“Coming” or “Presence” – What do the Facts Reveal?

Introduction

In the question put to Jesus at Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, “What will be the sign of your coming,” the word “coming” translates the Greek word parousía. Parousía primarily means “presence,” but it is well established today that at the time of Jesus it was also used in a different sense. Despite this, the Watch Tower Society insists on “presence” as the only correct Biblical meaning of the term. In this they clearly have a “vested interest.”

Their claim that Christ’s parousía began in 1914 and that since that year we have seen the sign of this in world events implies that Jesus’ disciples asked for a sign indicating that Christ had come and was invisibly present, not for a sign that would precede his coming and indicate this to be imminent. Consequently the Society’s New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures renders the question at Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, thus:

Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence and the conclusion of the system of things?

The idea underlying this translation is that Christ’s second coming consists of two stages, the first being an invisible presence for a period until the second stage, that of1his final revelation of this presence to the world at the battle of Armageddon. This idea did not originate with the Watch Tower Society. It can be traced back to the 1820’s, when it was first suggested by the well-known London banker and Bible expositor Henry Drummond, who was later to become one of the founders of Edward Irving’s Catholic Apostolic Church. The “in­ visible presence” or “two-stage coming” theory, better known today as the “secret rapture” theory, was quickly picked up by other expositors of the prophecies. It was adopted not only by the Irvingites but also by the followers of John Nelson Darby, the Plymouth Brethren, through whom it was widely spread in England, the U.S.A. and other countries. It became very popular especially among the millenarians, Christians who believe in a literal, future millennium on earth.1

For many of the defenders of the “two-stage coming” idea the Greek word parousía became a crucial point in the discussion. It was commonly held that this word referred to the first stage of Christ’s coming, his invisible presence “in the air.” The Greek words ephiphania, “appearing,” and apokalypsis, “revelation”, on the other hand, usually said to apply to the second stage of the coming, Christ’s intervention in world events at the battle of Armageddon. Changing the translation of parousía from “coming” to “presence” radically alters the sense, not only of the question of the disciples, but also of Jesus’ answer. This is illustrated by the arguments put forth in 1866 by Reverend Robert Govett, the most prominent British champion of the secret rapture idea in the last century:

If we say, ‘What is the sign of Thy coming?’ (Matt, xxiv. 3) then, … we are enquiring for a sign of the Savior’s future movement from the highest heaven. If we say, ‘What is the sign of thy presence?’ we are enquiring for a proof of Jesus’ existence in secret in the air, after his motion towards earth is for a while arrested.

The disciples inquire, ‘What shall be the sign of thy Presence?’ (verse 3). This, then, assures us that they imagined that Jesus would be present in secret. We need no sign of that which is openly exhibited.2

These arguments made in 1866 were picked up by many other expositors, among them Charles Taze Russell. In 1876, under the influence of the Adventist Nelson H. Barbour and his associates, Russell had adopted “presence” as the only acceptable meaning of parousía to explain how Christ could have come in 1874 (as had been predicted by Barbour) without being noticed by anyone. The adoption of this view, then, was due to a failed prediction and it was used as a means of explaining away their 1874 failure. This explanation was retained by Russell’s followers on up into the early 1930’s, when it was suddenly “discovered” that Christ’s “invisible presence” had begun in 1914 instead of 1874!

However, such stress on “presence” as the only correct Biblical meaning of parousía appears to find very little support among Bible translators. In fact, all but a very few Bible translators prefer instead the renderings “coming,” “advent,” “arrival,” or similar terms, instead of “presence.” A Witness researcher and Bible collector, William J. Chamberlin of Clawson, Michigan, U.S.A., carefully checked how parousía is rendered at Matthew chapter twenty-four, verses 3, 27, 37 and 39, in hundreds of different Bible translations all the way from William Tyndale’s New Testament in 1534 to translations released as recently as 1980, and he prepared extensive lists of the renderings of 137 translations from this period. An examination of these lists gave some very interesting results.

“Parousía” in Bible translations

Before the middle of the nineteenth century apparently few Bible translators were inclined to render parousía by “presence.” Of the English translations of the New Testament from Tyndale in the sixteenth century to Robert Young in 1862, Chamberlin found only one translator, Wakefield, who in his New Testament (1795) used “presence” as a translation of parousía at Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 39. But still Wakefield preferred to render it “coming” at verses 3, 27 and 37 in the same chapter. Further, Daniel Scott in his translation of Matthew published in 1741 (New Version of St. Matthew’s Gospel) gives “presence” in the notes, while retaining “coming” in the running text.

