The Second Coming in the Gospels?

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11 ESV

Contrary to popular belief the idea of Christ second coming is not introduced into the New Testament until this passage in Acts 1. I understand this statement runs counter to modern day dispensationalism and popular forms of Eschatology. The first reaction of any Bible student is what about Mathew 24:30 “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming[1] on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”.[2]

In this passage, Jesus cites two different Old Testament passages. The first is found in Zech 12:10, “so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” While the context of Zechariah 12 (14)[3] is a second coming passage, this verse finds its literal partial fulfillment in John 19:37.[4] John uses it again in part in Revelation 1.7, concerning his second coming.[5]

In this Revelation 1:7 passage John uses both phrases (pierced, mourn).[6]  Obviously, the reference to those who pierced him in Revelation is used as an identifier to the same people who saw Christ crucified. The mourning is being used then, in part, to an event of suffering and pain. In the case of his return the mourning is one of repentance, when those who pierced Him (the Jews) they will recognize this same Jesus is the one they killed. I would argue the idea it is one of repentance based on Romans 11:25-27 (Zech 13:1). “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles[7] has come in. And in this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

I would hold to the idea that at His coming the tribes of the earth will recognize him who they pierced and mourn in repentance and in this way, all of Israel will be saved. Cashmore supports this basic idea.

Regardless of the options, if the original context of the citation is to be maintained, the weight of probability supports Zechariah 12:10 referring to the Son of man being enthroned at the destruction of Jerusalem with the tribes of Israel mourning and at least some repenting.[8]

Now in the Revelation passage one other phrase that is used is also found in Mathew 24:30, “coming on clouds”. The literal understanding of coming on clouds is found in Acts 1 where Jesus ascended and was taken up into the clouds and the angel promised the Lord would return in like manner, coming in clouds, therefore coming in clouds is the literal approach to accept what is the coming of the son of man. Based on these association it is commonly held then that the Mathew passage is also about the second coming since it is talking about his coming on clouds. If we examine the passage from where Jesus is now also quoting from (not from Acts 1) something different appears.

“Son of man, coming on clouds” comes from Daniel 7:13

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.

Cashmere adheres to the same opinion and expresses it’s a universal idea among scholars. He stated,

There is almost universal agreement that the term comes from Daniel 7:13-14. The Aramaic “like a human being” became in the LXX “son of man”. Jesus used this term as a label describing his own work, incorporating the content of Daniel 7:13-14 by association.[9]

Kazen added to the discussion,

That while the Son of Man is an apocalyptic concept, it was not initially understood in the same ‘eschatological’ sense as in subsequent Christian interpretation of Pauline and post-Pauline ideas of a ‘return’ or ‘second coming’ of Christ. This means that the coming Son of Man for Jesus and his immediate followers had more to do with practice or kingdom ethics than with some end-of the-world sort of millennialism, and that we can expect a shift in emphasis, from ethics to eschatology as traditionally understood, as Jesus came to be identified as the Son of Man in the sense of an individual redeemer figure.[10]

Clouds of heaven is a phrase and term of Judgment. Isaiah19:1 states, “A prophecy against Egypt: See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt.” From this imagery, the preterist accepts the phrase means judgment is coming and we also know when Christ appears the second time it will be to execute judgment.

In the Daniel 7:13 passage the son of man is not coming down to execute judgment but is ascending to the father and being presented before Him, where He is given authority and dominion and from Him judgment now comes. The context of Daniel 7 is of judgment for the Ancient of Days demonstrated in verse 9-10.
“As I looked,

Thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.[11] 

The coming judgment was executed in 70 AD by the Roman army of Titus. In the context of Mathew 24 the son of man is the messiah who they rejected and so in vindication, Judgement comes from Him, Christ the exalted Lord who now sits on a throne and executes his own judgment. The phrase “son of man coming on clouds” is never a reference in the gospels to his second coming but of the events of his vindication and exaltation in which he sends judgment. N T wright echoes this same charge.

