Angels told 500 disciples that the way they saw Jesus ascend into heaven would be the same manner in which they would see Him come again (See Acts 1). Consequently, some men teach this passage refers to a literal physical return of Jesus to the earth. But when we examine this verse, we find its emphasis is not on Jesus’ physical body, but on the “manner” in which He ascended. Let’s begin by looking at the wording of this occurrence as recorded in the following verses:
And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and A CLOUD received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
The Bible does not waste words. When it expressly mentions an item or an issue, it usually does so to emphasis a deeper understanding found in the text. Luke emphasizes a “cloud” receiving Jesus, and Jesus coming again in “like manner.” The Bible always interprets itself. So, when a person understands how “clouds” are used in the Old Testament, they will understand how they are to be understood in Jesus’ coming. When looking at the Old Testament we find the prophetic imagery for clouds is associated with God’s “POWER” and “GLORY.”
Imagery, Type and Shadow, and Symbolism
The Bible is filled with symbolism. The writers of the Old Testament spoke in language intent on filling their audience with a visual images, which were to be fulfilled by their then coming Messiah. They used symbolisms such as lambs and wolves, sacrificed animals and Levitical priests, unmolded clay and potter’s wheels, mountain tops and deep valleys, and days of rest and days of war. These images, like all others used in prophetic language, were intended to convey various understandings of Jesus and His Kingdom.
Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of American English defines “symbol” as:
(1) The sign or representation of any moral thing by the images or properties of natural things. Thus the lion is the symbol of courage; the lamb is the symbol of meekness or patience. Symbols are of various kinds, as types, enigmas, parables, fables, allegories, emblems, hieroglyphics, &c. (2) An emblem or representation of something else. Thus in the eucharist, the bread and wine are called symbols of the body and blood of Christ.
John the Baptist referenced such symbolism when he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). His statement referred to the imagery found in Isaiah’s prophecy: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Isaiah spoke of the shadow and John spoke of the substance. By taking their words together, we have a better understand of Jesus’ work for mankind.
The way in which imagery is used in the Old Testament sets the precedent in which it is to be used in the New Testament. This thereby gives us a clear understanding of both what was foretold and its fulfillment. So, the subject of Jesus coming “in a cloud” is easily understood by studying the usage of the imagery of clouds in the Bible. With this in mind, let’s now look at how clouds were first used in the Law, Psalms, and Prophets.
Clouds Represent God’s Power
These scriptures describe God coming in a “CLOUD” to bring judgment against those in rebellion to Him.
The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon A SWIFT CLOUD, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.
Behold, he shall come up AS CLOUDS, and his chariots shall be as a whirlwind: his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe unto us! for we are spoiled. O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved. How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee?
For the day is near, even the day of the LORD is near, A CLOUDY DAY; it shall be the time of the heathen.
At Tehaphnehes also the day shall be darkened, when I shall break there the yokes of Egypt: and the pomp of her strength shall cease in her: as for her, A CLOUD shall cover her, and her daughters shall go into captivity. Thus will I execute judgments in Egypt: and they shall know that I am the LORD.
These do not speak of actual clouds, but instead of God acting in POWER to deliver His judgment! Also notice that each of these has God using a heathen army for His sword of wrath. The importance of this will be clearer when we later look into what “coming” Luke was referring to in Acts 1.
Clouds Represent God’s Glory
These verses use “CLOUDS” as imagery of God’s GLORY.
God is jealous, and the LORD revengeth; the LORD revengeth, and is furious; the LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and THE CLOUDS are the dust of his feet. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.
The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, A DAY OF CLOUDS and thick darkness, A day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high towers. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD: and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as the dung.
Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the LORD cometh, for it is nigh at hand; A day of darkness and of gloominess, A DAY OF CLOUDS and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains: a great people and a strong; there hath not been ever the like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many generations. A fire devoureth before them; and behind them a flame burneth: the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them. The appearance of them is as the appearance of horses; and as horsemen, so shall they run. Like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, as a strong people set in battle array. Before their face the people shall be much pained: all faces shall gather blackness. They shall run like mighty men; they shall climb the wall like men of war; and they shall march every one on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks: Neither shall one thrust another; they shall walk every one in his path: and when they fall upon the sword, they shall not be wounded. They shall run to and fro in the city; they shall run upon the wall, they shall climb up upon the houses; they shall enter in at the windows like a thief.