The first translator in the nineteenth century to translate parousía as “presence” in Matthew chapter twenty-four was probably Dr. Robert Young in his Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (1862), the reason being, as the title indicates, that he attempted to present the strictly literal meanings of the Greek words instead of the meanings in modem idiom. Two years later, Benjamin Wilson, an early leader of a small religious body known today as the Church of God General Conference, published his The Emphatic Diaglott (1864), which likewise renders parousía as “presence” throughout all the 24 occurrences in the New Testament.3

Then, in 1868-1872, Joseph B. Rotherham published his The Emphasized New Testament. But it was not until in the third revised edition, published in 1897, that Rotherham changed his translation of parousía from “arrival” to “presence.” Why? The reason he gives in the Appendix to the third edition indicates that he, at least partially, had come to embrace the “two-stage coming” idea. He explains that Christ’s parousía may not only be an event, but also “a period – more or less extended, during which certain things shall happen.” Undoubtedly, Rotherham had been influenced in his thinking on this subject through his close friendship with some of the contributors to The Rainbow magazine, of which Rotherham himself became editor during its last three years of existence.4

Other translators of the last century who used “presence” for parousía at Matthew chapter twenty-four were W B. Crickmer (The Greek Testament Englished, 1881), J. W Hanson (The New Covenant, 1884) and Ferrar Fenton, who began publishing the first parts of his translation, The Bible in Modern English, in the 1880’s.

In the twentieth century translations that render parousía as “presence” in Matthew chapter twenty-four are A. E. Knoch’s A Concordant Version (1926), Ivan Panin’s Bible Numerics (2nd ed., 1935), the Watch Tower Society’s New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (1950), James L. Tomanek’s New Testament (1958), the Restoration of Original Holy Name Bible (1968), Donald Klingensmith’s Today’s English New Testament (1972) and Dr. Dymond’s New Testament (1972; in manuscript form only).5 Other translations occasionally give “presence” as the literal meaning of parousía in footnotes, but prefer “coming,” “arrival” (or the like) in the main text.

With these comparatively few exceptions, then, both older and modern translators have preferred to render parousía by “coming,” “advent,” “arrival,” or some similar term instead of “presence” in texts dealing with the second coming of Christ. They do this despite the fact that all of them agree that “presence” is the primary meaning of the word. Why? Is it logical to believe that so many experts on the original language of the New Testament have somehow failed to grasp the true sense of this Greek term?

What of the earliest versions of the New Testament, the Latin, Syriac, Coptic and Gothic versions, which were produced while the original koine Greek of the New Testament was still a living language? What do they reveal as to how those ancient translators understood the word parousía?

“Parousía” in the earliest versions of the New Testament

As is well known, the Latin Vulgate Version was produced by the great fourth century scholar Hieronymus, better known today as St. Jerome. He carried out his translation work toward the end of the fourth century, starting with the Gospels in A.D. 383. Interestingly, in 20 of the 24 occurrences of parousía in the New Testament, Jerome chose the Latin word for “coming,” adventus, from which the English word “advent” is derived. The four exceptions are I Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:12 and 2 Peter 1:16. In these instances the Vulgate uses the Latin word for “presence,” praesentia. It is noteworthy that only the last of these four texts deals with the parousía of Christ. In all the other sixteen instances where parousía refers to the coming of Christ, Jerome preferred the Latin word adventus. Why? Evidently he felt that in texts dealing with the parousía of Jesus Christ the word meant “coming” rather than “presence.” Was he wrong in this understanding?

Actually, the Latin Vulgate was not the earliest Latin version of the Bible. It was preceded by numerous other Latin translations, some of which were produced as early as in the second century. Jerome’s Vulgate was, in fact, not a translation but a revision of these earlier Latin versions (although compared against the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts), a revision produced in order to create an authoritative Latin version out of the diversity of old Latin versions. These older versions are with a common name termed the Old Latin Bible or (in Latin) Vetus Latina. Like the Vulgate they, too, usually render parousía by adventus. The five exceptions (2 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Peter 3:4, 12) include only two passages dealing with the parousía of Christ. Thus, like the Vulgate, the Old Latin versions prefer to render parousía by the word adventus, doing this in 15 out of the 17 texts dealing with the parousía of Christ.6 (See the accompanying table on page 255.)

