Responding to the Critics: Keith Mathison on Acts 1:9ff- #1

Responding to the Critics: Keith Mathison on Acts 1:9ff- #1

Keith Mathison  recently (2023) posted a lengthy article written in 2004 on Acts 1:9-11 in an attempt to refute Covenant Eschatology, i.e. Full Preterism. He spends a great deal of ink citing liberal and skeptical scholars, causing one to wonder if it is an attempt to “poison the well” against full preterists, by tacitly connecting preterists with those skeptics.

He also cites a number of preterists who have addressed Acts 1. Interestingly, he does not mention me or any of my works in which I address the text, even though he is familiar with my works. (He has actually been challenged to meet me in formal debate but has consistently rejected – mostly ignored- those invitations).

Mathison strives to establish that the apostles actually saw Jesus ascend, as if this point somehow refutes preterism. It does not. Since I do not dispute that the apostles saw Jesus ascend in the cloud, I will not respond to this aspect of Mathison’s article. The question of course, is what did the angel mean by “in like manner”?

In his writings, Mathison engages repeatedly in the logical fallacy called the Negative Fallacy. Notice Mathison argues that since Acts 1 contains no time indicator such as found in Matthew 10:23 / 16:27-28 / 24:34, etc., that this means Acts 1 cannot be speaking of the same time and events as those texts. In the book, When Shall These Things Be? Mathison argues,

The first thing to be observed when we examine this account is that no reference to time is connected with the prediction of the return of Christ. All that is affirmed is that Jesus will come again in the same manner as he went into heaven. The second thing that must be noted is that Luke does not refer to Jesus’ return as ‘the coming of the Son of Man.

Yet he then also states,

The ascension of Christ described in Acts 1 is probably connected with the coming of the Son of Man that is described in Daniel 7:13-14, since Daniel speaks of a coming of the Son of Man up to the Ancient of Days to receive his kingdom. But the return of Jesus described by the two men in white is not described with the language drawn from Daniel 7. . . Luke has used that language in his account of the Olivet Discourse (see Luke 21:27), so we know that he is familiar with the imagery, but he does not use it here in Acts 1. This means that even if such texts as Matthew 10:23; 16:27-28; and 24:30 refer to something that happened in the first century, we cannot automatically assume that Acts 1 is referring to the same thing.

This is a seriously flawed claim. If, as Mathison claims, Daniel 7 lies behind Acts 1, then it proves that the coming of Acts 1 had to be fulfilled in the days of the fourth empire, i.e. Rome. You cannot admit that Acts 1 is connected to Daniel 7 without thereby delimiting the time of Christ’s parousia to the days of Rome. More specifically, if Acts 1 does, as Mathison posits, echo Daniel 7, then it must be conflated with the other texts promising the coming of the Son of Man in judgment, in the first century and coinciding with the fall of Jerusalem.

My approach in response to Mathison’s objection will be exegetical, based on the context of Acts 1—a context that Mathison, in my view, gives insufficient focus, although he wrote a lot of words about it (his article is 50+ pages long). Let’s begin now with an examination of Acts 1


But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth. (Acts 1:8).

One of the most commonly overlooked elements of Acts 1 is the prophetic background and source. When Jesus told the apostles “you shall be my witnesses” this is a direct citation from Isaiah 43:10-12, (and probably 44:8):

“You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord, “And My servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me. I, only I, am the Lord, And there is no savior besides Me. It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed, And there was no strange god among you; So you are My witnesses,” declares the Lord, “And I am God.”

Isaiah 44:3-8:

“For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring, And My blessing on your descendants; 4 And they will spring up among the grass Like poplars by streams of water. This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’; And that one will call on the name of Jacob; And another will write on his hand, ‘Belonging to the Lord,’ And will give himself Israel’s name with honor. This is what the Lord says, He who is the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of armies: ‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me. Who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it; And, let him confront Me Beginning with My establishing of the ancient nation. Then let them declare to them the things that are coming And the events that are going to take place. Do not tremble and do not be afraid; Have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none.’”

