Chapter 15: The Day of the Lord
Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion
Topics: Doctrinal Studies, Eschatology, Theology
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Who, then, is this Christ and how great is He, Who by His Name and presence overshadows and confounds all things on every side, Who alone is strong against all and has filled the whole world with His teaching? Let the Greeks tell us, who mock at Him without stint or shame. If He is a man, how is it that one man has proved stronger than all those whom they themselves regard as gods, and by His own power has shown them to be nothing? If they call Him a magician, how is it that by a magician all magic is destroyed, instead of being rendered strong? Had He conquered certain magicians or proved Himself superior to one of them only, they might reasonably think that He excelled the rest only by His greater skill. But the fact is that His cross has vanquished all magic entirely and has conquered the very name of it.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE DAY OF THE LORD
One of the greatest interpretive mistakes made by Bible students is the assumption that the Bible cannot use the same expression, such as “Coming,” in different senses. Much of the present book has been written to refute that basic error. As we have seen, God “came in the clouds” on numerous occasions in Scripture, and collapsing-universe terminology is used to describe several different historical events. Once we understand this, however, we seem to be presented with a different problem: What about the Second Coming of Christ? Since so many prophecies turn out to be references to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, how can we be sure that any prophecy refers to a future, literal return of Jesus Christ?
There are several ways to approach this question. One fruitful method is to examine a common Biblical expression for “Judgment Day”: the Day of the Lord. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I am not suggesting that “the Day of the Lord” only refers to the end of the world and the Last Judgment. Far from it. Nevertheless, a solid grasp of this Biblical concept will provide us with an interpretive key, a method for arriving at an accurate, Scripture-based understanding of the Second Coming.
The first Biblical use of the term Day of the Lord was by the prophet Amos, in a very strange reference. Speaking to the rebellious Israelites who were soon to be destroyed by the Assyrians, Amos said: “Alas, you who are longing for the Day of the LORD, for what purpose will the Day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light…” (Amos 5:19). The important thing for us to notice at the beginning is that this expression had never been used before, at least not in Scripture. Yet it seems to have been a rather common, familiar idea in the Israel of the eighth century B.C. Amos did not question its validity: “the Day of the Lord” was coming. What Amos sought to correct was Israel’s erroneous expectation of that Day’s outcome for themselves.
The interesting point (to begin with) is this. Here we find Amos simply adopting an already understood, full-blown, highly developed theological concept. The expression itself did not (apparently) originate from direct revelation, yet the prophets took it up unquestioningly as part of their vocabulary. This indicates that the term must be based on some Biblical concept which was so well-known in Israel that the undisputed expression Day of the Lord almost spontaneously arose to describe it. How can we account for this? Our answer to this question will bring us to some surprising conclusions in several areas. Moreover, it will provide us with firm Biblical data about the Second Coming of Christ – the final Judgment Day.
Judgment Day in Eden
The Biblical imagery for the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment, begins (as we should naturally assume) in Genesis. Right at the beginning of the creation account we are told that God created light and named it Day (Gen. 1:2-5). We must recognize just what happened at that moment. As we saw in Chapter 7, God was hovering over the creation, robed in the glorious light of the Cloud, shining as the original Light (cf. John 1:4-5). This means that when He created light, it was as a mirror-image, a sort of “clone,” of Himself. From the start, therefore, we are taught to associate Day and Light with God. This basic association is developed and carried through the rest of the creation week, as the first of two concepts which are important for our understanding of the Biblical idea of the Day: Day is in the image of God. The light of day is a reminder of God’s bright, unapproachable Light (1 Tim. 6:16). For this reason the sun and the dawning of the day are used in the Bible as symbols of God and His coming (Ps. 84:11; Isa. 30:26; 60:1; Mal. 4:2; Luke 1:78-79; Eph. 5:14; 2 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 1:16).
The second concept is that Day is the time of God’s judicial assessment of His creatures, when all things are judged by Him. Here Moses records seven acts of seeing (assessment) and declaration: “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), climaxing with the seventh declaration: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). This statement leads right into the summary and conclusion:
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.
