“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.’
“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. 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.
“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. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.
We have a working theory for understanding the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 and 25 that says that the disciples asked two questions in verse 3 : When will this happen, relating to the destruction of Jerusalem, and what will be the signs of Jesus’ return and the end of the age. Jesus answers the first question about Jerusalem in verses 4-34, and transitions into His answer of the second question in verse 35 and continues with His answer through the end of chapter 25. We have reached this preliminary conclusion based upon the context of the passage, but we are still testing our working theory, because we want to be completely sure that we have it right. We left off yesterday with these verses, because these are the hardest verses in the Discourse to place, because they fall within that section of text that we have theorized should belong to the destruction of Jerusalem, but at first glance, they sound like they belong at the end of time. I’ve already had a couple of comments saying that this seems all mixed up; is Jesus bouncing around from question to question?
In the last post, I suggested the possibility that prophetic passages such as this should not be taken literally, for literalism does not appear to be the right way to understand them. If we apply a literal understanding to this text, then Jesus could not have been talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, simply because the sun is shining (and reflecting on my monitor screen as I type this) Jesus must be talking about the end of everything. The problem with that is, that if Jesus is telling us about the end of everything, He is doing so outside of His own context, and if our recent study of Mark’s gospel taught us anything at all, it is that Jesus is a master wordsmith; He certainly didn’t confound all of the “experts” with sloppy and ineffective use of language! I suggested yesterday that we search for other places in the Scriptures where similar language is used to determine if it has a figurative meaning, and lo and behold we found one such passage in Isaiah 13 that I discussed with you. In Isaiah 13, we saw very similar figures used in the description of God’s judgment of Babylon. Is that the only place where this happens?
Taking another quick look at Isaiah, I came across this passage, Isaiah 34. This passage is about God’s judgment of Edom, the home of the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, and the ancient rivals of Israel. After they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Roman legions continued their assault and utterly destroyed Edom. I can give you eyewitness testimony concerning this city which I have visited: it is utterly desolate to this day.
In verses 1-4, the prophet calls the peoples of all nations to witness his judgment, concluding in verse four: “All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.”
Following, he remarks on the awesome destruction of Edom. For the purposes of our study, note particularly verses 5, 9 and 10:
“v. 5 My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed.
V. 9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! v. 10 It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.”
Some interpreters have said that both Isaiah 13 and 34 contain prophecies that have no yet been fulfilled, but they cannot say this without taking them out of context, and to do so in the name of literalism is bizarre indeed, for literally speaking, “Babylon” must be Babylon, and “Edom” must be Edom. They cannot represent something else and still be literal. Claiming that they literally mean something else is nonsense, and assigning a different meaning removes them from the context of the author, in these cases Isaiah. We can cut this whole thing short right here, with one simple question: Dear reader, are you prepared to make the case that Scripture can best be understood by taking it out of context? If you would like to assert that, please drop me a comment, and I will reward you with your very own “Bonus Post” on the subject! 🙂 Seriously, there are literally dozens of exaples in the Old Testament and Revelation of similar language being used to describe God’s judgment, and you can easily find them with a word search.
Back to our Matthew text…
Because of the context, Jesus is telling us here that Jerusalem will be judged by God. In the larger context, please recall that in the previous chapter, chapter 23, Jesus has in the last hour or so before the Olivet Discourse, in His very last public speech, pronounced God’s judgment upon the religious elite of Jerusalem in the Seven Woes. Also remember that this speech is what brought up the subject of Jerusalem in the first place, when Jesus ended it with His lament for Jerusalem in 23:37 ff. I am afraid, dear reader, that the context here is so completely solid that Jesus is still talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, that no matter how strong of an impulse we may have to place these verses somewhere else, they must remain here where Jesus spoke them in context, and when we keep them here, they will make perfect sense and be in harmony with all 66 books of the Bible, for what started out being so difficult has just become clear and simple. Here’s the picture:
Back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived in perfect fellowship with God. They had a direct relationship with Him, and He gave them a purpose, which was to exercise dominion over all of the creation of the earth. At some point, they made a deliberate decision to rebel against Him, to become like Him and to know both good and evil; they decided that they would make the rules and ate the forbidden fruit. For this there were consequences. Their fellowship with God was abolished and they were removed from His presence entirely. As the years went by, God began the process of redeeming Mankind, beginning with a covenant between He and Abraham in which He made certain promises to Abraham concerning a promised land and descendants through whom all nations would one day be blessed. There were times of triumph and of tragedy ahead, but in the fullness of time, God made another covenant with Moses that established Abraham’s descendants as God’s holy nation of Israel. But Israel was seldom faithful to God’s laws. God warned them through the prophets time and time again, yet Israel continued to defy Him, thinking that they could make the rules, and as He had warned, they suffered serious consequences when they were conquered and carried away into captivity. Even then, after a period of time, God gave them yet another chance and allowed them to return and try again. He also promised a better future would become available to them. In due course the day came when He sent His Son Jesus Christ to save them. Most of them did not want to follow Jesus because they wanted a Messiah to build them into a world power so that they could enjoy the pleasure of the good life on earth. In this they were led by the religious establishment of Jerusalem, and when the time came, Jesus pronounced God’s judgment upon those who so willfully and deliberately refused God’s gracious and merciful offer of forgiveness, preferring worldly status instead. A few days later, that same Messiah Jesus shed his blood and established a New Covenant with the people of God, and the good news of His Kingdom was preached far and wide among the Jews. Many accepted God’s loving pardon and became His followers, but most joined with the religious establishment and persecuted Christ’s followers, the church.
The author of Hebrews gave the final warning when he wrote that the New Covenant of Jesus Christ had replaced the old ways and rendered the Law, the Temple and all of its observances “obsolete and useless” and went on to say that all practice of the old ways would soon come to an end forever. Less than five years after that, Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem, just as Jesus said they would, along with the Temple and its observances, and to this day there is no practice of the Temple ceremonies.
There is much left to say, dear reader, and we are only just beginning to study this amazing prophetic passage of Jesus’. You can take heart, for the difficult part of understanding it has passed, and the rest is much easier to follow!