Friday, July 16, 2010

Exegetical Eschatology: As the Lightning Comes

Previously in this series, we examined some of the assumptions we tend to read into the texts concerning the "end times." We learned that these assumptions are at best unwarranted, and at worst appear to contradict what Scripture teaches, and as such we must approach this biblical issue more carefully than we may have done in the past.

I've covered most of the sort of overarching assumptions I had intended to address, those which impact how we understand a variety of passages throughout Scripture. Today, because I witnessed it in action in a recent episode of a podcast I listen to, I want to look at something more particular, more specific. While perhaps not properly characterized as an assumption, this idea is nevertheless often presumed to be true without any effort to look elsewhere in Scripture to see if it is warranted.

In Matthew's account of the "Olivet Discourse," recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus tells His audience, "For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be." Preterists understand this to be a metaphor communicating Christ's judgment upon Jerusalem when Rome attacked it and destroyed the temple in AD 70.

But in opposition to this view, many assert that a) Jesus was predicting His "Second Coming," which hasn't happened yet, and b) was promising a universally visible return. More specifically, that He, Himself, would return and come and be present in such a fashion as would be visible to everyone in the world at that time. Before we examine this notion critically, let's look at how this argument works out in real life.


As I explained in "The Seventh Day... Today?" Greg Koukl's Stand to Reason apologetics ministry is one I enjoy and appreciate, at least for now. However, it was in an episode of his podcast from a couple of months ago ("Kevin DeYoung - Just Do Something", 5/10/2010) that a caller asked Greg to comment on preterism. He responded,

"What would be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" That's the disciples' question...and then [Jesus] describes these things that will happen. And then when it comes to the sign of His coming, He says, "You will see the sign of the Son of Man appearing in the sky" says in verse 27, "Just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be..." Now, He gives descriptions of things that look like they're going to be visible things in the heavens that everyone will be able to see, which will protect us from false messiahs who people say will be over there in Rome, or over in the temple, or over across the street, whatever. And He said look, "You don't have to have people telling you where the Messiah is because everybody's going to see them." I think that's His argument. "Do not believe them for just as the lightning comes from the east to the west so shall the coming of the Son of Man be." So, I don't think you can take the Matthew passage and make a kind of metaphor out of it, because it seems to me it is the actual visible, powerful and conclusive return of Christ that's characterized here that is going to be, and our understanding that it's going to be that way that protects us from being taken in by false messiahs.

There are actually several assumptions Koukl reads into the text here. He says, "it is the...return of Christ that's characterized here," so he's assuming it is the "Second Coming" or final return which Jesus is predicting here. We looked at that assumption previously in this series. Koukl also says, "visible things in the heavens that everyone will be able to see, which will protect us from false messiahs," so he's assuming that it is we, today, who are being protected from deception, and that only visible things could have been perceived by those whom He is protecting. We can examine those assumptions another day.

But the assumption I want to concentrate on today is that Christ's use of the picture of lightning is intended to communicate visibility; that is, that Jesus' presence would be seen through the physical eyes of its witnesses. Note, from the outset, that Koukl makes a couple of errors in discussing this. First, he says we can't "make a kind of metaphor out of it," and yet that's exactly what Jesus does by saying "Just as" lightning, so too shall His coming be. Okay, well more properly He employs simile, but that's splitting hairs. Second, Greg seems to equate the sign of Jesus' coming with His coming itself. It is true that Christ says "the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky," perhaps suggesting visibility, but He doesn't say that He would appear in the sky. Rather, in saying "they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY," He is quoting Daniel 7:13 where Jesus is coming up to God, not coming down to earth. At best, Koukl is making another assumption here, too.

So, how do we test the assumption that lightning in this passage is intended to communicate visibility? The only way to do so is to look at how lightning is employed metaphorically elsewhere in Scripture. To limit interpretive and translation disagreements, let's look at how the Hebrew word most consistently rendered "lightning," בָּרָק (baraq), is used metaphorically in the Old Testament.


In Deuteronomy 32 we have the "Song of Moses," sung by Moses after commissioning Joshua and shortly before his death. At the end of the previous chapter, Moses says, "27 I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the LORD; how much more, then, after my death? 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them." With that, Moses sings his song, which is thus a song of judgment.

That the theme of this song is judgment cannot be missed. Verse 5 reads, "They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; but are a perverse and crooked generation." The Lord had "encircled Jacob, He cared for him, He guarded him as the pupil of His eye" (verse 10), but Israel "grew fat and kicked...forsook God who made him" (verse 15). So God says, "I will hide My face from them" (verse 20), and "will make them jealous with those who are not a people" (verse 21). He says, "I will heap misfortunes on them" (verse 23), and that they "will be wasted by famine, and consumed by plague" (verse 24).

