Harry Whittaker
The Last Days

Chapter 9 - The Sign Of The Son Of Man In Heaven

Jesus plainly asserted that at the time of his coming again there will be “signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations”. The words in the first part of this quotation are usually (and rightly) given a figurative application, but the conjunction with words, which are starkly literal, is somewhat startling. And when it is considered how the element of literality has so often obtruded itself in the fulfilment of figurative prophecies (see for example, 2 Peter 3:10), the student can hardly refrain from wondering if there will not be a literal as well as figurative fulfilment here also. Modern developments in rocket science make sensational phenomena in the sky not so much a possibility as a probability.

The words of Jesus in Matthew 24 continue: “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” (v. 30).

This sign of the Son of man in heaven has provoked many widely differing speculations. The one, which has most recommended itself, is the idea that this sign is the return of the Jews to Palestine. The parable of the fig tree coming two verses later is doubtless a recommendation in this direction. But why should this sign in particular be labelled the sign of the Son of man? For could it not be argued that every sign which heralds his coming is a sign of the Son of man? Again, how is the return of the Jew to Zion a sign in heaven? To explain this figurative element has to be imported once again, and somewhat awkwardly here. The rest of the verse is literal enough. Also it may be asked: Where or what is the connection with the rest of the passage if it is the Jewish sign which is alluded to?

These are not insuperable obstacles, but it must be granted that an interpretation which avoids these snags, and which takes the words as meaning just what they say, and which ties all the phrases of the context together has much more to recommend it.

It is worthwhile, then, to recall that when Jesus came the first time there was a sign of the Son of man in heaven—the star seen by the wise men. It was a literal sign in the literal sky. This immediately suggests a similar appearance in the day (or night) when he comes again.

It is useful also to observe that whilst that first sign is called a “star” it was not literally a star but was so called because of the similarity to a star and because “star” afforded the best brief description of it. The fact may have eluded the notice of readers that since this “star” came and “stood over where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9) it could not possibly have been any normal heavenly body. The star, which appears to be directly over my chimney-pot at 9 p.m., also appears to be directly over my friend’s chimneypot five miles away, at the same moment.

This “star”, then, must have been quite low in the sky—as low, probably lower, than the altitude of a modern aeroplane. The guess may be hazarded that it was a manifestation of the cherubim of glory, “the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof”.

Yet when the angels announced the royal birth to the shepherds their word was: “And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”. To them the sign was to be Christ himself—but, let it be noted—not a Christ in royal splendour but one wrapped and surrounded by all the signs of human weakness and destitution —swaddling clothes, appropriate to the nature which he then bore.

The two ideas, combined together, are readily transferable back to Matthew 24:30. The sign of the Son of man will be a literal sight in the sky. The sign will be the Son of man himself as he comes to the earth. But whereas he came before with all the symbols of our pathetic fallen nature, he will come this second time “in power and great glory” appropriate to his royal dignity. He will come “on the clouds of heaven”—not ordinary nimbus or cumulus clouds, but in the Cloud of the Shekinah Glory which shepherded Israel out of Egypt, the Cloud which was transferred from Moses and Elijah to himself and his disciples on the mount of Transfiguration, the Cloud which received him when he ascended to the Father’s right hand. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that there is no Biblical warrant for taking “clouds of heaven” to mean “clouds of people”. Hebrews 12:1 uses a different Greek word. And in any case Jesus does not come with his glorified ones, but to them.

In short, then, the sign will be Jesus himself coming in the vivid visible Glory of God, and seen in the sky by all the world as he comes to his inheritance.

This topic of the actual coming of Christ has been much befogged by strange nebulous ideas of a two-fold manifestation—first, in secret to his saints, and then in full power and majesty to his enemies. This is another notion, which can hardly be too strongly reprobated. The only Bible evidence one ever hears cited in support of it is: “The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Yet the very next words make it plain that to those who are prepared and watchful the second advent will be in no sense thief-like. The same figure of the thief in the Letter to Sardis makes it clear that it will only be the unprepared who find the Lord’s coming a nasty shock.

The Lord’s own words elsewhere refute utterly and completely the idea of a stealthy or secret advent: “Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert (of Sinai!!?); go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:26, 27). It would be difficult to find more explicit words than these. Lightning is unmistakeably lightning; it has never been mistaken for a house on fire or even for a photo flash bulb. The coming of Christ will be clear, impressive, majestic, seen by all, but understood only by a few.

“The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels” (Matthew I6: 27). “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God . . .” (2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8).

Such passages speak for themselves. They are reinforced by Matthew 24:30 “Then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they (the tribes of the earth) shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”.

Yet another phenomenon will add to the awe-inspiring grandeur of this majestic visitation. Some prophecies suggest that the day of the Lord’s coming will be a time of unnatural darkness comparable with that, which was experienced on the day of crucifixion.

The preceding words, if to be taken literally have this very idea: “the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven . . .”

In strange mysterious language Zechariah 14 hints at the same thing: “His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives . . . And it shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall not be clear, nor dark: but it shall be one day which shall be known to the Lord, not day, nor night; but it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light” (w. 4, 6, 7).

Joel describes the day of the Lord as “a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness” (2:2).

Zephaniah has almost identical language: “The great day of the Lord is near . . . a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (1:14, 15). Passages in Amos and Isaiah carry the same idea.

If this comes to pass literally the effect on the nations of the world will be electric. Imagine the entire globe wrapped in gloom. As Jesus approaches the earth in radiant splendour, the visible manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, all—literally all—the peoples of the world will witness this unique mysterious, startling spectacle. Only a few will know the meaning of this, which they behold. To them it is “the sign of the Son of man in heaven”. The rest will stare in amazement and terror: “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”.

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