NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 29: “Right after the trouble of those days, this will happen: ‘The sun will become dark, and the moon will not give light. The stars will fall from the sky, and everything in the sky will be changed.’”
The language used here is very close to what we find in John’s Revelation. Therefore, it would be reasonable to believe that He was speaking of those days in the future.1 The phenomenon that will include the sun, moon and stars were also seen by Isaiah, “The skies will be dark. The sun, the moon, and the stars will not shine.”2 The Lord shared something similar with Ezekiel, “I will cover the sky and make the stars dark. I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not shine. I will darken the lights in the sky over you.”3 Scholars believe that it is important to note that this prophecy does not mean that the light of the sun will go out so that the moon will not be able to reflect its rays. Rather, that the sun will be so obscured it will become almost impossible to see.
On one occasion, years ago, I witnessed an eclipse of the sun in the middle of the day. Everything became dark, and because the sun was behind the moon, the moon became a black sphere in the sky. Also, the original Greek word used here for “stars” actually means “heavenly lights.” We know today there are many such lights that streak across our skies; some that hit the earth have caused considerable damage, and we call them meteors.
At the same time, some Bible scholars take these as symbols that speak of things to be explained in a figurative and metaphorical sense. In the prophetic language of that day, the sun, moon, and stars were often used as symbols of nations, cities, and powerful leaders. For instance, in John’s Revelation, we read: “And then a great wonder appeared in heaven: There was a woman who was clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet. She had a crown of twelve stars on her head… Then another wonder appeared in heaven: There was a giant red dragon there. The dragon had seven heads with a crown on each head. It also had ten horns. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and threw them down to the earth.”4 Yet, some Bible scholars do believe that Jesus was, in fact, referring to actual planets and stars in the sky.
The Jews, on the other hand, saw the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in a different light. In their writings, the Rabbis equated the sun, moon, and stars with their religious leaders. They said: “…from the time that the temple was destroyed, the wise men, and sons of nobles, were put to shame, and they covered their heads; liberal men were reduced to poverty; and men of violence and defamation prevailed; and there were none that expounded, or inquired, or asked. Rabbi Eliezer the great,5 said, from the time the sanctuary was destroyed, the wise men began to be like Scribes, and the Scribes like to the Chazans, (or sextons that looked after the synagogues,) and the Chazans like to the common people, and the common people grew worse and worse, and there were none that inquired and asked.”6 But this was not our Lord’s focus, it was something else that was coming.
Verse 30: “Then there will be something in the sky that shows the Son of Man is coming. All the people of the world will weep. Everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in the sky. He will come with power and great glory.”
Scholars are divided on whether these next three verses are an indication of the rapture or the second coming of Christ to set up His kingdom to rule and reign on earth for a thousand years. It echoes what Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there in front of me was someone who looked like a human being. He was coming on the clouds in the sky. He came up to the Ancient King, and the King’s servants brought him before the King.”7
Our Lord’s mention of the world weeping at His appearance in the clouds may have been a veiled reference to the words we find in Zechariah: “I will fill David’s family and the people living in Jerusalem with a spirit of acceptance and supplication. They will look to me, the one they pierced, and they will be very sad. They will be as sad as someone crying over the death of their only son, as sad as someone crying over the death of their firstborn son.”8
These words are almost repeated verbatim by our Lord as He stood before the high priest after being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was in response to the question: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?”9 It is also the message John sent in his letter to the seven churches in the province of Asia: “Look, Jesus is coming with the clouds! Everyone will see Him, even those who pierced Him. All peoples of the earth will cry loudly because of Him. Yes, this will happen! Amen.”10
Verse 31: “He will use a loud trumpet to send His angels all around the earth. They will gather His chosen people from every part of the earth.”
All that Jesus speaks about in the previous verses are merely omens of what was really coming – the gathering of all the saints. Even as we find throughout John’s Revelation, trumpets are used to announce an event. It is noteworthy that Jesus will not be the one who comes to gather these saints, but angels. The prophets foretold the gathering of the Jewish people for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, “He will gather the people of Israel and Judah who were forced to leave their country. They were scattered to all the faraway places on earth. But He will raise the flag as a sign for the other nations, and He will gather His people together again.”11 But this gathering, spoken of here, will be different. Many scholars believe these are those we remained faithful and true during the tribulation, most of whom will be Jewish believers.
As a matter of fact, in Jewish writings we find this: “…in the after redemption (i.e. by the Messiah) all Israel shall be gathered together by the sound of a trumpet, from the four parts of the world.’”12 The writer may have been thinking about a different redemption, but it sure seems to fit the one described here by Matthew. Then our Lord turns His attention back to His followers to give them a clue on when to expect these things.
The early church fathers sought to find various spiritual lessons in words pertaining to those who respond to the Gospel and grow in the Word so as to be lifted up to heavenly places with Christ.13 But they say very little, if anything, about this applying to a rapture of the saints or the return of Christ to set up His kingdom. So these words can be taken as the disciples understood them, as Jesus’ opponents understood them, and as believers today can understand them. But what does not change is the promise that when it happens, it will be seen by everyone alive at the time as the trumpet sounds, and all eyes will behold His descent to earth in power and great glory.
As far as we know, there is no record found in the writings of the apostles or their successors, nor in any documents recorded since our Lord’s ascension, that this event has ever taken place. Therefore, whether it is the sudden return of Christ in the air to catch up those believers who are alive, and resurrect those who are asleep in the grave, or when He returns to set up His millennial kingdom, it is still in the future. Our mission, therefore, is not to try and predict when this will take place, but to work all the harder for God’s kingdom because we know from the signs that it is near and it could happen at any moment.
1 See Revelation 6:12-13; 8:12
2 Isaiah 13:10
3 Ezekiel 32:7-8; Cf. Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15
4 Revelation 12:1-4
5 Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkonus was one of the great teachers of the period when the Mishna was being formed. He was known in the Talmud simply as Rabbi Eliezer although there are references to him as Rabbi Eliezer the great. He was one of the teachers of Rabbi Akiva and lived during the last period of the Second Temple.
6 Jewish Mishnah, Tractate Sotah, (Chap. 9:15).
7 Daniel 7:13
8 Zechariah 12:10
9 Matthew 26:63-64
10 Revelation 1:7
11 Isaiah 11:12
12 Zohar on Leviticus, folio 47a
13 See Ephesians 2:6