From: Apocalyptic and History: Matthew 24 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
INTERPRETING THE DISASTER
(Matthew 24:27-33; Mark 13:24-29; Luke 21:25a-31)
1. THE DISASTER TO BE A “COMING” OF JESUS (24:27)
In this context of the fall of Jerusalem, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.”
Old Testament precedent. The expression “Son of man” is used in Daniel of one who comes to Yahweh and receives “dominion and glory and kingdom.” As the result “all peoples, nations, and languages” are consigned to be subject to him (Daniel 7:13-14). His coming in temporal judgment is not mentioned, but since with authority comes the right to exercise that authority, such is a reasonable extrapolation.
Yahweh Himself coming in temporal judgment is, however, directly asserted in the Old Testament. The widespread warnings that He will punish the people, [Page 196] communities, and nations who do not heed His admonitions carry an implicit warning of His “coming in judgment” upon them to punish their rebelliousness. Others texts speak in terms of God carrying out that threat. For example, in Isaiah 26:20-21, His people are warned to “hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past. For behold, the Lord is coming forth out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity. . . .”
Jeremiah quotes God as warning Egypt that he “will send and take Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant” and he “shall come and smite the land of Egypt” on Yahweh’s behalf (Jeremiah 43:10-12). In Ezekiel 30:9 the prophecy is that “swift messengers shall go forth from me to terrify the unsuspecting Ethiopians” --unsuspecting of the defeat of their powerful ally of Egypt.
Nor are the people of Israel exempted from such treatment. Micah has the warning that “the Lord is coming forth out of His place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth” (1:3). This wrath would be poured out upon the entire land and Jerusalem is mentioned in particular (1:5, 9).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. In most of what has previously been described, we are dealing with “objective,” “concrete,” “observable” phenomena. Here we pass into the interpretation of the meaning of the phenomena. When Jerusalem falls, Jesus implies, it will be by My act. The fact is it fell; the interpretation is that it was due to Jesus acting as judge. Whether one accepts the validity of that interpretation, of course, hinges upon one’s evaluation of Jesus’ life and claims. If He did what He is recorded as doing--or anything reasonably close to it--it is a highly credible deduction. On the other hand, if one denies either of these, it is a mere lucky guess.
A third alternative is that it is a post-fall editorial invention of the author-compiler Matthew. In addition to the derogatory implication this carries as to his gullibility or honesty, it requires the invention of nearly the entire chapter. If it happened this way, it would not be an honest misunderstanding, it would be wholesale invention.
[Page 197] Furthermore, if Jesus entertained any serious prophetic-type or Messianic-style self-conceptions (and it is hard to see how all of the four gospels’ assertions and inferences of such an attitude could have been manufactured), He did claim to be a Divinely ordained spokesman for God. And throughout the Old Testament, that carried with it the implicit and even explicit threat of the wrath of God upon those who did not heed their message. Hence, warning of the fall of Jerusalem is fully in character with the role of an Old Testament prophetic-type spokesman. It is also in accord with Jesus’s basic self-conceptions as presented in the gospels as well.
Those who interpret the text as referring to the second return of Jesus have quite reasonably interpreted the verse to refer to the ease of seeing Him when He returns. Common is the view that it refers to all of the human race being able to simultaneously view that return.
A very literalistic reading of the passage has raised speculation of a contradiction with other New Testament assertions: Here the text speaks of a coming of “universal visibility” while “all the warnings in the gospels [are] that man must watch and look for the Man’s coming.” This misunderstands the nature of the “watching” that was enjoined. Christians “watched” or “looked” not in the sense of seeking out something with the eyes, but in the sense of internal watchfulness, of constant alertness and concern for that return. The fear was not that they might somehow “miss” it, but that they might not be prepared for it.
In the context of the fall of Jerusalem, the allusion is almost certainly referring to the unexpectedness of the fall. No matter how objectively Jerusalem was in grievous danger and the fall inevitable if the Romans persisted, on the emotional level the feeling was “it can’t happen.” Because it “shouldn’t,” it “couldn’t.” Because the Romans were the forces of evil, how could they possibly triumph over the forces defending Torah and independence? Hence the fall would be perceived as coming as unexpectedly as an individual is startled by a bolt of lightning.
[Page 198] As to it being a coming of Jesus, it would be in the same sense that God is spoken of in the Old Testament as coming in judgment upon His people. God did not come personally; He came in the sense that the catastrophe was His judgment decree being carried out through unknowing human intermediaries. To expect more of a “coming” Jesus in judgment upon Jerusalem is not required.
2. THE DISASTER TO BE A GATHERING OF EAGLES (24:28)
The imagery in Matthew 24:27 was from nature: lightning flashing across the sky. It is unexpected and startling (at least as to exact timing); it can easily be unnerving and frightening. In verse 28 the imagery shifts from the sky above to the earth below and from phenomena in heaven to death on earth, “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” This may well be a contemporary proverb, cited because of its pictorial relevance to the point Jesus wished to make.
The word “eagles” is from the Greek word aetos, which could refer to either “eagles” or “vultures.” Oddly enough (from the modern perspective) the vulture was classified by ancient writers as a form of vulture. In the Old Testament also, the same Hebrew word also did double duty to describe both creatures. Since a human body does not normally attract eagles, but a dead body does attract vultures, the “body” is almost certainly a carcass and the flying creatures vultures.
