Why Many Christians Completely Misunderstand Christ’s Cloud Coming
Bible prophecy is a popular subject. Who doesn’t want to know what going to happen in the future? For centuries, prophetic speculators have tried to put together a timetable of prophetic events. Libraries are filled with books by prophecy writers who had the key to unlock the timing of something called the “rapture” or the Second Coming of Jesus.
The key to interpreting the Bible is the Bible itself. You don’t need a seminary degree; you only need to follow how the Bible describes events in its own way of telling the story. Let the Bible speak for itself.
Brian Godawa has written a helpful study of a verse of Scripture that many people trip over. — Gary DeMar
Is it possible that they have missed something in their methodology?
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And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30).
In the early years of my Christian faith, I assumed, like so many of my brethren, that Matthew 24:30 was a prophecy about the second coming of Christ in our future. The picture was one of Christ on his white horse surfing in on a cumulus nimbus up in the troposphere down to the earth below, because after all, we must take the Bible “literally,” right? It seemed obvious to my modern western scientific mindset.
Until I looked into the ancient Jewish mindset and discovered that this terminology of Christ’s cloud-coming was a common word-picture with a tradition of very symbolic meaning that had precedent in the Old Testament.
And that biblical meaning was very different from what I had been taught.
Back to the Bible: This Generation
The first thing that caused cognitive dissonance in my “literalistic” interpretation of Christ’s cloud-coming was the actual context of Jesus’ prophecy. The cloud-coming was to be part of an entire sequence of events that Jesus began to explain in Matthew 23.
He condemned his generation of Jews and their leaders for rejecting his messianic identity. Jesus said those of his generation who were rejecting his messiahship would be guilty of all the blood of righteous prophets shed in the land of Israel from Abel unto their very day (Matt 23:35).
Then He says, “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (23:36).
I discovered that every time Jesus used that phrase, “this generation,” he always used it to refer to the generation of people who were alive in his day, not to some future generation, as some Christians try to argue. Don’t trust prophecy pundits. Look it up for yourself like I did (Matt 11:16-19; 12:41-42; 12:45; 17:17; Luke 11:29; Mark 8:38).
And when you read those passages, you’ll notice like I did that Jesus always used “this generation” in a negative way to refer to his first-century generation being spiritually adulterous for rejecting him as the coming Messiah. They were rejecting God’s own “visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).
Remember Moses’ generation of Jews in the wilderness being judged for forty years for not believing the spies of Canaan? Same thing. Jesus was comparing his generation of unbelieving Jews to that generation.
And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone (Num. 32:13)
Just like Moses’ generation was judged in forty years, so Jesus’ generation would be judged in forty years. But what things would come upon the contemporaries of Christ? Contextually, it included the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-24:2), as well as persecution of Christians (24:9), the abomination of desolation (v. 15), the great tribulation (v. 21), false christs (v. 23-24), and even Christ’s cloud-coming (v. 30).
We know the fulfillment of this prophecy includes everything in that passage because Jesus uses an “inclusio,” a repeated phrase before and after the sequence of events to include everything within the sequence.
He repeats himself in Matthew 24:34. “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” That’s an inclusio.
Christ’s cloud-coming was within that inclusio (23:36-24:34). I could not deny it. To be biblically consistent, I had to include it within the events that would occur before the forty-year generation would pass away or die. Just like Jesus said.
Which made me reconsider that maybe, just maybe, my modern western hyper-literal interpretation of the cloud-coming may not be what Jesus meant it to be.
So, I had to search more. And what I found confirmed my suspicion.
Back to Jesus: Cloud-Coming
When I looked up the other places Jesus refers to his cloud-coming in that same Gospel of Matthew, it seemed quite clear that it was going to happen within the lifetime of his audience, those first-century Jews.
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matt. 10:23).
Jesus is here talking to his disciples and telling them to go through Israel and preach the Gospel. Then He says that they will not finishing going through those towns before He comes!
