What the 61st General Conference Session means to Adventists
Published on: 06-18-2022
As I entered the America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis on June 6 to attend the opening of the 61st General Conference Session, once again I see a motto highlighting the second coming of Jesus, including an appeal: “Jesus Is Coming. Get Involved!” I miss the word “soon” in the slogan. It would be typical Adventist language! Don’t we believe anymore that Jesus is coming soon? Have we stretched the rhetoric of “soon-ness” to the point that the word has lost its eschatological meaning? I realize, however, that the absence of “soon” can mean an even bigger “soon.” In a sense, the motto tells us that Jesus is already coming. He is in the clouds on His way to earth.
Away from the pressroom, sitting in the spectators’ area, I look toward the center of the arena and see the delegates in their usual place. Will the Session be business as usual too? Then I look around, and the vast rows of seats are almost empty. Where are the people? Sadness fills my heart, tears come to my eyes. Perhaps I feel so moved because this Session will be my last as a delegate or special guest. Maybe it’s because the world is darker than before, so much more complex, too far from God’s dreams, and we are still here. We haven’t fulfilled our mission. Then I look around and see a well-dressed man arriving. He sits a few rows down from me, bows his head, and sends a prayer to heaven. He looks sincere! For him, it seems, a General Conference Session is holy ground. I prefer not to disturb his special moment of communing with God, and he remains anonymous. I suddenly feel more hopeful.
While the speaker talks about the need for the Holy Spirit, the Holy Shekinah that used to come in glory to the temple, I remember the period of the second Temple. Its material glory was nothing compared to the glory of Solomon’s Temple, but its spiritual glory was unsurpassed because the glory of God incarnate would fill it (Haggai 2:9). If the glory of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is here, I tell myself, this Session will be more significant than earlier Sessions that boasted larger audiences and lasted longer. I begin to think about the second coming of Jesus in the clouds, a theme dear to Adventists like myself.
The Rider on the Clouds
Dreaming of Christ’s return, here I want to reflect on the theme of the clouds. When I was traveling from Toronto to St. Louis, our somewhat small plane flew through and above incredible layers of white clouds. Overwhelmed, looking at their different sizes, shapes, and designs, I thought about the biblical meaning of this mass of droplets and crystals. If people love a sunny day, why do the Bible writers mention the clouds so many times? After all, the word “cloud” (Hebrew ‘ānān; Greek nephelē) and related terms appear some 145 times in the Bible. The noun ‘ānān occurs 87 times in the Old Testament.
To begin with, clouds are very important for life on our planet. “The most distinctive feature of the Earth when viewed from space is the presence of clouds covering approximately 60 percent of its surface area,” explain two experts. They are the source of “virtually all of the fresh water on Earth,” and “represent the large visible ensembles of drops or crystals suspended in the gaseous atmosphere.” Meteorological literature classifies clouds by level (height), temperature (warm/cold), phase state (liquid/mixed/ice), and morphology (appearance as seen by observers). “The microstructure of clouds is characterized by the phase, shape, and size spectra of their particles.”
From a theological perspective, however, clouds in Scripture have other shapes, classifications, and meanings. Conveying the idea of “covering” in Hebrew, clouds are a symbol of divine presence, action, or manifestation. In the Hebrew Bible, where the word “cloud” rarely occurs in a meteorological context, the focus is on the revelation or even the hiddenness of God. During the Exodus, God’s glorious presence was visible through a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night. Later, it was associated with the sanctuary and the temple.
One of the most iconic scenes in the Bible is the image of Christ coming from heaven, riding on the clouds. The image refers to a war chariot. An author notes: “Clouds serve as God’s war chariot in the imagination of the OT poets and prophets (Ps 18:9; 68:4; 104:4; Dan 7:13; Nahum 1:3). This image of the warrior god riding a chariot into battle is an ancient one, antedating the Bible in Canaanite mythology, where Baal is given the frequent epithet ‘rider on the clouds.’” Notice the pretentious title of Baal!
