“I will come again …”

On March 11, 1942, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur escaped the island fortress of Corregidor under orders from President Franklin Roosevelt. After a harrowing thirty-five-hour boat ride through rough seas laced with Japanese mines, MacArthur flew in a B-17 Flying Fortress to Australia to begin planning the liberation of his beloved Philippines. 

The agony of leaving troops under his command trapped in the islands prompted him to issue the now-famous statement to the press, “I shall return.” It was a mantra he repeated often in public appearances over the next two and a half years, promising neither to forget nor abandon American soldiers and the people of the Philippines.

Commanding limited forces, MacArthur launched a major offensive in New Guinea, winning a string of victories. Then, gaining support from the U.S. Joint Chiefs and  Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet, MacArthur turned his attention to an invasion of the Philippines. On October 20, 1944, a few hours after his troops landed, MacArthur waded ashore on the island of Leyte. In a radio announcement later that day, the general declared, “People of the Philippines, I have returned!” 

It would take months to recapture Corregidor, and even longer to take Manila. By the time the Philippines were fully liberated, only one-third of the men MacArthur had been forced to leave behind survived to see his return. “I’m a little late,” he told them, “but we finally came.” [“General MacArthur leaves Corregidor,” https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/macarthur-leaves-corregidor.]

MacArthur was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valiant defense of the Philippines. He is remembered not only for his bold promise to return, but for his steely determination make good on it. In a very real sense, MacArthur helped set things right in the Pacific Theater. And on September 2, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, MacArthur received the Japanese surrender on behalf of the U.S. and its allies.

MacArthur’s promise to return, and his fulfillment of that promise, serve as pinnacles in a storied military career featuring many peaks and valleys. They also cast a long shadow backwards in history to an intimate dinner in a borrowed upper room. In the hours leading up to his passion, Jesus gathers with his apostles and prepares them for his departure – first to the cross and then, after his resurrection, into heaven. But he makes a bold prediction: “I will come again” (John 14:3). 

It is a promise his disciples struggle to understand in the context of a Passover meal – and a promise for which Jesus’ followers are still waiting fulfillment. Yet, in a divine resolve that eclipses the tenacity of great leaders like MacArthur, Jesus sets the stage for his glorious appearance one day in which he recaptures the world, vanquishes his foes, and sets everything right. 

In this regard, MacArthur’s life is a heroic but dim analogy of a future conquest, when the lion of Judah splits the skies and sets his feet on the Mount of Olives. 

One mission, two campaigns

As we begin to explore the return of Jesus, we may rightly ask whether Jesus has any thoughts about coming back to earth. Is so, what are they? How and when – and to whom – does he express these ideas?

It’s clear that Jesus understands his mission to earth. And it’s clear this mission consists of two major campaigns. Jesus comes the first time as the Suffering Servant (Isa. 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13 – 53:12). In his own words, he comes to lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 15); to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45); to seek and to save the lost (Matt. 18:11; Luke 19); to die and rise again (Mark 9:31). 

Through his miraculous conception in a virgin’s womb, the eternal Son of God adds sinless humanity to his deity. He lives a perfect life, although running the gauntlet of temptation (Heb. 4:15), and he offers up that perfect life on the cross to satisfy the justice of God. He bears God’s wrath so we may enjoy God’s mercy. He bears our guilt so we may experience God’s forgiveness. He bears our shame so we may have a place of honor at the marriage supper of the Lamb. He is despised and rejected so we may be adopted as sons and daughters of God. 

As our great high priest, Jesus offers his own blood once for all time to satisfy the wrath of God. And through the sacrifice of his perfect humanity, he tears down the veil that has separated sinful people from holy God ever since the Fall (Heb. 10:19-22). 

In short, Jesus’ first campaign to earth is a rescue mission to save us from God, from Satan, and from ourselves. It is, in effect, the ultimate home invasion – a dramatic intrusion into Satan’s domain. Jesus has bound the strong man and now plunders the strong man’s goods – people once held in captive who are set free, escaping the kingdom of darkness and entering the secure kingdom of God (see Matt. 12:22-32).

