“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; then will appear the sign of the Son of man 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; 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” (Matt. 24:29-31).
In a way, this may be the easiest part of the prophecy to explain for anyone who is familiar at all with the Old Testament and with Jewish love of metaphor and hyperbole; yet it is the hardest part to understand for our literal minded western way of thinking. Even some commentators who recognize that up until this point in the prophecy Jesus was talking strictly about the end of Jewish nationality, and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, have totally missed the point here by imagining that Jesus must have taken a leap to the ‘end of the world’ in his predictions. Phillip Mauro in his book The Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation is a case in point. His handling of the ‘Seventy Weeks’ prophecy of Daniel (Dan. 9:24-27) was excellent; and his exposition of Matt. 24 up to this point in the prophecy was also good. But beginning with this statement of Jesus concerning the sun, moon, and stars he imagines Jesus has changed the subject. ‘Doomsday’ prophets in general make this same mistake because they imagine Jesus was speaking literally – and it’s obvious that the sun and moon haven’t ceased to shine, and the stars haven’t fallen out of the sky.
And yet it is very clear that there is no change of subject and time at this point in Jesus’ prophecy. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “immediately after the tribulation of those days…” If ‘immediately’ has any meaning at all, it means “right away”, “without delay”. Anyone who can make “immediately” mean several thousand years later can make white mean black, or tomorrow mean yesterday, or torture mean ecstasy. Jesus himself obviously did not believe that the events he was talking about were way off in the future, well beyond the lifetimes of his hearers. If he was talking about the literal end of the world, he believed it would occur immediately after the horrible tribulation the Jewish people would undergo when the Roman army marched into their land intent on conquest. And if he really meant ‘the end of the world’, then he was a false prophet because it did not occur. Yet his predictions were extremely accurate up until this point.
But Jesus was no literalist. He enjoyed the use of colorful symbolic language, and ‘exaggeration’, as much as any other Hebrew. Remember him saying that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25)? Or how about the necessity of removing the ‘log’ from one’s eye before being able to see to remove the ‘speck’ from someone else’s eye (Matt 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42)? And of course there was the somewhat lengthy declaration of Jesus (John 6:30-65) that he was the true bread from heaven which gives life to the world; his body was bread and his blood was drink. People have to eat his body and drink his blood to have life. Many of his disciples left him because of this ‘hard saying’ – it sounded like Jesus was talking about cannibalism! Yet Jesus closed out that discussion by saying that “it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (verse 63).
I said that Jesus’ statement concerning the sun, moon, and stars was easy to understand for those who have any familiarity with the Old Testament, and Jewish use of symbolism and hyperbole. Consider a few instances of such vivid, imaginative language. In Psalm 18 David wrote: “In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him…” – (verses 6-8). Did David intend for us to believe that literal earthquakes occurred when God judged David’s enemies, and delivered him from them? And are we to understand that God is a literal ‘Superman’ (or rather a fire breathing dragon) in the skies, who has nostrils which exude smoke when He’s angry; and a mouth from which fire proceeds? And did literal glowing coals come forth from Him? Read the rest of that Psalm to see how vividly David used his imagination to describe God delivering him from his enemies.
But to deal more directly with the ‘heavenly signs’ depicting God’s judgment on nations, Isaiah 13 contains a prophecy of judgment on Babylon, when the Medes attacked and overthrew that great empire (verses 1, 17, 19). What did Isaiah say would happen when God used the Medes to destroy Babylon? “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light…Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger” (verses 10, 13). Did all of that (literally) happen when the Babylonian kingdom came to its end? Obviously the sun has not ceased to shine, and the stars are still in their places! The world has not come to an end. Yet, figuratively speaking, it was ‘lights out’ for Babylon, and ‘the end of the world’ for that nation.
In a prophecy against Edom in Isaiah 34, Isaiah again used ‘end of the world’ terminology to indicate the completeness of God’s judgment against that nation: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (verse 4). Literally speaking, not only has this not happened, but it would be impossible for it to happen – because the sky is not a solid object which can literally roll up, and the stars could not possibly fall to the earth. The stars, as we know, are far greater in size than this relatively small planet. It might technically be possible for the earth to fall into the sun, but not for the sun (or any other star) to fall to the earth. But according to Isaiah’s prophecy, it would be ‘lights out’, and ‘the end of the world’ for Edom.
Ezekiel, in chapter 32 of his prophecy, predicted judgment against Pharaoh king of Egypt. In verses 7 and 8, this is what he said would occur when God judged Egypt: “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness upon your land, says the Lord God”. Such vivid language indicates that the nation would be ‘blotted out’, and darkness would be upon that land. The language is figurative, not literal.
