I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Bahá’í).
Jesus May Never Return
It might seem rather confusing to Christians (not to mention Muslims) to be told that Jesus the Christ, the Founder of the Christian faith, is not the same personage who comes in the Last Day, but rather some other holy figure with a separate and distinct individuality. Yet we only have to turn to a precedent in the pages of the Holy Bible and review some subtle hints in the scriptures to appreciate how very plausible such a possibility really is.
What might seem to connect Jesus of Nazareth to the Christ of the end times are not any physical semblances (which, in any case, are beyond any man’s ability to confirm) but rather their spiritual attributes and interrelated God-given missions.
A Precedent From the Bible
The promise that Jesus will return to earth from his heavenly abode might not be as unprecedented in religious history as it may sound—because a similar prediction was made in Old Testament times. Let’s review this prediction and see how it was fulfilled.
The Promise of a Return
Among the Hebrew prophets of the 9th century BCE is one identified in the New Testament Bible as Elias but is more commonly known as Elijah, the name as it appears in the Old Testament. The difference arises because the Old Testament Bible is translated from the Hebrew language whereas the New Testament translation is from Greek. Whatever the case, we learn from these two distinct parts of the Holy Bible of an interesting relationship between this prophet and John the Baptist.
A prophecy appears in the Old Testament as follows:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
(Note: All biblical references in this article are from the King James Version.)
The Jewish Expectation
From this prophecy came the expectation among the people of Israel that the return of Elijah would precede and usher in a great and memorable Day in Jewish history—a Day that would come to be identified with the advent of their all-conquering Messiah. Subsequently, when John the Baptist appeared on the scene and started baptising people on the banks of the Jordan River, it was this spirit of expectation that prompted the Jews to send “priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him”:
Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. (John 1:19-21)
And so John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, denied being Elijah. This was one important reason the Jewish populace rejected Jesus as their promised Messiah.
The Fulfilment of the Prophecy
Nor were the disciples ignorant of the Jewish leaders' position on the matter. And yet Jesus was at pains to clarify that Elijah had already come in the person of John the Baptist. This clarification was given on at least two occasions, as the following will illustrate:
1. To the Disciples: Three of the disciples were favoured with a vision of Elijah at the Transfiguration. They had gone with Jesus to a “high mountain” when, lo and “behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.” (Matthew 17:1-3)
The disciples were clearly awed but also confused. They could not fathom the full import of what they had witnessed, more especially the sight of Elijah with Jesus. On their way down the mountain, they asked him:
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Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?
The fact that such a question was asked is sufficient proof that the disciples did not, by themselves, see any relationship between John the Baptist and Elijah. But here is the response they received and the conclusion they came to:
And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed….
Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13)
2. To a Jewish Audience: And earlier, while speaking of John the Baptist to a large Jewish audience, Jesus had also intimated:
And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:14-15)
The Interpretation of the Prophecy
What Jesus was saying in effect was that Malachi’s prophecy (about the return of Elijah ahead of the Messiah) had already been fulfilled with the mission of John the Baptist.
This though raises some intriguing questions. John the Baptist was lauded by Jesus himself as a prophet “and more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9). And he truly was no ordinary prophet given that he had been “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb” according to Angel Gabriel's promise (in Luke 1:15). So, how come he denied being Elijah? Did he not know who he was? On the other hand, if he truly was not Elijah, why did Jesus say he was?
To get an appropriate answer, we must head over to the Gospel of Luke to learn about the circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist.
Six months before Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Galilee to announce the birth of Jesus, he had appeared to a certain priest in Judea named Zacharias. His message to Zacharias was that he and his wife Elisabeth (Mary’s cousin) would soon have a child who must be named John. Among the things the angel told him about the child’s destiny were:
And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)
This then must be the answer: The angel never declared John to be Elias but rather that he would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elias”. In other words, he would be imbued with the same spirit and power that Elijah had. This is what made him the Elijah of Malachi’s prophecy.
The implication is that John was not Elijah in personality, individuality, or essence. He seemed not to have any physical connection to Elijah, but he was imbued by God with the same spirit and power that Elijah had. That was all.
