From the very beginning, the tiny Bible study group that formed around C.T. Russell believed that Jesus had already returned. When they were sorting out the elementary biblical doctrines from all the rubbish taught by the churches, they were also captivated by the notion of an invisible parousia, which was an idea promoted by George Storrs who was many years Russell’s senior.
Russell realized that the Greek word “parousia” ought not to be translated as “coming,” as it had been in the King James Version. Instead, it should be rendered as “presence,” which is the way the New World Translation translates it.
However, search the Scriptures with a magnifying glass and you will not find the phrase “invisible presence.” Just the opposite. The Scriptures plainly speak of Christ appearing. Here are a few examples:
“Christ was offered once for all time to bear the sins of many; and the second time that he appears it will be apart from sin, and he will be seen by those earnestly looking for him for their salvation.” —Hebrews 9:28
“I will not leave you bereaved. I am coming to you. In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. In that day you will know that I am in union with my Father and you are in union with me and I am in union with you.” —John 14:18-20
“But who will endure the day of his coming, and who will be able to stand when he appears? For he will be like the fire of a refiner and like the lye of laundrymen.” —Malachi 3:2
Not only do the Scriptures plainly speak of Jesus appearing, but the words translated as manifestation and revelation also carry the connotation of an appearance. After all, if something is made manifest or revealed, does that not indicate that something previously hidden or veiled is brought to light? (The words presence, manifestation and revelation, as they relate to Christ, are virtually interchangeable. See Parousia in Jehovah Has Become King)
Commenting on the second verse above, some may be inclined to assume Jesus was saying his disciples would see him when they go to heaven. While that is obviously true, notice that Jesus prefaced his comment by saying “I am coming to you.” Christ was referring to his second coming, which will find anointed persons dwelling on earth. Although the world will not see him, “you will see me” must be in relation to the chosen ones living in that day, the day of his return.
The folly of an invisible presence should be evident by this simple fact: Jesus has always been invisibly present among his followers. One of the very last things Jesus said before he ascended to heaven was that he would be with his disciples all the days until the conclusion. And did not Jesus also assure us that if two or more are gathered in his name that he is in their midst? If Jesus is already invisibly present in the midst of his gathered disciples what is the purpose of an invisible presence? Judging by the affairs of the Bible Students before and after 1914, there is essentially no discernible difference in their relationship to Christ.
C.T. Russell reasoned that if Jesus returned visibly that he would nullify the ransom. Apparently, the Adventists back then believed that Jesus was coming back with his actual fleshly body. So that was the basis for Russell’s teaching that Jesus could not come back in any sort of visible form. The Watchtower still uses this straw man argument to this day —oblivious to the fact that after Jesus was resurrected he visibly manifested himself many, many times in various human bodies. No one would be so unreasoning to suppose that Christ’s materialized flesh somehow nullified the sacrifice he offered on the stake.
That is not to suggest that “the second time that he appears” will be in a materialized human body. Jesus only materialized flesh in order to convince his senseless and disbelieving disciples that he had been resurrected. They simply could not have grasped that Jesus had gone back to heaven if they had not seen him with their own eyes levitate into the sky.
We know Jesus and Jehovah are both immortal spirits who dwell in unapproachable light. No human can literally see them and survive the encounter. However, Jehovah and Jesus have both manifested themselves to humans. Moses saw a glimpse of God’s glory when he was on the mountain for 40 days. As a result, his face emitted rays of light so that he had to wear a veil.
And the murderous Jewish Pharisee named Saul encountered Christ when he was traveling on the road to Damascus. Saul quickly became a believer and years later included himself among those who had seen Jesus after his resurrection.
Whereas, all of the 500 disciples who saw Jesus before his ascension saw him in human form, Paul had a unique experience. He was and evidently still is the only person to have ever seen the manifestation of Jesus in the glory that he now possesses. The apostle said it was as if he had been born prematurely. What did he mean? Paul had the privilege of seeing Christ in the form all the chosen ones on earth will see him the second time he appears.
The apostle Peter —along with John and James —saw Jesus in what is called the Transfiguration. Peter wrote that he had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ magnificence and the vision was a fore gleam of Christ’s parousia. Peter seemed to anticipate the Watchtower’s invisible parousia doctrine when he wrote: “No, it was not by following artfully contrived false stories that we made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but rather, we were eyewitnesses of his magnificence.”
Do you get it? Peter was an eyewitness of a vision that foreshadows the presence of the Lord —the parousia. Thinking persons ought to realize that one cannot be an eyewitness to something that is invisible.
Regarding the Transfiguration, what is the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing in the vision? Moses and Elijah had similar experiences. Both fasted for 40 days —as did Christ —and after their fasting they saw God. As already mentioned, Moses saw a glimpse of Jehovah, as if God put his hand over Moses’ eyes and walked behind him. And while Elijah was holed up in a cave in the wilderness he saw an awe-inspiring display of God’s power in the form of wind, and earthquake and fire. And then he heard the voice of God, at which point he wrapped his garment around his head. Further, both Moses and Elijah were taken by God. Moses was literally put to sleep and Elijah ascended into the sky in a flaming chariot.
It is no insignificant detail that both prophets figuratively saw God. It is undoubtedly why the two appeared in the Transfiguration.
That brings us to the two witnesses of Revelation. Although the two witnesses are unnamed they are described as performing miracles that Moses and Elijah did while on earth. Because Moses and Elijah both saw manifestations of God’s glory and both appeared in the Transfiguration, which foreshadows the presence of the Lord, the enigmatic two witnesses must symbolize those who will see Christ during the parousia. Just as Peter, James and John were witnesses of the Transfiguration, the two witnesses will bear witness to the most profound and far-reaching event in human history —the second coming of Jesus Christ.