When is Jesus coming back?

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NEARLY two thousand years ago, a question was raised by four of Jesus’ apostles in a private conversation with their friend Jesus on the Mount of Olives. They asked:

While He was seated on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately and said, Tell us, when will this take place, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end (the completion, the consummation) of the age? (Matt. 24:3)

            In that question, the apostles used two very interesting expressions, “sign of Your coming” and “the end (the completion, the consummation) of the age.” To what do those expressions refer?

            To take the second expression first, consider the term “consummation,” the translation of the Greek word syn·te′lei·a. In the New World Translation, this word is consistently rendered “conclusion,” whereas a related Greek word, te’los, is translated “end.” The difference in the meaning of these two words can be illustrated by describing a talk given at a meeting. The conclusion of the talk is the last section, in which the speaker spends a little time reminding the audience of what he has been discussing and then shows how that information applies to them. The end of the talk is when the speaker walks off the platform. In a similar way, Biblically speaking, the term “the end (the completion, the consummation) of the age” refers to the period of time leading up to and including its end.

            What of the “sign of Your coming (presence)” that the apostles asked about? This is the translation of the Greek word pa·rou·si′a. Christ’s pa·rou·si′a, or presence, started with Jesus’ installation as King in heaven in 1914 and continues on to include the “great tribulation,” during which he comes to destroy the wicked. (Matt. 24:21) Many different things, including “the last days” of this wicked system of things, the gathering of the chosen ones, and their resurrection to heavenly life, occur during this presence of Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:1; 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 4:15-17; 2 Thess. 2:1) It could be said that the period constituting “the end (the completion, the consummation) of the age” (syn·te′lei·a) corresponds to or runs parallel with the period called Christ’s presence (pa·rou·si′a).

An Extended Period of Time

          The fact that the word pa·rou·si′a refers to an extended period of time harmonizes with what Jesus said with regard to his presence. (Please read Matthew 24:37-39.) Notice that Jesus did not liken his presence to the relatively short period of time during which the Flood occurred in Noah’s day. Rather, he compared his presence to the much longer period of time that led up to the Flood. Included therein were Noah’s building of the ark and his preaching work, right up until the time that the Flood finally arrived. Those events occurred over many decades. In a similar way, Christ’s presence includes the events leading up to and including the great tribulation.—2 Thess. 1:6-9.

          Other Bible prophecies make it evident that Christ’s presence refers to an extended period of time and not merely to his coming to destroy the wicked. The book of Revelation portrays Jesus as riding on a white horse and being given a crown. (Please read Revelation 6:1-8.) Jesus is depicted as going “forth conquering and to complete his conquest.” The account then shows that he is followed by riders seated on different-colored horses. These prophetically represent war, food shortages, and pestilence, all of which have occurred over the extended period of time that is referred to as “the end (the completion, the consummation) of the age.” We are seeing the fulfillment of this prophecy in our lifetime.

          Revelation chapter 12 provides further details concerning the establishment of God’s Kingdom in heaven. There we read of a battle in the invisible realm. Michael—Jesus Christ in his heavenly position—and his angels fight against the Devil and his demons. As a result, Satan the Devil and his hordes are cast down to the earth. At that point, the account tells us, the Devil has great anger, “knowing he has a short period of time.” (Please read Revelation 12:7-12.) Clearly, then, the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom in heaven is followed by a period of time that is marked by increased “woe” for the earth and its inhabitants.

          The second psalm likewise speaks prophetically of the installation of Jesus as King upon heavenly Mount Zion. (Please read Psalm 2:5-9; 110:1, 2.) However, this psalm also indicates that there is a period of time when earth’s rulers, along with their subjects, are given an opportunity to submit to Christ’s rule. They are admonished to exercise insight and to allow themselves to be corrected. Yes, during that time “rejoice and be in high spirits” by serving God and his appointed King. So, then, a window of opportunity is opened during Jesus’ presence in kingly power.—Ps. 2:10-12.

Recognizing the Sign

           When asked by the Pharisees about the time the Kingdom would come, Jesus answered that it would not come “observed or with visible display” from their viewpoint. (Luke 17:20-21) Unbelievers would not understand. How could they? They did not even recognize Jesus as their future King. So who would both recognize the sign of Christ’s presence and understand its significance?

