Heavenly Signs - 2

Last week against the backdrop of the recent eclipse we examined some Biblical disturbances in the skies that brought to mankind both judgment (the flood, fire and brimstone and the plagues) and consolation (the rainbow).  We now continue this theme and examine how many ways God uses the atmosphere to make various points to mankind.

5. The Pillar of Cloud and Fire (Ex 13-14).  With Pharaoh’s stubborn heart bludgeoned into submission by the plagues, it is time for Israel – now a great and numerous nation – to leave the shackles of servitude behind and journey to Horeb, the mountain of God:  “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night.  He did not take away the pillar of could by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people” (Ex 13:21-22).  Thus Israel had the absolute best GPS system at their disposal. 

But the pillar of cloud/fire was not only for navigation.  As the pursuing Egyptian army closed in on the Israelites now trapped at the shores of the Red Sea, “the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them.  So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel.  Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night” (Ex 14:19-20).  Thus this great spectacle of God’s presence not only provided guidance but protection.  What an awesome sight that must have been!

And yet, the children of Israel became numb to this great sight and continued in their murmuring against God and complaining about His care for them.  Which points to a seemingly ubiquitous and sobering human trait:  we have an unsurpassed ability to take for granted what once we found astounding, impressive and novel.  This applies to skeptics who complain that God has not given enough evidence of His existence.  They say things like, “If I could see obvious signs of God’s existence, I’d believe in Him.”  Oh, really?  Just like the Israelites did?!

Paul refers to this generation of Israelites in 1 Cor 10:1-10:  “All our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness …”.  Self-willed unbelief is so strong that it will reject a miraculous, visible, constant sign of God’s presence towering into the heavens.

6. An Extended Day (Jsh 10:11-14).  During the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites fought against a five-king confederation that was threatening Gibeon, the city that had deceived Joshua and the elders into entering a covenant of peace (Jsh 9).  During the battle “the Lord cast down large hailstones from heaven on them … There were more who died from the hailstones than those whom the children of Israel killed with the sword.  Then Joshua spoke to the Lord … and said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon; and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.’  So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies … So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” 

The author of Joshua comments on the rarity of such an event:  “And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel” (10:14).  Such accounts appear fanciful to the skeptic, but when one fairly examines the evidence for the trustworthiness of such ancient records and the harmonization of such accounts with the overall purposes of God, it becomes obvious that the hand of God is operative in such incredible displays.  They are stupendous to us because they violate all the known laws of nature, but is it any harder for the Creator to suspend the movement of the earth to prolong a day than to part the Red Sea or flood the globe with water?!

7. The Holy Spirit’s Descent upon Jesus (Mt 4:16).  Perhaps one of the greatest signs ever given from heaven was seen by only a few:  “Then Jesus, when He had been baptized, came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven saying, ‘This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 4:16-17).  John affirms that he witnessed this:  “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.  I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34).  Thus John receives confirmation that Jesus is the One whom he has been sent to introduce to the world, and Jesus is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Through the Spirit’s work Jesus will bring life-changing power that enables one to be restored to fellowship with God and grow to spiritual maturity (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 5:16, 18, 22-23; Rom 8:1-11, 13-17; Tit 3:4-7; 1 Cor 2:10-16; etc.).

8. Ascension (Ac 1:9-11).  In surely the most stupendous convergence between heaven and creation, Jesus, after forty days of resurrection appearances and teaching, ascends from the Mount of Olives in the sight of the eleven:  “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’”  I’ve always found the question of the angels somewhat amusing … after what they had just seen, no wonder they were gazing up into heaven!  Perhaps they were expecting something to happen immediately, or maybe they were just riveted by wonder at seeing Jesus rise from earth into the skies. 

But there seems to be something more in the angels’ question, for they declare that all men will eventually see in reverse what the apostles have just witnessed.  Until then, however, there is work to be done, and the disciples head back into Jerusalem to await the promise of the coming Spirit.  Today, believers keep the expectation of the angels’ words alive.  In our next article we will address that final descent of the Lord from heaven.