When is God ‘coming on the clouds’?

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Quite early on in Revelation (1.7) we find the phrase ‘I am coming with the clouds’, and it is striking that the near universal view of commentators on this verse is that it is a reference to the return of Jesus to earth, as promised in Acts 1 and elsewhere. (Note that the New Testament never uses the now-popular phrase ‘second coming’ of Jesus, since this pairs the future with his ‘first coming’ in the incarnation, whereas the NT always pairs his return with his departure, as in ‘he will return in the same way you have seen him go’ in Acts 1.11).

On first reading, this is perhaps not surprising when we look at the verse carefully.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”;
and all tribes on earth “will mourn because of him.”
Yes! Amen. (Rev 1.7)

In this translation, parts of the verses have been put in inverted commas by the translator to help us realise the use of Dan 7.13, Zech 12.10 and Zech 12.12, albeit with some adaptations. There is a slight shift in tenses, with the parallel to Dan 7.13 in the present, rather than past, tense; the verb ‘to see’ has been changed to parallel ‘mourn’ (opsetai is echoed now by kopsetai); and the tribes of land [of Israel] now appear to be the tribes on earth (the Greek ge is the same in both cases, but the grammatical structure has changed).

Craig Koester, in his large and excellent Anchor commentary, notes the close parallel with Matt 24.30, though (as Aune points out) the allusions occur in the reverse order. In both cases, the NT texts follow the future tense of the language in Zechariah. But this raises some questions about whether the reference here is to Jesus’ return.

First, within the context of this introductory section, focussing on Jesus’ return seems slightly odd. After the prologue, in Rev 1.4 John writes an epistolary opening following the usual pattern of first-century letter writing which we also see in Paul’s letters. But it is notable that the trinitarian greeting from God emphasises God’s majesty and authority, adapting the name of God as revealed to Moses in Ex 3.14, the six- or seven-fold Spirit of God in Is 11.2, and a three-fold exposition of Jesus’ significance, which include his priority in the new creation (‘firstborn from the dead’) and his de jure authority over earthly kings. The acclamation of 1.7 is then followed by repeated emphasis on God’s majesty and power. And the vision of Jesus that follows in the second half of the chapter similarly portrays his present power and authority in quite startling terms.

Second, the parallel between 1.7 and Matt 24.30 throws up a striking contrast. Matthew’s use of these biblical citations point to Jesus’ triumph and ascension to God as part of both his vindication and the judgement by God of those in Jerusalem who rejected him which (by the time Matthew is writing) are firmly in the past. Yet exactly the same set of allusions in Rev 1.7 is taken by commentators (including Koester, who notes the contrast) to refer to Jesus’ return in the future.

To explore what is going on, we need to spend a little time thinking about ‘clouds’ and what it means to be ‘coming’ with them.


For British readers, we need to make something of a cultural shift. We are used to clouds; we see them all the time; they don’t signify anything much other than that it is going to be a normal rainy day. But if you live below the olive line, then for large parts of the year, clouds are quite unusual. This is, perhaps, part of the cultural background to the regular occurrence of clouds in the Old Testament.

A cloud (or clouds) first feature prominently in the exodus narrative, as God travels with his people in the form of a ‘pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’ (Ex 13.21, perhaps first showing that there is no smoke/cloud without fire…). There is no doubt that this symbolises God’s presence in power, protecting his people and confounding the Egyptian army. But as the narrative progresses, it become clear that the cloud of God’s presence on Sinai (Ex 24.15–16) and in the tabernacle (Ex 40.34–35) also signify God’s mystery, otherness and unknowability. In later parts of the narrative, it is often ‘dark clouds’ which signify God’s action in power (e.g. in the song of 1 Sam 22.10) and his impenetrable presence (1 Kings 8.10–11 = 2 Chron 5.14).

Within the wisdom tradition, clouds mostly form part of the created order which manifests God’s glory and power (e.g. Job 37.15) but this is combined in the Psalms with the previous narrative tradition. So God ‘makes the clouds his chariots’ (Ps 104.3) as a symbolic expression of his presence and power in the natural realm.

It is within this symbolic context that we see the development of the language of ‘coming with the clouds’ in the prophetic tradition. When God comes again in judgement to Egypt, he ‘rides on a swift cloud’ (Is 19.1)—and when he comes to his own people to bring the judgement that leads to exile, ‘he advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind’ (Jer 4.13). The emphasis here is less on the direction of travel (there is little reference in these verses to God going up or coming down) as it being a sign of his authority and power.

