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In our first article, we laid out the case that when Jesus said that all the things he predicted in Matthew 24 would take place before “this generation” passed away, he meant it for the people living in his day. We saw that the end he predicted was not the end of the world, but rather the end of the Jewish age. In our third article, we looked at some of the signs of the end – wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution – and saw from the testimony of history that these things indeed took place in the first century leading up to Jerusalem’s fall in 70 AD. Our previous article revealed the fulfillment of the Abomination of Desolation and Great Tribulation in the Roman siege on the city and the horrors which took place.
In this article, we will examine a section of this text that seems to reference the end of the physical universe to many modern readers. Surely this hasn’t been fulfilled already – has it? We’ll also look at what was meant by the sign of the Son of Man and the angels gathering of the elect.
Let’s start by reading the text:
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 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. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
What about the language of the dimming out of the sun and moon, and stars falling from heaven? It sounds like the apocalypse and end of the world for sure! Popular writings and media like the Left Behind series envision a cataclysmic deconstruction of the physical elements. I remember, when I was a boy, hearing Christians use this passage to say that the end of the world will be a total destruction and recreation from scratch of the physical universe.
Is this really what this means?
Cosmic Deconstruction Language (v.29)
Commentator R.T. France gives a good admonition to us in his commentary on Matthew. He says,
“At this point I would simply urge the reader to refrain from prejudging the issue simply because this exegesis conflicts with the traditional interpretation, and to try to hear Jesus’ words as they would have been heard by his Jewish disciples as they listened to this answer to their double question, as yet uninfluenced by a tradition which conditions Christian readers now to assume that “the stars falling from heaven” and “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” can only refer to the end of the world and the parousia.” (France, NICNT: Matthew, 893)
We need to hear these words as the Jews of the time would hear it by comparing it with OT language. In scripture, the language of “sun, moon and stars” is rooted in Genesis 1:14-16 where these are elements that “govern” the times and seasons. Later, these heavenly lights are used as metaphors to speak of earthly authorities and governors. Thus, when God comes against earthly authorities in judgment, the OT prophets use what is known as “cosmic deconstruction language”. It is very similar to the collapsing-universe terminology found in our Matthew 24. Thus, Jesus, in using this sort of language in Matthew 24:29 is drawing on familiar OT texts. If we were familiar with our OT, as the Jews of his day were, we would pick up on this. In fact, Jesus quotes from some of these texts almost verbatim. Here are a few examples to illustrate.
Prophesying the fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 BC, Isaiah wrote:
Behold, the Day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth with their light; The sun will be dark when it rises, And the moon will not shed its light. (Isa. 13:9–10)
When Babylon fell, the stars, moon and sun did not literally go dark. Isaiah later prophesied the fall of Edom in terms of de-creation:
And all the host of heaven will wear away, And the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; All their hosts will also wither away As a leaf withers from the vine, Or as one withers from the fig tree. (Isa. 34:4)
When Edom fell the sky was not literally rolled up like a scroll. This prophetic language was meant to vividly communicate the calamity of their judgment. Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Amos, foretold the doom of Samaria (722 B.c.) in very much the same way:
“And it will come about in that day,” Declares the Lord God, “That I shall make the sun go down at noon And make the earth dark in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9)
Yet, another example is from the prophet Ezekiel, who predicted the destruction of Egypt. God said this through Ezekiel:
“And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens, and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, And the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you And will set darkness on your land,” Declares the Lord God. (Ezek. 32:7–8)
The heavenly lights did not literally go out when Egypt was destroyed. This is a prophetic metaphor – a way of saying that God was going to take their lights out.
You can also see similar cosmic deconstruction language in prophecies concerning the fall of national leaders in Jeremiah 4:1-6, 23-28 concerning Judah, Joel 3:15-16 concerning the nations, and Nahum 1:1-5 concerning Nineveh. As David Chilton rightly notes:
“It must be stressed that none of these events literally took place. God did not intend anyone to place a literalist construction on these statements. Poetically, however, all these things did happen: as far as these wicked nations were concerned, “the lights went out.”” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p.95)
R.T. France in his commentary on Matthew similarly notes that,
“The ‘cosmic’ language of 24:29 is drawn directly from OT prophetic passages where it functions not to predict the physical dissolution of the universe but as a symbolic representation of catastrophic political changes within history.” (France, Matthew, 891)
Thus, here in Matthew 24, Jesus Christ – Yahweh incarnate – is simply using the same kind of language He used through the OT prophets to foretell of the judgment upon the city and its leaders. Instead of OT prophets saying it, it is coming direct from the lips of Yahweh as he pronounces judgment on unfaithful Israel who rejected Him.
