Monday, June 29, 2015

The One Who Denies That Jesus Is Coming in the Flesh

Important in discussing the Second Coming with JW’s and Full Preterists is whether Christ will be physically seen, or whether He will merely come again in some spiritual way. Of course, everyone acknowledges that Christ spiritually receives His kingdom through various returns throughout church history, beginning when He is delivered up in judgment before the Sanhedrin. However, the question is whether there will be a final reception of the kingdom, when the already (spiritual)-not yet (physical)has become one in the future.

One of the more helpful texts in this discussion is 2 John 7.  In the Greek, the text clearly states that it is a heresy to deny that Jesus is coming again physically:

“Because many deceivers went out into the world, those who do not confess Jesus Christ is coming in flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

The Greek participle here is erchomenon, which seems to become an almost terminus technicus in the New Testament and early Christianity for the multiple comings of Christ, both in terms of His “not yet” and future reception of His entire kingdom (all heaven and earth) and in terms of the “already” sense of His receiving His kingdom (see ). The present participle of erchomai is the common way to express a future event or action of someone who “will come,” but Christ’s reception of His kingdom, present or future, is often described with the present participle (Matt 16:28; 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27). Compare also the substantival participial forms in Revelation 1:4, 8; 4:8, and 11:17: ho erchomenos “the one who is coming” (present aspect – future referring) in contrast to the one who is (present aspect - present referring) and the one who was (imperfect aspect – past referring). 

What the text teaches is, however, widely unknown, largely due to an unfortunate misunderstanding in its translation. Many interpreters and translators simply thought that John was saying the same thing that he had said in his first epistle. Hence, they translate and interpret it according to what they think is the sense of it. One can see this confusion by looking at some of the English translations that interpret the text as John conveying the same concept that he expresses in his first epistle concerning Christ’s physical incarnation.

The NIV translates erchomenon as “has come in the flesh,”  the NRSV and NASB as “as coming in the flesh,” implying a stative (i.e., “as having come in the flesh), and the YLT attempts a various ambiguous translation, “Jesus Christ coming in flesh,” still seemingly implying a past event with the present participle.

The KJV translates it as “is come in the flesh,” which is likely the source of confusion for all of the other translations and interpretations, although it continues a tradition of early English Bibles (i.e., Wycliffe, Purvey, Tyndale, and the Geneva) that ignore the present and translate it as a perfect . The translation “is come,” in English, is a stative idea conveyed by the Perfect aspect in Greek. Hence, even though it sounds like a present to use the English word “is,” the idea of “is come” focuses on the present state of a past result. In other words, “is come” in English is  a perfect, not a present. Hence, to translate the present in Greek as a perfect obscures the actual meaning. 

We translate perfects this way all the time. For instance, “it is written” is often an English translation of the Perfect that expresses the state of what is written. It was actually written in the past, but it still exists in the text to this day.
However, the Present does not convey the same idea. The Present is an “unfolding” aspect, where the author chooses to use it to convey something in process. Contextually, then, it can be molded to refer to any time in the past, present, or future. The issue, therefore, is not one of grammar so much, but of the way that John, and to a larger extant, the New Testament, uses this particular grammar to convey a future idea in contrast to one that is in the past. When referencing the incarnation, John, in his first epistle, uses the Perfect, i.e., “has come in the flesh,” “is come in the flesh.” In 2 John, however, the formula has been purposely altered to conform to the common expression of Christ’s eschatological return, “is coming in the flesh.” 

 We do the same thing in English. If an event is future, we typically say we “are coming” (present) to refer to something we will do in the future. Hence, the present tense, often when used with the word “come,” is future-referring. This same idea holds true for the Greek. As Lieu states:

Particularly striking here, however, is that the present participle “coming” (erchomenon) replaces the perfect participle of 1 John 4:2, “having come,” while the prepositional “in flesh” instead of preceding the participle follows it, although it is a moot point whether this gives it less significance. A number of translations ignore this present tense and treat it as if it were past, “has come,” merely repeating 1 John 4:2 (NRSV); this, however, is not what the participle means, and to translate so fails to explain why the author, if dependent on the passage in 1 John, has made the change—even if he had an aversion to the perfect he could have used an aorist tense. Similarly, attempts to suggest that the present tense expresses a timeless truth or continuous reality clash both with the inherent idea of the verb and with the precision implied by “in flesh.”
It is, however, the nature of the verb that the present participle can have a future reference: “Jesus Christ (as) the one to come in flesh.” The earliest known writer to cite 2 John, Irenaeus, used a chain of Johannine passages—2 John 7; 1 John 4:1-3; John 1:14; 1 John 5:1—to make this precise point: “knowing the same Jesus Christ, to whom were opened the gates of heaven because of his enfleshed assumption, who also in the same flesh in which he suffered, will come [future] revealing the glory of the Father (Against Heresies 3.16.8). The future fleshly coming was a common concern of the period, more frequently made by an appeal to Acts 1:11 (“in the same manner”). Although rarely taken up by translations and less favored among modern commentators, a continuing line of interpretation has seen in 2 John 7 a defense of the expectation of a fleshly parousia. Such a reference cannot be excluded, and might cohere with the warning against eschatological loss of a reward in the following verse.”[1]