These were not to be understood as “literal” clouds. The mention of these clouds was to give the reader a visual picture of God’s glory. This is the same ‘glory’ Joshua experienced while remaining in the Tabernacle of God.
And all the people saw the CLOUDY PILLAR stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshiped, every man in his tent door. And the LORD spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.
Did Joshua stand in the Tabernacle in a LITERAL cloud? What does this CLOUD represent? Was it just a puffy gaseous formation, or something more?
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible – Exodus 33:9
The cloudy pillar descended – This very circumstance precluded the possibility of deception. The cloud descending at these times, and at none others, was a full proof that it was miraculous, and a pledge of the Divine presence. It was beyond the power of human art to counterfeit such an appearance; and let it be observed that all the people saw this, Exo 33:10. How many indubitable and irrefragable proofs of its own authenticity and Divine origin does the Pentateuch contain!
In plain language, these Old Testament examples prove that the usage of a “cloud” in prophetic language is synonymous with God’s GLORY and His coming in POWER. Now let’s look at how the New Testament used this same imagery of a “cloud.”
Clouds in the New Testament
The New Testament is overflowing with its writers explaining how the Old Testament’s types and shadows were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Here is just one example:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
Paul said that the Old Testament mentioning of meats, drinks, holy days, new moons, and Sabbath days were all imagery of Jesus Christ. Another example this is how Joshua’s “cloud” (Ex 33:9-11) is reminiscent of the cloud mentioned in the Mount of Transformation.
And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
Without doubt, Peter, James, and John would have been familiar with the prophetic imagery of a “cloud.” Consequently, they were not in a fog as to what this visitation implied. With this knowledge, it is understandable why Peter was so stirred and why Jesus did not want those men to tell of this occurrence until after His crucifixion (For more examples see Mat 17:9; Mark 9:9).
Jesus Coming in the Clouds
If you’ve ever preached or heard someone preach a message on biblical imagery, types and shadows, or symbolism, then there’s nothing difficult about understanding what the Bible means concerning ‘Jesus’ coming in the clouds.’
The entire Old Testament foretold of Jesus. The New Testament tells us that He fulfilled all that was written of Him. So if the Old Testament uses CLOUDS in the manner we’ve shown, why shouldn’t this same meaning be used in reference to Jesus’ coming? Let’s look now at verse where Jesus is using such imagery for His coming.
And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Now, we know that there is only One God. Therefore, Jesus’ could not have literally meant He would someday be “sitting” on a literal “right hand” of another deity. Since this is the case, Jesus’ statement to the High Priest must be seen as biblical imagery. Both the Old and New Testament uses “right hand” as imagery of ‘power’ and ‘special status’ These are some of the scriptures using “Right Hand” as imagery: Gen 48:13-18; Exo 15:6, 12; Exo 29:20; Deu 33:2; 1 Kin 2:19; 1 Kin 22:19; 1 Chr 6:39; 2 Chr 18:18; Psa 16:8, 11; Psa 17:7; Psa 18:35; Psa 20:6; Psa 21:8; Psa 44:3; Psa 45:4, 9; Psa 48:10; Psa 60:5; Psa 63:8; Psa 73:23; Psa 74:11; Psa 77:10; Psa 78:54; Psa 0:15, 17; Psa 89:13, 25, 42; Psa 91:7; Psa 98:1; Psa 108:6; Psa 109:6, 31; Psa 110:1, 5; Psa 118:15, 16; Psa 121:5; Psa 138:7; Psa 139:10; Ecc 10:2; Isa 41:10, 13; Isa 45:1; Isa 48:13; Isa 54:3; Isa 62:8; Isa 63:12; Jer 22:24; Lam 2:3, 4; Dan 12:7; Hab 2:16; Zec 3:1; Mat 20:21, 23; Mat 22:44; Mat 25:33, 34; Mat 26:64; Mat 27:29, Mark 10:37, 40; Mark 12:36; Mark 14:62; Mark 16:19; Luke 20:42; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:25, 33, 34; Acts 5:31; Acts 7:55, 56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; Heb 8:1; Heb 10:12; Heb 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 1:16, 20; Rev 2:1; Rev 5:1, 7; Rev 13:16.