When Jesus speaks of “the son of man coming on the clouds,” he is talking not about the second coming but, in line with the Daniel 7 text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering. The “coming” is an upward, not a downward, movement. In context, the key texts mean that though Jesus is going to his death, he will be vindicated by events that will take place afterward.[12

Daniel Zacharias in his paper Old Greek Daniel 7:13-14 and Matthew’s Son of Man presents the case that the Old Greek completely supports the idea and from the first century church they understood this connection.

The evangelist has the Son of Man coming on (not with) the clouds, puts the angels in his charge, and places him on the glorious throne here he judges the nations. All of this coheres with Dan 7 as represented by the Old Greek.[13] 

T. Wright even adds,

“The first thing to get clear is that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return. I have argued this position at length and in detail in my various books about Jesus.[14] 

The disciples barely understood his first message and purpose of his coming, that is to die, in which even Jesus spoke cryptically about it in ways they did not fully understand. A concept of a second coming would have been lost in their current understanding. They expected Christ to establish the throne of his father David in Israel, to rise up, and overthrow the Roman empire as in days of old. It was the reason Judas sought to force Jesus hand, he thought he could force the circumstances where Jesus would have to raise up his followers to fight against the Roman armies, he believed the people would join in the rebellion as they all sided with their king just days before in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

In Acts 1:6 the disciples asked the question, “…they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus never refuted that position yet confirmed their idea, “He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Which is the blatant agreement with what they understood, Jesus simply stated ‘it’s not for you to know when.” Which is not a denial of their thinking. Every Jew believed in the promise that a descendant of David would one day sit on the throne of His father in an everlasting kingdom (Luke 1:33; Isa 9:7). The preterist insists this is just spiritually but the scholar recognizes this is in the spiritual kingdom in heaven and then on earth, as it is in heaven. Again N T Wright explores the position thoroughly in his book “Surprised by Hope”.

Keeping to the context of Mathew 23:34-36[15] these events he is describing is all about the judgment that would be on that generation. With this judgement in the mind of Mathew, he begins with the Olivet[16] in chapter 24, speaking of the same judgment as he uses the same phrasing, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” This judgment then had to have taken place in that generation. When we examine history, we know Jerusalem was fully destroyed and the people scattered in 70 AD. Mathew 24 was completely fulfilled in 70 AD yet the ongoing ramifications of his death and resurrection and the theme of judgment still have a further completion that is tied to his Messianic role. Cashmore also argues that there are no ties of the Olivet to the second coming as understood in I Thessalonians 4 or any other teaching of Paul.

In the case of the Olivet discourse we have traditionally placed pegs in the ground at Revelation 1:7 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17. We have then dragged the Olivet “Son of man” into line with these pegs. However, as discussed above, while there may be a slender thread, there is certainly no rope connecting Olivet with 1 Thessalonians that will bear that much exegetical weight.[17] 

Many arguments are presented by Mark Hitchcock in his book and in many others of the Dispensational view, use the Olivet to argue for the Rapture, the rebuilding of the Temple, and other common teachings based on the idea the signs and tribulation found in Mathew 24:4-31 are yet future. Thus they again require a temple to be rebuilt in order to be torn down again. These arguments are dismissed when we accept the whole of the Olivet and the “Desolation of Abomination”[18] is fulfilled in 70 AD there is nothing yet to be done and Revelation stands on its own with no help from the Gospels.

Further we have the second coming prophecy of Zechariah 12:8,

On that day the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them.

Zechariah describes the opposite, on the day of his coming, Jerusalem will be protected.

Eusebius who recorded the History of the Church[19] chapter seven, predictions of Christ stated,

  1. It is fitting to add to these accounts the true prediction of our Savior in which he foretold these very events.
  2. His words are as follows: Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day. For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

In this work, he quotes extensively from Josephus writings, “War of the Jews” in support of his belief that this was the “Abomination of Desolation” as spoken by Daniel and Luke’s version of the Olivet.[20] Then we also know Eusebius was major player in the formation of the Nicaean Creed in 300 AD and wrote, “Letter on the Council of Nicaea” in which he affirms the Second coming is still a future hope of the church. Reading the same text as we do how is it the early church never concluded that the Olivet speaks of a second coming? Because there is no promise of a second coming in the Olivet, a promise of divine judgment only.

