The Son of Man Coming with the Clouds of Heaven1
One of the more baffling things Jesus said during his trial before the high priest of Israel was in response to the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” His response is recorded for us in Mark 14:62. There he said: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Continue reading . . .
One of the more baffling things Jesus said during his trial before the high priest of Israel was in response to the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” His response is recorded for us in Mark 14:62. There he said: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
What is he describing? This passage has been a problem for many to interpret, for in what sense can it be said that the high priest and those with him would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven”?
To answer this we first need to understand what the reference to the “clouds of heaven” means. The “clouds of heaven” was a phrase often used when referring to the appearance or intervention of Yahweh on behalf of his people or in judgment. For example,
• the ‘pillar of cloud’ in the wilderness wanderings (e.g. Exod. 13:21-22; 14:19-20,24; 33:9; Ps. 78:14; 99:7);
• the cloud in which Yahweh descended or hovered over the tabernacle (Exod. 34:5; 40:34-38; Num. 9:15-22; Deut. 31:15);
• the cloud associated with the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; Ezek. 10:3);
• the cloud in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 1:4,28);
• the clouds associated with eschatological theophanies (Isa. 4:5; Ezek. 30:3; Joel 2:2; Nahum 1:3; Zeph. 1:15).
See also Isa. 19:1; 2 Sam. 22:12; Job 22:14; Ps. 68:34; 104:3; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Rev. 1:7. It’s important to remember that “coming with/on the clouds of heaven” was not an ancient form of space travel but a powerfully symbolic way of referring to divine intervention, judgment, or providential preservation of his people.
But what is meant by his “coming”? Is Jesus talking about his “coming” from heaven to earth at the end of history, what we know to be his Parousia or Second Coming? No.
Christians today are so conditioned to assume that the “coming” of the Son of Man “on the clouds of heaven” is his return at the close of history that it is hard to gain a hearing for any alternative position. But we must aim to read the text not in terms of our traditions or preferences but from the perspective of Jesus and in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures from which he draws his language.
The "coming" of the Son of Man is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14 which speaks not of a "coming to earth" from heaven but of a "coming to God" in heaven to receive vindication and authority. This "coming" refers to an event whereby the authority and dominion of Jesus are vindicated over the Jewish establishment which has rejected him. Here is the passage from Daniel 7.
“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, 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” (Daniel 7:13-14).
This is a vision not about a descent from heaven to earth; not about the second coming of the Son of Man at the close of history, but rather a vision of the Son of Man in heaven coming to the Ancient of Days, God the Father, to receive his kingdom. A new kingdom, a new and everlasting dominion is being established to replace the failed regimes of previous empires.
Again, Mark 14:62 is not about the Second Coming of Christ at the end of history but about his enthronement as King and Lord in the very middle of history. He is describing not a 21st century event but a 1st century event!
Standing in the presence of the high priest and members of the Sanhedrin, Jesus declares, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” These to whom Jesus spoke are obviously not now alive. Jesus must be referring to an event in their first-century life spans. Jesus is saying that Caiaphas and others alive at that time will witness his vindication as the one True Prophet; they will see events that testify that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords. R. T. France explains:
"Jesus is using Daniel 7:13 as a prediction of that authority which he exercised when in AD 70 the Jewish nation and its leaders, who had condemned him, were overthrown, and Jesus was vindicated as the recipient of all power from the Ancient of Days. . . . Jesus, exalted after his death and resurrection to receive his everlasting dominion, will display it within the generation . . . by an act of judgment on the nation and capital of the authorities who presumed to judge him. Then they will see . . . for themselves that their time of power is finished, and it is to him that God has given all power in heaven and earth” (R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament, 236).
In other words, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and God’s judgment on Israel in 70 a.d. is all about Jesus! It’s about who he is, how he reigns as sovereign; it’s about the truth of who he claimed to be and the extent and duration of his dominion over all creation.
In other words, Jesus was telling those present that they would witness the sign of Jesus' enthronement in heaven: namely, Jerusalem's destruction on earth. Thus the "sign" of the Son of Man being enthroned and vindicated in "heaven" is the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple on “earth”.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, in the book of Revelation, and elsewhere Jesus is explicitly said to “descend from heaven” at the end of human history. But nothing in Mark 14:62 speaks of Jesus coming “down”. It rather speaks of something that is happening in heaven, as the Son of God, the Son of Man, Jesus, comes “to” God the Father, not “down to” the earth.
They will “see” him in the sense that they will “understand”, i.e., spiritually perceive that he is the vindicated and enthroned King. For “seeing” as a reference to “understanding”, see John 12:40 (Isa. 6:10); Acts 26:18; cf. 1 Kings 8:29,52; 2 Kings 2:16; 6:20; 19:16; Isa. 35:5; 42:7,16; see also Luke 24:31; also note Mark 1:44; Luke 17:22; John 3:3,36; Rom. 15:21.
What that generation will “see” is the universal authority and dominion of King Jesus being vindicated and made known in the judgment of God on Israel. The covenant nation that rejected Jesus as King is now experiencing the consequences of his enthronement and vindication at the right hand of the Father.