“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
SIGNALS IN THE SKY
Looking for signs in the sky seems to go hand in hand with anticipating the return of Jesus Christ—his second advent. Jesus Himself talked of heavenly signs which herald the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age. The citation above used as an epigraph from Matthew 24 makes this perfectly clear—a darkened sun, a hidden moon, falling stars, the shaking of the heavens and the earth. And the greatest sign of all, the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. There is no shortage of heavenly signs when Jesus comes again. But are there signs beforehand, signs that tell us that the last days now stand only a few short months or years away?
There is an old saying that some readers may not recognize.
Red sky at night—sailors delight. Red sky in the morning—sailors take warning!
The weatherman says this rule of thumb applies only to the middle latitudes of our planet. The evening sky of red represents an abundance of tiny particles in the atmosphere, typical of a high pressure system. It yields clear skies overhead. On the other hand, a red sky in the morning bears bad tidings because it implies a storm is approaching, particularly if the sky lowers at that time.
Jesus’ adage was the equivalent Hebrew aphorism. The point Jesus made was how paradoxical that the religious leaders of the day could tell the weather (not their expertise) while failing to foresee how the religious and political climate would affect their nation—matters about which they were supposed experts. It was more than just mishearing the weather report. To risk mixing a metaphor, it was a giant case of not seeing the forest for the trees. The Jewish leadership should have recognized that cataclysm was inevitable. All the ingredients were there like chemicals ready to combust. A small spark would set off a massive exposition. They were clearly missing the signs that signaled destruction ahead.
HOW JEWISH NATIONALISM KILLED THE MESSIAH
However, the religious leadership of Israel’s first-century theocracy, like all other forms of government, had a stake in keeping the status quo. Hoping against hope, the Pharisees and Sadducees compromised aspects of their political control to maintain their tenuous hold on the Jewish people. They tottered on a precarious pivot point, an uneasy separation of church and state, which accepted Rome as the keepers of the order while priests practiced the Mosaic Law mostly unperturbed. Their fatal mistake was assuming that ‘church and state’ could remain so neatly distinct, that the negotiated peace they managed could last indefinitely. It was Jesus who challenged the legitimacy of the Jewish leaders (while simultaneously representing almost no threat to the Roman State), which upset the balance they had negotiated.
And yet, Jesus was not unaware of the political situation. His was a day when other Jews were consumed with fervent Jewish nationalism that butted up against Roman hegemony. Zealots, the freedom fighters of their day, continued to test the resolve of their Roman occupiers. Insurrection never seemed more than one incident away.
As we know, Jesus would be a victim of this tense atmosphere. He would be falsely accused by the Jewish leaders of threatening the authority of Caesar. In part, he was crucified to temporarily quench the fire fueling potential Hebrew revolt. Despite the fact that Jesus’ solution—inward transformation—could have quieted the tempest fanning these flames of rebellion, both Romans and Jews finally saw fit to crucify Him instead, during the quiet morning hours on the day of Preparation (before Passover)—before the multitude awakened. The leadership of both governing groups feared that the agitated throng—drawn to Jerusalem for the momentous Jewish holy day—would seek to make Him king.
But Jesus would have no part in being made King or in directly challenging the Romans. He encouraged His followers to “render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and unto God those things that are God’s.” He allowed a tax gatherer, a social pariah, to be His disciple suggesting that He would not give in to ‘guilt by association’ nor would He be interested in winning the approval of the masses. He walked away from crowds that desired to make Him king. As to violence, He preached that “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” In his last days, He came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey to underscore His approach was peaceful, without threat to the powers that be.
Still, the implied danger remained—due to His popularity with the common people and His public display of malice toward the religious leadership—both factors which set Him on the path to crucifixion. With religious and civil powers on edge, their selfish agendas at risk, and the momentum of events increasing, His death sentence was a fait accompli.
THE UNEXPECTED END TO HIS MINISTRY
And so Jesus was crucified. He had attempted to warn His disciples beforehand that He would die, that His death was necessary. Jesus explained that it was the only way they could receive God’s salvation. “Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:2) “The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (Luke 24:7) But his disciples could not come to terms with the fact that He could die—let alone resolve the meaning of His death. They remained blind, despite His instruction, to the foreshadowing inherent in the Passover, the major feast (the ‘holy day’ or holiday) transpiring at that very moment when He was put to death. He was the Lamb of God sacrificed to propitiate the ‘angel of death’ even as the first Passover lamb in the days of Moses had symbolized.