Old Testament precedent. Great powers are depicted in the Old Testament as if they were eagles; the best lengthy use of this image is found in Ezekiel 17:1-10 (as interpreted in verses 11-24). Jeremiah describes an approach of a powerful and dangerous attacker with such a word picture, “Behold, he comes up like clouds, his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles--woe to us, for we are ruined!” (Jeremiah 4:13) Just as Jerusalem is the target of the forces Jesus described, so was the case in Jeremiah’s day. In both cases, it was the result of rebellion against God’s will as expressed through His spokesmen (verses 16-17).
[Page 199] The imagery of an assault by eagles was also used to describe the overwhelming and swift destruction of Moab and it ceasing to exist as a distinct national people (Jeremiah 48:40-43).
The swiftness of a horse-born army is compared to the flight of “an eagle swift to devour” (Habakkuk 1:8). “They all come for violence,” he goes on; “terror of them goes before them. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, for they heap up earth and take it” (1:9-10). In short, nothing can long stand before their march.
In Deuteronomy 28:49 the prototype conqueror that God threatens to bring upon His disobedient people is pictured in eagle terms, “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you do not understand.” Because of this enemy hunger, thirst, nakedness, and slavery would result (verses 48). They would besiege them in “all your towns” (verse 52), and the starving besieged would resort to cannibalism (verses 53).
If one prefers the rendering of vultures (and this is the more likely contextual intent), this imagery was also used to describe the power of those successfully assaulting Israel, “Our pursuers were swifter than the vultures in the heavens; they chased us on the mountains, they lay in wait for us in the wilderness” (Lamentations 4:19)
In Hosea a vulture is pictured as flying not merely over the city of Jerusalem in general but “over the house of the Lord” in particular (8:1). It is not because the people have openly repudiated God; the opposite is the case (8:2). Unfortunately they had not gone beyond empty words but had “spurned the good” and would be pursued by their enemies (8:3).
Job 39:27-28 speaks of an “eagle” who “makes his nest on high” in the “fastness of the rocky crag.” Yet the verses that follow indicate that a vulture is actually in mind. “Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off. His young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there is he” (verses 29-30) With the multitude of casualties produced by major war, the on-going presence of vultures was a grim reality of life.
[Page 200] First century occurrence of such phenomena. Both the imagery of attacking “eagles” and devouring “vultures” fits well with what Jerusalem faced in 70 A.D. The eagle was an appropriate description of the Roman forces, “partly from their strength and fierceness, and partly from the figure of these animals which was always on their ensigns. . . .”
The vulture description also fit well with the grim reality of what happened. By the time the Romans gutted the city it was little more than a dead carcass and they played the role of vultures burning, looting, and pillaging the city. The image may be intended as a reference to the suddenness of their appearance; their ability to show up wherever a body is left exposed. (John 39:30, cf. verses 26-29 as well, is cited in this context.) Others allude to the inevitability aspect of the phenomena: dead bodies produce the appearance of vultures; it is a law of nature. It could also carry the overtone of openness and visibility: there is no way a body on the ground is hidden from the scavenger. In a fall of Jerusalem context, this would mean that not only were the immediate dangers inevitable but that word would spread far and wide of the disaster.
A less likely, but still credible interpretation, is to find in the allusion to “vultures/eagles” a reference to “the false Christs and false prophets who would flock together and prey upon the sufferings and fears of their countrymen.” To Daniel Patte the eagles are “false disciples” and the corpse “false Christs.” Although false Christs are warned against in verses 23-26, the immediately preceding verse (verse 27) concerns a very different topic, “the coming of the Son of man.” If verse 28 occurred before verse 27, the approach would be far more convincing.
Some rather strange interpretations of the “vultures/eagles” and the “body” have been suggested. Among the Church Fathers it was not uncommon to find the body being that of Jesus and the vultures being Christians participating in nourishing from His body. This view has been embraced by some in the modern era as well. To this writer, it is psychologically repugnant to picture Christ as [Page 201] alluding to His disciples as “vultures.” Technically, conceivable, but still rather incongruous that He would be urging His disciples to imitate the role of the scavengers of the sky.
Even more unexpected is the view of the “body” as Jesus calling, by His presence, all human beings (the “vultures”) to gather together to their place of judgment. In reality, vultures do the “judging” (destruction), not the carcass. Others adopt both this view and the preceding one as well: In this life the eagles are Christians surrounding the body of Christ (to partake of the Communion). In eternity it is the entire human race, summoned as by the formerly dead Jesus as if to a corpse--but in a dramatic role reversal the “carrion” turns out to be the judge of all.
Others find the “body” to be anti-christ or some hostile “world-power” that either God’s people or the angels encounter at His second coming. Modern speculative interpreters have sometimes argued that the unexpected growth of the vulture population in Israel is an indication of the nearness of the fulfillment of this prophecy. The proportion of vultures is an irrelevancy--whether in Israel or anywhere else. In no way is it referred to in the text.
All of these approaches having nothing that fits the actual historic situation. Nor do they fit the interpretive format urged by the text itself. They may represent useful expository tools for a speaker to utilize, but even there their usefulness would seem to be minimal at least for this era.
3. THE DISASTER TO TEAR APART THE VISIBLE COSMOS (Matthew 24:29;
Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25a)
What occurs is next pictured in cosmos shattering rhetoric, “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” (Matthew 24:29). Mark has essentially the same words but Luke records the more modest assertion, “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars.”
