Behold He Comes…

A couple of years ago I was having coffee with one of my favorite people, Lynn Anderson. If I recall correctly we were at a Starbucks in Dallas. Lynn was describing a recent visit he and Carolyn made to a remote African village. While they were still some distance from the community, they heard a loud noise in front of them. As they approached the noise grew louder. It was the sound of joyful music and singing. They turned a corner and were met by the entire population. The people had come out of their village to greet Lynn and entourage.

The people then escorted Lynn and Carolyn back into the village with singing and dancing. After all, they were honored guests and it would have been the height of impropriety to allow them come into the village without a celebratory escort.

This story immediately started the wheels spinning in my mind. I had just finished reading N. T. Wright’s explanation of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the “coming” of Jesus at the end of time. Lynn’s description of his visit to the African village was an almost exact parallel of Wright’s description of an ancient practice in the Roman world: the Parousia.

Whenever Caesar would visit a Roman colony, like Philippi, it was called a parousia or royal presence. Christians speak of it as “the coming” or “visitation”. Wright describes it in this way,

When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. [1]

When Paul describes the return of Jesus he uses this same word parousia. His primary readers, the first century Christians who lived in the world dominated by Rome, would understand exactly what this word meant. There was no need to explain it to them. But to those unfamiliar with the ancient custom it is very easy to misunderstand passages which deal with this subject, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

In the past those who read this passage in a cursory fashion would assume that those who met Jesus in the air would then go on up to live with him in heaven. There are two problems with this view: 1) The text stops short–it doesn’t say, “then they will go to heaven with Jesus” and 2) this is not the imagery Paul uses–imagery his first century readers would have inherently understood. Roman citizens living in a colony would not expect to be taken back to Rome when they met Caesar out in the field before their colony. After they meet him, they would then escort him into his possession: the colony (just as the African community escorted Lynn back into their village). Compare this to Revelation 21:1-3 where there is now a new heaven and a new earth. The new Jerusalem comes down from Heaven and the “dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them” (21:3).

What difference does this make? If nothing else, accuracy is always to be desired rather than inaccuracy and misinterpretation. However, this also brings us to a more healthy understanding of God’s view of the earth and of our continued physical existence.

The modern church (as opposed to pre- and post-modern) has been unduly influenced by Greek thought which suggests the body is bad and the spirit is good. Somehow a disembodied existence is to be desired, we want to be freed from our physical shackles (somewhere Socrates is quoted as saying: “The body is a tomb…I am a soul shackled to a corpse”). This is seen in popular Christian views of heaven as well as Eastern and New Age philosophy. We hear the view expressed during funerals, “This really isn’t [so-and-so] this is just a shell.” (No, it is a tragic picture of what is not supposed to happen: the rending of spirit from body.)

This Greek mind-set can lead us to treating the world and our bodies in an irresponsible fashion. We either recklessly pursue pleasure to the point of harming our bodies and destroying our environment or we become ascetics and abuse our bodies with harsh treatment because they are by nature “evil” and we become insensitive to the environment because “this world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”

Both Christianity and Judaism see the body and creation as “good.” They are to be honored and treated well. Creation is to be properly managed and cared for, our bodies are to be treated as sacred vessels of God’s presence. In Romans 8, Paul ties our resurrection with the renewal of the earth. The earth itself groans with anticipation for the time that it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (8:21). It groans along with us as we eagerly await “the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we are saved” (8:23).

If I may be allowed to stretch out the metaphor: since we know the true Emperor is coming, what do we do to prepare? Do we spend our time focusing on our individualistic needs and faux spirituality? Or do we prepare the earth to receive him? Do we try to extend his rule where we live? Do we beautify this world and manage it properly? Do we seek to make it a place where his justice, his forgiveness, his peace, and his values reign supreme? Do we introduce people to the reign of God and its King? Do we prepare the way for the Lord’s coming?

Thank you, Lynn for a vivid picture of the parousia! I know you would never compare yourself with the coming of Jesus! But what a wonderful picture you painted.

Behold he comes: / riding on the clouds, / shining like the sun / at the trumpet call! / So lift your voice, / it’s the year of Jubilee! / Out of Zion’s hill salvation comes! [2] ________________________

[1] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 132.

[2] “Days of Elijah” by Robin Mark Copyright © 1996 Daybreak Music, Ltd adm in N & S America by Integrity’s Hosanna! Music/ASCAP

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About Darryl Willis

Darryl has been working for non-profits for over 36 years. His current work takes him to Ukraine several times a year. He has fallen in love with the country and the people. Darryl writes poetry and his work has appeared in several online and print journals.
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