To begin, there is no reason to suppose these are signs of the end of the world. In Matthew 24, the scene starts off in Jerusalem with Jesus telling the disciples that the magnificent Temple will be utterly demolished. Leaving the city, the disciples arrive at the Mount of Olives for the evening. Obviously disturbed about the destruction of their Temple, the disciples asked Jesus two questions:
"what [shall be] the sign of (1)thy coming, and of (2)the end of the world?" (Matt. 24:3)
Obviously the disciples equated Christ's coming in judgment upon Jerusalem to be the same event as the end of the world. Jesus then proceeded to explain all the events that would transpire prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. In describing Jerusalem's impending doom, he also answered their question about the "end of the world" because the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadows the end of the world. Since the context of the entire conversation, and the reason for initiating the conversation was the disciples' questions regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, once must assume that the primary emphasis of Christ's discourse was upon that subject. This does not mean that Christ was talking exclusively of the destruction of Jerusalem in His discourse, but the 70AD event is the primary focus of the talk.
Given that the primary emphasis of Jesus' prophecy was the destruction of Jerusalem, we should focus our attention on the fulfillment of these signs prior to 70 AD. Jesus said:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. (Matt. 24:29)
Immediately after saying this, Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." (Matt. 24:34) Now, some would have us believe that Jesus was a liar, and that "these things" would happen long after "this generation" passed away. On the contrary, Jesus could not have stated it any clearer: "these things"--the events just described by Him in the prior verses including the signs--would transpire during "this generation."
Signs in the Heavens - Jesus' Olivet Discourse12
The words "immediately after the tribulation of those days," show, that he [Jesus] is not speaking of any distant event, but of something immediately following the tribulation just mentioned, and that must be the destruction of Jerusalem. The word "immediately" is the Greek word eutheos, it means directly, at once or soon, as soon as, forthwith, immediately, shortly, straightway. Notice carefully when this takes place -- immediately after the tribulation of those days. We have seen that the tribulation happened in 67-70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem so what ever this verse is referring to, happened immediately afterward.
If you are not familiar with the apocalyptic language of the Old Testament, you will not understand what Christ is saying here. This language is common among the Old Testament prophets. This idea is seen clearly as we look at passages where mention is made of the destruction of a state and government using language which seems to set forth the end of the world.
In Isaiah 13:1, God is talking about the judgment that is to fall upon Babylon. The word "burden" is the Hebrew word massa, an utterance, chiefly a doom. This introduction sets the stage for the subject matter in this chapter, and if we forget this, our interpretations of Isaiah 13 can go just about anywhere our imagination wants to go. This is not an oracle against the universe or world but against the nation of Babylon.
Isaiah 13:6,9-13, "Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty. 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, 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. I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir. Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger."
In Isaiah 13:6, 9-13, he is speaking about the destruction of Babylon, but is sounds like world wide destruction. The terminology of a context cannot be expanded beyond the scope of the subject under discussion. The spectrum of language surely cannot go outside the land of Babylon. If you were a Babylonian and Babylon was destroyed, would it seem like the world was destroyed? Yes! Your world would be destroyed.
Isaiah 13:17 is an historical event that took place in 539 BC. When the Medes destroyed Babylon, the Babylonian world came to an end. This destruction is said, in verse 6, to be from the Almighty, and the Medes constitute the means that God uses to accomplish this task. This is apocalyptic language. This is the way the Bible discusses the fall of a nation. This is obviously figurative language. God did not intend for us to take this literally. If we take this literally, the world ended in 539 BC.
In Isaiah 34:3-5, we have a description of the fall of Edom, notice the language that is used. This is Biblical language to describe the fall of a nation. It should be clear that it is not to be taken literally.
Isaiah 34:3-5, "Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment."
Let's look at other Old Testament use of this language.
Nahum 1:1-5, "The burden of Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. God is jealous, and the LORD revengeth; the LORD revengeth, and is furious; the LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein."
The subject of this judgment in Nahum 1:1-5 is Nineveh, not the physical world. This is the way God describes the fall of a nation. If this language describes the judgment of God on nations, why, when we come to the New Testament, do we make it be the destruction of the universe? It is only because we do not understand how the Bible uses this apocalyptic language.
Ezekiel speaks in the same manner of Egypt (Ezekiel 32:7-8):
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 I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord GOD.
The prophet Daniel speaks, in the same manner, of the slaughter of the Jews by the little horn (Daniel 8:10):
And it waxed great, [even] to the host of heaven; and it cast down [some] of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them.
