What is the Coming of the Son of Man?
One aspect of the Gospels that has raised questions among students of Scripture for centuries is Christ’s teaching concerning the coming of the Son of Man. On more than one occasion Jesus speaks to His disciples on this topic. What has raised questions is the way Christ speaks of this “coming of the Son of Man” using language that seems to indicate something about when it will happen. Note what Jesus says:
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matthew 10:23).
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Matthew 16:28).
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. . . . Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Matthew 24:30, 34).
What do all three of these passages have in common regarding the timing of the coming of the Son of Man? All of them seem to indicate that this “coming of the Son of Man” is going to occur within the lifetime of those to whom Jesus is speaking. This is what has raised so many questions. Why? Because most Christians rightly understand that the Second Coming of Christ is an event that has not yet happened.
I want to look at three very different approaches to these texts and note both their differences as well as what they have in common.
The Liberal Approach
Some liberal theologians will use these passages to argue that Jesus was wrong and that Scripture is wrong. They argue that these texts say that the Second Coming of Christ will occur within the lifetime of those to whom Jesus was speaking. The Second Coming of Christ did not occur within the lifetime of those to whom He was speaking. Therefore, Jesus was wrong. Obviously, orthodox Christians are not going to be able to accept this view.
The Common Evangelical Approach
Most evangelicals will argue that these texts appear to say that the Second Coming of Christ will occur within the lifetime of those to whom Jesus was speaking. The Second Coming of Christ, however, did not occur within the lifetime of those to whom He was speaking. Furthermore, Jesus cannot be wrong. Therefore, the temporal references must mean something other than what they appear to mean. Various re-interpretations are then suggested. The problem with this approach is that it requires some serious exegetical gymnastics to make those temporal references mean something other than what they appear to mean.
A Novel Heretical Approach
Another approach to these texts is to argue that these texts affirm that the Second Coming of Christ will occur within the lifetime of those to whom Jesus was speaking. Furthermore, Jesus cannot be wrong. Therefore, the Second Coming of Christ occurred within the lifetime of those to whom He was speaking. In other words, the Second Coming of Christ occurred in the first century. The problem with this view is that the Second Coming of Christ did not occur in the first century and to affirm that it did requires fatal distortions of biblical doctrines that are at the heart of the Christian Gospel. In other words, accepting this view requires one to adopt a different religion altogether.
Those are three common approaches to these texts. We see that all three are very different and that all three have serious theological problems. So, is there another alternative? I think the answer is Yes.
First consider what one thing all three of these views have in common. All three assume that when Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man, he is speaking of His Second Coming. Perhaps the problem is with that shared assumption.
Well, you might ask, what else could Jesus be talking about?
Let me answer that question by asking a question: What is the one place in the Old Testament that uses language about a son of man coming somewhere? That one place is Daniel 7. In Daniel 7:13–14, we read the following words:
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”
Jesus and His Jewish hearers knew the Old Testament. What if Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 when He talks about the coming of the Son of Man?
At this point, many evangelicals will say, “How does this solve the problem? Daniel is seeing a vision of the Second Coming of Christ. If Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7, then He too is referring to the Second Coming. How does this possibly provide a different and better understanding of Jesus’s words?”
It does so because of another common faulty assumption, namely the assumption that Daniel is seeing a vision of the Second Coming of Christ.
If we look closely at the text, we see that Daniel is not describing the Second Coming of Christ in this vision. Note the context of the vision. It begins with Daniel’s vision of the four beasts in verses 1–8. Then, Daniel sees a vision of God, the Ancient of Days, seated in order to render judgment, and He is surrounded by multitudes (vv. 9–10). The important question to ask at this point concerns the location of this throne room in this vision. The answer? It is the throne room of the Ancient of Days, of God. In other words, it is in heaven.
After a judgment of the various beasts we read the words of verses 13–14. Daniel tells us that he sees “one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days.”
Where is the Ancient of Days in the context of this vision? As we just observed in verses 9–10, He is in His heavenly throne room.
So, if the Son of Man is seen coming to the Ancient of Days, then the Son of Man is seen coming to heaven where the Ancient of Days is seated. In other words, what Daniel sees in this vision is a vision of an ascension, a movement toward heaven, not a movement of descent toward earth as in 1 Thessalonians 4. In short, Daniel’s vision is not a vision of the Second Coming of Christ.
How, then, does this provide an alternative approach to what we hear Jesus say in the Gospels?
It provides an alternative because, unlike the other problematic options, it does not assume that Jesus is talking about His Second Coming when He speaks of the coming of the Son of Man. It suggests that perhaps Jesus is alluding to the only text in the Old Testament that speaks of the coming of a son of man, a text that is talking about this son of man coming up to the heavenly throne room of the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom.
Jesus, as we have already observed, says that the “coming of the Son of Man” is going to occur within the lifetime of those to whom He is speaking. If He is alluding to Daniel 7, then what He is saying, in effect, is this:
You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before Daniel 7:13–14 is fulfilled.
There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see Daniel 7:13–14 fulfilled.
This generation will not pass away until Daniel 7:13–14 is fulfilled.
What actually happened before that generation passed away? The prophecy of Daniel 7 was fulfilled.
Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9–11).
He was exalted at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33).
He formally received His promised kingdom (Acts 2:36).
This is why Paul and Silas were teaching, in the first century, that Jesus Christ is king (Acts 17:7). This is why John described Jesus, in the first century, as “the ruler of kings on earth” (John 1:5). This is why Paul could tell the Christians in Colossae, in the first century, that they had been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to Christ’s kingdom (Col. 1:13). They could not be transferred into Christ’s kingdom if Christ’s kingdom did not yet exist. Jesus is not awaiting some moment in the future to receive all authority in heaven and on earth. He already has, right now, all authority in heaven and on earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14).
How does this alternative understanding of these statements of Jesus affect our doctrine of the Second Coming? If this suggested alternative is correct, then it simply means that these texts are not talking about the Second Coming. Other passages of Scripture, such as Acts 1:11 and 1 Thess. 4:16 speak of the Second Coming.