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Luke 21:25, 26 says,
25 And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay [“anguish”] among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves [salos, “tossing or swells, billows”], 26 men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
This can be both literal and metaphoric. In the days of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, there were a number of signs in the heavens that Josephus recorded as part of his history. Because these signs would cause fear among the people, it is clear that the signs would have to be understandable by average people. In fact, Josephus himself laments that the people misinterpreted the signs, thinking that they indicated divine judgment upon Rome instead of divine judgment upon Jerusalem.
“A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day [that the temple burned], that God commanded them to get up upon the temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God…
“Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself; while they did not attend, nor give credit to the signs that were so evident, and did so plainly foretell their future desolation; but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year.” [Josephus, Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 2, 3]
False hope can be a disastrous misplacement of faith. Never was it more important to those people to choose between Jesus’ prophecy and that of the false prophets on that day. It was universally believed that comets were signs of the coming of evil times, usually war. However, signs are interpreted according to one’s viewpoint. Hence, each side in a conflict might interpret a comet to mean disaster upon his opponent. So while signs are helpful and can often be seen by all, it still requires divine revelation and guidance to interpret them properly.
Josephus records other signs that occurred before the war had begun. It seems that a mysterious light shined on the temple and the altar on the eighth day of the first month, which was the time that many began to purify themselves in the week before Passover (John 11:55). Josephus writes,
“Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus [Nisan], and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house that it appeared to be bright day-time; which light lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskilled, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it.” [Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 3]
We are not told clearly the year that this took place, but it appears to have occurred “four years before the war began,” or about 62 A.D., about the time that Jesus, son of Ananias, was presenting his prophetic woes in the streets of Jerusalem. Josephus says that most people interpreted this to be a good sign from heaven, but that the “sacred scribes” knew better.
Another sign occurred, as Josephus tells us:
“At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple.” [Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 3]
Josephus offers no explanation or interpretation of this rather fantastic sign. If this occurred at Passover of 62, the sign would have been seen at the feast where James was stoned on the temple grounds.
Josephus also tells how the eastern gate of the inner court of the temple “was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night,” that is at midnight. This gate “was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone.”
The door was shut with great difficulty, Josephus says, and as usual the people interpreted it to be a good sign, according to the idols of their heart:
“This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared that this signal foreshadowed the desolation that was coming upon them.” (Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 3)
Josephus then tells us that about seven weeks later on the feast of Pentecost, another sign occurred.
“Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner temple [court of the priests], as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that in the first place they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude saying, ‘Let us remove hence’.” [Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 3]
This reminds us of an earlier time before Solomon’s temple was destroyed, how the prophet Ezekiel saw the glory of God leave the temple (Ezekiel 10:18; 11:22, 23). This occurred in conjunction with a prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction (Ezekiel 11:5-12).
Josephus says that a final sign in the heavens was said to have occurred, though he himself found it almost too much to believe.
“Besides these, a few days after that feast [Passover], on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius [Jyar, the second month] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, where it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running among the clouds, and surrounding of cities.” (Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 3)
Whatever happened, it is certain that the people believed these signs, but followed their prophets and leaders who misinterpreted the signs and led them to destruction. Josephus tells us,
“But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure; and some of them they utterly despised, until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city and their own destruction.” (Wars of the Jews, VI, v, 4)
The signs which occurred before the destruction of the temple probably have another fulfillment in the final destruction of Jerusalem. We see this often in various prophecies, where portions of prophecy are fulfilled at one time and the rest fulfilled when the events are repeated in a greater fashion.
At the present time we certainly see signs of war, pestilence, and fear. We have also seen comets and eclipses, including the “blood moons” on the feasts of Passover and Tabernacles two years in a row (2014 and 2015). These are not unprecedented, but they are certainly unusual. Once again, men interpret the signs according to their beliefs and the idols of their hearts. The people of Jerusalem—along with many Christians—once again think that Jerusalem will be spared at the last minute, not knowing or not believing that the coming destruction of Jerusalem will be total, fulfilling Jeremiah 19:11.
