After teaching about the destruction of the temple in terms of God’s vengeance and judgment, Jesus spoke about the final expression of God’s judgment that will come with Jesus’ return.
As with the destruction of the temple, Jesus taught that there would be signs of his return. He said there would be:
signs in the sun, moon and stars;
distress of nations because of the roaring sea;
people fainting with foreboding of what is coming; and
the powers of heaven shaken.
What did Jesus mean by these signs? Are these literal events or symbols of turmoil?
Since this is apocryphal language, we expect hyperbole, or overstatement. For example, Matthew recorded Jesus saying the stars will fall from heaven. (Matthew 24:29) We know that cannot happen because the stars are bigger than the earth.
Similarly, Isaiah wrote about the destruction of Babylon in terms of God’s judgment, saying the stars will not give light, the sun will be dark and the moon will not shine. (Isaiah 13:10) While we know from history that Babylon was conquered by the Persians, and that it was a judgment of God, there is no indication that the cosmic events actually happened. From this, and other Old Testament passages, we may conclude that this language is symbolic of God’s appearance in judgment.
This language appears repeatedly in the Old Testament. For example, Joel 2:30-31 says “I (the Lord) will show wonders in the Heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes”. This was in the context of the Lord saying he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh. (Joel 2:28)
Peter interpreted this event to be fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles. (Acts 2:15-21) Again, there was no mention of the cosmic signs occurring.
Yet, Jesus spoke of observable signs before the destruction of the temple and appears to speak of observable signs of his return. In verses 29-30, he said as you see a tree leaf out, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things taking place, you know his return is near. So, some things will evidently happen that would lead us to believe Jesus’ return is imminent.
What are cosmic signs? “Cosmic” means related to the universe, or cosmos. These would not be normally recurring events, no matter how spectacular. The passing of comets, the red moon or the “super moon”, for example, are all natural events that occur at regular, predictable intervals. They cannot, therefore, be signs. Jesus said the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (26) A cosmic sign would, therefore, be something dramatic, unique and not explainable as a normal event.
In addition, the seas will be disturbed and people will not know why. Jesus said they would be perplexed. (21:25) A sense of fear and foreboding will come upon the people of earth because they fear that something big and bad is coming upon the world.
All of these disturbing events will culminate in Christ’s return. His return will be visible to all. Jesus said “and then they will see”. (27) They will see Jesus, the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
Christ’s arrival in a cloud (27) shows his deity, as many Old Testament passages show God coming on or in a cloud. (example: Ezekiel 1) There is also likely an allusion to Daniel 7:13, where Daniel saw one like a son of man come with the clouds of heaven before the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom. That is a picture of Christ’s ascension to heaven.
At the end of this age, this same Son of Man will descend to earth in a cloud to judge the earth and resurrect the faithful. He will come as he left, visible and with a cloud. (Acts 1)
Notice that there are two reactions to these events. First, there are people fainting with fear. Judgment on those who rejected Christ will be severe and they are rightly afraid. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-8)
But Jesus told his followers to react differently. They are to look up with hope because their redemption is drawing near. (28) Those who believe and follow Jesus will not face a fearful judgment. Rather, they will face the redemption of their bodies and eternity with Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:51-53 explains further:
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changes. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
For believers, the return of Christ is the most blessed event. It is one for us to anticipate with hope and joy.
Verse 32 has provoked much discussion over the years. Jesus said this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Since Jesus was answering questions about the destruction of the temple, this verse likely relates to that. The temple would be destroyed in 70 A.D., within 40 years, or a generation, of Jesus’ death. Some of the apostles were still alive at that time. We know that John was. Luke is thought to have written his gospel around 80 A.D., so he would be fully aware that the temple was destroyed as Jesus said it would be.
While the temple could be destroyed and, ultimately, this world, the word of the Lord will never pass away. (33) It will stand forever because God is eternal and unchanging.
Isaiah 40:6-8 makes the same point with reference to God the Father. It says the flesh passes away, grass withers and flowers fade, but “the word of our God will stand forever”. Jesus applied that same truth to himself and his words. This is a claim to deity. Jesus is God and his word will never pass away. It will always remain and always be true. This is true because Jesus is more than a prophet. He is God and he will make it happen as he says he will happen.
This applies to everything Jesus said: his promises, his teachings, his warnings, and his commands.
The life and death of the French writer Voltaire provides an example of this. He once claimed that no one would remember Jesus in 50 years. Fifty years from that prediction, the Geneva Bible Society bought Voltaire’s home in Geneva and began printing Bibles. Each copy included the words” Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”.
One of the problems in waiting for an event that is far off is that of losing the sense of anticipation. Humans seem incapable of keeping that sense alive and acting accordingly.
Jesus warned his disciples and us about this in regard to his return. We are to watch ourselves so that we are not weighed down with the traps of this life so that we are not prepared for his coming.
Jesus said to avoid dissipation, drunkenness and the cares of this life. (34) It is easy to get “bogged down” in the cares of life or in the parties of life. We might come to say, with the scoffers, “where is the promise of his coming? for ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the begin of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4)
But we know that Jesus will come when he is not expected. Jesus said “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect”. (12:40)
When we think of Jesus coming unexpectedly and at any time, we more readily focus on being prepared. As Peter wrote, “the end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace…” (1 Peter 4:8-10)
We want to be living holy lives when Jesus returns. Jesus said “blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes”. (12:37) To do this we must “watch ourselves”. (34) That is, we are careful to live according to Christ’s commands, continuing to be faithful.
We must pray that we will have the strength to escape all these things that will happen between now and the end, remaining faithful, not giving up. We want to stand before the Son of Man, receiving reward rather than punishment.
There is much that can happen to make us lose hope if we let it. At times, the world seems out of control. When that happens, Satan tells us to doubt, to give up the faith. But we must stand firm in faith, resisting temptation and doubt, and look forward to his coming.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus!