This article should be read in conjunction with the 1914 article.
At Matthew 24: 3 the New World Translation says: “While he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately, saying: “Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence (parousia) and of the conclusion of the system of things?”
Other Bible translations translate the Greek word parousia here as “coming”, denoting Jesus second coming, his advent as King of God’s Kingdom. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses have translated the word as ‘presence’ rather than coming, they cite this scripture to support their teaching that Jesus returned invisibly as King in 1914 and has been invisibly present since then, leading up to the battle of Armageddon. This belief underpins the Watchtower’s claim that Jesus selected it as his ‘faithful and discreet slave’ organisation around that time.
Understanding the truth about this is important because of Jesus’ warning at Matt 24:26, 27: “Therefore, if people say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; ‘Look! He is in the inner chambers,’ do not believe it. For just as the lightning comes out of eastern parts and shines over to western parts, so the presence of the son of man will be.” (NWT).
By their effectively saying that Jesus’ return and presence was an invisible, little known event in 1914, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been criticised for teaching something similar to what Jesus warned us at Matt 24:26, 27 not to believe. It is a teaching unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Bible Student groups. Its origins are traced back to the founder of the Adventists, William Miller and predecessors whose ideas about an ‘invisible presence’ influenced Charles Taze Russell.
The apostle Paul also issued a warning about being misled over Jesus’ presence at 2 Thess 2: 1, 2: “However, brothers, respecting the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we request of you not to be quickly shaken from your reason not to be excited either through an inspired expression or through a verbal message or through a letter as though from us, to the effect that the day of Jehovah is here.” (NWT). NB – All extant NT manuscripts and all other translations use the word Kyrios (lord) instead of Jehovah here, suggesting the authentic translation is “…, to the effect that the day of the Lord is here.” The surrounding context of Paul’s warning is about Jesus’ presence, not Jehovah’s (see chp 1:7-9, 12, chp 2:1, 8).
Crucial to gaining a correct understanding of this complex subject is to closely examine the context of Jesus’ immediate words about his presence and the broader use of the term parousia through the new testament. Firstly, what do Bible lexicons say the meaning of parousia is?
Thayer’s, “1. presence: 1 Co. xvi. 17; 2Co. x. 10; …2. the presence of one coming, hence the coming, arrival, advent.”
Vine’s, “lit., “a presence,” para, “with,” and ousia, “being” (from eimi, “to be”), denotes both an “arrival” and a consequent “presence with.” For instance, in a papyrus letter a lady speaks of the necessity of her parousia in a place in order to attend to matters relating to her property there. Paul speaks of his parousia in Philippi, Phil 2:12 (in contrast to his apousia, “his absence”…Other words denote “the arrival”…Parousia is used to describe the presence of Christ with His disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, 2Pet. 1:16. When used of the return of Christ, at the rapture of the church, 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. In some passages the word gives prominence to the beginning of that period, the course of the period being implied, 1 Cor. 15:23; 1Thess. 4:15…In some, the course is prominent, Matt. 24:3, 37…in others the conclusion of that period, Matt 24:27…”
McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible, “Parousia (Gk parousia, “presence” or “arrival”) …In the Synoptic Gospels the Parousia is described as the coming of the Son of Man in glory (the glory of the Father) with the angels (Mt 16:27; 25:31; Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26), as a coming on the clouds with power and glory (Mt 24:30; 26:64; Mk 13:26; 14:62; Lk 21:27, omitted in Lk 22:69). The Parousia will be preceded by signs in the heavens…The coming will be like a flash of lightning (Mt 24:27; Lk 17:24); this image no doubt refers primarily to the sudden and unannounced appearance of the Son of Man, but it also suggests the brilliance of his appearance. He will come in the manner in which he ascended into heaven (AA 1:11). He takes his throne in the heavens (Mk 25:31).”
Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (revised by H. Jones, Oxford, 1968, p. 1343) shows that pa·rou·si’a is used at times in secular Greek literature to refer to the “visit of a royal or official personage.”
J. B. Rotherham’s Emphasised Bible Appendix (p. 271): “In this edition the word parousia is uniformly rendered ‘presence’ (‘coming,’ as a representative of this word, being set aside). . . . The sense of ‘presence’ is so plainly [shown] by the contrast with ‘absence’ . . . that the question naturally arises,-Why not always so render it?”
TDNT (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) “in the NT the terms [pareimi and parousia] are never used for the coming of Christ in the flesh, and PAROUSIA never has the sense of return. The idea of more than one PAROUSIA is first found only in the later Church . . . A basic requisite for understanding the world of thought of primitive Christianity is that we should fully free ourselves from this notion, which, so far as the NT is concerned, is suspect both philologically and materially” (TDNT 4:865).
