Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Coming On the Clouds of Heaven:

A Reply to Shabir Ally’s
Execrable Blasphemies and Calumnies
Against the Son of Man

Part IIb

By Anthony Rogers

[Continued from Part IIa]

Some of Those Standing Here

It is not only in the Olivet Discourse that Jesus predicts what was going to happen in that generation. He does so on many occasions both before and after.

For example, in all three of the synoptic Gospels Jesus teaches that He is going to come and usher in the kingdom.

And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” And Jesus was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Mark 8:31-9:1

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 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 of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16:21-28

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:22-27

Interpreters have sought various ways to explain these verses. Some have said they refer to Christ’s transfiguration that takes place several days later. Others have said they refer to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Some have even tried to make them refer to events far off in the future. The best explanation is that which sees them referring to the events of A.D. 70. The reasoning against the former options and for the latter one is simple: To say, as Jesus did, that some would be alive to witness the fulfillment of His words, which is just to say that most who heard Him would be dead by that time, means what He was speaking about had to be near enough in the future that some would still be alive, and far enough in the future that most would be dead. The idea that most would be dead and only some would be alive a mere six days later at the time of the transfiguration, or even several months in the case of Pentecost, simply does not work. What does work is the judgment that fell on Jerusalem in A.D. 70 at the end of that generation.

In fact, while we know that most of the apostles and many of the wider group of disciples were dead by the time of Jerusalem’s destruction, some of whom died in the persecutions and tribulation that preceded it, we also know that some were still alive. A particularly relevant example presents itself in the case of the apostle John, about whom it is written:

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:15-24)

We know from history that Peter did in fact die before the conflagration of Jerusalem, just as Jesus said, and that the apostle John lived through these events, as Jesus tantalizingly suggested, dying many years later, contrary to what some of the brethren understood from Jesus’ words.

John Gill, a renowned Biblical scholar and commentator of centuries past, in his commentary on Matthew 24:34, nicely sums up much of what has already been said:

Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, ... Not the generation of men in general; as if the sense was, that mankind should not cease, until the accomplishment of these things; nor the generation, or people of the Jews, who should continue to be a people, until all were fulfilled; nor the generation of Christians; as if the meaning was, that there should be always a set of Christians, or believers in Christ in the world, until all these events came to pass; but it respects that present age, or generation of men then living in it; and the sense is, that all the men of that age should not die, but some should live till all these things were fulfilled; see Matthew 16:28 as many did, and as there is reason to believe they might, and must, since all these things had their accomplishment, in and about forty years after this: and certain it is, that John, one of the disciples of Christ, outlived the time by many years; and, as Dr. Lightfoot observes, many of the Jewish doctors now living, when Christ spoke these words, lived until the city was destroyed; as Rabban Simeon, who perished with it, R. Jochanan ben Zaccai, who outlived it, R. Zadoch, R. Ishmael, and others: this is a full and clear proof, that not anything that is said before, relates to the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and end of the world; but that all belong to the coming of the son of man, in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Jewish state. (John Gill, Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, Online Source) (Emphasis mine)

You Will See

Another passage pertinent to a first century expectation in the Synoptic Gospels relates the words Christ spoke to the high priest and the Sanhedrin:

The high priest stood up and came forward and questioned Jesus, saying, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and YOU shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death. Mark 14:60-64

The high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” 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 Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter YOU will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered, “He deserves death!” Matthew 26:62-66

When it was day, the Council of elders of the people assembled, both chief priests and scribes, and they led Him away to their council chamber, saying, “If You are the Christ, tell us.” But He said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask a question, you will not answer. But from now on THE SON OF MAN WILL BE SEATED AT THE RIGHT HAND of the power OF GOD.” And they all said, “Are You the Son of God, then?” And He said to them, “Yes, I am.” Then they said, “What further need do we have of testimony? For we have heard it ourselves from His own mouth.” Luke 22:67-71