This “right hand” imagery is easily seen in the following verses:
A Psalm of David. The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my RIGHT HAND, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
Saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my RIGHT HAND, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him, Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.
“The LORD (God) said to my Lord (Messiah)….” This is a prophecy that foretold of the exaltation of Jesus Christ. To be placed at the right hand of a king was to be placed at the status of the King’s favor and power. This being said of Jesus placed Him in that respective position. Examples of this is place of status include these: Mark 16:19; Acts 7:55; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, Heb 8:1, Heb 10:12.
As a result, if Jesus’ statement about “right hand” (See Mark 14:62) is biblical imagery, then He also must have been using biblical imagery concerning “coming in clouds.” If we use the already established symbolic language for “clouds” from the Old Testament, we see Jesus was saying that He was “coming” in God’s “judgment” and “glory.” The following are other New Testament prophecies that speak of this same type coming of Jesus Christ:
And then shall they see the Son of man COMING IN A CLOUD with POWER and great GLORY.
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.
Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of POWER, and COMING IN THE CLOUDS of heaven.
And then shall they see the Son of man COMING IN THE CLOUDS with great POWER and GLORY.
The “Son of man” is a synonym for Jesus Christ. In the above verses, we find Jesus’ coming in “clouds” is aligned with “power” and “glory.” Such a coming did occur in 70 AD, which was a time when Jesus was prophesied to come to bring judgment against Jerusalem and her Temple. During that time, Jesus did come in the POWER of God. This coming fulfilled many prophecies about a “soon coming” judgment that was to happen in the same generation that saw Jesus crucified. That generation being the generation to see this “soon coming” is found in the following verses: Mat 16:29, Mat 23:36, Mat 24:34; Mark 13:30-31; Luke 11:50, Luke 21:32-33. This fulfillment took place exactly as foretold by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus Christ did show the world God’s GLORY.
The Book of Revelation is John’s detailed view of this same 70 AD coming and judgment. In his writings we also find similar language about Jesus’ coming in a “cloud.”
Behold, he cometh with CLOUDS; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
And he that sat ON THE CLOUD thrust in his sickle on the earth; and the earth was reaped.
And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.
These passages both refer to occurrences that took place during Jesus’ judgment against those in rebellion to His kingdom. This was to come to pass during a time while those who “pierced” (crucified) Jesus were still alive. Jesus was killed in 30 AD. A biblical generation is 40 years. When you add 40 years to 30 AD you get 70 AD. That time would see both a harvest (resurrection) of Jesus’ saints and a crushing of those rebellious against Him and His Church. All of this came to pass—in detail—in 70 AD.
Though there are numerous studies and charts claiming Acts 1:9-11 emphasizes a physical coming of Jesus Christ on a day sometime at the “end of the world,” nowhere do we find this taught in the Bible. What we do find is a harmonious agreement that “clouds” are both prophetic imagery speaking of God’s “glory” and “judgment,” and that the “clouds” and Jesus’ coming “in like ‘manner’ as they saw Him go,” foretold of His JUDGMENT and GLORY during the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem. This 70 AD judgment came through the Armies of the Roman General, Titus. God used these Romans as His own sword of vengeance. This is exactly the same thing God did when “coming in the CLOUDS” against His afore mentioned Old Testament enemies. So, we have a biblical precedent showing God’s usage of heathen army’s to bring judgment in the Old Testament, and since there is no scripture in the New Testament showing otherwise, there’s no biblical reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t also use a heathen army to fulfill His 70 AD coming “in the clouds” with ‘glory’ and ‘power.’
Copyright © 2008 Thomas K. Burk. All Rights Reserved.