“Four blood moons!” said popular books. If we interpret the following passages literally, then the cosmos (earth, sky, heavens, stars, worlds, seas, planets, sun, moon, and so on) would not exist as we observe it today. Instead, let’s use wisdom to interpret the Bible in its context.
The context of these passages is apocalyptic and prophetic, combined. This genre of Scripture uses elevated cosmic language to express God’s judgment on nations and kings and even the world. Or this genre may indicate a major shift in how God deals with humanity, from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, for example.
First, let’s look at apocalyptic language in the three parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Notice what happens to the cosmos.
|Matthew 24:7-8, 27, 29-31 (My translation)||Mark 13:7, 24-27||Luke 17:24; 21:10-11; 25-28 (My translation)|
|7 For nations shall rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 But all these things are the beginning of birth pangs. (vv. 7-8) For just as the lightning comes out from the east and shines to the west, in this way shall the visitation [parousia] of the son of Man be. (v. 27)
29 And immediately after the tribulation of those days, The sun shall darken and the moon shall not give off its light [Is. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15]
And the stars shall fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heaven be shaken. [Is. 34:4; Haggai 2:6; 21]
30 And at that time the sign of the son of Man shall appear in the heaven, and then all the tribes of the land shall mourn and ‘see the son of Man coming on clouds of heaven’ [Dan. 7:13] 31 And he shall send out his angels with a great trumpet and gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (vv. 29-31)
|7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. (vv. 7-8)
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (vv. 24-27, ESV)
|24 For just as flashing lightning shines from one end of the sky to the other end of the sky, so will be the Son of man in his day. (Luke 17:24)
10 Then he proceeded to tell them, “Nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There shall be powerful earthquakes and famines and pestilences everywhere. There shall be both frightening events and great signs in the heaven. (vv. 10-11)
25 Further, there shall be great signs in the sun and moon and stars and upon the earth distress of the nations and in the perplexity of the noise of the sea and rough waves, 26 so that people faint from fear and the expectation of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they shall see the son of Man coming in clouds with power and much glory. 28 When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and lift up your head because your redemption is near!” (vv. 25-28)
Apocalyptic Language in OT for Judgment of Nations or Kings or a Major Shift in How God Deals with Humanity
Do you recognize any of the same cosmic, apocalyptic imagery in these next Old Testament passages about national and royal judgment on various nations and kings in the past? I quote them because this is online writing (so no cost per printed page!) and because we need to see the verses for a change.
All passages are from the ESV, unless otherwise noted, and of course the bold font has been added.
Once again, in the following passages, the cosmos react symbolically, but not literally, or else our entire planet and cosmos would have been destroyed long ago.
1.. David was delivered from his enemies and from his enemy Saul, and the psalmist uses exalted poetic imagery for the divine rescue, on a royal level. This is judgment on behalf of God’s anointed, David, the soon king of Israel:
Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry.
8 Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
9 He bowed the heavens and came down;
thick darkness was under his feet.
10 He rode on a cherub and flew;
he came swiftly on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him,
thick clouds dark with water.
12 Out of the brightness before him
hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice,
hailstones and coals of fire.
14 And he sent out his arrows and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings and routed them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. (Ps. 18:7-15)
So God rode on a cherub and came swiftly to help his anointed servant and scattered his royal enemies with lightning. Sea channels opened up. The world’s foundations were laid bare. Note the other parallel words.
2.. Isaiah prophesied judgment against Babylon, and the cosmos reacts:
9 Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light. (Is. 13:9-10)
Stars and constellations not giving off their light? Many “stars” are actually entire galaxies, but biblical man did not know this scientifically. We accommodate his limited perspective.
3.. Isaiah prophesied about Egypt. The Lord comes on a swift cloud. Note what happens to the waters, and how the people come in conflict.
An oracle concerning 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.
2 And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians,
and they will fight, each against another
and each against his neighbor,
city against city, kingdom against kingdom; …
And the waters of the sea will be dried up … (Is. 19:1-2, 5)
Jesus knew the book of Isaiah and surely borrowed images from this prophecy, particularly kingdom fighting kingdom and neighbor against neighbor:. “Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. … You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.'” (Luke 21:10, 16).
How did waters of the sea literally dry up back then? They did not. It’s apocalyptic and prophetic pronouncements on a nation.
4.. Isaiah pronounced judgment on all the nations, and look how nature responded:
18 He who flees at the sound of the terror
shall fall into the pit,
and he who climbs out of the pit
shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened,
and the foundations of the earth tremble.
19 The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is split apart,
the earth is violently shaken.
20 The earth staggers like a drunken man;
it sways like a hut … (Is. 24:18-20)
The earth did not split apart or stagger literally.
5.. Isaiah again pronounced judgment on all nations, but particularly on Edom. The cosmos shakes and the people on earth are destroyed:
2 For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
and furious against all their host;
he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter.
3 Their slain shall be cast out,
and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
the mountains shall flow with their blood.
4 All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall,
as leaves fall from the vine,
like leaves falling from the fig tree. (Is. 34:2-4)
The host of heaven did not literally react like that when Edom was judged.
6.. Amos prophesied judgment on Israel, and nature changes:
9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight. (Amos 8:9)
7.. Jeremiah described God’s judgment on Jerusalem, and the earth and heavens and mountains change in super-charged, apocalyptic language, because, for example, the earth shall mourn:
23 I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro. …
28 “For this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above be dark;
for I have spoken; I have purposed;
I have not relented, nor will I turn back.” (Jer. 4:23-24, 28)
8.. Ezekiel predicts judgment is coming on the Pharaoh of Egypt. And all of nature changes and darkens:
“Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him: …
7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.
