Last week, we looked at what Jesus had to say about the timing of his own parousia, or “coming.”
So where else does the ‘coming of God’ show up in Holy Writ? Was a ‘coming of God’ like the world-devourer Galactus‘ herald Silver Surfer, gliding in from the sky all bright and shiny? Or was it a demonstration of God’s power in spiritual, physical and the visible realms? Let’s delve into the internal language of Scripture to discover what this concept means to its original speakers.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, a ‘Coming of God’ had many forms; a voice in the Garden, a burning bush, and a pillar of fire. A ‘coming of God’ in judgment was usually when God used the means of an enemy army to discipline a city and its inhabitants. God’s presence was recognized in that hostile army because God sent a prophet to warn of the event beforehand. In the biblical narrative, the pattern looks like this:
- A Prophet uses apocalyptic language to Tell people that ‘God is coming‘ to change the ‘heaven and earth’ of their society ->
- The Prophet tells people to repent and turn to God->
- The People don’t turn to God ->
- An Enemy army comes. and people “see” God – meaning, they recognize that God visited them in judgment ->
- God reorients the ‘heaven and earth’ of the political and religious order of their society.
Like Father, like Son:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:27)
We sometimes forget the poetic stirrings in the ancient Hebrew writers, setting their evocative words in concrete, beyond all original recognition. Max King’s depiction of prophecy, though, brings me back to a primary understanding of how prophetic language functioned for its earliest hearers: “Prophecy is figurative language describing the spiritual significance of temporal events.”
This is how God came in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and this is how Jesus was prophesied to come “in the glory of the Father” in the New Testament. Many Christians do not know this, but in 70AD, that is exactly what happened. The presence of God, in the paradoxical form of Roman armies, trampled the city of Jerusalem for 42 months, or 3 1/2 years – just as prophesied, “…it is given to the nations, and they will trample the Holy City for 42 months” (Revelation 11:2). Afterwards, even the Jewish historian, Josephus, recognized that this was a Divine intervention – a Coming of God – breaking into and changing history forever.
The main difference between God’s comings in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ coming was that Jesus’ coming would be the climax of comings of God in history. His coming would consummate the New Covenant age of God’s Kingdom of people on earth.
“Now once at the consummation of the ages he has been manifested to put away sin.” (Hebrews 9:26)
Jesus’ coming would simultaneously cause the heaven and earth of the Old Covenant to become obsolete, disappearing from the relationship between God and humanity. And it would give way to the dawning of the New Covenant age, the heaven and earth of the New Covenant Kingdom of people.
“When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:13)
Jesus’ glorious arrival would be into his New Kingdom – and that New Kingdom is us! Jesus arrived to give life to his own body on earth – the body of Christ.
Through Us, Not To Us
It’s time to adjust our lens. The purpose of God’s coming wasn’t to physically renew the earth into a utopian state in an instant. It was to consummate the marriage relationship begun, the New Covenant relationship, with the New ‘Israel of God’ in Christ. Historically, marriage has had the purpose of producing legally recognized descendants who could be designated as heirs to a father’s land or Kingdom. Such is the case with God, his bride and his children. God came and consummated a New Covenant world, making a new relationship with his bride, the New Humanity, so that they could begin producing spiritual children, heirs with rights to all the promises and benefits as God’s all-pervasive Kingdom.
This consummation has nothing to do with the end of the material world, or the beginning of a utopian earth. It is about belonging to a spiritual reality that we can live in now, amidst our material world. It is a Kingdom that is coming into the physical world through us. You can opt into it and recognizing your belonging into it at any time.
It is not that God isn’t changing and powerfully transforming this world toward God’s own victorious influence of justice, mercy, hope and glory. No, its that these changes are breaking into the world through us, as we live out our lives seeking to be a benefit and blessing to all the world, opening ourselves to the very real and powerful presence of an all-in-all God. God is coming into this world through us, right now, not coming in one earth-ending future installation “to” us.
To End a Covenant World
So let’s look at the pattern in the text again.
There were many “Coming of God” events prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, complete with earth-ending and cloud-coming apocalyptic language, signifying great change. But was this language describing the end of the physical planet? Or was it the end of a society’s religious and political order – the end of their world as they knew it?
The Bible and history both confirm that this apocalyptic language was consistently describing the end of political and religious worlds – or societies – like Greece, Edom, Babylon, Egypt and Israel, as you can see from Scriptures we’ll explore below.
A Coming of God, in biblical literature, was never literally a physical deity dropping out of the ‘sky,’ although this cloud-coming language occurs to many modern ears that way. But an ancient person at all familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures would have recognized that Jesus was quoting the Hebrew descriptions of past comings of God from Isaiah and Ezekiel. Thus, they would have reason to hear Jesus’ words in the same way – as a poetic and apocalyptic way of describing God’s end of Israel’s Old Covenantal world through the use of an enemy army. Jesus was not as describing the end of the material world – not in his future, nor in ours.
Jesus, a prophet in the line of Hebrew prophets, predicted a ‘cloud-coming’ judgment on Jerusalem in his generation. Jesus was not predicting the end of the world, time or history! Jesus simply quotes his Hebrew Bible and follows the same Hebrew biblical pattern set by many before him, in a way his first century Jewish audience would understand. Jesus was predicting great covenantal change, as signified by his paradoxical presence in Jerusalem being given over to its violent strategies via Rome in AD 70, having ignored Jesus’ Way of Peace (Luke 13:34-35).
Stay tuned – we’ll be exploring more about the coming of God next week!
Riley O’Brien Powell earned her BA in Art History from Wheaton College, M.Div from Princeton Seminary, and M.A. in Education from Harvard University. She is a mother of four, raising them with her husband, Skip Powell, MD. She is a covenant participant and theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can find more of Riley’s writing on her blogs, at Living the Question and Mostly Raw Mom.