The Greek noun parousia, meaning presence or coming, is often misunderstood by Bible students.
One of the recognized dangers of studying a word by itself is that it expresses very little in terms of meaning. Words must always therefore be studied in context otherwise they cease to convey the ultimate intention of the writer. So always let context be your guide!
Secondly, the Bible was not written in English. An obvious point to make, but so many readers want to impute to the biblical text their own understanding of what a word means in English.
Where do we begin then in our pursuit of the correct meaning of the word parousia? Well, tracing the origin of a word and how it was used historically can help considerably in our understanding. Let’s look first at the Greek Old Testament (LXX). Surprisingly, the word does not occur in the LXX, because in Hebrew there is no equivalent word for ‘presence’ or ‘coming’. What does emerge from the Old Testament is the firm idea of the coming or literally the presence of God and judgement at the end times. This is frequently expressed in the language of a theophany as in Genesis chapter 18 where the appearance of God ultimately leads to judgement. Similarly, in Isaiah chapter 63 verse 4, the coming of the year of redemption is set in a prophetic framework. Occasionally, however, judgement is not in view as in 1 Samuel chapter 4 verses 6-7, where the coming of the ark is in fact the coming of God for deliverance. Perhaps the strongest text in support of this argument is Zechariah chapter 9 verses 9- 10, where the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is prophesied and literally fulfilled at His first advent, Matt. 21. 5; John 12. 12-15. Here the coming and presence of God is viewed as dispensing justice as well as salvation. Sadly, in time, to be rejected by His own people, John 1. 11, but Zechariah looks beyond the first advent to the second advent.
Since the word parousia was basically confined to Greek literature, we next explore its usage and meaning in that particular genre. We learn little about the word from classical Greek where it meant simply the presence or arrival of a person or something. It is the use of the word in the Ptolemaic1 period that shaped its meaning and made it a synonym for the arrival or the visit of a king, or an emperor, or some other person in authority. For example, in 2 Maccabees chapter 8 verse 12, the word implies the advent or arrival of an army rather than simply it’s coming.2 DEISSMANN shows how thoroughly established the word was by the fact that it is used, for shortness, to denote the expenses usual in connection with the parousia of high officials.3 It was customary on these occasions to mark the coming of the official by minting coins to celebrate the beginning of a new era, and erecting monuments to commemorate the event. JOSEPHUS records the parousia of Vespasian to Rome, and how its citizens came out to meet him.4 CHRYSOSTOM also had this idea in mind when he states that when a king drives into a city, those who are honourable go out to meet him.5
Thus parousia signifies far more than the English word ‘coming’. Generally it meant that the person had literally arrived and was present, not that he was still coming. But it was also an established technical term for the arrival or advent of a very important person. Consequently, when the New Testament writers used parousia technically, they in effect challenged the cult of emperor worship, and as DONFRIED suggests ‘could easily be understood as violating the decrees of Caesar in the most blatant manner’.6
We turn then to the New Testament, and find that the word parousia is used twenty-four times, principally, but not exclusively, by the apostle Paul. He uses it both generally and technically as illustrated by the following groupings (displayed on picture).
Ptolemy controlled Egypt and Judea circa 305-198 BC.
This book is part of the literature of the Inter-Testament period.
Light From the Ancient East, N4 p.368.
War 7.4.1 (68-74).
Hom. 1 Thess. 8.
The Imperial Cults of Thessalonica and Political Conflict in 1 Thessalonians, p. 217.
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