What is the coming of the Son of Man?

In my previous post I failed to explain the significance of the Son of Man’s coming with the clouds of heaven as it was envisioned in Daniel and in the New Testament. Let’s clear that up.

Daniel 7

When Daniel first introduces the one like a son of man, the figure is approaching God on the clouds of heaven. Once he arrives before God’s throne, the Son of Man is highly exalted. He is given kingship and dominion over all nations. According to the angel, and as I discussed earlier, the Son of Man’s triumph here in heaven functions to signal the impending triumph of “the people of the holy ones of the most high” on earth. The Son of Man’s heavenly coronation symbolizes the transfer of earthly power from pagan kings to God’s persecuted people. So besides serving as the conduit by which the Son of Man ascends to heaven for enthronement, the clouds serve to highlight the political ascendancy of the figure and the people he represents. By the clouds of heaven the Son of Man is lifted above and over the waters of chaos and the beasts. So too will the people of God be lifted above and over pagan empire when YHWH exalts them.

durer beast.jpg

Mark 13/Matthew 24-25

Jesus’ most complete exposition on the coming of the Son of Man is found in the Olivet discourse. In this sermon Jesus predicts a period of tribulation in which the nations, both Jewish and gentile, will rage against his followers. Confusion will abound and nature itself will tremble. Immediately afterwards people “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:26-27). The glorious and powerful Son of Man will come to bring salvation to believers and justice to evildoers. 

This all sounds familiar but Jesus has altered Daniel’s formula in two important ways. In the first place, Jesus depicts a return to earth rather than a coming to heaven. He speaks of the coming in terms of master who goes to a far away land but later returns to his servants (Mark 13:29; 32-37, Matthew 25, Luke 19:11-27). 

Secondly, Jesus has added the element of judgement to the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 16:27, 24:37-42). In Daniel’s vision the Son of Man is simply granted the authority that once belonged to the beasts. Now in the Gospels Jesus identifies the Son of Man as the judge and destroyer of the beasts. At his coming he himself (not the ancient of days) will send the wicked nations into eternal fire (Matthew 11:20-24, 13:41-43, 25:31-46). The Devil and his angels will meet the same fate. 

But regardless of these changes, the coming of the Son of Man still functions as the turning point in the story of God’s holy people. The holy ones will be publicly vindicated, saved, and exalted at the moment of the Son of Man’s coming. The central symbolic import of Daniel 7 is thus left intact. The coming of the Son of Man will mean the concrete reversal of the disciples’ misfortunes and the defeat of their pagan oppressors.

Revelation 14

As in the Gospels, the Son of Man seated on the clouds in the book of Revelation is the judge of the earth. He is pictured as a vineyard worker, entrusted to reap the grapes, determining the good from the bad (Revelation 14:14-20). Symbol and reality converge when the grapes are at last pressed; it is not juice but human blood that abounds.

Reports of the Son of Man’s judgement, announced to “every nation,” (14:6) is counted as good news, as “eternal gospel,” for the faithful. It will mean the fall of their great persecutor, Babylon, that is, Rome (14:8). In its place God’s kingdom will be erected (11:15). This news of Rome’s coming replacement will naturally also mean the condemnation of Rome’s leaders, both earthly and heavenly—the beast and those who worship him will be annihilated (14:9-11). The faithful, on the other hand will be blessed and find rest (14:13). They will ultimately rule over the nations with Christ in his kingdom (Revelation 2:26-27, 20:4-6).

What John has done then in his Apocalypse is seamlessly combine the visionary imagery of the Son of Man’s coming (Daniel 7:1-14) with its earthly significance (Daniel 7:15-28). As with the Gospels, John has retained Daniel’s message: God will defeat paganism and exalt his people on the historical-political stage.

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