The Sign of the Son of Man in Heaven (v.30)
What is the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven?
Here again, we must pay attention to what the original Greek actually meant to communicate, because some of our English translations can be unclear. Commentator R.C.H. Lenski points out,
“In ‘the sign of the Son of man’ the genitive is subjective: the sign by which he shows his presence; not objective: the sign which points to him as being about to come.” (Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, p. 948)
Thus, what is in view here in this clause is the Son of Man’s presence or location not His being about to come.
Furthermore, many people read this verse and assume that it is the sign that is in the sky. The ESV and some other translations read, “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man…” which makes it seem like the sign is what is in heaven. However, when we look at the Greek text, a word-for-word translation would actually read, “then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven…” Notice that the location is heaven, and that it is not the sign that is in heaven but rather the Son of Man who is in heaven. The sign simply testifies to the fact that He is in heaven.
This was a fulfillment of Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man receiving power and dominion in Daniel 7. Many people think that the “coming on the clouds” of the Son of Man is Jesus coming down to earth again at his Final Coming. However, this is not what it is. In Daniel 7, the Son of Man coming on the clouds was not him coming down to earth, but rather when he goes up to approach the Ancient of Days, God the Father in heaven, to receive his kingdom. As France comments,
“The language of 24:30 is closely modeled on that of Dan 7:13–14, where (as we have seen above in relation to 10:23) the “coming (not parousia) of the Son of Man” into the presence of God (not to the earth) speaks of vindication and enthronement. We shall see very similar language used by Jesus in 26:64 with reference to what his judges will be able to see “from now on” (not in the indefinite future), and the close linking of such language with a specific time-scale within the living generation (which we have noted already at 10:23 and 16:28) is confirmed also in this context by the explicit “this generation” prediction in 24:34.” (France, Matthew, 891)
“The point is simply that this great judgment upon Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, will be the sign that Jesus Christ is enthroned in heaven at the Father’s right hand, ruling over the nations and bringing vengeance upon His enemies.” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p.96)
The fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction over Jerusalem and the Temple is the sign that the Son of Man whom these unfaithful Jews had crucified was no longer a defeated ‘messianic pretender’ but now was risen and in heaven exercising power and judgment. This causes the Jewish tribes of the land (not earth) to mourn. Dr. Gentry comments that,
“Through these events the Jews were to “see” the Son of Man in His judgment-coming in terrifying cloud-glory: clouds are symbols of divine majesty often entailing stormy destruction (Isa. 19:1; cf. Psa. 18:10-14; Lam. 2:1; Ezek. 30:3-5). The members of the Sanhedrin and others would experience such in their life times (Matt. 26:64; Mark 9:1; cf. Rev. 1:7 with Rev. 1:1, 3).” (Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, p. 348)
All the Tribes of the Land (v.30)
Some modern interpreters try to argue that this passage speaks of a time when the whole globe will see Jesus coming in glory on the clouds. However, the word translated here as “earth” is probably better rendered as “land” – referring to the local region of Jerusalem. This is evident from the context,
“But the scene of the “great tribulation” is undeniably Jerusalem and Judea (vv. 15, 16); so that no break in the subject of the discourse is allowable. Again, in ver. 30, we read that “all the tribes of the land [pasai ai phulai tēs ges] shall mourn,” referring evidently to the population of the land of Judea; and nothing can be more forced and unnatural than to make it include, as [John Peter] Lange does, “all the races and peoples” of the globe. The restricted sense of the word ge[= land] in the New Testament is common; and when connected, as it is here, with the word “tribes” [phulai], its limitation to the land of Israel is obvious.” (J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia)
This passage is also a fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10ff,
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves…
This passage is also quoted again by Jesus in Revelation 1:7, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth (land) will wail on account of him.” Notice it is the ones who pierced him. Who was responsible for the crucifiction of Jesus? The unbelieving first century Jews. Thus, this is not a global event but a local one. It is the Jewish tribes who have rejected their Messiah who will see the sign that lets them know that the Son of Man is indeed seated at the right hand of glory in Heaven.
