Will Jesus return literally in the clouds?

There are several passages in the New Testament that on the surface would seem to indicate that when Christ returns He will do so appearing in the clouds above. You may have heard the expression or read the Bible verse about the believers being “caught up together … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).  Or you may have read “Behold, He comes with clouds” (Revelation 1:7).

jesus-in-the-cloudsNo doubt the Second Coming concomitant with the resurrection of the dead—both of the saved and the unsaved—is yet to happen. But do the Scriptures mean, literally, that Jesus will appear in the clouds all around the earth, simultaneously, so that all people can see Him? My personal eschatological belief is that that is not the case. I explain below.

In the Old Testament we read that the God of Israel said

2 Samuel 23:4 He that rules over men must be just ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises, even a morning without clouds; (KJVER used throughout)

The only just ruler is God Himself. His countenance is as bright as the sun in a cloudless sky. Also He controls the environment including the weather and the clouds.

Job 36:26-33 Behold, God is great, and we know Him not, neither can the number of His years be searched out. 27 For He makes small the drops of water [i.e. clouds]: they pour down rain according to the vapour thereof: 28 Which the clouds do drop and distill upon man abundantly. 29 Also can any understand the spreadings of the clouds, or the noise of His tabernacle? 30 Behold, He spreads His light upon it, and covers the bottom of the sea.  31 For by them judges He the people; He gives meat in abundance. 32 With clouds He covers the light; and commands it not to shine by the cloud that comes between. 33 The noise thereof shows concerning it, the cattle also concerning the vapour.

Hebraisms in the Scriptures

In the Bible there are found many Hebraisms, which are Hebrew idioms or expressions. Even in the New Testament, which was originally written in the Greek language, we find many such expressions. For example,

Matthew 19:24 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

The same sort of idiom is also found in the Qur’an.

Surah 7:37 The impious, who in his arrogance shall accuse our doctrine of falsity, shall find the gates of heaven shut; nor shall he enter till a camel shall pass through the eye of a needle. It is thus that we shall recompense the wicked.

This was a common mode of expression for the Jews to express anything that was rare, difficult or impossible in such a way. These expressions are found in Hebrew in the Old Testament.  For example, Jeremiah 13:23,

הֲיַהֲפֹךְ כּוּשִׁי עֹורֹו וְנָמֵר חֲבַרְבֻּרֹתָיו גַּם־אַתֶּם תּוּכְלוּ לְהֵיטִיב לִמֻּדֵי הָרֵֽעַ׃

Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may you also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

It is quite impossible for a leopard to change his spots or for an Ethiopian to change his skin colour. The Ethiopians are dark-skin-coloured people and to change to a lighter skin colour is impossible. These Hebraisms effectively get over the simple message that the sinner can never change his character by himself, that is, without the intervening power of God.

Hebraisms also are found in the gospels, particularly in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in respect of world-changing events. I discuss a few relevant ones (in bold text) below. Understanding the language used by the writers of the gospels particularly can help us get a better understanding of some important passages that I believe have been misunderstood by many in evangelical circles.

Examples of Hebraisms in the New Testament

  1. Camel through eye of a needle

Matthew 19:23,24,26 Then said Jesus to his disciples, Verily I say to you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 26 But Jesus beheld them, and said to them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

Mark 10:24,25 And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again, and says to them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Luke 18:24,25,27 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, He said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 27 And He said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

Here Jesus used a Hebraism to illustrate the absolute impossibility of saving yourself. Only through Christ can a person be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven. For more on this read Only in Jesus is found the way, the truth and the life.

  1. Heaven and earth pass away

Matthew 5:18 For verily I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.

Mark 13:31 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

Luke 21:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

Luke 16:17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.

The meaning here is not so much that the heaven and earth will pass away, decay away or be destroyed, but that God’s words will be preserved forever.  I have discussed this before in Do the heavens literally pass away or don’t they?

There I found that the Hebrew expression has the meaning that God’s words will never pass away. The translated form of the Hebrew expression for the Universe is “heaven and earth”. We see then that in these verses the focus is not on the eternality of the Universe, but the focus is that because the Universe will be around for a very long time, it follows that God’s words will not fail nor pass away, because they will be preserved even longer than the Universe. This means they will be fulfilled to the very smallest mark, like a jot or a tittle in Hebrew script, which are very small features of the calligraphy.

