Gary responds to an Advent devotional in Christianity Today regarding Matthew 24.
A failure to understand the symbolic nature of these passages has led many popular writers (and, surprisingly, not a few scholarly ones) to assume that such expressions as “the sun turned to sackcloth and the moon to blood” can only be understood as referring to the collapse of the physical cosmos. Nobody takes these verses literally, of course, so the question is: What kind of event does this symbolic language refer to? For modern man, it seems that it can only be speaking of the end of the natural world. For ancient man, it was indeed the end of the “world” that such language indicated, but not the “world” in our modern scientific sense. Rather, it was the end of the “world” in a socio-political sense.
For instance, Isaiah 13:9-10 says that “the day of Yahweh is coming,” and when it comes, “the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.” It goes on to say in verse 13, “I shall make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of Yahweh of hosts in the day of His burning anger.”
Well, this certainly does sound like the end of the world! But, if we read these verses in context, we have to change our initial impression. Verse 1 says, “The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw,” and if we read on, we find nothing to indicate any change in subject. It is the end of Babylon, not the end of the world, that is spoken of. In fact, in verse 17, God says that He will “stir up the Medes against them,” so that the entire chapter is clearly concerned only with Babylon’s destruction.
If we read Biblically, this won’t seem so strange. What verse 10 is saying is that Babylon’s lights are going to go out. Their clocks are going to stop. Their day is over, and it is the Day of Doom for them. Their time has run out, and the cosmic clocks are going to be turned off as far as they are concerned. And, since these astral bodies symbolize governors and rulers, their rulers are going to have their lights put out as well. All of this imagery arises directly from what is said about the astral lights in Genesis 1:14-16.
The “heavens and earth” in verse 13 refer to the socio-political organization of Babylon. The “heavens” are the aristocracy, roughly speaking, and the “earth” is the commoners.
Matthew 23-25: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary
Those who first read Matthew’s gospel only would have had as an interpretive reference what we describe as the Old Testament. They were living the history that Jesus said would take place before their generation passed away. They would have immediately noted the Old Testament parallels with the abomination of desolation, the judgment on Sodom and fleeing to the mountains to escape the coming conflagration, false prophets, signs in the sun, moon, and stars, the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, and so much more.Buy Now
A reading for the first week of Advent in Lectionary A is from Matthew 24. A devotional published on Christianity Today’s website by Craig Blomberg admits that while it sounds like the events in the second half of Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse are for Jesus’ first century audience, they really can’t be because the “cosmic” language was not actually fulfilled.