This first campaign in Christ’s rescue mission is completed in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus declares victoriously from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30) – a declaration that no doubt carries great significance for the Roman soldiers and Jewish religious leaders waiting eagerly for his death. To the Romans, “It is finished” is the cry of their commander, overseeing the battlefield, when it becomes clear the opponent is vanquished. To the Jewish leaders, it is the cry of the high priest on the Day of Atonement after emerging victoriously from the Holy of Holies, God having accepted the blood sacrifice that covered the people’s sins for another year. 

Surely, “It is finished” is Jesus’ declaration that his suffering for humanity’s sin has accomplished its purpose. Three days later, he emerges from a borrowed tomb, sealing the fate of Satan and his rebellious spirits. 

After his resurrection, Jesus appears to many people over a period of forty days, including more than five hundred people at one time (1 Cor. 15:6). But before ascending into heaven to resume his place at the Father’s right hand, Jesus tells his followers a second campaign is required in the battle to restore the fallen cosmos. 

Many of the Old Testament’s messianic prophecies describe a conquering king, a lion from the tribe of Judah, a military and political genius who sits on David’s throne and rules the world in righteousness. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that many Jewish religious leaders reject Jesus as Messiah. After all, he refuses to be installed as Israel’s king, shows little interest in deposing Caesar, and seems more concerned about a kingdom “not of this world” than the oppressive Roman Empire that keeps Jesus’ countrymen in poverty and despair (John 18:36). 

After his victorious resurrection from the dead, Jesus’ disciples still wrestle with the unfinished business of Jesus the Suffering Servant becoming Jesus the King. We pick up the story in Acts 1: 

While he [Jesus] was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:4-8).

The disciples are trying to wrap their heads around all that has transpired in recent days. They are beginning to understand the once-incomprehensible reality of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection as foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are still euphoric over Jesus’ finished work, which has defeated Satan, sin, and death. But the unresolved question still hangs densely in the air: What about the restored kingdom of Israel? What about Messiah on his throne? What about the bloody Romans? Come on, Jesus. Please, don’t leave us in the dark. We get the Suffering Servant part of the ancient prophecies. But where is the conquering king?

Jesus’ answer is instructive. It is not for Jesus’ first-century followers to know the Father’s timetable. Neither is it for us. God has revealed much about the who, what, where, why, and how of the last days, but not the when. Even Jesus, exposing the limits of his human nature, once confessed he didn’t know the day and hour of his own return (Matt. 24:36).

However, as we await Christ’s return, we have the benefits of another Counselor – the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to attest to the finished work of Jesus and to announce his imminent return. The promised Spirit comes in power on the Day of Pentecost, enabling every follower of Jesus to testify to his finished work on the cross. 

Since that day, the Spirit takes up permanent residence in the human spirit of every believer. In effect, the ancient tabernacle, and then the temple, are no longer needed as  places where God meets humans. The Shekinah glory of God no longer is confined to the Holy of Holies, accessible once a year by the high priest. Now, because of the finished work of Jesus as our great high priest, the Shekinah glory resides in the spirits of every believer. As the apostle Paul makes clear, believers’ bodies are God’s new temples (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).

In Acts 1, not long before Jesus’ ascension, he prepares the disciples for his absence. And it may be a lengthy delay before his return, if his parables of the kingdom are any indication. Even so, Jesus has joyfully endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). He has successfully completed the first campaign in his rescue mission to earth. He has voluntarily laid down his life and taken it up again. He has offered us a marriage covenant. And he is heading back to his Father’s house to prepare a bridal chamber for us. The timing of his return is unknown, as is the coming of the groom in a Galilean wedding. But the certainty of his return is not in doubt: “I will come again …” 

Next: Two statements in John’s Gospel

Copyright 2021 by Rob Phillips