If He did not rise, but is still dead, how is it that He routs and persecutes and overthrows the false gods, whom unbelievers think to be alive, and the evil spirits whom they worship? For where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed; indeed, no such spirit can endure that Name, but takes to flight on sound of it. This is the work of One Who lives, not of one dead; and, more than that, it is the work of God.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
COMING ON THE CLOUDS
We have seen that Christ’s discourse on the Mount of Olives, recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, deals with “the end” – not of the world, but of Jerusalem and the Temple; it has exclusive reference to the “last days” of the Old Covenant era. Jesus clearly spoke of His own contemporaries when He said that “this generation” would see “all these things.” The “Great Tribulation” took place during the terrible time of suffering, warfare, famine, and mass murder leading up to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. What appears to pose a problem for this interpretation, however, is what Jesus says next:
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and all of 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. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heaven to another.
Jesus seems to be saying that the Second Coming will occur immediately after the Tribulation. Did the Second Coming occur in A.D. 70? Have we missed it? First, let us be clear about one thing at the outset: there is just no getting around that word immediately. It means immediately. Acknowledging that the tribulation took place during the then-living generation, we must also face the clear teaching of Scripture that whatever Jesus is talking about in these verses happened immediately afterward. In other words, these verses describe what is to take place at the end of the Tribulation – what forms its climax.
In order to understand the meaning of Jesus’ expressions in this passage, we need to understand the Old Testament much more than most people do today. Jesus was speaking to an audience that was intimately familiar with the most obscure details of Old Testament literature. They had heard the Old Testament read and expounded countless times throughout their lives, and had memorized lengthy passages. Biblical imagery and forms of expression had formed their culture, environment, and vocabulary from earliest infancy, and this had been true for generations. The difference between their outlook and ours can be illustrated by the fact that while much of the present book’s discussion of the Paradise theme was probably very new to you, it would have been old hat for the disciples.
The fact is that when Jesus spoke to His disciples about the fall of Jerusalem, He used prophetic vocabulary. There was a “language” of prophecy, instantly recognizable to those familiar with the Old Testament (some of which we have covered already in our study of the Garden). As Jesus foretold the complete end of the Old Covenant system – which was, in a sense, the end of a whole world – He spoke of it as any of the prophets would have, in the stirring language of covenantal judgment. We will consider each element in the prophecy, seeing how its previous use in the Old Testament prophets determined its meaning in the context of Jesus’ discourse on the fall of Jerusalem. Remember that our ultimate standard of truth is the Bible, and the Bible alone.
The Sun, Moon, and Stars
At the end of the Tribulation, Jesus said, the universe will collapse: the light of the sun and the moon will be extinguished, the stars will fall, the powers of the heavens will be shaken. The basis for this symbolism is in Genesis 1:14-16, where the sun, moon, and stars (“the powers of the heavens”) are spoken of as “signs” which “govern” the world. Later in Scripture, these heavenly lights are used to speak of earthly authorities and governors; and when God threatens to come against them in judgment, the same collapsing-universe terminology is used to describe it. Prophesying the fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 B.C., Isaiah wrote:
Behold, the Day of the LORD is coming,
Cruel, with fury and burning anger,
To make the land a desolation;
And He will exterminate its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not flash forth with their light;
The sun will be dark when it rises,
And the moon will not shed its light.
– Isa. 13:9-10
Significantly, Isaiah later prophesied the fall of Edom in terms of de-creation:
And all the host of heaven will wear away,
And the sky will be rolled up like a scroll;
All their hosts will also wither away
As a leaf withers from the vine,
Or as one withers from the fig tree.
Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Amos, foretold the doom of Samaria (722 B.C.) in much the same way:
“And it will come about in that day,”
Declares the Lord GOD,
“That I shall make the sun go down at noon
And make the earth dark in broad daylight.”
Another example is from the prophet Ezekiel, who predicted the destruction of Egypt. God said this through Ezekiel:
“And when I extinguish you,
I will cover the heavens, and darken their stars;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
And the moon shall not give its light.
All the shining lights in the heavens
I will darken over you
And will set darkness on your land,”
Declares the Lord GOD.
It must be stressed that none of these events literally took place. God did not intend anyone to place a literalist construction on these statements. Poetically, however, all these things did happen: as far as these wicked nations were concerned, “the lights went out.” This is simply figurative language, which would not surprise us at all if we were more familiar with the Bible and appreciative of its literary character.
What Jesus is saying in Matthew 24, therefore, in prophetic terminology immediately recognizable by his disciples, is that the light of Israel is going to be extinguished; the covenant nation will cease to exist. When the Tribulation is over, old Israel will be gone.
The Sign of the Son of Man
Most modern translations of Matthew 24:30 read something like this: “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky…. ” That is a mistranslation, based not on the Greek text but on the translators’ own misguided assumptions about the subject of this passage (thinking it is speaking about the Second Coming). A word-for-word rendering from the Greek actually reads:
And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. …
As you can see, two important differences come to light in the correct translation: first, the location spoken of is heaven, not just the sky; second, it is not the sign which is in heaven, but the Son of Man who is in heaven. The point is simply that this great judgment upon Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, will be the sign that Jesus Christ is enthroned in heaven at the Father’s right hand, ruling over the nations and bringing vengeance upon His enemies. The divinely ordained cataclysm of A.D. 70 revealed that Christ had taken the Kingdom from Israel and given it to the Church; the desolation of the old Temple was the final sign that God had deserted it and was now dwelling in a new Temple, the Church. These were all aspects of the First Advent of Christ, crucial parts of the work He came to accomplish by His death, resurrection, and ascension to the throne. This is why the Bible speaks of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and the destruction of Israel as being the same event, for they were intimately connected theologically. The prophet Joel foretold both the Day of Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem in one breath:
And it will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
And even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
And I will display wonders in the heaven and on the earth:
Blood, fire, and pillars of smoke.
