Matthew 24:29: Have Stars Already Fallen from Heaven?

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. – Matthew 24:29

Most people who read Matthew 24 assume it is talking about the end of the world when Christ returns in His Second Coming.

However, semi-preterists believe that most or all of Matthew 24 is about God’s judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The city certainly had it coming, as Christ reminded them:

“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ [39] And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” (ESV)

Christ is repeating God’s message from the Old Testament of the coming judgment as a consequence of Israel’s disobedience:

Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. And she has rebelled against my rules by doing wickedness more than the nations, and against my statutes more than the countries all around her; for they have rejected my rules and have not walked in my statutes. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you, and have not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules, and have not even acted according to the rules of the nations that are all around you, therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, even I, am against you. And I will execute judgments in your midst in the sight of the nations. — Ezekiel 5:5-8 ESV)

In this context, Matthew is seen as a book of fulfillment. Christ fulfills the prophecy of a new order, the new covenant, through which the Messiah will deliver faithful Israel from their sin:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” — Jeremiah 31:31–34

But Christ also fulfills the prophecy of judgment on apostate Israel that will end the old order through His coming using the Romans as His instrument of judgment. So a reading of Matthew in this context and in concert with its primary focus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) and other passages we’ll see below, should lead us to expect an early fulfillment of Matthew 24.

However, one argument that people make for Matthew 24 being about Christ’s future coming is based on v. 29. It must be in the future, they claim, because the sun isn’t dark and the stars haven’t fallen from the sky.

However, this doesn’t take into account that much of Matthew 24 uses apocalyptic language much like many places in the Old and New Testaments. This language is often figurative, using images to describe events. Here is an example:

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. – 2 Peter 3:5-7

Peter states that the world perished in the deluge of water from the great flood. Yet that obviously isn’t the case; we are all still living on it. Similarly, the fire used for the destruction of the ungodly, the darkening sun, and the falling stars could have all come to pass on the day of judgment for Jerusalem without the cosmos actually being destroyed.

The Greek word stoichea, that the ESV translates as “heavenly bodies,” is translated in most other versions as elements, meaning something like fundamental constituents or basic elements. In Galatians 4:3-7, man was

enslaved to the elementary principles (stoichea) of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

We could not have been enslaved to atoms; this was a spiritual, not material, transformation. So what were we enslaved to?

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. – Ephesians 2:1-2.

So we’ve proven the point that some New Testament language is apocalyptic and can be applied to people and spiritual matters. But what about the dark sun and moon and the stars falling from heaven in Matthew 24?

Well, in Acts 2, Peter says part of it has already come to pass and the rest is coming soon:

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ – Acts 2:16-21.

What are the last days Joel refers to? The last days of the Old Covenant. By the time of Acts the last days had already started with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. At that point in history, the temple was no longer needed. This is because the church is now the temple of God. Our sacrifices are no longer on the alter—there is no more death in our sacrifices. Our sacrifices are now living sacrifices. And not only is the temple no longer needed, but neither is Israel, nor its priests, nor its rulers—the judgment of God has arrived along with the Kingdom of God.

But if this is the case, how could the sun have gone dark and the stars have fallen from heaven? Well, as with the elements, these terms are referring to powers, in this case, the powers of Old Testament Israel:

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26-27.

Israel will be shaken, its temple will be destroyed, its leadership removed—their sun, moon, and stars will be darkened and fall, then the true church will remain.

Along these lines, the language of the sun, moon, and stars is often applied to creatures in the Bible, rather than the creation:

Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” – Genesis 37:9;

We have also already seen very similar language used to prophesy things that have already happened in history, as when God was speaking to Pharaoh about his impending doom:

When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD. – Ezekiel 32:7-8

Pharaoh is no longer with us, but the stars are not dark.

Let’s put the Matthew language right next to this:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. – Matthew 24:29

In Matthew 24, Jesus is responding to the question asked him by His disciples about when the temple would be destroyed, which would signal the “end of the [Old Testament] age” and usher in the age of the church. He describes the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem to the disciples, including the language in v. 29. Then shortly thereafter, in v. 34, He tells them, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

It didn’t. Less than 40 years later, in 70 A.D., the stars of Jerusalem fell courtesy of the Roman Army. The Kingdom of God had come, and after a brief transition, the New Covenant order had fully replaced the Old. The powers of Jerusalem–the Scribes, Pharisees, and the Priests–were shaken and destroyed. Christ, the better Prophet, Priest, and King ruled over His kingdom from His seat at the right hand of God. Just as He does today.

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