But if Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the present physical world, what is he talking about? It seems to me that Matthew 24-25 speaks mainly to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So all that stuff happened a long time ago, within a generation of when Jesus spoke. And, to be sure, lots of items in the passage fit pretty nicely with that. Worried about the Great Tribulation (Mt 24.21)? Jesus says that it’s a tribulation that a person can avoid simply by fleeing to the mountains around Judea (Mt 24.16) and by keeping out of Jerusalem (Lk 21.21). (It’s still a great tribulation, however, in the destruction that it placed upon Jerusalem.) Think there’s a rapture? In Mt 24 it’s the ones who are “taken” who are judged, not those who remain. After all, the parallel is to those who are “taken” and judged in the flood (vv.37-41).
Mt 24.29-31 sounds pretty big – like the end of the world. So what can Jesus be talking about here?
Let me outline the sweep of the passage: Judgment comes upon Israel for rejecting her Lord and messiah. After judgment (or, perhaps, because of judgment), the demonic powers in the heavenlies are shaken so that they no longer have a strangle hold on Israel (v. 29). As a result, Israel now recognizes and receives Jesus as her ascended Lord (v. 30), and the Gospel goes forth with even more power to the Gentiles, gathering people from all over the world into the Church.
As for the specific argument, let me start with a little brush clearing, then turn to the actual passage.
First, note that none of the stuff that Jesus talks about in these verses is any bigger than what Peter said happened on Pentecost (Acts 2.16, 19-20). I accept vv. 19-20 actually happened on Pentecost, at least I’m willing to hypothesize it (Acts 2.16) to test the implications of the view, so I don’t have any trouble hypothesizing that like events could be predicted in Mt 24 without it also being the end of the world there. And, in point of fact, the OT prophets regularly described “political” and imperial changes in these sorts of terms (Is 13.1, 10, Is 34.3-4, Jer 4.1, 11-12, 19- 28, Ez 32.2,7-8. These picture gathering judgment – against Babylon, Edom, OT Israel, Egypt).
Secondly, I might add that I do not believe that these prophetic passages are “merely” poetic. Rather, for these prophets, visible political events result from invisible spiritual forces. Ezekiel easily moves from talking about the prince of Tyre to seeming to speak about Satan (Ez 28.1-19, esp. vv. 13-16). So, too, Rome and Israel’s political leadership are not the ultimate problem in the Gospels. The big fight on Jesus’ hands are against demonic forces first and foremost. Paul suggests that these forces ultimately guide the political leadership to put Jesus to death (1 Co 2.6,8, see also Lk 4.13).
So the events in Mt 24.29-31 are not unprecedented. But what do they mean? I haven’t an exhaustive collection of commentary on the passage, but the commentators who also understand these events as already occurring, nonetheless don’t seem to me to get the argument quite right. While some commentators recognize the description of the ascension in v. 30 (see Dn 7.13, Mt 26.64, Acts 2.34), the ones that I’ve read nonetheless argue that the “coming” (erchomai) of the son of man in v.30 is Jesus coming in judgment upon Jerusalem.
But there’s a real problem with thinking that the coming of Jesus in v. 30 is Jesus coming in judgment: The obvious problem with that view is that Jesus distinctly states that the events he describes in vv. 29-31 come “after the tribulation of those days” (v. 29, Mk 13.24). So he’s coming, as it were, a day late if he’s talking about his coming in judgment on Jerusalem.
Instead, I would argue that the events described in this passage are all very “positive” things: Jesus is describing the “shaking” of demonic power in the heavenlies as a result of the completion of Christ’s judgment on Jerusalem, widespread conversion on the part of Jews to the view that Jesus is in fact their Messiah, and the world-wide spread of the Gospel, resulting from the efforts of an Israel now reconstituted around Christ (as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem) and fulfilling her mission to bring blessing to the Gentiles.
First, consider the broader setting of the discourse. Mt 24 develops from a sustained discourse that began in Mt 21.23 (which in turn seems to be prompted by Jesus’ disruptive actions in the temple, Mt 21.12-17). From that point onward, through the remainder of chapter 12, through chapters 22 and 23, Jesus responds to and indicts the Jewish leadership. This culminates in Mt 23 as Jesus argues that, not only are the scribes and Pharisees not helping fulfill the mission conferred on Israel, they have become a barrier to its fulfillment (Mt 23.13, 15, 34).
