At his “hearing” or “trial,” Jesus said that Caiaphas (the high priest) and the Sanhedrin (the highest council and court in Judaism) would see him coming in the clouds of heaven. How could they see his Second Coming, which has not happened in the past two thousand years (and counting)? Or does it refer to some other kind of coming?
Let’s clear up the confusion.
All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. You are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT, for missional outreach to people who cannot afford or do not have access to printed Study Bibles and commentary sets.
The target verse is 64, but let’s provide the context.
59 Now the chief priests and all of the Council were seeking for false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put him to death, 60 and they found no one, although many false witnesses came forward. Finally, two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God within three days build it.’” 62 And the chief priest got up and said to him, “You answer nothing to what these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the chief priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I say to you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power’ [Ps. 110:1] and ‘coming on clouds of heaven’” [Dan. 7:13]. (Matt. 26:59-64; see Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:54-55, 63-71)
Here are the comments.
The council is the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court and council. They were looking for witnesses who would testify against him, so they could put him to death. The Sanhedrin found no one, even though many came forward and bore false witness. Matthew says “false witnesses.” Is this Matthew’s opinion, or did the council also consider their testimony not to be reliable? The last half of v. 60 and v. 61 may provide the answer. Two men said that they heard him say those words about destroying the temple and then building it again. Deut. 19:15 says that out of the mouths of two or three witnesses, every fact should be established or backed up. Here they are. John 2:19-21 shows Jesus speaking these words at the beginning of his ministry. John explains that he was speaking of the temple of his body.
So Jesus remained silent when the high priest challenged him on this point. Why should he explain himself? It would look like he was shifting his ground. “I meant this as my body—when you kill it, I’ll raise it back up.” It’s easy to imagine that they would have considered him as dodging the real accusation. “Oh, now you change your mind! Ha! We won’t allow it!” They could accuse him of intending to overthrow the temple, as witnessed by his cleaning the temple, soon after he entered the city (Matt. 21:12-13).
After all, Jesus said in the face of the Pharisees that something greater than the temple was here (Matt. 12:6). Reports like these must have come back to the Jerusalem establishment. It was illegal to defame the temple (see Exod. 22:28 for the principle and Jer. 26:1-19 for its application). Jesus was mocked on the cross for saying that he could rebuild the temple (Matt. 27:40). Stephen got stoned to death for criticizing the temple and the irreligious behavior of its guardians (Acts 6:13-14; 7:48-50).
Jesus, instead of belaboring this point about the temple, wanted to go to the heart of the issue—his true identity. He is the Messiah (Christ) the Son of the living God.
The high priest got fed up with Jesus’s silence, so the priest arose and asked him about the two men’s accusation. His rising indicates he was taking charge of the whole trial. Enough is enough, he seemed to think. The high priest charged him under oath to speak up about the next accusation: Are you the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Remember Peter’s words:
… Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 In reply, Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven has.” (Matt. 16:16-17)
The high priest had heard rumors that Jesus claimed he was the Christ (or Messiah), the Son of the living God. He accepted praise from people (Matt. 21:9). He explained Ps. 110:1 more thoroughly and completely, right in the face of the Pharisees (Matt. 22:41-46). They were members of the Sanhedrin, or they told the establishment about these words and his Messianic actions after entering Jerusalem in Matt. 21.
In any case, once again we have a severe case of irony. They were the authority figures, experts in the law, but they could not perceive the Messiah right in front of them. They thought they knew the truth, but they actually did not. God did not reveal to the high priest the truth of Jesus’s true identity, though he did reveal it to a lowly fisherman, Peter.
Here comes Jesus’s answer.
“right hand of Power”: the right hand indicates power, since most people were right-handed and worked with tools and swung swords and threw spears with it. Keener says that the priestly aristocracy’s “choosing (probably correctly) to construe Jesus’ words as associating himself with God’s majesty, they may imply that Jesus has lowered God’s majesty to his own level” … (p. 651). Yes, Jesus was Majesty incarnate, so he did bring down God to their level–right in front of them! But this is high theology for this verse. We now know this because we have read the entire NT.
Caiaphas didn’t fully understand the meaning of the Son of God. I won’t go into a fuller teaching here, but please see these posts:
Then Jesus clearly states, once again, who he was by two famous Messianic prophecies. Jesus proclaims before Caiaphas the high priest and the Sanhedrin that from now on they will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. The first half of the confession refers to the Messiah being glorified:
The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps. 110:1, ESV, emphasis added).
The enemies in Matthew’s context are the very ones putting him on trial. But it is also bigger than that. The second half of v. 64 refers to the Son of Man in Dan. 7:13-14, when he comes in the clouds of heaven:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV, emphasis added)
The Ancient of Days is God. Jesus was about to ascend and be enthroned on high, sitting next to God. So his coming here in v. 23 refers to his ascension and enthronement, not his descent. Jesus was granted authority over heaven and earth (28:18), and the fact that the gospel was spreading all over their known world indicates that the ascended Jesus has authority and dominion over Caiaphas and the council. This makes the most sense of v. 64, in light of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13-14.
Therefore, no, v. 64 does not refer to the grand and glorious Second Coming when the whole earth will be overtaken by his powerful and earth-changing appearing.
See my comments on Matt. 24 and 25 for how Jesus’s ascension and enthronement (and later coming-in-judgment on the temple) and the parousia (Second Coming) must be kept distinct.
The next two posts go into much more detail:
This article explains the Greek term in its original context.
Commentator Darrell L. Bock wrote a book on blasphemy happening before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and particularly before the Mishnah was collected in AD 200. Commentator Osborne summarizes Bock’s finding:
1.. Blasphemy centered on the misuse of the divine name and acts of blasphemy.