Jesus concludes this section in Luke 21:27, 28, saying,
27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Matt. 24:30, 31 gives us a parallel passage with further details:
30 and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes [phyla, “tribe, leaf”] of the earth will mourn [kopto, “to cut, strike, smite, mourn”], and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
By combining the two accounts, we see that the sign will occur before the Son of Man comes “on the clouds of the sky.” There was a sign in the heavens at the time of Jesus’ birth, which guided the magi to Bethlehem. This probably provides us with some sort of precedent for the second coming as well. While we may speculate about the exact nature of this sign, I prefer to wait to see what actually happens.
What is of greater importance (for our purpose here) is to see how Matthew’s account prepares us for the next major sign that Jesus mentions. It is recorded by both Luke and Matthew. Luke 21:29-32 says,
29 And He told them a parable: “Behold, the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. 31 Even so you, too, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.
Luke generalizes the prophecy of the fig tree, pointing out that if we understand the signs of His coming, it will be like seeing fig leaves coming forth as signs of Spring. The Spring season in this case is the start of the Kingdom of God, and we are assured in Luke 21:33,
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
Matthew’s account applies this parable of the fig tree in a more specific manner, tying it to the fig tree that Jesus had cursed earlier (Matt. 21:19). He says in Matt. 24:32-34,
32 Now learn the parable of the fig tree; when its branch has already become tender [hapalos, “the branch of a tree that is full of sap”], and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
The curse upon the fig tree is: “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” (Matt. 21:19). It was cursed because it had many leaves but no fruit. Though it withered by the next day, the fig tree was to be given new life as a sign of the soon coming of Christ. However, since it could not bear fruit ever again, it could only bring forth more leaves—promising fruit to the beholder, but failing to make good on its promise.
There is a subtle connection between the “tribes of the earth” in Matt. 24:30 and the fig tree bearing leaves in verse 32. The Greek word for “tribe” is phyla, which has a double meaning. It can apply to the tribes of men or to the leaves of a tree. Just as a tribe may be the offspring of a man such as Jacob, so also is a leaf the offspring of a tree. Deut. 20:19 says literally, “the tree of the field is a man.”
The Greek word kopto applies to the tribes being cut off, smitten, or in mourning, but when applied to the prophetic tree, it means the leaves have been cut off.
The double meaning in Matthew’s account is apparent. The tribes of the earth are smitten and mourn. They are undone, even as the leaf of a tree is cut off. Not seeing this double meaning—or perhaps ignoring it—many prophecy commentators give the prophecy an opposite meaning. In identifying these “tribes” as the Jews, they think that the Jews will repent when they see the Son of Man coming in the clouds. This, they say, will turn everything around and bring about the last-minute salvation of Jerusalem.
However, the real explanation is found in the sign of the fig tree, which bears leaves but no fruit. Neither can it bear fruit without contradicting Jesus’ prophetic curse in Matt. 21:19. If the Jews (as a nation) bear fruit unto God at any time in the future, then Jesus will be proven to be a false prophet. It can be no other way.
It is clear, then, that the Jewish state had to come to life in 1948 in order to fulfill Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. But to this present day it has not borne fruit. Though some Jews have repented and have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the nation itself has not done so, nor will it do so. It is for this reason Jeremiah could prophesy the utter destruction of Jerusalem, and Paul could cast out the bondwoman and her son (Gal. 4:30).
The prophecy of the sign of the Son of Man is thus linked to the parable of the fig tree. Luke used it to set forth the timing of the coming Kingdom of God. Matthew does the same, but adds further details about the Jewish nation coming to life and bearing leaves before the real Kingdom of God arrives.
The angels will then be commissioned to gather “the elect” from the four winds of heaven. These are not the tribes who are mourning (or being cut off), but rather the overcomers who attain the promises of God. Paul makes this clear in Rom. 11:7,
7 What then? That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen [“the elect, chosen”] obtained it, and the rest were hardened.
In other words, just because someone is descended from a tribe of Israel does not mean that he is one of the elect. Earlier, in Rom. 11:4, 5, Paul says that there was only a “remnant” of 7,000 that were “elect” in the nation of Israel during the time of Elijah. Paul makes a clear distinction between Israel as a nation and the elect as a remnant body.