Does this mean that a rider on the clouds is just a myth? Some scholars would say, Yes. According to Thomas W. Mann, “the provenance of the ‘ānān [cloud] must be found in the Canaanite mythology surrounding the storm deity, his messengers, and weapons of divine warfare.” For Eric Nels Ortlund, “the imagery which attends and describes theophany in the poetic books of the Hebrew Bible is mythic and not metaphorical—that it should be interpreted in relation to the Chaoskampf myth, as Yahweh defeats chaos and restores order, rather than being understood as a metaphorical comparison with natural phenomena.” Later, Greek poets adopted some elements of the ancient Near Eastern mythology, but with differences. For example, while Zeus is called “the gatherer of the clouds,” Baal is “the rider of the clouds.”
Therefore, chariots in the clouds are means of transportation of ancient mythological gods and, above all, of Yahweh and Christ as the true divine cloud-riders. Of course, the Near Eastern imagery of gods riding on the clouds could be just a reflex of the original theophanies of God in the beginning of human history. Mythological views of gods as riders on the clouds are falsehoods in a world full of fake news and false hopes. Today many false gods are riding on the clouds again, especially the clouds of the Internet, but our God is the true and only Rider on the clouds.
As a cosmic Warrior, Christ comes riding on the clouds to defeat the forces of evil and to bring freedom to the planet. Spiritual warfare is central to the plotline of the Bible because human history begins and ends with a cosmic conflict. Wars polarize people into two groups and reveal allegiances. So the coming of the heavenly Warrior will be a defining moment to the world. Cloud theophanies, however, do not always evoke militaristic imagery.
Salvation From Above
Symbols of divine appearance, clouds indicate that salvation comes from heaven. As an iconic representation of our eschatological hope, they are linked with Jesus’ ascension to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, an important theme in New Testament theology and a frequent motif in Christian art and iconography. They also link to the theme of His glorious return as the cosmic Judge.
These “Christophanic” clouds tell us that one day a King will ride on them in glory to save and to bring justice. This role is in harmony with the appearing of God in the clouds, as recorded in the pages of the Old Testament. Whether clouds are the vehicle of God and Christ or the platform for their movements is open to debate, although probably the clouds just involve the glorious, divine chariot-throne controlled by winged cherubs (see Eze. 1; 10:9-17).
Already in the Exodus tradition, the coming of God on the clouds for a definite purpose appears often, and later this motif occurs more often. “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud,” the Lord said to Moses (Ex. 19:9). In the Sinai theophany, “taken as a touch-stone for prior and subsequent glory theophanies in the Bible,” as stated by biblical scholar Jeffrey Niehaus, Yahweh comes to establish a covenant. “As God came to Sinai in the clouds to impart his law, so he will come again on the clouds of heaven to judge those who have broken that law.” God does not appear merely to display His radiance or to show His glory, which is an inevitable phenomenon; He disclosures Himself to judge and to save. A theophany is not a neutral apparition; it’s a “defining” manifestation.
The imagery of divine movement in the clouds became quite standard. According to the psalmist (Ps. 104:3), God “makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind.” “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud,” says Isaiah 19:1. “Behold, he comes up like clouds; his chariots like the whirlwind,” proclaims Jeremiah 4:13. “[A]nd behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man,” describes Daniel 7:13. “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him,” adds John in Revelation 1:7. The interjection “behold” (Hebrew hinneh; Aramaic wa’ărū; Greek idou) in several of these descriptions is an invitation to pay attention to a glorious phenomenon with cosmic reverberation.
For Adventists, a cherished description by Ellen White portrays the coming of the King of kings as “a small black cloud, about half the size of a man’s hand” appearing in the east, which, as “it draws nearer the earth,” becomes “lighter and more glorious, until it is a great white cloud, its base a glory like consuming fire, and above it the rainbow of the covenant,” a scene that “no human pen can portray” and “no mortal mind is adequate to conceive its splendor.”
As those who are called to be part of God’s mission, we should get involved and join the heavenly cloud of witnesses. However, today for me is a day to look up. As Adventists, we long to see the most wonderful of all events in the clouds. In a world so evil, full of hatred, violence, prejudice, and discrimination, let’s dream again of the Rider on the clouds of heaven. Christ is coming. Our hope is in the clouds.
Marcos De Benedictois the editor-in-chief of the Brazil Adventist Publishing House.
Vitaly I. Khvorostyanov and Judith A. Curry, Thermodynamics, Kinects, and Microphysics of Clouds (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 1, 9, 20.