Darth Vader is rightly regarded as one of the best villains in movie history, in the same league as Maleficent and Hans Gruber. In the original Star Wars trilogy, his fiendishness was less a product of his skills in single combat, and more about his ruthlessness and the way he killed subordinates by choking them to death with “the force.” He was more a sinister administrator than a warrior. Still, it was clear Vader was a frightening individual.

“I’m not afraid!” Luke Skywalker told Yoda at one point.  

“You will be,” the Jedi Master replied cryptically. “You will be …”

Vader is not depicted as a fighter until Rogue One (the direct prequel to the 1977 film A New Hope) was released in 2015. In the climactic battle scene,[1] Vader and a force of stormtroopers disable and board a Rebel command ship which has stolen data for the first Death Star (still under construction). This information cannot fall into Rebel hands, and Vader’s goal is to personally ensure that it does not.

The Rebel sailors fall back into one portion of the ship. They point their weapons into the darkness, gasping for breath. They hear deep breathing.

Hmmmm-pusssh.

Silence.

Hmmmm-pusssh.

Then, out of the darkness a red lightsaber comes to life, illuminating Vader standing in the corridor, menacing in black.

Hmmmm-pusssh.

The sailors open fire. Vader quickly kills them all. This scene has become infamous because of the sudden, startling ferocity of Vader’s attack and the sailor’s inability to do anything about it. They fall before him like so much chaff before a bulldozer. They scream in fear, knowing they’re doomed. They fight anyway, even as they know it’s hopeless.

Something similar happens here. Jesus returns, the people of Babylon scream, panic, mourn. They fight back, but it’s all over in an instant. You’ll have to read Revelation 19 to get the full impact, but it’s all hinted at here.

This is a series of articles on what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. This article covers Matthew 24:29-31. You can read the introductory article which discussed Matthew 24:1-3, and the article on Matthew 24:4-14, and the one about Matthew 24:15-28. You can also read the entire essay as a single unit here. You may need to read the previous articles to follow the train of thought.

Here’s where we are in the passage:

Figure 7

Jesus explains …

Immediately after the distress of those days “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven”

Matthew 24:29-30; quoting Isaiah 13:10

The timeline skews at this point—if vv. 15-28 describes the destruction of Jerusalem as a type or foreshadowing of the great tribulation to come, then how can Jesus return immediately after those days? We’re still waiting, even now!

The best answer seems to be that here, in vv. 29-31, the typology (the events of AD 70 and the tribulation) now fades. We are now squarely at the end of the great tribulation, when Jesus returns. His second advent terminates the tribulation.[2] Jesus describes this by quoting from Isaiah 13:10, which describes an otherworldly phenomenon in the atmosphere—a plain and terrifying indicator that all is not well with the world.

Some Christians believe the “sign of the Son of Man” is a cross appearing from on high which heralds Jesus’ arrival.[3] There is merit to the idea of (1) a sign of some sort appearing first, (2) and then the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven.”[4] We just don’t know what this “sign” is—perhaps it’s simply Jesus appearing?[5] Whatever it is, it’ll be obvious and clear to everyone.

It’s no accident that this Isaiah quotation is from a passage about judgment on Babylon—that symbol of wickedness and evil (Rev 17-18; cf. Zech 5:5-11). It is the king of Babylon who seems to double as Satan in Isaiah 14:3-20—“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!” (Isa 14:12). Now here, Jesus describes His return by quoting judgment against Babylon—precisely what the Apostle John shows us in Revelation 19, just after Babylon is fallen (Rev 17-18).

What is the unmistakable sign that the Son of Man has come?

And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.

Matthew 24:30

Jesus will arrive on the clouds of heaven—He’s alluding to His coronation scene from Daniel’s vision (Dan 7:13-14). The people who don’t belong to Jesus (the unbelievers) will be sad—they’ve already given their allegiance to another king, Jesus’ evil counterpart (as it were)—the Antichrist (Rev 17:1-8; cp. 13:1-8).

And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

Matthew 24:31

This is the great sifting of the wicked and the righteous. The image seems to be that of Jesus arriving to earth on the clouds while sending His angels to speed on ahead to gather the saints from all corners of the earth. The Apostle John describes the same event as Jesus returning to earth with “the armies of heaven,” (Rev 19:11-17). Trumpet blasts announce His coming, as they often do when God comes to earth (see Ex 19:16; 1 Thess 4:16). It is also a divine bugle call for the faithful (Isa 27:13). The trumpet blast in Scripture is a universal signal that can mean only one thing—God has arrived—just as when military bands play “Hail to the Chief” to welcome the U.S. President.

Earlier, Jesus spoke of this identical scene in His parable of the wheat and the weeds (Mt 13:40-43; cp. Lk 3:13), wherein “at the end of the age” the Son of Man sends forth His angels to sift the kingdom (i.e. the world, cp. Mt 13:38, 41) and sort out the righteous from the wicked. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43), because the world has been cleansed of wickedness.

All told, Jesus leaves us with a basic outline which depicts:

  1. Jesus beginning His return trip from heaven, terminating the tribulation, and fulfilling His second advent promise.
  2. Jesus sending His angels out ahead of Him to gather the believers from all over the earth.
  3. Then, presumably, Jesus “arriving” in Jerusalem to inaugurate His kingdom, bringing His saints along with Him.    

These believers are from all over the world, because “Gospel saturation” has been achieved. These events are strikingly like what Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.[6]


[1] See https://youtu.be/9Z8mgkqjq90.  

[2] Even Chrysostom now sees the events of AD 70 fading, and Jesus skipping ahead to the second coming (“Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 458). Alford remarks, “From ver. 28, the lesser subject begins to be swallowed up by the greater, and our Lord’s second coming to be the predominant theme, with however certain hints thrown back as it were at the event which was immediately in question: till, in the latter part of the chapter and the whole of the next, the second advent, and, at last, the final judgment ensuing on it, are the subjects,” (New Testament, p. 1:162).

A.B. Bruce writes, “… it appears that the coming of the Son of Man is not to be identified with the judgment of Jerusalem, but rather forms its preternatural background,” (“Synoptic Gospels,” in Expositors Testament, p. 1:296).

Bengel, however, suggests “immediately” covers the period between the destruction of Jerusalem and the second advent. “We must, however, keep to our first interpretation, so indeed that the particle εὐθέως be understood to comprehend the whole space between the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and the end of the world,” (Gnomen, p. 1:428).

[3] Chrysostom, “Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 459. See also Alford, New Testament, p. 1:168.

[4] The Greek temporal adverb τότε here could indicate sequence (“and then this happened”) or contemporaneous time (“at the same time …”). Context must be the judge about whether this sign is different than the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Bengel sees this sign as “the triumphal train of the Son of man coming in His glory,” (Gnomen, pp. 1:429-430).

[5] Hendriksen, Matthew, p. 864. Barbieri speculates “Some believe the sign may involve the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, which may descend at this time and remain as a satellite city suspended over the earthly city Jerusalem throughout the Millennium (Rev. 21:2–3),” (“Matthew,” in Bible Knowledge, p. 78). This is incorrect.

[6] Chrysostom sees Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as the same event (“Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 1:460). Ed Glasscock is representative of dispensationalists who argue this event is not a post-tribulational rapture (Matthew, pp. 474-475). He offers no meaningful argument himself but refers the reader to Paul Benware (p. 475, fn. 22), whose arguments are deminimis and weak (Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach (Chicago: Moody, 1995), pp. 209-210). 

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