But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken; and then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with much power and glory.
According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that, as the apocalyptic storyline reaches its climax and the lights start going out over Jerusalem, “they” will see the Son of man coming in clouds (Mk. 13:24-26). But who—or what—are “they”? In A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives David Neville offers an interesting line of interpretation that has not often been considered.
Who or what will see?
The usual assumption is that “they will see” (opsontai) is an “impersonal plural”, meaning “people will see”, more or less equivalent to the passive: “the Son of man will be seen”. Alternatively—and more specifically—the reference could be to the “false messiahs and false prophets” who will attempt to lead astray the elect in 13:22, or it may anticipate ‘Jesus’ reply to Caiaphas and those who gathered to find evidence against him (Mk. 14:62): “you will see… the ‘son of man’”.1 Morna Hooker thinks that the reference is to the elect who have survived the tribulation, but we might then have expected “you will see” (cf. 13:29).2 In any case, the implication is that people on earth will see the Son of man coming to earth. Neville cites Eddie Adams to this effect:
Although the referent of ‘they will see’ is not made explicit, it does suggest an earthly vantage point, and thus a descent to earth, not an ascent to heaven.
He maintains, however, that the “obvious referent” of “they will see” is the “constellation of heavenly powers”, whose shaking accompanies the cosmic collapse: the powers will be shake, and then they will see….
The only reason for not accepting these heavenly powers as those who will see the Son of humanity’s coming in clouds is ideological, not grammatical. Most people today do not think of there being animate entities in the heavens or, if we do, we hardly imagine them to possess powers of perception. But Mark inhabited a different world with a different cosmology, and in his world the heavens were populated with animate powers. (68)
(Actually, many people today do think that there are unidentified “animate entities” in the heavens, with unearthly powers of perception… but that’s another story.)
If it is the powers in the heavens which see the “coming” of the Son of man, it can then be argued that this is not a coming to earth but, as in Daniel 7:13, a coming to the throne of God in heaven. The Son of man would then send out the angels from heaven to gather the elect.
One immediate argument against this is that Matthew and Luke more or less resolve the grammatical ambiguity in favour of people on earth:
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)
…people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Lk. 21:26–27)
This observation carries little weight for Neville because his general thesis is that Matthew (in particular) has added a retribution theme that is not found in Mark’s eschatology. Mark’s Jesus is much more “peaceable” than Matthew’s.
Perhaps more pertinent, however, is the fact that this is not the first indeterminate third person verb in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. Earlier we had: “they will deliver you over to councils”, “when they bring you to trial” (13:9, 11). This “they” is to be identified with those people who will turn against family members:
…brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mk. 13:12–13)
The topos of familial conflict at a time of eschatological crisis for Israel is taken from Micah:
…the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house. But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. (Mic. 7:5–7)
In this context, “they” are clearly the unrighteous and stiff-necked in Israel, from whom the disciples will eventually be saved if they endure to the end of the imminent period of tribulation. They are some way back in the narrative, but it makes very good sense to suppose that the “they” who will see the vindication of the Son of man are the “they” who persecuted his followers—better sense, I think, in the context of the whole discourse, than making heavenly powers the witnesses of this event. Evans’ suggestion that Caiaphas and his colleagues are in view seems less likely but is consistent with this understanding.
Neville’s suggestion, however, that Mark describes a coming to the throne of God rather than a coming to earth is worth considering a little further.
The first point I would make is that the judgment scene in Daniel 7 takes place on earth. Wheeled thrones have to be set in place precisely because the court is established on earth and not in heaven (7:9). God has come to judge earthly kingdoms: on the one hand, the ferocious empire represented by the fourth beast is destroyed; on the other, it is the “people of the saints of the Most High” who are brought to the throne of God to be vindicated and given power and authority to rule over the nations.
The beastly empire does not feature in Jesus’ account—he does not make use of the full narrative potential of Daniel’s vision; and he identifies himself with the Son of man figure who embodies the fate of the suffering saints of the Most High. Jesus does not press the political dimension of Daniel’s vision because his focus is initially on his own vindication, as the one raised to the right hand of the Father. So this coming of the Son of man could be taking place in heaven.
The real problem for Neville’s argument, however, is that Jesus speaks of the Son of man coming with much power and glory. Authority, glory and kingdom are given to the Son of man when he comes in the first instance to the throne of God (Dan. 7:14 LXX)—he doesn’t come in possession of them. So it appears that in Mark 13:26 Son of man comes with the power and glory that he has already received from God, and on the strength of that authority to judge and rule he will deliver his followers from the persecutors described in Mark 13:9-14.
That strongly suggests a descent motif: Jesus as the Son of man who has received glory and power will come eventually to deliver his followers from their enemies—to include them in the narrative of his own suffering and vindication. But the narrative is centred on the crisis of first century Israel. It is those who oppose the disciples in the period of turmoil leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple who will “see” the fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy of vindication.