The Passing Away of Heaven and Earth
By Gary DeMar President – American Vision
When Jesus’ disciples heard His frightening prediction about the destruction of the temple and the judgment of Jerusalem in their generation (Matthew 23:3639), they asked when the destruction would take place, what signs would precede the event, and what sign would signify His coming “and of the end of the age” (Matthew 24:3). It is quite obvious that the disciples connected Jesus’ “coming” with the “end of the age.” The “coming” of Matthew 24:3 refers to the coming of Jesus in judgment upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70. James, as well as other New Testament writers, is clear about the nearness of Jesus’ coming: “the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8), at hand for those who first read the epistle.
The destruction of the temple, and with it the priesthood and sacrificial system, inaugurated a new era in which “the blood of Christ” cleanses our “conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Therefore, the expression “end of the age” refers “to the end of the ‘Jewish age,’ i.e., the time of transference from a national to an international people of God,”(1) what the Apostle Paul describes as the “ends of the ages.” The “end” had come upon the first-century church (1 Corinthians 10:11).
A similar phrase is used by the author of Hebrews: “But now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). Jesus was manifested, not at the beginning, but “at the consummation of the ages.” The period between A.D. 30 and 70 is, as the apostle Peter describes it, “these last times” (1 Peter 1:20). As time drew near for Jerusalem’s destruction, Peter could say that “the end of all things was at hand” (4:7). Milton Terry offers the following as a summary of the meaning of the “end of the age”:
It is the solemn termination and crisis of the dispensation which had run its course when the temple fell, and there was not left one stone upon another which was not thrown down. That catastrophe, which in Heb. xii, 26, is conceived as a shaking of the earth and the heaven, is the end contemplated in this discourse; not “the end of the world,” but the termination and consummation of the pre-Messianic age.(2)
Notice that the disciples did not ask about the dissolution of the physical heaven and earth or the judgment of the “world” (kosmos). After hearing Jesus pronounce judgment on the temple and city of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:3739), His disciples ask about the end of the “age” (aion). When did the “end” occur? The only proximate eschatological event that fits the “end of the age” framework is the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The disciples knew that the fall of the temple and the destruction of the city meant the end of the Old Covenant order and the inauguration of a new order. As Jews who were familiar with Old Testament imagery, the disciples recognized the meaning of this restructuring language. Jesus nowhere corrects or modifies the multi-faceted question of the disciples.
The numerous New Testament time indicators demonstrate that Jesus did not have a distant “end” in mind when He spoke of the “end of the age.” Charles Wright, in his commentary on Zechariah, offers the following helpful discussion of the meaning of the “end of the age”:
The passing away of the dispensation of the law of Moses, which as limited in great part to Israel after the flesh, might well be called the Jewish dispensation, was justly regarded as “the end of the age” ( Matt. xxiv. 3). The Messiah was viewed as the bringer in of a new world. The period of the Messiah was, therefore, correctly characterised by the Synagogue as “the world to come.” In this signification our Lord used that expression when he uttered the solemn warning that the sin against the Holy Ghost would be forgiven “neither in this world (the then dispensation), neither in the world to come” (Matt. xii. 32), or the new dispensation, when, “having overcome the sharpness of death,” Christ “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”(3)
The “age to come,” therefore, is simply a designation for the Christian era, an era that was long ago prophesied by the prophets. Abraham, for example, “rejoiced in order to see [Jesus’] day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). The old covenant with its attendant animal sacrifices and earthly priesthood passed away when God’s lamb, Jesus Christ, took away the sins of the world.
Among Reformed preterist adherents, there is a great deal of agreement with the above interpretation and the application of Matthew 24:134 to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Among these same preterists, however, a debate arises over a proposed shift in topics and eras with verses 35 and 36 being time transition verses. Numerous commentators claim that Jesus redirects His discussion from the Great Tribulation of A.D. 70 (Matthew 24:134) to a distant coming that will result in the passing away of our present physical “heaven and earth” (24:35).
J. Marcellus Kik writes in his highly regarded and influential commentary on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, An Eschatology of Victory, that “many have recognized that with verse 36 a change in subject matter occurs. [Charles H.] Spurgeon indicates this in his commentary on verse 36 [of Matthew 24]: ‘There is a manifest change in our Lord’s words here, which clearly indicates that they refer to His last great coming to judgment.'”(4) Kenneth L. Gentry, author of many helpful works on prophecy, takes a similar view.(5) While I respect the work of these men, I do differ with them on their analysis of Matthew 24:35 and following.
