Those statements of belief that traditional churches use in the service as a “these are the beliefs of the church” statements. The Church of England says the Apostles’ Creed at daily office (morning and evening prayer), and the Nicene Creed at communion, they are the Church’s mission statement, written in response to heresies that were present in the early church.
The one that concerns me here is the Apostles Creed and the heresy it was written to oppose was Gnosticism. Two of the teachings of the Gnostics are:
- Jesus was not fully human as the created world is evil.
- They had special secret knowledge unknown to other people
The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.
These things and those days
27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.
29 ‘Immediately after the distress of those days
‘“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
30 ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.Matthew 24:29-31 NIV UK
Unlike the Gnostics, Jesus does not say his coming is going to be secret or hidden. It will be obvious. God’s judgement is coming,
There are a few things to bear in mind when reading this in English and particularly in Britain. In a Mediterranean climate clouds are a good thing, and the rain that they bring is a sign of God’s blessing. My only bit of blue sky as I write this is a small patch to the north west, above me the clouds are ominously dark and it has recently rained. To the British, who love talking about the weather a lot, clouds and rain are things we grumble about. We need to change the way we think when we hear clouds mentioned in the Bible.
The second is that in the Old Testament clouds signify the glory of God. The Israelites were led through the wilderness by the presence of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, the glory of God came down on Solomon’s temple in the form of a cloud and when Elijah told King Ahab that it would not rain until he said so he was announcing that God would withhold his blessing (Exodus 13:21, 2 Chronicles 5:14 & 1 Kings 17:1).
The third is that the Greek word translated coming has other meanings beside what we mean in English by coming. ἐρχόμενον can mean coming or moving to a destination, but it may not be where the observer is, such as when we buy a return rail ticket, to go somewhere but return later.
Coming with the clouds in the prophetic tradition is used when God is coming in judgement immediatey or soon, as he ‘rides on a swift cloud’ (Is 19.1). Also from Isaiah:
The stars of heaven and their constellationsIsaiah 13:10
will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light.
This, in context, is about God’s judgement on Babylon. This together with the quote about coming on the clouds from Daniel 7:13-14 shows God coming in glory and power in Judgement. Jesus is saying that the generation alive will see him come in power, looking forward to his death and resurrection in a few days time, but also to the judgement of that generation, though God will protect his people, the elect, in those days,
That Jesus saying he is coming on the clouds is about Judgement on the generation that was alive at that time does not mean it does not have a future meaning. The passage in Isaiah that a young woman will conceive a son and he will be called Emmanuel has two meanings, the immediate meaning was Isaiah’s own son, and a later one to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. John takes Jesus’ words and says in Revelation 1:7, “He is coming with the clouds,” making the fulfilment in the future, but that does not prevent the immediate fulfilment being also in the generation alive at that time.