In what is commonly called the Olivet Discourse – as recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 – Jesus answers questions asked Him by His disciples; questions which were triggered by His prophecy that the temple was to be so completely destroyed “that there will not be left…one stone upon another…” (Matt. 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6).
The majority content of His discourse describes intense tribulation including wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, genocide, antichrists, and universal upheaval. (Following this description Jesus referred to the budding of a fig tree pointing to the advent of summer as a parable which parallel is the unfolding of the events preceding the advent of a new era.) The latter portion of His discourse includes two statements which form an apparent paradox. First, He said, “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” (Matt. 24:30; cf. Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27), and second, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all of these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32).
The relationship between, “…they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven,” and “…this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (vs. 34) causes great difficulty to serious readers of Scripture. Because the ‘clouds of heaven’ is commonly understood as the clouds we see in the sky, and ‘the Son of Man coming’ as the second advent of Jesus Christ, attempts are often made to understand and explain ‘this generation’ in ways other than its common meaning. To understand ‘clouds of heaven’ as those we see overhead appears natural in light of Luke’s account of our Lord’s ascension: “…He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way…’” (Acts 1:9b-11). If this is the case, then it leaves us asking whether the new era pictured in the budding fig tree will be ushered in by the second advent of Christ, or if it has been inaugurated by another great event! The key to understanding the two passages mentioned above may be found not in seeking a new meaning for ‘this generation,’ but rather by revisiting the meaning of ‘the clouds of heaven.’
Later in his gospel Matthew records a conversation between Jesus and Caiaphas, the high priest, wherein Jesus answered Caiaphas’s question concerning His identity: Jesus said, “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64). This phrase is very similar to that spoken by Jesus to His disciples. In response, Caiaphas tore his robes and accused Jesus of blasphemy. Why did Caiaphas respond this way? It is unlikely he thought Jesus was referring to a return to earth at the end of time. In Daniel chapter seven, the prophet wrote, “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took His seat…and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man…and to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples…should serve Him…” (vss. 9a, 13a, 14a). The accusation of blasphemy declared by the chief priests and scribes was in response to Jesus identifying Himself as that Son of Man to Whom Daniel refers, Who was presented to the Father “with the clouds of heaven.” The parallel passage in Luke 22 reports that Jesus responded to the chief priests and scribes by saying, “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (vs. 69), apparently drawing upon the prophecy of King David in Psalm 110:1, “[Yahweh] says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”
If the ascension and enthronement of Christ is the event properly associated with His ‘coming on the clouds’ – as was the understanding of the Jewish religious leaders, then many implications follow. Firstly, the work of Jesus during His first advent is highlighted as the pivotal event in history; centered upon the fruition of the Old Covenant and establishment of the New in its many glorious facets; including Messiah, “…[bearing] our griefs” (Isa. 53:4), “…[forgiving our] iniquity” (Jer. 31:34), and “…[putting] an end to sacrifice” (Dan. 9:27). Secondly, the nearly 2,000 years since the ascension of Jesus Christ have been His reign as King over all, not a time of waiting for His kingdom in the future; therefore the throwing down of satan (Luke 10:18) so that he can no longer deceive the nations, the commission of His people to “…make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and the going-forth of the four horseman (Rev. 6:1-8) as a force of testing and judgment, occur at the command of heaven’s new King; to whom the Father said, “Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your heritage, and the ends of earth Your possession” (Ps. 2:8). Thirdly, the return of the Christ – an event to which Jesus Himself describes as parabolic to a thief or master entering the house at an unknown time (Matt. 24:36ff; Mark 13:32ff) – is the event to which Paul refers when he wrote, “Then comes the end, when [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (I Cor. 15:24, 25).
While tempting Jesus satan suggested that He turn stone into bread, cast Himself from the temple, and bow in worship to receive the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-13). The irony of satan’s temptation comes into focus from this perspective, for within a few decades of that offer, Jesus was given the kingdoms of the world as His possession – ruling them with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9), and the dragon was cast down to earth in defeat (Rev. 12:7-9). In His very resistance to the bait of satan our Lord procured the very rule which that ancient serpent offered but had no authority to give.
Therefore, if the clouds to which Jesus referred are the clouds of heaven with which He was presented to the Father and His ascension marked the beginning of His reign, then indeed the generation to whom He spoke did not pass away until those things took place, the tribulation to which Jesus referred accompanied that universal transition from Old Covenant to New, the great dragon, who is called the devil and satan – the deceiver of the whole world – has been thrown down (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9), and this is the sanctified age of Messianic rule during which people “from every nation and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), who have been “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), “have come to mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22).