The Latin word adventus literally means “a coming to,” although it, too, sometimes could be used in the sense of “presence.” In the above-mentioned Latin versions, though, adventus is clearly used in the sense of “coming,” in contrast to praesentia, the Latin word for “presence.”

The Syriac Peshitta version was produced in the fifth century, but like the Latin Vulgate it was preceded by older versions, as shown, for instance, by the Curetonian and Sinaitic Syriac manuscripts.7 If, as is commonly held, the native language of Jesus and his apostles was Aramaic, these Syriac versions may actually reflect words used by Jesus and the apostles themselves, including the Syriac word for parousía in Matthew chapter twenty-four, me ‘thitha!8 Like the Latin word adventus, me ‘thitha literally means “coming,” being derived from a verb meaning “come.”

The Gothic Version was produced by Wulfila in the middle of the fourth century, being therefore slightly earlier than the Latin Vulgate translation. This version translates parousía by the Gothic noun cums, a word related to the English “come.” It means, quite naturally, “coming.”9

The remarkable conclusion, then, is that the earliest versions of the New Testament – produced when koine Greek was still a living language and by translators some of whom knew that language thoroughly from their childhood-preferred to render the Greek noun parousía by words meaning “coming” rather than “presence” in passages relating to the second coming of Christ. They did this in spite of the fact that parousía primarily means “presence” and was so translated at other places. The question is: Why did they render the word as “coming” when it referred to the parousía of Jesus Christ, but as “presence” when it referred to the parousía of, for instance, the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:12)? For centuries this remained somewhat of a mystery, until – at the dawn of twentieth century – new discoveries enabled modem experts on New Testament Greek to find the answer to this riddle.

Texts using parousía:Vulgate (4th century)Old Latin (2nd century)Church fathers(1st-5th centuries)
AdventusPraesentia
Matthew24:3 adventus adventusmanynone
 24:27adventusadventusmanynone
 24:37adventusadventusmanynone
 24:39adventusadventusmanyVictorious,
d. 303
1 Cor. 15:23adventusadventusmanyAugustinus,
d. 430
 16:17praesentiaadventusnone?Arnbrosiaster,
5th
century, et al
2 Cor.7:6adventusadventusAmbrosiasternone
 7:7adventusadventusAmbrosiasternone
 10:10praesentiapraesentianone?Ambrosiaster
Phil. 1:26adventusadventusArnbrosiasternone
 2:12praesentiapraesentianone?Ambrosiaster
1 Thess.2:19adventusadventusTertullianusnone
    d. after 220 
    Ambrosiaster 
 3:13adventusadventusTertullianusnone
    Ambrosius, 
    d. 397 
    Ambrosiaster 
 4:15adventusadventusmanynone
 5:23adventusadventuslrenaeus, d. 
after 190
Tertullianus,
in one place
    Tertullianus, 
in many
places, et al
 
2 Thess.2:1adventusadventusTertullianusnone
 2:8adventusadventusTertullianusIrenaeus
    Arnbrosiaster
et al
Hilarius, d. 367
et al
 2:9adventuspraesentiamanyAugustinus
James5:7adventusadventusnonenone
 5:8adventusadventusnonenone
2 Peter1:16praesentia(missing)nonenone
 3:4adventuspraesentianonenone
 3:12adventuspraesentia(Pelagius)(Auctor)
l John2:28adventusadventusnonenone
(The variants of the Church fathers are taken from Sabatier’s footnotes.)

PAROUSIA IN THE OLDEST LATIN TRANSLATIONS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

The technical use of parousía

During the last century excavations on the sites of ancient settlements of the Graeco-Roman world brought to light hundreds of thousands of inscriptions on stone and metal and texts on papyrus, parchment and potsherds.

These new finds revolutionized the study of the original Greek language of the New Testament. It was discovered that the Greek of the New Testament was neither a special “Biblical Greek” as some believed, nor the literary, archaizing Greek used by contemporary authors, but to a great extent was colored by the Greek vernacular used by ordinary people at home and elsewhere, the common language of daily life, the spoken form of the koine Greek.

The consequences of this discovery as regards the understanding of the original Greek language of the Bible was first explored in detail by Adolf Deissmann, later Professor at the University of Heidelberg (still later at the University of Berlin), who began publishing his findings in 1895. Other scholars, who realized the importance of the discovery, soon joined in scrutinizing the newly discovered texts. New light was thrown upon the way many Greek words were used and understood at the time the New Testament was written.