Jesus is not talking to a future generation of Christians; He is talking to His own disciples of that first-century generation. Jesus would come before those disciples finished preaching through Israel’s towns.
If you try to spin that into a futuristic reference, you are doing violence to the obvious context. But that’s not even the strongest example.
“Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28).
Again, Jesus is talking to His disciples (16:24), not some future generation. And He says very clearly and explicitly that some of those who are standing right there and listening to Him in that first-century will still be alive when they see Him coming.
Hyper-literalists try to be consistent in their belief of this coming being in our future by concluding that Jesus must have bestowed immortality on some of his audience. They believe that there are people in this world who are over two thousand years old because Jesus has not come in his kingdom yet.
That’s what happens when you impose your bias on the text.
And there’s so much more. In Matthew 26:63-64, Jesus confronts the high priest in Jerusalem by telling him, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
The high priest would see it, not a future generation. And he would see Jesus seated at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds. “From now on” indicates that whatever Christ’s enthronement and coming was, it would be an event that the high priest would “see” (understand) and it would have ongoing truth. This was within his lifetime, not thousands of years after he was dead.
But if this cloud-coming happened in that first-century and it wasn’t some kind of hyper-literal IFO (Identified Flying Object), then what was it? What does it mean for Christ to “come on the clouds”?
A key lies in realizing that the cloud-coming of Jesus is connected with His enthronement in heaven. Jesus is quoting from the prophet Daniel.
Back to Daniel: The Ascension
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom…” (Dan. 7:13–14).
This is the only place in the Old Testament that talks about the “Son of Man” “coming with the clouds of heaven,” just like Jesus said He would do. That ain’t coincidence. That’s prophecy fulfillment.
Daniel 7 is a messianic vision of enthronement. God the Father is on his throne (7:9) and everyone adjourns for the arrival of the Son of Man to receive his kingship.
I’ll never forget the day Gary DeMar opened my eyes with a very simple yet easily overlooked truth about this passage. He got me to notice that it says Jesus as the Son of Man “came up” to God on His throne. He didn’t “come down” to earth like most Christians misinterpret that cloud-coming in Matthew.
I went back and reread Matthew 24:30. Gary was right. Jesus didn’t say He would “come down” from the clouds to earth. The sign is that He’s in heaven. That’s what “coming on the clouds” means in Daniel 7:13-14 because that’s where God’s throne is located.
But that’s not all. Because the New Testament clearly states that Jesus was enthroned in His kingdom at his resurrection and ascension!
[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet… (Eph. 1:20–22).
According to the New Testament, Jesus came up with the clouds to the Ancient of Days and received the kingdom that Daniel foresaw. That’s ascension. Jesus was enthroned as Messiah at His resurrection and ascension around AD 33.
And that was exactly what the Jews were denying. They rejected Jesus’ kingship in heaven. So, Jesus was saying that there would be a sign that He was in heaven at the right hand of God and they were wrong. A sign that would vindicate Jesus to the first-century Jews who rejected Him.
But if Jesus’ cloud-coming was the ascension, then why does He say they will “see him coming on the clouds.” They didn’t see Him ascend to God’s throne because that happened in heaven, right?
Jesus often used “seeing” with eyes as a metaphor that meant “understanding.” Their eyes would be opened, and they would finally understand Jesus was the Messiah king in heaven that they rejected (Matt 13:13-17).
This is not a hyper-literal “seeing,” but a metaphorical revelation of understanding. Jesus would vindicate his enthronement as Messiah to those who rejected Him when He first came.
But there is another aspect to cloud-coming that I didn’t understand until I studied it in the Old Testament. Cloud-coming was a spiritual metaphor that God used to describe anytime He came in judgment upon a city, nation or people.
Jesus’s cloud-coming involved God’s judgment upon that generation.
Back to the Prophets: Cloud-Comings
This could be the most important revelation of this post. Consider this carefully as I did.
