“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.’” – Matt. 24:29
The apocalyptic language that Jesus uses to describe the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is often misunderstood as being about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.
At the beginning of what’s called the “Olivet Discourse”, Jesus and his disciples are at the Temple. The disciples point to the stones and marvel at how amazing it is. They say “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
And Jesus responds by saying: “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”
This obviously disturbs them and so they ask Jesus: “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
And everything after that is an answer to those two questions.
The “end of the age” is not the “end of the world”. The age that is coming to an end is the Jewish age because their priesthood, their daily sacrifice, their temple and their status as a nation is about to be wiped off the face of the earth.
In this context, the “coming of the Lord” is similar to what is said about the Lord riding on the clouds as He brought judgment against Egypt:
“Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.” – Isaiah 19:1
Did God saddle up a cloud and come riding through the sky when He judged the nation of Egypt? No, that’s not what happened.
What did happen was that armies from another nation attacked Egypt and they experienced the “coming of the Lord” who was “riding on a swift cloud” against them.
This is what Jesus intends to communicate when, in the context of pronouncing a similar judgment against Jerusalem and their Temple, he says:
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” – Mark 13:26
Jesus even goes so far as to let them know the time frame of when these events will take place:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” – Mark 13:30
And Jesus was correct. The temple was destroyed in AD 70, just as He predicted it would be, with no stone left upon another and in the lifetime of those who were hearing Him pronounce this prophetic judgment.
What about where Jesus refers to the things like the sun and the moon not giving their light? What about His prophecy about the stars falling from the sky? Doesn’t that mean the world and the universe are being destroyed?
Much like the previous use of the “fire is not quenched and their worm does not die” language mentioned above, this is apocalyptic hyperbole.
Here’s a few examples:
Isaiah prophesies against Babylon:
“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, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.” – Isaiah 13:9-11
Ezekiel prophesies against Egypt:
“And when I shall put thee [Pharaoh] 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 I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 30:18; 32:7-8
Amos prophesies against Israel about how the Assyrians will destroy them:
“in that day, declares the Sovereign Lord, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight” – Amos 8:9
Isaiah prophesies against Edom:
Poetic, not literal.
No stars were harmed in the destruction of Edom. No moons or suns were actually extinguished when Babylon and Egypt got sacked. No heavens were actually rolled into a taco.
Now, go back and read what Jesus says about the destruction of the Temple and the “end of the age” that is coming to Jerusalem within a single generation. If you do, you’ll notice he uses the exact same phrases, and when he does the disciples understand that the moon, and the sun, and the stars and the sky will not literally turn to blood, or be extinguished, or fall, or be rolled up in a rubber band.
They knew – where we do not seem to know – that this was very common Old Testament-style apocalyptic language used to communicate a very real day of destruction and judgment that was about to come to pass.
The language is figurative, but the destruction is very, very real.
Notice a few more examples of this type of apocalyptic hyperbole:
“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the Lord…The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth” – Zephaniah 1:2-3
Note: Zephaniah prophesied against Judah prior to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. God did not destroy the entire planet or wipe away everything from the face of the earth, in this event.
When the prophet Joel prophesies against Judah he says this about the armies that will be used to bring the Lord’s judgment:
“The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining…” – Joel 2:4-11
Once again, this is not a promise to snuff out the sun and the moon, or to extinguish the stars in the sky. It’s a promise to bring a cataclysmic level of doom upon Judah because of their sins.
Got it?[I hope so]
Here’s a bonus example for you.
When Jesus says:
Of course you do. Because in the Old Testament this sort of language was used over and over again to overstate the severity and horror of the judgment to come:
“And I will do in thee that which I have not done, and whereunto I will not do any more the like, because of all thine abominations.” – Ezekiel 5:9
This was about the impending destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Jesus applied the same language to the impending destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Matt.24:21). Both events, in the common hyperbole of the day, are spoken of as if they were each uniquely horrendous, but this is simply for emphasis.
The same language is used of the locust plague mentioned in Exodus 10:14, yet the language in Joel 2:2 seems to be describing another locust plague, also uniquely horrendous and “unequaled since the beginning of the world”, etc.
But can these three events all be the worst of all time and never to be equaled again? Of course not, but that’s not the point here. The hyperbole is not literal, but the destruction is.
Similarly, Solomon was said to have been uniquely wise and magnificent, using the exact same hyperbole (1 Kings 3:12-13). Yet we know of one [Jesus] who is “greater than Solomon” (Matt.12:42).
The language of “never before, and never after” is common hyperbole, and should not be pressed to a literalness beyond that which was intended in any of its uses.
In Daniel 9:12, he says of the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar:
Really? Well, maybe up to that point, but certainly not for all time.
The point – and I do think I have made it – is that hyperbole is never literal, but the destruction always is.
If any of this helps you, please let me know in the comments below and please share it with your friends on social media.
Keith Giles is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” and he also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast. He lives in Orange, CA with his wife and two sons.