2.. Few were allowed to approach the throne of the holy God—not even the archangel Michael was allowed to sit on the right hand of God, so Jesus’s claiming he was about to sit at the right hand of God was blasphemy.
3.. This was not a capital trial but a hearing, so the Sanhedrin did not have to be technically correct.
4.. Sources of the information of the trial was plentiful (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus), so this trial / hearing is not a fiction.
5.. Two levels of blasphemy: Jesus claims to have comprehensive authority from God; and then he claims to be the judge of Jewish leaders (violating Exod. 22:28 on not cursing God’s leaders). This latter claim could be used against Jesus because he could be accused of challenging Rome’s authority.
Source: Grant R. Osborne, Matthew: Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010), p. 999.
In his commentary, Bock (Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. 2. [Baker 1996]), says that in the early second century, Rabbi Akiva was involved in a dispute because he said that David would have a “session” (being seated) at God’s right hand, and other Rabbis said that this notion profaned the shekinah; the idea was considered blasphemy (m. Sanh. 6.4).
For most Jews, the idea of coming directly into God’s presence and sitting with him in constant heavenly session without cultic purification or worship was an insult to God’s uniqueness. It was the essence of blasphemy since a human seated by God diminishes his stature. The dispute with Rabbi Akiva makes this clear, as does the leadership’s response to Jesus. Biblical figures who go into God’s presence are first cleansed (Isa. 6, Ezek. 1). In early rabbinic tradition, only God sits in heaven. Anything else insults his person. … One could stand with him, but not sit with him … Thus, when Jesus says that he can sit at God’s right side, then implications emerge about Jesus’ person. The leadership understands these implications. The defendant claims to be the Judge. (p. 1799)
Then Bock states the irony: “With strong irony, the Jews think that Jesus is on trial, but what they do to him does not matter, since he is the true Judge. The very remarks that the Jews think lower God’s stature, in fact, show how exalted Jesus is” (p. 1799).
The Jerusalem establishment were in the small “bubble” of divine irony. When Jesus ascends and then enacts his ultimate vindication at the destruction of the temple in AD 70, then they still won’t understand. No, this irony does not mean the events never happened. They did; it is not a literary invention contrary to fact. By not explaining himself, Jesus himself is the one who kept the “knowledgeable ones” in the dark.
Let’s shift ground a little and see how Jesus was in the process of more vindication by the power of the Spirit, through his church, which at first lived and preached in Jerusalem in Acts. Peter stood before the Sanhedrin, preaching powerfully. Here is just one sample in Acts 5:17-32 (vv. 30-31 are the targets):
17 At this time, the chief priests and those with him, who were of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with envy 18 and nabbed the apostles and put them in public prison. 19 But at night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison and led them out and said, 20 “Go and steadfastly speak to the people in the temple all the words of this salvation and life!” 21 They obeyed and went to the temple at daybreak. The high priest and those with him arrived and summoned the Council [Sanhedrin] and all elders of the descendants of Israel and sent to the prison to escort them out. 22 But the assistants did not find them in the prison, so they turned back and announced, 23 “We found the jail locked up very securely and the guards standing at the doors, but, opening them, we found no one inside.” 24 As the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard this account, they were perplexed about all of this—what might happen.
25 Someone came in and announced to them, “Amazing! The men whom you put in prison are in the temple standing and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain left with the assistants and led them away without violence, for they feared the people stoning them. 27 Leading them onwards, they stood them right in front of the Council [Sanhedrin]. The high priest examined them, 28 “We ordered you strictly not to teach in this name! And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood on us!” 29 But Peter answered and the apostles replied, “We have to obey God rather than man! 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had done away with by hanging him on wood. 31 It is this man whom God exalted the Overall Ruler and Savior at his right hand, to grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of this storyline and of the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to all who obey him!” (Acts 5:17-32, my tentative translation)
Now Jesus is the one with authority from on high at the right hand of God, just as Ps. 110:1 had predicted. He ascended and was enthroned. And now his church is gradually proclaiming it to Israel and its leaders.
After Stephen said the temple is of no real importance because God does not live in an object made with hands (Acts 7:44-50), much like Jesus’s false accusers emphasized the temple made with hands, Stephen says he saw the exalted Son of Man:
Being full of the Holy Spirit and fixing his gaze on heaven, he [Stephen] saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Look! I see the heavens opening wide and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56, my tentative translation)
“right hand of Power”: Jesus is exalted at God’s right hand, which indicates his power and authority. So Jesus’s profession before the high priest was fulfilled, and Stephen saw it, by God’s will and grace.
So the bottom line for Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus will rise in authority in three short days, and the high priest and Sanhedrin will feel its effects, in his coming in clouds of heaven. Jesus was referring to his ascension and vindication, not his descent and Second Coming, which has not happened yet, for two thousand years (and counting). He was referencing Dan. 7:13-14 and Ps. 110:1 and even quoted from those verses in his reply to Caiaphas. He could not get clearer than that, to tell us what he meant by his “coming.”
How does this post help me understand who Jesus is?
We have learned that Jesus was very clear about what his coming in clouds of heaven meant. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin also knew what he meant, because they caught the references to Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13-14. (It is too bad that Christians don’t know what he meant! Maybe they do now.)
We learned that Jesus is the Son of God and the Anointed One (Messiah or Christ). God sent him into this world to complete his mission, and he did. Therefore, God highly exalted and vindicated him.
1 Tim. 3:16 is considered by many to be an early hymn or at least an early confession of faith:
Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16, NIV)
He was vindicated by the Spirit and was raised up and taken into glory. That is our Lord. It is time to surrender to him today, by saying a simple prayer. “Jesus, I surrender all to you.”