The Return of Christ: When and How – Chapter 54

By Brandon Clay / July 4, 2020

Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – When and how will Christ return? Could he come back at any hour? 

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

This is the first chapter in the final section of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, the Doctrine of the Future. This chapter reviews the return of Jesus. Often called eschatology in theology, the doctrine of the future is the study of last things.

Regarding the return of Christ, there is often disagreement on many of the particulars. However, most evangelicals agree on some essentials: there will be a sudden, personal, visible, and bodily return of Christ, we should eagerly long for Christ’s return, we don’t know when Christ will return, there is disagreement over the details of future events and there are signs that Christ gave that will take place before his second coming.  

There Will Be a Sudden, Personal Visible, Bodily Return of Christ

The doctrine of the return of Christ is peppered throughout the New Testament. Jesus told us to be ready for his return (Matthew 24:44), Jesus told the disciples he would take them to himself (John 14:3), angels promised he would return at Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:11), Paul taught about the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and James taught the imminent return of Christ (James 5:8). It will not be a spiritual, unseen return, but a glorious, visible return that will happen suddenly.

We Should Eagerly Long for Christ’s Return.

Paul reminds us that the grace us God trains “us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:12-13) Our hope is not in this world – it’s in the life to come. We should therefore be eagerly waiting for Jesus’ return. 

On the other hand, we don’t know when Jesus will actually return. And God understands that. Jesus said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44). There are two considerations to make related to not knowing the exact time of Jesus return:

  1. We should proceed with plans for God’s glory, even if he returns next week. This includes long-term plans like research, school, etc. Even if Jesus returns in the middle of our project, we will be found faithful doing what he asked us to do (Matthew 25:21).
  2. Anyone claiming to know the day or hour of Christ’s return is automatically wrong. Jesus himself said not even the angels in heaven knew when he was returning (Mark 13:32). So we don’t need to listen to any “date setter” regarding the return of Jesus. They will be wrong.

Christ Could Return at Any Time

Some Evangelicals disagree about the imminent return of Christ. In other words, they don’t know if Jesus could return at any time. But here are some verses that lead us to expect Jesus could return at any time:

  1. “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:42-44)
  2. “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know.” (Matthew 24:50)
  3. “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:40)
  4. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
  5. “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

Signs That Precede Christ’s Return

On the other hand, another set of verses speak to several important events that must happen before Jesus’ return. These are the events and the verses that support this understanding: 

  • The preaching of the gospel to all nations must happen before the second coming. “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?…And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (Mark 13:4,10)
  • The Great Tribulation will happen before the second coming. “For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.” (Mark 13:19-20) 
  • False prophets will work signs and wonders before the second coming. “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” (Mark 13:22)
  • Signs in the heavens will happen before the second coming. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24-29-30)
  • The coming of the Man of Sin and the Rebellion must happen before the second coming. “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers…Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 3-4)
  • The salvation of Israel will happen before the second coming. “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved…” (Romans 11:25-26). 

Possible Fulfillment of the Signs Preceding Christ’s Return

According to these preceding verses, Jesus will return after several significant events. But how do we weigh the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return with how other events will happen first? It is possible that every one of these events have already been fulfilled. For instance, a charitable reading of history may suggest…

  • The preaching of the gospel to all nations has been fulfilled since the original requirement given in the gospels. Missionaries have preached on every continent and every country in the world.
  • The Great Tribulation has already happened. Whether it was during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the Jewish War (AD 66-70) or the many millions that have lost their lives for following Christ, tribulation has happened throughout the history of the Christian church.  
  • False prophets have already worked signs and wonders. Religious leaders have worked miracles by signs and wonders since Jesus’ ascension. The most obvious examples are those miracles that happen in the Roman Catholic religious system, but other false religions claim miraculous signs as well. 
  • Powerful signs in the heavens may not have happened yet, but the signs of the sun being darkened and stars falling from heaven could happen in a few minutes. In this way, this sign would not militate against the imminent return of Christ. 
  • The coming of the Man of Sin and the Rebellion may have also already happened. There have been many “antichrists” throughout the history of the world. Since Jesus’ ascension, the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian severely persecuted the church. In more recent times other leaders have led people astray from the truth and have severely persecuted the church like Hitler and Stalin.
  • The salvation of Israel may have already happened. Messianic believers, or Jews that believe in Jesus, are numerous and their congregations continue to grow even inside of the unbelieving nation of Israel. 

Application: People Get Ready

Jesus is coming back. He personally taught his imminent return in multiple places. He also provided several signs that would happen before his return. Most of those signs have either already been fulfilled or could happen in minutes. 

So it’s vital for every person to consider this fact today. If Jesus returns today, will we be ready to meet him? If not, it’s time to repent and trust him as soon as possible. There may not be a tomorrow awaiting us – or you.      

“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18)

Special Terms

  • eschatology
  • general eschatology
  • imminent
  • Maranatha
  • parousia
  • personal eschatology
  • second coming of Christ

Resources: Wayne Grudem

Related Resources

Image courtesy of Jordan Wozniak on Unsplash.

Brandon Clay is a Christian (Reformed Baptist) and an apologist. He earned a BA in history from the University of Texas and an MA in theological studies from Southern Seminary. Brandon is married and has 4 children, one of whom (Knox) is now with the Lord.

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