It is evident from these definitions and other research that “parousia” is not perfectly translated by one English word, as it has connotations that combine features of “coming,” “advent” and “presence.” Each of these words has features of the others, since a “coming” necessarily entails a subsequent presence, and a “presence” necessarily entails a coming. The question of the precise meaning of “parousia,” therefore, is more a matter of emphasis on which feature of “parousia” is the more prominent as indicated by the context.
‘Parousia’ can be said to have three different senses, or to have a three-fold function; one could even think of them as three separate words that are used in different contexts. First and primarily, there is the stative parousia, which means “presence“. This is used in contexts to describe a durative state of being alongside or with something for a time, eg, “My uncle was present in the kitchen when I made dinner.” This sense of ‘presence’ can be contrasted with ‘absence’ as in Phil 2:12. Second, there is an activity parousia, one that indicates a dynamic action or an entrance to the state of being present. This is the act of“coming“, i.e. “It took a long time for me to come home” or “the children shouted “daddy’s coming!” when they saw his car winding up the road”. This second function of parousia also has a durative aspect. Thirdly, there is parousia in the sense of a punctiliar act, one that indicates “arrival” and thus is telic (expressing achieving a goal or end result), eg, “Finally John arrived as we began dinner” or “I arrived at the door and knocked”. This sense of parousia is not durative. To determine which of these is involved in the case of Jesus’ parousia, one needs to examine the pragmatic context to see which adverbs are being used, which grammatical constructions and tenses are being used, etc, to see whether changes of state and non-durativity are involved. A verb merely indicating the state of “being present” would not express dynamism and punctuality.
Probably the best flavour of the word to suit most instances in scripture is “arrival with subsequent presence.”
In the ‘Insight’ Volumes it states under ‘Presence’:
“While Jesus’ presence of necessity implies his arrival at the place where he is to be present, the translation of Parousia by ‘coming’ places all the emphasis on the arrival and obscures the subsequent presence that follows the arrival.” While this may be true, it can equally be said that translating it as ‘presence’ obscures the necessary and prior meaning of coming, arrival. By necessity no one comes, or arrives, except for the purpose of being present, no matter how long their presence might be or what it might accomplish. The disciples question and Jesus answer suggests that what was important was being able to tell when he was about to return/arrive, since after returning his presence would be self-evident. We could liken it to the children of a father who was going on a journey abroad wanting to know when he will return, come back home. They would not ask “how will we know you are back with us” since that would be obvious.
Looking closer at the gospel accounts, Mark and Luke do not use parousia but choose other synonyms: erkhetai, erkhomenos, elthon which mean “come” or “arrive.” Matthew does this himself at Matthew 24:30, 42, 44, 45; Matthew 25:19. Erkhomenos happens to be the word used in the Jewish Greek Bible, the Septuagint (LXX) at Daniel 7:13 with elthen being used at Daniel 7:22. This in itself should be enough to establish that parousia (presence) is roughly the same as erkhomenos (coming) or elthon (arrive), and is the reason other translations use ‘coming’ at Matt 24:3 instead of ‘presence’?
Matthew’s account at chapter 24 indicates that the disciples asked for a sign of Jesus’ visible coming. The disciples who asked Jesus about this fully expected Jesus to take up a visible rule over literal Israel, so they must have been asking about a visible appearance. Therefore they were not asking for a sign that the appearance had already taken place — for the appearance itself would be sign enough — but that it was about to take place.
The parallel verses in Mark and Luke show this:
Mark 13:4: “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (ASV)
Luke 21:7: “And they asked him, saying, Teacher, when therefore shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are about to come to pass?” (ASV)
This is consistent with Jesus’ illustration of the fig tree in Matthew 24:32,33: “Now learn from the fig tree as an illustration this point: Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and it puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near[or, “about to arrive” — not “is already present”]. Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.”
Some Jehovah’s Witnesses might point to Matt 28:19, 20 where it says”…And, look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things” and hold this as a kind of first century invisible presence beginning from Jesus ascension to heaven in 33 AD to the “conclusion of the system of things” at end of the Jewish system of things when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD. They might then draw a parallel and assert that this justifies the belief in a similar spiritual invisible presence since 1914 before the end of the wicked system of things at Armageddon.
It is fair to say that this “being with you” promised by Jesus at Matt 28 was a kind of spiritual presence that the New Testament writers described as their current spiritual reality: Jesus was resurrected, raised and sitting at God’s right hand, at the same time being in them and among them through the holy spirit. The Watchtower seems to treat the ‘presence’ from 1914 in a similar way. But what is important to keep in mind, however, is that the NT writers (especially Paul) never used the term parousia for that present experience of Jesus’ being with them invisibly; rather parousia is used for the end of that experience (terminus ad quem), ie, as Jesus’ ultimate coming (in the punctiliar sense), obvious to all and not only to them (in the Pastorals, epiphaneia or “manifestation” replaces parousia with the same meaning).