One of the words, whose meaning was illuminated by the new texts, was the word parousía. The new insights were summarized by Professor Deissmann in 1908 in his now classic work Licht vom Osten (Light from the East). His discussion of the word parousía, covering several pages, opens with the following explanation:

Yet another of the central ideas of the oldest Christian worship receives light from the new texts, viz. παρουσία [parousía], ‘advent, coming; a word expressive of the most ardent hopes of a St. Paul. We now may say that the best interpretation of the Primitive Christian hope of the Parousía is the old Advent text, ‘Behold, thy King cometh unto thee.’ [Matthew 21:5] From the Ptolemaic period down into the 2nd cent. A. D. we are able to trace the word in the East as a technical expression for the arrival or the visit of the king or the emperor.10

Professor Deissmann then gives many examples of this use of the term. At the occasion of such an official, royal visit, as for example when the Roman emperor made a parousía in the provinces in the east, “the roads were repaired, crowds flocked to do homage, there were processions of his white-garbed subjects, trumpet blasts, acclamations, speeches, petitions, gifts and festivities.”11 Often a new era was reckoned from the parousía of the king or emperor, and coins were struck to commemorate it. At the visit or parousía of Emperor Nero, for instance, in whose reign Paul wrote his letters to Corinth, the cities of Corinth and Patras struck “advent-coins.” These coins bore the inscription Adventus Aug(usti) Cor(inthi), demonstrating that the Latin adventus was used as an equivalent of the Greek term parousía at those occasions.12

Since then, additional research by numerous scholars, such as Professors George Milligan, James Hope Moulton and others, has further confirmed conclusions of Deissmann, who first demonstrated this technical use of parousía.13 This use of the term clearly explained why the early versions of the New Testament rendered it by words meaning “coming” in texts dealing with the parousía of Jesus Christ. Greek lexicons and dictionaries today all point out this sense of the word in addition to its primary meaning (“presence”), and there is a general consensus among modem scholars that parousía in the New Testament, when used of the second coming of Christ, is used in its technical sense of a royal visitation.14

Will his coming be “a visit of a king?” Certainly it will. Repeatedly, the Bible presents Christ’s parousía as a coming “with power and great glory,” when he will be sitting “upon the throne of his glory” and be accompanied by “all his angels.” (Matthew 24:30; 25:31) A mighty “voice” of an archangel, “a great trumpet sound,” and other noticeable signs further contribute to the description of Christ’s parousía as an official, royal visit, noticed by all and causing “all the tribes of the earth” to “beat themselves in lamentation” at his sight. In no way is his coming presented as an invisible, secret presence unnoticed by the great majority of mankind. – Matthew 24:27, 29-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 16; Revelation 1:7.

Scholarly support claimed

In support of its insistence upon “presence” as the only acceptable meaning of parousía in the Bible the Watch Tower Society sometimes quotes a few Bible translations and an occasional Greek scholar. It is significant, though, that most of these references are obsolete, dating from a time when the technical use of the term was still unknown.

Thus the most recent discussion of the word parousía, published in 1984 in the revised New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures with References, pages 1576 and 1577 (Appendix 5b), starts by citing four Bible translations that render parousía as “presence” at Matthew chapter twenty four, verse 3, three of which (Wilson’s The Emphatic Diaglott, Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible and Fenton’s The Holy Bible in Modern English) were produced before the discovery of Deissmann and his colleagues. The fourth is the Society’s own New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures from 1950! The article that follows is wholly dominated by a quotation from the work The Parousia written by Dr. Israel P. Warren, who argues in defense of “presence” as the correct Biblical meaning of parousía. Unfortunately, Dr. Warren’s work dates from 1879!15

The article, however, also refers to three modem Greek lexicons. It is pointed out that Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon and Kittel/Friedrich’s TDNT (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) both give “presence” as the meaning of parousía. But why are the readers not told that both these same lexicons go on to explain that parousía was also used in the technical sense of “the visit of a king”? Why are they not told that these same lexicons emphasize that this is how the word is used in the New Testament when it refers to the parousía of Jesus Christ? The last of the two lexicons, the TDNT, actually spends only a few sentences on the primary meaning “presence.” The rest of the article, covering 14 pages in all, is a discussion of the technical use of the term, demonstrating that this is how the word is used in New Testament texts dealing with the parousía of Jesus Christ! The reader of the Watch Tower’s publication would never know this and would be unlikely to have the means to find it out. Argumentation that finds it necessary to employ such obviously slanted use of evidence certainly has little to recommend it.