The Passing Away of Heaven and Earth
Jesus does not change subjects when He assures the disciples that “heaven and earth will pass away.” Rather, He merely affirms His prior predictions, which are recorded in Matthew 24:2931. Verse 36 is a summary and confirmation statement of these verses.(6) Keep in mind that the central focus of the Olivet Discourse is the desolation of the “house” and “world” of apostate Israel (23:36). The old world of Judaism, represented by the earthly temple, is taken apart stone by stone (24:2). James Jordan writes, “each time God brought judgment on His people during the Old Covenant, there was a sense in which an old heavens and earth was replaced with a new one: New rulers were set up, a new symbolic world model was built (Tabernacle, Temple), and so forth.”(7) The New Covenant replaces the Old Covenant with new leaders, a new priesthood, new sacraments, a new sacrifice, a new tabernacle (John 1:14), and a new temple (John 2:19; 1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:21). In essence, a new heaven and earth.
The darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars, coupled with the shaking of the heavens (24:29), are more descriptive ways of saying that “heaven and earth will pass away” (24:35). In other contexts, when stars fall, they fall to the earth, a sure sign of temporal judgment (Isaiah 14:12; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 6:13; 9:1; 12:4). So then, the “passing away of heaven and earth” is the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism led and upheld by those who “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8).
John Owen (16161683) maintained that the “passing of heaven and earth” in 2 Peter 3:57 had reference, “not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state” in A.D. 70.(8) John Brown (17841858), commenting on Matthew 5:18, follows the same methodology.
“Heaven and earth passing away,” understood literally, is the dissolution of the present system of the universe; and the period when that is to take place, is called the “end of the world.” But a person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament Scriptures, knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and new heavens.(9)
John Lightfoot applies the phrase the “passing away of heaven and earth” to the “destruction of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish stateas if the whole frame of this world were to be dissolved.”(10)
This and That
Commentators often argue that Matthew 24 contains both a discussion of the A.D. 70 destruction of religious, social, and political Judaism as well as a reference to a yet-future return of Christ. This supposed distinction is drawn by contrasting “this generation” and “that day and hour.” Gentry writes that “there seems to be an intended contrast between that which is near (in verse 34) and that which is far (in verse 36): this generation vs. that day. It would seem more appropriate for Christ to have spoken of ‘this day’ rather than ‘that day’ if He had meant to refer to the time of ‘this generation.'”(11) Not at all. We should expect to see “that” used for a time still in the speaker’s future, whether that event is forty years or four thousand years in the future. “This generation” refers to the present generation Jesus was addressing. “This” is therefore the appropriate word for something present while “that” is the most appropriate word for something future. Arndt and Gingrich agree: “This refers to something comparatively near at hand, just as ekeinos [that] refers to something comparatively farther away.”(12) “That day” would come in the final destruction of the Jews who rejected their Messiah, a time still in the future for Jesus’ audience. John Gill writes:
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, &c.] Which is to be understood, not of the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, and the last judgment; but of the coming of the son of man, to take vengeance on the Jews, and of their destruction; for the words manifestly regard the date of the several things going on before, which only can be applied to that catastrophe, and dreadful desolation.(13)
Gill assumes that the previous context of the chapter governs the meaning of “that day.” As was pointed out above, Matthew 24:29 is a familiar Old Testament description of the “passing away of heaven and earth,” that is, the end of a social, religious, and political system.
John Lightfoot’s comments show that the only possible reference was to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70: “That the discourse is of the day of the destruction of Jerusalem is so evident, both by the disciples’ question, and by the whole thread of Christ’s discourse, that it is a wonder any should understand these words of the day and hour of the last judgment.”(14)
The Absence of Signs
Another reason offered in support of dividing the chapter at 24:35 is that the signs that follow are of a general nature compared to specific signs detailed in 24:134. There are two very good reasons for the absence of signs. First, the signs have already been given. All the signs that were necessary to understand the general timing of Jesus’ return in judgment were specified. Second, the topic changes from signs leading up to the temple’s destruction to watchfulness during the interim.
