An issue which many Christians have wrestled with is the question of Christ’s second coming and what it means for it to be “soon” or “at hand”. Does it mean that Jesus could come back at any time? What does it mean for his second coming to be “soon” two thousand years after his first coming? I hope to present in this piece a few approaches which can help us in thinking through this issue biblically.
The Vindication of Christ
We see this play out in a number of different ways in the new testament. One of the principal ways in which it plays out is that some passages which we often think of as “second coming” passages are not really anything of the sort. Consider the exchange between Jesus and the Jewish council on -the night that he was betrayed (Matthew 26:57-68). The high priest confronts Jesus, asking him if he is “the Christ, the Son of God” (v63). Jesus replies to him as follows:
“You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)
Many take this remark to be referring to the second coming of Christ, and are consequently confused at the reference to the Jewish council “seeing” his return. But in this reply, Jesus isn’t referring to his second coming at all. He’s actually weaving together two passages from the old testament which both concern his enthronement and vindication at the right hand of God the Father, namely Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14. In particular, note the direction of travel in the “coming” referred to – the imagery is taken from the book of Daniel and is referring to Jesus’s ascent upwards into heaven and not his descent downwards from heaven.
So Jesus is in effect saying that the Jewish leaders would see (perceive) his enthronement, presumably in the events which would follow after his death. This would include such events as the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the faithful witness of the church in spite of persecution – and most significantly given the audience – the destruction of Jerusalem and its religious system in 70 AD. These are the sorts of events which Jesus probably has in view. This affects how we might approach other passages, especially in the gospels.
An Unexpected Return
In several passages though, the second coming appears to be spoken of as if it were on the verge of happening, even in cases where the disciples would have known that it wasn’t. An example of this would be in Matthew 24:42-44, where Jesus seems to warn that he could come again at any moment, like a thief breaking into a house unexpectedly at night. The problem with this simplistic reading is that the disciples knew of many events which had to happen before his second coming, such as the various signs mentioned earlier in the same chapter (24:4-14) which led up to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus also mentions several times in parables throughout the same discourse that his final coming would be “delayed” (24:48, 25:5) and would happen “a long time” (25:19) in the future. This mitigates against a simplistic reading of such a warning.
How then are we to understand a passage like this, in light of the rest of what Jesus teaches in the same context? As with any passage of scripture, it’s important to consider the old testament background. Jesus begins this section of teaching by referring back to the story of Noah in verses 37-39. When Noah warned those in his generation of the coming flood, he probably knew that it would be a long way off, due to the complexity of the tasks which God had given him in the meantime (Genesis 6:14-22). But when the flood actually came, it came quickly and Noah was given only a week’s notice (Genesis 7:1-5).
By drawing the comparison with Noah, Jesus is suggesting that his final coming will be both a long way off and happen suddenly and unexpectedly when it does occur. He mentions this in order to provoke the disciples to reflect on the nature of his final coming and to live with a similar kind of urgency in their own lives and ministries. This is similar to the way in which reflecting on Christ’s death might affect the way that we live our lives today.
The Resurrection and the Life
There are also many passages in the new testament letters which speak of Jesus’s second coming as being “at hand”. To understand the meaning of these references, we need to understand how the first and second comings of Christ are related to each other. In John chapter 11, we read of a discussion between Jesus and Martha concerning her brother Lazarus, who had died (John 11:17-27). Jesus begins by promising Martha that Lazarus will rise again (v23). Martha takes this to mean that on the last day, when God raises the dead, Lazarus too will be raised (v24). But Jesus clarifies what he means with this statement:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
In saying this, Jesus is announcing that the end of all things is already mysteriously at work through him. The final resurrection and the new creation have, in a sense, already begun through his ministry. This is sometimes referred to by theologians as “now-and-not-yet”, the idea that the life and kingdom of God (God’s transformation of the world) has broken into the present age but is yet to be fully completed when Jesus comes again. This creates a situation in which the new era, the final return of Christ and renewal of all things, is always “at hand”, even if its completion is still in the future.
So then, there are a variety of ways in which the new testament speaks about the final coming of Christ. A key principle which we need to consider when studying such passages is that a certain element of tension between the “now” and the “not yet” is okay. Jesus has come, has been raised from the dead and been glorified over all things to bring about a new stage in history. And yet the world as we know it is not as it should be; creation still groans waiting for the final resolution when Jesus returns. And we too look forward to the renewal of all things.
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)
 Other verses worth considering in this regard would include Matthew 10:23 and 16:28. At least part of the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24-25 is likely concerned with such first century events as well.
 The key passages would be the following: Paul speaking of “the day” being at hand in Romans 13:12 and of “the Lord” being at hand in Philippians 4:5. James speaking of “the coming of the Lord” being at hand in James 5:8. Lastly, Peter speaking of “the end of all things” being at hand in 1 Peter 4:7.