Finally, Bauer’s lexicon is quoted as saying that parousía “became the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, esp(ecially) of kings and emperors visiting a province.” Curiously, this statement is cited as if it gave additional support to the claim that the Bible uses parousía only in the sense of “presence,” despite the fact that Bauer’s lexicon here gives the technical use of the term, the official visit of a king or emperor (or a person of high rank).

There is one modem Greek-English dictionary, however, that seems to lend some support to the Watch Tower Society’s understanding of Christ’s parousía as a period of “invisible presence,” to be followed by a final “revelation” of this presence at the battle of Armageddon. That is W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, which defines the term parousía in the following way:

PAROUSÍA… denotes both an arrival and a consequent presence with… When used of the return of Christ, it signifies not merely his momentary coming for His saints, but His presence with them from that moment until His revelation and manifestation to the world.

This description of the parousía sounds very much like that of the Watch Tower Society. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that Vine’s definition of the word is quoted at length on page 1335 of the Society’s Bible dictionary Aid to Bible Understanding. It may be a surprise to some, however, to learn that Vine was one of the most assiduous advocates of the “secret rapture” doctrine in our century. This apparently caused him to define the word parousía in a way that supported his theological views. However, this only served to bring him into conflict with the results of modem scholarship.

As noted earlier, the “secret rapture” idea found its most zealous champions among the followers of John Nelson Darby, called the Brethren. In 1847 a schism between Darby and George Müller, the leader of a group of Brethren in Bristol, England, split the movement in two: the Exclusive Brethren, headed by Darby, and the Open Brethren, who sided with Müller. Although Müller himself rejected the “secret rapture” concept, the Open Brethren movement stuck to the idea and continued to preach it. W. E. Vine, who was born in 1873, was associated with the Open Brethren and seems to have been that from his youth. He was a great scholar, and his Dictionary is invaluable as a handbook to the study of the New Testament. His definition of the word parousía, however, was clearly influenced by his adherence to the “secret rapture” doctrine, a doctrine that may have been dear to him since his early days. He defended it in several works written in collaboration with a fellow-believer, Mr. C. F. Hogg, such as The Epistles of Paul and the Apostle to the Thessalonians (1914), Touching the Coming of the Lord (1919), and The Church and the Tribulation (1938). The last-mentioned book was published as a reply to Rev. Alexander Reese’s broadside against the “secret rapture” idea, The Approaching Advent of Christ, published in the previous year (1937). The well-known exegete and Bible commentator, Professor F. F. Bruce, although of the same religious background as Dr. Vine, gives the following critical comments on Vine and Hogg’s use of the word parousía in their eschatological system:

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Touching the Coming was their treatment of the word parousía. They insisted on the primary sense of ‘presence’ and understood the word in its eschatological use to mean the presence of Christ with His raptured Church in the interval preceding His manifestation in glory…

It may be questioned whether this interpretation of parousía does adequate justice to the sense which the word has in Hellenistic Greek. The writers did, indeed, appeal in support of their view to Cremer’s lexicon; but Cremer wrote a good while before the study of vernacular papyri revolutionized our knowlege of the common Hellenistic speech.16

The Watch Tower Society’s reference to Dr. Vine’s definition of parousía, then, does not carry great weight. At a closer look it proves to be essentially as obsolete as their other references.

What does the Biblical context show?

When a word has more than one meaning, the context must always be considered in determining how it should be understood. Does the context of Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, indicate that Matthew used parousía in its technical sense or in its primary sense? The Watch Tower Society claims that the latter sense, “presence,” is indicated by the context. Said The Watchtower of July 1, 1949, on page 197:

The fact that the arrival or visit of a king or emperor was one of the technical meanings of parousía does not deny or disprove that in the Holy Scriptures it has the meaning of presence respecting Christ Jesus. To show the meaning of the word the Scriptural context is more powerful than any outside papyrus usage of the word in a technical sense.

Agreed, Scriptural context is more powerful in such circumstance. The question is, Does the context of Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, really show that the disciples asked for a sign that would indicate Christ to be present, and not for a sign that would indicate he was coming? Is there any reason to believe that they actually thought of Christ’s coming as an “invisible presence,” one that could be recognized only by means of a visible sign?