This is the canonical context for reading Daniel 7.13. God’s people are surrounded by the ferocious beasts of successive imperial powers, and they look to the Ancient of Days to render judgement in their favour—which he does as the One like a Son of Man comes to him on the clouds. And this is clearly Jesus’ intention in his use of the phrase in the gospels (Matt 24.30 = Mark 13.26, Matt 26.64 = Mark 14.62). It is worth noting here that the passage so often put with these, 1 Thess 4.13-18, doesn’t draw on this language at all. The ‘coming’ in v 15 is the noun parousia, and the ‘coming’ in v 16 is actually the word ‘descend’. And there is no mention of him coming ‘with clouds’; it is only ‘in the clouds’ that we will meet him. Paul is hear drawing on imagery of an imperial visit, and not on this OT symbolic meaning of ‘clouds’.

Additional note: we also need to be aware how much our interpretation of these ideas is shaped by the implications of the term ‘to come’. In English, this almost universally has a sense of motion towards the reader. But the same is not true of erchomai in Greek. The word occurs frequently, and it is not uncommon for ETs to render it as ‘go’ or ‘went’, as in ‘I may go and worship him’ in Matt 2.8, ‘he went and lived’ in Matt 2.23, 4.13, ‘he had gone indoors’ in Matt 9.28, ‘he went throughout Galilee’ Mark 1.39, and so on. There is a clear sense of arriving at something, but that something is not always the place of the observer or speaker. It is interesting to reflect on how different it would be to translate Dan 7.13 and its echoes as ‘he went/is going with the clouds…’


It is now difficult to see why Rev 1.7 shouldn’t be read within this scheme of Dan 7.13 and its use in the gospels. The text builds the picture of the authority of God as a counterpoint to the claimed authority of imperial power, and between which John’s readers must choose their allegiance. I wonder whether our difficulty in reading this way arises from our desire to connect the text with something in the world of our expectation before we read it canonically in its own symbolic world.

illinois-northfield-kraft-angel-cream-cheese-cloudFor this reason, it seems to me to make more sense to read Rev 1.7, along with all the other NT uses of the phrase, as pointing to the majesty and power of God and Jesus’ participation of that in the present by virtue of his resurrection and ascension. It also, incidentally, helps us make a bit more sense of another image in Revelation which has taken to be rather sterile in modern culture—the redeemed seated on the clouds singing with harps (Rev 14.3). Rather than suggesting the smooth, creamy taste of Philadelphia cheese spread, it is connected with the heavenly might of God in which we now participate because of Jesus.


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11 thoughts on “When is God ‘coming on the clouds’?”

  1. Good article Ian. You are quite right – about the commentators as well as about the verse itself. John’s vision is not “about” the future, even his own limited future, but addresses, exposes and diagnoses his own and every other time. It is as close to timeless as the inevitably tensed language he must use will permit. Perhaps the best commentary comes from C S Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Aslan says to Lucy “I call all times Soon,” clearly enough drawing on this very verse to express his own timeless eschatology. (Disclaimer: I am still working on my book on Revelation, in which this idea is a major theme.)

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  2. I wonder whether other commentators (I haven’t checked) have been influenced by the Didache (about the earliest non-canonical church writing). Did. 16:8 (referring explicitly to the coming of Christ):
    ‘Then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven’.

    So there is a clear use of this imagery for the coming of Christ in the early church.

    This is not to disagree with your reading, but it does show that the traditional viewpoint has some support too.

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    • Thanks Jonathan—that’s interesting. I presume that Didache 16.8 uses erchomai here rather than parousia?

      If so it demonstrates an early conflation of the language of passages drawing on Dan 7.13 with 1 Thess 4.

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    • To answer my own question: yes it does!

      τότε ὄψεται ὁ κόσμος τὸν κύριον ἐρχόμενον ἐπάνω τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ.

      I would add that the end of that section does appear to owe quite a lot to Matt 24. Note the parallels here with Matt 24.30:

      καὶ τότε φανήσεται τὰ σημεῖα τῆς ἀληθείας· πρῶτον σημεῖον ἐκπετάσεως ἐν οὐρανῷ, εἶτα σημεῖον φωνῆς σάπιγγος, καὶ τὸ τρίτον ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν.

