The Collapsing Universe in the Bible, Part 6
Today's entry was written by Brian Godawa. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
In part five of this series, Godawa explained the nature of the terms “new heaven” and “new earth” used by Peter in the New Testament. Today, in the conclusion of the series, Godawa addresses the portrayal, seen in Matthew 24, of Jesus “riding on the clouds” in judgment. The author explains that this type of language, used also in the Old Testament, is a means of establishing the divinity of God rather than of describing a physical event.
Coming on the Clouds
Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 is the classic reference used by futurists to point to the future second coming of Christ. I have been exegeting the decreation language about the sun, moon, and stars as referring to the end of the Old Covenant. Yet, right after those verses that speak of the collapsing universe, Jesus speaks of his “coming on the clouds”:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. Matt. 24:29-30
I want to focus on the phrase, “coming on the clouds of heaven” to prove that it is not the physical return of Christ that this passage is talking about, but rather a metaphor for God’s judgment upon Jerusalem for rejecting Messiah. I believe Jesus Christ will physically return to this earth, but I do not think that this passage teaches that doctrine. It teaches something else. And I am in good company with orthodox scholars through history who have posited this very interpretation of Matthew 24: Eusebius, John Calvin, John Lightfoot, John Gill, Phillip Schaff, Gary DeMar, Kenneth L. Gentry, R.C. Sproul and many others.1
When considering the ancient Near Eastern context of this “cloud” image, I have previously written that the notion of deity coming on clouds or riding clouds like a chariot was already a powerful metaphor used for the god Baal in Canaan when Israel arrived there.2 Baal, the storm god, was called the great “Cloud-Rider”3 who would dispense his judgments through thunder and lightning in his hand.4 To ride the clouds was a sign of deity and judgment to the Canaanites. So it makes sense that the Biblical writers who were dispossessing Baal and his worshippers from the land would use the same epithets of Yahweh in a subversive way of saying Yahweh is God, not Baal.
In light of this connection of cloud-riding with deity and judgment, Jesus’ statement becomes an implicit reference to his own deity and messiahship rejected by the first century Jews which resulted in God’s judgment upon Jerusalem (Matt 21:33-45). Jesus is coming in judgment to vindicate his claims (Matt 26:64), and he is going to do so by using the Roman armies of Titus to do his bidding.
Look at these Old Testament passages that use the concept of coming on the clouds as a metaphor for God coming in judgment upon cities or nations:5
God’s judgment on Egypt
Isa. 19:1 Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt.
Ezek 30:3 For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations.
God’s judgment on Ninevah
Nahum 1:3 In whirlwind and storm is His way, And clouds are the dust beneath His feet.
God’s judgment on Israel
Joel 2:2 Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness.
Messiah as deity and kingly judge
Dan. 7:13-14 “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom.”
Did God literally or physically come riding on a cumulus nimbus in these passages? The answer is obvious: No. The notion of coming on the clouds with storm and lightning was an ancient Near Eastern motif of deity coming in judgment upon a city or nation. Egypt was plundered by the Assyrians (Isa 9:23-25). Ninevah was destroyed by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Ezek 30:10). But God is described as the one who was using these pagan forces as his own means of judging those cities. This is how God “came on the clouds.”
So, Matthew 24 is God’s description of judging Israel for rejecting Messiah, by using the Roman armies to destroy the Temple and Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t physically come riding on a cumulus nimbus, he “came on the clouds” in judgment by using the Roman armies to vindicate his claims of Messiahship. This was not a physical Second Coming, but rather a spiritual coming.
Once it is realized that creation and decreation language regarding the heavens and the earth is covenantal in its reference and not scientific, the natural question arises: does this deny the second coming of Christ altogether? Is this a heterodox view that leads us on the slippery slope into heresy? My answer is again, “no.”
Context is everything. Just because some passages are shown to be fulfilled in the past, does not mean that all passages are fulfilled in the past. For example, many preterists maintain that 1 Corinthians 15 affirms that there will be a future physical return of Christ followed by a physical resurrection of humanity.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1Cor. 15:20-26
Other preterists make the argument that the “new creation” and “new heavens and earth” of the New Covenant may have been inaugurated in the first century, but it will not be consummated until this physical return of Christ. At that time, what was a spiritual truth of new creation will become a physical reality. Christ reigns now over every authority and power (Eph 1:20-22). But his overcoming of every authority and power is a process that is not yet completed (Heb 2:8). This notion of a seed form of beginning with a future completion is referred to as the “Now/Not Yet” of the Kingdom of God. As scholar Ken Gentry writes,
“Despite initial appearances, Revelation 21-22 does not speak of the consummate new creation order. Rather, it provides an ideal conception of new covenant Christianity, presenting it as the spiritual new creation and the new Jerusalem. Though the ultimate, consummate, eternal new creation is implied in these verses, (via the now/not yet schema of New Testament revelation), John’s actual focus is on the current, unfolding, redemptive new creation principle in Christ.”6
This now/not yet, inauguration/consummation paints a picture of a New Covenant that is already here with a new creation of a new heavens and earth that will one day be fully consummated at the physical return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. At that time, Death will be swallowed up in victory, even though we can now speak of it having already lost its sting. This is present reality based on future promise.
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Cor 15:54-57
1. DeMar, Gary. End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Theology. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001, 111-115. For more, see “Preterist Scholarship” on the Preterist Archive: http://www.preteristarchive.com/Preterism/index.html.
2. Godawa, Brian. “Old Testament Storytelling Apologetics,” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 34, #3, 2011, p. 24-31. Online: http://www.godawa.com/Writing/Articles/OTStoryApologetics-CRJournal.pdf
3. KTU 1.2:4.8–9; 1.3:3.38–41. All these Ugaritic texts can be found in N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, 2nd ed., The Biblical Seminar, vol. 53 (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).
4. Baal sits…/in the midst of his divine mountain, Saphon,/in the midst of the mountain of victory./Seven lightning-flashes,/eight bundles of thunder,/a tree-of-lightning in his right hand./His head is magnificent,/His brow is dew-drenched./his feet are eloquent in wrath. (KTU 1.101:1–6)
The season of his rains may Baal indeed appoint,/the season of his storm-chariot./And the sound of his voice from the clouds,/his hurling to the earth of lightning-flashes(KTU 1.4:5.5–9)
5. See also Psa 18:9-10; 68:32-33; 104:3; 2Sam 22:10; Zeph 1:15; Isa 30:30-31 cf 31:15; Deut 33:26.
6. Gentry, Kenneth L. Jr. Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues. Fountain Inn: SC, Goodbirth Ministries, 2009, p. 167.
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed various documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Word Pictures: Knowing God through Story and Imagination (InterVarsity Press). He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at www.hollywoodworldviews.com.