The three days after Jesus’ death were dark indeed. No doubt Jesus’ followers were replaying His words over and over in their minds, struggling to make sense of what had just happened. When the news came from the women attached to their fledging band of believers—that the Lord’s body was missing, their shared tragedy was then made worse like a knife twisted in an open wound. Sorrow seemed turned into spite as they heard of this unthinkable crime. Who could be blamed but those who hated and killed Jesus? After all, The Temple Guard had been present at the tomb. They were the police keepers of the Jewish leaders. Who else could have taken the body?
Quickly, however, a different report came to them that Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus alive and He had even spoken encouraging words to her. John and Peter immediately rushed to the tomb and saw His grave clothes. Soon, the reports of His appearance grew more frequent until finally Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (minus Thomas) behind closed doors where they were ‘holed up’ possibly in fear to avoid the fate that had been dealt to their leader. But now they saw Him firsthand with their own eyes: the astonishing reports were true. Jesus had overcome death. Moreover, His body was gleaming and His appearance transformed. He was now difficult to recognize. And yet, there was no mistaking Him. His words burned in their hearts. He called them by name.
The power of the resurrection did more than lift the spirits of the disciples. Seeing the risen Christ demonstrated that what He had told them was true. Their commitments were vindicated. Peter had wondered aloud whether ‘having given up everything’ (including family and fortune) had been worth it. “Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee” (Mark 10:28). They could now see the living proof before them. Who else could come back from the dead? This was Jesus whom they had trusted, He was indeed the Christ promised by the prophets of old.
IN THE VERY SAME WAY AS YOU SAW HIM LEAVE
Several weeks followed and then they were gathered together again, no longer confused about the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas too now believed after the Savior showed him the scars in his hands, His feet, and His side. And yet, all the disciples still remained trapped within the same nationalistic framework as the Zealots—they too assumed that redemption was a political revolution rather than personal transformation.
We read in Acts, chapter 1 (verses 6-8):
6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of Him, saying, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?”
7 And He said unto them, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.
8 “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
We are taught that “no one shall know the day nor the hour” of the Lord’s return. The statement in verse 7 is slightly different but seems to convey the same admonition. Perhaps that is so. Perhaps we should never focus on when the Lord will return. But is this what the passage teaches, that His disciples should abstain from all wonderings about the time of His return? Hardly.
Here Jesus’ words imply only a mild rebuke, not for asking when He would return but in hoping for His return for the wrong reason. They remained focused on their ‘deliverance’ from the enemies of Israel. Therefore, Jesus set them straight. Their mission was not to foment an insurgency against the Romans or to retaliate against the leaders of Israel, despite the loathing which Jesus held for them. They should not see Jesus as the Conquering King—not yet. The agenda for the disciples was to be witnesses, first in the city of Jerusalem, then in their province of Judea, and then beyond their homeland. This plan was global in scope. They were not to think in terms of a Kingdom in Israel, but a Kingdom of God across the entire earth. This was their mission statement.
9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.
10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
11 Which also said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.”
Within this passage, we see a paradox in the meaning of the Kingdom of God: it was not for them to know the exact time or season. And yet, time is slipping away. Jesus Christ will be returning—and soon! This is the strategic principle we will examine in this book.
Luke tells us that two men (suddenly) stood by them in white apparel and said, in effect, “There is no time to waste. You must get busy now. This same Jesus, which you have just seen ascend into heaven, will come back to this earth in the very same manner.” The implication was that they should assume He would be coming back within their lifetime, maybe within a decade or less! They must be witnesses and yet they must witness with haste, with a sense of urgency. They only thing they were to wait for was the coming of the Spirit, so that their efforts would literally be ‘imbued by power from on high.’ The mission was so critical that God Himself, in the form of the Spirit of Christ, would come to live in them that He might help them achieve their objective. The Spirit would enable their witness to the works of God, to the salvation Jesus Christ had just won for everyone in the world.
This was also a key aspect to the message: the emphasis was universal in scope. They were not to ‘hang out’ in Jerusalem and wait for Jesus to come back to save the Temple. He had already predicted that the Jewish Temple would be destroyed. “Not one stone will be left upon another.” (Mark 13:2) As magnificent as the Temple was, it was soon to crumble. The foundation of the new faith was not in a building made with human hands. God had once chosen to live inside the Temple, in the Holy of Holies. Solomon had built a house for Him—one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. But no longer would the LORD God dwell there. Now He would live within them. As stalwart as the stones were, as solid and indestructible as the Temple appeared, it would not stand the test of time. A different kind of stone would comprise the essence of the true religion from henceforth.