Elijah and Jesus Compared
This then brings us to the promised return of Jesus. The two cases are similar in at least three respects:
- Just as Elijah did not die, according to Jewish scripture, but was taken up to heaven alive, so Christians also believe Jesus did not die but was taken up to heaven alive.
- And just as the return of Elijah was promised in the Old Testament, so the return of Jesus has likewise been promised in the New Testament.
- And furthermore, just as Elijah came back symbolically with the new name of John, so Jesus is prefigured to return with a “new name” (Revelation 3:12).
So, the obvious question to ask is: Is it the same Jesus who comes at the end of time, or it will be a different personage who comes but “in the spirit and power” of Jesus?
Jesus and the End-Time Messiah
Here are a few more arguments to demonstrate why the coming of a different holy personage in place of Jesus is not an implausible proposition:
1. Jesus is Heard but Not Seen
Although in John’s vision, he heard the voice of Jesus, supposedly, and understood its import as reaffirming the promise of a messianic return, the reality is that he did not at any time see anyone he could identify as the Jesus he knew. He did describe seeing “one like unto the Son of man” (Revelation 1:13; cf. 14:14) but that can hardly be equated with “the Son of man” he knew.
This in effect means John heard the commentary of Jesus, but he did not see Jesus at any moment. And that is significant since the whole vision was supposedly about Jesus’ return.
2. The Christ Will Not Be Called Jesus
The Christ who comes in the latter days will not be known as Jesus. We have already been alerted that he comes with a “new name”. This must be the reason his flock will also no longer be known as Christian but by a “new name” (Revelation 3:12 and 2:17).
3. Two Christs, Two Missions
As the prophecies clearly indicate, the mission of the end-time Christ will be a continuation of, but radically different from, the mission carried out by Jesus of Nazareth. This is one of the key things that make the two messianic advents different and distinct.
4. Jesus’ Physical Appearance Is Unknown
No one knows what Jesus really looked like. The portraits displayed in churches and homes and captured in sundry publications as those of Jesus are no more than artists' impressions. They are mere figments of human imagination that have no bearing on the actual image of Jesus. Therefore, even should the real Jesus return, no one will be able to tell by his looks.
So, what if he does not appear from the sky in the flamboyant style many Christians anticipate but comes rather quietly “as a thief in the night” (II Peter 3:10, I Thessalonians 5:2) as the faithful are also warned to expect? In that case, the only way to know for sure that he is the promised Christ will be through the spiritual potency of his words and interpretations, in addition to the sublimity of his deeds and accomplishments.
5. The Use of Generic Titles
It is true that in a few of the gospel prophecies, Jesus gives the impression that he will be returning in person. However, in most other cases he does not say explicitly that he is the one coming. Instead, he resorts to the use of generic terms to convey his message. Most of these revolve around the phrase “the Son of man”. “The bridegroom” and “the King” have also been employed.
Here is one such prophecy that involves “the Son of man” and “the King”:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…. (Matthew 25:31-34)
Here is another prophecy involving “the bridegroom” and “the Son of man”:
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut…. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. (Matthew 25:10, 13)
Obviously, descriptive terms and titles such as the above, being generic, cannot be exclusive to Jesus. On the contrary, they can be applied to any holy personage who comes on a messianic mission.
In that connection, it is interesting to note that “Son of man” is the name by which Ezekiel was called by God in the eponymous Old Testament’s Book of prophecies. And that is one proof that the term is not exclusive to Jesus.
The Truth of the Last Day Is With the Christ
Most of what worshippers subscribe to in relation to the end-time Christ is mere conjecture. In truth, it is only when the Christ makes his triumphal appearance on earth can we gain insight into all the mysteries of the Advent and the true relationship between Jesus Christ of Nazareth and the Christ of the end times.
Just as Elijah and John the Baptist turned out not to be one and the same personality, so worshippers will have to go by the premise that the two Messianic personages are likely not the same in essence and individuality. And just as it fell to Jesus to clarify the relationship between Elijah and John the Baptist, so it will fall to the end-time Christ to explain his relationship to Jesus of Nazareth.
In the meantime, worshippers should rid themselves of rigid dogmas concerning the promised Advent, pray regularly for spiritual understanding, be inquisitive about any news of the Advent, and keep an open mind about how God will fulfil His promise.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Kobina Amissah-Fynn