"See the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt" (Isaiah 19:1). That verse introduces five aspects of the day of Lord which was coming upon the land of Egypt (!9:16, 18, 19, 23, and 24). The Lord also comes to reign and manifest his glory in Israel and Judah. (22:5, 24::21-23) "See the name of the Lord comes from far away, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke . . . to sift the nations" (30:26-28). He also visits (another word for coming) to restore Tyre (23:7). And even more metaphorically the Lord wields "his cruel and great sword" to destroy Leviathan (27:1).
Instead of a coming, the prophets often speak of coming down. "The Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion" (31:4). A coming also results in God being seen as present in that situation. "Say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" See the Lord comes with might and his arm rules for him" (40:10). We would misunderstand the typically vivid Middle Eastern language if we imagined that coming down meant vertical descent, or that God comes to be present in some bodily shape, or that God wields a sword with a human arm.
We have already guessed that the Son of God who took birth as Jesus in our world must have been the one who intervened again and again as Lord in the Old Testament. He was the one who came to invite Adam and Eve for a walk. "They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God" (Genesis 3:8). And to this day the Son of God still wants to come and walk with us, enjoy our company.
When people tried to build a tower to heaven "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower" and "scattered them abroad over the face of the earth" (Genesis 11:5, 9). Concerning Sodom and Gomorrah the Lord said "I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me" (Genesis 18:21).
Similarly in the Old Testament on several occasions "The Lord appeared to Abraham" and spoke to him (Genesis 12:6, 13:14, 15:1, 7, 18:1), as he did to Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 26:2-4, 28:13-15, see 31:24, 32:24-28).
In the annual Passover services Jewish people still remember the coming of the Lord to deliver them from slavery in Egypt. "You right hand, O Lord, glorious in power - your right hand, O Lord shattered the enemy" (Exodus 15:6). The King James and Revised Version used the appropriate verb "visit" for this coming to have a look (literally "visiting I will visit" as in Genesis 50:25, Exodus 3:16, 13:19). And this was picked up in the Song of Zachariah, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people" (Luke 1:68 KJV, RV, and RSV, but unhelpfully translated as "looked favorably" in NRSV).
Evidently there are many ways in which the Lord comes in the Old Testament. In our language we speak of a coming when a person arrives at the airport, or comes in the door of our home. But the language of coming has to be learned. A newborn baby soon grasps the idea of parental coming. The mother comes by cuddling and singing and giving milk. The father comes by speaking words, picking up, and playing. Later we speak of "he came to power," or "the idea came to me" or "he came into my life" or "he came to my rescue on the internet."
We too need to learn the language of God's coming to us and into our world. Our Christian experience of God is Trinitarian. All three Persons of the Trinity can be called Lord. And we experience their coming in different ways..
The Father is a loving parent who sets up our daily environment like a mother planning the day of her child (see Isaiah 49:15, 66:13, see Psalm 131:2). We trust the Father to protect us, and we run to him like a frightened child.
The Spirit comes to us and works within our inner being. The Hebrew word for Spirit (ruakh) is feminine, but that is an accident of language, and God is neither male or female. But the Old Testament writers thought of her in-breathing, from which we get the word inspiration. Artists have always known that inspiration could be for artistic creativity. As when "The Lord has called by name Bezalel . . . and filled him with the spirit of God . . . to devise artistic designs. . . And he has inspired him to teach" (Exodus 35:31-34). The Spirit also empowered political leaders (see Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29). The prophets received inspiration and revelation to give their messages.
In the New Testament we learn many additional ways in which the Holy Spirit comes. He comes to give wisdom, guidance, assurance of acceptance as children of God, prayer, fruit of the Spirit, various gifts of the Spirit. We are comfortable with the language of his coming in our hymns. "Come down, O love divine . . . Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire . . . Come gracious Spirit, heavenly Dove, with light and comfort from above . . . He came sweet influence to impart, a gracious, willing guest."
We might say that the proper response to the Father as our Lord is praise and thanksgiving for the loving care that constantly comes to surround us (as in the praise Psalms). The proper response to the Spirit as Lord is to invite him (or her) in to come, inspire, make us fruitful with love, give gifts, and empower us. And the proper response to the Son is to turn to him for salvation (or coming to save) in every kind of situation. "Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 45:22). This is why there are many examples of prayer for the Lord to come and intervene, or be present with the psalm writers (Psalms 3:7, 6:4, 7:6, 10:1, 13:1, 15:8, 18:9-10, 16, 23:4, 24:7-9, etc.).
In the New Testament we find the Son of God described as coming very personally to Paul on three occasions: on the road to Damascus, in Corinth, and during his trial (Acts 9:4, 18:9,10, 23:11). And many people in our day speak of occasions when the Lord came to their bedside when they needed his presence. Emmanuel means God with us, "A very present help in trouble."
