29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 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. 31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
In the last few weeks we have been looking at what is called “the Olivet Discourse,” where Jesus explains to the apostles about how the destruction of the Old Covenant was going to take place. There is probably today no section of the Bible where both the historical context and the literary context (the context within the story Matthew is telling) is so totally neglected. From the start of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been re-living the history of Israel. The genealogy at the start shows that He is Israel’s true king, he descends down to Egypt like the patriarchs in Genesis, he comes up from Egypt, He crosses into the land at the Jordan, He spends 40 days in the wilderness like Israel’s 40 years, He gives them law in the Sermon on the Mount like Moses at Sinai, he tells proverbs and riddles like Solomon in His parables, He finally preaches like the prophets announcing the doom of an unbelieving Israel that has rejected her God and perverted His worship. Everything in the gospel is about Jesus coming to Israel and in Himself being the Israel that Israel was incapable of being. He came to them as a faithful Israel where they and their fathers were unfaithful. Everything was about ministering to these particular people. So much so that when Gentiles wanted Jesus to do something for them, He refused, and they had to beg Him to change His mind. So Jesus all of a sudden doesn’t go from ministering to and preaching to and prophetically condemning Israel, to randomly jump ahead thousands of years, and then jump right back into ministering to and preaching to and prophetically condemning Israel. Jesus is talking about the Israel he came to minister to. He is not talking about us or people 500 or 1000 years from now; what He says can be applied to us and those Christians 25 or 50 generations from now. But for now we have to look at it as best we can through the eyes of those who lived 2000 years ago in Judea.
Cosmic Judgment (v. 29-31)
Jesus tells the apostles about those days. He already spent the first half of the chapter discussing with the apostles when “these things,” the destruction of the temple where one stone would not be left upon the other, would be. He told them signs of when this would all take place and what would happen to them personally. They are going to go preach the gospel in the entire Greco-Roman world, they are going to be martyred, and then the cup of the blood of the saints would be filled up, and the harlot Jerusalem would drink of it, and this would be the abomination that makes the temple desolate. And then the end of the Old Covenant world would be at hand.
Now Jesus tells them that after this great tribulation where the saints are murdered by a vengeful Old Covenant, the sun will be darkened, moon will not give its light, stars will fall from heaven, and the heavens will be shaken. What does this mean? Is Jesus talking about the solar system collapsing or something else?
In Genesis, God creates the heavenly bodies to rule day and night, to be signs for seasons, days, and years. There is a connection in the Bible between signs in the heavens and political events. The most notable example is a star appearing at the birth of Christ. There is also a connection between heavenly bodies and the heavenly host, and we see glimpses that the heavenly host rules in some capacity over kingdoms and nations (see Daniel’s archangel Michael battling the Prince of Persia, in Daniel 10, for example). When the Bible talks about stars falling or moons turning to blood or other such phenomenon, it is talking about the world being shaken by great kingdoms and empires collapsing. This is how the prophets in the Old Testament spoke. Isaiah 13:6-10 says this about the destruction of the Babylonian Empire:
Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand!
It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
Therefore all hands will be limp,
Every man’s heart will melt,
And they will be afraid.
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them;
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth;
They will be amazed at one another;
Their faces will be like flames.
Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
And Ezekiel says this about God’s judgment against the Egyptians (Ezekiel 32:3-8):
‘Thus says the Lord God:
“I will therefore spread My net over you with a company of many people,
And they will draw you up in My net.
Then I will leave you on the land;
I will cast you out on the open fields,
And cause to settle on you all the birds of the heavens.
And with you I will fill the beasts of the whole earth.
I will lay your flesh on the mountains,
And fill the valleys with your carcass.
“I will also water the land with the flow of your blood,
Even to the mountains;
And the riverbeds will be full of you.
When I put out your light,
I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
And the moon shall not give her light.
All the bright lights of the heavens I will make dark over you,
And bring darkness upon your land,”
Says the Lord God.
Jesus is using exactly the same language here as the prophets. He is using the language of cosmic judgment when He tells the apostles about the condemnation of apostate Israel. Remember, Israel is at the center of the universe in the Old Covenant. I’ll never forget the late militant atheist, Christopher Hitchens, scoffing at the Christian faith, saying something like “why would God take on human flesh to go to some dreary, dusty, backwards desert people in the middle of nowhere. Why would God go there and not Greece or Rome or China?” Naturally, such a man has no idea what God’s purposes were in the ancient world any better than that man would understand God’s purposes today. Jesus came to Israel because that dreary backward place was at the absolute center of the universe He created. It was the place He had chosen to make His name known.