When this question was put to the Watch Tower Society, they had to admit that the disciples “had no idea that he [Christ] would rule as a glorious spirit from the heavens and therefore did not know that his second presence would be invisible.”17 If the disciples had no idea that Christ in the future would come to be invisibly present, how could they have asked for a sign of such an invisible presence? This alone show that Matthew cannot have used parousía in the sense of “presence.” Evidently they asked Jesus to give them a sign that would announce that Christ’s promised coming or arrival was imminent. They wanted a sign, not to tell them of something that would already be in effect, but a sign that would give advance notice that the desired event was about to occur, was indeed at hand. Their language, the words they used to express their question, would be in harmony with that desire.

That this is the correct understanding is clearly verified by the way Mark has recorded their question. In Mark’s version, the question for a “sign” refers to the destruction of the temple only. It certainly is impossible to think that they needed some “sign” to convince them that the temple had been destroyed or that its destruction was taking place. They wanted some indication in advance of that event!18

The way Jesus answered their question fully confirms this. After his survey of future events that also included the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus, in verses 29 and 30, described the sign that would accompany his future coming “on the clouds” and added:

Now learn from the fig tree as an illustration this point: Justas soon as its young branch grows tender and it puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that be is near at the doors. – Matthew 24:32, 33, NW.

It should be noted that Jesus did not say that when they saw the young branch of the fig tree growing tender and putting forth leaves, they would know that “summer is present.” These signs would precede the summer and prove it to be near. Similarly, the sign of the coming of the Son of man would prove that “he is near at the doors,” not invisibly present. The comparison is between the summer as being near, and Christ as being near. Clearly, Jesus told his disciples to look for a sign that would precede his arrival or “royal visit,” not for a sign that would follow his coming and show him to be invisibly present. From the context of Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, then, it is very clear that the disciples asked for the sign of Christ’s imminent coming, not for a sign of his presence. The context, therefore, strongly supports the conclusion that Matthew used the word parousía in its technical sense, to signify the arrival or visit of a king or high dignitary.19

It is remarkable, also, that of the four Gospel writers, Matthew alone uses the word parousía, and this only in chapter twenty-four. The four verses containing the term (3, 27, 37 and 39) have parallels in Luke, but instead of parousía Luke usually has “day” or “days.” When Jesus compares his coming to the lightning, which immediately lights up in a flash the entire visible heaven from the east to the west and adds, according to Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 27, “So shall be the coming (parousía) of the Son of man,” Luke instead, at chapter seventeen, verse 24, has, “so shall the Son of man be in his day.” Thus Christ’s parousía and Christ’s day (hemera) are used interchangeably for the time of Christ’s appearance or revelation. This is brought out even more clearly in Christ’s comparison of his coming with the coming of the Flood in the days of Noah, when men “knew not until the flood came; so shall be the coming [parousía] of the Son of man.” (Matthew 24:37, 39) Luke’s version adds also the destruction of Sodom in the days of Lot and says: “after the same manner shall it be in the day the Son of man is revealed.” – Luke 17:26-30.

It is obvious that Jesus here is not comparing the parousía with the periods preceding the Flood and the destruction of Sodom. This is how the Watch Tower Society explains it, referring to the expression “the days of the Son of man” at Luke chapter seventeen, verse 26. To the contrary, Jesus clearly compares his future coming with the surprising coming of the Flood, and with the sudden destruction of Sodom. Like those two events, his parousía will be a revolutionizing event, a divine intervention that will immediately change the situation for all mankind in a most perceptible way. The comparison between Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 39, and Luke chapter seventeen, verse 30, shows that the parousía denotes “the day that the Son of man is revealed.” The linking together of “the days of Noah” with “the days of the Son of man” at Luke chapter seventeen, verse 26, therefore, means only that, as men in the days of Noah were swiftly taken unawares in the middle of their daily occupations, so it will be also in the days when the Son of man is to be revealed. His sudden intervention will come with nothing to alert people beforehand, shocking them into the reality of the situation.

At first glance it might be concluded that the clause, “What will be the sign of your coming (parousía),” at Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, has no clear parallel in the Gospel of Luke. The question of the disciples as reproduced at Luke chapter twenty-one, verse 7, seems to be related to the destruction of the temple only: “What shall be the sign when these things [the destruction of the temple, verses 5 and 6] are about to come to pass?” However, one of the most important manuscript witnesses to the early text of the Gospels, the Codex D (Bezae Cantabrigensis), frames the question differently, bringing it into close agreement with the reading of Matthew 24:3, with one important exception:20

Matthew 24:3: ”What shall be the sign or your coming [parousía]?”