Those Days and That Day
Gentry writes that “we should notice the pre-transition emphasis on plural ‘days’ in contrast to the focus on the singular ‘day’ afterwards. ‘This generation’ involves many ‘days’ for the full accomplishment of the protracted (Matt. 24:22) Great Tribulation.” He states that in contrast to the “many ‘days'” of the Great Tribulation, “‘that day’ of the future Second Advent will come in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (cp. 1 Cor. 15:52).” Notice, however, that the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24:1528 does not include either the dissolution of the social, political, and religious world of the Jews (24:29) or the “coming of the Son of Man” (24:30). The events of 24:2930 (the coming of Jesus in judgment before that first-century generation passes away) follow “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (24:29). Such a distinction indicates that Jesus was pointing towards a certain day when the temple and the city of Jerusalem would fall.
The description of the Great Tribulation leads up to the heart of the discourse which is found in 24:2931. This is why Matthew describes the “coming of the Son of Man” as following the “days” of the Great Tribulation. The “coming of the Son of Man” in 24:30 parallels the “Son of Man” who comes up “to the Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:13. This “coming” was not a multi-day event; it happened on a certain day known only to the Father. The collapse of the social, religious, and political world of Israel (Matthew 24:29) — witnessed by tens of thousands as they saw their beloved city and sanctuary turn to ashes amidst the flames — was evidence that the Son of Man had come “up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him” (Daniel 7:13; cp. Matthew 24:30).
Just Like the Days of Noah
To help His listeners better understand the timing and circumstances of the events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple before their generation passed away, Jesus draws on a familiar Old Testament judgment event — the flood. Jesus, teaching by analogy, shows how the coming of the flood waters and His own coming are similar. In Noah’s time we read about “those days which were before the flood” and “the day that NOAH ENTERED THE ARK” (Matthew 24:38). Similarly, there were days before the coming of the Son of Man and the day of the coming of the Son of Man. The same people were involved in both the “days before” and “the day of” the Son of Man. Those who “were eating and drinking” and “marrying and giving in marriage” were the same people who were shut out on “the day that Noah entered the ark.”(15) Noah entered the ark on a single day similar to the way Jesus as the Son of Man came on the “clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (24:30), a day and hour known only to the Father (24:36). “Some shall be rescued from the destruction of Jerusalem, like Lot out of the burning of Sodom: while others, no ways perhaps different in outward circumstances, shall be left to perish in it.”(16)
Mix and Match
Luke 17:2237 describes five Olivet-Discourse prophetic events that are identical to those found in Matthew 24. The difference between Matthew 24 and Luke 17 is in the order of the events, a characteristic of the passages that few commentators can explain. Ray Summers, an exception to the rule, makes the following comments:
This is a most difficult passage. The overall reference appears to be to the coming of the Son of Man — Christ — in judgment at the end of the age. Some small parts of it, however, are repeated in Luke 21 in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), and larger parts of it are in Matthew 24, also in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. The entire complex cautions one against dogmatism in interpreting.(17)
Taking Matthew 24 as the standard, Luke places the Noah’s ark analogy (Matthew 24:3739) before the events of Matthew 24:1718 (“let him who is on the housetop not go down”), verse 27 (“for just as the lightning comes from the east”), and verse 28 (“wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather”). If the five prophetic events of Matthew 24 that are found in Luke 17:2237 are numbered 12345, Luke’s numbering of the same events would be 24153
After A Long Time
Another line of evidence offered by those who believe that events following Matthew 24:34 refer to the personal and physical return of Jesus is the meaning given to “after a long time” (24:48; 25:19) and the “delay” by the bridegroom (25:5). On the surface these examples seem to indicate that two different events are in view, one near (the destruction of Jerusalem) and one distant (the second coming of Christ). This is the view of Stephen F. Hayhow. He writes:
Both parables, the parables of the virgins (vv. 113), and the parable of the talents (vv. 1430), speak of the absence of the bridegroom/master, who is said to be “a long time in coming” (v. 5) and “After a long time the master of the servants returned” (v. 19). This suggests, not the events of A.D. 70 which were to occur in the near future, in fact within the space of a generation, but a distant event, the return of Christ.(18)
Notice that the evil slave says, “My master is not coming for a long time” (Matthew 24:48). The evil slave then proceeds to “beat his fellow-slaves and eat and drink with drunkards” (24:49). But to the surprise of the “evil slave” the master returned when he least suspected (24:50). The master did not return to cut the evil slave’s distant relatives in pieces (24:51); he cut him in pieces. The evil slave was alive when the master left, and he was alive when the master returned. In this context, a “long time” must be measured against a person’s lifetime. In context, two years could be a long time if the master usually returned within six months.