[Page 202] Old Testament precedent. In these words, Jesus is walking firmly in the steps not just of Old Testament concepts and rhetoric in general but of apocalyptic language in particular. Indeed, the use of such earlier descriptions to picture events the scriptures speak of as already accomplished prior even to the birth of Jesus, argues strongly against the trap of demanding excessive literalism in interpretation. (We will point out later, that in the fall of Jerusalem the language often straddles the line between literal and symbolic.)
Such cosmic imagery is used of the fall of Babylon. Isaiah 13 picture the coming fall this way
The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. . . .
Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to
make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. 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. I will punish the world
for its evil, and the wicked for their inquity. . . . (Isaiah 13:1, 9-16, for
Similar universal rhetoric is utilized of the punishment of ancient Egypt. In Ezekiel 32:2-8, God’s judgment upon that land is depicted with these words,
Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and say
to him: “You consider yourself a lion among the nations, but you are like a
dragon in the seas; you burst forth in your rivers, trouble the waters with
your feet, and foul their rivers. Thus says the Lord God: I will throw my net
over you with a host of many peoples; and I will haul you up in my dragnet.
And I will cast you on the ground, on the open field, I will fling you, and will
cause all the birds of the air to settle on you [compare the eagle/vulture image
Matthew 24, rwjr], and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you. I
will strew your flesh upon the mountains and fill the valleys with your
carcass. I will drench the land even to the mountains with your flowing
blood; and the watercourses will be full of you. 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
[Page 203] Amos used similar terms in describing God’s judgment upon the people of ancient Israel,
Then the Lord said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass by them!” . . . The Lord has sworn by the pride of
Jacob: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land
tremble on this account, and every one mourn who dwells in it and all of it
raise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
And on that day,” says the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into
mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth upon all
loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an
only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.” (Amos 8:2, 7-10)
Joel 2:28-32 also speaks in similar language. In Acts 2:16-21 we have the earliest recorded apostolic interpretation of the nature of such rhetoric and it is applied to events that had already begun to occur, not to some end-of-the-world situation. Peter is presented as doing this in defending the apostles receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the resulting ability to speak in tongues,
But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “And in the last
days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall
see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my men-
servants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit and
they shall prophesy. And I shall shew wonders in the heaven above and
signs on the earth beneath, blood and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall
be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord
comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the
name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Since their is no evidence in Acts 2 that women or even any male other than the apostles were addressing the crowd in tongues, it would follow that the application to Pentecost this was one of the events Peter believed the text applied to. Presumably the reference to “my menservants and my maidservants” engaging in similar conduct was considered precedent for the presence of such Spirit manifestations as Paul refers to in First Corinthians. (Although requiring as publicly manifest a receiving of the Spirit as depicted in Acts 2 is not necessarily implied.)
This was yet future, as was the reference to the sun turning “into darkness” and the moon “into blood before the day of the Lord comes.” Jesus in Matthew 24, in context, has the fall of Jerusalem in mind in the use of such language. Whether such a coming catastrophe in general or that one in particular was yet in Peter’s mind is unknowable. The similarity in language and the presence of the event in the then future would certainly have pressured the apostle, as he meditated upon the text’s significance, toward identifying the two disasters as the same.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. In spite of the presence of the word “immediately” to introduce the description (“immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened” etc.), it is common to argue that the normal usage of the term simply will not fit the context of the destruction of Jerusalem. Two nineteenth century commentators summarized possible options that would explain the use of “immediately” in a context where it seems historically inappropriate,
1. That Jesus reckons the time after His own divine, and not after
our human, fashion. Viewing the word in this light, the passage at 2 Peter
3:4-9 may also be regarded as an inspired comment with reference to this
2. The terrible judgment upon Jerusalem and the corresponding
terror of the judgment day have between them no intervening season of
judgment in any way worthy to be compared to either of them. The two
periods, therefore, stand with regard to each other in immediate
3. The tribulation which came upon the Jewish people merely began
with the destruction of Jerusalem, other woes followed at once, and, coming
down thorough all the centuries of wandering and dispersion, they were yet
unfulfilled and incomplete.
Each of these points is very challengeable. The third is made difficult by the fact that what is depicted in the most immediate context is presented as if it were the definitive, final disaster. Not as if it were the beginning of a series of ones that would require centuries, or that what has already been described is mere precedent for something far worse in the distant future.
The second objection as to the lack of a corresponding major war disaster made sense in the relatively peaceful era in which the words were penned. The massive blood-letting of the twentieth century inflicts upon it harsh blows. Indeed, one of its two authors lived through a vicious civil war and the occupation of his hometown by an invading army. Perhaps his own painful memories had been softened by the time these words were written.
The first argument (a thousand years equals a day in the sight of God) would mean that “immediately” equates to at least two thousand calendar years since the event has yet to occur. Since Matthew 24 then proceeds to point to a yet more distant future then would not one be required to believe that the earth is destined to last countless millenia? Otherwise, there would be no real contrast between “immediately” and a distant unknowable date (Matthew 24:35-36).
[Page 206] Perceptive as this particular nineteenth century scholar often was, he overlooks a key issue: What is the point of reference of “immediately after the tribulation?” Does it imply or require “immediately after the tribulation has begun” or “immediately after the tribulation has ended?” He preferred the latter but to obtain it he has to bend “immediately” all out of its natural meaning and resort to interpretive options that are unconvincing on their own merits--at least in the interpretation of this particular text. In contrast, to read the verse as requiring the meaning “immediately after the tribulation has begun,” provides a time frame that was, indeed, “immediate.” It also avoids creating an inconsistency in the match-up of text and history that requires the invention of speculative interpretive options that are weak and needless.