God’s “resting” on the seventh day is an important part of the judgment theme of the Day, for it actually speaks of His enthronement in heaven, surveying and judging His creation from His seat in the Glory-Cloud. In fact, His sitting on the throne is often termed a “rest” in Scripture (1 Chron. 28:2; Ps. 132:7-8, 13-14; Isa. 11:10; 66:1).
Thus, when we think of the Day, we are to think first of God’s light on the world; second, we are to think of God’s judgment of the world. In other words, the very first “Day of the Lord” was also the very first Day. It is easier for us to see all this when we read Genesis 1 in the light of other Scripture passages, but we should also remember that it was implicit in the text from the beginning.
There is one other early passage in Genesis which informs our understanding of the content of the “Day of the Lord.” We saw in an earlier chapter that when Adam and Eve sinned, they heard the characteristic sound of the Glory-Cloud blasting its way like an express train through the Garden: the thundering Voice of the Lord caused by the beating of angels’ wings. The literal translation of that verse reads:
And they heard the Voice of the LORD God traversing the Garden as the Spirit of the Day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the Garden.”
In other words, Adam and Eve heard the sound the Cloud makes when God comes as “the Spirit of the Day,” when He comes as He did at the Beginning, as Judgment. Admittedly, this view of the text spells doom for that old pietistic-evangelical hymn favorite, “In the Garden” (that fact alone makes this interpretation especially attractive). God did not take evening strolls through the Garden, contrary to the sentimental reflections of third-rate evangelical poets. When Judgment came to Adam and Eve, it came in the form of the Glory-Cloud: with blinding light, scorching heat, and deafening noise – the Spirit of the Day.
The Day of the Lord, therefore, is defined by Scripture in terms of the Glory-Cloud: “For the Day is near, the Day of the LORD is near; it will be a Day of Clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek. 30:3; cf. Joel 2:1-2; Zeph. 1:14-15). Where the Cloud is, there is the Day of the Lord, when God is manifesting His judgment.
This makes our understanding of the Day of the Lord take a quantum leap forward. More than merely a reference to the end of the world, it should rather be understood in the same terms as so many other concepts in Scripture: definitively, progressively, and finally. The definitive Day occurred at the beginning, on the first day (it might be more precise to say that the entire week was the definitive Day, in seven stages). But we also see the Day revealed progressively, in God’s historical judgments. In a final, ultimate sense, we are told that the Last Day will come, when God will render His final judgment of all things.
A Day of Clouds
As soon as we see the connection between the Cloud and the Day of the Lord – that the Day of the Lord is the Glory-Cloud coming in judgment, and the Cloud is the Day of the Lord in action – a great number of Biblical ideas begin to fall into place. For example, the Israelites experienced the Day of the Lord at the edge of the Red Sea, when the Cloud descended (Ex. 13:21-22) and stood between them and the Egyptians. For the covenant people, the Cloud was Light and salvation, but for the Egyptians, it was Darkness (Ex. 14:19-20), bringing utter destruction (Ex. 14:24-25). The coming of the Cloud was the coming of the Lord as “the Spirit of the Day” in judgment. And judgment, like the Cloud, has two aspects: vindication and protection of the faithful on the one hand, and destruction of God’s enemies on the other. In judgment God brings both salvation and wrath, darkness and light. This is what Amos meant when he addressed the apostate covenant people of his age, who were expecting that the coming Day of the Lord would protect them from their enemies. The problem was, as Amos pointed out, that the people of God had become the enemies of God:
Alas, you who are longing for the Day of the LORD, for what purpose will the Day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light; as when a man flees from a lion, and a bear meets him; or goes home, leans upon a wall, and a snake bites him. Will not the Day of the LORD be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?