The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood,
Before the great and awesome Day of the LORD comes.
And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD
Will be delivered;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be those who escape,
As the LORD has said,
Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.
As we will see in Chapter 13, Peter’s inspired interpretation of this text in Acts 2 determines the fact that Joel is speaking of the period from the initial outpouring of the Spirit to the destruction of Jerusalem, from Pentecost to Holocaust. It is enough for us to note here that the same language of judgment is used in this passage. The common dime-store interpretation that the “pillars of smoke” are mushroom clouds from nuclear explosions is a radical twisting of the text, and a complete misunderstanding of Biblical prophetic language. It would make just as much sense to say that the pillar of fire and smoke during the Exodus was the result of an atomic blast.
The Clouds of Heaven
That, appropriately, brings us to the next element in Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction: “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.” The word tribes here has primary reference to the tribes of the land of Israel; and the “mourning” is probably meant in two senses. First, they would mourn in sorrow over their suffering and the loss of their land; second, they would ultimately mourn in repentance for their sins, when they are converted from their apostasy (see Chapter 14).
But how is it that they would see Christ coming on the clouds? Those who have read Chapters 7 and 8 of this book should have little trouble answering that question. In the first place, all through the Old Testament God was coming “on clouds,” in salvation of His people and destruction of His enemies: “He makes the clouds His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind” (Ps. 104:3). When Isaiah prophesied God’s judgment on Egypt, he wrote: “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt; the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence” (Isa. 19:1). The prophet Nahum spoke similarly of God’s destruction of Nineveh: “In whirlwind and storm is His way, and clouds are the dust beneath His feet” (Nah. 1:3). God’s “coming on the clouds of heaven” is an almost commonplace Scriptural symbol for His presence, judgment, and salvation.
More than this, however, is the fact that Jesus is referring to a specific event connected with the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Old Covenant. He spoke of it again at His trial, when the High Priest asked Him if He was the Christ, and Jesus replied:
I AM; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.
–Mark 14:62; cf. Matt. 26:64
Obviously, Jesus was not referring to an event thousands of years in the future. He was speaking of something that His contemporaries – “this generation” – would see in their lifetime. The Bible tells us exactly when Jesus came with the clouds of heaven:
And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.
We noted in Chapter 8 that it was this event, the Ascension to the right hand of God, which Daniel had foreseen:
I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a Kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations, and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His Kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
The destruction of Jerusalem was the sign that the Son of Man, the Second Adam, was in heaven, ruling over the world and disposing it for His own purposes. At His ascension, He had come on the clouds of heaven to receive the Kingdom from His Father; the destruction of Jerusalem was the revelation of this fact. In Matthew 24, therefore, Jesus was not prophesying that He would literally come on the clouds in A.D. 70 (although it was figuratively true). His literal “coming on the clouds,” in fulfillment of Daniel 7, had taken place about 40 years earlier. But in A.D. 70 the tribes of Israel would see the destruction of the nation as the result of His having ascended to the throne of heaven, to receive His Kingdom.
The Gathering of the Elect
Finally, the result of Jerusalem’s destruction will be Christ’s sending forth of his “angels” to gather the elect. Isn’t this the Rapture? No. The word angels simply means messengers (cf. James 2:25), regardless of whether their origin is heavenly or earthly; it is the context which determines whether these are heavenly creatures being spoken of. The word often means preachers of the gospel (see Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:24; 9:52; Rev. 1-3). In context, there is every reason to assume that Jesus is speaking of the worldwide evangelism and conversion of the nations which will follow upon the destruction of Israel.
Christ’s use of the word gather is significant in this regard. The word, literally, is a verb meaning to synagogue; the meaning is that with the destruction of the Temple and of the Old Covenant system, the Lord sends out His messengers to gather His elect people into His New Synagogue. Jesus is actually quoting from Moses, who had promised: “If your outcasts are at the ends of heaven, from there the LORD your God will synagogue you, and from there he will take you” (Deut. 30:4, Septuagint). Neither text has anything to do with the Rapture; both are concerned with the restoration and establishment of God’s House, the organized congregation of His covenant people. This becomes even more pointed when we remember what Jesus had said just before this discourse:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to synagogue your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your House is being left to you desolate!
Because Jerusalem apostatised and refused to be synagogued under Christ, her Temple would be destroyed, and a New Synagogue and Temple would be formed: the Church. The New Temple was created, of course, on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came to indwell the Church. But the fact of the new Temple’s existence would only be made obvious when the scaffolding of the Old Temple and the Old Covenant system was taken away. The Christian congregations immediately began calling themselves “synagogues” (that is the word used in James 2:2), while calling the Jewish gatherings “synagogues of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). Yet they lived in anticipation of the Day of Judgment upon Jerusalem and the Old Temple, when the Church would be revealed as the true Temple and Synagogue of God. Because the Old Covenant system was “obsolete” and “ready to disappear” (Heb. 8:13), the writer to the Hebrews urged them to have hope, “not forsaking the synagoguing of ourselves together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25; cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-2).
The Old Testament promise that God would “synagogue” His people undergoes one major change in the New Testament. Instead of the simple form of the word, the term used by Jesus has the Greek preposition epi prefixed to it. This is a favorite New Covenant expression, which intensifies the original word. What Jesus is saying, therefore, is that the destruction of the Temple in A . D . 70 will reveal Himself as having come with clouds to receive His Kingdom; and it will display His Church before the world as the full, the true, the super-Synagogue.