“The Sun Will Be Darkened”
“The Moon Will Not Give Its Light”
“The Stars Will Fall from Heaven”
The text does not claim that the sun, moon, or stars will be destroyed, nor does it assert that the darkness will be permanent. Both deductions would be compatible with the text, but not required by its wording. Indeed, the fact that both Babylon and Egypt’s earlier defeats are described by such language argues against Jesus’ use intending any such meaning.
As we documented above, “The cosmic disturbances are a conventional part of Old Testament imagery when the approach of God’s judgments are described.” It deserves stressing, however, that something approaching a literal fulfillment of the blotting out of the sun, moon, and stars did occur in the destruction of Jerusalem. It would have been produced by the burning of the temple.
We know from World War Two, that the sun can be blotted out by massive fires and if they can blot out the sun by day, they would certainly blot out the much lesser brightness of the moon and stars by night. Since the phenomena is little known it would be constructive to provide the experiences of two women who lived through such events..
[Page 207] The first are the memories of Wilhelmina Steenbeck, recalling the Luftwaffe bombing of Rotterdam in 1940, “A great glare hung over the burning city. In the afternoon people on Beuwe had seen the sun strangely obscured, as in an eclipse, and now with the coming of evening they saw the frightening fireglow in the direction of the great harbour town many miles away.”
The second comes from two experiences of Anne Wahle, who survived massive Allied bombings of both Dresden and Hamburg. She speaks of both in writing of the massive assault that leveled Dresden, “By this time it was almost dawn. Although the flames had died down, I knew it was not yet time to move on. There was still a black pall over the city, and we would have difficulty making our way. From the Hamburg raid I knew how long it took daylight to break though a city after an attack. As I remembered, it didn’t get light until after ten o’clock.”
“Light,” notice, not “clear visibility. It took just as long that tragic day in Dresden, “Finally, shortly before ten, the heavy black smoke began to lift enough so that we could see our way.” Even so, the sun remained partly masked, “As we started to walk, the smoke lifted a good deal, and there was considerable light. . . . The pale sun that broke through the darkened sky lit our route with a strange yellow-light.”
It is easy to envision the fiercely burning fires in Jerusalem blotting out the sun and the stars during the following night. It was not uncommon for ancient cities to be torched when they fell and it may be this grim reality that lies behind the Old Testament descriptive rhetoric of moon and sun being stripped of light and the stars “falling” from heaven. This is in addition to it representing a reasonable hyperbolic of the political-civic disaster that was the result of a city or empire being destroyed.
“The Powers of the Heavens Will Be Shaken”
Although we can provide “down to earth” interpretation for the other phenomena of the verse, this one is far harder to approach on such a basis. The text [Page 208] could refer to some major curbing of Satan’s power (cf. the binding of Satan in Revelation 20). It could refer to the elimination of any influence (assuming there were such) of the heavens over earthlings; i.e., it could be denying the assumptions of astrology. Again, it might refer to the powers of the physical heavens being “shaken” (altered) by Divine fait in order to cause the “sign” referred to in the next verse.
All of these plus other alternatives are probably needless. The root idea is probably the best: hyperbole for the devastating effects produced by any major political collapse. What had existed seemed permanent and abiding; it had seemed as if no crisis was sufficient to crumble it. In the fall of Jerusalem the foundations of reality had been shaken to the core: one world had been destroyed and, by doing so, required that a new and uncertain one be erected in its place.
4. THE DISASTER TO CAUSE WORLD-WIDE MOURNING (Matthew 24:30;
Mark 13:26; Luke 21:26-27)
It was to be a grim time; disaster had occurred and it was a time of weeping and bereavement. As the text puts it, “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” (Matthew 24:30). Mark 13:26 speaks of seeing “the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Luke’s text (21:26-27) puts an even greater emphasis on the distress element, “And upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Old Testament precedent. Mourning, of course, was an ancient custom among the Jews, in time of both personal and national tragedies. The death of an individual’s loved ones was both societally expected and an indication of one’s own [Page 209] inner despair. Hence we read of mourning for fathers (Genesis 27:41; 50:1-4) or mothers (Psalms 35:14), dead spouses (2 Samuel 11:26-27), and sons (Jeremiah 6:26). Grief was also poured out for a broader range of acquaintances, such as the death of one’s co-religionists (1 Kings 13:30) or their unfaithfulness to God (Ezra 10:6).
It could be accompanied by refusing to eat (Deuteronomy 26:14) and an outpouring of tears (Deuteronomy 34:8; Joel 2:12), and the wearing of sackcloth (2 Samuel 3:31). Likewise one might pour out one’s grief through prayer (Nehemiah 1:4). One’s own clothes (disproportionately expensive to replace in those days as compared to ours) might be ripped asunder to express the frustration over what caused the mourning (2 Samuel 1:11-12). Certain types of clothing were considered the appropriate attire for such times and one would neglect normal signs of personal cleanliness and neatness such as “anoint[in] yourself with oil” (2 Samuel 14:3).
Because of the connection with death, mourning would be a natural accompaniment to war--especially if the losses were great or, even worse, disastrous, as in the case of the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. Even the survivors would be in shock. As Ezekiel pictures an earlier disaster, “And if any survivors escape, they will be on the mountains, like doves of the valleys, all of them moaning, every one over his iniquity” (7:16).
