References to the Son of Man coming on the clouds occur five times in the Synoptic Gospels. Three times such expressions appear in the parallel accounts of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:36; Luke 21:27). Then, in parallel accounts of Jesus’ trial before the leaders of Israel, such expressions occur twice (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62). In addition, the apostle John, obviously alluding to the Olivet Discourse, uses similar language in the introduction to the book of Revelation (1:7).
Three questions beg to be answered. Why did Jesus use this extraordinary language? What could it possibly mean to come on clouds? Who will see this when? Inescapably, these questions are so intertwined that my answers will not distinguish them carefully.
Perhaps it is best to first look briefly at the two different occasions when Jesus spoke these famous but rather unusual words. The first occasion was the Olivet Discourse, Jesus' last sermon to the disciples apart from the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17). Here the language is only slightly different in the three synoptics.
they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30b)
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:36)
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:27)
Each of the parallel accounts use very similar language, repeating five key words or expressions: 1) they will see, 2) the Son of Man, 3) coming, 4) in or on a cloud or the clouds, 5) with (great 1x) power and (great 3x) glory.[i]
The other occasion is two parallel accounts of Jesus’ answer to the high priest, which are also very similar.
Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26:64)
Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62)
Here the key words or expressions are: 1) you will see, 2) the Son of Man, 3) sitting at the right hand of the Power, 4) coming on or with the clouds of heaven.
When we ask why Jesus used this striking language, the answer actually differs depending on the occasion. First, let’s consider what is common to both occasions. In speaking to the disciples on the Mount of Olives and in answering the high priest, Jesus is alluding to Daniel’s vision in 7:13 -14.
I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom
Which shall not be destroyed. (NKJV, slightly modified)
By alluding to Daniel 7:13-14, Jesus is telling the high priest in no uncertain terms that He is indeed the Messiah, which answers the question posed to Him with an oath: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63b).
But it also tells the high priest much more — though the high priest, eager for an opportunity to condemn Jesus without further ado, was not paying attention. Daniel’s words not only speak of the Messiah coming before the Ancient of Days, but they speak of Him being enthroned with everlasting dominion. The Son of Man is given the kingdom that Daniel 2 speaks of: “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (2:44).
This is the common element between the Olivet discourse and Jesus’ answer to the high priest. But we also have to consider disparate elements as well. Let’s first examine what might be distinct in Jesus’ message to the high priest and the Jewish leaders.
For the high priest, Jesus’ declaration was given not merely to answer his question, but to haunt him and the Jewish leaders. Jesus told the high priest that he would “see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Obviously, Jesus did not mean that the high priest or the others would ascend to heaven to witness Jesus’ enthronement.
In fact, when He spoke of seeing, Jesus changed from “you” singular (“Jesus said to him” and “you said so") to “you” plural (“from now on you” or “y’all”). It was not the high priest specifically who would “see” what Jesus is speaking of. That prophecy was addressed to the larger group of Jewish leaders, some of whom would indeed “see” in the worst way what Jesus promised.
What could be bad about Jesus sitting at the right hand of God and coming with clouds? The problems here are multiple. First, the Jewish leaders are just about to crucify the Son of Man. If they really do see Him sitting at the right hand of Power, they will know they have crucified their own Messiah, the greatest sin imaginable.
Second, in Jesus’ words to the high priest, two things are referred to which seem to be out of order compared to Daniel. In Daniel’s vision, the Son of Man first comes to the Ancient of Days and then He receives dominion. Coming precedes sitting. But in Jesus’ words to the leaders of Israel, the sitting precedes the coming. In other words, the coming that the Jewish leaders will witness is a post-enthronement coming. They will witness the coming King!
What could be bad about that?
That leads to the third problem, which is, of course, tied to the first. Since they have crucified Jesus and since He is now King of kings and Lord of lords, a visitation by Him, riding on clouds, is not likely to be friendly. Though the leaders could have recalled many passages, Yahweh’s coming to Egypt gives us the basic picture.
An oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, Yahweh is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. (Isaiah 19:1)
Yahweh rides on clouds to bring judgement (Jeremiah 4:13; Lamentations 2:1; 3:44; Ezekiel 1:4, 10:4; 30:3; 32:7; 34:12; 38:16; Joel 2:2; Nahum 1:3; Zephaniah 1:15; etc.).
Now, to say that Yahweh rides on the clouds to bring judgment is also to say that Yahweh rides on the clouds to bring salvation. For every allusion to Yahweh riding on the clouds is also an allusion to the Exodus story. Yahweh appeared in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to save, to protect, and to guide the children of Israel, but the glory cloud of Yahweh that delivered Israel also damned Egypt.
Pharaoh was the murderer of God’s elect people. Yahweh came in vengeance.
Ironically, the Jewish leaders and the people of their day had become the murderers of Yahweh’s Elect One, the fulfillment of all Israel was meant to be. After He is enthroned, a visit on the clouds can only mean “a day of wrath, a day of distress and doom” (Zephaniah 1:15).
However, in giving this warning of His coming on the clouds, Jesus was also giving a Gospel appeal to the Jewish leaders.
In what way?
They would be among the very first to hear of His resurrection. The guards of the tomb shook for fear and fell down like dead men, but it is clear that they realized Jesus had risen from the dead because the chief priests gave them money to claim that the disciples had robbed the grave. They knew that Jesus rose from the dead (Matthew 28:11-15). They “saw” that He had been vindicated and that He would sit at the right hand of the Power.
That means that they would also “see” that He would be coming on the clouds for an unpleasant visit — unless they repented. The Exodus story was about to take on a new twist. A different Pharaoh-murderer was about to be confronted by the God of Israel — who is now the Son of Man — riding on clouds of judgment.
Jesus gave them the warning in plenty of time for all of them to repent. Indeed the sign of Jonah had been given to the people of his day, but Jesus was more gracious. He did not just give the Jews 40 days. He gave them a whole generation, 40 years.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] Mark almost certainly intends the word “great” to modify both power and glory.
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