Luke 21:7: “What shall be the sign or your coming [eleuseōs]?”

As shown, the only difference is that Luke according to this manuscript does not use parousía but éleusis, the common Greek word for “coming.” Dr. Schoonheim, after a close examination of these parallels, even concludes that, “Luke 21:7, according to D, presents a more original tradition,” being a translation of the Syriac or even Aramaic me’ thitha’ (“coming”).21

The Biblical context, then, gives no support to the claim that parousía has to be translated as “presence” in Matthew chapter twenty­four. The fact that the disciples did not imagine Christ’s coming as an “invisible presence,” the way Jesus answered their question, as well as the parallel texts in the Gospel of Luke, all show this translation to be untenable. In Luke, Christ’s parousía is spoken of as Christ’s “day,” or even as “the day that the Son of man is revealed.” And, as shown by Codex D, the word parousía could also be exchanged for the common Greek noun for “coming,” éleusis. Similar parallels may be found in other texts dealing with Christ’s parousía, in which texts terms relating to Jesus’ manifestation or revelation are employed. Thus, the apostle John, at 1 John 2:28, exhorts the Christians to “abide in him; that, if he shall be manifested [Greek phaneróō], we may have boldness, and not be ashamed before him at his coming [parousía].” Here John clearly parallels Christ’s parousía with the day of his appearing or manifestation. Similarly, the apostle Paul prays that the Christians in Thessalonica may have their hearts established “unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming [parousía] of our Lord Jesus with all his holy saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:13) This coming of the Lord with all his holy saints or angels is also spoken of at Jude verse 14 and in Matthew chapter sixteen, verses 27, 28, but instead of parousía Judy and Matthew both use forms of ér­chomai, the most common verb for “come,” and cognate with the noun éleusis. All three texts refer to one and the same occasion, the Lord’s coming with all his holy ones for executing judgment, and to translate parousía by “presence” at 1 Thessalonians chapter three, verse 13, as the Watch Tower Society does, ignores this interrelation with other, parallel, passages.

In those parables in which Jesus emphasized the need for his servants to be alert and on the watch, we may note that he presents his judgment as like that which follows a master’s returning to his household. The master’s coming or arrival, not some “invisible presence,” is what he describes. It is not as if the master slipped into the area and invisibly proceeded to pass judgment on what his servants were doing, only later revealing himself to them. To the contrary, the master’s return, though perhaps unexpected, is quickly evident to all his servants, the faithful and the unfaithful, manifest from the beginning, and his judgment is not made from some invisible hiding place but in a most open manner. – Compare Matthew 24:45-51; 25:14-30; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:35-48; 19:12-27.

The evidence, then, from the earliest translations, as well as from modem translations and lexicons of the Greek language, and particularly from the context and related passages, all testifies that the use of parousía at Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse 3, cannot refer to an ”invisible presence” of a “two-stage coming,” but does refer to Christ’s future arrival and appearing for judgment as King, “with power and great glory” and accompanied by his holy angels.

NOTES

1 – For a detailed investigation into the origin and development of the “invisible presence” idea and how it came to be adopted by Russell and his followers, see the articles The origin and nature of the doctrine of Christ’s parousia as an invisible presence and Charles Taze Russell and the secret rapture both of them published on this website.

2 – The British millenarian journal The Rainbow, June 1866, p. 265 and July 1866, p. 302. The Rainbow, more than any other millenarian journal in England, granted space to the expositors of the secret rapture idea, and Govett had many articles published in it. Govett’s main work on the subject was his 357-page work, The Saints’ Rapture to the Presence of the Lord Jesus, published in 1852. The whole discussion throughout the book rests on Govett’s changing the word “coming” into “presence”!

3 – See the book Historical Waymarks of the Church of God, published by the headquarters of the movement in Oregon, Illinois 61061, in 1976. The group holds views similar to the Christadelphians and Jehovah’s Witnesses on such doctrines as the trinity, the soul and hell-fire.

4 – See earlier footnote 2. Rotherham was editor of The Rainbow from 1885 through 1887. See also Rotherham’s Reminiscences, compiled by his son J. George Rotherham (London, shortly after 1906), pp. 76-79.

5 – That at least some of these translators were influenced by their adherence to the “invisible presence” doctrine is illustrated by Dymond’s translation of Matthew 24:3: “But in the meantime tell us what other events will indicate that you have returned to earth to be invisibly present.”

