Friday, January 11, 2013

The End Back Then, Part 4: Jesus' Return

We are tracing through the verses where Jesus described the events leading up to the end of the world. First He warned His disciples of upcoming false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. Then He explained that they would become witnesses to the world. He then went on to describe the ultimate in distress which would occur in the Siege of Jerusalem; horror which would never be equaled again. All of that terror would culminate in the return of Jesus...

This is Part 4 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 4: Jesus' Return
It would be impossible to mistake the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, right? I mean, that would be a major event worldwide... no, universe-wide! One way to mistake it would be to misinterpret metaphors; to change what the text means in order to suit your own beliefs. While some may accuse me of doing just that, I think we should turn to the text and let it define itself. And if that does not match reality, that does not necessarily mean that the interpretation is wrong. There is another possible outcome, as we will see while we examine the signs of Jesus' Second Coming.

In Matthew 24:23-31, Mark 13:21-27, Luke 17:22-24, and Luke 21:25-28 we find verses all describing when Jesus will return. Matthew 24:23, which is nearly a word-for-word copy of Mark 13:21, begins with a reference to timing:
"At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it." NIV
"At that time"? When was that? This is conjoined to the preceding text, where it was describing the Siege of Jerusalem, so we should logically conclude that this means at a point in time in relatively close proximity to then.

Matthew 24:24-25 and Mark 13:22-23 go on to warn not to follow miracle-working false Christs who will try to trick the Elect, which is impossible, but they will try anyway. Of course, if tricking the Elect is impossible, then why bother warning them not to follow these miracle workers?

Wait just a minute. Miracle-working false Christs? Who, exactly, is giving them the power to work miracles?

The knee-jerk Christian reflex would be to say that it is Satan who is behind this, but that is just because most Christians either do not know or selectively ignore parts of the Bible. The deceivers likely come from God Himself.

What?!?! Oh yes. First, from where does all power ultimately come? God. But if that is not enough proof, I should remind you that tests of deception, up to and including miracle-working prophets, are part of God's playbook (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). So when you read in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-11 that "God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie," you know what we are talking about here.

Now you may have noticed that I have been silent on Luke's account. There is a reason for that. While Luke does warn of being led to false Christs, he wisely edited out the thought that they would be able to work miracles (Luke 17:23). That is not all the editing he did. Luke apparently was not a fan of the concept of the Elect, because he edited out that reference from his Gospel; both here and everywhere else!

Moving on, we hit one of those really odd patches of verses where Matthew and Luke both have content that Mark does not have. In Matthew 24:27-28, Jesus told His disciples that His return would be visible all over the world like a flash of lightning, and that vultures gather around corpses. I am not really sure what that last part about the vultures is supposed to mean, and I am not particularly satisfied by any of the explanations given in the classic commentaries. However, Luke takes a crack at it for us.

In Luke 17:24, Jesus also explained about His lightning-like visibility on His return. Then, a little later in Luke 17:37, we find a similar vulture-related comment. Luke 17:35-36 does provide some contextual meaning for these vultures, because in those verses Jesus explained that when He returned, certain people would be "taken." So when we get to Luke 17:37, a disciple asked "Where?," as in where will these people be taken? It is then that Jesus replied about vultures gathering around corpses, which still leaves the verse a bit open for interpretation despite Luke's added context, because, for example, we do not know if it is the good people or the bad people who are "taken". The idea of the gathering of the Elect (which we will see a little later) would suggest it is the good ones who are taken, but then, metaphorically, they are the vultures gathering around the corpse, which seems exceedingly odd.

Next we come to the shared sentiment of Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24-25:
"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.'" NIV
Note the time frame again: immediately following those days, referring to the Siege of Jerusalem. Immediately is a relative term, for sure, and within the span of five or so years could be a reasonable interpretation, but two thousand years... not so much.

Besides the timing, what does the rest of that verse mean? Sun darkened? Moon not giving its light? (That, by the way, is another tell of bad Biblical science, given that the moon does not produce light of its own.) Stars falling? Heavens shaking? Sounds like some miraculous metaphysical manipulation! While this could be meant literally, like the Plague of Darkness on the Egyptians, this is most likely to be metaphorical, but what does the metaphor mean?

Classic Bible commenter John Gill suggests that the darkened sun refers to "...the Shekinah, or the divine presence in the temple...", i.e. God leaving the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and the darkened moon refers to "...the [Jewish] ceremonial law, the moon, the church is said to have under her feet, Revelation 12:1 so called because the observance of new moons was one part of it..." The problem is that Jesus already took care of this. God left the Temple when the curtain was torn (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45), and Jesus allegedly ended ceremonial law too. So that is a nice try, but let us let Scripture guide the interpretation instead.

In Isaiah 5:30, Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7, Joel 2:10, Joel 2:31, Joel 3:15, Amos 8:9, and Micah 3:6 you find similar references to these celestial signs. In fact, let us take a look at Ezekiel 32:7 for example:
"When I (God) snuff you (Egypt) out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light." NIV
Given that this language is applied to Egypt, we can know with some certainty that this is no allusion to God leaving the Temple or the end of Jewish ceremonial law. ;-) However, what you probably picked up on in this verse is God's judgement of condemnation.

Darkening the sun, the moon, and the stars is a metaphor which is connected with God's judgement, and it means that essentially that the subjects of this judgement are without hope. There is no sun to light their path by day. There is no moon to track the months to tell the seasons. There are no stars to guide them. In short: at that point, there is no way that they can escape their judgement.