I propose that these verses actually support the notion that the Universe will be preserved forever. That is, God’s words will never ever fail. Therefore it follows that the Universe will be preserved by God forever. The only change that we shall see at Christ’s return will be a refurbishment of the planet Earth and its atmospheric heavens, but not the destruction of the starry heavens. For more on this read Our eternal Universe and When will God reverse decay in the Universe?.

2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

The focus is on the return of Christ which will be very significant and everyone will see this event. It is a spiritual description of the return of Christ and His reordering the spiritual forces that are controlling the world. As established above this does not mean that the universe is destroyed but that God changes the spiritual order, the rulers of darkness are eliminated, as Christ takes the throne.

  1. Outer darkness or everlasting fire

Matthew 25:30 And cast you the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:41 Then shall He say also to them on the left hand, Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire [hell], prepared for the devil [Satan] and his angels:

See also Matthew 8:12 (outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth); 13:42 (furnace of fire, gnashing of teeth); 13:50 (furnace of fire, wailing and gnashing of teeth); 22:13 (outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth); 24:51 (weeping and gnashing of teeth); Luke 13:28 (weeping and gnashing of teeth).

So we see that the unsaved, the damned, are both cast into outer darkness and into everlasting fire. Fire burns and emits light, but not in darkness. But being cast into hell fire is equal to being cast into spiritual darkness, where there is no presence of the Lord.

It is clear from the text that these are Hebraisms around which we get an understanding of the judgment of the damned. They are functionally equivalent but not literally equivalent.

Even the gnashing of teeth is figurative for the extreme anguish and utter despair of men consigned to eternal condemnation. Beasts gnash their teeth as they attack their prey. Perhaps we can get a hint from

Proverb 19:12a The king’s wrath is as the roaring of a lion…

The word ‘roaring’ also connotes ‘snarling’ as do these wild beast. So the King of kings in judgment on the damned will cause them to weep, wail and gnash their teeth, even if the latter is only figurative.

  1. The Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven

Matthew 24:30,31 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.  And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

Daniel 7:13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought Him [Jesus Christ, the Son] near before Him [the Father].

Mark 13:26,27 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.

Matthew 26:63,64 But Jesus held His peace. And the high priest answered and said to Him, I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You be the Christ, the Son of God. 64 Jesus says to him, You have said: nevertheless I say to you, Hereafter shall you see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Mark 14:61,62 But He held His peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked Him, and said to Him, Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? 62 And Jesus said, I am: and you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Coming of Christ the Messiah

In Mark 14:61 (and Matthew 26:63) we read that the high priest asked Jesus if He is the Christ, the expected Messiah from the Scriptures.

In Mark 14:62 we read that Jesus answers the high priest’s question with “I AM”, which, if written in Hebrew, would have been יְהוָה (YHWH), God’s name, meaning the self-existent One.  Jesus is telling the high priest that He is the Creator and that the high priest will see Christ’s power on Earth. The high priest was alive at the time of the judgment of Jerusalem (in 70 A.D.). See below.

But what is very significant is the following. Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) was the Passover Lamb, who rose on the Feast of First Fruits (first day of the week after the Passover, the beginning of harvest), and gave His Spirit on the following Feast of Weeks (known as Shavuot (Hebrew), or Pentecost), 49 days later. However during this Feast of Weeks a mystery is revealed.

When Peter stood up and gave his first major oration on the faith we read,

Acts 2:32-36 32 This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. 33 Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He has shed forth this, which you now see and hear. 34 For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he says himself, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit You on My right hand, 35 Until I make Your foes Your footstool. 36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ [Messiah].

For David, and Jews up to that point in time, Abraham was also referred to as Lord.  Not like God, but as a high priest whose spirit resided in heaven interceding for the Jews, and not at all like the Roman Catholics who ostensibly pray to dead saints.

The Jews already believed at death one’s spirit went to heaven. This was with the exception of the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in resurrection (the joke is that that is why they are called sad-you-see). So Peter (as recorded in Acts 2) is comparing ‘my Lord’, that is Abraham, whose spirit was with God, and acted as an intercessor, to Jesus as both Lord and Messiah, who also rose physically, as the final and ultimate intercessor. That is why the Jews felt their hearts were pierced (Acts 2:37). It was because of the realization of this new High Priest who rose physically.

