When Worlds Die

Encouragement for Christians Preparing for the End

My text is Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse delivered on the Mount of Olives, known as the “Olivet Discourse,” recorded in slightly different forms in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. I’ll focus mainly on Luke but will fill in details from the other versions.

The key to the prophecy is Jesus’ statement, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place” (Luke 21:32).

“This generation” is the generation that witnessed the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. It’s the generation that sat like children in the market, calling, “We played the flute and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not weep.” “This generation” is the generation that accused the ascetic John of being demon-possessed and accuses the festive Jesus of being a glutton and drunk (Luke 7:31-34). It’s the generation that seeks for a sign but will be given only the sign of Jonah (11:29). It’s the generation that witnessed something greater than Jonah, but did not repent, something greater than Solomon, yet didn’t rejoice. This generation will be condemned by Ninevites and the Queen of the South (11:31-32, 50-51). It’s the generation that rejected Jesus, the generation living when Jesus suffered and died (17:25).

“This generation” never means the Jewish people, nor some future generation. “This generation” is always the evil and adulterous generation in which Jesus himself lived. The phrase refers to the people who lived at the same time he did, the people who saw his wonders and heard his words.

All the things Jesus speaks of in the Olivet Discourse will be accomplished before this generation passes. Before the last apostle tastes death, all these things will take place.

Days of Vengeance

What things will take place?

Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be wars and disturbances, earthquakes and plagues and famine, terrors and great signs from heaven. Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies. Desolation will come near. People in Judea will flee to the mountains. Pregnant and nursing mothers will be in danger. Jerusalem will be trampled by armies, and the times of the Gentiles will come to their fulfillment. There will be great distress in the land, wrath to the people. All in this generation.

Those are plausible first-century events. But then Jesus says, “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt. 24:29). Could these things happen before Jesus’ generation has passed? How?

Jesus is quoting Isaiah 13-14, a passage about the fall of Babylon. Sun, moon, and stars were created to rule the heavens and to mark out the times (Gen. 1:14-16). When the prophets say the sun turns black and the moon turns to blood, they’re describing an alteration in the political heavens. Powers and principalities are being eclipsed. Their time is over.

Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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