There is, I think, an interesting and possibly myopic traditional view of both the biblical text of Revelation and of the Christian understanding of the ‘return of Christ’ or the ‘second coming’ and the “Kingdom of God”.
Let me explain:
I’ve been brought up in a community that, broadly speaking, believes and preaches that at a finite, fixed point in time, Jesus Christ will appear on planet earth in physical form once more. At this point, (and there’s plenty of debate about when, how, where…) a series of events will ensue, culminating in the complete restoration and renewal of the earth to the original potential that God intended. The people who haven’t rejected God and his vision will then live eternally in paradise – “The Kingdom of God”.
That’s all well and good and I think that to a greater or lesser extent, I do believe that the physical presence of Christ will once again walk the dust and dirt and soil and tarmac of Gods good earth.
However when you say a definite concrete “yes” to one thing, you inevitably have to say “no” to another and there are some things that I’m not willing to say “no” to quite so quickly when grasping at some future ‘nirvana’.
Return of Christ
Firstly, there’s the words of Jesus himself from Luke 21.
“Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.””
This probably raises more questions than it answers, but in my mind, Jesus is suggesting that the “kingdom of God” is not only a specific future for the world but also something that requires current, present participation. It is not just an event but a state of existence. It is something that we can actively be involved with now, not only a thing to be looked forward to.
Here’s where I’m going to suggest something probably not new, but it came to me as I was listening to my dad present some ideas at a study day, so it’s new to me.
There’s a passage in John that on the face of it can be a bit confusing.
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
In summary, Jesus is saying “I’m going but I’m not going because I’m coming back but someone else is coming but you already know them because they’re already lived with you and will be in you.”
I think the simplest explanation is often the best and to me, the simplest view of this is that Jesus was physically leaving the disciples. He was also leaving the physical so he could become part of the spiritual domain. In becoming spirit as opposed to physical flesh, Jesus becomes able to be more effective. He can be with all believers simultaneously, he can “live in” all believers. This was something that had not yet been encountered in quite this way before, thus the verse about the world not being able to “accept him because it neither sees him or knows him.”
This opens up the possibility of the return of Christ being progressive and gradual in part, before a full-blown ‘big event’ return. If we accept that Jesus returned as spirit to enable believers to do great miracles and works as it says in John 14:12;
…”whoever believes in me will do the same things that I do. Those who believe will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father”.
then in some ways, Jesus has already returned and his life is in those who believe in him and they are the ones that act out the love and grace of God.
I suppose I’m saying that in a way, there could be a first part of the second coming that has already happened and there’s a second phase that will happen some time in the future. I might be wrong and it probably isn’t new but it gives us another possibility to think about, something that refocusses us on the present and the continuing work of God in this world today. Hopefully, with that grounding, we aren’t constantly avoiding our responsibilities, just waiting for some unknown day in the future.
Secondly, there is the vast array of angles on Revelation.
In my experience, my community has, in the past, put forward an interpretation of revelation that is known as “continuous historical”, where the book provides a narrative of Church history from the first century to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the focus and the numerous judgment stories have been aligned with a pantheon of historic wars, revolutions, socio-political and religious movements. This approach has often caused much consternation and debate and not a little re-calculation of numbers, dates and inconvenient changes in interpretation as world events pass without quite the same results as the careful predictions.
I firmly believe that Revelation had to be relevant and meaningful to the people that first read it in the first century. If it was just about some future time 2000 or more years on from their position, that’s not going to be something useful or comforting to them.
With that in mind, I believe that Revelation is a huge apocalyptic metaphor designed to be relevant to every generation, designed to wake up the people of God who have become comfortable and somnolent within the ’empire’ of their age. It is a book aimed at encouraging God’s people to become like a refreshing, icy cold drink on a hot day or a superheated coal from a fire ready to ignite passion and fervour for God. It is a call to be distinctive and contrasting from the bland monotone offerings of assimilation into empire.
Why so I particularly think that?
Because I see apocalypse for many people today. There are the big, obvious ones like the situation in Syria where people have had lives, family, homes, communities, food, water, shelter towns, cities, communications torn from their every-day and they are destitute, wounded, homeless, starving and cold.
And Syria isn’t the only one, one day viewing the news on television or in the newspapers will highlight many, many more big apocalypses going on right now on planet Earth.
Just because it isn’t happening in my own cushy neighbourhood, just because it isn’t affecting me directly doesn’t mean that the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ – Conquest, War, Famine, and Death aren’t currently riding, unchecked somewhere else on this planet. Indeed they are.
And there are the less obvious apocalypses happening in individual people’s lives daily. The marriage blown apart by an affair. The family decimated by terminal cancer. A car crash. A fire or flood.
And also the mini ones; exam results not being what were wanted, a falling out with a friend etc.
The book of Revelation covers them all if you have open eyes to see it. It’s my story and your story as well as the story of the fall of Jerusalem and the Vietnam War and possibly the story of the end of the world in it’s present condition. It is the story of human suffering and loss throughout all the generations and it is written in such graphic language to make people see the world around them for what it is and do something different.
What’s that then?
Well… I’ve run out of space here, so that will have to wait for part 2.
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