The Sign of His Coming
(Matthew 24:30-31)

(Preached by David B. Curtis)

The majority opinion of the nature of the second coming is that it will be a physical, visible, bodily return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth that every eye will see. There is no question that that is the view held my the majority of Christians today, but is it what the Bible teaches? Where does the Bible teach that Jesus Christ will return to earth in a physical, bodily manner? Some would say that Acts 1:11 teaches a physical bodily second coming. Let's look at it.

His ascension was physical and visible (Acts 1:9-10), so won't His return be also? It says he will come in "like manner." The words, "like manner" are the Greek phrase, hon tropon. By examining the usage of hon tropon in the New Testament, it is clear that this phrase does not mean "exactly the same in every detail," but has the idea of "similar in some fashion." For example look at how this phrase is used in Luke 13:34: Did Jesus want to gather Jerusalem in exactly the same manner as (hon tropon) a hen gathers her chicks? I don't think so. The emphasis of Acts 1:11 is that Christ's coming would be a cloud coming, just as he left in a cloud, so he would come in the clouds. We will examine the idea of cloud comings later in more detail. There is no Scripture that explicitly teaches that Jesus would return in a physical, bodily fashion. An understanding of the language of the Old Testament will help us see that His coming was not to be physical.

This event was a reaffirmation of Jesus' being the apocalyptic "Son of Man" spoken of in Daniel and the Gospels (Daniel 7:13, Matt.16:27f; 24:30; Mark 13:26; and Luke 21:27).

In Revelation 1:7, the language of the text shows that literally, those that would see him were even those who had "pierced him", namely the Jews (Acts 2:23,36; 5:30). In His return in judgment on the Jewish theocracy, those that had rejected Him would now "see" the truth of Jesus' claims and their error, i.e. a nationalistic expectation of the Kingdom (Matthew 26:64). Truly, upon a close investigation of the subject, there are not any verses in the New Testament that point to any other manner of coming other than a spiritual return of Christ in a judgment of God's enemies at the redemptive-historical end-time of the Old Covenant system.

In the first century 70 A.D., the Jewish world was destroyed during the "day of the Lord" because of their inability to accept the prophets of God and the Son (Matt. 23:34-36). The destruction of the Temple, City's, Priest hood, Genealogy, and Sacrifices, put an end to the Old Covenant and that world for ever. In its place, is the New Covenant. The second and final coming of Christ occurred in 70 A.D. as Jesus invisibly and spiritually came on the clouds of heaven to judge His enemies and establish His everlasting kingdom.

We know that Nineveh was destroyed (Nahum 1:1-5), not by a literal coming of God out of heaven on the clouds, but by the invading armies of the Chaldeans and Medes in 612 BC. When Jesus said he would come on the clouds, He was using the apocalyptic language of the prophets to identify himself as the Messiah, the Judge.

The word for "see" is often used not of sight, but of perception. For example, in John 14:9, Jesus says, "he that hath seen me hath seen the Father." Jesus also said, "every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life" (John 6:40). Now, if you use the same interpretation here as most do in Mat.24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27, Acts 1:9-10, and Rev.1:7, only those who saw Jesus with their literal eyes could be saved! We use the word "see" in the same manner, with a figurative intent, when we say, "I see!". As Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:18, "The eyes of your understanding being enlightened."

In verses 23-26 of Matthew 24, Jesus seems to stress that his coming will not be a physical bodily coming. If someone says, "Here is Christ, or there," they were not to believe them. If someone said, "He is in the desert or he is in the secret chamber," they were not to believe them. Why? If His coming was to be physical and bodily, why would someone not be able to say, "He is over there?" They were not to believe that because His coming would not be physical and bodily and yet it would be plainly seen. How would they see His coming? They would see it in the judgment that was to fall upon Jerusalem. His coming would be like lightening, (verse 27). I think that by comparing Scripture with Scripture we can see that lightning refers to God's judgment. It seems to me that when Jesus compares his coming to lightning that he is saying that His coming will be seen in judgment. His coming will be like a bird of prey going after a corps (verse 28). This language is also seen in the judgment language of the Old Testament. His coming would be an earth shattering event:

Matthew 24:29 (NKJV) "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken."