But then God shifts gears, remembering His people, saying, "I would have said, 'I will cut them to pieces...Had I not feared the provocation by the enemy, that their adversaries would misjudge" (verses 26 and 27). Of Israel's enemies God says, "their vine is from the vine of Sodom, and from the fields of Gomorrah" (verse 32), and "Their wine is the venom of serpents, and the deadly poison of cobras" (verse 33). Continuing to speak of Israel's enemies He promises, "Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near" (verse 35). Then God "will vindicate His people, and will have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their strength is gone, and there is none remaining, bond or free" (verse 36).

So the whole song is a song of judgment, first on Israel, later on her enemies. And as the song draws to its conclusion, God says, "See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me...And there is no one who can deliver from My hand" (verse 39). And then we read this:

41 If I sharpen My flashing sword, and My hand takes hold on justice, I will render vengeance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me. 42 I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword will devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired leaders of the enemy. 43 "Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, and will render vengeance on His adversaries, and will atone for His land and His people."(Deuteronomy 32:41-43)

In verse 41 the word rendered "flashing" is baraq, or "lightning." The Amplified Bible thus renders it, "My lightning sword." Thus, "lightning" here is being used as a metaphor for judgment, for vengeance. God's "lightning sword" is His judging wrath which He will employ to "devour flesh...from the long-haired leaders of the enemy," and to "avenge the blood of His servants, and will render vengeance on His adversaries." Read that last part again: "avenge the blood of His servants." Does that sound familiar?

Back in Matthew 24 where Jesus says His coming will be as lightning, this discourse follows the previous chapter which concludes with these, Jesus' words:

31 So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell? 34 Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (Matthew 23:31-38)

Like God did in the passage in Deuteronomy which we just examined, Jesus is pronouncing judgment. Just as God had spoken of those who were guilty of "the blood of His servants," so, too, does Jesus speak of those upon whom would "fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth." And just as God said "the day of [His enemies'] calamity is near," so, too, does Jesus say "your house is being left to you desolate." The parallels are painfully obvious, and it is this which the Olivet Discourse follows, in which Jesus says "not one stone here [of the temple] will be left upon another" (Matthew 24:2), and then likens His coming unto judgment.

When God employed the metaphor of lightning in Deuteronomy 32, was He implying visibility? No, the metaphor was one communicating judgment. Likewise, given the so obvious parallels between that passage and Matthew 24, it seems at the very least reasonable, and at best conclusive, that the metaphor is being used in a likewise fashion.


If there remains any doubt that God's "lightning sword" of judgment parallels Christ's coming foretold in the Olivet Discourse, consider this passage:

2 "Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem, and speak against the sanctuaries and prophesy against the land of Israel; 3 and say to the land of Israel, 'Thus says the LORD, "Behold, I am against you; and I will draw My sword out of its sheath and cut off from you the righteous and the wicked. 4 Because I will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked, therefore My sword will go forth from its sheath against all flesh from south to north. 5 Thus all flesh will know that I, the LORD, have drawn My sword out of its sheath. It will not return to its sheath again."' 6 As for you, son of man, groan with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan in their sight. 7 And when they say to you, 'Why do you groan?' you shall say, 'Because of the news that is coming; and every heart will melt, all hands will be feeble, every spirit will faint and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it comes and it will happen,'" declares the Lord GOD. 8 Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 9 "Son of man, prophesy and say, 'Thus says the LORD.' Say, 'A sword, a sword sharpened and also polished! 10 Sharpened to make a slaughter, polished to flash like lightning!' Or shall we rejoice, the rod of My son despising every tree? 11 It is given to be polished, that it may be handled; the sword is sharpened and polished, to give it into the hand of the slayer. 12 Cry out and wail, son of man; for it is against My people, it is against all the officials of Israel. They are delivered over to the sword with My people, therefore strike your thigh." (Ezekiel 21:2-12)

Here again, God's sword of judgment is promised, this time against Jerusalem. And in the same way Jesus says His coming would be "as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west," so, too, does God here say His sword would "flash like lightning" (baraq), and would "go forth from its sheath against all flesh from south to north." So again we see lightning used as a metaphor for judgment.

