[NT Texts: Matthew 24; Luke 21; Mark 13…OT Texts: Isaiah 13 & 24; Haggai 2; Jeremiah 4; Ezekiel 32; Joel 2 & 3 ]
Some of what Jesus had to say seems more cryptic than clear, like a jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces minus their box-lid. And it sometimes happens that, in trying to make sense of the mystery, one group of Bible readers will declare right-side-up what others insist is upside-down.
One such puzzling set of passages occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels, right as Jesus begins his final week of life in Jerusalem. Perhaps in an attempt to make conversation, some of his disciples remark on the grandeur of the Temple, “how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings” (Luke 21:5). Their offhand comment becomes the opening for a chapter-long discourse in which Jesus warns and instructs his followers regarding the alarming future facing both Temple and people. The question for those of us reading these prophetic words today is – WHEN was he talking about? Sometime historically imminent to that particular moment, or a time that is yet to come?
One way of arranging the prophetic puzzle pieces – probably very familiar to most of us – leaves us with a picture of the Ultimate End, a time characterized by unusual violence against Christian believers under a darkened sun, a blood-red moon, and a shower of stars. The understanding here is that Jesus was letting his disciples in on signs that would occur two millennia or more beyond their own day; in fact, he was not really talking to them, he was talking past them to the believers who would read his words far, far in the future. Fitting the pieces together like this binds us to the dicey task of identifying which current events are indications of The End, and what instructions like “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” mean for, say, Protestants in the Midwest.
Others object that this eschatological view involves a good number of forced puzzle pieces. Why, for example, does Jesus keep insisting that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32)? Does “this generation” mean something other than what’s conveyed by its plain sense? And why would he give detailed, apparently comprehensible instructions to people standing right there in front of him, if he were really speaking beyond them to people who would have to perform some exegetical contortions before the picture made any sense to their situation? Why not focus on events closer in history to that conversation, and see in the Romans’ razing of Jerusalem in 70 AD the fulfillment of Jesus’ frightening prophecies?
Neither view seems to do adequate justice to the pieces of the puzzle that we’re given – at least not at first blush. After all, the Roman destruction of the Temple and City didn’t involve those apocalyptic signs in the heavens that Jesus described. Even if the 70-AD explanation accommodates the strong “right-here-and-very-soon” emphasis of Jesus’ words, it has nothing to do with cosmic cataclysms, right? Those puzzle pieces have to be forcibly made to fit, just as much as the “this generation” bits must be wrangled into the End-Times view.
But as a matter of fact, a big-picture canonical perspective suggests that those cosmic catastrophes may indeed have a proper place in a 70-AD puzzle. Though we might be vaguely aware that such imagery is also used by the Old Testament prophets, we may not realize that, in context, nearly every prophetic mention of apocalyptic heavenly signs accompanies a description of a specific major political upheaval in the ancient world. It would have been far less puzzling to Jesus’ disciples to hear words that called to mind passages from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel than for them to get the sense that Jesus wasn’t actually telling them how to prepare to face something that would happen in their lifetime. Perhaps some digging into the words of the Writing Prophets would help us to turn right-side-up some of the puzzle pieces we’ve long held upside-down.
(For your convenience, I have listed below every reference that I could find to OT apocalyptic language – characterized by those heavenly signs and portents – and, where applicable, the earthly political turmoil that the prophet was attempting to depict with his universe-shaking imagery. I’ll leave it to you to look up these passages and read them in context, as you consider how best to fit together Jesus’ prophetic puzzle pieces.)
Isaiah 13:10, 13
Cosmic Signs: Stars, sun & moon darkened; trembling heavens and earth
Political Events: Invasion of Israel by Babylon
Isaiah 24:15b-20, 23
Cosmic Signs: Foundations of the earth (land) tremble; earth (land) is violently split apart; moon confounded, sun ashamed.
Political Events: Depending on the editors’ translation choice here, either the “whole earth” or the “whole land” (i.e., the land of Israel) is the subject of the prophecy. (“Earth” is the usual choice in the main text, but the ESV includes a footnote indicating that “land” is a fair translation, too.) If “land,” then this is a prophecy about the impending destruction of Israel for unfaithfulness. I think this is a reasonable conclusion, given details in this chapter; see what you think.
Cosmic Signs: Earth quakes and trembles; sun, moon & stars darkened.
Political Events: Invaders from the North are poised to swoop down on Israel.
Joel 2:30 (also Acts 2)
Cosmic Signs: wonders in heaven & on earth; sun turned to darkness, moon to blood.
Political Events: The restoration of Israel’s fortunes.
Cosmic Signs: Sun, moon, and stars darkened; heavens and earth quake
Political Events: With the restoration of Israel, the nations that enslaved them will in turn be conquered and enslaved.
Haggai 2:6-7 (also Hebrews 12)
Cosmic Signs: Shaking of earth, sea, dry land
Political Events: Restoration of Temple
Cosmic Signs: Heavens covered; sun, moon and stars darkened
Political Events: Invasion and defeat of Egypt by Babylon
Jeremiah 4:23-24, 28
Cosmic Signs: Earth w/o form and void; no light in heavens; mountains quaking; heavens dark
Political Events: God’s intention to punish Israel via Babylon
(I searched for heavens, earth, shaking, stars, sun, and moon. I may have missed some, so let me know if you discover others.)