The second coming of Christ is a major tenet of Christian theology, and we eagerly look forward to our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). But the knowledge that the Messiah would have two comings came to humanity gradually, as God’s revelation to mankind was progressive.
The Old Testament clearly teaches that the Messiah would come, but it does not explicitly say that He would come twice. The information God revealed about the Messiah started very basic, with more detail added bit by bit. People living in later times knew more than those who lived earlier. Abraham knew more about the purposes of God than did Noah. David knew more than Abraham. The prophets knew more than David. And finally, the apostles in the New Testament knew more than the prophets. The apostles after the resurrection knew more than they did before the resurrection.
The revelation concerning the Messiah progressed over time. Genesis 3:15 is a cryptic first promise of a Messiah. The seed of the woman will destroy the seed of the serpent. Who the seed of the woman is or how He will accomplish His mission is not revealed. Later, David is promised a lasting dynasty, which means that one of his descendants will reign continually. Again, we are not told exactly who this will be or how it will come about. Sometimes, the prophets speak of this reign as if God Himself will sit on the throne (Zechariah 14). At other times, the prophets expect a descendant of David (Psalm 2). Again, the prophets never explain how this will all come together. Jesus questioned the Jewish leaders regarding this tension in Matthew 22:41–45:
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
In Zechariah, we have a hint of the two comings of the Messiah. Zechariah 9 predicts a king coming in humility and peace, which seems to contradict Zechariah 14, which speaks of a conquering king. Micah 5 says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, while Daniel 7 presents Him as a divine figure. Isaiah 9 teaches that He will reign forever, and Daniel 9 teaches that He will be cut off. Furthermore, Isaiah introduces another image, that of the Suffering Servant who will bear sins for people (Isaiah 53). Verse 9 speaks of the Servant’s death, and verse 12 says that, after that, the Servant will be victorious and receive the spoils due Him. In other words, He will be killed and yet will live. How could this be?
In short, there were many things in the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah that were not fully explained, and sometimes seemingly contradictory things were presented in the same book or even the same chapter. Some of the Jewish rabbis even suggested that there would be two Messiahs, a humble, suffering one and a conquering, reigning one; but no one was suggesting that the same Messiah would come twice, once to suffer and once to reign.
By the time of Jesus, the dominant expectation was for a Messiah who would rescue Israel from foreign domination. He would conquer and rule. At every turn, Jesus defied these expectations. He claimed that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). He told His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem to die, and this caused Peter to rebuke Him (Matthew 16:21–23). He told them that He would be raised from the dead, but Mark 9:10 reports that “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.” A little later, when He told them a second time of His death and resurrection, “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (verse 32).
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that final trip, He was welcomed with shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches. Palm branches were a national symbol of Israel, and this was a very nationalistic display. However, instead of going into Jerusalem and conquering the Romans, Jesus entered the temple and cleared out the money changers (Matthew 21:12–17). He also indicated that Israel (at least the current generation) will not inherit the kingdom (Matthew 21:33–43). He went on to say that people should pay their taxes to Caesar if they owe them (Matthew 22:15–22). Finally, He foretold the total destruction of the temple (Matthew 24). These are not the words and deeds of a Messiah sent to free Israel from Roman domination. He was concerned about other things.
It was only after the resurrection that the disciples began to understand what Jesus had been telling them (John 2:22). Even after the resurrection they did not understand about the second coming because they asked Him if now was the time that He would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). Jesus told them that they should not be concerned about the timing of the coming kingdom, but they should take the gospel to the whole world (Acts 1:8). Then He was taken up from them into heaven, and two angels came to them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Here we finally have a clear indication that there will be a second coming after an undisclosed time period.
The Old Testament had several mysteries regarding the Messiah: would He be a divine figure or a human descendant of David? The New Testament gives the answer—both, because of the Incarnation. Would the Messiah be cut off or reign forever? The New Testament gives the answer—both, because of the Resurrection. Would the Messiah come to suffer or to reign? The New Testament once again gives the answer—both, because He would come twice.
The idea that the Messiah would come once to suffer and again to reign is not clearly taught in the Old Testament, although the doctrine is completely consistent with Old Testament teaching. Further, the second coming resolves some of the apparently contradictory teachings about the Messiah in the Old Testament.