“You shall not pass!” That might be your worst fear if you’re facing an exam. You’ll hear it very differently if you recognize the image of Gandalf confronting the balrog in Lord of the Rings. In Matthew 24, Jesus tapped into images familiar to those who were living the Jewish story, images we completely misunderstand if we don’t make the connection.
Here’s an example:
Matthew 24:30-31 (my translation, compare NIV)
30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven. Then all the tribes of the land will mourn and will see the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and much grandeur. 31 He will commission his angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather his chosen from the four winds, from one side of the heavens to the other side.
If you don’t recognize these phrases from the Jewish story, you might be picturing Jesus arriving in the sky, with 7 billion people crying in terror, while he takes those chosen for salvation from the earth to a big gathering in the sky, as the rest all die from stars crashing into our planet.
You could not draw that picture if you understood what these words meant to Jesus and his people. Every phrase in these verses connects with the Jewish story. Are we expected to know that to understand these verses? Yes: Matthew has already alerted us to this. He asked his reader to check that he (and therefore his audience) understood Daniel’s reference to Antiochus, the evil ruler who temporarily shut the temple down by installing his own god in God’s place (24:15). We will not understand Jesus’ words without understanding the background.
All these verses are about Jesus’ authority as the Christ. He alone is God’s anointed ruler, authorized to reign over the earth as a kingdom of heaven, in contrast to the rulers who don’t want to give their power to God’s Christ. That’s the whole story remaining in Matthew’s Gospel. The enemies of God’s reign are the leaders of his own people (chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, elders, Sanhedrin …) colluding with the world’s leaders to crucify the king of the Jews.
That’s what Jesus is saying. Israel’s “acting” rulers (hypocrites) sealed their fate by aligning themselves with Rome instead of earth’s eternal sovereign. The haughty Roman superstars will destroy Jerusalem, and then they will fall as Isaiah said (24:29).
So, let’s read the phrases of verse 30, understanding what they meant in the Jewish story.
The sign of the son of man in heaven
Daniel’s vision was a scene in heaven. The son of man approached the Ancient of Days, and was received into this presence (Daniel 7:13). There he was given the eternal kingship. It’s the restoration of the enduring kingship promised to David, expanded to include the whole earth: all nations and peoples of every language bow to him (7:14).
The vision contrasts how the beasts grasp their temporary, limited, bloody kingship versus how the son of man receives his enduring, global, glorious kingship by appointment in heaven.
If Isaiah can speak of the haughty superstars falling from their lofty attempt to take heaven’s power into their own hands, the contrasting language is the son of man invited into God’s presence in heaven to receive the kingship and shining like a star over his people. That language is already present in the Jewish story: A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17).
Matthew has already used the language of the Messiah’s star rising. In the words of the magi, We saw his star when it rose and came to honour him (2:2). They understood this as a sign of the one who has been born king of the Jews (2:1). This was threatening for Herod who wanted to know the exact time the star appeared (2:7). That’s the same verb Jesus used in 24:30 (phainō = to appear or shine).
So, was there any sign of Jesus rising as God’s star/ruler after the beasts crucified him? Absolutely! Earth shook, and heaven’s messenger announced the good news (28:1-7). They saw Jesus alive (28:8-10), and heard him proclaim his regal authority, commanding leadership, and enduring presence (28:16-28).
They saw his ascension into the cloud of heaven’s presence (Acts 1:9-11), and Stephen saw the son of man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). The son of man received heaven’s authority, and now his reign is shining/appearing on earth.
Coming with the clouds of heaven
The sign of the son of man in heaven is a phrase unique to Matthew, but all the Synoptics speak of the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and much grandeur (24:30 || Mark 13:26 || Luke 21:27). All these phrases come from Daniel 7: the son of man, coming upon the clouds, with power and much grandeur.
Daniel 7 is set in heaven (in the presence of the Ancient of Days), so the clouds of heaven are angels (not rain-clouds). That’s what the phrase usually means in Jewish literature, and that’s how Jesus understood it. He receives heaven’s authority, so the clouds of heaven’s hosts back his authority, so he commands his angels (24:31).
Don’t underestimate how radical this authority would have sounded to Daniel. Kings had sometimes declared that God’s angels fought for them (e.g. Psalms 34:7; 35:5-6) or against them (2 Samuel 24:16-17), but it is God who commands his angels (e.g. Psalm 91:11; Daniel 3:28; 6:22). That authority was not given to the sons of David or the descendants of Adam. Except for one! The human descendant (son of man) comes to power upon the clouds of heaven’s angels!
The image of the son of man commanding clouds of angels matches his power and extensive grandeur. Emperors came to power by commanding military hosts — no match for the hosts of heaven.
The human powers who falsely claim heaven’s authority cannot keep their power when God gives all authority to his Anointed. They fall (like stars from heaven), while the son of man rises with his authority appearing (or shining) from heaven.
Jesus was not asking us to imagine him flying through the sky like Superman or the Jetsons. He was asking us to recognize him as God’s rising star, replacing the fallen stars who falsely claim heaven’s power for themselves, signifying the authority of heaven in his reign.
Open Matthew 24:30.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 923–924
These are enthronement texts. In 26:64 that exegesis is now widely recognized (see comments there), not least because that pronouncement speaks explicitly of what is to be true “from now on,” not at some separate time in the future. And yet the present passage, which uses very similar language to allude to the same OT text, is persistently given a different reference by commentators, even though v. 34 will make its contemporary application quite as explicit as that of 26:64.
… there is no reason why we should not understand the “coming of the Son of Man” here in the same way as in the related texts in 16:28 and 26:64 (and, as we have suggested earlier, also in 10:23, to which there is no Marcan parallel), and in the imagery of Daniel’s vision, of a “coming” to God to receive sovereign power. The time of the temple’s destruction will also be the time when it will become clear that the Son of Man, rejected by the leaders of his people, has been vindicated and enthroned at the right hand of God, and that it is he who is now to exercise the universal kingship which is his destiny. That is how Daniel’s vision is to be fulfilled.