Why “IN LIKE MANNER” of Acts 1 Does Not Imply a Bodily Return of Jesus
“And when He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was taken up [Greek EPAIRO], and a CLOUD received Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’ This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come IN LIKE MANNER [Greek HOS TROPOS] as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
This passage is one that futurists hold up to preterists to show that the Second Coming has not yet happened. “What,“ they say, “are you nuts? If Jesus had come in AD 70, everyone would have seen Him.”
As I began studying eschatology seriously over 15 years ago, it became increasingly obvious that my futurist assumptions about the last days and Second Coming could not hold up to the test of Scripture. But my passion is to teach what the Bible teaches, even if it conflicted with my presuppositions or denominational traditions.
I considered every passage in the Old and New Testaments about eschatology and concluded that the popular views are mostly regurgitations from denominational echo chambers, rather than from Scripture. My previous assumptions radically failed to consider Old Testament apocalyptic language, as well as the over 100 prophetic imminence statements in the New Testament. The preterist arguments persuaded me that Jesus was not claiming to return in his physical body, but rather in divine judgment just like Yahweh in the Old Testament. I became convinced that the preterist view is the only view of eschatology that could hold up to Scripture.
In case you are not familiar with the preterist view, there are dozens of passages that clearly teach that the culmination of the biblical “last days” and the “Second Coming” would happen while some of those living in the first century were still alive. Preterists believe that Jesus and the biblical writers were telling the truth about the timing of these things, and that these passages were fulfilled by Jesus’ non-bodily PRESENCE IN JUDGMENT against Old Covenant Israel in AD 70.
As I continued to study, I considered every objection I could find against the preterist view. I now see that my own previous objections as a futurist were grounded in ignorance, presupposition, and wishful thinking. Looking back, it still amazes me what hoops I went through to explain away, especially, the imminence passages. Wanting to cling to the popular views of prophecy, I had become skilled at Scripture-twisting.
In my book, CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY, I explore how all of these futuristic interpretations do violence to the text, and are shallow at best. But one passage still gave me trouble—Acts 1:9-11. Did this passage negate all the others? Is Jesus, after all, going to return in the future—as a “five-foot-five Jewish man” in first-century clothing, and as dispensationalists think—to literally rule the world from a literal throne in Jerusalem?
Indeed, at first glance, it seems clear in Acts 1:9-11 that Jesus was predicted to return to earth literally, bodily—in (or on) a cloud. Unlike almost all other Second Coming passages, there is no time-constraint on its fulfillment, so it could still be a future event. However, to properly interpret this passage we must reconcile it with other passages about the Parousia (“Second Coming”). Let me offer ten points of exegesis of this passage about why it does not predict a literal, bodily Second Coming.
- It is generally agreed that Jesus would return at the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). But Jesus himself tied the end of the age to the coming destruction of Jerusalem in AD (Matthew 24:2, 29-34; Luke 21:20-24, 32; etc.). So, the age in question was the Old Covenant age, which would be abolished once-for-all with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This was theologically significant because no longer could anyone say that the temple, with its sacrifices and rituals and priesthood, was their source of salvation. Jesus became the source of our salvation (Revelation 21:22).
- There are fifteen primary mentions of the “last days/end times” in the New Testament. The culmination of none of them can be placed outside of the first century. Examples include: Acts 2:17-21; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 1:2; 1 Peter 4:7, 17; John 2:17-18.
- Second-Coming prophecy is mostly, if not all, about the changing of the covenants, which is confirmed numerous times in the Old and New Testaments. Examples include Deuteronomy 27-32; Daniel 12:4-23; Matthew 3:7-12 (ref. Malachi 3-4); Matthew 21:33-46; 22:1-14; 23:29-39; Hebrews 8:13; etc. Especially In the prophetic passages from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus vented his wrath against the Jews, warning that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to others, meaning his church. He even made this incredible charge that ALL THE RIGHTEOUS BLOOD EVER SHED ON EARTH WOULD BE AVENGED ON THE JEWS OF HIS DAY (Matthew 23:29-39). Matthew 23 is the direct lead-in the most important Second Coming passage in the New Testament (outside of Revelation), namely Matthew 24.
- Over and over Jesus said that his “coming” would be while some of those living in the first century were still alive (examples: Matthew 10:23; 16:27-28; 24:29-34; 26:64; Revelation 1:1-3; 22:6-20; etc.). This was echoed by all the New Testament writers (Hebrews 10:25, 37; James 5:8-9; etc.) As to Revelation, there are over 30 imminence statements throughout the book—“must shortly take place,” “soon,” “near,” etc. So, unless (a) Jesus and the New Testament writers were simply wrong, or (b) there are two Second Comings—Acts 1:9-11 also had to be fulfilled in the first century.
