Matthew 24:29–30a (my translation)
29 Immediately after the anguish 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.’ 30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven …
If you’re now picturing the space/time universe collapsing into a black hole, please know that Jesus wasn’t the picture in Jesus’ mind. The NIV misleads us to think of literal stars by calling them “heavenly bodies,” whereas Jesus was talking about the powers of the heavens (αἱ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν) being shaken.
As the quotation marks suggest, Jesus was using imagery from the Old Testament — Isaiah 13 to be specific.
Isaiah called God’s people back to his throne (Isaiah 1–6), with his reign expressed through the Davidic king (Isaiah 7–12). Under God’s reign (the day of the Lord), all enemies would be under his authority (Isaiah 13–21). That was good news for God’s people, but bad news for their oppressors.
The “stars” of the ancient world were not Hollywood actors but kings resplendent with their glory. With false claims to be God’s anointed (24:24), these superstars present themselves as reigning in God’s place (in the heavens), so they fall from their lofty positions when God’s kingship is restored.
The Davidic kingship (the reign of heaven’s anointed) fell when Babylon raised herself up to the heavens to displace God’s reign. Isaiah says her blasphemous claims would not stand: Babylon would be cast down from her lofty position, restoring heaven’s reign through his anointed ruler:
Isaiah 13:1, 9-11 (NIV)
1 A prophecy against Babylon …
9 See, the day of the Lord is coming — a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger —
to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it.
10 The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins.
I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.
That’s what Jesus was alluding to. The rulers of Babel (Babylon) attempted to climb up into God’s place (the heavens) to steal his authority over the earth. Inevitably, the self-proclaimed superstars fall from their haughty ascent.
This hubris is not unique to Babylon. Isaiah made the same proclamation against the nations. He said the whole host of these self-appointed superstars would fall (Isaiah 34:4).
So, it makes perfect sense when Jesus applies Isaiah’s words to Rome, another empire presenting its Caesars as superstars, sons of the gods. Their proud domination of God’s world caused great anguish for those they oppressed. The people of Judea could do little but flee when Rome invaded the city designed to represent God’s reign (24:15-22).
As traumatic as it was, Rome’s decimation of Jerusalem did address the abusive power within God’s people. Jesus has been wrestling with that problem ever since he arrived at the capital proclaimed as king. He confronted the temple that rejected his authority (21:23), challenging the disobedient son (21:31), the selfish tenants (21:43), the elite who refused the king’s son (22:13), the play-actors who pretended to hold power but had only the power of death (23:1-36). They would be brought down by the Roman invasion. The city sealed its fate by rejecting the pleas of her king (23:37). She was vulnerable because God had left his house (23:38) — the same explanation Ezekiel and Jeremiah gave for Babylon’s invasion.
So, Rome’s invasion brings down the leadership of those who rejected God’s anointed, but what now? That doesn’t solve the injustice, the oppression and anguish of his people. Does God leave the Roman superstars in their place? Or, more accurately, does God leave them occupying his place (as ruler of his people)?
No, says Jesus. After all this anguish, God will bring them down from their presumptuous claims to be ruling the world in God’s place. They will fall from where they have tried to climb (the heavens). The oppression ends because the Ancient of Days takes his throne, removes power from the beasts, and gives it to his anointed. The arrival of the son of man is therefore the fall of the superstars.
Please let that sink in. Many were hoping that God would resolve the problem of authority within Israel. Did Jesus just say that the arrival of the son of man resolves the problem of God’s authority over the nations as well?
Israel’s fate was always intertwined with the nations. Even before they were exiled among the nations, David’s Psalms regularly lamented their enemies. That was their problem before they had kings (Joshua – Judges), before they were even a nation (Exodus), when Abraham first came into the land (Genesis 14). The earth was corrupted by violence (Genesis 6), for conflict arose from people disregarding their sovereign (Genesis 3–4). Will all these problems, all the power issues of history, be resolved by the Ancient of Days giving authority over the earth to the son of man?
Yes, says Jesus. The coming of the son of man is the fall of the superstars from where they had no right to be. The fake lights of the world cease to shine when the true light is revealed, the one God has anointed.
Open Matthew 24:29.
What others are saying
In Isa 13:10 the reference is to the coming destruction of Babylon and in Isa 34:4 to a threatened judgment on “all nations,” which is then narrowed down specifically to Edom. Language about cosmic collapse, then, is used by the OT prophets to symbolize God’s acts of judgment within history, with the emphasis on catastrophic political reversals. When Jesus borrows Isaiah’s imagery it is reasonable to understand it in a similar sense.