Two Great Days: The Day of the Lord and the Day of Christ
What The Bible Has To Say About The Future: Part 3 in a Series of 9 – By Dr. James M. Boice
To the people of the ancient east the stars had great significance. They were the means by which people determined the hours of the night and the seasons of the year. The morning star was particularly important for it heralded the rising of the sun and the coming of a new day. The Lord Jesus Christ is our morning star, according to the book of Revelation (Revelation 22:16). He is coming. The dark night of human history may be long and filled with grim terrors, but the Daystar is coming and with Him the dawning of a new age.
We will consider the importance of this theme in biblical prophecy, to distinguish between two important aspects of Christ’s coming under the descriptive phrases “the day of the Lord” and “the day of Jesus Christ,” and to develop the relevance of the theme of the Lord’s return.
A Prominent Doctrine
It is unfortunate that in our day the second coming of Jesus Christ has faded to a remote and sometimes irrelevant doctrine in the opinion of many persons, even, it seems, within large segments of the evangelical church. That may be true in part because many extravagant, foolish, and utterly unscriptural teachings have been linked to the doctrine of the Lord’s return. But that has been true of all biblical doctrines at some point of history, and that alone should not deter us from seeking to appreciate a theme which is prominent in the Word of God.
How prominent is this doctrine? In the New Testament 1 verse in 25 deals with the Lord’s return. It is mentioned 318 times in the 260 chapters of the New Testament. It occupies a prominent place in the Old Testament, inasmuch as the greater part of the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ in the Old Testament deal, not with His first advent in which He died as our sin-bearer, but with His second advent in which He is to rule as King. The return of Jesus Christ is mentioned in every one of the New Testament books except Galatians (which deals with a particular problem that had emerged within the churches of Galatia) and the very short books of the New Testament such as 2 and 3 John and Philemon.
The various New Testament writers obviously believed in the Lord’s return. Mark traced the origins of his belief to the very words of Jesus. The first reference to the return of Jesus in Mark occurs in chapter 8. There is recorded Peter’s great confession of faith – “You are the Christ” – which was in turn the occasion of a greater revelation by Christ of the most important events that were to come in His ministry. First, He foretold His death and resurrection. He spoke of discipleship. Then, at the very end of the chapter, He spoke of His coming again. Jesus said, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Mark 13, where Jesus outlined what would come in the last days, is also full of this doctrine. Jesus spoke of the horror of the days immediately preceding His return, then added, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” At this point the discourse moved on to teach that the disciples should be watching for this return; Jesus emphasized the point by an illustration: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning– lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (34-36).
Finally, this doctrine is mentioned in the account of Christ’s trial before the Jewish high priest (Mark 14). Jesus answered a question about whether or not He was the Messiah by saying, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Here are three expressions of the truth of Christ’s return in a book which most scholars consider to be the oldest of the four gospels.
In the other three gospels the same doctrine is prominent. Matthew and Luke repeated most of the sayings about the second coming given by Mark, sometimes with additions and variations, and John added others. For instance, John recorded a number of lengthy farewell discourses given by Jesus just before His crucifixion. In one of these Jesus declared, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3). Christ’s return is also referred to in the last chapter of John’s gospel, in the record of Jesus’ conversation with Peter after His resurrection. The reference is incidental to Jesus’ point, but is all the more authentic on that account. Jesus had been encouraging Peter to faithfulness in discipleship, but Peter with his usual impetuosness turned and saw John. He asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:21-22). John himself then points out that although many of the Christians of his day had interpreted that to mean that John would not die until Christ came back, that was not what Jesus had said. He had said only that even if that were the case, it should not affect Peter’s call to faithful service.
In all four gospels, then, there are unmistakable quotations from Jesus Christ to the effect that He would return to this earth a second time in glory, and these are quoted in such a way that we cannot doubt that the early church believed that these promises were to be fulfilled literally and in detail, possibly within its lifetime.
Paul’s letters are also full of this doctrine. To the church at Thessalonica he wrote, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). To the Philippians Paul wrote: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:2–21).
Peter called the return of Jesus Christ our “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3). Paul called it our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), John declared with conviction: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7a). The same author ended the New Testament with the words, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
In these verses and in many others the early Christians expressed their belief in a personal return of Jesus Christ, a return which would be the first of the unfolding events prophesied in the end time. The return of Jesus would be associated with a time of great wickedness on earth, the resurrection and transformation of their own bodies, an earthly rule of Jesus, and a final concluding judgment upon all men and nations. They comforted themselves with these truths in the midst of persecution or some while attempting to live their lives on a moral plane that would be honoring to the returning One.
