In the previous essay in this series, we saw that Jesus’ words about coming on the clouds were spoken on more than one occasion, first to the disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:30; Mark 11:36; Luke 21:27), then, a few days later, to the high priest and Jewish leaders during Jesus’ trial before them (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62).
However, though the allusion to Daniel 7:13-14 is common to both occasions, the meaning for the two distinct groups to whom Jesus spoke is significantly different. We have already looked briefly at the common element and also the specific meaning for the Jewish leaders. Now we need to consider why Jesus spoke these words to the disciples on the Mount of Olives.
Though Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, in common with the declaration to the Jewish leaders, also alluded to the prophecy of Daniel, Jesus was doing something more and different — though most, or all, of the disciples could not have understood until after the resurrection. In other words, at the time He spoke, only a few of the disciples could possibly have picked up all the allusions, but later all would learn. I will explain below.
For the Jewish leaders, Jesus’ declaration that they would “see” the Son of Man was primarily a warning and a Gospel appeal, one that essentially repeated the message that John the Baptist and Jesus had been making from the beginning: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Perhaps more properly after the resurrection: “Repent for the Kingdom of God has already come. The Son of Man is sitting at the right hand of Power.”
For the disciples at the Mount of Olives, however, the promise of future enthronement comes before or with the message of judgement, which is also and primarily a message of salvation. Matthew’s version perhaps makes this most clear.
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30)
I have changed the word order in the English translation to reflect the order of the original Greek. Most English translations give us “Then will appear in heaven,” but in the original Greek the words “in heaven” follow “the Son of Man.” In other words, Jesus is not talking about a sign appearing in heaven, but a sign appearing which shows that the Son of Man is in heaven, a sign that He has been exalted and seated at the right hand of God. Also, the tribes spoken of are the “tribes of the land,” in other words, the Jews.
What will appear is a sign that the prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14, the prophecy that Jesus, the Son of Man, will ascend — not descend in a coming to earth, but as in Daniel ascend — to the Father to receive dominion and a kingdom that will never end.
What is the sign?
The sign would be the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. That sign would constitute irrefutable vindication of Jesus as the risen and victorious Messiah, the one to whom all dominion in heaven and earth had been granted.
By alluding to Daniel and connecting the prophecy of Daniel with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Jesus gave comfort to the disciples. Though they would be severely persecuted, when they saw the fulfillment of the promise of cloud-judgement, their hearts could rejoice in hope: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
Just as Yahweh’s coming on the clouds was the end of Egypt, but the salvation of Israel, so, too, Jesus’ coming on the clouds would be the end of the apostate Jews, but the salvation of the new Israel.
There is another allusion in the Olivet Discourse that not all the disciples could have picked up in detail, though all could have noted it. I am referring to Jesus’ words shortly after Peter’s confession.
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 8:38-9:1, cf. Matthew 16:27-28, Luke 9:26-27)
All of the disciples could have recalled this promise, though I suspect that when they were listening to Him speak on the Mount of Olives, Jesus’ words might not have come to mind. However that may be, they all heard the promise that at least some of them would “see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” — the exact promise of the Olivet Discourse.
Shortly after this — six days to be exact — Jesus took with Him three disciples — Peter, James, and John — and was transfigured before them (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). The transfiguration was a visionary guarantee that some of the disciples would live to see the kingdom of God coming in power.
Jesus commanded Peter, James, and John not to speak of what they saw on the mount of transfiguration until after His resurrection — a command that was a mystery to them at the time because they could not comprehend what He meant by resurrection (Mark 9:10).
But no doubt, after the resurrection, Peter, James, and John were telling the story in detail to the others. During the forty days of the post-resurrection instruction, Jesus apparently did not appear to the disciples every day. And during the ten remaining days until Pentecost, after listening to Jesus expound the Old Testament in ways they had never heard before, the disciples had ample time to consider and talk together. We can be certain the subject was not sports, movies, or politics. They talked about Jesus and their new understanding of all previously written revelation.
Peter, James, and John would have told the other disciples that a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God declared “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5b; cf. Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). They would have also mentioned that Moses and Elijah appeared and that they were talking to Jesus about His “exodus” (Luke 9:30-31; cf. Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4).
The primary allusion is to Sinai, though there is much more, as I have written in previous essays.[i]
What would be important for the disciples to know is that the risen Jesus is/was the Yahweh at Sinai, the God of glory who led the children of Israel out of Egypt.
For them, His coming on the clouds signified a judgment on Egypt/Israel and salvation for those who believed in Him. It was a promise of a new and different Exodus, one that paradoxically implied that the Lamb who was slain set a path for His followers, who would also shed their blood in loving obedience to Him to bear fruit as He had.
It was the message that He gave to them just before the Transfiguration.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16: 24-26)
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.