From time to time we are honored to share articles by Terry Cropper. He is a very good student of the Word. This article deals with the importance of understanding the nature of “apocalyptic language.” This is a highly important subject, so be sure to read carefully!
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 (Matthew 24:29, NKJV)
When the gentiles started coming into the church directly from the Roman Empire they had no previous experience of how God’s Old Testament prophets used imagery and figurative language to describe historical events. And because of this literal understanding of scripture many today still believe that this text is talking about a literal destruction of the world.
However the first thing that we must understand is since the writers of the Old Testament used such highly figurative language to picture the actions of God, the writers of the New Testament, and Jesus in particular would use the same kind of imagery to describe events of historic proportions as well? This language that was spoken by the prophets was studied in the synagogue on the Sabbath and in homes. This is the reason Jesus chose to use this language in Matthew 24:29.
The problem is, Gentiles were not accustomed to dealing with such figurative language like a “new heaven and new earth,” “the shaking of the heavens and earth” the sun being darkened and the stars falling, and even the Parousia of Christ without thinking literally. However to the Jews, this type of imagery and figurative language was natural. Matthew 24:29 is not a new revelation by our Lord. The Old Testament passages refer to the same kind of events that Christ describes in Matthew 24:29.
To help you understand how the Jews communicated in terms of figurative language, lets first start with (Genesis 37:9-10). This is the way imagery is used in the Old Testament. This is the story of the family of Jacob. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he was tending the flocks with his brothers; he was an assistant to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah, and Joseph brought their father bad reports about them.
Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his brothers, they hated him so much that they could not say a kind word to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers, they hated him even more. He said, “Listen,” I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
His brothers said to him, “Are you really going to make yourself king over us? Will you rule over us?” So they hated him all the more because of his dreams and his reports. Then he had another dream, and told it to his brothers. “Look, I had another dream,” he said; “this time, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told it to his father and his brothers, his father reproved him and asked, “What is the meaning of this dream of yours? Can it be that I and your mother and your (brothers are to come and bow to the ground before you)?” emphasis, added.
So his brothers were furious at him but his father kept the matter in mind. As you can see, Joseph dream was related to his father, mother, and brothers, not the universe.
Matthew’s Jewish readers were certainly well versed in this sort of figurative language also and understood the meaning. The sun, darkening and the moon not giving its light; and the stars falling from the sky, represents the ceasing of a kingdom.”
The prophet Isaiah is a good example of how this symbolic language is used in Jewish thought. This type of apocalyptic, figurative language, was used to describe the desolation and judgment of God by invading forces. Take for example the prophesied fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 BC.
“Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. And I will punish the world for their evil…” (Isaiah 13:9-11).”
Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in history when the Medes conquered Babylon (Isaiah 13:17-18):
Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, Who will not regard silver; And as for gold, they will not delight in it. 18 Also their bows will dash the young men to pieces, And they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb; Their eye will not spare children.
The identity of God’s destroying troops are the Medes. The Day of the LORD is a period of time when the LORD enters human history in order to bring about judgment by foreign armies upon man because of his evil.
There is no question about when these things would happen. Isaiah draws upon the imagery of judgment in these verses that sound as if they are world-ending events. However whenever there was an overthrow of the rulers and the authorities of a nation it was represented by the sun, moon, and stars not giving their light.
Now notice the language of the prophet Ezekiel against Egypt: “And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 32:7-7). This applied to Egypt, as mentioned in verse. 2, 12, 16.
It’s clear that our Lord has quoted part of Israel’s prophets in His declaration about the sun and moon in Matthew 24:29 to represent the overthrow of the rulers and kingdom and political authority of the Jews. Jesus previously said “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. 44 And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.” (Matthew 21:43-44)
When Jesus said, “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 (Matthew 24:29) His aim is to stare up the memory of his Jewish audience about what was written in their Old Testament scriptures. He is referring to the overthrow of the Mosaic dispensation, or Jewish governments, dominions and political states. And Matthews Jewish readers were certainly well versed in this figurative language.
Note: For an in-depth examination of the apocalyptic language of Scripture, get a copy of my book, The Elements Shall Melt With Fervent Heat. This book contains a wealth of documentation showing that what so many Bible students claim are predictions of the “end of time” were never intended to predict any such thing.