Jerusalem was the place that where God dwells on earth, the new Eden where new Adams bring animals in their place to go before the presence of God. Worship is fundamental to humanity. It is what drives history. How God was worshiped in Jerusalem mattered far more to the world than what happened in Rome. Lambs being ripped open and their blood spilled before the altar in Jerusalem on March 15, 44 BC was more consequential than Julius Caesar’s body being sliced open and his blood spilled on the Roman Senate floor. The eyes of unbelief do not see this nor understand this, but the eyes of faith do. All the perversions of Rome and her leaders did not cause the sun to darken, the moon the stop giving light, and the stars of the heavens to come crashing down. But Israel lapping up the blood of the saints did. Israel’s persecution of the Spirit-filled Bride of Christ was the final nail in her coffin, even more than the murder of Jesus. This is what Jesus meant by blasphemy against the Son will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.
What is even more fascinating about all of this is that in Daniel 7, the prophet sees a vision of four kingdoms as beasts. The first was Babylon, the second Persia, third Greece, and the fourth, Rome. And in the vision, Daniel saw the dominion of those kingdoms taken away and given to the Son of Man. Daniel 7:13-14:
“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then 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 the one
Which shall not be destroyed.
What was Daniel describing here? He was describing Christ’s ascension. The dominion that had been given to these kingdoms is gone, and as Christ ascended into the heavenly places to rule at His Father’s right hand, He was the Son of Man, coming on the clouds.
So when you hear Jesus repeating this language, that the Son of Man will come on the clouds, what is He saying? That the destruction of Jerusalem is the proof to the entire world that He is the Son of Man who has come on the clouds, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and He has an everlasting dominion over all the nations of the world. Further, it is proof that He is a true prophet. In the law, if a prophet said something was going to come to pass and it did not, He was to be put to death. If the temple had not been destroyed while that generation still lived, Jesus’ execution would not have been a murder but would have been deserved (Dt. 13:1-5). Christ appearing in the destruction of the Old Covenant was His vindication as both the Son of Man and as a true prophet (and as The Prophet who Moses said would come (Dt. 18:15-19)).
As Christ’s vindication happens, and His reign and rule over the planet is confirmed in the destruction of Jerusalem, what else does He say happens? He sends His angels forth to gather His elect from the four winds from one end of heaven to the other. What does this mean? This is about the evangelization and Christianization of the entire world. Christ reigns and rules over the planet at the Father’s right hand and His people, His elect, are gathered to Him. From one corner of the earth to the other. This also shows us what is happening when we share our faith in Christ with others, it isn’t just you saying some words to someone as though you are a salesman trying to persuade a couple to buy an RV. You are proclaiming the victory of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God is in you, and in the unseen realm, God is sending angels to grab that person and gather them to Him. How would that change our view of evangelism if we understood it that way!
Summer is Coming (v. 32-35)
Later in this chapter, Jesus will say He does not know the exact time this is going to happen. But throughout, it is clear He has an understanding of the general timing. He would not be telling the apostles precise things to be on the lookout for, and precise things that were going to happen to them specifically if He had absolutely no idea. None of us know the exact day when the first snow of winter is coming, but as we rake leaves in our yards and feel a bitter gust of wind on our necks, we know that it is coming soon. Nobody knows the exact day or hour that first snowflake is going to fall, least of all those paid to predict the weather! But we know it is coming. This is the same point Jesus makes. You know that summer is near when the corn and soybeans start to sprout and the once-brown fields start to turn green. The apostles knew summer was near in Jerusalem when the fig trees started to have leaves again. When these things that He is describing start to take place, they know that the end of the Old Covenant is at hand. And remember, the Old Covenant was their persecutors. Its destruction is good news to them. This is another reason why He tells them this. Do not be dismayed. They are not going to get away with this.
He tells them once more, this generation is not going to pass away before all this takes place. A lot of people want to try to make this mean anything other than what it does, because they are desperate to shoehorn Scripture to fit their system. But throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has repeatedly used this phrase. “This wicked and adulterous generation” He has been furious with this generation of Israel, and this generation is going to feel His wrath.
But if this isn’t about the end of the world, what does this passage mean for us? It means that the king who has ascended to take dominion over the entire planet really is ruling there right now. The part of this passage where Jesus is talking about you is not tribulation (even though the church obviously has faced tribulations in the past and faces them today), but the angels gathering the elect from the four corners of the world—that is your role in this!
What this passage means is that when things get really bad, as they surely have been and seem like they will continue to worsen, He is reigning over this world today. Just as the blood of the saints cried out from the ground for vengeance and that cry was answered, when His people suffer today He is not deaf to their cries. The world acts as though it has triumphed over the Kingdom of God. They gloat and strut and puff out their chests. But they are like a mouse who has stumbled across more cheese than he can eat, not knowing that the trap will come down upon them. Things that seem to us to be the end of the world, the failure of Christ’s Kingdom are anything but. The kingdom of God advances from victory to victory, and these victories are cleverly disguised as defeats. You play a role in building and advancing this kingdom. So go, lay down your lives to build Christ’s everlasting dominion. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!