In Matthew and Mark Jesus speaks of events in the heavens prior to the revelation of the Son of Man: the darkening of sun and moon, the falling of the stars, the shaking of the powers of heaven (Matt. 24:29; Mk. 13:24-25). In response to Dale Allison’s argument that Jesus expected a literal remaking of the natural order to come at the climax of Israel’s history, I made the point that actually Jesus has nothing to say about events on earth. Cosmic-scale events are confined to the heavens.
Luke’s version of the saying, however, would seem to belie this view (why Luke tends to get overlooked in discussions of Jesus’ eschatology I’m not sure):
And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity (en aporiai), roaring (ēchous) of sea and the waves, people fainting from fear and foreboding of things coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken; and then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and much glory. (Lk. 21:25–27, my translation)
Does this mean that Jesus thought that some sort of earth-shattering transformation would accompany the destruction of Jerusalem, described in the preceding paragraph? I don’t think so.
The reference to “signs in sun and moon and stars” presumably abbreviates Old Testament descriptions of heavenly portents of divine judgment on Israel and on the nations (cf. Is. 13:10; 34:4; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:30-31). The language of distress on earth has the same frame of reference; it does not anticipate either the transformation of the natural order or the end-of-the-world.
- Israel will not be afraid “when the earth is troubled and mountains be transposed in hearts of seas”. But “Nations were troubled, kingdoms tilted; he gave forth his voice; the earth was shaken.” (Ps. 45:3, 7 LXX = 46:2, 6 MT).
- YHWH “stirs the hollow of the sea, roars (ēchous) of its waves. The nations will be troubled, and those who inhabit the limits will be awed by your signs” (Ps. 64:8–9 LXX = 65:7-8 MT). But what will trouble the nations is God hearkening to their prayer and acting to save his people (64:6).
- Isaiah describes the coming of the nations to attack Israel because the “Lord Sabaoth was enraged with anger against his people” (Is. 5:25 LXX). They rush against Israel like lions, but they will be brought to a standstill and cast out. YHWH will “roar because of them on that day, like the sound of a surging sea. And they will look to the land, and behold, harsh darkness in their dismay (en tē aporiai autōn)” (Is. 5:30 LXX).
- Jeremiah speaks of a “great crashing in the land of the Chaldeans, because the Lord utterly destroyed Babylon and ruined her great voice roaring (ēchousan) like many waters” (Jer. 28:54–55 LXX).
Jesus predicts distress, fear, foreboding among the nations on account of “things coming on the world”. The world here is not kosmos, but oikoumenē, and in the context of Luke-Acts there is the strong probability that this is a reference either to the Greek-Roman world as a cultural entity or to Rome as an empire. It is the world ruled by Caesar (Lk. 2:1; Acts 11:28; 17:6), the world of the pagan gods (Acts 17:31; 19:27), the world of the Jewish diaspora (Acts 24:5).
But what is coming upon the oikoumenē is the fact that “the powers of the heavens will be shaken”.
Bear in mind, too, that Jesus has just said that “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). How long he imagined that would be is anyone’s guess, but it weighs heavily against the view that the world would be put to rights at the time of the revelation of the Son of Man coming on the clouds.
So in anticipation of the shaking of the powers of the heavens, there would be signs in the heavens and the sort of foreboding on earth that would normally attend the defeat of nations and massive geopolitical realignment.
It’s possible that Luke’s Jesus is looking beyond the destruction of Jerusalem to the time when the dominance of the pagan nations will be brought to an end (cf. Lk. 21:24). But this is not necessarily the case. The nations may be in distress only because they are onlookers at the catastrophe of God’s judgment against Israel; the oikoumenē is launched into turmoil without yet being overthrown.
Either way, the shocking political crisis would be seen as the decisive public vindication of the one who identified himself with the symbolic human figure in Daniel’s visionary narrative. This vindication would coincide with the coming of the kingdom of God, and it would happen with a generation (Lk. 21:32).