If you are not familiar with the apocalyptic language of the Old Testament, you will not understand what Christ is saying here. This language is common among the Old Testament prophets. In apocalyptic language, great commotions and judgments upon earth are often represented by commotions and changes in the heavens. This language is not to be taken literally.

As a side note, let me give you another thought on verse 21: Jesus said that the great tribulation would be, "such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be." Gary Hardison said, "The phrase 'nor ever shall be' implies time would go on after the tribulation." I agree. The great tribulation is not going to happen at some future day when the world ends, it happened in 70 AD when the Old Covenant age ended.

As we continue our study of Matthew, we come to verse 30 and 31 which go together with verses 27-29. Verses 23-26 tell us what the second coming won't be like. It won't be a physical bodily return. Then in verses 27-31, he tells us what the second coming will be like. We have already seen that it will be manifest in judgment.

Matthew 24:30 (NKJV) "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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."

When is "then?" "Then" refers to "immediately after the tribulation of those days" of verse 29. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which was the great tribulation, this sign will be seen. What is the sign? As you can imagine, there are all kinds of guesses as to what the sign was. Some of the Church fathers, such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, and Erasmus believed that the sign would be a cross appearing in the heavens. Some believed it was the return of the star that marked His birth. Some Dispensationalists believe that the sign may involve the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, which may descend at this time and remain as a satellite city suspended over the earthly city of Jerusalem.

Hal Lindsey said, "Perhaps the 'sign of the Son of Man' will be a gigantic celestial image of Jesus flashed upon the heavens for all to see. This would explain how all men suddenly recognize who He is and see the scars from His piercing at the cross." As you can see, the sign can be whatever your imagination lets it be if you don't keep in mind audience relevance. Who asked what the sign of his coming would be? His disciples (verse 3). Who was Jesus talking to? The disciples. Whatever the sign was, it was to appear in 70 AD immediately after the tribulation of those days, which was the destruction of Jerusalem. It was a sign to "that generation" not to us some 2,000 years later.

To understand what this sign was, we first need to have a correct translation. The NIV really adds to the confusion, it reads, "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky." A word-for-word rendering from the Greek reads: "And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven." Notice carefully that the location is heaven, not the sky; and it is not the sign that is in heaven, but the Son of Man who is in heaven. The point is this: The destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple was the sign that the Son of Man was in heaven.

J. Marcellus Kik said, "A sign was not to appear in the heavens, but the destruction of Jerusalem was to indicate the rule of the Son of man in heaven."

The wording of this passage refers us back to the expression, "The Son of Man," found in Daniel 7:13, which Jesus used concerning Himself when referring to His coming (Matthew 24:27). The judgment of Jerusalem was a sign that the Son of Man was in heaven in fulfillment of Daniel 7:13-14. Here we see Jesus, the Son of Man, coming to the Ancient of days and receiving His everlasting kingdom. This prophecy was fulfilled at the Ascension (Acts 2:30-36). The kingdom received from the Ancient of days is no other than the kingdom symbolized by the stone cut out of the mountain (Daniel 2:34-35): The kingdom was given to Christ at His ascension, and this was made manifest to all Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jerusalem's destruction was a sign that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God.

In Matthew 26:63-64, Caiaphas, the high priest, asks Jesus if he is the Son of God, the Messiah. Notice the similarities between Jesus' answer to Caiaphas and what he said in our text.

Matthew 24:30 (NKJV) "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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."

Jesus told Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power." He said to His disciples, "They would see the sign that the son of man was in heaven." He told Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven." He told His disciples, "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." It is obviously the same event in both passages. Notice Caiaphas' response to Jesus' statement (Matthew 26:65). What did Jesus say that was blasphemy? Caiaphas understood that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to understand the idea that is behind "coming in the clouds."

God's "coming on the clouds of heaven" is a symbolic way of speaking of His presence, judgment and salvation. All through the Old Testament God was coming "on clouds," in salvation of His people and judgment of His enemies. Coming on the clouds indicates His Presence: Exodus 16:10; 19:9; 34:5, Leviticus 16:2, Numbers 11:25. Salvation: In Psalms 18:9-12, David speaks of his deliverance from Saul using apocalyptic language. Judgment: The idea of God's coming in the clouds is also associated with His judgment of his enemies (Isaiah 19:1). We know from chapter 20 that God used the Assyrians as instruments of His wrath on Egypt, yet it says, "The LORD rides on a swift cloud..., Egypt will totter at His presence." God came to Egypt in judgment in 480BC. His presence was made known in judgment. But it was the Assyrians who were literally present. Similar language is used of Nineveh's fall (Nahum 1:3, 5-6): We know that Nineveh was destroyed, not by a literal coming of God out of heaven on the clouds, but by the invading armies of the Chaldeans and Medes in 612 BC.