Severe national disasters (and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was certainly such) reduced the happiest occasions to despair. “I will turn your feasts into mourning,” warns Amos 8:10, “and all your songs in lamentation; I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.” This would be a day of Divine remembrance “of their deeds” (8:7) and throughout the entire “land” people would “tremble” over what had happened (8:8).
Saul’s death on the battlefield represented not only a personal disaster but a calamity for the entire nation. Although Saul had been David’s bitter enemy he respected the right of the monarch to rule and recognized the injury to the kingdom posed by his death. Furthermore Jonathan also perished and he had been a close friend of. Because of the dual nature of the defeat, the personal sorrow was [Page 210] intensified. “Then David took hold of his clothes, and rent them; and so did all the men who were with him; and they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword” (2 Samuel 1:11-12).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. In a similar manner, it would have been shocking if the Jewish people of the first century had not mourned the tragedy of the loss of their holy Temple. A similar sense of profound sadness would have been inevitable at the fall of Jerusalem for it (and especially the Temple) were the center of gravity for Jews throughout the world.
“All the tribes of the earth will mourn” could be taken in a broader sense than “all the Jews of the Diaspora.” The term “tribes” argues for that limitation, however. Even in the broader sense of the entire human community, there were more than a few who would have been saddened at the destruction of the Temple. They would have regarded it as an act of sacrilege both because of its religious purpose and its well-known aesthetic beauty.
“The Sign of the Son of Man”
Both early post-apostolic church writings and later pseudephrigal ones interpret this as the image of the cross of Christ. Twentieth century interpreters sometimes opt for a heavenly military-type ensign or a tremendous burst of light.
But is there anything that is known from the actual historical record that might provide us more precise guidance? Josephus had access to eyewitnesses who went through the siege of Jerusalem and he himself probably witnessed some of the events leading up to its fall. He records seven strange phenomena that occurred during or prior to the encirclement of the city: (1) Lights in the sky; (2) a light that illuminated the temple; (3) an animal giving birth when ready to be sacrificed in the temple; (4) the unaided opening of the east gate of the temple; (5) warriors being seen fighting in the clouds of the sky; (6) a voice being heard in the temple; (7) the death of one Jesus, son of Ananus, who prophesied of the ill that would overtake the city. Some of these phenomena are also referred to by Tacitus.
[Page 211] How many objectively occurred and how many were produced by war nerves is anyone’s guess. The important fact is that alarming phenomena occurred that was unnerving at the time and even more ominous in retrospect. That early Christians could have interpreted one or more of these as the “sign of the Son of man” is quite possible. They occurred at the right place and the right time. They were inherently amazing and carried frightening overtones of uncertainty and alarm. In our judgment, however, the reference is probably intended to cover the fall itself--considered as a collectively entirely-- rather than to some particular incident associated with the fall.
“They Will See the Son of Man Coming:”
This leaves us with one remaining interpretive question in verse 30: Is the “sign of the Son of man” identical with “the Son of man coming on the clouds”? (An understanding even easier to gain in Mark’s shorter accounting.)
Interpreted as a reference to the second coming, the “sign” would inescapably have to be Jesus personally. Some read the grammatical construction of the Greek as implying that the sign is to be interpreted in this fashion. Furthermore, since a personal visible manifestation of the Son is allegedly mentioned here, there would be a perfect parallelism if the “sign” in the first part of the verse is the Son as well. In this reconstruction, it would not be a sign that the Son is coming, but a sign that the promised return has been fulfilled or a sign that the judgment is immediately to begin (cf. verse 31).
Two Messianic passages from Isaiah are introduced by Douglas R. A. Hare as precedent for the identification of the sign as Jesus Himself. “ ‘On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples’ (Isaiah 11:10); ‘He will raise an ensign for the nations’ (Isaiah 11:12). In the second of these clauses the Greek translators employed semeion, the word translated ‘sign’ in Matthew 24:30.” Enticing though this line of reasoning is, the time frame provided in Matthew 24 [Page 212] precludes it. At the most it would indicate the appropriateness of the usage. If the two texts are interpreted in a Christocentric manner, then they refer to what Jesus would be (an “ensign”), not to something that He would do to vindicate His power and triumph.
Others point to the parallel phraseology concerning an Old Testament event. In Matthew 12:39 Jesus warned that “no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” The same wording is repeated in Matthew 16:4. It is contended that in these texts the “sign” is equated with Jonah personally. The sign is Jonah.
In Matthew 12:40, however, the “sign” of the previous verses is interpreted as Jonah being “three days and three nights in the belly of the whale.” Hence the emphasis is on the event rather than the person the event occurred to. It happened to Jonah but for the purpose of the argument, what is important is the fact that it happened. Indeed, if the texts have any relevance to Matthew 24 at all, it would be that the emphasis is on a sign appearing rather than on Jesus personally appearing.
Even if the “sign” is Jesus personally (and that this commentator doubts), where is He coming to, to heaven or earth? If heaven, then we have a picture of Jesus returning to heaven in triumph over His earthly foes of old (cf. the imagery in Revelation of Jesus going out to conquer and then returning in triumph). There is much appealing in this scenario. On the other hand, the “they” who observe the return would have to be angelic beings. There is nothing in the words of Jesus preserved in Mark that is incompatible with this. The preceding words in both Matthew and Luke, however, make one anticipate a earthly setting (Matthew: “all the tribes of earth will mourn;” Luke: “upon the earth”).