Now let’s consider each verse in turn.
First, I take the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars to indicate the shaking of “the powers of heaven.” I take these references to be a Hebraic way of speaking of an “earth-shattering” event in which something very significant changes. In this case, it is the “shaking” of heavenly powers. Paul speaks of demonic powers in the heavenlies in Eph 6.10-13, so I take Jesus’ remark here to mean that demonic powers that have blinded the eyes of Jews (and Gentiles) are shaken, allowing a greater spread of the Gospel (see also, Lk 10.18, Heb 12.25-29).
As a result of the shaking of the powers in heaven, and the tribulation, “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven will appear” (which is a better translation). All this means is that in these events – the tribulation upon Jerusalem and what that means spiritually – Israel will understand – they will “see” – that they crucified their Lord and messiah. They will mourn and recognize that Jesus is the ascended messiah, and receive him as such (Mt 26.64, Acts 2.33-37).
A person might object that the Jews did not convert en masse after the destruction of Jerusalem. But I suspect that we believe this only because we know that there were non-Christian Jews throughout the ages. But what actually happened around the time of the early church? After all, the possibility that lots of Jews did convert to Christianity early on is entirely consistent with the possibility that some Jews did not convert.
Consider, first, a claim made by Richard John Neuhaus in the February 2005 issue of “First Things” (Please note that I am completely dependent on the accuracy of the sources he cites):
“Scholars generally agree that in the first century there were approximately six million Jews in the Roman Empire . . . That was about one tenth of the entire population. About one million were in Palestine, including today’s State of Israel, while those in the diaspora were very much part of the establishment in cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople. . . . Some scholars have noted that, by the fourth or fifth century, there were only a few hundred thousand, at most a million, people who identified themselves as Jews. What happened to the millions of others? The most likely answer, it is suggested, is that they became Christians.”
This would certainly be consistent with the typical pattern in the OT: Israel sins and is judged by God. The judgment results in Israel’s mourning her sin, and repenting of that sin. In response, God forgives her. Jesus seems to anticipate the same sequence her. God disciplines Israel in the Tribulation, in response, she recognizes her sin and repents.
Commentators often take Ro 11 to indicate that there is a (still) future conversion of Jews expected. But note the “nows” in Ro 11.30-31: Gentiles have “now” been shown mercy because Israel is “now” disobedient, but because Gentiles are “now” shown mercy, Israel will also “now” be shown mercy. So Paul seems to anticipate that mercy will be shown to Israel proximately. That is consistent with the typical OT pattern as well as with the evidence that Neuhaus identifies.
So it appears possible that Israel by and large did see Jesus as the ascended messiah, and received him as such.
As Paul writes, “to the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Ro 1.16). In verse 31 Jesus describes the great, continuing work of gathering his church. Angels are God’s messengers, whether spiritual or human. The trumpet announces God’s presence and work (Ex 19.16-17, Is 27.12-13). God gathers his elect from the whole world (Zech 2, Rev 21.2-3, 22.5, Heb 12.22-23). The picture here could be taken as a sort of de-Babelization as God regathers that which he dispersed (Gn 11.8).
After v. 31, Jesus then moves to talk about the proximity of the event, and the need to be prepared. But these verses in themselves are the good news about the coming judgment: Israel repents, and in her repentance she blesses the nations (which is her Abrahamic calling, after all).
As a final note, just to be clear, let me note that I believe in the bodily resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous in a judgment at the end of this age (Rev 20.11-15 (Rev 21-22). Acts 24.14-15, Dn 12.2, Is 26.19, Jn 5.24-29, Jn 11.24, 2 Co 4.14, 5.10, 1 Co 15.12-58 (esp. vv. 12, 25-26, 35, 42-44, 51-57 w/ Rev 20.14), Ro 8.18-25). It’s just that I don’t think that Jesus is at all talking about that event in Mt 24-25.