will these future events happen in exactly this way? The truth is, we don’t know. It is very much the prerogative of God to bring about the fullness of the Kingdom when and how God sees fit. However, Christians can be sure that whatever the exact sequence of events may be, the glorious risen Christ as “the firstborn of the dead” (Rv 1:5) will have a prominent position in them. This conviction, of course, flows from faith and hope, not from history.

‘Thy kingdom come’

Jesus taught us all to pray for the coming of the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer he gives us a vision of the future when all creation will celebrate the holiness of God and do God’s will perfectly. He urges us to ask for divine help and guidance in the midst of the events that will lead to the fullness of God’s Kingdom.

He teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” He advises us to look forward to that blessed day not as something to be feared but rather as something to be welcomed: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). Our Christian response can and should be the early Christian prayer: Maranatha. “Our Lord, come!”

Questions

• How do you envision the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgment? Do you fear it or welcome it? How does your relationship with God affect your vision of the end of the world?

• Should we read the visions of the end times in Daniel and the Book of Revelation as literal descriptions of what is to come or as purely symbolic messages of hope?

• How are you preparing for the Second Coming? What more can you do for “the least” to ensure your place among the sheep and enjoyment of eternal life?

 

 

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