And since Christ is considered the First Fruit of a physical resurrection we also are promised a physical resurrection.  And there were those who were bodily resurrected after Christ’s resurrection.

Matthew 27:52,53 And the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept [i.e. were dead] arose, 53 And came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Jesus was resurrected first and others followed later. Jesus was the first fruit (1 Corinthians 15:15-20) with a physical bodily resurrection, not just a resurrection of the soul.

Coming again in the clouds of heaven

All the verses listed under bullet point 4 above contain Hebraisms (in bold text).  Quite obviously ‘from the four winds’ (Matthew 24:31, Mark 13:27) cannot be literal. God gathers the saved from every part of Earth and from ‘one end of heaven to the other’, which means all those who died in faith at that time. Historically this had specific fulfilment at the time mention above after Christ’s resurrection and occurred after the period of the great tribulation (Matthew 24:29) around 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans under General Titus. See Matthew 24 prophecy for more details.

These verses also describe Christ’s judgment on man, particularly the wicked in Jerusalem. Some commentators use these verses to describe His future return to judge the world, saying He comes in the clouds literally. If, as I believe, these verses had fulfilment around 70 A.D., this is moot anyway. But did or does Christ literally appear in the clouds above? What do the expressions ‘in the clouds’ or ‘with clouds’ mean?

Revelation 1:7 Behold, He comes with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail [moun] because of Him. Even so, Amen.

It would seem that the expression ‘He comes with clouds’ (my emphasis added) signifies the enormity of the event and the power of God.

Clouds in the Old Testament have been representative of God’s glory, whether in the Holy Mount that Moses ascended,

Exodus 19:9 And the LORD said to Moses, Lo, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you for ever.

Or at the dedication of Solomon’s temple.

1 Kings 8:11-13 So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD [Jehovah] had filled the house of the LORD. 12 Then spoke Solomon, The LORD said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. 13 I have surely built You an house to dwell in, a settled [kingly] place for You to abide in for ever

At times, we’ve seen references of both light (fire or lightnings) and clouds in Scripture (Psalms 18:11,12, Job 22:14, Deuteronomy 4:11,12).  Both are indicative of God’s glory and power.

To the wandering children of Israel in the desert God’s presence during the day was indicated by a cloud (Exodus 13:21). God also called the false prophets ‘clouds without rain’ (Proverbs 25:14, Jude 1:12) meaning they are empty and cannot send refreshment to the people. Therefore it follows that ‘clouds with rain’ are the true prophets who have the true message of God.

Many ‘cloud’ scriptures in the OT are associated with God’s wrath and judgment.

Zephaniah 1:15 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,

Psalms 97:2 (Clouds and darkness are round about Him [God]: righteousness and judgment are the habitation [foundation] of His throne.

One scripture attributes God’s strength to clouds.

Psalms 68:34 Ascribe you strength to God: His excellency is over Israel, and His strength is in the clouds.

Now look again at these 5 sets of verses listed above about the “Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven”. Jim Gibson wrote:

The Jewish rabbis often referred to the Messiah as ‘bar nivli’, meaning ‘son of the clouds’. In Daniel 7:13, it states that “the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven…” Furthermore, in the Old Testament, God “coming in the clouds” spoke of his judgment upon the ungodly. Jesus told the high priest that he would still be alive when he witnessed the Son of man “coming in the clouds of heaven”. Josephus records that Caiaphas the high priest was alive at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D..

The usual futurist interpretation of Bible prophecy has these verses describing some future judgment at the Second Coming of Christ but an historical view is that these verses describe symbolically Christ coming to judge the world at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.. Note the language uses “appear the sign of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:30). This was not a literal bodily return of Christ at that time. See The Return of Jesus Christ (taken from Chapter 2 of the book “When Jesus Returns —what then?” by Jim Gibson) for more details.

The physical return of Jesus Christ I believe is still to come, and it starts from the 37th verse of Matthew 24. We read in the 37th verse “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” From this verse on we read of the real bodily return of Christ. See As in the Days of Noah (taken from Chapter 5 of the book “When Jesus Returns —what then?” by Jim Gibson) for more details.

Taking the correct context of these verses then in relation “the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven” we interpret all of the allusions to ‘clouds of heaven’ as symbolic of the power and might of God.

