Heavenly Signs - 4

There is another type of heavenly sign mentioned in Scripture, and this type can be very problematic due to misinterpretation.  One of the ways Scripture is twisted to support false doctrine is to press figurative expressions into literal meanings. 

Jesus’ disciples (as well as His enemies) did this in various instances, one of which is found in Mt 16:5-12.  Jesus had warned the disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (16:6).  Jesus, as we all commonly do, used a figurative term, leaven, to refer not to food but to teaching:  “‘How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?’ … Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:11-12).

Jesus is not at fault in this misunderstanding, for His communication is accurate though figurative.  He places the fault squarely on His hearers:  “‘O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread?  Do you not yet understand, or remember … How is it that you do not understand …?’” (16:8-9, 11).  This mild chiding indicates that the disciples should have caught on to His usage of “leaven.”

10. Apocalyptic References to Coming Catastrophe.  Consider Isa 13:10.  The context is clearly established:  “The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw … The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like that of many people! … The Lord of hosts musters the army for battle … even the Lord and His weapons of indignation to destroy the whole land.  Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand!  It will come as destruction from the Almighty …” (13:1, 4-6).  Isaiah foresees the demise of the nation of Babylon decades ahead, and he describes it in graphic, figurative terms:  “For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine” (13:10).  The knee-jerk reaction to such language is to think of the final judgment at the return of the Lord, but this is completely foreign to Isaiah’s thought. 

Isaiah uses similar imagery in 34:3-4:  “Also their slain shall be thrown out; their stench shall rise from their corpses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood.  All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as the leaf falls from the vine …”.  In this context God is venting His wrath not only on Babylon but all nations who have forsaken Him for idols.

Ezekiel uses such figures of God’s judgment upon Egypt:  “I will also water the land with the flow of your blood, even to the mountains; and the riverbeds will be full of you.  When I put out your light, I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.  All the bright lights of the heavens I will make dark over you, and bring darkness upon your land” (32:6-8). 

When people face watershed events that alter the course of human history, they utilize extreme types of symbolic language to describe the indescribable.  Songs expressing deep emotion also do this as they invoke the sun, moon and stars to profess love:  “Why do stars fall down from the sky every time you walk by?  Just like me, they long to be close to you” (for the geriatrics among us J).  You may remember people speaking in this apocalyptic way after the collapse of the World Trade Center when the soot, smoke and dust darkened the skies on a sunny September day. 

Similar imagery is found in Jesus’ warnings of the destruction of Jerusalem in Mt 24:  “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (24:29-31).  This is made a little more challenging because of the reference to angels gathering the elect, but note that Jesus says afterward, “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled” (24:34).  As to the angels gathering the elect, Jesus already addressed this in 24:15-28 when He gives specific warning signs of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and how that men should escape immediately the coming carnage.  Mt 24:31 is merely an apocalyptic way of showing how God will spare His saints from the coming massacre (24:15, 22, 24). 

To apply such texts exclusively to the end of the world is to misuse figurative speech.  The context should help us decide whether the author is speaking figuratively or literally of the Lord’s return.

11. Apocalyptic Reference on Pentecost.  Peter turns to the prophet Joel to explain what has drawn the attention of this massive Jerusalem crowd:  “‘This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:  “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.  And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out of My Spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy.  I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath; blood and fire and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and notable day of the Lord.  And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”’” (Ac 2:16-21).  What is the “great and notable day of the Lord” that is preceded by this unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit?  It certainly seems foreign to the context that judgment at the end of time is in view since the audio-visual evidence of the Spirit’s coming upon the apostles is the main subject. 

Two possibilities seem the most logical:  1) the darkening of the sun and the moon turning to blood is the description of the removal of the law of Moses as a viable covenant – an enormous watershed moment; or, 2) these events are the precursors of the destruction of Jerusalem 40 years later, a subject Jesus Himself addressed several times.  Since Peter is now preaching the message of salvation (“whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”), the first option in my view makes the most sense.