If you had to describe the Christian hope for the future in terms of someone moving in some direction, then who would be moving, and in which direction?
People might assume (especially if they know certain hymns!) that the Christian hope is one of going to heaven when you die, and staying there for ever. In this case, it is we who are moving, and the direction is upwards, from earth to heaven. And even if Jesus’ return to earth features in this way of thinking, he is coming merely to help us on our way, to take us to be with himself in heaven (reflecting what I would see as a misunderstanding of John 14).
But the hope for the future depicted for us in the Bible is not one of us moving up to heaven, but of God coming down to earth.
We see this in the account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in Acts 1:1-11. The disciples, who had been taught about the kingdom of God by the risen Jesus during a forty day period, were still thinking in terms of an earthly kingdom (all quotes from the NIV):
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
This seems strange to us, but maybe the disciples had been praying the prayer Jesus had taught them, with its words, ‘Your kingdom come’?
When Jesus was taken up, and a cloud concealed him from view, we read that
two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
So they were taught to look forward to the day, not when they would follow Jesus on a journey to heaven, but when Jesus would return from heaven to the earth, in order to establish his kingdom.
Clouds also feature in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, as we meet Jesus on his way from heaven to earth:
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.
But it is the clouds in Revelation 1:7 which serve as the main inspiration for the start of Charles Wesley’s classic hymn, ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’:
‘Look, he is coming with the clouds,’
and ‘every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him’;
and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’
So shall it be! Amen.
(I say Wesley’s classic hymn, but its history is complicated. Wesley’s hymn was published in 1758, but was itself a rewrite of a hymn from 1750 by John Cennick. In some modern versions, Cennick’s hymn survives in the stanzas beginning with ‘Every island, sea, and mountain’ and ‘Now redemption, long expected’, while Wesley’s four stanzas are all widely sung: ‘Lo! he comes’, ‘Every eye’, ‘The dear tokens’ and ‘Yea, amen’.)
Christ’s (or God’s) coming to earth to reign is the subject of the hymn. Indeed, when originally published, it was given the title, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. We see this theme clearly in the first verse:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favour’d sinners slain!
Thousand, thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of his train:
God appears, on earth to reign!
The final verse points us to the time when ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15). In Wesley’s original:
Yea, amen! let all adore Thee
High on thine eternal throne!
Saviour, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own:
Everlasting God, come down.
Come, Lord, come!