When reading prophetic passages, we must oftentimes ask ourselves the old question: “Is this literal, or is it figurative?” There are some theologians who interpret everything in a strict literal sense. Then there are others, no less strict, who would see in every verse of the Bible some allegorical enigma–which, of course, only they can solve. A correct system of hermeneutics would tend to avoid both extremes. Nevertheless, there are some Scriptures in which the literal sense is to be greatly preferred over the figurative.
For instance, how does one interpret such a passage as Rev. 1:7: “Behold, He cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see Him“? The text itself enforces a literal interpretation. If every eye shall see Christ’s return, then He must come in the literal clouds of heaven. Nevertheless, do have any right to link this visible, glorious coming with other Scriptures in the New Testament which speak of the “clouds of heaven”? I’d like in this brief article to show how the descriptive texts of prophecy harmonize in a wonderful manner, & point to a visible return of Jesus Christ at the end of the present age.
First of all, let us remember that when Christ ascended into heaven in the eyes of His apostles, “He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1: 9). All commentators agree that it was a real cloud which received Jesus. If not, then any factual statement in the New Testament can be explained away. We cannot condone any such tampering of Scriptures as would render the cloud symbolic in nature. The cloud must be understood as visible.
Now, when the angels who stood by the apostles in white apparel spoke, they said: “Ye men of Galillee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 11). The phrase “in like manner” informs us that Christ will return visibly, in a real cloud. In fact, if we look throughout the New Testament, we’ll find that Christ’s return is always described as being accompanied by celestial phenomena. One of these phenomena includes the conveyance of Christ on visible clouds.
Remember our Lord’s Olivet Discourse, when He told Peter, James, John, & Andrew: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 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” (Matt. 24: 29-30).
Note the correspondence of these verses with Revelation 1: 7: “Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him.” Both passages speak of the same event. There will be a great lamentation & mourning when the King comes back to reign. Obviously, there can be no mourning unless the tribes of the earth know that He is coming to reign. Hence the visible nature of the “signs” which precede His appearing.
These premonitory signs will culminate with Christ’s visible return “in the clouds of heaven.” And Christ has promised that when He returns, His elect will be ‘raptured.’ “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” (Matt. 24: 31). When Christ comes, the saints will be resurrected. This passage is a standing refutation to Dispensationalism, which teaches a “secret rapture” prior to the Great Tribulation. According to Christ’s own words, the rapture will occur “after the tribulation.”
In fact, we believe that this “gathering together” predicted by Christ is identical to the “catching up” mentioned by Paul: “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 16-17).
Paul corrobates this evidence when he states that there will be a “gathering together” of the saints at Christ’s return (2 Thess. 2:1). This will be the time when the saints are glorified (2 Thess. 1: 10) and the wicked punished. In no ambiguous terms, Paul writes that this will occur “when the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1: 7). Please note that it is these very angels who are to gather together the elect (Mark 13: 27), and also to reap the harvest of the earth when the Lord comes in a visible cloud (Revelation 14: 14-20).
Then, too, Daniel prophesied that following the Great Tribulation there would be a resurrection of the ‘visible church.’ “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12: 2). This resurrection is followed by the glorification of the righteous (Daniel 12: 3), and will transpire after the three-and-a-half years of Antichrist’s persecution against the saints (Daniel 12: 7).
When Christ returns, the angel shall sound his trumpet, and the dead will be raised in the sight of their enemies. They shall ascend into heaven in a visible cloud. John writes: “And they heard a great voice from heaven, saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud” (Revelation 11: 12). When will this happen? When the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ (Revelation 11: 15; Zechariah 14: 9); when the Lord returns to the Mount of Olives from when He ascended, to avenge Himself upon those who wage battle against Jerusalem (Zechariah 14).
Listen to Christ once more: “Then two shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left; two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left” (Matt. 24: 40-41). What can this signify but the effective separation of the wheat from the tares at the “end of the age”? In Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares, He interprets the word ‘aion’ as signifying “this life” (Matt. 13: 22; cf. Luke 8: 14); that is, the present natural order of things, which shall terminate upon Christ’s visible glorious return to rule and reign over the world in righteousness.
Then, when all secular world powers are abolished, the prophecies of Daniel shall be fulfilled. “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 near before Him. And there was given to Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7: 13-14).
Thus we find in all these passages a remarkable correspondence, & a confirmation of the inspired literality of New Testament Scripture. There is but one “coming” of Christ “in the clouds of heaven.” And these are literal clouds! This coming will be at a crucial time, when Antichrist will have mobilized all the military forces of the world to the city of Jerusalem to try to prevent Christ’s coming to reign over the earth. We are to look for our Lord’s return with gladness and joy, & to persevere in holiness that we may be found acceptable in that day. Blessed are all they who love His appearing.