Space limitations prevent an in-depth exegesis of both of these passages, but pay particular attention to some of the critical themes of both passages:

Isaiah 43 is a recognized prophecy of the Second Exodus. The language of verse 2 is very clear:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.

To say that the theme of the Second Exodus permeates the New Testament, and even Acts 1, is an understatement.

Notice that how Isaiah 44 promised that in the time of promised redemption (the time of the gathering of God’s people, 43:5-6), “For I will pour water on the thirsty land And streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring” (v. 3). Likewise, in Acts 1 we find Jesus promising His apostles that as they go witnessing to Him, the Spirit would be poured out: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth.” Thus, as in Isaiah, the witnessing is linked to the reception of the Spirit (see Isaiah 63:11-3 for more on the connection between the Second Exodus and the outpouring of the Spirit).

So, the promise of the Spirit would have been, to the apostles, a powerful echo of God’s promises of the last days redemption. (It is almost certain that they would have been reminded also of Ezekiel 37:12f, the promise of the outpouring of the Spirit to raise Israel from the “grave” of captivity).

Focus now on the emphasis point of the “witnessing” in both chapter 43 and 44. What were the witnesses to bear witness to? Chapter 43: “Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me. I, only I, am the Lord, And there is no savior besides Me.” Chapter 44:6 continues that: “This is what the Lord says, He who is the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of armies: ‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me’”; note verse 8 as well: “And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none.”

In other words, YHVH’s witnesses were to bear witness that He is the true God! That means that in Acts 1 Jesus was sending his apostles out to declare that He is, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” He is God, just as John 1:1-3 and a host of other passages affirm. He is not, from henceforth, to be seen simply as a man who is to one day descend on a literal cumulus cloud.

Interestingly, Gregory Beale misses a key issue. He acknowledges that Acts 1 draws directly on Isaiah 43 & 44, but claims that in those OT passages, “the role [of the witnesses, DKP] is a fairly general one of witness to God, his reality, his power and ability to announce beforehand what he is going to do; in Acts the witness is more specifically to the career of Jesus and in particular to his resurrection.” This is almost diversionary, in my estimation.

Look at the citations from Isaiah given just above. The witnessing to be done in those texts is the witnessing to the reality that, “Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me. I, only I, am the Lord, And there is no savior besides Me.” The testimony certainly would include the goodness and the power of YHVH, but the central, the core issue is, “I am God and there is no other!” And we cannot fail to note that the witnessing about Jesus was the testimony that he was “declared to be the Son of God, with power, by the resurrection out from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Thus, the witnessing was not some “generic” testimony, but the declaration of the Deity of Christ.

While others have taken note of the “cloud motif” as significant, I am unaware of anyone tying this in with Isaiah 43 & 44, and the incredible Christological significance of Jesus’ citation of these texts in saying, “You are my witnesses.” Mathison does not touch on this correlation.

This needs to be fleshed out, by an examination of other passages that link Christ’s coming, His parousia, and Christology. By focusing on Jesus’ ascension in the clouds, (more on this below) along with his declaration “You are my witnesses” I am convinced that we have direct insight into the true nature of, “in like manner” in Acts 1.

Matthew 16:27-28

One of the most commonly cited prophecies of Jesus, ostensibly predicting his return at the end of human history, and thus a direct parallel with Acts 1:9-11, is Matthew 16:27: “The Son of Man will come, in the glory of the Father, with his angels, to reward every man.”

The problem with citing Matthew 16:27 as an “end of human history” event is the fact that it is grammatically linked with verse 28: “Verily I say unto you there are some standing here that shall not taste of death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Mathison actually suggests that v. 27 is the end of time while v. 28 was fulfilled in the first century (2009, 366). This violates the grammar of the text.

