An Important Greek Word
shall be the sign of thy parousia and of the end of the age?
The Greek word parousia has attracted much attention, because of its relationship to the return of Christ. Many translations render the word “coming” when it refers to our Lord’s return, but many of our readers have long learned that the word actually means “presence.”
Joseph Rotherham consistently renders the word “presence,” and to this agrees the definition in Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. “Parousia, literally, a presence, para, with, and ousia, being … 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, Philippians 2:12 (in contrast to his apousia, absence). Other words denote the arrival. Parousia is used to describe the presence of Christ with his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, 2 Peter 1:16.”
The testimony of Philippians 2:12 is so emphatic that parousia means “presence” in contrast with apousia, “absence,” that the meaning of the word in this text is undisputed. However, its meaning in Scriptures is sometimes questioned. We understand the word invariably means “presence,” and this view is explored here.
The word parousia appears 24 times in the Greek text of the New Testament. All 24 instances are shown here:
The first two columns are obvious. The third column gives the transliterated spelling of the word parousia in each usage. The fourth column needs some explanation. This information comes from a web site using the United Bible Society Greek New Testament. In coded form this gives the form of speech the word represents in each instance. The first “N” means noun, “S” means the noun is singular, and “F” that this word is a feminine noun in Greek (irrespective of whether the subject is male or female).
three letters are consistent in every usage of the word. However, the second
letter varies between G, N, D, and A. This refers to the case of the word in
each usage. (In Greek, as in Latin and other languages, the spelling of a noun
can vary to indicate its grammatical role. In English the same task is
accomplished with word order.) The list includes four different cases of the
word parousia, namely Genitive, Nominative, Dative, and Accusative. These
designations may seem obscure, but it is helpful in researching word meanings to
become familiar with them.
Here are some examples: (1) Nominative —in Matthew 24:27, “so shall … the parousia of the Son of man be,” the noun parousia is the subject of the sentence. (2) Accusative—in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, some “remain unto [who or what?] the parousia.” The noun parousia is the direct object of the verb “remain.” (4) Genitive—in Matthew 24:3, “the sign of thy parousia,” the noun parousia describes “sign.”
Number (3), the Dative case, needs more explanation. In the list of 24 instances of the word parousia, nine involve the Dative case. They are shown here:
According to the simple rule, in each of the nine instances where the noun parousia is in the Dative case, it should be an “indirect object” in the phrase. An indirect object is a secondary object of a phrase or sentence. For example, in “John put the ball on the table,” John is the subject, put is the verb, ball is the direct object (the thing the verb acts upon), and table is the indirect object—the thing to which the direct object relates. But as we examine this list, seeing how the noun parousia is an “indirect object” is not apparent.
The Dative case in Greek is expanded to include two other usages, appropriately named “locative” (because this noun helps “locate” the subject) and “instrumental” (because this noun is “instrumental” in effecting the action).
“The form that we call the Dative case expresses the meanings of the Locative and Instrumental cases as well as its own” (A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek, H. P. V. Nunn, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 28). It should be apparent when reviewing these nine instances that the Instrumental case applies to the first three and the Locative case applies to the last six.
in Every Instance
us return to the list of twenty four instances of parousia in the New
Testament. If the word invariably means presence, this meaning should apply in
each of the twenty four instances. Here is the list again, using the word
presence in each case:
Four of these texts contain the phrase “at his parousia” or “at the parousia of our Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 1 John 2:28). This is an awkward way of referring to a presence, but would be natural if referring to an arrival. However, in each of these cases the word “at” represents the Greek word en which is better rendered “in.” Here are the same texts from the Marshall’s Diaglott:
The same preposition appears in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “unto [en, in] the presence of our Lord.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, “remain unto the presence of the Lord,” the word “unto” is the Greek eis, which properly means “into.” Thus in all six texts, these two and the four listed above, the parousia is something which can be entered in or into. This is consistent with the meaning “presence,” but not with “arrival” or “coming.” (In 2 Peter 3:12 “unto” is not represented in the Greek. In James 5:7 it is suitably translated from the Greek eos.)
One Remaining Concern
Philippians 1:26 may suggest a different view than “presence.” It reads: “That your rejoicing may be more abundant … by my coming to you again.” To simply substitute the word “presence” would not fit in this English translation, for a “presence” is not “to” someone but “with” someone. Have we then a firm example where “presence” is inadequate to express the thought?
The sense of this text suggests otherwise. It was not the approach (coming) of Paul that would rejoice these friends, but his presence among them again. But how shall we deal with the grammar? The word at issue is “to,” the Greek pros. This preposition is here in the Accusative case. Moulton’s Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, 1978 edition, says of this Accusative case, if “used of the place to which anything tends [as for example with a word meaning to go, travel or approach, it is to be rendered], to, unto, towards.” However, “of place where [it is to be rendered], with, in, among, by, at.” This is its usage in Philippians 1:26. The Marshall’s Diaglott says “through my presence again with [pros] you.”
As the Lightning
Another telling use of this word is in Matthew 24:27, “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the parousia of the Son of man be.” The comparison Jesus intends by the lightning is not the suddenness of its flash—as though Jesus would suddenly appear at his arrival—but the influence exerted as an evidence of his parousia, namely general enlightenment, just as lightning shines across the whole heaven.
In context Jesus was warning his disciples against any claim of a private, local, confined presence. “If they shall say … he is in the desert [or] … in the secret chambers, believe it not.” For his presence would be manifest by a broad, expansive influence of enlightenment. The point Jesus makes fits a period of presence.
Why the Imprecision?