- The Greek for “taken up” in Acts 1 is EPAIRO. The online Blue Letter Bible lexicon gives two definitions for this word: (1) to lift up, raise up, raise on high, and (2) metaphorically to be lifted up with pride, to exalt one’s self. The sense in which EPAIRO is used in this passage really may tell us more about Jesus’ glorification or exaltation, and less about a visible bodily ascent. This is confirmed by other passages about Jesus’ ascension, such as 1 Timothy 3:16 where Jesus is described as having been “received in glory.”
- The Greek for “in like manner” in this passage is HOS TROPOS. This phrase is used elsewhere in the New Testament, which we can examine. For example, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together AS [HOS TROPOS] a hen gathers her chicks.” In this passage, HOS TROPOS does not connect Jesus to a hen literally. So, this raises a legitimate question about how literal we should take Jesus’ return in Acts 1.
- The popular, literal-body view of “in like manner” of Acts 1 is suspicious because elsewhere in Scripture the description of the Second Coming is very different. In John 14:19 Jesus said that the WORLD WOULD SEE HIM NO MORE, so Christians who read into Acts 1 that they WILL see Him physically must be mistaken! In Acts 1 we see two angels present, but in other passages about the Parousia we see many or “all of” the angels (Matthew 25:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). In 2 Thessalonians 1:7 we see Jesus coming “in blazing fire,” very different from Acts 1. In Matthew 24:31 we see Jesus return “with a great sound of a trumpet,” but there is no trumpet in Acts 1. In Revelation 19:11 we see Jesus returning on a white horse, but no such horse is in Acts 1. In Acts 1 there is a small group of people who witnessed the ascension, but Revelation 1:7 says that “every eye will see Him” at his return. Either these descriptions are not literal, or they are contradictory.
- The best biblical way to reconcile these passages is to understand Old Testament CLOUD language in comparison to Acts 1. Clouds were Yahweh’s figurative domain. The disciples did not really see Jesus go to heaven in Acts 1. He entered the heavenly realm hidden from their eyesight in the cloud of God’s glory! The original Jewish audience, who were familiar with the Old Testament, would certainly have understood the cloud language in that light. In the Old Testament Yahweh “came down,” often in a CLOUD OF GLORY to effect change—usually in judgment against Israel or their enemies. You might take time to look up the following examples of God’s “comings.” In these passages, God came but no one actually saw Him, though they experienced the effects of his work: Genesis 11:5; 18:21; Exodus 3:8; 19:11, 20; Numbers 11:16-17, 25; Deuteronomy 33:22; 2 Samuel 22:8-15; Psalm 18:7-15; 50:3; 96:13; Isaiah 26:21; 29:5-6; 31:4; 34:2-8; 40:10; 64:3; 66:15; Micah 1:3-5; Zechariah 1:16; 14:2-6. Now consider these additional examples of God’s presence or operation in clouds: Exodus 16:10; 19:9; 34:5; Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 11:25; Deuteronomy 4:11; 5:22; 2 Samuel 22:8-15; 2 Chronicles 5:14; Psalm 18:7-15; 97:2-5; 104:3; Isaiah 19:1-4; Jeremiah 4:13; Ezekiel 1:27-28; 30:3, 18, 19; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:1-2; Zephaniah 1:14-15.
- There is evidence that Jesus, while rising from the tomb in his same physical body, must have changed later, which probably occurred at the Ascension. There are two “appearances” of Jesus in the New Testament after the Ascension—the appearance to Stephen in Acts 7 and the appearance to Paul in Acts 9. Neither of these was a “physical-body-on-earth” appearance. I believe Jesus has a body, or at least has personhood, in heaven, but it is a different body—a glorified one, not unlike what believers will have in heaven.
- Ancient historians—Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius, as well as the Jewish Talmud—all record the fact that God’s presence was perceived at the destruction of Jerusalem. They even record that angelic armies were seen in the clouds. This satisfies the visibility requirement. Here are words from Josephus, an eye-witness to the events of the Jewish-Roman War of AD 66-70. I’m sure you will find this as fascinating as I did:
“Besides these [signs], a few days after that feast, on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariotsand troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence.’”
CONCLUSION: Most Christians are simply not familiar with Hebraic apocalyptic language. Nor are they familiar with the significance of AD 70. Without this background, interpretations will be distorted. You will read things into the text based on presuppositions, rather than the Bible itself. Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, the Parousia of Christ (often described as his “Second Coming”) is best understood as his EFFECTUAL DIVINE PRESENCE IN JUDGMENT AGAINST OLD COVENENT ISRAEL, to usher in with finality the New Covenant.
Let me ask you the same question the disciples were asked in Acts 1: “Why do you stand looking into heaven?”
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 Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 6 (6.5.3).