This is just what Jesus meant when he used the very same language concerning the judgment of God on Israel. Jesus had said that Jerusalem’s ‘house’ was forsaken and desolate. The abomination of the Roman army’s invasion of Judea and Jerusalem would bring desolation on the land, and the Jewish people who survived the invasion would be scattered throughout the nations. It was ‘lights out’ and ‘the end of the world’ for them.
To draw an illustration from another portion of the Old Testament, Israel’s name would become “Ichabod”, because “the glory has departed from Israel” (1 Samuel 4:24). Darkness would be upon that land, because the light of God’s presence was withdrawn.
It was this total destruction of the Israelite nation, Jerusalem, and the Temple – the bringing of darkness on the land, and ‘the end of the world’ for them – that was the sign of “the son of man in heaven”. It was the ‘sign’ that the son of man is now in heaven, “seated at the right hand of the Father”, assuming the ‘reins’ of world government and establishing his kingdom throughout the world. It is not ‘the sign’ which appears in heaven (as unfortunately most modern translations render it due to the prevalence of the mistaken ‘end of the world’ interpretation of this passage), but ‘the son of man’ who is in heaven. The symbolism comes directly from Daniel 7:13 and 14 – “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. 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.” Note that the coming in the clouds is not a ‘return to earth’, but coming before ‘the Ancient of Days’ to receive for himself dominion over the all the nations.
It is also important to understand that ‘the son of man’ is not just Jesus himself, but all of his ‘brothers’ among whom he is said to be the ‘firstborn’ (Romans 8:29, for instance). In the vision Daniel had, he saw one like a son of man coming before the Ancient of Days; but in the interpretation of the vision given to Daniel by an ‘angel’, that ‘son of man’ becomes ‘the saints of the Most High’: “And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them” (Daniel 7:27). That is why Paul asked the Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:2 – “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” Jesus told his disciples (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30) that they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. In Revelation 2:26, 27, those who overcome and keep Jesus’ works until the end are promised authority to rule over the nations, just as Jesus had received from his Father. This is also promised in Rev. 3:21 to the overcomers. So the ‘son of man’ in the ‘Olivet’ prophecy is not just Jesus, but from a Biblical standpoint it is those who believe and obey him, and steadfastly follow him right through to the end despite persecution, temptation, and the falling away of many. All of the tribes of the land (which is what the word translated “earth” means) would mourn as they saw Jesus whom they had pierced, together with those apostles and other followers whom they had persecuted, entering into the kingdom of God and reigning while they themselves (the earthly Jerusalem, the ‘Jerusalem that now is’ of Galatians 4:25) were rejected, and ‘cast out into outer darkness’. I can’t say with any degree of certainty what’s actually going on with ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’ in “heaven” or the spiritual realms; but it was definitely the teaching of Jesus and his apostles that the ‘saints’ would participate with Jesus in ‘reigning’ in the kingdom of God, and this would begin within the generation of those who heard Jesus teach on earth – at the time of the destruction of the earthly Temple and the earthly Israel and Jerusalem. The casting out into outer darkness of the ‘unsaved’, as I have said in previous articles, is not the ‘eternal damnation’ taught by evangelicals and fundamentalists. Rather it would involve a ‘judicial review’ of their lives, and preparation for a return to another lifetime to seek to correct past mistakes and advance toward ‘knowing God’.
A major result of this ‘on earth’ is the sending out of the messengers (angels) of Jesus Christ to gather his ‘elect’ from all over the earth. The word “angel” simply means “messenger”. While in most cases in the Bible these “messengers” are no doubt spiritual beings, the word is also used of natural things such as winds and flames of fire (Hebrews 1:7) and human beings. John the Baptist was called the messenger (angel) sent to prepare the way for the Lord (Mat_11:10, Mar_1:2, Luk_7:27); disciples of John the Baptist, whom he sent to inquire of Jesus as to whether or not Jesus was the expected Messiah, were called messengers (angels) of John in Luke 7:24; when Jesus was getting ready to go to Jerusalem, he sent messengers (angels) ahead of himself to Samaria (Luke 9:52); and James (2:25) refers to the messengers (angels) whom Joshua sent to Jericho as spies before the Israelites attacked that city (Rahab the harlot received them into her house and protected them). I find the view very attractive which sees the ‘angels’ here in Matthew 24, who gather together God’s elect, as human messengers carrying the good news of God’s kindness to all the world, bringing believers into the kingdom of God. While I leave room for the view that these messengers are spiritual beings involved in gathering together unto Jesus God’s elect who have died, and perhaps ‘rapturing’ believers who were still alive at this ‘coming of the son of man in the glory of the Father’ – which would be an event in our past, having occurred at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, as did all of the events in this passage so far – I think it more likely here that the messengers are human.