Beyond that, this passage demonstrates something that perhaps the previous passage we examined does not. Recall that Greg Koukl's argument was that Jesus' use of the lightning metaphor was intended to protect His intended audience from being deceived by false messiahs, and therefore must refer to something visible. However, here we see that lightning is not intended to communicate visibility, but it does serve as proof to all who witness the judgment! He says, "Thus all flesh will know that I, the LORD, have drawn My sword out of its sheath."

Here's the point: God's "lightning sword" of judgment was not the promise of visible signs in the heavens, but rather a terrifyingly powerful destruction of His enemies, one which could not be mistaken by its witnesses. Likewise, then, Jesus' coming could be recognized by those whom He intended to protect without it being visible in the way Koukl argues. All that would be required would be a judgment so obvious that no counterfeit could be mistaken for it.

There is also one additional parallel between this passage and the Olivet Discourse. Later in Ezekiel 21 Jerusalem is told that God would use human armies as agents of her destruction. Ezekiel is told to "make two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to come" (verse 19), "For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways" (verse 21). Jerusalem's destruction, God says, "will be to [Babylon's armies] like a false divination in their eyes" (verse 23). And God promises, "I will pour out My indignation on you; I will blow on you with the fire of My wrath, and I will give you into the hand of brutal men, skilled in destruction" (verse 31).

Now look at Luke's account of the Olivet Discourse. Whereas Matthew depicts Jesus as saying, "when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains" (Matthew 24:15-16), Luke records it differently for his Gentile audience. He has Jesus saying, "when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains" (Luke 21:20-21).

We see, then, that just as God wields His "lightning sword" through human armies as agents of His wrath, likewise Jesus' coming as lightning is connected to the surrounding of Jerusalem by armies. Combined with the parallels we saw between the Olivet Discourse and Deuteronomy 32, the parallels between it and Ezekiel 21 strongly suggest that Jesus' use of the lightning metaphor, while meant to protect His intended audience from deception, nevertheless does so by communicating the obviousness of impending judgment, rather than universal visibility.


Although the passages we've already looked at in which baraq is used make it clear that Jesus' use of lightning in no way suggests visible signs, there are many more which further nail the coffin shut. God, it seems, has more than just a sword which flashes like lightning:

11 Sun and moon stood in their places; They went away at the light of Your arrows, at the radiance of Your gleaming spear. 12 In indignation You marched through the earth; In anger You trampled the nations. 13 You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for the salvation of Your anointed You struck the head of the house of the evil to lay him open from thigh to neck. (Habakkuk 3:11-13)

Here the word for "gleaming" is, again, baraq, or "lightning." The NIV renders the verse, "the lightning of your flashing spear." Again we see lightning used as a metaphor for judgment, where "in anger [God] trampled the nations." Note, too, the mention of God's arrows, which as we'll see in the next passage are strikingly relevant to this discussion of lightning and judgment.


13 For I will bend Judah as My bow, I will fill the bow with Ephraim and I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece; and I will make you like a warrior's sword. 14 Then the LORD will appear over them, and His arrow will go forth like lightning; and the Lord GOD will blow the trumpet, and will march in the storm winds of the south. 15 The LORD of hosts will defend them and they will devour and trample on the sling stones; and they will drink and be boisterous as with wine; and they will be filled like a sacrificial basin, drenched like the corners of the altar. (Zechariah 9:13-15)

In this passage, God says He will deliver Judah and Ephraim and use them to destroy their attackers, Greece. As a metaphor for this, He says "His arrow will go forth like lightning," again using the word baraq. Now, the connection between lightning and judgment may not be quite as clear. After all, the judgment pronounced earlier in the chapter is on the other lands Greece would attack, whom God would not deliver as He would Israel, and not on Greece herself.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that lightning is employed here not as a metaphor communicating visibility, but destruction. Furthermore, I think it could be argued that God's destruction upon nations is always a form of judgment, and just as we earlier saw God use armies to judge Jerusalem, here God is using Israel to judge Greece. However, if one thinks this nail in the coffin a fragile one, we're not done with arrows and lightning yet.


8 Then the earth shook and quaked, the foundations of heaven were trembling and were shaken, because He was angry. 9 Smoke went up out of His nostrils, fire from His mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it. 10 He bowed the heavens also, and came down with thick darkness under His feet. 11 And He rode on a cherub and flew; and He appeared on the wings of the wind. 12 And He made darkness canopies around Him, a mass of waters, thick clouds of the sky. 13 From the brightness before Him coals of fire were kindled. 14 The LORD thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered His voice. 15 And He sent out arrows, and scattered them, lightning, and routed them. 16 Then the channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were laid bare by the rebuke of the LORD, at the blast of the breath of His nostrils. (2 Samuel 22:8-16)

In this, David's song of deliverance from his enemies, he says God "was angry" and "sent out arrows" and "lightning" (baraq) to "scatter" and "route" them. So again we see lightning used as a metaphor for terrifying wrath and destruction, rather than visibility. This song appears also in Psalm 18 where this metaphor is repeated, and in Psalm 144 the metaphor of lightning (baraq) is similarly used where David prays God would "flash forth lightning and scatter" his enemies (verse 6). And we're not finished yet.


