The most problematic portion of Matthew 24 for those of us who maintain Jesus is referencing the destruction of Jerusalem and not His second coming is found in verses 29-35. The text reads,
“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 in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out 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. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
It certainly is understandable to see this text as speaking about the return of Christ to judge the world. It speaks about the Son coming after all. On top of that, it certainly seems to speak about the physical universe changing in some drastic, cataclysmic way as the sun and moon are darkened, the stars fall from the sky, and the heavens shake. However, is it the case that Jesus is speaking of the end times in this text?
The text forces its reader to answer that question in the negative. Jesus is not speaking here of the end-times.
First of all, this cannot be the place where Jesus is said to transition from speaking about the fall of the Temple to the end-times because verse 29 begins with “immediately” (as I emphasized in the text above). We do not have permission from the text to dislocate what follows here from the events already mentioned; they are tied together.
However, probably most important is verse 34 (which was also emphasized). Verse 34 is that which tethers us to a particular interpretation. In verse 34, Jesus says the generation hearing His words would not pass away until everything mentioned prior takes place. The people who heard Jesus’ words, their generation, would experience the coming of the Son of Man and the heavenly cataclysms.
With that in mind, how do we make sense of this language? It turns out, that familiarity with the language of the Old Testament helps.
When Jesus speaks of the sun, moon, and stars going out, and the shaking of the heavens, He is speaking in hyperbole. He is using dramatic, cataclysmic language to describe a national judgement. Before assuming this is a cowardly utilization of “non-literal language” to avoid handling the text rightly, read how the prophet Isaiah described the fall of Babylon when he predicted its destruction: Isaiah 13: 10-19,
“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 iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. 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. And like a hunted gazelle, or like sheep with none to gather them, each will turn to his own people, and each will flee to his own land. Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished. Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children. And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.”
The emphasis is mine. Jesus almost uses the exact same words as Isaiah. Yet, no one tries to argue the universe ended in Isaiah’s day.
This is no isolated incident either. Isaiah speaks in a similar way when speaking of the nations being judged in Isaiah 34: 4-5,
“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. For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction.”
Isaiah was not alone in utilizing this judgment hyperbole either. The prophet Ezekiel joined him in using cataclysmic language to describe the national judgment of Egypt in Ezekiel 32: 2-8,
“Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him: ‘You consider yourself a lion of 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 they 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 heavens to settle on you, 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 ravines 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 on your land, declares the Lord God.”
As it stands, Jesus uses the same language in Matthew 24 as the prophets did when they spoke to describe national judgments. There is no biblical warrant then to assume Jesus, a Jewish Prophet Himself, is not speaking in the same kind of way that His holy prophets did.
There is no reason to assume that any Jew who knew their Scriptures well would assume Jesus is speaking of a second coming many thousands, potentially millions, of years in the future.
Jesus instead is speaking of the destruction and judgment on the nation of Israel, and He used hyperbolic, cataclysmic language, just as His prophets of old did.
J. Marcellus Kik says in his book, An Eschatology of Victory,
“In light of the prophetic announcements and language, [Matthew 24: 29] is descriptive of the passing away of Judaism. It describes the eclipse of the Old Testament dispensation. It describes the passing away of Jewish privileges and glories (32).”
If the prophets were willing to use the kind of cataclysmic language of Matthew 24 to describe the judgment of pagan nations like Babylon and Egypt, how much more fitting is this language when utilized to describe the judgment of God’s chosen, covenant nation?
The most important thing to discuss is how one explains the idea of “the Son of Man” coming.
This too has many hundreds of pages written about it, and therefore it is not my intent to explain it as thoroughly as possible. It will suffice for my purposes to mention two things:
1) The Lord can come in judgment without physically descending to earth.
2) The Bible uses this language in the Old Testament, indicating it does not have to be read as a second advent.
The Lord came in 90 A.D. through Rome. The destruction of Jerusalem was Jesus’ coming. It was how Jesus destroyed that wicked generation who rejected and crucified their Messiah, and killed His holy Apostles. For God is very content to use nations to enact His justice both on individuals, as well as other nations.
Paul makes clear in Romans 13 that God establishes government to be His agent for punishing citizens.