The shift to a heavenly perspective is unexpected but not necessarily contradictory to this language. If this be the case, then the following verses in Matthew and Mark--the collecting of all God’s people together through the action of angels--requires no earthly, symbolic explanation. It refers to the gathering together of those in heaven to share in the celebration of the triumph of the Lord. The whole problem of how and in what sense it happens on earth is completely removed.
“They Will See the Son of Man Coming:”
Through the “Sign” that Would Occur?
Adam argues, “If this sign if something different from Himself we cannot pretend to say what it will be.” Although this is a good brief in behalf of the final parousia of Jesus being under consideration, this reference remains within the section of text centered on the fall of Jerusalem. The exegesis needs to be within the framework of that self-imposed time-frame given by the text.
So the interpretation would need to be not that there is a “sign” and that it is Jesus personally, but that it is a “sign” that manifests the presence and power of Jesus in an irresistible and inescapable fashion. Although a number of strange and exotic phenomena are reported at this time (see above) they are probably not what is in mind in the text. Most likely it would be the fall of Jerusalem itself that is the sign, as a visible manifestation of Jesus’ triumph over His religio-political foes who had put him to death. It bore witness that the controlling factor was neither provincial insurrection or repressive Roman power but that Man of Nazareth--the very Individual who had been explicitly rejected by the power brokers of the land and tacitly by the bulk of the populace. His was the invisible hand behind the scene.
The argument from visible manifestation to covert guiding hand is used in Acts 2:33. In that verse Peter is presented as arguing that evidence was Jesus was indeed “exalted at the right hand of God,” an event, which, being invisible, could never be “objectively” proven to the human eye. Yet it could be considered as proven and vindicated by that which could be seen--the apostles receiving the “pour[ing] out” of the Holy Spirit, which enabled them to speak in the languages of their listeners. Human power could not accomplish either result; supernatural intervention was required.
“On the clouds of heaven” does not require a visible coming but is rather a traditional Old Testament means of describing Divine judgment being inflicted on humanity. In Isaiah 19:1, Yahweh’s temporal judgment is pictured as descending [Page 214] upon Egypt: “the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt” to inflict His wrath. The fury upon Judah is pictured in similar terms, “Behold, He comes up like clouds, His chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles--woe to us, for we are ruined!” (Jeremiah 4:13)
What greater manifestation could there be of triumph than the destruction of the civic center of scribal, Pharisaic, and Sadduccean power and the religious institution (temple) they utilized as the basis of it? The faith propagated on behalf of the crucified “heretic” continued to grow and spread while the very center of traditionalism had been destroyed and all the rituals and sacrifices dependent upon the existence of the temple brought to an end.
The only thing that could surpass this victory over the religious establishment that had opposed Him would be His personal return. Even without that, the cessation of the traditional cultic practices was a clear, visible, and tangible triumph that could not be gainsayed. It would be interpreted differently, of course. To traditionalists it was inescapably a manifestation of Divine wrath that the destruction could be permitted to occur. They could separate it from Jesus and attribute it to other causes, but His followers would link the two inseparably.
5. BELIEVERS TO BE RESCUED DUE TO ANGELS (Matthew 24:31;
Mark 13:27; Luke 21:28)
The coming disaster would be partly alleviated by the rescue of a minority, “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” (Matthew 24:31 and parallel in Mark). Luke has a very different way of conveying the idea of a rescue of the godly in a period of chaos and turmoil, “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke speaks in terms of the result (“redemption”); Matthew and Mark picture the means
[Page 215] We would anticipate that relief would be profound over their rescue from the tragedy that was harming so many of their fellow countrymen and women. Yet neither Matthew nor Mark records any words from Jesus urging such. In contrast Luke edges up to the idea by the admonition to “look up and raise your heads.” Don’t be depressed any longer; feel the burden lifted from you. Conceptually we are speaking of the same idea.
Old Testament precedent. Angels are presented as numerically capable of carrying out any task assigned them (“twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands,” Psalms 68:17). Furthermore, they are pictured as having the strength to carry out these assignments. They do not arbitrarily use this power but utilize it strictly in order to carry out their assigned duties. Psalms 104: 20 link these two ideas together, “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word!”
Not only is their power asserted, but also their ability to exercise that capacity upon behalf of God’s people. The principle of angelic deliverance is found in Psalms 34:7, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”
In Psalms 91:9-16, angelic protection is presented as the reward for loyalty to God,
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your
habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you
will trample under foot.
Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him,
because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be
with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will
satisfy him, and show him my salvation.
[Page 216] The earliest Old Testament presentation of this power actually being utilized is the case of the three individuals sent to earth by God to verify the conduct of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-21). (They are identified as angels in Genesis 19:1.) Although their task was ultimately destructive to the community itself, yet they rescued Lot from that city’s disaster (Genesis 19:1-23). Here we have the image of angels both as agents of Divine information seeking and as rescuers of the just.
Much later in the Old Testament narrative we read of Daniel being cast overnight into a den of lions (Daniel 6:16-18). The next morning, the worried king came to the place and hollered out a greeting in the hope that the young man was still alive. “Then Daniel said to the king, ‘O king, live for ever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king. I have done no wrong’ ” (6:22).
