Throughout First and Second Thessalonians, Paul uses the Greek word, “parousia.” More often than not, “parousia” is translated “coming” and denotes Christ’s second coming.
The Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich Greek lexicon notes that parousia can be translated “coming” or “presence” and was used in two main ways. The first described the invisible presence of a deity. The other described the coming of a king or emperor to a local province. The lexicon goes on to say that “These two technical expressions can approach each other closely in meaning, can shade off into one another, or even coincide.”
So how do we know when to translate “parousia” as ”presence” or “coming”? Usually, context determines that. But in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, context isn’t always helpful. Most occurrences of “parousia” in these letters can be translated as “presence” or “coming” without upsetting any doctrinal apple carts. Take 1 Thessalonians 3:13 for example. The HCSB says, “May He make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” But it makes as much sense to say, “May He make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father in the presence (parousia) of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”
Then again, Bible writers sometimes chose words that are multi-dimensional. Could Paul have selected “parousia” because he wanted to evoke both senses of the word? Does he want us to hear in the same moment that Jesus is invisibly present and coming? This would echo other verses, such as where Jesus says, “an hour is coming, and is now here….” (John 4:23, 5:25).
Hearing “parousia” as “presence” and “coming” also reminds us of Jesus’s parables about the kingdom of God. The kingdom is a seed that grows into a tree. It is yeast that works all through the dough. The kingdom is present yet coming more fully.
When a king or emperor came to a local province, they usually had a procession ahead of them: heralds, musicians, other dignitaries, all in a line before the king himself. But all of those in the procession were identified with the king. When people in the town saw the first heralds, jugglers, or musicians, they probably didn’t say, “The king’s heralds and entertainers are here!” They probably said, “The king is here!” Those in the procession were part of the king’s presence and coming.
Perhaps we can see the parousia of Jesus in a similar way. Jesus is coming. Yet Jesus is present—invisibly present and present in those who believe. Believers are the procession in whom the King’s coming has begun. Because Christ is in us, we are identified with Him; it would not be wrong for someone to say, “The King is here!” when they encounter us because the King is present in us.
When the church is asked whether Jesus is God or man she answers, “Both.” This may be the best answer to the question of whether parousia means Jesus is present or coming.