A gracEmail subscriber heard a preacher say that Jesus Christ returned invisibly and for the last time when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70. This reader asks whether we ought to expect Jesus to return visibly and in person at the end of human history.
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Indeed we should. Both Scripture and church history tell me that the preacher you heard was mistaken. I will mention but one of many Scriptures. Shortly before Jesus’ betrayal, his apostles were admiring the great stones of Herod’s Temple. Jesus replied that a time would come when not one stone would be left on another. The apostles asked when this would happen and what signs would precede it. (Matthew says the apostles also asked a question about the end of the world — literally “the consummation of the age,” the same Greek expression found in Matt. 13:39-40, 49 and 28:20). Jesus responded with warnings and instructions related to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in A.D. 69-70, as well as some particulars about events associated with his final and visible return at the close of earthly history (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).
Both Old and New Testament prophets sometimes describe a national judgment with symbolic language picturing the end of the world. That is the case here, making it difficult to know exactly which verses fit which event. Thankfully, Luke clearly distinguishes between the events of A.D. 70 and the events surrounding Jesus’ final and visible return in person at the close of human history. He does this by inserting an intervening era not mentioned by Matthew or by Mark — an era that will separate God’s judgment on Jerusalem from his final judgment of the entire world. Jesus identifies this period as “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24).
During this intervening era, said Jesus, the Jews would be scattered among the nations and Jerusalem would be “trampled under foot by the Gentiles.” Based on this detail recorded only by Luke, we may also draw a line also in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, separating Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70 (Matt. 24:4-22; Mark 13:5-20) from Jesus’ personal return in power at the close of earthly history (Matt. 24:23-31; Mark 13:21-27). Indeed, with generations of Christians who preceded us, we may confidently affirm that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again (visibly, according to Acts 1:11).
Well after Jerusalem’s destruction, early Christians still anticipated Jesus’ future personal return. Sometime between A.D. 138-161, Justin Martyr wrote concerning Christ: “For the prophets have proclaimed two advents of his: the one, that which is already past, when he came as a dishonoured and suffering man; but the second, when, according to prophecy, he shall come from heaven with glory, accompanied by his angelic host, when also he shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived . . . ” (First Apology, Chapter 52).