When Jesus said he would come on the clouds, He was using the apocalyptic language of the prophets to identify himself as the Messiah, the Judge. Caiaphas reacted the way he did because he knew that only God came on clouds, that was a claim to deity. He knew that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah of Daniel 7. Notice what Jesus says to Caiaphas in Mark 14:62: Here it says that they will see Him "coming with the clouds of heaven" while He is "sitting at the right hand of the Power." If this is literal and bodily, how could He do both at the same time? This is clearly apocalyptic language. His coming with the clouds is proof of His sitting on the right hand of power.

John Lightfoot says this, "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man. Then shall the Son of man give a proof of himself, who they would not before acknowledge: a proof, indeed, not in any visible figure, but in vengeance and judgment so visible, that all the tribes of the earth shall be forced to acknowledge him the avenger. The Jews would not know him: now they shall know him, whether they will or no, Isa. xxvi. II. Many times they asked of him a sign: now a sign shall appear, that he is the true Messiah, whom they despised, derided, and crucified, namely, his signal vengeance and fury, such as never any nation felt from the first foundations of the world."

Our text says that at the time of His coming, "and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn." The word "tribes" is a reference to Israel. Gentiles are not referred to as "tribes" in the Bible. There were tribes in Israel at that time, but since its destruction in AD 70, there have been no "tribes" in Israel. This reminds us of Revelation 1:7: John said that Jesus was coming "soon" and "quickly" and that the "Jews," those who pierced him, would mourn at his coming.

We must see that this is not a physical, bodily coming of Christ, but a coming in judgment. The idea of "seeing" here is not physically seeing but "to recognize, to be aware, to perceive." The destruction of Jerusalem would cause the tribes of Israel to recognize that Jesus was indeed the Son of man and the Messiah.

Thomas Newton (1754) said, "Our Saviour proceedeth in the same figurative style, ver. 30 - "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.' The plain meaning of it is, that the destruction of Jerusalem will be such a remarkable instance of divine vengeance, such a signal manifestation of Christ's power and glory, that all the Jewish tribes shall mourn, and many will be led from thence to acknowledge Christ and the Christian religion. In the ancient prophets, God is frequently described as coming in the 'clouds' upon any remarkable interposition and manifestation of his power; and the same description is here applied to Christ. The destruction of Jerusalem will be as ample a manifestation of Christ's power and glory as if he was himself to come visibly in the clouds of heaven."

John Gill (1809) a premillennialist said, "He shall appear, not in person, but in the power of his wrath and vengeance, on the Jewish nation which will be a full sign and proof of his being come:"

The prophetic language of the Old Testament clearly shows that the Lord coming on a cloud speaks of his coming in judgment. And that is exactly what it means in the New Testament when it speaks of Christ coming on clouds. People saw him come in judgment, but it was not a visible appearance of Christ in person. Jesus predicted both the destruction of Jerusalem and His parousia in the same context. Since Jerusalem was destroyed, just as He said it would be, why would it be hard to believe that He came, just as he said he would? The destruction of Jerusalem was as substantial a manifestation of Christ's power and glory, as if he was himself to come visibly in the clouds of heaven. The same sort of metaphor is carried on in the next verse

Matthew 24:31 (NKJV) "And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."

Does the Lord, all of a sudden, drop the apocalyptic language and begin to speak literally? I think not. This also is apocalyptic language. The most important thing that I want you to see here is that whatever this means, it happened 2,000 years ago. In verse 34, Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place." The generation that He was speaking to was to experience all that He had spoken of, including the gathering together of the elect. With that in mind, let's see if we can understand what is being spoken of here.