Another difficulty with the Watchtower’s approach is that it teaches that Jesus came into kingdom power in 1914 while also teaching that the “coming” and “arriving” of the son of man at Matt 24: 30 and 25:31 are future events (see this blog’s article on 1914). This is a glaring contradiction. Similarly, it teaches that the arriving of Jesus at Matt 25:31 is a future event but the arriving of the master at Matt 24:46 to reward his faithful slaves occurred in 1919 – another awkward contradiction. The Society tries to get around these inconsistencies by saying that Jesus is talking about two different thrones, one a throne of kingly power, the other a throne of ‘judgement’; one an arrival in kingdom power, the other an arrival to inspect his household of servants in 1919. There is a list of doubled-up interpretations like this that held out as current truth by the Society (see my 1914 article).
If Jesus’ became king in 1914 then he must have arrived then, and if he arrived in 1914 but is yet to arrive to sit on his glorious throne at Matt 25:30 then he must depart and be absent in the interim. You can’t come/arrive somewhere and come/arrive again later unless you are absent in between. The Society is saying exactly that. They are saying that Jesus is present but not really present; that he is present but actually absent. A child can see that this is absurd.
It means the Watchtower expects us to believe that Jesus’ has three parousias, three arrivals, of different types and degrees. One in 1914, another in 1919, and still another in the future at the outbreak of Armageddon. The 1914, parousia, and generation teachings have thus become a confusing morass of contradictory suppositions that require double applications for many sayings of Jesus that obviously have a simple, single meaning. It’s ironic that this confusion is propounded by an organisation that boasts of being the restoration of primitive Christianity that never goes beyond what is in writing (Gal 1:8).
The Society’s views are all clearly forced interpretations, where it is trying to fit scriptures around its 1914 teaching rather than let the Bible speak for itself on the matter, and then adjust doctrine accordingly.
A more reasonable position might be for the Watchtower to say that the ‘composite sign’ Jesus describes at Mathew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 indicates that he is only ‘near at the door’, as Jesus himself said these signs would indicate, ie, that he is in the process of arriving as King in the second sense of the parousia described earlier in this article, in the dynamic, durative entrance sense – not that he has already arrived and is invisibly present as King. Any invisible, spiritual presence with his true followers is only in the sense of Matthew 28:20; that is, that Jesus is only with his disciples by giving them the promised helper, the holy spirit.
What must be kept foremost in mind is that Jesus’ ‘coming’ is described at Matt 24: 30 as a dramatic and glorious event, as a sudden epiphanea or manifestation in the punctiliar sense, not as a long-drawn out mysterious, invisible process. This is the understanding that Paul had. The key point is that either way, Jesus could not have been ‘present’ in the stative sense because he clearly did not ‘come’ in 1914. The durative presence always follows the punctiliar coming.
At this point a Bible Student or Jehovah’s Witness might point to Matt 24:37-39, where Jesus made a parallel between the days of Noah and the ‘presence of the son of man’. This was an important reason why Russell adopted his ‘invisible presence’ doctrine.
Jesus here is merely paralleling conditions and attitudes that would exist leading up to the flood of Noah’s time with his presence in the punctiliar sense of parousia, ie, with his sudden coming. The emphasis in the context is the suddenness and unexpectedness of his arrival, his return as master, and how the disciples could tell when that sudden event might be near, not to indicate that he has already secretly arrived and is somewhere hidden away unknown to everyone. The parallel account at Luke 17:26-30 helps us get the correct understanding when Jesus parallels the “day when the Son of man is to be revealed” with the “day when Noah entered into the Ark and the flood arrived” and the “day when Lot came out of Sodom and it rained fire and sulphur”. Jesus is equating his future arrival and subsequent presence as King with the sudden, unexpected arrival and presence of the flood in Noah’s time and the arrival and presence of fire and sulphur in Lots time. Compare this with 2 Thess 2:2 where Paul describes the “Day of the Lord” in parallel terms with “presence”, “manifestation” (epiphaneia) and “revelation” (apokalypsis) of the Lord Jesus.
There is no scriptural justification for dividing “the day of the Lord” into three phases. The scriptures do not speak of the parousia, the epiphaneia and the apokalypsis as being in three distinct stages as if it slowly unfolds over decades or even centuries before culminating in the epiphaneia.