However, that’s not all there is to this. Though Jesus was referring to the fact that these things would prove he was in heaven exercising his power, there were actual signs in the skies of Jerusalem which were historically recorded.
Signs in the heavens recorded
Leading up to Jerusalem’s fall, there were several extremely odd and ominous signs in the skies of first century Jerusalem. There was a comet that appeared around 60 AD during Nero’s reign. Comets in the sky were often taken as an omen of a coming calamity in those days or a sign of a major change in the political structures. The historian Tacitus wrote that upon this sign, people had already begun to ask who would succeed Nero which was something Nero took seriously. Another historian, Suetonius, recorded that Nero banished and starved to death or poisoned the children of condemned men to try to stamp out any would-be threats to his reign. Interestingly, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky in 66AD, not long after Nero had committed suicide.
Josephus comments on the Jews willful ignorance of these heavenly signs:
“Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself; while they did not attend, nor give credit, to the signs that were so evident and did so plainly foretell their future desolation; but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see, or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword which stood over the city, and a comet that continued a whole year. Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus [Nisan], and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which light lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskilful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer as she was led by the high-priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple.” (Josephus, Wars, 6.5.3)
It is very interesting that during this very important period of redemptive history there are these odd signs. These weren’t only recorded by Josephus though. Otherwise some may object that he was just a superstitious Jew looking for signs or making things up. The Roman Historian, Tacitus, affirms Josephus’s testimony:
“The history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars, and often both at the same time… The sea was filled with exiles, its cliffs made foul with the bodies of the dead. In Rome there was more awful cruelty… Besides the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind, there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future, both joyful and gloomy, uncertain and clear. For never was it more fully proved by awful disasters of the Roman people or by indubitable signs that the gods care not for our safety, but for our punishment.”(Tacitus, Histories, 1:5-7, 1.2-3)
Perhaps the greatest and most bizarre of these heavenly signs recorded is this account from Josephus, who himself was hesitant to even describe it for incredulity. He writes,
“Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius (Jyar], a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking. and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence.’” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 1:454 (6.5.3)
It is quite remarkable the similarity this account has with what the prophet Ezekiel records about his heavenly vision of God’s judgment against unfaithful Israel and the chariot-throne of God departing the Temple (see Ezekiel 1:22-28 & 10:15-19) and heading East to rest on the Mount of Olives. What is significant about the similarity to Ezekiel’s vision is that his vision was during the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC and this earlier destruction was marked by this sort of vision. It is also remarkable that this incident is not only recorded by Josephus, but also by the Roman historian Tacitus, who, though an unbelieving pagan, corroborates this account! Furthermore, Jesus, as Yahweh incarnate, pronounces judgment upon unfaithful Israel and then departs and goes East to rest upon the Mount of Olives just as Yahweh did in the OT. The OT allusions cannot be missed here!
Thus, with the destruction of the Temple, God was signaling his judgment against the Jews who had rejected His Messiah, the end of the Old Covenant Temple age and the ushering in of the new. Jesus Christ was the once-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-18) which made obsolete the old order. Indeed, this is what the whole book of Hebrews is about!
Gathering the Elect (v.31)
Verse 31 sounds like a real end-time verse to modern readers. It speaks about angels gathering the elect from all over the globe with a loud trumpet call. Surely this has to do with the Last Trumpet or the Rapture… right?
Well, not exactly.
The Greek word (ἄγγελος) rendered as “angel” in modern translations also simply means “messenger” and can also refer to a human messenger. For example, in Luke 9:52, Jesus sends messengers (ἄγγελος) ahead of him, in Luke 7:24, John the Baptist sends his disciples as messengers (ἄγγελος), and in Matthew 11:10, Jesus calls John the Baptist his messenger (ἄγγελος). The word simply means messenger, whether heavenly or earthly and it is the context which must determine which is the proper understanding.
In light of everything we’ve seen in this series, the context seems more natural to assume that Jesus is speaking about widespread evangelism throughout the Roman Empire to follow Jerusalem’s destruction through his “messengers” – his disciples.
