We’re continuing in our look at Matthew 24, where Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about (a) when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and (b) when Christ would come, and the signs of the end of the age. (If you’re just joining us, see the previous three posts for the full story.)
So far we’ve seen Jesus give an answer that seems to deal with the first part of the disciples’ question: there will be some bad stuff, but they’re just the beginning of the birth pangs, so take a chill pill. (The gospel has to go to all nations before the end happens!) Jerusalem and its temple will be destroyed when you see the “abomination of desolation” set up – some kind of defiling of the temple, like in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes a couple of centuries prior. So when you see that, get out and leave Jerusalem to its destruction! (And don’t be fooled by other messiah figures claiming to be from God; the next thing God does won’t be some hipster preacher in the desert, it’ll be big and unmissable. Kind of like a big army of eagles swirling around…)
Today’s passage is a tricky one, as it’s harder to tell whether it’s still referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, or has moved on to the second question. Read it now, then we’ll discuss.
Matthew 24:29-35 Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. 32 Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
Sounds like it’s talking about the personal return of Christ and that whole end-of-the-world bit, doesn’t it? Jesus is “coming on the clouds” and the sun, moon, and stars are all gone. It must be about our future, right, since last I looked the sun was still there…? Many interpreters would agree with this.
Of course, there’s that pesky bit near the end about “this generation” not passing away until it’s all happened. Did Jesus get the timing wrong? Or do we have to interpret “this generation” so loosely it ends up losing any real meaning? Or – given that forty years later, which is one generation in bible-speak – does this bit still refer to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70?
It does say, immediately. Not “2000+ years later…”
And the darkening and disappearing of heavenly bodies was a common enough symbolic image in prophetic and apocalyptic writing to describe catastrophic judgement. Hey, that image was even used about the destruction of Babylon a few centuries prior, and the sun didn’t really disappear:
Isaiah 13:1, 10 A prophecy against Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw:… The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
And think about that phrase “coming on the clouds.” When we think of that, we imagine a reverse Acts 1:9-11 don’t we?
Acts 1:9-11 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
In other words, Jesus just went up to heaven on a cloud elevator. That’s how he’ll return. Fair enough. And the way Paul describes it continues the cloud-theme:
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
But if you’re the disciples, hearing Jesus say this a few days before his crucifixion – which is before they’ve seen the cloud elevator in action – how would they have understood it? Maybe their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures would have given them a clue.
Isaiah 19:1 See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear.
Jeremiah 4:11-13 At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; 12 a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them.” 13 Look! He advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! We are ruined!
The idea occurs in connection with military judgement. In the first example, judgement on Egypt. In the second, judgement on Jerusalem. When God came on the clouds in 587BC, it wasn’t a personal appearance – it was in judgement, enacted by the Babylonian army. Maybe Jesus was talking about a similar thing, this time at the hands of Rome?
And of course, there’s the link between the title “Son of Man” and “coming with the clouds” in Daniel’s vision:
Daniel 7:13-14 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
This is an enthronement scene, in which the Son of Man is given dominion over the nations.
So maybe this “coming of the Son of Man” is not the personal return of Christ (as described in 1 Thessalonians 4, or possibly later in this chapter of Matthew). Maybe it’s yet another instance of God enacting judgement on a city for its rebellion – describing a present event in terms of a past event, like we saw with the abomination, yesterday. And this judgement acts as a vindication of the one they crucified, enthroning him as king while destroying the city that rejected his kingship.
(And like we saw yesterday, in verse 31 the “elect” are gathered by angels for protection amidst all of this judgement – just like the angelic protection offered to the faithful in Rev 7:1-3, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem the last time this went down, in Ezek 9:4-6.)
So when you see this sign of the Son of Man (the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple), be prepared for the next and final event on God’s calendar, the personal return of Christ and the end of the age:
Matthew 24:32-33 Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.
But when exactly will it happen? Not even Jesus knows that, as we’ll see tomorrow…