What Does Jesus Mean When He Says He is Coming on the Clouds?

colorful sunset

Continuing to look at some of the text from the Passion according to St. Matthew, we come to the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest.

Having heard false and conflicting testimony from various witnesses, Caiaphas turns to Jesus, and here is where we pick up the text:

The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Christ the son of God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Let’s look this text in three stages.

I. Obedience to Lawful Authority – Jesus has remained silent in the trial thus far. But at a critical moment in the trial, Caiaphas puts Jesus under oath. Caiaphas, as high priest, has the authority to do this. And on account of this, Jesus will in fact make an answer. In so doing, he demonstrates obedience to lawful authority.

Nowhere does Scripture counsel disrespect or disobedience to lawful authority. Jesus accepts the lawful authority of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Earlier he had counseled his disciples, The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matt 23:2-3)

Likewise, he would later say to Pilate You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above (Jn 19:11). And while he reminds Pilate that he will answer for his use of authority, he does acknowledge that Pilate has authority, and has it from God.

St. Paul would counsel and remind the early ChristiansEvery person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Rom 13:1-3)

None of these counsels and commands are to be taken to mean that those in authority were good or even just men. We have the authorities we deserve, and that God permits, and unless they command us to do something objectively evil, Scripture teaches that we are to obey lawful authority and show proper respect. If even Jesus can stand before the likes of Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and accept their authority, then certainly we can do so.

Accepting the authority of those over us does not mean that we never air our differences or express our concerns. Jesus plainly did this, as did Paul and others. But at the end of the day, even less-than-perfect authorities are to be obeyed when they legitimately command us.

Thus as we shall now see, Jesus, having been put under oath, will answer the high priest.

II. Oath – Jesus is put under oath and ordered to answer whether or not he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answers, “You say so.”

This answer may at first seem to us to be evasive and mildly disrespectful. But as we shall see, Jesus seeks to distinguish what he means by the term Messiah, or Christ, from what Caiaphas means. For many used the word “Messiah” in a way that Jesus was not comfortable with. Many understood the Messiah as a political figure or a military leader. But Jesus spoke of himself as a suffering Messiah, one who would bear the sins of the people, and having suffered and died, would rise on the third day.

The Messiah was to be a king, but not a king of this world. He was to wage war, but not against the Romans or some other enemy of flesh and blood, rather against Satan and the forces of darkness.

Thus, when Jesus is told to declare whether or not he is the Messiah, his expression “You say so” could also be rendered, “Those are your words.” Or more extensively,

“Yes I am a Messiah, but not in the way you understand. I am the Christ, the Messiah, but I have not come to wage war; I am not here to dislodge the Romans or to act in a way that you fear will bring Roman crackdown. No, I have come to suffer and die for the sins of the people. I’ve come to fulfill Scripture which says of the Messiah: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed….the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:5-6)

I have come to reconcile man to God and reopen the gates of heaven. Am I the Messiah, the Christ? You say so. And you’re right. But you and I do not mean ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ in any way remotely similar.”

As for confirming whether or not he is the Son of the living God, here too Jesus prefers different terminology, terminology that to our ears seems a lesser title than “Son of God.” Instead, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man.”

Though to modern ears, “Son of Man” seems a lower title than “Son of God,” biblically this is not really the case. In the Scriptures, the title “Son of God,” or “Sons of God,” could refer to the Angels, but it could also refer to human beings, who are made in the image and likeness of God. For if God is their creator, He is in essence a Father to them, and they are his sons.

Of course, Jesus often did refer to himself as God’s Son in a unique sense, declaring that he and his Father were one (Jn 10:30), that to see Him was to see the Father (Jn 14:9). And he would often speak equivocally of himself and the Father, for example saying, My Father is working until now, and I am working (Jn 5:17).

And thus, to believers in Jesus, Jesus was in fact the Son of God in a unique, perfect, and sublime way. But for a typical Jew of the first century, hearing Jesus call himself the Son the living God, would have been ambiguous – even shocking.

Thus, Jesus does not simply answer back to the high priest, “Yes I am the Son of the living God,” but he goes on to call himself the Son of Man. In so doing, he taps into a passage from the Book of Daniel that speaks of the Messiah in high and divine terms. And to Jewish ears, the title “Son of Man,” while rarely used, was a far more exalted title for Jesus to claim of himself than the title “Son of the living God.”

Here is the passage from the book of Daniel to which Jesus refers:

As I (Daniel) looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened...In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel (7: 9-14)

And thus we see that Jesus claims for himself a high and exalted title wherein he is the great eschatological King, the one who shall rule over all the nations, and his kingdom shall never be taken away. And as Son of Man, he rules from heaven.

The title so shocks the high priest, that he rends his own garments and declares that Jesus has blasphemed by equating himself to God. And that leads us to the third point.

III. Omnipotence Since we have already read the text from Daniel, it is clear to us that Jesus is speaking of the glory of his reign, and his great omnipotence. They will one day see him seated at the right hand of God in heaven, and also coming on the clouds of heaven, whether they like it not. For this is who he is, the Lord and King of glory, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. And he shall come on the clouds in judgment on the nations; he will judge the world by fire.

But what does it mean to say that he will come on the clouds? Too many of us moderns think of this only in literal terms. Such a literal interpretation is surely not impossible for God. In fact, the Lord Jesus may very well be seen on the last day coming in the clouds.

