A Tale of Two Advents
Early in my pastoral ministry, a thoughtful young man came with an interesting question while our congregation was in the midst of celebrating the Advent season. The question arose from a hymn sung during a Lord's Day worship service: the Isaac Watts classic, "Joy to the World." The question was, "Pastor, why are we singing a hymn during Christmas containing lyrics that refer to the 2nd coming of Christ?" My response was twofold.
First, together we examined the hymn. It soon became obvious the hymn actually contained lyrics that referred to both the 1st Advent (i.e. His Incarnation and Birth) and lyrics to the 2nd Advent (His Second Coming). Furthermore, the hymn, verse by verse, traces the triumph of Christ as the Redeemer of His people from His 1st Advent to His 2nd Advent.
Secondly, we noted there are multiple hymns sung during the Advent season which exalt the Lord for His redeeming work in both the 1st and 2nd Advents. Then, it was my turn to ask a question. "Why do you think so many Advent hymns sung at "Christmas" extol both Advents of Christ?" The answer though simple has been lost to many. But, if recaptured can lead us to a profound blessing.
The reason so many hymns and confessions associated with the Christmas celebrations reference both the 1st and 2nd Advents is because the early church intentionally designed the Advent Season to celebrate both the 1st and 2nd Advents of Christ. Why?
The Advent is a work of God's grace whereby God Himself has come to us, to be among us and become one of us in order to save us from our sins, and He will come again for us to be with us forever. The Old Testament, through types, symbols, prophecies and Christophanies (i.e. pre-incarnate appearances of Christ) anticipated the coming of the Messiah—the Promised On in whom "all of the Promises of God are yes and amen." Those Messianic prophetic Promises can be summed up with two specific Promises.
- The first Promise was that the Messiah would "save His people from all of their sins" and deliver them from all of His and their enemies.
- The second Promise was that the Messiah would not only defeat these enemies but would ultimately destroy them and deliver His people into a glorious forever Kingdom.
But when the Messiah came into the world to fulfill God's promises, He revealed a surprising yet Biblically consistent truth. The Epiphany of the Messiah was not one Advent to accomplish two Divine Promises but two Advents, each one designed to accomplish one of the two Promises.
The 1st Advent or the Incarnation when the Son of God humbled Himself by taking upon Himself true humanity through the prophesied Virgin conception/birth was designed to fulfill the first Promise that God would "save His people from their sins" and defeat all of His and their enemies. The second Promise that He would receive His people to Himself and destroy His defeated enemies in His 1st Advent would be fulfilled by a 2nd Advent when He would "come again" in that same incarnate body now resurrected and transformed for all eternity - Two Epiphanies - Two Advents.
"For the grace of God has "appeared" (ἐπεφάνη - 1st Advent) bringing salvation to all men; disciplining us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in this present age; looking for the blessed hope and "appearance" (ἐπιφάνειαν - 2nd Advent) of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:11-14).
Gradually the Advent season initiated by the celebration of Christ's 1st Advent—when He was born "to save His people from their sins" and to defeat His and our enemies at the Cross— became the singular focus of the Advent season. One reason is that the 1st Advent is the occasion of His humiliation which was accomplished, not by the subtraction of His deity but, by the addition of His humanity. Another reason is that the 1st Advent celebrates His Incarnation, a necessary act of God to save sinners, for "by a man came death, by a man comes the resurrection of the dead." Yet another reason is that the triumph of the 1st Advent assures the 2nd Advent and the 2nd Advent consummates the victory of the 1st Advent. A final reason is the 1st Advent is a fact of history while the 2nd Advent is a prophetic promise, making it pre-written history.
But pastorally, while not being enslaved or conscience-bound to observe a church calendar, I would suggest that if we intentionally returned to the historic emphasis of the Advent season which intentionally celebrates the 1st Advent while also anticipating the 2nd Advent we could add a theological focus which would enhance our pastoral ministries of both celebration/worship and discipleship/equipping.
So, here is a pastoral recommendation: Start reclaiming the vibrancy of the advent season from secularization by enhancing our commitment to the great commission of making disciples through emphasizing the inseparable dynamic relationship of both advents of Christ.
In a word, let's return to the historic objective of using the Advent season to affirm both the victory of Christ in His 1st Advent and our longing for the consummation of His victory in the 2nd Advent. In so doing, we would not only minister to a heart-felt need in the lives of God's people, but we would also more effectively disciple God's people and more effectively proclaim the Gospel of Hope to the world.
The Advent season, historically, was designed to minister to the grace-implanted and grace-nurtured heart of every Christian. A heart which both "rests" in the joy of our Savior's victorious 1st Advent and yet a heart which is also "restless" in the anticipation of our Savior's 2nd Advent to receive us to Himself that we might be with Him in a New Heavens and a New Earth forever.
"I go away to prepare a place for you and if I go away to prepare a place of you I will come again so that where I am there you may be also... Even so come quickly Lord Jesus."
Harry L. Reeder III is senior minister of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and author of 3D Leadership.
"God's Gift in Troubled Times" by Simonetta Carr
"Preaching during the Christmas Season" by Sean Lucas
"A Mystery Beheld" by Joseph Pipa
Note: This article originally appeared on reformation21 in December 2016