The same idea is expressed in the parable of the “talents.” A man entrusts his slaves with his possessions (25:14). The master then goes on a journey (25:15). While the master is gone, the slaves make investment decisions (25:1618). We are then told that “after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). However long a “long time” is, it is not any longer than an average lifetime. The settlement is made with the same slaves who received the talents.
The delay of the bridegroom is no different from the “long time” of the two previous parables. The bridegroom returns to the same two groups of virgins (25:113). The duration of the delay must be measured by the audience.
This brief analysis helps us understand the “mockers” who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:34). Peter was aware that Jesus’ coming was an event that would take place before the last apostle died (Matthew 16:2728; John 21:2223). The doctrine of the soon return of Christ was common knowledge (Matthew 24:34; 26:64; Philippians 4:5; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 2:18; Revelation 1:1, 3). It is not hard to imagine that the passage of several decades would lead some to doubt the reliability of the prophecy, especially as the promised generation was coming to a close. The horrendous events of A.D. 70 silenced the mockers.
Is the “coming of the Son of Man” in Matthew 24:37 different from the “coming of the Son of Man” in verses 27 and 30? There is no indication that Jesus is describing two comings separated by an indeterminate period of time. What would have led the disciples to conclude that Jesus was describing a coming different from the one He described moments before when He uses identical language to describe both of them? Jesus does not say “this coming of the Son of Man” or “that coming of the Son of Man” to distinguish two comings as He does with “this generation” and “that day.”
Similarly, there is little evidence that the “coming of the Son of Man” in Matthew 24:27, 30, 39, and 42 is different from the “coming of the Son of Man” in 25:31. Compare Matthew 25:31 with Matthew 16:27, a certain reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70:
“For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds” (Matthew 16:27).
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31).
These verses are almost identical. The timing of Matthew 16:27 is tied to verse 28: “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” “Recompensing every man according to his deeds” corresponds with “He will sit on His glorious throne” to execute judgment among the nations (25:32). But how can this universal judgment be said to have been fulfilled in 70?
There is no indication that Matthew 25:3146 describes a single event. Rather, the passage describes a judgment over time, related to Jesus’ dominion as an “everlasting dominion” (Daniel 7:14). Jesus was “exalted to the right hand of God” where He rules until all His enemies are made a “footstool for [His] feet” (Acts 2:33, 35). Paul writes that Jesus “must reign until He has put all of His enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). Milton Terry writes that “the ideal of judgment presented in Matt. xxv, 3146, is therefore no single event, like the destruction of Jerusalem.”(19) Terry continues:
The Old Testament doctrine is that “the kingdom is Jehovah’s, and he is ruler among the nations” (Psalm xxii, 28). “Say ye among the nations, Jehovah reigneth; he shall judge the peoples with equity. He cometh, he cometh to judge the earth; he shall judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his truth” (Psalm xcvi, 1013). The day of judgment for any wicked nation, city, or individual is the time when the penal visitation comes; and the judgment of God’s saints is manifest in every signal event which magnifies goodness and condemns iniquity.(20)
The King of glory is continually judging and reigning among the nations, and He will not cease from this work until “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The solution in determining when certain prophetic events take place is the presence of time indicators in context. The phrase “long time” has been made to stretch over several millennia even though there is no indication of such an extended period of time in Matthew 24:48 and 25:19. While all admit that time indicators are present in Matthew 2425, few are willing to allow the words themselves and the context to set the limits on how long a “long time” is. The use of “long time” has no eschatological significance in other New Testament contexts (Luke 8:27; 20:9; 23:8; John 5:6; Acts 8:11; 14:3, 28; 26:5, 29; 27:21; 28:6). The same can be said for the New Testament use of “delay” (Luke 1:21; 18:7; Acts 9:38; 22:16; 25:17; Hebrews 10:37; Revelation 10:6).
The parables of Matthew 2425 are clear on the duration of the delays — the two masters who go on a journey return to the same people they left. There is no need to allegorize these parables to force them to depict a distant coming of Christ. In addition, the delay of the bridegroom in the parable of the ten virgins is not very long, unless the virgins are related to Rip Van Winkle. The virgins get drowsy at dusk, and the bridegroom returns at midnight (25:6). How can this “delay” be turned into a span of time nearly two thousand years in length?
6. Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, n.d.), 169.