The primary context of Matthew 23-25 is the destruction of the temple. Jesus said that because the first-century Jews would reject Him, God would destroy the temple and “not leave one stone upon another” (Matt. 23:37-24:2).
That event occurred within that generation, about forty years later, in AD 70, when the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Just as Jesus predicted.
I now see that the destruction of the temple is the sign of vindication that Jesus was enthroned in heaven. Jesus’ cloud-coming involved God judging His people for their spiritually adulterous lack of faith.
But this “cloud-coming” is not an arbitrary symbol. Jesus was drawing from the Old Testament prophets who often used the symbolic motif of God coming on the clouds to judge cities, nations or peoples. Here are just a few:
Around 700 BC, Yahweh judged the nation of Egypt. Isaiah described it as Yahweh’s cloud-coming.
“The oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, Yahweh is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt…” (Isa. 19:1).
When God judged Nineveh, probably through Babylon, he described it as Yahweh coming “in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet” (Nah. 1:2-3).
When God used Babylon to judge Egypt, Ezekiel called it “a day of clouds, a time of doom…” (Ezek. 30:3).
When the first temple of Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah described it as Yahweh “coming up like clouds, His chariots like the whirlwind” (Jer. 4:13).
There is more, but I think you can see the pattern as I eventually did. God uses storm imagery and specifically cloud-comings to describe His judgment upon cities, nations, and peoples.
These events occurred in history. But obviously, Yahweh did not physically surf in on a cumulus nimbus. Cloud-comings were a metaphor. And even more importantly, they were a metaphor for God using pagan armies to judge those cities, nations, or peoples.
In Isaiah 19 above, Yahweh used Assyria to judge Egypt. Yahweh didn’t physically come on the clouds, but He stirred up civil war (19:2) and put a foreign king to rule over them (19:4). Yahweh used pagan nations to do His work.
When God came on the clouds to Egypt in Ezekiel 30, He didn’t come physically on clouds in the sky. That was only a metaphor to describe Yahweh moving the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan king of Babylon, against Egypt (Ezek. 30:10).
So also, when God says He comes up like the clouds to Israel in Jeremiah 4, that is a metaphor for God judging Israel through the armies of Babylon (Jer. 4:16).
In all these cases, Yahweh is described as using pagan armies and kings as His tools to accomplish judgment upon cities, nations or peoples.
When God destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC, He did it through the armies of Babylon and called it a cloud-coming. Jesus uses the same terminology when He describes the destruction of the second temple by the pagan armies of Rome in AD 70. He describes it as a cloud-coming.
Similar destructions, similar prophetic language.
For me, Christ’s cloud-coming in Matthew 24 used to be the most obvious reference to the physical return of Christ in our future. But after studying the actual biblical context of the term, it is now the most obvious reference to Jesus judging Israel in the first century through the armies of Rome by destroying the temple because of their rejection of his Messiahship.
Back to First Century Israel
This paradigm shift can be disturbing to a Christian who may have been taught all their life that Christ’s cloud-coming is only literal and in our future. It no doubt raises all kinds of other questions. What about the return of Christ? What about the book of Revelation? What about the Great Tribulation? What about the Antichrist? What about the Abomination of Desolation? I wrote a book detailing my own journey of changing my mind and how it answers those other theological issues. It’s called End Times Bible Prophecy.
But more importantly, I just finished writing a four-book series of novels that helps to envision what the book of Revelation may have looked like through those ancient Jewish eyes of the first-century. It’s called Chronicles of the Apocalypse, and it all begins with the first novel, Tyrant: Rise of the Beast.
It’s the origin story of the book of Revelation. It starts with Nero Caesar’s persecution of Christians when John wrote the book of Revelation and ends with the Roman war against the Jews that resulted in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70. I made it historical, theological and entertaining with action, romance, and even spiritual warfare. And I have tons of endnotes for people who want to go beyond the novel to see the historical and biblical proofs of the interpretation. Check it out.
Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), and an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim).