9 As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. 10 A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened... 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 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. (Dan 7:9-14)
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus referred to Himself as "the son of man." The phrase is derived from the above text from Daniel, called the Son of Man Prophecy. The context of Daniel is an apocalyptic vision of four beasts coming out of the sea, each representing one of four empires to come, who would dominate the Mediterranean world; they were ultimately subdued by the Church, which is the kingdom mentioned that is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away.
In our text, we first meet "one that was an ancient of days" whose "raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool." He sat on a throne that was "fiery flames" and thousands of thousands served him. This is understood to be God and specifically God the Father. The myriads who serve Him are the angels and the fiery throne represents the Father's spiritual authority. (For the ancients, fire was a good analogy of spirit, as it seemed to have no matter and all it touched became fire like itself.)
Next we meet "one like a son of man" who comes on a cloud before the Ancient of Days. He is 'given' dominion and glory and kingdom. This phrase, 'one like a son of man,' has three words that we should consider. First is man, that is this person is a man, a human. Second is the qualifying word like, that is, the person is not simply a man, but like a man. Here we have an image of a person that is a man, yet somehow something different. Of course this is a prophecy of Christ, who was both man and God in one person. Third is the word son, which indicates that sonship is an important or even essential characteristic of this person. Again, we understand this person is Christ, the Son of God.
Of great interest to us is the cloud. Throughout the Old Testament, a cloud is symbolic of God; Christians recognize this symbol of God to specifically represent the Holy Spirit. It was such a Cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness for forty years; when the Cloud stopped, Israel stopped and made camp. When the Tabernacle was set up during such an encampment, the cloud would enter into it, into the Holy of Holies where He rested on the Ark of the Covenant as on a throne. So this continued for centuries where this Glory Cloud (in Hebrew: Shekinah) was the visible presence of God in the Holy of Holies. In this text, then, we see an image of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The son of man is given - by God the Father - dominion, that is, authority. This authority is qualified further to include all peoples and its duration is forever. Whatever authority is of God is granted to the Son. What is this authority? To understand, we turn to the fulfillment of this prophecy in Matthew's Gospel:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mt 28:16-20)
The common understanding of this Gospel passage at the very end of Matthew is that this mountain is Olivet, per Luke's Gospel, where Jesus ascended into heaven. That "they worshipped him" implies they now saw Jesus in glory as He ascended into heaven. Here Jesus told them that, "all authority in heaven and on earth has been 'given'" to Him. Here we see the fulfillment of the son of man prophecy, where the Father gave dominion (authority) to Jesus, the son of man. This authority is then described in Matthew's text as the acts of baptizing and teaching. It is through these two acts of handing on the Faith and administering the Sacraments, that we receive the life of God. In other words, God's authority is His sharing His life with us. If we consider the English word, authority, we note the root is author, which refers to the creative act of writing. An author is one who creates; authority is the creative act. God is the Author of Life and the life He shares is His own; in this He creates, in this He has authority. This authority is given to the Son who in turn delegates it to the Apostles at the Ascension, naming the Trinity by name even as Daniel's prophecy conjured images of the Trinity.
This image of God's authority is in stark contrast to the secular understanding, where authority is a domination of wills as in political authority. Nothing is created, nothing is fruitful; it is nothing more than a tearing down of others. In fact, political authority is the abuse of authority, not the use. Were political leaders truly authoritative, true authors, they would look after their people as parents look after their children, with self-sacrificing love. Further, our Christian image of authority must be applied to those to whom it was given: the Apostles and their successors. The litmus test of a faithful bishop or priest is the degree to which they carry out Christ's mission of handing on the Faith and of administering the sacraments via the Divine Liturgy. Theirs’ is not a secular authority of organizational leadership or of dominating the wills of their flocks; it is the handing on of the Life of God, of grace. This and only this is the divine authority.
His Kingship is spiritual and concerned with spiritual things… The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross. (Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas, 1925)
We should not leave this prophetic text without comparing it to another NT passage regarding the Transfiguration on the Mount.
1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." 5 He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." (Mt 17:1-5)
Here we see Jesus in glory, the same glory as at the Ascension, when He took His place at the right hand of the Father. We can see elements common to both this text and Daniel’s prophecy. There is in both the bright whiteness of the head and raiment. In one is the fiery throne, in the other mention of the shining sun. Both mention a cloud, which we understand to represent the Holy Spirit. In this Gospel text, the voice is, of course, that of the Father, giving us the three Persons of Trinity, as Daniel did as well. Of special interest is the appearance here of Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, those two pillars of the OT religion. On the mount of the Ascension, these two pillars were replaced with the new covenant pillars of the Faith and the Sacraments, the authority of God now shared with humanity.
After this manifestation of the transfigured Jesus ended, He told the three Apostles not to tell anyone what they saw, “until the son of man is raised from the dead.” (Mt 17:9) Here Jesus tied the transfiguration images to the son of man prophecy. Throughout the Gospels Jesus employs this “son of man” phrase many times. In every case, the reader should call to mind the context of Daniel’s prophecy and apply it to the situation at hand, with an understanding of divine authority and the mission of the Church.