You may have noticed the multiple references above in Joel. Take a quick read through Joel 2 and you will see that this metaphor here in the Gospels was most likely meant as a reference to the Judgement Day.

Continuing on, Matthew 24:30 and Luke 21:27-28 both share the sentiment of what Mark 13:26 concisely expressed:
"At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." NIV
Again we see that this is to occur at "that time." By Biblical prophesy standards, all of these time references are pretty darn precise, and all point to the time around the Siege of Jerusalem and the time soon thereafter.

Now, what does that phrase "see the Son of Man coming in clouds" mean? Well, our friend John Gill thinks that it is a metaphor; that "...he (Jesus) shall appear, not in person, but in the power of his wrath and vengeance, on the Jewish nation which will be a full sign and proof of his being come." Indeed, there are other verses where God's vengeance came with clouds, such as Isaiah 19:1, Isaiah 30:27, Lamentations 2:1, and the above-quoted Ezekiel 32:7.

So Gill's suggestion on this verse is reasonable and closer to the mark, but he is still way off target. God's vengeance would be displayed, but in the much larger context Judgement day. The verse itself was likely inspired by and intended to allude to Daniel 7:13-14:
"In my (Daniel's) vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." NIV
Does that sound like anyone we are supposed to know? ;-) Conveniently for us, this prophesy is explicitly explained in Daniel 7:23-27, with another reference to 3.5 years ("a time, times and half a time") like we saw in my earlier post on the Temple destruction which quoted a different prophesy from Daniel. Daniel's prophesy stated that at the end of this three and a half years there would be a swift act of judgement, and then God's eternal kingdom would be established!

Make no mistake. What Jesus allegedly prophesied here is the end of the world, and the timing was explicitly claimed to be shortly after the fall of the Temple. In fact, stepping up to the earlier verse with the celestial signs, there is the curious mention that the stars would fall from the heavens. There is only one Old Testament reference to stars actually falling: Isaiah 34:4. Isaiah 34 is a prophesy of judgement against all nations. This was an explicit reference to Jesus coming back, in person (Revelation 1:7), initiating the final Judgement Day.

Closing out this prophesy, that is why in Matthew 24:31 and Mark 13:27 you see that at that time Jesus would send forth angels to gather the Elect from the four winds (another bad Biblical science reference). The Elect would be saved from experiencing the intense tribulation of that dreadful day. This is but an echo of prior Old Testament prophesies, as we see in Ezekiel 34:12:
"As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I (God) look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness." NIV


  1. This ties in well to my series too. Thanks for the info. I knew most of it, but you make it so much more concise then me.

  2. Thanks Angela. Your series definitely has a perspective outside of the mainstream. It is really ponderous. :-) I am not sure what to make of it all yet.

  3. Great post. I have 2 comments

    1. The bit from 2 thessalonians was definitely up there pretty high on surprising things I found reading the new testament. To think that it explicitly says that God tricked people with the intention of punishing them is pretty terrible. It's not that he is testing them and then punishing them if they fail the test, he wants to punish them so he is tricking them. He's a monster.

    2. How is "a time, times and half a time" 3.5 years?

  4. Thanks Hausdorff!

    1) It does put a bad light on God, does it not? Also, it makes you wonder just what is so terrible about Heaven that people need to be so thoroughly tested in order to get in. I mean, friends do need to depend on friends in times of need, but what times of need will there be in Heaven? In good times, a "fair-weather friend" is just as good as a "tried and true" friend." If it is just an aspect of testing devotion, humans are fickle creatures, so I doubt any test would be good to prove an eternity of consistent behavior.

    2) Ah, that is a challenging one. I did not come up with that interpretation on my own, but I cannot remember where I first heard it. If you poke around at some of the classic Bible commentaries you will find multiple sources, I am sure. Basically the math works like this:

    time (1) + times (?) + half a time (0.5) = ? + 1.5

    So we know it is at least 1.5. The plural "times" indicates that it is greater than 1 and a multiple of time, which in this case means that it should be a positive integer. 2 is the lowest number to be used acceptably. I would argue that other numbers could be used as well. Why not 3, or 4, or 625? But looking at context of other prophesies within Daniel itself, there appears to be a strong likelihood that 2 is the correct number to use.

    My work schedule is really aggressive right now, but I do hope to get back to your posts soon... once I can breath again!

  5. "In good times, a "fair-weather friend" is just as good as a "tried and true" friend."

    That's kind of awesome.

    times=2 makes sense I suppose. Probably just one of those things that used to be a figure of speech or something.

    I know what you mean about work. One of the nice things about blogging is it is the appropriate thing to let slide when life gets hectic.

  6. Yeah, Hausdorff, "times" could very well be an antiquated figure of speech. I think it could also be the author of the prophesy trying to make it seem all the more mystical. A time, times, and half a time sounds more meaningful, if less explicit, than 3.5. ;-)

  7. TWF:

    There is cause to distinguish the "one like a son of man" from the "saints of the Most High", I think, as it is stated that all will 'serve' him. The word translated 'serve' is always used in reference to a deity in the Book of Daniel (and once in, I believe, Ezra or Nehemiah in reference to temple servants of God) and is even used in reference to the Most High in the second Daniel text mentioned.

  8. Hi Felix,

    I am not sure that I understand the point you are trying to make. I wasn't conflating the "son of man" with the "saints of the Most High" (or "holy people" as the NIV renders the phrase in Daniel 7:18, 22, 25, 27). Plus, I would venture to say that whether or not "serve" is only used for deities in Daniel depends on your interpretations of the prophesies, wouldn't it?