      However, it is worth noting that no document in the NT ever uses erchomenos to refer to Jesus’ return!

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      • Ian

        Can you explain your last sentence. I found multiple examples of ‘erchomenos’ referring to Jesus return.

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  3. I think this illustrates just how delicate a task exegesis is. I’ve long been convinced that this phrase works on several levels. As most recent scholarship has shown, the reference to Daniel 7:13, where the One like a son of Man “comes” to the Ancient of Days, makes it pretty certain that the historical Jesus was not prophesying his “return” when he used the phrase, but rather to his vindication by God (which is most probably his resurrection – though the extent to which Jesus was aware of his forthcoming resurrection is debateable). On the other hand, Acts 1:11 does seem to create a link to a return, and I do wonder if the traditional reading is not a reasonable elaboration of the gospel accounts – although such readings clearly have to recognise that phrases about “this present generation” seeing such a return cannot apply!

    In terms of Revelation, I would be inclined to go with the concept of “vindication”: John is affirming that, whatever happens on the public stage of history, and no matter how much evil may seem to dominate, God is ultimately in control and working out his purposes for humanity through Christ, who is the true King…

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      • You’re right, Ian, “delicate” is not really the right word. Perhaps “intricate” or “complex” or “senstive” would be better – my point is, of course, that the phrase can have multiple meanings (or layers of meaning), and so the exegete must have a “finely tuned ear”

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  4. 1.7 almost uniquely has no structural place in this book where it is difficult to find a single verse that is not part of the book’s interrelated structure. That means it is something that John thought he simply had to say, and it was that important that the structure (which is normally everything to him) can go hang. If it has a structural place it is as programmatic statement and/or central passionate message. For it even precedes the Ezekiel-like rehearsal of time and place 1.9-10, a feature that normally comes at the very start (Ezk 1.1-2, Dan chapters 7ff.).

    I think 14.14 confirms that the idea is of riding on the clouds (also: difficult to come ‘with’ clouds in any other way). Slight alteration of Daniel’s picture is necessary because of the particular circumstance that Jesus’s return to earth is the cherished hope. 1.7 is a scene of vindication, which is indeed the whole point of a second coming. I understand ‘all the tribes of the land’ with Witness Lee and some others. Central is the idea of the anti-Christian Jewish contingent who thought they had won realising that they have in fact lost. This is the great moment that John is looking forward to.

    This verse also sheds light on GJohn’s use of ‘the Jews’, a topic on which much more can also be said. If John says ‘every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him’ he’s illogically putting universal humanity and a very particular small group in apposition. What is probably going on in 1.7 is that his *whole* purview is full of the particular group he has in mind, on whom revenge will be wrought, and this thought is so overwhelming it is as though no-one else exists. Likewise with ‘the Jews’ in GJohn: although he again appears to be using a universal phrase (even to the extent of ‘a feast of the Jews’ etc.), there really is a very particular face that he gives to this superficially large grouping: namely that of the Pharisaic authorities, so that ‘Jews’ and ‘Pharisees’ appear in strict parallel in ch.9.

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    • Thanks Christopher. I kind of agree with you about ‘the Jews’ in GJohn, though I find Mark Stibbe’s analysis helpful, where he looks at the different ways that ‘the Jews’ is used, one of which is in parallel with an elite group as you say.

      I agree with you about clouds and vindication. But it is notable in Revelation that (as with 1 Thess 4) the clouds do not have this function in Jesus’ return…at all. There are no clouds in the millennium, nor any in the New Jerusalem.

      And Matt 24 appears to have no trouble in universalising the experience of those hearing the gospel, so that the (by now) Gentile mission can be seen as the whole earth seeing the truth.

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  5. Hi Ian,

    I agree Matt 24, 25 is about two issues- the destruction of the temple and the end of the age. However, I’m not so sure your division of the chapter stands up. You seem to see 24:1-5 only about the period up to the destruction of the Jerusalem. In AD 70. Yet, as you point out, there appears to be a close association between this opening section and the Second Coming. It says ‘the end is still to come’… ‘he that endures to the end will be saved’…, ‘then the end will come’. The focus throughout vv1-14 at least seems on the face of things to be the Second Coming. This is confirmed by the mention of the Second Coming in the section re the abomination that causes desolation.

    ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ Again a Scripture you cite.

    Indeed you concede that the case for seeing the first section as referring to the Second Coming is strong. Your main argument against an otherwise compelling reading of a build up to the Second Coming is ‘this generation will not pass away…’

    Is it possible you are building more on this text than it need bear. Is it not possible that ‘all these things’ (excluding the Coming) describe the whole period of troubles/tribulations from vv1-25, including the judgement on Israel. ‘These things’ were the experiences of the first generation of believers Jesus describes including the destruction of Jerusalem and so by AD 70 there was nothing in principle to delay his coming. Their fulfilment made his coming even more pending. We are not being told the coming must take place within a generation just the events that must precede that coming. If this is so there really is no reason to posit another kind of ‘coming’ than the Second Coming – especially a coming that does not readily fit the text. NB. If ‘it is near’ refers to the ‘coming’ then the ‘coming’ cannot be included in ‘all these things’.

    The coming

    Regarding references to the ‘coming’ in the chapter, the coming about which the disciples inquire is the ‘Second Coming”. Jesus refers to this coming specifically in v27

    27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

    Immediately following this is a further reference to his ‘coming’ which is surrounded by phenomena we would normally associate with the Second Coming.

    ‘29 “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. 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 on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 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.’

    The ‘coming’ that follows this is a further reference to the parousia and I take it refers to the Second Coming.

    ‘For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ The three close references to a ‘coming’ suggests all refer to the same event.

    Thus, sandwiched between two references to the Second Coming is a further reference to Christ’s coming. A text with attachments strongly suggestive of the Second Coming. In my view the most natural explanation is that this coming is a further reference to the Second Coming. A contention confirmed by the many who have understood it this way.

    In this context it is worth noting that the preterist interpretation of 24:31 is particularly strained (Cf. 13:41). It is hard to see this ingathering as gospel ingathering.

    The end of Ch 23 says Israel will not ‘see’ Christ until they say ‘blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’ (23:39), that is, until Israel repents. However, we are asked to believe that Israel ‘sees’ the Son of Man in or beyond the destruction of Jerusalem. This seems one more text relating to the Second Coming that makes the preterist coming less likely.

    Semantics

    That another word is used than parousia in 24:30 (erchomai) does not indicate a different coming The same word is used in numerous occasions in Matt 23-25 to apply to the Second Coming. Indeed both words are used of the one event (v27). If the word erchomai is taken from Dan 7 in the Septuagint then this further explains the word choice in 24:30. However, I would contend that Dan 7 is being taken to the next stage. If the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven is taken into the presence of God and receives authority, glory and power, universal worship and an everlasting kingdom then he must come out of heaven again to establish these things which is what he does in vv29-31. Also, it’s worth observing that in Dan 7 the death off the gentile king precedes the receiving of the kingdom. In AD 70, by contrast, it is the gentile king who destroys Israel.

    I am also inclined to allow a double-fulfilment in the destruction of Jerusalem. Double fulfilments are not unusual and wouldn’t have been unusual to the disciples. It is hard to see how the description of the defiled temple fits in with AD 70. Other aspects seem to be difficult to fit. Furthermore it is not the destruction of the temple and the fleeing to the hills that is the Son of Man coming; he comes after these events. Also, in Daniel, the abomination belongs to the very End. If so, then Jesus in vv 155-22 may have had in mind too a final End-time persecution for Israel (Zech 14). This may sweep up an end-time converted Israel and the church (I know Ian you are opposed to an end-time conversion for Israel). In any case, Vv 15-28 may be more than AD 70 but it is not less (23: 29-35). Thus in one sense the time of judgement for Jerusalem has already come but there may yet be a future judgement/trial for the city or for the people of God.

    If the main argument for a partial preterist reading is, ‘this generation shall not pass away’ then it is a weak branch to lean on. It is a most unusual interpretation that to to be adopted requires all others to be untenable. In addition it has to be found tenable in itself and here it faces some severe criticism.

    I would add that if the later NT teaching about future events is based on Jesus teaching then there is a surprising absence of reference to a ‘coming’ in AD 70.

    (Interesting and a little dismayed to find F F Bruce and discover he shares your view.)

    Reply

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