Romans 13: 4,
“[F]or [the government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Likewise, the Lord uses nations to enact His judgments on other nations. This is seen numerous times throughout the major and minor prophets. In Micah 1: 2-4 for example, notice how the Lord is said to “come down” in order to judge the high places of earth,
“Hear, you peoples, all of you; pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it, and let the Lord God be a witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will split open, like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a steep place.”
Not only does the text utilize a kind of cataclysmic hyperbole as we already discussed, but the key is that when the Lord so publicly judged nations, it was proper to say He “came down.”
The assumption read into the text of Matthew 24 is that Jesus’ coming must be a physical descent; it must be Him physically landing on the physical ground. Nothing of the sort is in the grammar of the text, and therefore, that assumption ought to be challenged.
The Lord coming on the clouds is used throughout the Old Testament and is never then interpreted as an end-times text. For example, Isaiah 19:1,
“Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.”
The Lord appeared on a cloud to Egypt, but what does the prophet mean? He came to judge Egypt. No one interprets this as meaning one time in the future Jesus literally descended on clouds into Egypt. This was a reference to the power, authority, and judgment of the Lord.
Many other verses could be cited. It is used famously in Daniel as he prophesied Jesus’ ascension to the Father after completing His redemptive work (Acts 1).
(Notice, Daniel 7 uses the words “coming” to communicate ascension, not a descent!)
Also, in Matthew 26: 64 Jesus tells Caiaphas that he would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Certainly, Caiaphas will not be around when Jesus returns.
It simply is not the case that the Son of Man coming on clouds must be interpreted as an end-times rapture, or an end-times physical, millennial kingdom establishment upon the earth.
In this case, it is very biblically consistent to interpret this as a term of divine judgment upon a nation. The cloud imagery, while can be literal, is indicative of authority and power, which is why it can be used both as Jesus ascends to the right hand of God, or as He judges nations in His wrath.
In any case, if the Scriptures provide other examples of the concept of the Son of Man coming on the clouds as referring to anything other than His final coming, then we are not forced to interpret Matthew 24 as having to reference Jesus’ final return.
There is much to discuss in regards to some remaining concepts within the verses of Matthew 24: 29- 35 which are outside the scope of this blog (I would recommend Gary Demar’s Last Days Madness and J. Marcellus Kik’s An Eschatology of Victory.) However, one last thing to mention is that neither futurists nor partial-preterists (the position advocated for here) are fighting over the “literal interpretation.” Both sides must assume some parts of Jesus’ words to not mean what they on the surface seem to mean.
Certainly, I have spent the time to explain why I believe the cataclysmic language is not literal, but is instead are hyperbolic metaphors used to describe the fall of a significant nation. However, anyone who disagrees with me is still left to reinterpret some things in a non-literal way.
Namely, a great deal of work needs to be done with words like “immediately” and “generation.” If Jesus is speaking of the end-times, then what exactly does the word immediately mean in verse 29? It apparently means “thousands of years from now”… and counting!
I’m sure many children are happy to interpret the word that way when their parents use it, but that hardly seems like an appropriate way to define the word.
Along those lines, whatever all the language Jesus uses means (the coming of the Son, the angels gathering the elect, etc.), the only way to apply those literally is to not apply verse 34 literally.
Jesus said the things He mentioned throughout the chapter would happen to “this generation”, meaning the 1st century hearers. However, the stars and the moon and the sun are still in the heavens, and Jesus has not returned on a cloud.
Thus, futurists are forced to reinterpret the word generation.
Both sides then are engaging in some degree of having to say, “Well, that isn’t actually what it means.” However, the strength of my position is that it is entirely biblical.
What I mean by that is Scripture is interpreting Scripture. In my position, outside theories are not placed in the text in order to make it literal, but instead, the Old Testament is used to understand the Jesus’ Words. No one has to go outside the Bible to understand the position laid out here.
Another strength with allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture is that a person can arrive at my position without knowing the Greek. My position not only allows Scripture to interpret Scripture, but it also allows the lay person to stumble upon it by reading the Bible in English.
Great efforts have been exerted to explaining how the word “generation” can mean many different things. Thus, one needs to do great lexical studies into that Greek word in order to make the interpretation fit. By allowing the Old Testament to establish a rhetorical precedence, the lay person does not need know Greek in order to understand Jesus. If one has read through the prophets and understood what they are saying to the Jews, then that same person can read through the great Prophet and understand what He is saying to the Jews.