But what about Revelation 1:7? Again the use of the ‘coming with clouds’ is symbolic of the power of God at His Second Coming. It is connected with God sending His angels to gather the saved. Spiritually everyone will know of Christ’s return, even those who were involved in His crucifixion and now are waiting their judgment. This verse cannot be interpreted wholly literally, not without spiritualising it. So the expressions ‘in the clouds’ is used symbolically, and it is used to illustrate the utter significance of Christ’s return with his angels to judge the world, both those living and the dead when He comes again.

Jesus said,

Mark 8:38 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.

Christ ‘comes with clouds’ (Revelation 1:7) signifies the majesty of Christ’s power. It is not literal at all. But it shows that He is the Master of His physical creation. Only the Creator can manipulate the global weather. Besides smaller scale weather modification effects like cloud seeding, mankind cannot do that despite all the modern-day claims of man-made global warming.

At Christ return He will shine with such brilliance He will outshine all the light of the clouds in the sky. He will shine like the sun itself (Revelation 1:14-16) such that you cannot look upon Him but briefly, just like you can only momentarily look at the sun without damaging your eyes. He is brighter than all the angels. But one thing is certain; everyone, all living and all dead, from the spiritual realm, shall ‘see’ Him in some way. His Second Coming is at the day of the Lord, the final judgment, called the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15) where Christ sits in judgment on all, separating the saved from the unsaved. The saved are given eternal life and the unsaved are sent into the lake of fire and eternal damnation.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thanks Jim Gibson, James Arendt and Kim Gordon for reviewing drafts of this article and making many helpful suggestions.

About John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.
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3 Responses to Will Jesus return literally in the clouds?

  1. Forgive me in advance for not reading the whole article above, I scanned through it in haste as I’m looking for something else. But it seems as though you’re saying that Jesus will not return in LITERAL clouds, but that clouds are a figure of speech for His power. If that’s what you’re saying, then it doesn’t make sense to me. When Jesus ascended to heaven, just prior to Pentecost, He went up in a cloud (Acts 1:9-11). The disciples saw Him and the angels said He would return the SAME WAY. If He went up in a literal cloud, then He must come back in one, don’t you think? 🙂

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    • It is a good question. However, can I say that all scriptures must be interpreted in light of the rest of scripture. For example, in 2 Peter 3:7

      But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved to fire against the day of judgment and perdition [destruction] of ungodly men.

      You see that judgment by fire is the fire of hell. Then verse 12 reads

      Looking for and hasting to the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?

      It would appear on the surface that the very elemental substrate of the Universe will be destroyed, but verse 7 indicates it is a spiritual judgment on man, which we know will occur at the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). Therefore, it should be correctly interpreted as a spiritual reordering of the powers that control the world, when Christ comes in judgment. What appeared to be a LITERAL description turns out not to be.

      In a similar way we need to interpret Acts 1:9-11,

      And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11 Which also said, You men of Galilee, why stand you gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into heaven.

      Two points:
      1. Jesus somehow was translated into the spiritual realm by God and the witness in the book of Acts (presumed to be Luke) recorded the event in verse 9 as being ‘taken up’ and ‘a cloud received Him’. Then in verse 10, there are ‘two men in white’, who are obviously angels. They represent God’s power and authority to man. So who received Jesus? Was it a cloud of water vapour, or was the use of the word ‘cloud’ an allusion (that earthy men could understand) to the presence of God, just like God spoke to Moses from the cloud in the mount (Exodus 19:9) or His presence was in a cloud over the glory seat in the tabernacle of God (1 Kings 8:11-13)? Therefore, in the same way, it follows that in Acts 1 verse 11, ‘in like manner’ means Jesus will return to Earth from the presence of God in heaven at His Second Advent, in a manner similar to His ascension, where He left the earthly realm for the spiritual.

      2. The event recorded in Acts 1:9-11 was with His disciples and geographically was restricted to a small area (Israel). On Christ’s return to Earth the event is recorded to be global, occurring simultaneously to all observers, those alive on Earth and those dead in the spiritual realm (Revelation 1:7). Because of this you could say ‘like manner’ only defines a method of operation not a physical description.

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      • Thanks for that John. I’ll take a closer look at what you say when I have more time. I’m keen to keep God’s Word in context so I look forward to being challenged if I’ve misinterpreted God’s Word on this matter.

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