6 – See D. Petri Sabatier, Bibliorum Sacrorum Latinae Versiones Anriquae, originally published in 1743. The facsimile printed in Munich in 1974 has been consulted for this discussion.

7 – See the extensive discussions by Bruce M. Metzger in The Early Versions of the New Testament, Oxford 1977, pp. 3-82, and by Matthew Black in Die alten Obersetzungen des Neuen Testaments. K. Aland, editor, Berlin, New York, 1972, pp. 120-159.

8 – Pieter Leendert Schoonheim, Een Semasiologischonderzoek van Parousia met betrekking tot her gebruik in Mattheus 24 (“A Semasiological Research into Parousía with special reference to its use in S. Matthew 24”), Aalten, Holland, 1953, pp. 20-22, 259. The Curetonian manuscript is generally believed to be a recension of the earlier Sinaitic Syriac text, which in turn was originally produced in Antioch in northern Syria. The Syriac of these manuscripts, therefore, being a dialect of Aramaic, is probably very close to the Palestinian Aramaic dialect used by Jesus and his apostles.

9 – The early Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian versions have not been investigated.

10 – Quoted from the English translation by L. R. M. Strachan from the 4th edition, Light from the Ancient East, reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1978, p. 368.

11 – B. M. Nolan, “Some Observations on the parousía,” The Irish Theological Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, Maynooth 1969, p.1288.

12 – Deissmann, p. 371. Notably, the Greek word epipháneia, “appearing,” usually applied to the second stage of Christ’s coming by the adherents of the secret rapture notion, was also used at times on Greek “advent-coins” as an equivalent of the Latin adventus! (Deissmann, p. 373.)

13 – The most extensive linguistic study of the term parousía is that of Pieter Leendert Schooheim, Een semasiologisch onderzoek van Parousía, Aalten, Holland, 1953. This work covers about 300 pages, including a 33-page summary in English.

14 – See for instance Kittel/Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. V, pp. 858-871, and the lengthy article in the French Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supplément, ed. by L. Pirot, A. Robert and H. Cazelles, Paris-VI, 1960, pp. 1332-1420. Another interesting study is that by J. T. Nélis in Bibel-Lexikon,Tubingen 1968, pp. 1304-1312.

15 – Israel P. Warren, D.D., The  Parousia, Portland, Maine, 1879, pp. 12-15.

16 – F. F. Bruce in Percy O. Ruoff, W. E. Vine, His Life and Ministry, London 1951. pp. 75, 76.

17 – The Watchtower, September 15, 1964, p. 576. The same conclusion was drawn in The Watchtower of January 15, 1974, on page 50: “When they asked Jesus, ‘What will be the sign of your presence?’ they did not know that his future presence would be invisible.”

18 – This refutes the argument sometimes employed by the Watch Tower Society that ‘there would be no need for a sign if the parousía were to be visible and tangible.’ See Awake! December 8, 1967, p. 27.

19 – In the book God’s Kingdom of a Thousand Years Has Approached (1973) the Watch Tower Society makes an attempt on page 169 to adapt the technical use of parousía to its “invisible presence” doctrine by stating that, “A ‘visit’ includes more than an ‘arrival’. It includes a ‘presence.”‘ This is certainly true. But they try to obscure the obvious difference between the two uses of parousía. At a royal visit the arrival of the king or emperor was the most spectacular phase of the visit, something that called for the attention of all. If the disciples, as the evidence shows, asked for the sign of the official, royal, visible visit of Christ, they must have had in mind something that would precede such a visit. It would be pointless to ask for a sign that would show that the king had already arrived.

20 – Although the manuscript dates only from the 5th or 6th century A.D., its textual variants often find support by the second-century Fathers and the Old Latin and Syriac versions.

Some scholars even regard it as a more faithful representative of the original text than Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. As demonstrated by A. J. Wensinck it is colored by Aramaic constructions and idioms more often than Vaticanus and Sinaiticus and, according to Dr. Matthew Black, it represents, therefore, “the Aramaic background of the Synoptic tradition more faithfully than do non-Western manuscripts.” – Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 2nd ed., 1954, pp. 26-34, 212, 213.

21 – Schoonheim, pp. 16-28, 259, 260. This would refute the statement in the 1984 revised New World Translation, page 1577, that “The words parousía and éleusis are not used interchangeably.”

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