The Biblical prophets saw the Day of the Lord to be fulfilled in all of God’s redemptive judgments in history against disobedient nations: it was the divine “day of reckoning” against Judah, when the wicked would be annihilated and the righteous saved and blessed (Isa. 2-5; Joel 1-3); for Babylon it was the day of destruction, fire, and the collapse of the universe (Isa. 13:6-13); it was also the day when Edom would suffer God’s vengeance in bloody slaughter, in fire and brimstone, and in desolation, while God’s people are safely “gathered” to Him (Isa. 34); the day when God’s great sword would drink its fill of the blood of the Egyptians (Jer. 46); indeed, “the Day of the LORD draws near on all the nations” (Obad. 15). When we place these passages together, along with texts such as Zephaniah 1 and Psalm 18, it becomes strikingly clear that the prophetic term Day of the Lord means Judgment – a judgment issuing in both destruction of the wicked and salvation of the righteous.
This is why it is also used to describe the First Advent of the Savior. In His last revelation of the Old Testament, God said: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible Day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6). Both the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:17) and the Lord Jesus (Matt. 11:14) cite this verse as being fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. “In the Spirit and power of Elijah,” John was to engage in the restorative ministry of brining the rebellious children of Israel back to the godliness of their fathers, turning “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, in order to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). But if the people were not turned from their apostasy by the time of “the great and terrible Day of the LORD,” God warned, He would “come and smite the land with a curse.” This word curse (or ban) was a technical term in Scripture, used to denote certain objects and even whole cities which were so abhorrent to God that they must be put “under the ban,” to be utterly destroyed by fire from God’s altar – offered up as a “whole burnt sacrifice” (cf. Deut. 13:16). That is exactly what happened in the first century. “Elijah” came, but the people did not repent; so when the great Day of the Lord arrived, the whole land was placed under the ban, completely devoted to destruction.
The Final Day of the Lord
Since the “Day of the Lord” references cannot all be taken to mean the same event, Christians can easily become perplexed. How can we tell which Day is meant in any particular passage of Scripture? Does this render our interpretation completely arbitrary? Not at all. As with everything else in Scripture, its precise meaning depends on the context. It always carries the general idea of God coming in judgment and salvation; but its meaning in any single verse must be discerned by examining the larger setting.
Thus we return to the question with which we began this chapter: How can we be certain that any reference to “the Day of the Lord,” the “judgment,” or Christ’s “coming” is speaking about the end of the world and Christ’s Second Coming? Since collapsing-universe terminology is used for the judgment of A.D. 70, and because of the tremendous theological significance of that judgment, some have supposed that all eschatological events must have been fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem, and that the Second Coming took place then. According to this interpretation (which might be called post-everythingism), we are now living in a neverending limbo era, with literally no prophecies left to be fulfilled. The world will just go on and on, and on and on, until… ?
Is such an interpretation valid? We should note, at least in passing, that the Church through all the ages has never allowed for such a view. All the creeds have declared the future coming of Christ, the resurrection of all men, and the general judgment to be fundamental, non-negotiable articles of the Christian faith. The closing words of the Athanasian Creed (one of the three universal creeds of the faith) underscore the importance of these truths:
He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give an account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
This basic tenet of the Church Universal is solidly based on Scripture. While there have been many “Days of the Lord” in history, the Bible assures us that there is a “Last Day” which is to come, the Final Judgment, when all accounts will be settled and both just and unjust receive their eternal rewards. Each time He used the term, Jesus inseparably connected ”the Last Day” with another event:
I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the Last Day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the Last Day.
No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the Last Day.
He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day.–
The Resurrection, therefore, is an event inextricably bound up in the events of the Last Day, the final Day when the judgment of the Spirit in the Cloud will be absolutely comprehensive and complete, when God’s final and ultimate verdict is pronounced upon all creation. That is the Day when the dead will be raised: “those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29).
The Resurrection is the interpretive key. Because Jesus connected the Resurrection to the Last Day, we can use it as a “control” in examining eschatological passages. While the Day of the Lord/collapsing universe motif runs throughout the Biblical texts on judgment, the distinguishing mark of the Last Day is that the dead will be raised. The Resurrection of all men is, in the nature of the case, unrepeatable. It is not a continuing motif, but rather a part of the final eschatological event. Therefore, wherever the Bible mentions the Resurrection, it is speaking of the Last Day – the final Judgment, the ultimate Day of the Lord.