In the prophetic language, great commotions and revolutions upon earth are often represented by commotions and changes in the heavens. None of these things literally took place!
Milton Terry said,
"From these quotations it is apparent that there is scarcely an expression employed in Matthew and Luke which has not been taken from the Old Testament Scriptures. Such apocalyptic forms of speech are not to be assumed to convey in the New Testament a meaning different from that which they bear in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are part and parcel of the genius of prophetic language."
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) said,
"The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom... Great earthquakes, and the shaking of heaven and earth, are put for the shaking of kingdoms, so as to distract and overthrow them; the creating of a new heaven and earth, and the passing of an old one; or the beginning and end of a world, for the rise and ruin of a body politic signified thereby. The sun, for the whole species and race of kings, in the kingdoms of the world politic; the moon, for the body of common people considered as the king's wife; the starts, for subordinate princes and great men; or for bishops and rulers of the people of God, when the sun is Christ. Setting of the sun, moon, and stars; darkening the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom." (Observations on the Prophecies, Part i. chap. ii)
We see this apocalyptic language used all through the book of Revelation. I believe that the book of Revelation is an expanded version of the Olivet Discourse. Notice how John used apocalyptic language. Is Revelation 6:13-17 talking about the end of the world in our future? NO! John is dealing with Jerusalem's destruction in AD 70. Look at what Jesus said as he was on his way to be crucified (Luke 23:28-30): Jesus was telling the women of His day to weep for THEMSELVES because judgment was going to come upon THEM. In Revelation 6, during the great tribulation which happened in AD 67-70, we see them crying out for the mountains to fall on them, just as Jesus said they would. This language is picturing the response of sinful man to the awful judgment of God.
The biblical evidence is overwhelming, the Olivet Discourse, in its entirety, is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The only thing that would make us push any of these things into the future are our own presuppositions. In this vivid picturesque language Jesus is describing Jerusalem's destruction. In AD 70, the lights went out in Israel for good. When the tribulation was over, physical Israel ceased to exist. God's people were no longer distinguished by physical birth, but by spiritual birth alone. The Old Covenant was over, and the New Covenant fully instituted.
Signs in the Heavens - Revelation 6
The language in Revelation 6 is taken from the prophet Joel, of whom the first-century Jewish readers of Revelation would have been well familiar. Joel spoke of the upcoming invasion by Assyrian armies with the same figurative and hyperbolic language that is found in Revelation 6.
12 - And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
13 - And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
14 - And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
17 - For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
2 - A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains...
10 - 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:
11 - ...for the day of the LORD [is] great and very terrible; and who can abide it?
Did the sun and moon stop shining, and did the earth quake when Assyria invaded Israel? No, these are figures of speech describing the upsetting of the order of things. John Calvin explains:
And then he says, "A day of darkness and of thick darkness, a
day of clouds and of obscurity, as the dawn which expands over the
mountains". By calling it a dark and gloomy day, he wished to show that there would be no hope of deliverance;
for, according to the
common usage of Scripture, we know that by light is designated a
cheerful and happy state, or the hope of deliverance from any
affliction: but the Prophet now extinguishes, as it were, every hope
in this world, when he declares that the day of Jehovah would be
dark, that is, without hope of restoration.
Thus we can see how the prophet Joel used figurative symbols and hyperbole to describe the changes that were to come upon Israel when they were invaded by the Assyrians. Many were killed, some were taken captive, and others fled. It was a time of terrible upheaval for the Israelites.
Then he adds, "Before their face shall the earth tremble, and
in anguish shall be the heavens; the sun and the moon shall become
dark, and the stars shall withdraw their brightness". The Prophet
speaks here more hyperbolically...13
Joel used similar language to describe the day of Pentecost:
And it shall come to pass afterward, [that] I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: ... And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come. (Joel 2:28,30,31)
This prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost, as acknowledged by Peter who quoted Joel 2:28-31 and said "what you see this morning was predicted centuries ago by the prophet Joel." (Acts 2:16 NLT) Did the people at Pentecost literally see blood, fire, and pillars of smoke on Pentecost? No, this was figurative language about the upsetting of an old world order, the end of Judaism's exclusive status as God's people, and the establishment of God's Kingdom upon this earth ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Likewise, Revelation 6 speaks of the upsetting of the old world order of the Jews using the same figurative and hyperbolic language as Joel. Their world was about to be forever changed in 70 AD as their temple is destroyed, the Old Covenant is cancelled, and their holy city is destroyed and given to the gentiles to be trampled under foot until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled.