Many of us, I think, if we were honest, would have to admit we aren’t quite sure how to interpret a lot of what is described in the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation. I want in this post to offer a few interpretive helps, admitting up front that this is a sketch that calls for further study and reflection, and also that what I am offering is not original with me.
Here is an excerpt from the Olivet Discourse that has puzzled a lot of us (Jesus is speaking):
“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. 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 on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:29–35)
Now here’s the phrase that tends to make us think Jesus is talking about His second coming, His return to earth at the end of history: “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30b). When we think of the “coming” of Christ, we naturally think of the second coming. Recently, however, I read something which proposed that this language of “coming on the clouds of heaven” refers not to Christ’s coming down or coming back but rather to His going up, to His ascension. Is it possible that what Jesus is describing here is some visible manifestation (“they will see”) of His having ascended to the right hand of God the Father?
Two things we should look at, one in the immediate context, the other in the canonical context. In the immediate context, Jesus is speaking about “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matt 24:15). If you are a Dispensationalist, you immediately think of the arrival of the Antichrist, which is to occur in connection with the “great tribulation,” which will occur before (or after, or all around, depending on what sort of Dispensationalist you are) the “rapture” of the church. In short, the “abomination of desolation” is a future event located near the end of the church age and the beginning of the so-called “millennial kingdom.”
The problem with this Dispensationalist view (and hopefully I have been fair in representing it) is that it fails to take account of the parallel passage in Luke 21:20, which says this: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.” What in one gospel Jesus refers to as the “abomination of desolation,” He refers to in another gospel as the siege of Jerusalem by armies. Reading the Matthew text in connection with Luke, then, we need to understand that the “tribulation” referred to in Matthew 24:29 is the tribulation of the Jews during the destruction of their holy city.
It is after this tribulation that the “sign of the Son of Man” will become visible: “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30), and then the Son of Man will send out His angels to gather His elect “from the four winds” (verse 31). What appears to be occurring is this: the ascension of Messiah will somehow be made publicly visible to the Jews, and then the gospel age will begin wherein Messiah gathers His people from under the whole heaven.
But we need something from the canonical (larger biblical) context to make this clear, and Jesus has already told us where to look by referencing “the prophet Daniel” in verse 15. Let’s go there.
Jesus’ referring to Himself as “the Son of Man” takes us back to Daniel 7, where “one like a son of man” comes before the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13). When he is presented, “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 one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14). We know this is referring to the ascension of Messiah to the throne of God, when He is seated on the holy hill of Zion, there to reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. But what is especially interesting, for our purposes, is that Messiah comes “with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13). In other words, His “coming” is not down to us but up to God, and what is being described is not return to earth but ascension to the right hand of the Father.
This helps us understand why Jesus could say, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34). He would, indeed, ascend to the Father and visit public judgment on unbelieving Jerusalem before the end of that generation. It also helps us make sense of some other passages, for example, where Jesus says to the Sanhedrin at His trial, “From now on you all [the second person pronoun here is plural] will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64). The Jewish nation, and particularly their leaders, would indeed see the visible evidence that Jesus was the ascended, reigning Christ; this would occur at the destruction of their beloved city, a destruction Jesus had Himself prophesied. We also gain some insight into Revelation 1:7; and this, in turn, opens up the possibility that references in that book to Jesus’ “coming” may be primarily oriented toward the desolation of Jerusalem and the end of the old (first Adam) age of the world.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to be done with these lines of interpretation. Their implications are rather immense for our understanding of both Old and New Covenant prophecy.