The Coming of the Son of Man: When?

As a follow-up to the last post, I’d like to discuss Jesus’ prediction of the “coming of the son of man” in the gospels. My purpose here is not to debate whether the coming of the son of man should be understood literally or metaphorically (on which, see this post) but instead to ask the simple question: Did Jesus believe that this “coming” (whatever that might refer to) would happen within the lifetime of many of those alive during his ministry? There are four texts that are most significant for addressing this question: 1) Matthew 24:34 (cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32)

“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

2) Matthew 10:23

“But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the son of man comes.”

3) Matthew 16:27-28 (cf. Mark 8:38-9:1; Luke 9:26-27)

“For the son of man is going to come in the glory of his father with his angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. 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.”

4) Matthew 26:63-64 (cf. Luke 22:69) But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, from now on you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Each of these texts has two things in common: first, they each point back to Daniel 7:13-14, the famous vision in which "one like a son of man" is exalted with the clouds to receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days; and, second, they each give off the powerful impression that Jesus anticipated the fulfillment of that passage within the expected lifetime of his original audience. In light of this common dependence on Daniel 7, it bears mentioning at the outset that in Daniel the son of man comes up with the clouds of heaven into the presence of the Ancient of Days; he does not come down from heaven to earth. If we keep this in mind while reading through the following passages, we may find that they begin to make more sense.

The first text (Matt 24:34) is without question the one which gets the most press in discussions like these, since it appears towards the end of Jesus’ lengthiest eschatological discourse, and everyone has a special stake in defending their particular view of that passage. When taken at face value, however, Jesus appears to be saying that all of the events forewarned in that discourse (from the beginning of birth pangs to the coming of the son of man) would come to pass within the generation of his audience at that time. Unable to accept this face value reading, futurists have suggested alternative ways of understanding Jesus’ use of the word genea, such as translating it instead as “race” or “nation”. But considering Matthew’s usage of the word throughout his gospel (1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41-42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36), and the other texts which we will consider below, such an alternative translation has little to commend it, and appears to be driven more by a particular ideology than any real interest in accurately representing the original meaning of the text.

Another alternative, which has garnered more support than the one above, is to accept that genea does indeed mean “generation,” but that the particular generation in question is not the one to which Jesus was then speaking, but rather the one in which “all these things take place,” i.e. the final generation. This is an ingenious solution to the perceived problem of non-fulfillment, but it only survives as an escape route for those who cannot accept the plain meaning of the text. The problem with this reading is that it makes the entire verse redundant, while Jesus’ emphasis suggests that it is the most important part of the whole chapter. Furthermore, the whole context of the Olivet Discourse concerns the judgment which would befall that perverse generation for not accepting Jesus' offer of peace. Matthew sets the scene for Jesus’ prediction of the nation’s fall and the Temple’s destruction by placing it together with his lengthy rebuke of their hypocritical leadership in chapter 23, and that whole passage concludes with his pronouncement that the recompense for the blood of all the martyrs from Abel to Zechariah would “come upon this generation”.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the coming of the son of man here refers to the second coming, and not to Jesus’ kingly vindication via the destruction of Jerusalem; that doesn’t change the fact that he predicted this “coming” within the expected lifetime of his audience at that time. This is why C.S. Lewis, in a 1960 essay, called Matthew 24:34 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible”. Of course, I think Lewis was wrong to assume that the phrase in question refers to the second coming, but I still appreciate his honesty in admitting the plain sense meaning of the text regarding “this generation”. Futurism just isn’t an exegetically viable option where this text is concerned.

The second text (Matt 10:23) has received less attention than the first, but it places the timing of Jesus’ expectation in an even clearer light. The disciples will not even finish going through all the towns of Israel “before the son of man comes”. As Albert Schweitzer argued over a century ago, it is sufficiently evident that Jesus’ words here should not be in any way weakened down. But given that the “coming” of Daniel 7:13-14 speaks of the exaltation (and not the “descent” to earth) of the son of man to receive the kingdom, it seems likely that Matthew regarded this saying as having been fulfilled by the time of the Great Commission, when the resurrected Jesus, having received all authority in heaven and on earth, sends the disciples out beyond the boarders of Israel to call the whole world into the kingdom (Matt 28:18-20).

The third text (Matt 16:27-28) only solidifies this impression further. There are some of Jesus’ hearers who will live to see the kingdom of the son of man, when he comes in the glory of his father and rewards everyone for their deeds. This text adds to the two above by explicitly identifying the coming of the son of man with the arrival of the kingdom, just as the son of man receives the kingdom from the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13. It also bears mentioning that in all three Synoptic accounts this saying appears just after Peter’s confession and just before the Transfiguration, when Jesus begins to subvert the disciples’ kingdom expectation in light of the cross and resurrection. Jesus elsewhere alludes to the kingdom of Daniel 7 with his coming suffering in mind (e.g. Mark 10:45). Is he perhaps doing that here?

The fourth text (Matt 26:63-64) is much more significant than many English translations imply. The key phrase here is “from now on” or “hereafter,” which literally means “from this time forward”. Here Jesus combines his characteristic allusion to Daniel 7 with an allusion to Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’. The Lord shall send the rod of your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of your enemies!” Is it a coincidence that Jesus quotes from this passage right after being accused of conspiring against the Temple? Is that why Caiaphas, the high priest, was sent into such a rage? Whatever the answer, the central question is this: What did Jesus see happening at that time which could be interpreted as the messianic enthronement of Daniel 7 and Psalm 110?

In summary, each text speaks clearly for itself: (1) “This generation will not pass away”; (2) “before you finish going through all the cities of Israel”; (3) “there are some standing here who will not taste death”; (4) “from now on...” The cumulative effect of all four passages is overwhelming. Whatever we might say about the content of this prediction, it appears glaringly obvious that Jesus anticipated this “coming” very quickly, to the point of being almost present, and that in his mind it was directly connected to what he saw himself doing at that time. This conclusion is so firmly based in the explicit words of Jesus, and in the parallel accounts of all three Synoptic gospels, that it is as close to a “proven fact” as any point of biblical theology can be.