As we prepare to remember the first coming of Jesus into the world, it is fitting that we also remember that he will come again. He who was once born as a helpless, hunted baby will soon reappear as conquering king.
This is the last of our Apostles’ Creed posts for 2020. Lord willing (and if Jesus hasn’t come back before then), we will pick them up again in 2021. In the meantime, here are six implications of Jesus’ return …
1. God and his Plans will be Vindicated.
The existence of evil represents a challenge to Christian faith. What kind of a God creates a world like this: a world full of creatures in rebellion; a world full of violence and selfishness; a world where every new act of God seems to founder sooner or later on the rocks of human evil? Is he really in control? Is he really good? Can we trust his plans or his wisdom?
The prospect of Jesus’ return and the promise of his judgement shows that evil is only a flicker in the endless arc of God’s greater story.
But the prospect of Jesus’ return and the promise of his judgement shows that evil is only a flicker in the endless arc of God’s greater story. Goodness will have the final word. There will come a time when “The kingdom of the world [becomes] the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15); when the “Lord God Almighty, who is and who was” will take his great power and begin to rule in a new way (Rev 11:17) and “of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).
This great vindication is trinitarian in nature. In the present age, God the Father calls on his Son to “sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110:1), sending out his Spirit to change hearts and open eyes (John 6:44; 2Cor 4:4). But on the day of his appearing, Jesus himself will cast out all wickedness and present himself and his purified people to his Father:
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet … When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1Cor 15:24-25,28 c.f. Heb 2:12-13)
2. Jesus Must be Fully Honoured.
The fact that it is Jesus, and not the Father directly, who judges the world, teaches us that the persons of the Godhead are equal, other-person-centred, and orderly. As Jesus says:
For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. (John 5:22-23)
God’s eternal love is for his Son (not us) and that love is expressed through judgment as well as salvation.
Here again, we see that judgment is connected to God’s plans for his Son to be glorified. When Jesus judges the world there will be no doubt that he shares all the authority of his Father. This, incidentally, is a stern warning to those who think the love of God must lead to universal salvation—ultimately God’s eternal love is for his Son (not us) and that love is expressed through judgment as well as salvation.
But the judgment of Jesus will not be simply his own. As he goes on to say:
I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 5:30)
Contrary to theories of nice Jesus saving us from mean God, the Father and Son operate as one. The Son receives everything he is and does, from the Father and expresses it in perfect unity: his judgments are the Father’s.
3. Humans Matter.
Jesus alone shows us the ultimate meaning and place of man. But he also shares his fulfilled humanity and his honours with us.
The judgment given to Jesus’ brings him honour. And that honour extends to his humanity. In his Athens speech, Paul contrasts the remote or pantheist deities of Greek thought with the true God who cares about humans. The true God makes humans in his image; he directs their histories—and he will judge them for their actions. The decisive proof of it all is that:
… he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31)
Jesus at this point hasn’t been mentioned by name, nor spoken of according to his divinity. But even as man, he is worthy of honour. Jesus is the man who shows us what humanity really means in God’s economy. He, and he alone, shows us the ultimate meaning and place of man.
But he also shares his fulfilled humanity and his honours with us—including the right to judge. Paul says that we will judge angels (1Cor 6:3). Jesus says he will share his rule with us as he shares in his Father’s rule:
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. (Rev 2:26-27)
4. The Way We Live Matters.
The coming judgment of Jesus should make us afraid: not that we might not reach a high enough standard—that is impossible (Rom 3:23-24)—but that our trust and allegiance to Jesus should be found genuine. Jesus makes it clear that when he comes to examine us for that trust and allegiance he will be looking over the way we lived:
… Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:41-46)
It isn’t our obedience that will save us on the day of judgment—it’s Jesus himself.
Does that scare you, as it does me? I think it is supposed to. But if so, our first response shouldn’t be “do more! do better!” It should be to go back to the beginning: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13-14 c.f. 1John 2:1-2)
It isn’t our obedience that will save us on the day of judgment—our hope can only ever be in Jesus (Rom 5:6-9). But if we cling to Jesus, our Lord and saviour, we will love him and that love will begin to change us and produce fruit in the way we relate to others: “as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
5. Nobody Gets Away with Evil.
The credal and biblical (Rev 20:12-13) insistence that Jesus will judge both the living and the dead assures us that God will not ultimately allow wickedness to prosper. Though dictators such as Robert Mugabe or Joseph Stalin might die in their beds, they will one day have to answer for all of their crimes. So will every thief, cheat, liar and ingrate. As Jesus says:
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” (Matt 12:36)
Once again, this reminds us that there is no hope for us on the day of the second coming apart from the atoning work of the first (Heb 10:26-29). But it also frees us from bitterness and revenge in this life. We do not have to secure our own retribution because we can entrust ourselves to him who judges justly (1Pet 2:21-23 c.f. Rom 12:19). The Lord (who has already forgiven our infinitely greater sins against himself) will repay or forgive those who do wrong to us according to his own wisdom.
6. God Hasn’t Given up on His Creation.
We humans have wrecked this world. We have turned its forests to deserts; hunted its species to extinction; we have polluted its rivers and oceans. Worst of all we have desecrated it by our sin:
The earth mourns and withers;
the world languishes and withers;
the highest people of the earth languish.
The earth lies defiled
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
There is no future for this world as it stands. Whatever minor battles we might win along the way, the war was lost long ago. Environmental and political reforms are worth pursuing—but only for palliative reasons, and because we still bear a duty of care to this world. We are not the world’s saviours.
But Jesus will do what we cannot. He will renew creation and expel everything that pollutes it. He will establish a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2Pet 3:13). Let’s finish with the last words Jesus gives us in Scripture:
Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. (Rev 22:12-16)