The verb used for gather is also significant here. The verb, ἐπισυνάγω, is a compound verb of ἐπι (on) and συνάγω (to gather/assemble). The second half of the verb (συνάγω – synágo) literally means “to synagogue”. Chilton comments that,
“the meaning is that with the destruction of the Temple and of the Old Covenant system, the Lord sends out His messengers to gather His elect people into His New Synagogue. Jesus is actually quoting from Moses, who had promised: ‘If your outcasts are at the ends of heaven, from there the Lord your God will synagogue you, and from there he will take you’ (Deut. 30:4, Septuagint). Neither text has anything to do with the Rapture; both are concerned with the restoration and establishment of God’s House, the organized congregation of His covenant people.” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p. 99)
In the chapter before, Jesus had lamented over Jerusalem that he desired to “synagogue” or gather them together like a mother hen with her chicks, but they were not willing. And so, he pronounces judgment, “Behold, your House is being left to you desolate!” (Matt. 23:37-38) Because the Jews refused to be “synagogued” by their Messiah, Jesus Christ, their Temple was destroyed and a new “Synagogue” would be formed – the Church. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16 that the church is “God’s Temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you”, and in 6:19-20 says that the bodies of individual believers are “a temple of the Holy Spirit”. Thus, as God’s Spirit departed from the physical Temple at its destruction, He had formed a new and better temple in the Church.
“Matthew 24:31 portrays the ultimate Jubilee of salvation, decorated with imagery from Leviticus 25. Following upon the collapse of the Temple order, Christ’s “messengers” will go forth powerfully trumpeting the gospel of salvific liberation (Luke 4:16-21; Isa. 61:1-3; cf. Lev. 25:9-10). Through gospel preaching the elect are gathered into the kingdom of God from the four corners of the world, from horizon to horizon.” (Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, p. 349)
This indeed is what has happened since. Christ’s disciples, as his messengers, have been sent out to gather God’s elect through the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.
Lessons from a Fig Tree (v.32-35)
There have been many End Times preachers who have called their generation the “Fig Tree Generation”, implying that they expected the end of the world to happen in their lifetimes. Today, many Christians still think this way. Some modern apocalyptic preachers and charlatans have even capitalized on this to sell “apocalypse kits” to people expecting the imminent end of the world. Yet this again misses Jesus’s point.
Jesus’s little parable in verses 32-35 were to the people in his day. His analogy is that just as they know that summer is coming when the fig tree puts out leaves, so too, all the signs he had predicted prior would warn them that “he is near, at the very gates.” Judgment was coming soon. He affirms to the people standing there that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (v.34) and guarantees the sureness of his word (v.35). Why else would he introduce this saying with “truly I say unto you”, if not that the disciples would be incredulous at such dire prophecies to befall their beloved city and Temple? Jesus’s language has been emphatically urgent to his disciples about the nearness of these things. This language would be strange if Jesus meant to speak of an event thousands of years in the future to them! As we saw in the first article, “this generation” means his contemporaries, and “near” and “at the very gates” signals the closeness of the events to them.
We cannot take Jesus’s words seriously and ignore these specific time references of the nearness of these events to his original hearers. Either they happened and Jesus is who he said he is, or they didn’t and he is a false prophet and his word is not to be trusted. However, what he said would happen did occur, and the disciples took his words seriously which spurred their urgency to evangelize and spread the message throughout the entire Roman Empire.
For us today, because we know that the Great Tribulation which fell upon Jerusalem as Jesus promised actually happened, we should have great confidence that he does in fact have “all authority in heaven and on earth” and sends us with the promise of His presence to disciple the nations. How much greater should our urgency be to win the nations to Christ than those first disciples? Thus, apathy towards winning the nations and bringing every culture in submission to Christ is not warranted nor Christian. Let’s go fight the good fight of faith for the glory of God!
In our final article in this series, we will finish up our examination of Matthew 24:1-44 with a consideration of a passage that many believe teaches a sudden Rapture of the Church.
Articles in this series:
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Which Generation Would See the End?
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The End of the Age
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Signs: Wars, Famine, Persecution
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Abomination of Desolation
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Coming of the Son of Man
- JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Rapture – Left Behind?