In the Book “House Divided” a preterist answer for “When Shall These Things Be”[21] (which is a compilation of chapters in refutation of the Preterist paradigm by several authors), Michael Sullivan answers the Daniel connection and in his response simply states, “Even if these premises are true, they in no way prove that the coming of Christ in 70 AD was not his “actual second coming.”[22] My response would be that we understand the nature of his coming based on Paul’s teachings found in his Epistles, proves 70 AD was not the second coming and based on the historical record.  Paul’s epistles describe in detail the nature of his coming by using the words “Parousia” and “Epiphaneia”, which will be discussed later.

My simple point here is that the Daniel connection proves and establishes there is no promise of second coming found in the Olivet. If Jesus is quoting and from the context it is not a coming down but His coming to the father. This eliminates the necessity of a first century fulfillment since there is no promise of his coming down in that generation.

Sullivan expounds on his preferred explanation concerning the meaning of the Daniel 7:13-14 and argues the translation of the Old Greek Septuagint which he claims translates “came as” instead of “came to” changes the meaning of the verse to how it should be read. The Hebrew grammar and words of the sentence also disproves this interpretation by subject object distinction. What makes this translation or interpretation false when a complete exegesis is done, (instead of trying to find a meaning you like out of thin air) the words in the verse disqualify Michael’s interpretation,

“and was presented before him.”

Now let’s change the wording to make it fit Sullivan’s interpretation
and he came as the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him. 
 

Jesus was not presented before himself. Him is the antecedent of “ancient of days” the object the subject was relating to. Sullivan is trying to have the coming a downward motion yet if the son of man is being presented before the Ancient of Days, it’s still an upward motion not downward. We must ask who is the “him” he was presented before if it is not the Ancient of Days? In this his argument is defeated.

What Sullivan also questions is this,

The New Testament does not give the slightest hint that “the coming of the son of man” on the clouds of heaven would be fulfilled at the ascension.[23]

What he fails to also understand as N T Wright explains,

In context, the key texts mean that though Jesus is going to his death, he will be vindicated by events that will take place afterward. What those events are remains cryptic from the point of view of the passages in question, which is one good reason for thinking them authentic, but they certainly include both Jesus’s resurrection and the destruction of the Temple, the system that opposed him and his mission.[24]

This is not just about His ascension but all the events where the why and how of his glorification is included in the entirety of the whole process from beginning to end, his vindication in which he sends judgment. The concept of a context of Judgment passage comes from the previous verses in Daniel 7:9-10 which paints the exact same scene in Revelation 20:11-15.

 

The Other Second Coming Verses

When we consider now the other supposed second coming passages found in the gospels we find similar wording, “son of man coming on clouds” which is then assumed is a second coming passage.

Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Mathew 26:64 (Mark 14:62)
We take notice in this verse is the one phrase Jesus adds, “seated at the right hand of Power” which comes from Psalms 110:1, “The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” This passage implied two things: Christ is given authority to judge as he sits at the right hand of God and it also implies he is the Lord who sits at the right hand of God[25], meaning he is equal to God, hence Caiaphas declaration of blasphemy against Jesus. In Mathew 24:44 Jesus quotes again from Psalms 110:1 in asking a question of the same Pharisees. Right hand of power is an expression of having authority and equality with God so the question remains; How can he be seated at the right hand and still come on clouds? The phrasing means he has been given all authority and because he is given dominion he is the one who sends Judgment upon that generation.

Mathew 16:17-18 is also counted for many as a second coming passage, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 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.” But again, if we apply the same context, his coming is into heaven where he is given dominion, and from it he executes judgment upon people who will still be living and others will see this coming of Judgment. The Kingdom is now HIS kingdom and he has the right to send judgment, the judgment is a demonstration of his right to judge.

In the third passage Mathew 10:23, 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.” The time restraint identifies this also happens within that generation there is no reason to try to place this in some distant future.