Why, then, is the word so frequently translated “coming”? Of the twenty four instances of parousia, the King James version renders it “presence” only twice, 2 Corinthians 10:10 and Philippians 2:12, where the context forces the rendering. But why “coming” elsewhere?
The translation “coming” is not as egregious as it might first appear because the word “coming” when used as a noun can mean “presence.” If one says “at my coming we will renew our friendship,” the friendly exchange does not take place in transit, but after one’s arrival, during his presence. Parousia is in every case a noun, unlike a verb such as “I am coming” where the act of transit is the point. Parousia, a noun, “being alongside,” never refers to a transit. Though not egregious, the translation “coming” should be avoided because it is imprecise and misleading.
But what of the term “arrival”? Would this be a feasible rendering of parousia? Surprisingly, the King James version of the English Bible never uses the word “arrival,” in either the Old or New Testament. It is a noun, and it would emphasize that parousia does not mean transit. But it would imply the word has particular focus on the conclusion of a transit (which it does not), and fails to express the thought of a continuing presence. This would not fit well the texts that refer to events “in” or “into” the parousia of Christ. Better to render the word consistently “presence.”
The “Sign” of his Parousia
Matthew 24:3 marks the first use of the word parousia. “What shall be the sign of thy parousia, and of the end of the age?” Most agree that at this time the disciples did not understand that Jesus would die and return to his heavenly Father for many centuries before coming again to establish his kingdom. What, then, was the basis of their question about his parousia? Probably it was the closing warning of Jesus to the apostate leaders of Jerusalem before he exited the temple that last day of his public ministry. “Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39).
This must have seemed odd as they deliberated on these words. Jesus had walked among the Pharisees for three and a half years, shown many evidences of supernatural power, wisdom, and spoke as “never man spake” (John 7:46). What wonderful evidences of his claim to be sent of God. But if these had not convinced the Pharisees, what would? How would they come to say “blessed is he [Jesus] that cometh in the name of the Lord?” What sign [seemeion, evidence, proof] would Jesus give in order to induce this recognition? “What shall be the sign of your presence?”
They were not asking, as so many Christians assume, for signs of his approach to alert them to a sudden appearance. They were asking what sign would accomplish what the Lord predicted—to make him known as the one coming in the name of the Lord.
Jesus responded at length to their inquiry. His words were framed to fit the end of the Jewish age, which was the immediate concern of the disciples. We know, however, from the later application of his answers by Paul, Peter, and John, that the answer applies to the close of the Gospel age as well. But for now, let us consider the words as they applied long ago.
In verses 4-13 he warned them against premature expectations, showing that many years would intervene before the end would come and the sign of his authority be recognized. In verse 14 he shows that the gospel would be preached far and wide as a witness, and “then shall the end come”—the closing experiences, when the Roman armies would intrude upon the holy land and great perplexity and distress result.
This period and its adversities are described in verses 15-28. During this ending period the desolating armies of Rome would come into the sacred precincts (verse 15), those of faith would flee to the mountains (verse 16), and they were advised to be earnest and rapid in their flight (verses 17-19). If their flight was in the winter, or on the sabbath, or they had small children to care for, their difficulties would be compounded (verses 20 and 21). If there was no intervention, the disaster would come upon believer and unbeliever alike, sparing none, but by God’s providence there would be some interventions. Twice the threat was “shortened” —literally “cut off,” ended—before it resumed a third time after the elect had fled (verse 22). In those days false deliverers would falsely predict a good result, and the deceptions would be strong, but against them all Jesus forewarned the elect (verses 23-27). Amid the distresses, however, he would safely gather his saints (verse 28). During this time the authority and presence of the master would be recognized by his elect, though unperceived by others (verses 27 and 28).
Then the climax would come. Immediately after the tribulation of the days of siege and flight, the next wave of attack would devastate Jerusalem and the polity of Israel would collapse (verse 29). Then would they see the evidence—the sign—of Christ’s authority and majesty in the coming of the dire judgments Christ had predicted. “Then shall appear the sign [seemeion] of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30).
All of this has its parallel in the more complete fulfillment of our day. We have been in the end of the age for many years (verses 15-28), while the Lord’s saints have been fleeing to the mountains (representing our Lord and his care, Psalm 125:2), and he has gathered them around the carcass of “meat in due season,” freshly provided for their nourishment (compare Job 39:27-30). But the final judgment still awaits. When the seventh plague of Revelation is poured, its force will sweep away the present institutions which intrude upon our Lord’s program for God’s kingdom to be established in the earth.
“Then [in the climax incident to the seventh plague] shall appear the sign [seemeion] of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn,” perceiving the authority and majesty of earth’s new king in the collapse of present governments (compare Revelation 1:7). It is this sign, the fall of present institutions, which will alert the world to the change in circumstances, and the presence of a mightier power taking hold of earth’s affairs. “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:7,8).
“The Parousia of Christ will not be known to the tribes, or families, of the earth in general, but will be known only to the most saintly ones of the church of Christ. Consequently, the sign of the Son of Man must in some sense stand related to his Epiphania, or shining forth in the ‘flaming fire’ of judgment, which the whole world of mankind will recognize—2 Thessalonians 1:7-9.”—Pastor Russell’s Sermons, p. 420, “The Sign of the Son of Man in Heaven.”
If the word parousia could ever mean something other than presence, presumably some examples of its use exclusive of “presence” could be found. For example, “His arrival will be at noon” or “my coming will be by ship.” No such instances can be found, nor does the intrinsic meaning of the word—being alongside—have any reference to transit, movement, approach, or even arrival. On the other hand, every one of the twenty four instances of this word in Scripture is consistent with the word “presence.”