The coming of the Messiah Jesus at Bethlehem was in many ways the end of the world. It was the end of an old world and at the same time the beginning a new world. In the old world Satan, Sin, and Death had a fierce power. The god of that age blinded many, and they served many idols and false gods viciously. The light of God was relatively faint and shadowy, largely limited to a tiny nation in the middle east.
But with the coming of Christ, Satan has been struck with a fatal blow, and now sin and death are on the run. Satan has been cast down and now Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. This means that we live in a radically new world, a new heavens and a new earth, and we are witnesses of a New Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven.
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken…” (Mt. 24:29-35)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
We call this passage the “Olivet Discourse” because Jesus gave this message on the Mount of Olives (24:3, cf. Mk. 13, Lk. 21). While Jesus had just called down a great curse upon Jerusalem and the temple (23:35-38), His disciples pointed out how beautiful the temple was, and Jesus says every single stone will soon be cast down. This provokes the disciples to ask when these things would take place, when Christ would be coming, and when the end of the world would be (24:2-3).
While they may have assumed that the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem would coincide with the final return of Jesus and the final end of the world (24:3), Jesus proceeds to answer these questions like an Old Testament prophet, describing the destruction of the temple as a cataclysmic, world-ending event with the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling out of heaven (24:29). He describes a coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven (24:30) and a gathering of the elect by angels and sounding trumpet (24:31). But Jesus insists that the disciples understand that these things are very near, like they know summertime by the leaves on a fig tree (24:32-33). Jesus says that what He is describing will happen during that present generation (24:34). Heaven and earth will pass away, but His words will not pass away (24:35).
COLLAPSING SOLAR SYSTEMS
It’s important to remember that when God created the sun, moon, and stars, they were created in part for “signs,” and the sun and moon were created to be rulers of the day and the night (Gen. 1:14-16). This is why when Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and 11 stars were bowing down to him, everyone knew what the dream implied (Gen. 37:9-10). When the great darkness covered the land of Egypt, God was warning Pharoah that his world-empire was about to come to end if he didn’t relent (Ex. 10:22).
So when the prophets take up descriptions of collapsing solar systems, we should read the contexts carefully: Ezekiel 32 addresses Egypt centuries later, and in addition to other plague-like language, says, “And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord GOD. I will also vex the hearts of many people, when I shall bring thy destruction among the nations, into the countries which thou hast not known” (Ez. 32:7-9). We see the same thing in Isaiah 13 describing the destruction of Babylon and again in Joel 2 regarding the destruction of Jerusalem. So when Jesus says the sun and moon will go dark and the stars will fall from the sky, He is describing the apocalyptic end of the world of Jerusalem.
THE SON OF MAN COMING
When Jesus says that a sign will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will see the Son of man coming in the clouds, He is quoting Daniel: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom thatwhich shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). Notice where the Son of Man is coming to: He is coming to the Ancient of Days in heaven. Jesus is talking about His Ascension, not His final coming at the end of history. What’s the sign that all the tribes will see? Pentecost: the pouring out of the Spirit upon all the nations represented there. This would be the most natural reading of the angels gathering the elect: these are the apostles and evangelists preaching the gospel (Mt. 24:31, cf. Acts 6:15, Gal. 4:14).
Jesus says that “this generation” will not pass away until all these things take place (Mt. 24:34). Many Christians attempt various exegetical gymnastics to make “generation” mean something longer than the usual 40 years or else some way of selectively choosing which things happened in the first century and which things are still awaiting fulfillment. But the words of Christ are clear, and He did ascend to the Father where He was given all authority and power and that was proven by the gift of the Holy Spirit. And about 40 years later, in 70 A.D., the city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground and the temple was destroyed.
We must not underestimate what the first coming of Christ accomplished. What was only foreshadowed in the tabernacle and temple has been accomplished by the crucifixion of Jesus: the curtain in heaven has been torn open and a new and living way has been opened through the flesh of our Lord (Heb. 10:20). The old heavens and earth truly were dark, but the Sunrise from on High has visited us (Lk. 1:78). And a new heavens and a new earth have been inaugurated by the coming of Christ. “Arise, shine, for your light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon us” (Is. 60:1). We have come to a New Jerusalem that is coming down out of Heaven; Immanuel has come and the dwelling place of God is with men (Heb. 12:22, Rev. 21:1-3).