The Day of the Lord
In the picture I have just presented, however, two important ideas have been merged. Therefore, to paint the prophetic picture for the end times in clearer detail and to have a basis for understanding some of the most important New Testament prophesies we must distinguish between them.
The first idea is associated with the phrase “the day of the Lord.” This phrase is quite prominent in the Old Testament, but it occurs frequently in the New Testament too, even in the context of some of the passages I have been quoting. This phrase is a technical phrase used initially by the Old Testament prophets to designate a future period of catastrophic judgment. Literally, it the day of Jehovah, the day in which Jehovah will break silence and intervene in history to judge Israel and the Gentile nations. The characteristics of this day can be seen in the following quotations:
“For the LORD of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up–and it shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:12).
“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!…Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13:6, 9-10).
“Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20).
It is obvious from the reference to the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars that this is the event referred to by Jesus in Matthew 24, where Jesus taught that He would exercise judgment. It is also the event of which Peter spoke when he wrote,
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10).
In the liturgy of the church this is expressed by the Dies Irae, which means the day of the wrath of God. From an examination of these and other texts (Jer. 46:10; Lam. 2:22; Ezek. 30:3ff.; Joel 1:15; 2:1-11; 3:14-16; Zeph. 1:7-2:3; Zech. 14:1-7; Mal. 4:5) several things are clear.
- First, the day of the Lord is the day of God’s judgment.
- Second, the day is still future.
- Third, it is preceded by a time of great trouble on earth.
- Fourth, it is followed by the earthly rule of the Messiah.
- Fifth, it has nothing to do with the church of Jesus Christ, for the church is not in these prophecies and was, in fact, completely unknown to the Old Testament writers who compiled them.
To be sure, as Kenneth S. Wuest, who summarized much of the data in his collection of Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, observed, “Some of the references to the day of the Lord in the Old Testament have a fulfillment in the past, and are precursors of the day of the Lord to follow (Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966, p. 35]). But that does not alter the fact that the strict fulfillment of most of these prophecies awaits a future day.
That day is coming. The disasters of this life — pestilence, famine, wars, natural catastrophes — are only little judgments which come in the most part from man’s activities. When the day of God’s wrath is revealed, these things will pale by comparison, and no one who is not united to Christ by faith will be able to stand against Him.
No one can be sure of defending himself even from man-made destruction. For instance, there is an extensive military radar network called DEW line (Distant Early Waning), which stretches across the North American Continent. This line of defense has cost the United States billions of dollars. It was designed to limit to a minimum the breakthrough of Soviet long-range bombers coming to wreak nuclear destruction on the United States; but today it is outmoded by missiles. Man can never defend himself adequately against the possibility of future destruction.
Thus, too, does he stand before God. Man has run away from God, and God has pursued him. God came to die for him in Jesus Christ. God has warned us of judgment — distant warnings and near warnings, early warnings, and late warnings — and He has warned us that He can penetrate any defense which we may try to throw up against Him. Man stands naked before God. The day of judgment is near. If you are not yet a believer, let me encourage you to turn to Christ. Martin Luther looked at this day and wrote for those of his time:
Great God, what do I see and hear!
The end of things created!
The Judge of mankind doth appear
On clouds of glory seated!
The trumpet sounds, the graves restore
The dead which they contained before:
Prepare, my soul, to meet him.
If you are a believer in Christ, let me encourage you to look up and be faithful to Him.
The Day of Christ (The Rapture)
The second major idea is associated with the phrase “the day of Jesus Christ.” That is not the same as “The day of the Lord.” The day of Jesus Christ is a happy day rather than a day of judgment. Moreover, far from warning men to fear it, the New Testament actually speaks of it as an event to be warmly anticipated. Christians are to be ready and watching, and they are to encourage one another because of it.
What is the nature of this day? The clearest answer to this question is in the verses already quoted from Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica. They were in sorrow over certain of their number who had died, and Paul wrote to them to comfort them with the thought that they would see their departed friends once again at the day of Jesus Christ. He describes it thus:
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Quite obviously, this day does not concern Christ’s earthly rule. It is an aspect of His coming to draw believers out of this world to Himself. He will come in the air and gather His church up to meet Him, first those who have died and then — almost in the same instant — those who are living.
Jesus described this event, also stressing its unexpected and selective nature:
“Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:40-42).
In biblical theology this event is generally called the rapture. It is the first in the whole series of events prophesied for the end times. It is possible that at this point some of this teaching has become confusing. So let me elaborate upon the distinction between the day of Jesus Christ and the day of the Lord by looking at the way the Apostle Paul dealt with a similar confusion in his day.
