“10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”” – Acts 1:10-11
“[Jesus] whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” – Acts 3:21
Why does it matter that Jesus should return to earth in the same way that He ascended to heaven? What is this “same way” anyway?
Acts 1:9 says Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The angels then appeared to the disciples (seemingly from nowhere) and said Jesus had been taken into heaven.
Even if Jesus did not return to earth on a cloud, it would not affect one iota of His Kingdom, would it? Quite the contrary, the cloud transport seems to matter.
In the Scriptures, clouds have been associated with God’s presence. In Exodus, a brilliant cloud which hovered with the Israelites and rested above the tabernacle was the physical manifestation of God’s presence. In Isaiah, the prophet described the Lord as riding on clouds. In the gospel accounts (e.g. Matthew 17), at the transfiguration, the voice of God boomed from a bright cloud which overshadowed the party.
More significantly, in Daniel 7, the prophet saw a vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.
“13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” – Daniel 7:13-14.
Luke refers to Jesus as the Son of Man who came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus Himself preempted His disciples, and retorted to His accusers, that this prophetic vision of the Son of Man coming on clouds of heaven referred to Him: e.g. Matthew 24:30-31; 26:64.
The apostle Paul would explain later in 1 Thessalonians 4:7 the effect of this on Jesus’ people when He returns.
Right up to this point in Acts, Jesus’ disciples still assumed that He would restore the earthly Kingdom of Israel and would do so at that time now that He had resurrected from death (anyone would have placed their bets on a warrior-king who could resurrect). Maybe they interpreted Daniel’s prophecy as the king of Israel militarily conquering the whole world so that every people and nation would serve him. Well, they were wrong.
By the time the story reached that in Acts 3, the disciples understood Jesus’ ascension and promised return differently. They understood that Jesus will return in due course on the clouds of heaven at “the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago”. They now understood that the prophecy in Daniel 7, among others, was not yet fulfilled, but will be fulfilled at the time appointed by God the Father.
This is important because the part-fulfilled, yet-to-be-fulfilled, prophecy fuels hope for the servants of this eternal King who may, in the meantime, suffer poverty, oppression, and injustice. The prophecy of the eternal King resounds in Psalm 72:
“11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! 12 For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. 13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.” – Psalm 72:11-14
This King is the King of justice and righteousness (Psalm 72:1). The salvation He brings is not merely a salvation from any mundane middle-class existence, but a salvation from injustice, persecution and oppression. The servants of this King during the time of Acts would likely have held on tight to this hope, given the persecution and injustice they would suffer for being servants of Jesus.
And when King Jesus returns, He will return as the Son of Man with “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed”.
How should this matter to us? At whatever generation we live in, we are serving temporal kings and kingdoms. The form of such kingdoms may vary (e.g. feudal, monarchical, tribal, liberal democratic Westphalian nation-state, socialist communitarian). Kingdoms will rise and fall. Kings and queens will come and go. Serve them, we may. Some say we must. Some suffer injustice and oppression under such kingdoms.
Yet, there’s one eternal King and Kingdom which all temporal kings and kingdoms shall serve.
Do we serve this King? Will we be within His Kingdom? Or do we reject Him and choose to be without? Where does our ultimate loyalty lie? How will our allegiance to Him manifest in our service to our temporal kings? How will our servanthood to the eternal King turn our fundamental and quotidian decisions? How do we bring the hope of justice and salvation from oppression to those in need?
Will we be found ready as the good and faithful servant when the eternal King returns on the clouds of heaven?