The most obvious example of the coming of the Son of God into our world was his coming to be conceived physically by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary (Luke 1:35). The last of the Old Testament prophets had said, "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:2). This again suggests that the Lord of hosts who came in days of the Lord and reigned in the days of the prophets (see Isaiah 31:4) is the same Lord who decided to come and take birth among us.
Some may not be comfortable with the idea of the Second Person of the Trinity coming and coming down to intervene in our world. But the point of quoting these texts is to prove that this was the way the Old Testament prophets, and the New Testament writers, used the vivid language of the Lord coming to us and into our world. Such language is unfamiliar to us. But we can make no sense of what Jesus said and the early Christians expected, if we fail to grasp how the prophets pictured the Lord's coming to intervene in days of the Lord.
The frequent Davidic language which looks forward to a Messiah from the royal line is also important. "On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples . . . On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left" (11:10, 11, see 9:7, 22:22, Jeremiah 22:4, 30, 23:5, 30:9, 33:15, 21, 26, Zechariah 13:1).
As we will see, the Lord's interventions can be to judge and assign wrath. But there are also tender, gracious comings to comfort us. Isaiah speaks of "The day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow" (30:26). Even concerning Canaanite Tyre we read that "At the end of seventy years the Lord will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade" (Isaiah 23:17).
Similarly in his dealing with his New Testament churches, on the one hand the Lord comes to deal with those that fail to do his work (Revelation 2:5, 16, 3:3, 11). He also encourages the faithful (Revelation 2:2-3, 3:8). Best of all he longs to come and share in our communion services. "Listen ! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Revelation 3:20). "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20). And obviously he can only be among us if he has come.
In the ancient world God was pictured as coming to share in a family or tribal meal. For them sacrifice meant that an animal was killed for the occasion, and the Lord came to be present with them (see Religion: Origins and Ideas, chapter 2, published on this site). In the New Testament much of the ministry of the same Lord took place at meals where sinners were welcome to eat with him. And after his resurrection he continued coming to share meals in various places with his disciples (Luke 24:30, 35, John 21:9, 12-14, see the article "Seven Sundays from Easter to Pentecost" on this site).
Our interest will be in the Lord's own words about his coming to judge the people who rejected him as Messiah. In a parable Jesus had asked "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" And his hearers answered to indicate they knew what he intended. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death , and lease the vineyard to others" (Matthew 21:40-41). Which indicates that the Lord would come to topple the temple in Jerusalem and its powerful religious establishment. And the Lord's royal priesthood would be transferred from the old Jewish Aaronic priesthood to servants of the King serving him among all nations.
Matthew's Gospel has a whole chapter of denunciation of Pharisee greed and hypocrisy. It concludes with "So that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth . . . . I tell you, all this will come upon this generation" (Matthew 23:35-36). This obviously refers to a coming judgment in the generation of his hearers. And we have suggested that it was fulfilled when the ascended Son of God came in AD 70 to destroy the temple, and decimate the Sadducee and Pharisee leadership who had rejected their Messiah.
As we saw in the last chapter, Jesus adopted exactly the language Isaiah used for the destruction of the Babylonian empire. "The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light ; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken" (Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, both quoting Isaiah 13:9-10). This is often viewed as language about a second coming which is still in the future. It seems much simpler to take it as metaphorical language predicting that the Jerusalem sun would be darkened in AD 70, and its reflected glory would pale. And we know that the stars of the Jerusalem establishment fell from their pedestals, and the Jewish nation was shaken and scattered . That certainly happened in that generation exactly as Jesus had predicted.
If that was the coming Jesus had in mind, preachers have no business using the New Testament to terrify people for an imminent coming in the year 2,000. What then do we make of our Creed? "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end" (Nicene Creed). We might answer that "his kingdom will have no end" because he is reigning now, and "He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25). And a essential part of his reign, as in the Old Testament, is that he reigns and intervenes by coming again and again.
In a chapter titled "Advent : Active Love" Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow wrote "We anticipate a final advent, but there are also mini-advents" (Unbounded Love : A Good News Theology for the 21st. Century, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994, p.81). That means there is not just one second coming but many comings of the Lord throughout history. And we have suggested that the coming Jesus said would occur in his generation (Matthew 23:36, 24:34, Mark 13:30) was the coming to destroy Jerusalem and its religious establishment.
We are contrasting this with another model, adopted by thousands of preachers as the twentieth century comes to a close, in which the Lord will not begin his reign till after he has come to rapture the true believers.
In both models there is a final or ultimate judging of "the living and the dead," but in very different ways. Which now brings us to explore the prophetic language of the Lord's judgment in the next chapter.