According to these passages, in the face of being condemned to death by the rulers of this age, Jesus, forthrightly declaring Himself to be the Son of Man, said in effect that their judgment would not be final; it would be reversed by God Himself, for He, the Son of Man, would be exalted above all rule and authority, even to the right hand of power. And in the exercise of the authority that He would wield from that position the very ones who condemned Him to death would see Him publicly vindicated; indeed, they would see Him coming on the clouds of heaven against them. As Biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim, a leading authority in his day on ancient Judaism, put it:

… His [i.e. Jesus – AR] assertion of what He was, was conjoined with that of what God would show Him to be, in His resurrection and Sitting at the Right Hand of the Father, and of what they also would see, when He would come in those clouds of heaven that would break over their city and polity in the final storm of judgment. (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1997), p. 861.)

The words that Jesus spoke to describe Himself here are obviously derived from the prophet Daniel, who wrote:

I kept looking in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
and He came up to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before Him.
and to Him was given dominion,
glory and a kingdom,
that all the peoples, nations and men of every language
might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
which will not pass away;
and His kingdom is one
which will not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

New Testament scholar R. T. France makes the obvious connection of Jesus words with the prophecy of Daniel, and the equally obvious connection between Christ’s words spoken to the Sanhedrin and their relevance to that generation:

Jesus is using Daniel 7:13 as a prediction of that authority which he exercised when in AD 70 the Jewish nation and its leaders, who had condemned him, were overthrown, and Jesus was vindicated as the recipient of all power from the Ancient of Days. ... Jesus, exalted after his death and resurrection to receive his everlasting dominion, will display it within the generation ... by an act of judgment on the nation and capital of the authorities who presumed to judge him. Then they will see ... for themselves that their time of power is finished, and it is to him that God has given all power in heaven and earth.” (R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1971; Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1982), p. 236.)

Dr. Ken Gentry, Jr., brings out the redemptive-historical significance of this strand of New Testament teaching:

Jesus teaches the significance of Jerusalem’s judgment for establishing his kingdom: “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power: (Mark 9:1). Though from A.D. 30 to 70 two redemptive eras overlap, Christ’s judgment of the first century Jews and the destruction of the temple system dramatically secured the kingdom (Rev. 19:6) and vindicated the universal church’s message (19:9-10) in festal celebration….

The events of A.D. 70 vindicated Christianity against Judaism—as many early church fathers proclaimed. Pointing to A.D. 70 the Lord warned the Sanhedrin about to judge him: “I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).

The New Testament records the gradual establishment of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 13:31-33; Mark 4:26-29): from its ministerial announcement (Matt. 12:28; Mark 1:15) to its legal securing at the cross (Matt. 28:18; Rom. 1:3-4; Phil. 2:1-11; Col. 1:13; 2:14-15) to its public vindication in Israel’s overthrow (Matt. 23:32-24:21; Gal. 4:21-31; 1 Thess. 2:16; Rev. 6-19). God’s removal of the temple system—physically breaking down the “dividing wall of hostility” legally broken in Christ (Eph. 2:14)—conclusively ended the early Zionistic tendencies of many first-century Christians (e.g., Acts 11:1-3; 15:1; Rom. 14:1-8; Gal. 1-5; Col. 2:16; Tit. 3:9) and established Christianity as a separate religion in its own right (this is why Jesus likens the great tribulation to “birth pains,” Matt. 24:8). (Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “A Preterist View of Revelation,” in C. Marvin Pate, Gen. Ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: ZondrvanPublishingHouse, 1998), p. 79-80)

Preliminary Conclusion

Since the first century expectation of these things is not a point of contention with Ally, the following lengthy remarks from Eusebius, the father of Church history, joined with the voices of other Christian worthies such as those that have been quoted in this paper (e.g. John Gill, J. A. Alexander, Alfred Edersheim, F. F. Bruce, et. al.), should suffice to quell any charge of novelty on our part, as one ill-informed Muslim had the temerity to imply in his review of Ally’s Debate with White (*), and should also aptly serve as an anticipation of what will be argued in the sequel.

