Eschatological Problems IV: New Testament Words for the Lord’s Coming

Eschatological Problems IV: New Testament Words for the Lord’s Coming John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00

Three important words are used in the New Testament to describe the coming of the Lord. Their transliteration has frequently been carried into the English until they are familiar to many Bible students who do not know the Greek: parousia (παρουσία), apokalupsis (ἀποκάλυψις), and epiphaneia (ἐπιφάνεια). In the nature of the important meaning of these words, a study of them and their usage is valuable in itself, but their careful consideration is made imperative by the claim often made that these terms have a technical meaning. It is commonly assumed that the term coming of the Lord, παρουσία, refers to the imminent return of Christ for His church, and that ἀποκάλυψις and ἐπιφάνεια refer to the return of Christ to establish His Kingdom on earth. It is the purpose of this brief and necessarily limited study of the subject to examine this thesis to see whether the Scriptures sustain it and at the same time to draw from the study some important facts regarding the Lord’s coming.

There is undoubtedly confusion on the interpretation of these terms among all types of interpreters. Professor Louis Berkhof, whose theological declarations few would presume to treat lightly, states without qualification that premillennialists refer to the imminent return of Christ under the term παρουσία and His second coming to the earth as the “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις).1 While he is an ardent opponent of premillennialism and might be expected to seize upon aspects which are inconsistent with Scriptural revelation, it is a singular fact that he has retained this impression from premillennial writers. Without doubt, those who uphold premillennialism are guilty too often of seizing upon some phrase or word as justifying their doctrine rather than building upon broader and surer foundations.

There are a number of reasons underlying the confusion. Both the postmillennial and amillennial viewpoints of eschatology are at one in claiming that all three words refer to the coming of Christ before the final judgment. Only the premillennialist is in the position of attempting to establish a complicated sequence of events in which too often both the theologue and the theologian become lost in the detail. Most premillennialists also distinguish the coming of Christ for His church, which is imminent, and the coming of Christ to establish His millennial reign upon the earth, which follows well-defined events of unfulfilled prophecy and is not imminent. It is not surprising that some ambitious premillennialists should seize upon the three words describing the coming of Christ as constituting technical terms which in themselves establish these distinctions. It is the viewpoint of the writer that all three terms are used in a general and not a technical sense and that they are descriptive of both the rapture and the glorious return of Christ to the earth.

In examining the terms and their usage in the New Testament, the premillennial interpretation of the Scriptures is assumed as being correct, and it is further assumed that the coming of Christ for His church is separated by a period of years from His return with the church to establish His earthly kingdom. The problem is not one of supporting premillennialism nor of refuting other views, but it is rather a problem of interpretation within premillennialism.

I. Parousia.

The word most frequently used in the Scriptures to describe the return of Christ is παρουσία. According to Young’s Concordance, it occurs twenty-four times in the New Testament in a variety of connections. As its etymology indicates, the word means to be near or alongside, from παρά and εἰμί. It involves all that the English word presence connotes. It is found frequently in classic Greek writings, but not at all in the LXX, according to Thayer. Robertson, citing Deissmann, states, “The word parousia was the technical word ‘for the arrival or visit of the king or emperor’ and can be traced from the Ptolemaic period into the second century A.D. (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, p. 368).”2 As used in the New Testament, it is obviously not a technical word, however. It has come to mean not simply presence but the act by which the presence is brought about, i.e., by the coming of the individual.

A brief survey of its usage in the New Testament includes its reference to the “coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus,” Paul’s friends (1 Cor 16:17), to the coming of Titus (2 Cor 7:6, 7), to the coming of Paul himself (Phil 1:26), to the coming of the lawless one (2 Thess 2:9), and to the coming of the day of God (2 Pet 3:12). All must concede that these instances are general and not technical.

It is alleged, however, that the word is used only of the rapture when it refers to Christ and not to His return to the earth before the millennium. That it is used frequently of the rapture of the church is clear in the following references (1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1(?); James 5:7, 8; 2 Pet 3:4(?); 1 John 2:28). While it is not always evident in the context and room must be left for difference of opinion, some references are specific. When Paul states, “We that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:15 R.V.), he is obviously referring to the rapture of the church if the structure of doctrine which is here assumed is correct. Another clear instance is 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

The word is also used, however, of the return of Christ to the earth with the church in a number of passages (Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess 3:13; 2 Thess 2:8; 2 Pet 1:16). While here again it is not necessary to agree on all the instances to establish the doctrine, it is clear from such a passage as 1 Thessalonians 3:13 that the word is used of the second coming of Christ. When Paul speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” (italics mine), it seems a clear reference to the second coming. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8, the word is used to describe the coming of Christ to destroy the “lawless one,” a passage which must refer to the second coming as the event described is at the close of the great period of tribulation rather than before it begins.

The conclusion is inevitable that the same word is used in all these passages in a general and not specific sense. Its contribution to the doctrine is to emphasize the bodily presence of Christ-His coming as a Bridegroom for the bride. We “shall ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17), instead of merely knowing by spiritual sight that He is ever with us, as in our present limited experience. The coming of the Lord is the hope of the saint, the terror of the lost, because He is coming and will be present to effect His will.