At an earlier period in the same book Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were cast into a “burning fiery furnace” to destroy them (Daniel 3:21). The king was astounded when he could see through the flames not just them but a “fourth [figure who] is like a son of the gods” (3:25). The king interpreted this as evidence that their God “has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him” (3:28).
The use of a trumpet as a call signal is also rooted in the older scriptures as well. Traditionally it was to announce an important event: it might be to begin a joyous celebration (Psalms 81:1-5); it might be to call the people together (Jeremiah 4:5-6; Joel 2:15); or it might be to warn the populace of danger (Joel 2:1).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. The phrase “of heaven” makes one tempted to place the entire event in heaven. Why this would be of any importance within a passage that, so far, has dealt strictly with earthly events would be perplexing. A comparison with the parallel in Mark 13:27, indicates that this approach would be incorrect, “And gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Here the text might include heavenly events but clearly alludes to earthly ones as well.
[Page 217] Probably the idea in both accounts is that of gathering the elect “from every place covered by heaven.” In Deuteronomy 30:3-4 it was used in this sense, “Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes, and have compassion upon you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed. . . .”
In the present context it would carry the idea of every one in every place that might be affected by the catastrophe. Just as those in Judea had been instructed to “flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:16), the text may be referring to God using whatever means natural or supernatural to bring out whatever Christians remained in the immediate Jerusalem area.
It was an unsafe period for Christians to be dispersed throughout the land. Too many rebellion minded zealots stalked the landscape and disciples could be easy targets. Roman forces were scattered in various places and were edgy because of the not-yet-squashed rebellion. Hence the coming together of Christians in one or a few quiet areas of Roman occupation would protect them against dangers that could be faced from both sides in other parts of the country.
Since the disaster on Jerusalem had just been discussed, it is possible that events after it was over could be under consideration. Just as the Israelites had been scattered to “the four winds” (Zechariah 2:6), Christians would be called back to their former homes in Judea after the land was again safe. This is significantly less likely to be under discussion.
Even less probable in this context is the message of liberation from the Old Testament ritual system that is so central a message of the apostle Paul. The continued existence of the Temple encouraged many to place more faith in their ethnic past than in the religious system of Jesus. The “Judaizing” movement was only viable within the church so long as the Temple existed for only until then could a theoretical full conformity with the ritual demands of the Torah. The disaster at [Page 218] Jerusalem could be considered an angelic deliverance from that temptation. That the following generation embraced that conclusion is inherently probable; that Jesus intended it by the words recorded in this verse is not.
6. SIGNS OF THE CATASTROPHE TO BE OBVIOUS (Matthew 24:32-33;
Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-31)
The text next presents an illustration from nature. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So, also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matthew 24:32-33 and Markian parallel). The Greek of verse 33 can be translated either as “he” or “it” being near. “It” would refer to the event under discussion; “he” to the role of Jesus in accomplishing the event.
In Luke the teaching still includes “the fig tree” but the point is generalized to include “all the trees,” i.e., one can’t quibble and deny the point by arguing that the case would be different in the case of a different type of tree. Here it is not Jesus but His “kingdom of God [that] is near.” There is an unstated image underlying all three apocalyptic accounts that only becomes explicit in the book of Revelation: Jesus waging war upon His enemies and triumphing and by that victory His kingdom triumphs as well. In this case it is Jerusalem that is the enemy, but the power used against Jerusalem is also one that could be utilized against any other earthly foe as well.
Old Testament precedent. What is predicted is not some potentially speculative act of Divine “providence,” where an individual may see the hand of God acting behind the scenes. Instead, the various elements of the preceding verses picture phenomena that will be readily observable by one and all. Hence if they occur it will not be a question of whether God has acted but whether one has learned the humility and obedience the intervention is intended to encourage.
[Page 219] Perhaps the best illustration of this correlation of warning/recognition of Divine power/submissiveness-of-belief can be found in the recounting of the Ten plagues upon Egypt. All are explicitly warned of. All are to be in the immediate future. And all are intended to warn of the necessity of yielding to the Divine will.
Initially, Moses is instructed as to miracles God will perform through him in Pharaoh’s presence (rod into serpent and appearance/disappearance of leprosy on Moses’ hand). “If they will not believe you . . . or heed the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or heed your voice” a wonder that would be known to the entire land (and not just Pharaoh’s court) was to be performed: the turning of the Nile and all water supplies into “blood” (Exodus 4:8-9).
In Matthew 24 the motive shifts a bit. Instead of being done to produce faith the implicit purpose is clearly to preserve the faith of the first generation disciples in a time of stress and conflict. In the Old Testament narrative the miracles are explicit; in Matthew 24 the events are non-miraculous earthly phenomena that God is utilizing to produce His ultimate purposes. By forewarning of them, Jesus encourages His disciples to see not just pain and anguish but the guidance of God in executing judgment through human intermediaries.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. These two verses do not deal with any new warning phenomena; rather they concern how early believers were to interpret the phenomena once they occurred: they were to be a call for concern, alertness, and then flight.
The fig tree allusion was a peculiarly apt choice for illustration purposes. Fig trees grew throughout the area where He was speaking. Indeed, nearby Bethpage was a village whose name even meant “house of figs.”
The fig tree is also the best choice to convey that image of approaching summer. In Palestine, only the leaves of the almond and fig trees lose their foliage in the winter. The leaves of the almond tree return much earlier than those of the fig tree. Hence the reappearing of the leaves of the latter is the better indication that the harvest season of summer is imminent.