Lieu here alludes to a host of modern commentators, largely of the more liberal variety, that do not care to take this statement as referring to the future advent of Christ. One might assume that this is for the obvious reasons that many liberal commentators share the same assumptions about the Second Coming that the Docetic Gnostics held, i.e., that the Second Coming is a spiritual event, not a physical one where Christ literally returns in the same body with which He rose from the grave. 

For instance, Dodd goes so far as to say that the text’s plain reading to anyone who knows Greek would obviously convey the idea that the author was referring to Christ’s Second Coming.[2] He then, however, proceeds to denigrate the author of the Second Epistle by saying that he must not be versed in the subtleties of the Greek language: “We shall perhaps do best to assume that our writer is not skilled in the niceties of Greek idiom, and to understand the present passage in light of the First Epistle.”[3]

Apart from appealing to an idea that denies the meaning of the text as it is written, however, Dodd is correct to admit that the Greek is clear enough to convey the idea that the author is referencing the future coming of Christ, not His incarnation. This is because the Docetic Gnostics not only denied that Jesus had come in the flesh, but because of their denial of His physical entrance into the world, they also denied that he would return in the flesh. If Christ had not come in the flesh in the first place, it was hardly true that He would return in a physical body He never took on in the world. We, perhaps, see this same denial in Paul’s reference to the heresy of Hymanaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:17-18, where the two men are able to assert that the resurrection has already taken place simply because Christ was not returning physically and the resurrection was not a physical event.

Hence, John intentionally changes the tense of the participle from perfect, which is past-referring in the context, to the present , which is future-referring in the context, in order to combat the same heresy that denied the physical appearance of Christ, both in His incarnation, as John addresses in 1 John, and in His return, as John now addresses in his second epistle.

Hence, the text reads as follows:

“Because many deceivers went out [aorist: past-referring] into the world, those who do not confess [present substantival participle: present-referring] Jesus Christ is coming [present: future-referring] in flesh. This is [present: present-referring] the deceiver and the antichrist.”

Hence, what one can see here is that John is presenting the idea that a denial of the Jesus Christ who is coming in the flesh is a denial of the true Jesus Christ, and confuses the true Jesus Christ with the antichrist, a replacement Christ that is of a different nature and purpose. The Christ who does not physically return is not the Christ of the gospel. 
The physical Christ returns to reclaim the physical as His own in biblical theology. All creation, physical and spiritual, in heaven and earth, belongs to Him. Hence, He is the Savior of the world by redeeming both spiritual and physical aspects of it. As it has often been said in Christian theology, what He assumes, He redeems. Since Christ assumes the physical, He redeems the physical. A Christ who does not do this is not the Christ of the Bible. 

This is why John places such a heavy emphasis on affirming the truth of Christ’s physical ministry: incarnation, propitiation in His blood, and physical return.

One sees this warning in the very statements of Christ when He tells His disciples that the message of the false Christs will be that the “time is engus.” Whereas, most interpreters think that the Greek word engus means “near” in terms of “approaching,” what it actually means is “near” in terms of present access, in one’s presence, something that is here. Hence, the message of the false Christ’s is that the Second Coming is here ( i.e., He has returned already) even though Christ has not physically returned. In opposition to this, Christ tells His disciples that His coming will be a visible advent where He will be seen coming with His holy angels. 

In John’s Apocalypse, the reader is told that “every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him.” John talks about the bodies of believers being made like His body when He becomes visible at His Second Coming in his first epistle (2:28-3:3). This is His physical appearing and return to His people, not His people’s appearing before Him, as the grammar and terminology indicate. Hence, it cannot be speaking about one’s time of death.

And, of course, this is the “not yet” portion of the “already-not yet” theology of the New Testament that can be seen in Jesus’ words in John 5:19-30 and Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8, consistent as well with Acts 1:11 and early Christian expectation.

[1] Judith M. Lieu, I, II, & III John: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 253-254.
[2] C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946) 149.
[3] Ibid.