Wherever he went, Paul apparently preached the full body of Christian doctrine as it had been revealed to him. And that included, quite naturally, the doctrine of the Lord’s imminent return to be followed, after certain events, by God’s judgment. These events included persecution and great tribulation. We know that this doctrine had been accepted by the church at Thessalonica, for Paul alluded to it in his first letter, reminding the Christians there that they were to be comforted by the doctrine of the Lord’s return in face of the death of their friends. Some time after he had written this letter, however, a time of persecution broke out in the church at Thessalonica. Because the persecution seemed terrible and intense, someone began to teach that the persecutions were those leading to the day of the Lord, with its ultimate judgements, and that the Christians in Thessalonica, therefore, had missed the rapture. The Thessalonians may actually have received a letter purporting to be from Paul which affirmed this idea (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
News of their distress reached Paul, and he immediately wrote to the Thessalonians again, attempting to explain the meaning of their present persecution assuring them that they had not missed the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ for those who believe in Him. First, he dealt with the meaning of present persecution. This occupies the first chapter. Then, in the second chapter, he begins to deal with the view that Christians might already be going through days of tribulation.
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5).
Paul’s main points clearly were that the present suffering of the Christians at Thessalonica was not the tribulation prophesied in the Old Testament and taught by himself, that the final tribulation would not come until after the Christians were caught up to meet the Lord Jesus Christ in the air, therefore, that the coming of Christ rather than the final judgment should be uppermost in the minds of believers.
(Note: There is a view in prophetic theology known at “posttribulationism.” According to this view, the church of Jesus Christ will go through the great tribulation, after which Jesus will return for those believers who are remaining. In reply, it is enough to note that, although the church has gone through periods of great persecution in the past and undoubtedly may go through intense persecutions before Christ’s return, nevertheless, the view of a posttribulation rapture is impossible for the simple reason that it makes meaningless the very argument that Paul was presenting in the Thessalonian letters. Paul was arguing for the imminence of Christ’s return. That is to be a major source of comfort for suffering believers. If Christ will not come until after the great tribulation [that is, a specific time of unusual and intense suffering still in the future], then the return of the Lord is not imminent and tribulation rather than deliverance is what we must anticipate. In view of the Bible’s message we must be careful not to adopt any view which turns our minds from Christ. If anything must occur before we see Christ personally, then the anticipation of that event will turn our eyes from Him to it. We may even guess that Satan will try to turn the believers’ eyes from Christ to events or signs that are supposed to precede Him and we should be warned accordingly).
All these themes will be treated in later articles, but even at this point we need to note the importance of the two events which Paul says must take place before the day of God’s judgment. The second event is the appearance of one whom he calls “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3). This person will attempt to centralize all human worship in himself, and will actually sit in the temple at Jerusalem, claiming that he is God. Since that has not happened, says Paul, the day of the Lord is yet future.
The first event that must take place before the day of the Lord comes is called “the falling away” in the Authorized Version of the Bible (2 Thess. 2:3). This is an unfortunate translation. The basis for this translation lies in the fact that elsewhere in the Bible a time of great apostasy or “falling away” from true Christian doctrine is prophesied for the time preceding the Lord’s return. Although this is true in itself, however, it is not the meaning of the Greek word here. The word apostasia, preceded by the definite article. Apostasia has given us our word “apostasy,” but the word itself simply means “a departure.” In a context where the truth or falsity of doctrine is in view, the word would naturally mean, “a departure from true doctrine” or “apostasy.” But here, where the issue is the past or future coming of Jesus Christ for his saints and where a particular event is specified by the use of the article, the word can mean equally well “the departure of believers to be with Jesus” or “the rapture.”
In Kenneth S. Wuest’s study, referred to earlier, these following additional facts are elaborated. Apostasia occurs in the New Testament only twice. But it is based on the verb aphistemi which occurs fifteen times. Eleven times it is translated “depart,” never “a falling away.” Unfortunately, most of the English versions follow the leading of the Authorized text (The ESV translates apostasia as “rebellion”). But it is significant that in the versions that precede the publication of the King James Bible — those of Tyndale (1534), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), and the Geneva Bible (1560) — apostasia was translated as “departure,” and the reference was obviously to the much-anticipated rapture of God’s saints.
It is worth pointing out that precisely the same order of events is presented in 1 Thessalonians. Once again the two different days — the day of the Lord and the day of Jesus Christ — are in view, as well as two distinct classes of people. The day of the Lord is a day that should concern unbelievers. Paul speaks of this group as “they” and “them.” The day of Jesus Christ is for believers only. Paul speaks of this class as “us” and “you.”
“For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief…So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4, 6, 9).
Paul’s teaching clearly indicates that the rapture, “the day of Jesus Christ,” must come first. Then will come the unfolding of the other events of prophecy, beginning with a period of great tribulation and continuing though Christ’s return to earth to judge Israel and the nations, the millennium, the final judgment, and a complete transition from the life of this world to the life of eternity.