[Page 220] The image is a surprisingly positive one: the approach of summer. The warnings and description have been of disaster, harm, injury--symbolically, signs of fall and winter. Here Jesus brings out the paradox of the destructive events that were to occur in the late 60s of the first century: in spite of the horror of the time, there was yet a bright “summer” that would shine forth after it was all over.
It is, of course, quite possible, that we place too great an emphasis on the symbolism of “summer.” The key idea in the verses is the knowability of when the events were about to occur. The mention of “summer” might be no more than necessary to complete the image from nature. That seems, however, much less likely though here we get into an area where the line between “subjectivity” and “objectivity” becomes very cloudy in interpreting the text. The idea is that when one sees the various events described one can be as certain that God is about to inflict judgment on Jerusalem, as one can see by the appearance of fig tree leaves that summer is about to arrive.
Finally, the text puts the emphasis on “all these things” being observed. Some of the phenomena can be found in any generation and (at times) in almost any single year in the long annals of history. The key was not that one could observe one or two of these, but that they would “all” be present. Individually, they were hints; collectively, they were a grim warning.
Michael Fallon, The Winston Commentary on the Gospels. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Winston Press, 1980), 355; John L. McKenzie, “Matthew,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968), 105. Newman and Stine, 746, suggest that the idea is not merely seeing Jesus but, more specifically, the fact that He is “recognized by everyone.”
Albright and Mann, 296.
Filson, 256. William Manson makes the same remark on the statement’s usage in Luke 17:37, in his The Gospel of Luke, in the Moffatt’s New Testament Commentary Series (London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1930; sixth printing, 1948), 200. .
For citations see Daniel J. Harrington, 338.
Newman and Stine, 746.
Adam Clarke, 231.
W. K.L. Clarke, 742.
Williams, 438, speaks of how the carcass, “fall where it may is immediately observed by the vultures and attracts them; so Christ’s coming shall at once be discerned by all men and draw them unto it.” Cf. Stock, 368, who interprets the text as making the same point. Since the second coming is not under discussion, we have applied the reasoning to the fall of Jerusalem.
Patte, 340. The same basic approach is also taken by Montague, 269.
Such as J.F. Rutherford, The Harp of God ([N.p.]: [n.p.], 1921; 1925 reprint), 240.
Cf. the discussion in Williams, 438.
Cf. the discussion in Williams, page 438.
Ivor Powell, 434.
It is sometimes asserted that the entire band of disciples received the baptism of the Spirit on that day, regardless of how many actually spoke to the crowd. This is based upon Acts 2:1 saying that “they were all together in one place” and this being read as referring to the entire group of believers. The prior verse, however, refers to how Matthias was chosen and counted “with the eleven apostles” (1:25). It is of this group, now twelve once again, that the text refers to all being “all together in one place” (2:1).
McGarvey, page 210.
J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, 629.
McKenzie, 105. Cf. Riley, 41.
Wilhelmina Steenbeck, Rotterdam: Invasion of Holland (New York: Ballantine Books, Inc., 1973), 128-129.
Anne Wahle, as told to Paul Tunley, Ordeal by Fire (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966 copyright, 1968 printing), 38.
See Lange, for example, 428.
For citations, see Brunner, 869-870. For brief quotations from the early centuries purporting to document this point, see Schweizer, 455. The quoted segments, however, do not seem to say any such thing so, presumably, the usage is established by the broader context in which each quotation occurs. For a nineteenth century interpreter who embraced the approach see Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 168.
Gardner, 347, without endorsing either.
[Page 224] The furthest that William E. McCumber will go is that the “Greek construction may indicate” this interpretation (our emphasis). See his Matthew, in the Beacon Bible Expositions series (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1975), 184.
R. A. Hare, 279. The text also interpreted as referring to the appearing of Jesus Himself by Gundry, Matthew, 487.
Newman and Stine, 748, present this view, but neither embrace it nor reject it.
France, 79, makes this coming of Jesus not one to earth--but to heaven, “to the place of supreme power.” Since Jesus is depicted in Acts 2 as already triumphant, the approach would need to be modified into something along the line of what we suggest in the text.
Dawson, [n.p.] introduces this text as part of his effort to show that the sign of the Son of man was “a sign which would show that the Son of man was in heaven.” He notes that the high priest Caiphas was warned that in the future he would “see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64, RSV; Dawson quotes from a different translation). When he saw the Jerusalem catastrophe, “Caiaphas, who was familiar with the judgment language of the Old Testament, would have to realize that it had come to pass just as Jesus warned it would.”
Both passages, though in a different translation, are cited by Dawson, [n.p.].
Montague, 272, and Newman and Stine, 752.
Cf. the remarks of Robinson, 200.
On these elements being a factor in the use of the fig tree imagery, see Boles, 463.
Brunner, 875. Cf. Meier, Matthew, 289. Both commentators (same page references) note that though harvest will occur at other times as well, that this is the dominant time and, hence, the best illustration available. On the preference for the fig over the almond tree as an illustration also see Gundry, Matthew, 490. Fenton, 391, does not mention the almond tree, merely stating that the fig tree is “almost the only tree in Palestine that loses its leaves. . . .” Cf. the Nolland, 1009.
Newman and Stine, 750 present this as the Jerusalem centered interpretation but neither accepts nor rejects it. Their suggested alternative is, “If applied to the coming of the Son of Man, its function is to encourage both patience and certainty” (750).