2 Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. 3 Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries round about. 4 His lightnings lit up the world; the earth saw and trembled. 5 The mountains melted like wax at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. 6 The heavens declare His righteousness, and all the peoples have seen His glory. 7 Let all those be ashamed who serve graven images, who boast themselves of idols; worship Him, all you gods. (Psalm 97:2-7)

In this psalm, God is said to "[burn] up His adversaries round about," and that "His lightnings lit up the world" using that word we've been looking at, baraq. Again, then, lightning is used as a metaphor for judgment. Also, similar to the passage in Ezekiel, judgment here is likened unto lightning in that God's glory would be seen by "all the peoples."

This is not to say the lightning is intended to communicate visibility; it's not. Rather, God's judgment would be perceived by all who witness the destruction He brings about. So again, Jesus' use of the lightning metaphor, while certainly intended to protect those who witness His coming, nevertheless ought not to be understood to mean that He would be seen visibly by all. And we see this again elsewhere:

14 You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples. 15 You have by Your power redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah. 16 The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were in anguish; the deeps also trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth a sound; Your arrows flashed here and there. 18 The sound of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; the lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footprints may not be known. 20 You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:14-20)

Here again lightning (baraq) is used as a metaphor for judgment, this time upon Egypt from whom God delivered the Israelites through Moses and Aaron. And what was the result of this judgment? "You have made known Your strength among the peoples." Those to whom God wishes to make His judgment known recognize it when they see it in action.


If everything we've looked at thus far were not enough, there are still a few more passages where the connection between lightning and judgment is evident:

7 He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; Who makes lightnings for the rain, who brings forth the wind from His treasuries. 8 He smote the firstborn of Egypt, both of man and beast. 9 He sent signs and wonders into your midst, O Egypt, upon Pharaoh and all his servants. 10 He smote many nations and slew mighty kings, 11 Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, and all the kingdoms of Canaan; 12 And He gave their land as a heritage, a heritage to Israel His people.
(Psalm 135:7-12)

Now one might be tempted to think that the lightning (baraq) here is either literal, or has nothing to do with judgment. However, are we to assume that it is a mere coincidence that immediately following this language the psalmist speaks of the judgment of Egypt and Pharaoh? Of the Amorites? Of Canaan? Given the many places where lightning as a metaphor is so tightly coupled with judgment and wrath, it seems implausible that the lightning here doesn't serve the same purpose. Besides, nearly identical language is used in other places:

10 But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure His indignation. 11 Thus you shall say to them, "The gods that did not make the heavens and the earth will perish from the earth and from under the heavens." 12 It is He who made the earth by His power, who established the world by His wisdom; and by His understanding He has stretched out the heavens. 13 When He utters His voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain, and brings out the wind from His storehouses. (Jeremiah 10:10-13)

12 Lift up a signal against the walls of Babylon; Post a strong guard, station sentries, place men in ambush! For the LORD has both purposed and performed what He spoke concerning the inhabitants of Babylon. 13 O you who dwell by many waters, abundant in treasures, your end has come, the measure of your end. 14 The LORD of hosts has sworn by Himself: "Surely I will fill you with a population like locusts, and they will cry out with shouts of victory over you." 15 It is He who made the earth by His power, who established the world by His wisdom, and by His understanding He stretched out the heavens. 16 When He utters His voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain and brings forth the wind from His storehouses. (Jeremiah 51:12-16)

So we see that this phrase "He makes lightning [baraq] for the rain" appears in each of these three passages, including the words that immediately precede and follow it, within the context of judgment.


Greg Koukl and those who share his view of the "end times" assume that Jesus' use of lightning as a metaphor indicates that the coming He promised in Matthew 24 would be a universally visible coming, one "seen" through the physical eyes of humans around the globe. But as we've seen, in the Hebrew Tanakh (Old Testament) in which the disciples were well-steeped, lightning was used as a metaphor communicating God's wrath and judgment, demonstrated to its witnesses through terrifying destruction, not visible signs. This, then, ought to be how we understand Jesus' words.

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