 

Conclusion

The phrase “Son of man coming on clouds” cannot be about his second coming but His right to execute judgment which establishes Mathew 24 is not about a future time but events associated with 70 AD and the destruction of Jerusalem. The context of the Olivet discourse finds its fulfillment in 70 AD through Christ’s own prophetic words that these events would happen in that generation as history records these events but is absent to mention anything of anyone seeing Christ return, the mass rising of any dead or of anyone being changed. The three references cited above that mentions the “son of man coming of clouds” flatly refutes the possibility the phrase refers to his future second coming as they affirm it’s the “son of man coming on clouds” was to happen in that generation.

It is noted dispensationalist cite many passages to prove the Olivet discourse is yet future but we cannot escape the words “this generation” within context. Preterist affirm 70 AD was the fulfilling of all things, the second coming, millennium, the final judgment and the arrival of the new heavens and earth. They believe it all happened in that generation that the destruction of Jerusalem was the fulfilling of all of what Jesus foretold but their failure, the same as in dispensationalism, is to believe “son of man coming on clouds” is a promise of the second coming.

It should also be noted that John, who lived long after 70 AD, never mentioned the Olivet discourse in his Gospel. Some argue that the Revelation is his 70 AD prophecy but the evidence strongly supports the events of 70 AD have no more concern for him in comparison to his Revelation, 70 AD was a past event.

[1] erchomai: to come, go a. of persons; α. universally, to come from one place into another, and used both of persons arriving — as in Matthew 8:9; Matthew 22:3; Luke 7:8; Luke 14:17

[2] All scriptural references are from The English Standard Version.

[3] Zech 14:4 Has Christ feet on the Mount of olives and his saints coming with him as Paul quotes in I Thessalonians 3:13.

[4] “And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

[5] “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

[6] Cashmore in his paper “In this generation”: the comings and goings of the Son of Man” presents the same material and connection of the phrases found in Revelation and the other passages cited.

[7] When the complete number of gentiles have been saved according to the book of life, the time of the gentile church is now complete and God again turns to his people Israel and gentiles at his coming.

[8] Cashmore, David. “‘In this generation’: the comings and goings of the Son of Man.” Stimulus 12, no. 4 (November 2004): 17

 

[9] Cashmore, David. “‘In this generation’: the comings and goings of the Son of Man.” Stimulus 12, no. 4 (November 2004): 13

[10] Kazen, Thomas. “THE COMING SON OF MAN REVISITED.” Journal for The Study of the Historical Jesus 5, no. 2 (July 2007): 156

[11] Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.

[12] Wright N T, Surprised by Hope Harper Collins E Book 125

[13] Zacharias, H Daniel. “Old Greek Daniel 7:13-14 and Matthew’s Son of Man.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 21, no. 4 (2011 2011): 453

[14] Wright N T, Surprised by Hope Harper Collins E Book 125

[15] Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

[16] The same discourse is found in Mark 13 and Luke 21 with differences in wording. The Olivet is not in the Gospel of John which lends to the idea John’s Gospel was written after 70 AD, the Preterists argue the book of revelation is his version of the Olivet.

[17] Cashmore, David. “‘In this generation’: the comings and goings of the Son of Man.” Stimulus 12, no. 4 (November 2004): 18

[18] Luke 21:20 Mathew 24:15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),

[19] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm

[20] What is interesting is John never records the Olivet Discourse leading a belief in support of the late date in which the Destruction of Jerusalem is a past event.

[21] Mathison, Keith Editor “When Shall These Things Be” R & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ 2004

[22] Green, David; Hassett, Edward; Sullivan, Michael; House Divided Vision Publishing Ramona, CA 2nd Edition 2014 98; The proof of a second coming non fulfillment in 70 AD is based on the nature of the second coming and the events that surround his coming.

[23] Ibid

[24] Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope Harper & Collins E-Book 1997 125

[25] Romans 8:34, Colossians 3:1, Ephesians 1:20 Hebrews 8:1; 12:2