Article 7: And He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
The second coming of Christ was the hope of the early Christian church.
The Scriptures often speak of the visible return of our Lord Jesus Christ from heaven. Even as Christ ascended into heaven before the very eyes of His disciples, so shall He also one day return from heaven. This was made quite plain to the disciples at the time of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, for “while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He (Jesus) went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10, 11).
When Jesus returns to us He shall come with great power and glory. Jesus Himself made this clear to the disciples just prior to His own crucifixion. In response to His disciples’ inquiry concerning the sign of His coming and the end of the world, Jesus instructed His disciples that at the end of time the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven which shall cause all the tribes of the earth to mourn. “And they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). This great power and glory is to be explained by the fact that Jesus shall return as the Lord of heaven. At His ascension Christ was seated at God’s right hand. As we saw in connection with Article 6 of the Nicene Creed, this means that Christ has been given by God a position of great power and rule over all the creation. He is Lord over all. In this capacity He shall also return at the end of the ages. Hence, He shall return to us in power and glory.
The return of Jesus Christ from heaven shall be for the church a great day of salvation. For when Christ comes again He shall judge the quick (living) and the dead. At the moment of Christ’s return there shall be a general resurrection of the dead. All those who have passed into the grave through death shall be raised again. And they shall join those still living before the judgment seat of Christ. Then Christ shall judge every man according to his works. As the holy Apostle writes in II Corinthians 5:10, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in the body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” Those therefore who in the power of grace have walked faithfully before God shall be publicly justified and glorified by Christ. They shall all be translated into the glorious kingdom of Christ which in that day shall be perfected in the new creation. And there they shall live forever with Christ in heavenly bliss. But the wicked and those who have walked in the darkness of unbelief shall be condemned for their great sin. And they shall one and all be cast into the darkness of hell to suffer everlastingly the wrath of God against their sin.
Now the exact day and hour of the Lord’s return no man knows. Nor do the angels in heaven know. Not even Christ according to His human nature knew while He was still on the earth. The exact day and hour is known by the Father only. However, the Bible does make clear that the day of Christ’s coming is near. In I Peter 4:7 we are told, “But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.” In I John 2:18 we are told that we are in the “last time,” literally, the “last hour.”
The early church looked for this coming of Christ with eager expectation and longing.
This can hardly be said, however, for the church today.
There are many, for example, in the church who deny a literal coming of Christ at the end of the ages. This is, of course, the liberal element in the church. The liberal of our day teaches that this present world has no foreseeable end. Barring some man-made catastrophe, such as a nuclear holocaust, the world will continue forever. Neither, therefore, is there a day of judgment or reckoning that determines the eternal fate of every man. Nor, for that matter, is there even a heaven or a hell, except the heaven or hell you make of your own life. The liberal church does speak of a coming of Christ. But this is simply meant to indicate that someday in the future the world, following the inevitable process of evolution, will be much better than it is today. One day when all social injustices and prejudices are overcome and when there is peace among men, then Christ will have come.
Others there are in the church today who, although they acknowledge a literal return of Christ at the end of the ages, have for the most part placed it outside their perspective. They tend to place the coming of Christ far into the distant future—so far, in fact, that it is virtually lost sight of. The attitude is that before Christ comes again the world must undergo a spiritual revival. All social injustices must be overcome and the world must be basically Christianized. Then and only then will Christ come. And so, instead of contemplating the return of Christ from heaven, we ought rather to concentrate our attention on the improvement of society. Let’s get with it! Let’s shake the earth’s foundations for Christ and bring about a great spiritual and social revival.
Then there are those in the church who expect the return of Christ very shortly, but would just as soon delay the day of His coming just as long as possible. This is the element in the church that has found a home here below and would just as soon Christ didn’t come and take them away. This is the earthly-minded element in the church. Their hearts are set on the things of this world. Closely related to this element is another element that would delay the coming of Christ because they are afraid of the judgment day. They fear that their life may not be able to bear the light of judgment.
All this stands as a very sad commentary on the church today.