The point here is that Jesus said he was going to come “in the glory of the Father.” Here is an excerpt from my book Like Father Like Son, On Clouds of Glory that helps us understand Jesus’ words:

Heinrich Meyers says, “in the glory of the Father” means, “in the same glory as belongs to God.” Floyd Filson says the phrase means that Christ will come “with the splendor that surrounds the Father in heaven. He will appear as divine judge, and act for the Father.” R. T. France also provides insight into the force of Jesus’ words:

In the Old Testament, judgment is God’s prerogative, and the words from Psalms 62:12 (cf. Prov.24:12) which form the second part of this verse are words about God. Taken together with the ascription of a kingdom to the Son of Man in the next verse, this is quite a remarkable assumption of a divine role for Jesus in his future glory. His coming will be in the glory of the Father, in the sense that he shares that glory and authority.

These scholars are saying that Jesus was promising that His coming in judgment was to be His coming as God. He was promising to come in the same manner as His Father had come so many times. It goes without saying that the Father had never come out of heaven literally, visibly, “physically.” In His sovereignty He had employed one nation to judge another and in so doing He was said to come on the clouds, with the angels, in flaming fire, in the destruction of “heaven and earth” (cf. Isa 19; 24; 34; Ezek 30-32, etc.).

So, we have an apparent conflict concerning the nature of Christ’s parousia. Tradition tells us that in Acts 1 the angel promises that Jesus will come again to be revealed as a man. On the other hand, we have Jesus saying His parousia would be of the same nature as the Father’s comings in the Tanakh. To say the least, those are two radically different concepts of the nature of the parousia. Perhaps it is time to rethink the concept of “in like manner” as an expression emphasizing Jesus’ human body.

Matthew 24:30

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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.

This passage is commonly misunderstood, but a proper understanding helps with Acts 1. Mathison recognizes that this text, “is connected in some way to the destruction of Jerusalem.” (2009, 377). He realizes that Jesus was not predicting the appearance of some visible celestial event, but rather: “The Greek text of this verse does not state that the Son of Man will appear in the heavens. Rather, what appears is the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. In other words, the destruction of Jerusalem will be the sign that the Son of Man, who prophesied this destruction, is in heaven.” In other words, the fall of Jerusalem was to be a sign of the enthronement of Christ acting as sovereign, “in the glory of the Father.” As the Father had committed all judgment to the Son, the Son would then act in the same way that the Son had always acted, “so that they may know that I am God” (cf. John 5:19f). We thus have another text that speaks of the purpose and nature of Christ’s judgment coming, which in no way can be defined as the manifestation of Jesus coming out of heaven in a physical body, at a proposed end of time.

1 Timothy 6:14-16:

That you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.

As a direct correlate, take a look at 1 Timothy 1:17: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

There is a great deal of controversy about who Paul was calling, “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever.” Was he speaking of the Father or the Son? Perhaps such questions are out of order.

Is Jesus not King?
Is Jesus not eternal?
Is Jesus not immortal?
Is Jesus not wise?
Is Jesus not worthy of honor and glory for ever and ever?

Objection is immediately raised by those who insist on an end of time physical return of Christ as a man riding on a cloud, that Paul could not refer to Jesus as “invisible.” But this objection assumes a great deal and, I suggest, ignores the proper answers to the questions above? If Paul was in fact speaking of Jesus in this text, then he was indeed affirming that he is invisible.

We have to keep in mind Jesus’ own words in John 5:21-23:

For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, 23 that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him [My emphasis].

Notice carefully that Jesus said the Father had given all judgment authority to Him, that he would judge as He had seen the Father judge, and that the reason and purpose of that was so that “all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” This is a stunningly powerful, Christological claim. As we have seen, it echoes the statements from the Tanakh in which the Father sovereignly acted in judgment, “so that they may know that I am God.” Thus, Jesus was affirming that His judgment actions were to cause men to recognize and honor Him just as they honor the Father, in recognition that He is God. And when we look closer at what Paul says later in this epistle, we find confirmation:

He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. (1 Tim 6:15-16)

Note that the apostle says: “He [Jesus, DKP] will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate . . .” Once again, there is a lot of controversy about this. Was Paul saying that at His epiphany, Jesus would reveal the Father as the one true God, the King of kings? Or was He saying, as do Matthew 16:27-28 & 24:30 do, that his parousia would reveal that HE is truly God? (Paul is not affirming that Jesus is the Father, or that the Father is Jesus. He was affirming, in essence that just as Jesus prayed: “And now, Father, glorify me with the glory that I had with you before the foundation of the world” (John 17:5). Jesus’ parousia would reveal that He was now fully One with the Father (1 Cor 15:28). As we will see below, it was the Lord Jesus who was to be revealed as King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus was not to return to manifest that the Father is Lord, but that HE is King of kings!

Titus 2:12-13:

Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

In the Greek, “the great God and savior” are both governed by the same article. According to the Granville Sharp Rule of grammar this means that, “they therefore refer to the same person.” In other words, Paul was affirming, very powerfully, that at His epiphany, Jesus would be revealed as God. Unfortunately, some translations somewhat mute this point.

The majority of translations render this to have Paul say they were looking for the “glorious appearing of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” This means Paul was identifying Jesus as “the great God” who was to be manifested at the parousia. So, as the “great God” who was to “appear,” as He Himself said, “in the glory of the Father” (Matt 16:27) and be manifested as God through the events of the judgment on Jerusalem (Matt 24:30), are we to seriously suppose that Paul—or the angel in Acts 1—had in mind Jesus reappearing as a man, in the body that was “made a little lower than the angels”? How would such an appearing manifest him as “the Great God”? Jesus was very clear that it was His coming in judgment as the Father had come many times that was the manifestation of His Deity, not His physical body.

To put this another way, when attention is focused on the “tissue issue” of the physical body of Jesus in the term “in like manner” this is a diversion to the key point: Jesus enthroned in the heavens. The promise of His return was the promise that He would “come” as the Father had come, to judge as the Father had judged, to be revealed as King of kings and Lord of lords. The nature of the body of Jesus is not the focus, just as the nature of the “form of God” was never the focus in the many Days of the Lord in the Tanakh. The revelation of Jesus as God is the focus.

Revelation 1:12-16

Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.

A great deal could be said of this passage but since I want to look at Revelation 19, I will forego a lengthy discussion of this text.

John’s vision of Christ certainly raises questions about the nature of “in like manner” of Acts 1, since John is seeing the vision of Christ on the Day of the Lord (1:10). It is clear that he is seeing Jesus as “one like the Son of Man,” a direct echo of Daniel 7:13f. Is the description of Jesus given by John a description of Jesus in his “body of flesh and blood,” fitting the traditional claims about Acts 1, or is the description radically different from that? Was he seeing Jesus manifested as God, or as man? The identity that Jesus Himself gave is definitive: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

These terms are taken directly from the Tanakh and the self-descriptions of the Father (Isaiah 43-46). Again, Jesus is not claiming to be the Father, but to be one with the Father).

Revelation 19:11-16

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

Remember, Paul said in his epistle to Timothy (a text normally assigned to the “end of time”) that at His epiphany, Jesus would show who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Here, in Revelation, it is Jesus being manifested as King of kings! And that Revelation / epiphany is at the judgment of Babylon, the city “where the Lord was crucified” (Rev 11:8).

Revelation 19 is an expanded look at Revelation 1:12-16. This passage elucidates Matthew 16:27f / Matthew 24:30 / 1 Timothy 6. It is Christ coming in judgment, manifested as the “first and the last,” “the pantokrator” (the Almighty of chapter 1), the Alpha and Omega, i.e., “the beginning and the end”—the King of kings! It is safe to say that this vision of Christ’s return bears no visual similarity to Mathison’s proposed meaning of “in like manner.”

All of the evidence adduced above proves that Christ’s parousia was not to manifest Him again as a biological man. His Incarnation proved that “God became flesh and dwelt among men.” It proved that He truly was God in the flesh. His parousia on the other hand, was to reveal Him, not as a man, but as God. This understanding, it seems to me, forces us, it seems to me, to re-examine the presuppositions underlying “in like manner” as proposed by Mathison and the traditional church.

We will look closer at those presuppositions and errors in Mathison’s article in our next installment, so stay tuned.