8 All the bright lights of heaven
will I make dark over you,
and put darkness on your land,
declares the Lord God.
9 “I will trouble the hearts of many peoples, when I bring your destruction among the nations, into the countries that you have not known. (Ezek 32:2, 7-9)
9.. Joel says that the Day of the Lord will cause nature to react when the locusts ruined Jerusalem:
10 The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2:10)
10.. Joel prophesies the outpouring of the Spirit, but the key thing to notice is the signs in the sky. Why are they like that? A new era has dawned, from the old age of the kingdom of Israel to the New Covenant and the global people of God
28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2:28-30)
Peter quoted those verses when the Spirit was poured out (Acts 2:16-21). He could have ended the quotation with the outpouring of the Spirit and not include the cosmic cataclysms, but he did include them. Why? Those cosmic signs merely indicate or symbolize a major shift in God’s dealing with humanity. Did any of those signs in the cosmos happen literally at that time on the day of Pentecost? No. Otherwise, the cosmos would not be the same as we observe it today.
11. Joel again prophesies the judgment of nations, and the natural world reacts:
For the day of the Lord is near
in the valley of decision.
15 The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
a stronghold to the people of Israel. (Joel 3:14-15)
12.. Haggai says that nature will shake when the Lord overthrows kingdoms:
21 “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. (Hag. 2:21)
13.. All way back to the time of the judges, they used elevated language to describe God’s judgment on nations. Deborah was victorious over Edom and Seir. She used highly charged and poetic language to indicate national victory and judgment on the pagan nations around Israel.
4 “Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled
and the heavens dropped,
yes, the clouds dropped water.
5 The mountains quaked before the Lord,
even Sinai before the Lord, the God of Israel. …
20 From heaven the stars fought,
from their courses they fought against Sisera. (Jud. 5:4-5, 20)
14.. Jesus got his title “Son of Man” from Daniel 7:13. So this passage is the most important of all, because it shows him seated next to the Ancient of Days, who is God:
13 “In my vision at night I [Daniel] 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. 14 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. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV)
These verses come after the previous kingdoms had been destroyed and were only temporary, contrasted with the son of Man’s everlasting kingdom. These verses relate to Jesus’s ascension, coming in power and in clouds of heaven towards his Father (not back to earth), in context.
For evidence, see this post:
Three Options for Interpreting Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21
15.. Habakkuk prophesies against various neighboring nations:
He stood and measured the earth;
he looked and shook the nations;
then the eternal mountains were scattered;
the everlasting hills sank low.
His were the everlasting ways. ….
Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?
Was your anger against the rivers,
or your indignation against the sea,
when you rode on your horses,
on your chariot of salvation?
9 You stripped the sheath from your bow,
calling for many arrows. [Selah]
You split the earth with rivers.
10 The mountains saw you and writhed;
the raging waters swept on;
the deep gave forth its voice;
it lifted its hands on high.
11 The sun and moon stood still in their place
at the light of your arrows as they sped,
at the flash of your glittering spear.
12 You marched through the earth in fury;
you threshed the nations in anger. (Hab. 3:6, 8-12)
No, God was not angry at the rivers or the seas, nor did the mountains writhe or scatter literally, or the deep waters lifted their hands, but nature does react poetically and symbolically. Nature is disturbed and shaken when God appears to judge the nations.
What about the very last day and these verses in 2 Pet. 3:10-12 and Heb. 12:26-27?
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 3:10-12, NIV)
And Hebrew 12:26-27:
26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” [Hagg. 2:6] 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. (Heb. 12:26-27, NIV)
These earth-shattering events happen on the very last day, at the Second Coming. They explain that god is judging the world.
Interpreters are certainly free, however, to see the verses in 2 Peter and Hebrews as literal because God seems to change the universe, literally and physically.
To wrap up this post, none of these natural events happened literally; otherwise, nature as we know it would have been destroyed millennia ago. No, this cosmic reaction is simply and profoundly super-charged, cataclysmic, apocalyptic language to indicate that the Creator has shown up on the scene when he judged and overthrew a nation or a king. This is particularly true of Jerusalem and the temple when the son of Man appeared to judge it after the chosen people did not recognize and soon rejected their day of visitation in Christ was unrecognized (Luke 19:44).
To interpret the horrific signs in the cosmos literally fails to understand the genre of apocalyptic language in its context.
Instead, let’s be wise Bible interpreters.
None of the passages in the comparative synoptic table or the entire chapters of Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 teach a separate rapture, distinct from the Second Coming. Jesus has come the first time at his birth, the advent, and he is now teaching us that he will come a second time. Those three passages offer streamlined simplicity, like this:
First Coming → Church Age —————————→ Second Coming
With the Second Coming, the New Age is ushered in. This is clearly what the apostolic community believed, some of whom were inspired to write the NT. They were following the teaching of Jesus. For Scriptural evidence, see the post about the rapture and the Second Coming in the Related section, here:
Matt. 24:36 to 25:46–From Second Coming to New Messianic Age
Matt 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (and 17) in Parallel Columns Are Finally Clear
Mark 13:5-31 Predicts Destruction of Jerusalem and Temple
Mark 13:32-37 Teaches Second Coming
Luke 21:5-33 Predicts Destruction of Jerusalem and Temple (Luke is by far the clearest on this topic)
Luke 17:22-37 and 21:34-36 Teach the Second Coming
Three Options for Interpreting Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 (I discuss two other interpretations)
Luke 17:22-37: Taken Away = Rapture? (I also briefly look at Matthew’s version)