This, however, was not the case with the early church. She not only believed the literal, visible coming of Christ from heaven, she also longed for that coming. This was due in part to the terrible persecution that the church suffered for the first 300 years of her existence. This persecution began with the Jews already during the time of the apostles. As the church spread, the heathen gentiles also joined in to persecute the saints. In due time, even the Roman government entered the fray and took an official stand against the Christian church. At times these persecutions were very fierce. Thousands of God’s elect were martyred for the faith in these early years of the church’s existence. And the fruit of this persecution was that the saints of the early church longed for the day of Christ’s coming from heaven to judge the quick and the dead. For the return of Christ meant the destruction of her persecutors and her own final salvation. There is nothing that makes the saints to long for the final salvation of Christ’s coming more than persecution and adversity.
And to this great longing for Christ’s coming, the early church gave expression in this seventh article of the Nicene Creed when she confessed that Christ, “shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.” This confession was a living confession.
There are especially two things worthy of note yet as we consider this particular confession of the early church.
In the first place, there was to be found in the church prior to the council of Nicea a strong tendency towards millenarianism or chiliasm. Both of these terms mean “thousand” and identify an erroneous interpretation ofRevelation 20:1-10 which speaks of the thousand-year reign of Christ during which time Satan is bound in the bottomless pit. According to the millenarian, this thousand-year reign of Christ must be understood literally and physically. Christ will come from heaven to establish an earthly kingdom that shall rule over all the nations of the earth. This kingdom, in which Christ and His people rule, shall last exactly a thousand years, at the end of which Satan will be loosed for a short while to lead the nations in rebellion against Christ’s rule. At that time Christ shall completely destroy Satan and all the ungodly in hell. This present world will come to an end and there will be a new creation to which Christ will bring the church to live forever in perfect bliss and glory.
This view was embraced by many in the church prior to the great council of Nicea. It was taught by such great church fathers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. This same thing is taught by the premillennialist today. The error of premillennialism is quite prevalent today in the church and is really a further refinement of the millennialism found in the early church.
The significant thing in all this, however, is that prior to Nicea the early church turned away from these millennial tendencies. The church began to understand, as Augustine later developed more fully, that this thousand-year reign of Christ is the spiritual rule of Christ in His church in the present dispensation. Consequently, we find nothing of the error of millennialism in the Nicene Creed. Nor can the premillennialist of our day find support for his view in the early church creeds. By the time of Nicea, the church had virtually rejected all such notions.
Secondly, it is worthy of note that the last expression of this article, “Whose kingdom shall have no end,” was inserted to overthrow the teachings of Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra in Galatia. At the council of Nicea in 325 Marcellus was a staunch supporter of the orthodox view that was adopted and expressed in the original version of the Nicene Creed. Afterwards Marcellus became one of the chief allies of Athanasius who led the fight against the Arians and Semi-Arians. However, Marcellus in time drifted into the error of the Monarchians who in their zeal to defend the unity of the Godhead denied that God is three in person. The views that Marcellus developed were quite close to those of Paul of Samosata, which we have already described earlier in this series in connection with Article 2. According to Marcellus, the Word or Logosof John 1:1 is an impersonal power emanating from God the Father. This divine Logos was in turn bestowed upon Jesus so that He became the Son of God. Being empowered by the Logos, Christ was able to redeem the church of God and establish the kingdom of God. However, when Christ shall have perfected the kingdom at the end of the ages, the divine Logos shall return to God and no longer be in the possession of the Christ. Hence, Christ shall resign the kingdom to the Father and cease to be the Son of God. This according to Marcellus is the proper interpretation of I Corinthians 15:24, “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father.”
Over against this error of Marcellus the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381, in her revision of the Nicene Creed, added to this seventh article the statement that Christ’s kingdom shall have no end. By this the church meant to emphasize that Christ is and forever shall remain the Word (Logos) of God. His Sonship is not temporary but eternal. And so, as Mediator and Savior, His kingdom shall have no end. And we shall live with Him forever in His kingdom, receiving from Him everlasting glory and bliss.