Opinion

The Judgment Comings in the Bible May Not be What You Think

When the Bible uses the word “coming,” translated from the Greek words parousia (παρουσία) and erchomai (ἔρχομαι). The Greek word parousia (παρουσία) is more accurately translated as “presence” where it is used 24 times in the New Testament. Of these, six uses refer to the physical presence of individuals: Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor.16:17), Titus (2 Cor. 7:6-7), Paul (2 Cor. 10:10, Phil. 1:26; 2:12), and the “coming of the lawless one” or “the man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:9). Here are some additional verses where parousia is used: Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 8; James 5:7, 8; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28.

There are several places in the Old Testament where God comes in a non-physical way to bring judgment. We read the following in Micah 1:

The word of the Lord which came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.
Hear, O peoples, all of you;
Listen, O earth and all it contains,
And let the Lord GOD be a witness against you,
The Lord from His holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming forth from His place.
He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth [Amos 4:13].
The mountains will melt under Him
And the valleys will be split,
Like wax before the fire,
Like water poured down a steep place.
All this is for the rebellion of Jacob
And for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the rebellion of Jacob?
Is it not Samaria? What is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem?
For I will make Samaria a heap of ruins in the open country,
Planting places for a vineyard.
I will pour her stones down into the valley
And will lay bare her foundations.

Notice how the language is both universal (“earth and all it contains”) and local (“house of Israel”). Micah is not describing a distant end-time prophetic event. He is describing a judgment coming because of the rebellion of Jacob and the sins of the northern and southern kingdoms and their capitals.

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There are other passages that speak of God “coming down” to act. God is described as “riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt” where “the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence” (Isa. 19:1).

In Revelation 19, Jesus is shown riding a horse with a sword coming out of His mouth. Is this His visible Second Coming at some distant date in the future? Will Jesus return on a horse with a sword coming out of His mouth, or is something else meant?

Earlier in the book of Revelation, we notice that Jesus threatens to come at least three times to three different local first-century churches:

  • Ephesus: “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent” (2:5).
  • Pergamum: “Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth” (2:16).
  • Philadelphia:I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (3:11).

David Chilton writes, “The Lord is not threatening the church at Ephesus with His Second Coming; He is saying that He will come against themI will remove your lampstand out it its place.” ((The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Horn Lake, MS: Dominion Press, [1987] 2006), 96.))

Kenneth Gentry comments:

Removing the lampstand signifies extinguishing the church by means of Christ’s personal judgment (“coming”) against them (Caird 27–28; Lenski 89, Ladd 39–40, Beasley-Murray 75, Mounce 70, Beale 232, Kistemaker 116, Witherington 95). As Beale (232) notes, this “coming” does not refer to Christ’s second coming, but his specific judgment of the Ephesian church in that “the activities of both ‘removing’ and ‘coming’ are conditional,” due to the de mē (“or else”) conditional clause. This localized coming against an Asia Minor church is also mentioned in 2:16; 3:3, 20.1

There are two comings mentioned in Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse. Jesus says He will come “just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming [presence/parousia/παρουσία] of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27) and the Son of Man will come (erchomai/ἔρχομαι) “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30; cf. Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64).

Lightning is often associated with judgment:

“And [Jesus] said to them, ‘I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning’” (Luke 10:18). Similar to wind and fire, lightning does “surrogate duty for the image of the invisible God…. Scripture uses lightning as proof of God’s terrifying presence. It frightens believer and infidel alike…. As proof that God attends his chosen people in battle, lightning routs his enemies (Ps. 77:18; 97:4, cf. 144:6; 2 Sam 22:13–15, cf. Ps 18:14).”2

Lightning is associated with violent destruction and terror as God uses Babylon to deliver His judgment (Ezek. 21:10, 15, 28). Lightning is associated with the sword and arrows in local judgments (2 Sam. 22:15; Ps. 18:14; 144:6). Did God use actual arrows in routing David’s enemies or did David use them? (Ps. 18:14).

Lightning is a local phenomenon. Of the 30 occurrences of the word “lightning” in the Bible, not one of them describes a global event.3 John MacArthur argues that “Christ promised that His coming would be obvious to all: ‘As the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be’ (Matthew 24:27 NKJV).”4 Thomas Ice offers a similar interpretation: “Matthew 24:27, which says, ‘Just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be,’ emphasizes a global coming.”5

Of course, lightning is not seen by everyone in the world when it strikes. When there’s a lightning storm in Sacramento, California, no one in Atlanta, Georgia, sees it. Our ability to see extends only from horizon to horizon. Contrary to MacArthur’s claim that “every person in every nation of the world will take note,”6 it’s clear that Jesus is describing a series of local events to be experienced by that first-century generation that could be escaped by heading to the mountains outside of Judea (Matt. 24:16).

  1. The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation, 2 vols. (Dallas, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2020), 1:372. []
  2. “Lightning,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 512–513. []
  3. Job 37:3 may be the exception if the Hebrew eretz refers to the “earth” rather than the “land.” []
  4. John MacArthur, The Coming of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 110. []
  5. Thomas Ice, “Olivet Discourse,” The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, eds. Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2004), 255. []
  6. MacArthur, The Coming of Christ, 110. []
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