This new faith as exemplified in the affirmation of Peter (Peter, the petra, the ‘little rock’)—a new faith that would become a giant rock (a petros) able to withstand all attacks. It would prevail against the very gates of Hell itself (Matthew 16:18). The coming destruction of the Temple stood as a not-so-subtle clue that the Jewish religion should not be their focus. Their very bodies would become the Temple of the Lord. (See 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19) So they must revamp their way of thinking. They must get out of Jerusalem and go beyond their Jewish homeland. They must take the message to the ends of the earth.
And yet, this same Jesus would return again VERY SOON in like manner. Consequently, there is no time to lose! It was, after all, a very big world, bigger even than the disciples knew.
THE APOCALYPSE, A KEY ELEMENT TO THEIR MESSAGE
And yet, the passage remains puzzling for several reasons. We should not find it challenging because of the miraculous event which took place (Jesus ascending into the clouds) or angels appearing alongside the disciples with a message as firm as it was frantic in content. Many (if not most) who believe in Jesus Christ today believe miracles do happen and that these events as recorded in the Bible and are just as likely to be literally true as they are to be spiritual symbols of a living Christ. Jesus’ directive, however, seems to be in stark contrast with the statement from the angels. On the one hand, Jesus admonishes His disciples not to ask about whether the Kingdom is coming at this time. On the other, the message from His angelic ambassadors left no room for debate: Jesus will be coming back again, physically and “in the clouds, just as you saw Him leave.” His return will be spectacular. And when He returns, it will be too late for those who have not heard of Him, those who have not accepted His message. Otherwise, why would there be such a sense of urgency? Therefore, the gist of their proclamation was obvious: “Get the message out now. Hurry!”
Despite this splendid sense of urgency, here we are 2,000 years later and still Jesus has not returned in the same manner as He left. So we are inclined to wonder whether the message of Jesus’ soon return was perhaps a ‘bit’ overstated. Were the angels sensationalists, motivating the disciples with misleading information? Worse, was Jesus mistaken about a matter so vital to His legacy? I hardly think so.
Modern theologians believe that Jesus was literally a man of his time—and He was flat wrong about the end of the world. While that modernist conclusion is easy to draw, it obviously makes Jesus out to be something of a fool. That perspective may occupy the highest citadels of theological scholars, but it lies at the bottom of a very dark and dank pit of gross error. Jesus was not mistaken about His Second Advent. There was much more to the story than what such conventional wisdom supposed.
Lest we fail to get the point like the disciples failed to understand, let me draw out the point plainly. The disciples were to be His witnesses throughout the world and for the remainder of the age in light of the very fact that He would come back. The message was not inaccurate at all—not if we realize that the coming apocalypse comprises an indispensable element in the Christian gospel just as much today as it did two millennia ago.
The Lord requires we be forever vigilant about His return. In essence, that is what this book contends. We should be watching—everyday. As my friends at Prophecy in the News have always said in closing their television program, “Keep looking up!” No doubt there are times when such advice could get you into trouble. Goodness knows ranchers here in Oklahoma are careful NOT to look up.
The Apocalypse, however, constitutes the sine qua non of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What does that Latin phrase mean? The words literally mean “without which not.” But Merriam-Webster tells us that sine qua non means something that is absolutely indispensable. It is essential. If you do not have this element then you have nothing at all. In the context of the Apocalypse and the Good News of Jesus Christ—His gospel—there is no gospel if there is no apocalypse. As we will discuss later, Jesus placed the apocalypse at the center of His message. His understanding of the Kingdom of God was not an ethereal spiritual cosmology such as the Gnostics propounded when they twisted the gospel to fit their perennial philosophy already ages old by the time they sought to corrupt Christianity with its arcane assertions. Neither was it a sentimental conception of religious meaning which we encounter in New Age books or lectures. It was not enlightenment granted by the Buddha. It was not empowerment through mastering magical incantations or rituals. No, to Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God was a physical, historical, “in your face” turning of the tables on the unrighteous powers that control the world. As His beatitudes emphasized, the world would soon be turned upside down. Those in power would soon find themselves put out to pasture. Those that were poor in spirit who feel estranged for their inability to manifest what religious leaders lauded as true religion—they would be the role models of the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who were meek and controlled nothing in this present age, would soon inherit (possess) the whole world in the age to come. Those who were in last place will win the blue ribbon and those who were first in line will be made to wait until the very last. The Kingdom of God consists in a monumental reversal of fortune. The Kingdom of God envisions this radical change in the way the world will be governed and how its citizens will live their lives. This is the gospel Jesus preached.
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This article was drawn from the Introduction to BLOOD MOON: BIBLICAL SIGNS OF THE APOCALYPSE.
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