To prove this point, we will look now at the many references and expressions that refer to the Lord’s returning for His bride. They are given as words of encouragement to Jesus’ followers from Pentecost down to our present time. These are some of the Greek words referring to the Lord’s Second Advent: Parousia, Epiphania,Apocalupsis, Phaneroo, Phanero, andKatabisis. In writing to the various churches, the Apostles used different Greek words in relating to the same event, depending on the context. Let us look at some of these Scriptures:
“Waiting for the Son of God from Heaven” – In 1 Thes.1:10; 3:13; 5:23, Paul is telling the church to wait for the Lord’s presence (Gk. parousia). James also exhorted the Christians to be patient, for the Lord’s presence (Gk. parousia) was near (James 5:7-8).
“Waiting for His appearing” – In 1Tim. 6:14, Paul was exhorting Timothy to keep the commandment spotless until the Lord’s appearing (Gk. epiphania) See also Titus 2:13.
“Waiting for His revelation” – In 1Cor.1:17, Paul exhorted the church to
be faithful until the Lord would be revealed(Gk. apokalupsis). See also 1Pet. 1:7, 13; 4:13. Paul was expecting to receive the crown of life in that day of the Lord’s appearing or revelation (2 Tim. 4:8).
“Waiting for His manifestation” – In Col. 3:4, Paul is reminding the church in Colosse that they are dead and their life is hid with Christ in God and that when Christ…shall
appear (Gk. phanerothete) they would also appear with Him in glory. Peter also, while previously using the word apokalupsis three times, now in chapter 5, vs. 4 uses
the word phanero. See also 1 John 3:2.
“Waiting for Him to descend” from heaven. (Gk. Katabaino) See 1Thes. 4:13-17.
In brief — the church was encouraged to:
Wait for His parousia or presence –
1 Thes. 3:13; 5:23; Jas. 5:7, 8.
Wait for His epiphania or appearing
– 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 4:8.
Wait for His apokalupsis or revelation
– 1 Cor. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:7, 13.
Wait for His phanerosis or manifestation
– Col. 3:4; 1 Pet. 4:5.
Wait for His katabaino or descending
– 1 Thes. 4:13-17.
From the above we can readily see that these various words are to all take place at the same time, when the completed church will be resurrected and rewarded together. They could not possibly denote different time periods, for why would the Apostle Paul tell the Thessalonians to wait until the Lord’s parousia, tell Timothy and Titus to wait unto the Lord’s epiphania, the Corinthians to wait unto the Lord’s apokalupsis, and the Colossians until the Lord’s phanerosis, etc?
2 Thess 2:1 is also helpful in getting the correct understanding of what the disciples meant by asking Jesus when he would be ’present’ at Matt 24:3. Paul links the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ with “…our being gathered to him.” This gathering is described by Paul at 1 Thess 4: 15-17 where he writes of those who survive to the “presence” of the Lord being gathered by Jesus when he descends from heaven with “God’s trumpet” to be caught away in clouds. Paul clearly means the glorious event Jesus described at Matt 24: 30, 31, when the Lord will come on the clouds in power and glory with a trumpet sound to gather his chosen ones. Remember, the Watchtower correctly teaches that Matt 24: 30, 31 are future events not events that occurred in 1914, and yet it teaches that Jesus’ parousia as King began in 1914 – an unacceptable contradiction. These passages show that Paul used parousia in the punctiliar sense of ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ followed by a presence. He used the words parousia, epiphania and apokalypsis in the same breath, to mean more or less the same thing. That is what the disciples were really asking at Matt 24:3 and is why most Bible translations are quite correct to translate parousia there as “coming”.
This also helps us realise that the “composite sign” of woes and troubles Jesus foretold are only a “composite sign” of his “being near at the door”, ie, of the imminence of his arrival and subsequent presence, in the same way that falling leaves are a sign that summer is near.
Rather than warning us against his coming and subsequent presence as somehow happening unnoticed and invisible, Jesus’ reply at the disciples question at Matt 24:3 stresses the exact opposite: ‘Do not be misled, do not be terrified, the end is not yet, this is only the beginning of distress’ etc. He states that he is coming on the clouds in power and glory, and is like a flash of lightning, sudden and seen by everyone simultaneously. That way, it will be clearly seen, in a supernatural global display of glory, that it is Christ Jesus who destroys the wicked and then blesses all the survivors of the nations. This supernatural display is the “sign of the Son of man” appearing in heaven that Jesus foretold at Matt 24:30.
This sign of his presence will not take place invisibly, to the eye of faith, done in a corner, so to speak. The Greek word Parousia means ‘coming and consequent presence’, not ‘presence’ followed by coming. His arrival was to be unexpected, not his subsequent presence! By over-focusing on the ‘ongoing presence’ inherent in the word parousia, C T Russell and the Watchtower organisation lost sight of how that presence was to begin, namely, with a glorious, miraculous display of Christ coming with power.