           Jesus went on to say that his disciples would see the sign just as clearly as they would see “lightning, by its flashing, [which] shines from one part under heaven to another part.” (Please read Luke 17:24-29.) It is of interest to note that Matthew 24:23-27 directly links the same point with the sign of Christ’s presence.

The Generation Seeing the Sign

            Previously, this article has explained that in the first century, “this generation” mentioned at Matthew 24:34 meant the contemporaneous generation of unbelieving Jews. That explanation seemed reasonable because all other recorded uses that Jesus made of the term “generation” had a negative connotation, and in most cases, Jesus used a negative adjectives, such as “evil” and “sinful,” to describe the generation. (Matt. 12:39; 17:17; Mark 8:38) Thus, it was felt that in the modern-day fulfillment, Jesus was referring to the wicked “generation” of unbelievers who would see both the features that would characterize “the end (the completion (syn·te′lei·a), the consummation) of the age” and the system’s end (te′los).

            It is true that when Jesus used the word “generation” negatively, he was speaking to or about the wicked people of his day. But was that necessarily true of his statement recorded at Matthew 24:34? Recall that four of Jesus’ disciples had approached him privately. (Matt. 24:3) Since Jesus did not use negative qualifiers when speaking to them about “this generation,” the apostles would no doubt have understood that they and their fellow disciples were to be part of the “generation” that would not pass away until all these things [would] occur.

            On what basis may we draw that conclusion? By carefully considering the context. As recorded at Matthew 24:32, 33, Jesus said:

From the fig tree learn this lesson: as soon as its young shoots become soft and tender and it puts out its leaves, you know of a surety that summer is near.  So also when you see these signs, all taken together, coming to pass, you may know of a surety that He is near, at the very doors. (Please compare Mark 13:28-30; Luke 21:30-32.)

Then, at Matthew 24:34, we read:

Truly I tell you, this generation (the whole multitude of people living at the same time, in a definite, given period) will not pass away till all these things taken together take place.

           Jesus said that it was his disciples, soon to be anointed with holy spirit, who should be able to draw certain conclusions when they saw “all these things” occur. So Jesus must have been referring to his disciples when he made the statement: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things take place.”

           Unlike unbelievers, Jesus’ disciples would not only see the sign but also understand its significance. They would learn from the features of that sign and know their true meaning. They would fully appreciate that return of their (our) Lord Jesus Christ is near. While it is true that both unbelieving Jews and faithful anointed Christians saw a limited fulfillment of Jesus’ words in the first century, only his anointed followers back then could learn from these events—could understand the true meaning of what they saw.

            Those without spiritual understanding today have felt that there has been no “observed or with visible display” with regard to the sign of Jesus’ presence. They reason that everything is continuing on as it did in the past. (2 Pet. 3:4) On the other hand, Christ’s faithful servants have recognized this sign as if it were a flash of lightning and have understood its true meaning. As a class, these Christians make up the modern-day “generation” of contemporaries that will not pass away until all these things occur. This suggests that some who are Christ’s followers will still be alive on earth when the foretold great tribulation begins.

 “Keep on the Watch”

More is needed, though, than merely recognizing the sign. Jesus went on to say:

And what I say to you I say to everybody: Watch (give strict attention, be cautious, active, and alert)! (Mark 13:37)

             This is of utmost importance to all Christians today. As challenging as it may be, we must prove ourselves ready and keep on the watch. Understanding that Christ is present invisibly in Kingdom power helps us to do that. It also alerts us to the fact that soon he will come to destroy his enemies “at an hour and a moment when you do not anticipate it.”—Luke 12:40.

              Our understanding of the meaning of Christ’s presence helps to intensify our feelings of urgency. We know that Jesus is already present and has been reigning invisibly as King. Soon he will come to destroy the wicked and bring about vast changes to this entire globe. We should therefore be more determined than ever to take an active part in the work that Jesus foretold when he said:

And this good news of the kingdom (the Gospel) will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then will come the end.Matt. 24:14.