These are the two greatest days of future world history — the day of Jesus Christ and the day of the Lord. Every man who has ever lived must stand before the Lord Jesus Christ on one of these two days. Which will it be in your case? Will it be the day of the Lord with its judgments? Or will it be the day of Jesus Christ with the joy of seeing Him and the glorification and rewarding of believers? Believers wait only for the coming of Jesus Christ, and they rejoice, knowing that this the next event in the unfolding of God’s prophetic timetable.
A Practical Doctrine
Thus far in our study of the return of Jesus Christ we have dealt with the importance of the doctrine of the New Testament books and with the precise meaning of His return as it is related to the catching away of believers first and to God’s judgment. It would be wrong to stop at this point, however, for we must go on to see that the doctrine of the Lord’s return is practical. In other words, it should have a bearing on our lives.
(1) First of all, the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ should be an incentive to godly living. That is the point Jesus Himself made when talking about His return in Matthew 24. The chapter is filled with imperatives: “See that no one leads you astray” (v. 4); “See that you are not alarmed” (v. 6), “flee to the mountains” (v. 16); “pray” (v. 20); “do not believe it” (vv. 23, 26); “learn” (v. 32); “know” (v. 33). Jesus concluded with the warning, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). The apostle John, who undoubtedly heard the Lord on this occasion, later made the identical point in one of his letters, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who this hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
This thought should affect every aspect of your personal life — your prayer life, your choices in the area of ethics and morals, even your social concerns. Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer and a mature Christian, said near the end of his life, “I do not think that in the last forty years I have ever lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” In his case, the expectation of meeting Jesus was undoubtedly one of the strongest motives behind his social programs.
Are you looking for Christ’s return? In an earlier study of this same subject I once wrote:
If you are motivated by prejudice against other Christians or others in general, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, cultured or culturally naive, or whatever they may be–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you are contemplating some sin, perhaps a dishonest act in business, perhaps trifling with sex outside marriage, perhaps cheating on your income tax return–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If your life is marked by a contentious, divisive spirit in which you seek to tear down the work of another person instead of building it up–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you. If you first protect your own interests and neglect to give food, water, or nothing to the needy as we are instructed to do in Christ’s name–then the return of Jesus Christ has not made its proper impression on you (James Montgomery Boice, Philippians: An Expositional Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971], p. 249).
(2) The second result of a belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ should be an effort on our part to comfort Christians who are suffering, particularly those who are suffering the close loss of a friend or relative. We have already seen how the Apostle Paul did this in the case of his friends at Thessalonica. They suffered persecution. They had lost friends through death. Paul wrote to them, reminding them of the blessed hope of Christians. He then observed, “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Dr. R.A. Torrey, a former president of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) and a great Bible teacher, wrote along the same line: “Time and again in writing those who have lost for a time those whom they love, I have obeyed God’s commandment and used the truth of our Lord’s return to comfort them, and many have told me afterwards how full of comfort this truth has proven when everything else has failed” (R.A. Torrey, The Return of the Lord Jesus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966], p. 15). The return of the Lord Jesus Christ is the one doctrine with which God commands us to comfort suffering saints.
(3) Finally, the return of the Lord Jesus Christ should make us more and more energetic in evangelism. If it is true that the Lord is coming, then it is not true, as scoffers say, that all things will “continue as they were from the beginning” (2 Peter 3:4). The end is in sight. The days for evangelism are numbered. Is it not a lesson for our own time that, when the disciples began to ask Jesus Christ for specific details of the time of His coming after His resurrection and before His ascension, He brushed their requests aside and instead reiterated the church’s great commission to evangelize throughout the duration of this age? They were not to look for a precise timetable. They were to go into the world with the Gospel.
He said to them “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
These were Jesus’ last words on earth. The next words we hear may well be the question: “How well have you carried out my commission?”
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. He was one of only a handful of reformed theologians that was premillennial in his eschatology (Steven J. Lawson, John MacArthur, Erwin W. Lutzer, S. Lewis Johnson, Rodney Stordtz, John Hannah and John Piper also come to mind). However, what makes him really unique is that he was not Historic Premillennial – but leaned Dispensational (Held to a pre-tribulation rapture) as well. This article was adapted from Chapter Three in one of the first of James Boice’s plethora of books, and is entitled: The Last and Future World, Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1974 (currently out of print). This book is based on 9 sermons that Dr. Boice preached at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1972. Though this book was written almost 40 years ago – it is just as relevant as when it was first written since many of the prophecies taught in the Scriptures and addressed by Dr. Boice in this book have yet to be fulfilled. Scripture verses are quoted from the more modern English Standard Version – DPC.