In his book on church history, Eusebius wrote:

Chapter 5

1. After Nero had held the power thirteen years, and Galba and Otho had ruled a year and six months, Vespasian, who had become distinguished in the campaigns against the Jews, was proclaimed sovereign in Judea and received the title of Emperor from the armies there. Setting out immediately, therefore, for Rome, he entrusted the conduct of the war against the Jews to his son Titus.

2. For the Jews after the ascension of our Saviour, in addition to their crime against him, had been devising as many plots as they could against his apostles. First Stephen was stoned to death by them, and after him James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John, was beheaded, and finally James, the first that had obtained the episcopal seat in Jerusalem after the ascension of our Saviour, died in the manner already described. But the rest of the apostles, who had been incessantly plotted against with a view to their destruction, and had been driven out of the land of Judea, went unto all nations to preach the Gospel, relying upon the power of Christ, who had said to them, “Go ye and make disciples of all the nations in my name.”

3. But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed THAT GENERATION of impious men.

4. But the number of calamities which everywhere fell upon the nation at that time; the extreme misfortunes to which the inhabitants of Judea were especially subjected, the thousands of men, as well as women and children, that perished by the sword, by famine, and by other forms of death innumerable,—all these things, as well as the many great sieges which were carried on against the cities of Judea, and the excessive sufferings endured by those that fled to Jerusalem itself, as to a city of perfect safety, and finally the general course of the whole war, as well as its particular occurrences in detail, and how at last the abomination of desolation, proclaimed by the prophets, stood in the very temple of God, so celebrated of old, the temple which was now awaiting its total and final destruction by fire,—all these things any one that wishes may find accurately described in the history written by Josephus.

5. But it is necessary to state that this writer records that the multitude of those who were assembled from all Judea at the time of the Passover, to the number of three million souls, were shut up in Jerusalem “as in a prison,” to use his own words.

6. For it was right that in the very days in which they had inflicted suffering upon the Saviour and the Benefactor of all, the Christ of God, that in those days, shut up “as in a prison,” they should meet with destruction at the hands of divine justice.

Chapter 7

1. It is fitting to add to these accounts the true prediction of our Saviour in which he foretold these very events.

2. His words are as follows: “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day. For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.”

3. The historian, reckoning the whole number of the slain, says that eleven hundred thousand persons perished by famine and sword, and that the rest of the rioters and robbers, being betrayed by each other after the taking of the city, were slain. But the tallest of the youths and those that were distinguished for beauty were preserved for the triumph. Of the rest of the multitude, those that were over seventeen years of age were sent as prisoners to labor in the works of Egypt, while still more were scattered through the provinces to meet their death in the theaters by the sword and by beasts. Those under seventeen years of age were carried away to be sold as slaves, and of these alone the number reached ninety thousand.

4. These things took place in this manner in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, in accordance with the prophecies of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who by divine power saw them beforehand as if they were already present, and wept and mourned according to the statement of the holy evangelists, who give the very words which he uttered, when, as if addressing Jerusalem herself, he said:

5. “If thou hadst known, even thou, in this day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a rampart about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee and thy children even with the ground.”

6. And then, as if speaking concerning the people, he says, “For there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” And again: “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed by armies then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.”

7. If any one compares the words of our Saviour with the other accounts of the historian concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Saviour were truly divine and marvellously strange.

8. Concerning those calamities, then, that befell the whole Jewish nation after the Saviour’s passion and after the words which the multitude of the Jews uttered, when they begged the release of the robber and murderer, but besought that the Prince of Life should be taken from their midst, it is not necessary to add anything to the account of the historian.

