The Gospel Coalition has been doing an intermittent series over the last year tagged “Deeper into Doctrine”. For people who prefer their theology in narrative form—and for post-moderns generally, if there are still any around—“doctrine” is a dirty word. But I don’t see any objection to formulating propositional summaries of core biblical ideas, provided that i) we don’t disengage from the critical interpretation of the texts; and ii) we don’t lose sight of the narrative framework. This is where I have a problem with Sam Storms’ definition of the doctrine of the second coming of Jesus:
The second coming of Jesus Christ is the personal (he won’t send an angel in his place), visible (every eye will see him), physical (he will come in the body in which he was crucified, raised, and glorified) return of Jesus to this earth to consummate the salvation of his people (Phil. 3:20-21; Heb. 9:28; 1 John 3:1-3), to be glorified in them (2 Thess. 1:10), and to inflict vengeance on those who have defied him and the gospel of grace (2 Thess. 1:8). At his first coming Jesus came as a suffering servant, a sacrificial lamb, “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26), and to inaugurate the kingdom rule of God. We read in Hebrews 9:28 that he “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” and to consummate the kingdom in its fullness.
Doctrine inevitably gets constructed from the perspective of the church needing to define what it believes. A future “coming” of Jesus appears to be an important part of New Testament teaching, so the church has had to ask what it means to believe that, whether in the fourth century or the fifteenth century or the twenty-first century. So what we end up with is a doctrine that, as a matter of necessity, transcends historical context. The “second coming” has to apply to everybody’s future.
Critical interpretation of the New Testament, however, is currently pushing us to give much more weight to the original historical context, which is a Jewish context interpreted to a large degree by the scriptures and other Jewish writings from the period. On that basis the question we have to ask is: What were Jesus and his followers trying to say about their future—not ours, not everybody’s—when they spoke about him coming with the clouds of heaven? Why did they think that this was such a valuable resource for making sense of their historical outlook?
The basic New Testament conception is of the Son of Man coming on the clouds, accompanied by angels, to defeat his enemies, deliver and reward his followers, and establish his kingdom. To his credit, Storms’ summary of the doctrine has more or less this narrative shape: Jesus returns to consummate the salvation of his people, to be glorified in them, and to inflict vengeance on the bad guys. But the context has been stretched so far that it has snapped, with one end fixed back in the first century and the other end pinned like the dangling tail of a donkey at the outer edge of world history.
This is doing doctrine at the expense of scripture.
The motif has its origins in Daniel 7:13-27, where the Son of Man represents Jews who remained loyal to the covenant in the face of intense persecution from the Hellenistic king Antiochus Epiphanes. Daniel’s Son of Man may be a real individual, a messiah; or he may be a symbolic representation of the persecuted saints of the Most High. But it’s the story that matters. When God’s people are oppressed by a more powerful pagan nation, God intervenes to judge the oppressor, deliver his people from their afflictions, and give a kingdom—dominion and rule over the nations—to the Son of Man who comes on the clouds of heaven.
So the Son of Man is part of a story—an actor in a drama that came to embody a central hope of righteous Israel under foreign occupation. The individual figure cannot be separated from the community of the persecuted saints of the Most High; and the community cannot be separated from the historical context.
We have to ask whether there is any reason not to think that Jesus and his followers used the motif in much the same way and for much the same purpose. I don’t think there is. Their argument is not that Jesus will come at the end of history to wrap everything up. It seems to me rather significant that when John does describe a final judgment and new creation (Rev. 20:11-21:8), he makes no reference to a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. Narratively speaking, the motif doesn’t belong there.
The New Testament uses the motif to speak about a rather different type of event, to tell a story very much like the story that Daniel told. Jesus and his followers expect the early communities of believers to have to face severe persecution, first from the Jews, then from Rome. The Son of Man story, retold about Jesus, gives them the assurance—in appropriate prophetic language—that if they remain faithful to him and to the gospel, he will come with the glory and authority that he has received from the Father to deliver and vindicate them; and they will be given a share in his rule over the nations.
What matters to them is their immediate historical circumstances, their foreseeable future; and it is this—not the end-of-the-world—that the “doctrine” of the coming of Jesus with the clouds of heaven addresses.