II. Apokalupsis.

The second important word for the coming of Christ, ἀποκάλυψις, occurs frequently in the New Testament, eighteen times in noun form, twenty-six times in the verb form. It is obviously derived from ἀπό and καλύπτω, the latter meaning to cover, or to veil, and with the prefix, to uncover or to unveil, and hence to reveal. It is found frequently outside the Bible. The word has the distinction of being in the title of the last book of the Bible as indicated in Revelation 1:1. As the book of Revelation is interpreted by most premillennialists as dealing with events leading up to and following the revelation of Jesus Christ, i.e., the revelation at His second coming, it has been hastily concluded that the word is a technical term to express this doctrine.

A survey of those passages in which the word is used in relation to Christ demonstrates that in a number of instances it is used of the second coming of Christ (1 Pet 4:13; 2 Thess 1:7; Luke 17:30). The passage in 2 Thessalonians 1:7 is specific, “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.” The picture is evidently a reference to the return of Christ to the earth with power. The content of the book of Revelation points, too, to the unveiling of His glory at His return to the earth.

In other passages, however, it is clearly used in reference to the coming of Christ in the air for His church (1 Cor 1:7; Col 3:4; 1 Pet 1:7, 13). The passage in 1 Corinthians 1:7 refers to the church waiting for the revelation of Christ: “waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The other passages speak of the glory and grace that will be ours in His revelation. His revelation to the church will precede His revelation to the world as a whole.

The doctrine that is involved in the use of the word in relation to Christ is an emphasis on the future manifestation of the glory of Christ. The world in the flesh has never seen Christ in His glory. The church will “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) at the time of their gathering up from the earth at the rapture. The world will see Him in His glory when He returns in power with His saints and angels to rule over the earth.

III. Epiphaneia.

The third word used of the return of Christ is ἐπιφάνεια from ἐπί and φανής. The root meaning of to bring forth into the light, cause to shine, to show is found from Homer down (Thayer). The addition of the preposition gives it an intensive meaning. It has a long and interesting usage both within and outside the Scriptures. In a noun form, it was assumed by the Seleucidae in claiming to be an incarnation of Zeus or Apollo.3 Unlike the concept of revelation as contained in ἀποκάλυψις, it has a positive and active sense of manifestation rather than the thought of merely taking away the veil. Its true idea is found in Acts 27:20, where it is used of stars appearing after being hid for days by the storm. Unlike the other terms discussed, it is also used of the first coming of Christ to the earth in His incarnation (Luke 1:79; 2 Tim 1:10). In the Luke passage, Christ is said to “give light,” and in the Timothy passage the purpose and grace of God are now manifested by the “appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

As used of the return of the Lord, two instances are found where it refers to the rapture of the church and two instances seem to refer to the second coming of Christ. While neither passage is final in itself, it would seem sound exegesis to classify 1 Timothy 6:14 and 2 Timothy 4:8 as referring to the rapture. In the first instance, Timothy is charged to keep Paul’s commandment “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the second reference, it is revealed that a crown of righteousness will be given Paul and “all them also that love his appearing.” Both references connect the coming of Christ with specific fulfillment of His purpose for the church and are therefore used in relation to the rapture.

In 2 Timothy 4:1 and Titus 2:13, however, there seems to be reference to His second coming. The Timothy passage refers to Christ as the one “who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom.” It is probably a reference to those physically alive and those who had been physically dead but raised from the dead in the resurrection.4 It is not capable of being pressed too far in its interpretation on this point. There is a sense in which Christ will judge the living and dead at the rapture of the church as well as at His second coming, but the Scriptures seem to contrast the rapture and the second coming in this particular. The judgment of the church is seen in heaven after His appearing to them, whereas His coming to the earth in itself is a judgment and extends to all living rather than to only part of them. The judgment subsequent to that which falls immediately seems to be included in the reference to “his kingdom.” The Titus passage apparently contrasts the two expectations of the Christ: the “blessed hope” of Christ’s return for them, and the “glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ,” which will change the “present world” of Titus 2:12 to millennial conditions. Here. again the proof is not absolute, and there is room for divergent opinion. It is clear, at least, that no technical meaning for the term used is established which would limit its use to either one or the other, i.e., the rapture or the second coming.

The emphasis given to the truth in the use of ἐπιφάνεια is to reassure us that Christ will actually appear, that He will be seen and will be manifested in a visible way. The same word is used of the manifestation of the lawless one (2 Thess 2:8) and of the manifestation or coming of the “great and notable day of the Lord” (Acts 2:20). In every instance there is the thought of revelation in the sense of positive manifestation and visible reality.


The present brief study into the use of these three words for the coming of Christ has had the objective of demonstrating that none of the three is used in a technical or proper sense as referring specifically to the rapture or the second coming of Christ. As indicated in the comments, it is not always clear to which they refer, but this very lack of clarity forbids any hasty conclusion that they always are used in the same sense. The revelation of Scripture is rather to the point that for the church, the blessed hope is the coming presence of Christ, the unveiling of His glory, and His manifestation as a visible reality. At His second coming, there will be a corresponding revelation. The presence of the Lord will transform the scenes of judgment upon sin into the peace and righteousness of the kingdom upon earth. Christ will be unveiled before the world in His glory, and He will be manifested in such a way that “every eye shall see him.” In the words of John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).

Dallas, Texas

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Systematic Theology, p. 711.

2 Word Pictures in the New Testament, IV, p. 191.

3 The Expositor’s Greek Testament, IV, p. 147.

4 The Expositor’s Greek Testament, IV, p. 176.