But we ought not simply reduce it to this. For Jesus was also speaking to the men of his day about something that they also would see and experience. Thus we ought not simply see his reference to coming on the clouds as some early form of airline travel or a kind literalistic insistence that they would one day be able to look up in the sky and see him just to the right of a large cumulonimbus cloud.

The ancient Jews used expressions in their day just as we do today. And while these expressions express truth, they often use images, similes, metaphors, and allegories, which in and of themselves need not always be taken literally. For example, we moderns often speak of being “star struck.” But of course we don’t literally mean that stars struck us. Rather we mean that we are struck by something that awed us in the way that looking up and seeing the stars at night might do. Sometimes we also speak of something coming from “out of the blue.” We do not mean literally that it came out of some blue section of the sky and hit us over the head. Instead, we mean that whatever it was, it came to us as if out of nowhere. More recently, we speak of storing our information “in the cloud.” But of course we don’t mean that our data is literally in the condensate zones of upward turbulence that we call clouds. We are using a metaphor to describe our data being “up above us” somewhere and accessible and able to be seen in many places “below.”

And thus, when Jesus speaks of coming on the clouds, we need not interpret this in a merely crude and literalistic way.

To the ancient Jews, the clouds were an image of glory, an image of heaven, and were also an image of God’s judgment. As an image of glory, the clouds both revealed and hid God’s glory. In the Exodus, God led them in the pillar of cloud by day, which appeared as a column of fire by night. This cloud revealed God’s presence yet also hid it. In the desert, the presence of God was indicated by the Shekinah, the glory-cloud that the descended on the tent of meeting. It both revealed God’s glory and presence, and yet also hid it from the people could not withstand God’s glory in all of its fullness.

So on one level, Jesus, in saying that the men of his day would see him as the Son of Man coming on the clouds, is saying that they would see him in all of his glory. He is saying that they would see and experience his powerful Kingdom breaking into this world, whether they liked it or not. The Temple and an exclusive Israel was going away. The fulfillment of ancient Israel, the Church, God’s Kingdom, was breaking in. The Temple, the symbol of ancient Israel, was going to be swept away.

In another sense, the clouds also show forth God’s judgment. Throughout the Scriptures, the clouds are often a symbol of God’s judgment come down on Israel, or on other nations. The clouds symbolize God visiting judgment on the people and the nation. Here are a few examples:

  1. Zeph 1:15 Near is the great day of the LORD, Near and coming very quickly; Listen, the day of the LORD! … That day will be a day of wrath– a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness..
  2. Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. …. There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations. (Joel 2:1-4)
  3. For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near– a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations….Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes when I break the yoke of Egypt; there her proud strength will come to an end. She will be covered with clouds, and her villages will go into captivity. (Ex 30:3, 18)
  4. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ex 34:12)

And thus, in saying that he was coming on the clouds, Jesus was saying that they would experience his judgment on the nation for having rejected His saving love. In a sermon called the Mount Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), Jesus had already tearfully lamented the great destruction that was coming upon Jerusalem for lack of belief. And exactly forty years after his death, the great destruction he predicted came to pass. Jerusalem and the temple were utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. The temple was never again to be rebuilt. The Lord did indeed come in a great cloud in judgment upon ancient Israel!

So much in such a short few lines! As you can see, the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas was dramatic and has much to teach us.

4 Replies to “What Does Jesus Mean When He Says He is Coming on the Clouds?”

  1. At the end of your opening paragraph on imnipotence – “… will judge the world by fire” I am reminded of Zehariah 13:9 and Malachi 3:2. Thanks for that.

  2. The Glory of GOD was seen in the crucifixion of JESUS, as HE was lifted up on the cross. It was when JESUS suffered that men, from all times and all generations, before and even long after this horrible execution, will know that HE is the SON of GOD. Indeed, we are now in the third millennium and HE continues to be a controversy in the hearts of men of disbelief and the believers alike. In the obscurity of a little part of Jerusalem, in an obscure part of history that HE was crucified yet the world is still, in turmoil, in a quandary and burning within as to whether to follow HIS teachings on peace or not. Yet, we who believe know that the only path to peace are HIS Word and that truly HE sits in glory at the right hand of the FATHER as testified to by St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church when he was being stoned in front of Saul, who will become St. Paul, the greatest of the evangelizers, the evangelizer of the Gentiles. LORD JESUS, Your suffering is not in vain, for now there are still men who treasure YOUR Words written in their hearts and minds. We see YOUR great glory in the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass and we observe YOUR Teachings and YOUR Words cut into our hearts like two edged sword. As we observe the mystery of this Holy Week, we pray and intercede for those who are still confusion whether to follow YOU or not. Praise to YOU, LORD JESUS CHRIST, now and forever. AMEN!

  3. Monsignor,

    It is not clear to me why he didn’t use the title Son of God and shock the Jews?
    He had shocked them many times before say when he talk about eating his flesh and blood,
    calling himself I AM etc. Instead he uses the title Son of Man creating a valid point for those
    who argue Jesus was not fully asserting his divinity? I have read your blog on this topic before.
    So can’t Jews argue that he was not fully God one with the father but a Messiah sent by God
    who was given full dominion over earth and seated at right hand (citing vision of Daniel)?
    This is different from our understanding that Jesus is con substantial with the Father right?
    Could you please clarify?


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