We need to try to get an understanding of the use of the trumpet in the Old Testament. The trumpet was used to call the people of Israel together (Numbers 10:2). The trumpet was to be blown on the Day of Atonement in the jubilee year to signal the release of slaves and debt. Please note that AD 70 was a jubilee year (Leviticus 25:9). We can get some Old Testament background on the trumpet and gathering from Isaiah (Isaiah 27:12-13). Isaiah says that when the trumpet of God sounds, the outcasts of Israel would be gathered. This is a reiteration of an earlier Messianic promise of the regathering of the remnant (Isaiah 11:1-5, 11-12). Here we see the idea of gathering from the four corners of the earth. So a time was to come when God would gather His people together.

Compare the apocalyptic language of trumpets used in Zephaniah 1:6,16 (fulfilled Jerusalem 586 BC); Jeremiah 4:19; 6:1 (fulfilled Jerusalem 586 BC); Joel 2:1,15 (fulfilled 30 AD). To "gather together his elect" was the entire goal of Old Testament (Psalms 50:4-5, Isaiah 11:12; 40:11; 43:5; 54:7-8). Notice this last verse, where gathering is inseparable from having the everlasting kindness and mercy of the Redeemer upon His elect.

John Gill said, "The Jews say, that 'in the after-redemption (i.e., by Messiah) all Israel shall be gathered together by the sound of a trumpet, from the four parts of the world. Zohar in Lev. 47:1."

Jesus' disciples would be familiar with the Old Testament language and would no doubt remember Isaiah's promise when they heard Jesus speak of the sounding of the trumpet. We get a little more insight on trumpets and gathering from other passages where this same language is used (1 Corinthians 15:51-52): Notice what happens here, the trumpet sounds and the dead are raised. This is a reference to the dead in Christ. The dead are raised into the presence of God, and the living are changed. The living put on immortality. Is this a different trumpet than the one Isaiah spoke of? No! The trumpet was sounded to gather God's people. This is a spiritual gathering into the presence of God, this is the resurrection. This is the same idea found in Matthew 24:31, the trumpet is sounded and the elect are gathered, or resurrected.

Daniel connects the resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem (Daniel 12:1-2). Just in case we miss it, he further clarifies it as the time of Jerusalem's destruction in Daniel 12:7: Daniel is told that the resurrection will be when the power of the holy people (the Jews) has been completely shattered.

We also see this same idea of trumpet and gathering in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18: Notice that Paul does not say, "those who are alive when Christ comes" ; he said, "we who are alive and remain until the coming of the lord."

Again, we see the same idea, the trumpet sounds and the elect are gathered. "The Lord Himself will descend from heaven," the word "descend" was commonly used with priest's decent out of the temple to announce that atonement had been completed. The idea of, "being caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air," could be referring to the idea we looked at earlier of clouds representing God's presence. This is a picture of God's elect being brought into His presence in the Holy of Holies. Is Paul talking about a literal rapture here? I don't think so, but it is possible.

The parallel text in Luke helps us to see that this gathering is a time of redemption.

Luke 21:27-28 (NKJV) "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 "Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near."

The word "redemption" here is apolutrosis, (the act) ransom in full, i.e. (fig.) riddance, or salvation. These New Testament believers were saved by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:7). The payment had been made at Calvary, but until their high priest returned, their redemption was not complete. They were sealed awaiting the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30), which happened at the second coming when the Lord gathered His elect into his presence.

When Israel gathered each year for the Passover, the culmination event was the Day of Atonement. The High Priest entered the temple's Holy of Holies to offer the atoning sacrifice on behalf of the people. And while the priest was in the Holy of Holies, the people anxiously awaited his return. No return, no atonement (Leviticus 16:15-18). The new covenant parallel to this is Jesus. He is our atoning sacrifice and our High Priest. The generation to whom Jesus spoke was the congregation waiting for His return. No return, no atonement, no redemption (Hebrews 9:24-28). Jesus ascended out of the heavenly Holy of Holies signifying that our salvation was complete and bringing us into the presence of God. This could not be accomplished until the earthly Jewish temple had been destroyed (Hebrews 9:8).

The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was the sign of his coming in power and glory. Matthew 24 makes it clear that the great gathering of God's people took place when the earthly temple was destroyed in AD 70. No longer would the dead be confined to the waiting place called Hades. No longer would sin death separate us from God. This is what the resurrection was all about, the dead in Christ were resurrected into the presence of God. Those alive at that time were given immortality. This all happened in AD 70. Believers today don't need a resurrection because Jesus said, "Whosoever lives and believes in me will never die." We have immorality, and when we physically die, we will be in the presence of God. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

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