In the broad view, God’s ultimate plan is to restore Earth to its original, pristine condition and set up His kingdom here.
The return of Jesus is, of course, one of the major themes for which Adventists are known. But to understand fully what that means demands context. We’re giving that context here, with a review of the four acts in the “coming” of God.
Eschatology talks about the coming of God. Another word for “coming” sometimes used in theology is the word “advent.” Advent literally means “coming” or “arrival.” While eschatology, both the word and the field of study, speaks about issues of the end, in Christian theology this end is always occasioned by the arrival of God, the coming of God into human affairs, in the realm of time and space.
Act 1. Creation and Covenant: In the beginning God created a perfect world and placed in it two human beings, created in God’s own image; a man and a woman who would enjoy God’s continual presence. They would reflect God’s character and glory in the world and be God’s active agents in the creation. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, Genesis 3:8 wistfully records what the reader can only assume was a regular occurrence in the Garden of Eden: “The man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”1
Here was God walking and talking with Adam and Eve. They enjoyed the unfettered and unmediated presence of God. They and all creation were in perfect harmony with God, the Creator, whose personal presence was with them. This creation was good and perfect, in the sense that all parts of God’s creation operated in harmony.
After the man and woman sinned against God by not trusting, God’s immediate presence was withdrawn and an angel was posted to guard the Tree of Life. This clearly signaled a serious and significant loss. Without God’s intervention, the creation was in peril. But God did intervene, instituting the covenant, God’s promise to restore the original creation order of peace and harmony. One day, God promised, there would be no death or sorrow or any kind of evil in the world anymore. The covenant was expressed and repeated through the ages by God’s faithful representatives; prophets, priests, poets, and philosophers. Their writings comprise the Hebrew Scriptures.
God was also present with His people in worship. Both the movements and rituals of worship and also the physical geography and articles of worship carried a tangible sense of God’s presence. Nowhere was this more powerfully seen than in the shekinah presence in the Most Holy Place of the wilderness tabernacle above the ark of the covenant. Inside the ark were also symbols of God’s presence: the Ten Commandments, written with God’s own finger, a bowl of manna which was God’s direct act of feeding the people in the wilderness, and Aaron’s rod that budded, a sign of God’s direct leadership of God’s people. Indeed, the very word shekinah means “presence of God” or “dwelling of God.” Embodied in the liturgy of Israel was God’s real presence.
Act 2. Incarnation: The most striking revelation of God’s presence occurred in the birth of Christ, which Christians understand to be the incarnation of God in human flesh. This is, of course, a profound and mystifying event. What we mean is that God is uniquely revealed in the person of Jesus, whom Christians call, the Christ, or the “Anointed One,” the Messiah. He is both 100 percent God and 100 percent human.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. Matthew relates the story in this way: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’ ” (Matt. 1:18-23).
Matthew considers the birth of Jesus to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. And notice that He is called “Immanuel,” which means God with us. This is why the birth of Jesus, as the God-Man is often called the First Advent or First Coming. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t entirely true. God has appeared to people in various ways in times past, although only now has God spoken to us by God’s Son coming to live with us (Heb. 1:1, 2). This coming of God is called “Incarnation” and its effect is reconciliation. The coming of God in Jesus the Christ, His subsequent life, death, and resurrection, achieved reconciliation for all humanity.
Act 3. Pentecost: Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples are faced with the absence of Jesus/God. His final words to His followers are recorded in first chapter of Acts: “So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ ” (Acts 1:6-11).
With the ascension of Jesus and consequent absence of God came a pair of promises. First, Jesus repeated His promise that with His departure His disciples would not be left alone, but the Holy Spirit would come to them. (See also John 14–17.) Second, the angels promised that the “same Jesus” who ascended into the heavens will “come back in the same way you have seen him go” into the heavens.
The first of these promises is fulfilled ten days later on the Jewish Day of Pentecost. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4).
The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit was multifaceted, according to Jesus’ teaching. The Holy Spirit, understood by Christian theology to be the third Person of the Godhead, would comfort and guide the followers of Jesus in His absence. The Spirit would be the presence of Jesus to His people. The Spirit would instruct them, remind them of what Jesus taught them, give them words to speak, and lead them into all truth. The second promise, made by the two angels on the day of Jesus’ ascension, points us to the fourth movement of the advent of God in history, the Consummation.
The Consummation: This fourth and final coming of God is what many Christians and non-Christians alike think of and frequently refer to as the Second Coming or Second Advent. It is second to Jesus’ incarnation as His first appearing. But if we look at the whole sweep of Christian history we see that this is the fourth major movement of what could be described as God’s unrelenting effort to restore creation to its original beauty and perfection.
The final coming of God is to establish once and for all God’s reign on earth. In the broad view, God’s ultimate plan is to restore Earth to its original, pristine condition and set up His kingdom here. God’s final coming achieves this restoration. What was spoken of by the prophets, inaugurated by Jesus, will be finally complete. All wrongs will be put to right. All injustice, eradicated. Sin will be no more. Sorrow and crying will be gone.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. . . .’ I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ ” (Rev. 21:1-3, 22).
Notice that “now the dwelling of God is with humanity” and in verse 22, there is no temple in the city. Remember, the temple was the way God has mediated divine presence to human beings throughout history. The temple was the dwelling place of God among people. It was a way of mediating and even moderating God’s powerful presence. But now, in the consummation, no mediation is necessary. God lives directly among God’s people.2