9. But it may be proper to mention also those events which exhibited the graciousness of that all-good Providence which held back their destruction full forty years after their crime against Christ,—during which time many of the apostles and disciples, and James himself the first bishop there, the one who is called the brother of the Lord, were still alive, and dwelling in Jerusalem itself, remained the surest bulwark of the place. Divine Providence thus still proved itself long-suffering toward them in order to see whether by repentance for what they had done they might obtain pardon and salvation; and in addition to such long-suffering, Providence also furnished wonderful signs of the things which were about to happen to them if they did not repent.

10. Since these matters have been thought worthy of mention by the historian already cited [i.e. Josephus], we cannot do better than to recount them for the benefit of the readers of this work.

Chapter 8

1. Taking, then, the work of this author, read what he records in the sixth book of his History. His words are as follows: “Thus were the miserable people won over at this time by the impostors and false prophets; but they did not heed nor give credit to the visions and signs that foretold the approaching desolation. On the contrary, as if struck by lightning, and as if possessing neither eyes nor understanding, they slighted the proclamations of God.

2. At one time a star, in form like a sword, stood over the city, and a comet, which lasted for a whole year; and again before the revolt and before the disturbances that led to the war, when the people were gathered for the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth of the month Xanthicus, at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone about the altar and the temple that it seemed to be bright day; and this continued for half an hour. This seemed to the unskillful a good sign, but was interpreted by the sacred scribes as portending those events which very soon took place.

3. And at the same feast a cow, led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple.

4. And the eastern gate of the inner temple, which was of bronze and very massive, and which at evening was closed with difficulty by twenty men, and rested upon iron-bound beams, and had bars sunk deep in the ground, was seen at the sixth hour of the night to open of itself.

5. And not many days after the feast, on the twenty-first of the month Artemisium, a certain marvelous vision was seen which passes belief. The prodigy might seem fabulous were it not related by those who saw it, and were not the calamities which followed deserving of such signs. For before the setting of the sun chariots and armed troops were seen throughout the whole region IN MID-AIR, WHEELING THROUGH THE CLOUDS and encircling the cities.

6. And at the feast which is called Pentecost, when the priests entered the temple at night, as was their custom, to perform the services, they said that at first they perceived a movement and a noise, and afterward a voice as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us go hence.’

7. But what follows is still more terrible; for a certain Jesus, the son of Ananias, a common countryman, four years before the war, when the city was particularly prosperous and peaceful, came to the feast, at which it was customary for all to make tents at the temple to the honor of God, and suddenly began to cry out: ‘A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the temple, a voice against bridegrooms and brides, a voice against all the people.’ Day and night he went through all the alleys crying thus.

8. But certain of the more distinguished citizens, vexed at the ominous cry, seized the man and beat him with many stripes. But without uttering a word in his own behalf, or saying anything in particular to those that were present, he continued to cry out in the same words as before.

9. And the rulers, thinking, as was true, that the man was moved by a higher power, brought him before the Roman governor. And then, though he was scourged to the bone, he neither made supplication nor shed tears, but, changing his voice to the most lamentable tone possible, he answered each stroke with the words, ‘Woe, woe unto Jerusalem.’”

10. The same historian records another fact still more wonderful than this. He says that a certain oracle was found in their sacred writings which declared that at that time a certain person should go forth from their country to rule the world. He himself [i.e. Josephus] understood that this was fulfilled in Vespasian.

11. But Vespasian did not rule the whole world, but only that part of it which was subject to the Romans. With better right could it be applied to Christ; to whom it was said by the Father, “Ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for thy possession.” At that very time, indeed, the voice of his holy apostles “went throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Ch. 5, 7, 8. Online Source.) (Emphasis mine)

With this in view, it only remains for it to be shown that Christ’s words in the Olivet discourse, some of which has already been anticipated in a measure in what has gone before, clearly have the destruction of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple rather than the end of the world as their focus, and that the language that Jesus employed to convey all of this, complete with its references to no stone being left on top of another, the stars falling from the sky, and of His coming on the clouds of heaven, were perfectly fulfilled in the events leading up to and that culminated in the destruction of the Temple.

[Continue to Part IIIa]