This might be the crucial phrase in Matthew 24:
Matthew 24 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (NIV)
The western church has often taken this to mean the end of the age, when the Messiah comes to resurrect his people. Based on that interpretation, graves traditionally face east: that way the dead will rise to face the Messiah when he resurrects them.
Is that what Jesus meant? Or was he talking about his own resurrection, the day the son of man came from the dead to receive the kingship?
Both are in Scripture. The resurrection of the Messiah was the good news the apostles proclaimed in Acts. Without it, there would be no resurrection for us, when all enemies are finally under the Messiah’s feet and death has no more power, when he finally restores everything into God’s authority (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
That’s the thing about the kingdom of God: it’s already here, but not fully so yet. The kingdom is already present in the Messiah who was raised from the dead to receive all authority, commanding his agents to announce his kingship to the nations (the climax of Mathew’s Gospel in 28:18-20). But it’s not fully present until everyone recognizes his authority, bowing the knee and acknowledging him as our Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). “Already, but not yet” is how it’s often described.
So what did Jesus mean by the coming of the Son of Man? Was he speaking of his ultimate victory over evil that is still future for us? Or was he telling his disciples about his resurrection from the dead, receiving from his Father the authority that is his already?
Honestly, this when question is nowhere near as crucial as understanding the what. Whether you think this verse refers to the day that heaven inaugurated Christ’s kingship by raising him from the dead, or the day that Christ completes his kingship by raising us from the dead, the coming of the Son of Man means his arrival as earth’s God-appointed leader. Whenever it is, his kingship is the good news that saves the world.
The son of man
We know this phrase. Jesus has used it 18 times in previous chapters, with another 12 before the end of Matthew’s Gospel. We just heard Jesus refer to Daniel for an archetypal example of evil leadership (24:15), so it’s no surprise to see him using Daniel’s language for God-appointed leadership. Daniel’s phrases keep coming: the son of man (six times in 24:27-44), supported by the clouds of heaven’s angels (24:30), as he receives his throne (25:41), seated with God (26:64).
So, while the phrase son of man simply meant “human descendant,” Jesus made it definitive for his identity. In the beginning, God entrusted dominion over creation to the human. King David’s voice affirms divine authority given to the human descendant (Psalm 8:4).
But the authority entrusted to David disintegrated, as God’s kingdom was swallowed by the empires. The Hebrews in exile tried to get the imperial rulers to acknowledge the Lord’s authority (Daniel 1–6), but it became clear that they would never willingly relinquish their power to the God of heaven (Daniel 7–12). The nightmare could end only if earth’s eternal sovereign intervened to take authority from those who tear each other apart like animals (beasts) and gave it to one like a son of man.
This is why Jesus arrived in Jerusalem without an army when he made his triumphal entry, acclaimed as the son of David come to save his people and restore divine kingship to the earth. The world is already suffering under evil with wars and rumours of wars, nations rising against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms. Don’t be deceived: this is not how God’s anointed comes (24:4-8).
The arrival of the son of man
So how does the son of man receive the kingship?
Since it’s not the way violent rulers receive power, his people suffer. Like him, they may even be put to death by those who claim to have power (24:9-10). Flooded with false claims to power based on violence instead of love, his people feel the current pulling us back into that way of life (24:11-12). Nevertheless, the good news of God’s kingship through his Anointed will reach its goal, as all nations receive the proclamation (24:14).
That’s how Jesus is telling the story of his kingship to his disciples in Matthew 24. He wanted them and the people who lived around Jerusalem (in Judea) to be ready to run when they saw the armies of the beasts breaking through the city’s walls, destroying the house that had represented God’s reign on earth. He said this would feel like the greatest distress God’s people had ever known (24:15-22).
So how would the authority of the son of man arrive? Would they find him out in the wilderness where Jesus and John (Messiah and prophet) had often gone to escape Herod’s clutches (3:1-4; 4:12; 11:7; 12:15; 14:13), as Israel had done to escape Pharaoh? Would they find him in the storerooms, hiding like Saul who was not seeking power when Samuel found him (24:26)?
No, says Jesus, the son of man does not come to power like that. His authority arrives from above, like a lightning bolt from heaven (24:27).
The son of man receives his kingship by divine decree, backed by the clouds of heaven’s hosts (24:30). What a contrast to imperial rulers who come to power through human armies eating each other for dinner (Daniel 7:5, 7).
Here’s how Daniel saw someone human-like receiving authority:
Daniel 7 (NIV)
13 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. 14 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.
Jesus knew the beasts would not cede authority to him. His power would only come by his Father’s decree, the enduring authority of the Ancient of Days.
That’s the story Matthew has been telling us. The Jerusalem authorities rejected Jesus’ authority because they claimed that power for themselves (21:23 – 23:39). Their claim to be the servants of God’s house would be demonstrated as false when it became clear that God had left the temple (23:38), so the beasts would tear it down (24:2).
But despite all these horrors, as painful as they were for God’s people, God would give authority to the son of man, like a lightning bolt from heaven.
Surely the resurrection of Jesus qualifies as that kind of world-changing event. Notice the cosmic language Matthew uses to describe Jesus’ resurrection as earth-shaking, backed by the angels delivering heaven’s message, rolling back the power of death, appearing like lightning, Jesus rising, and people seeing him:
Matthew 28 (NIV)
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning … 7 “Go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen … You will see him.’”
In fact, those who rejected heaven’s declaration of the Christ’s authority were left scrambling for lies to support their own power (28:11-15). He’s back from the dead with all authority in heaven and on earth, as all nations come under his kingship (28:16-20).
The good news is that, even though the rulers of this world attempted the assassination of God’s Anointed (Acts 4:24-29), the resurrection was the act of God that established his kingship over earth (Romans 1:1-5).
There can be no doubt that the coming of the son of man refers to God entrusting all authority into the hands of the human he has appointed as his anointed ruler of the earth.
I think Jesus understood that he would come to power through a sudden act of God — raising him from the dead. He expected this as a lightning bolt from heaven, shaking the powers.
After all, that’s how Jesus has previously spoken of the son of man coming in his kingdom (16:28). Peter recognized Jesus as God’s anointed (16:16), but Jesus shocked Peter by explaining how he would come to power (16:20-22). He warned that their lives were in danger too (16:24-27), but that the son of man would come into the glorious authority of his Father, with heaven’s backing, to set the world right (16:27). He said some of the twelve (all except the traitor as it turned out), would see him receive the kingship in their lifetime:
Matthew 16 28 Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
That’s Jesus’ perspective in this chapter also (24:34). The son of man entered his kingship the day he rose from the dead.
Ultimately his kingship will be established throughout the whole world. That’s the message we live to proclaim and embody.
Open Matthew 24:26-27.