The Powers of Heaven

“There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.” —Luke 21:25,26

THE picture language of the Bible employs essentially all the created things of God with which we here on earth are acquainted. There are various reasons why God has used so much symbolic language in his Word. We think that one of these is its unchangeableness. The meaning of words change somewhat through use and misuse. Whatever man creates is also subject to change, but this is not true of the created things of God.

In the sign language of the Bible, God has employed the sun, the moon, the stars, and clouds; and on the earth, oceans, rivers, mountains, valleys, sheep, goats, horses, wheat, tares, fig trees, and so forth. The characteristics of these have not changed throughout the centuries, and when used in the Bible to illustrate the exalted thoughts of God they should have the same meaning to us as they did to the ancients.

Our present study pertains more particularly to God’s use of the heavens, composed of the sun, moon, and stars, and the relationship of the heavens to the earth. Our text mentions both of these. Jesus foretold that there would be signs in the heavens, and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity. These prophetic words of the Master constitute part of his answer to the disciples’ question pertaining to the signs of his presence and the end of the age.

In presenting the many signs of that future time concerning which his disciples asked, Jesus adhered closely to the general prophetic testimony of the Old Testament. The Prophet Isaiah wrote:

“Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcasses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.”—Isa. 34:1-4

Joel’s prophecy follows this same general sequence. We quote:

“Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up: beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong. Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.”—Joel 3:9,10,14,15

As a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the apostles were able to recall the teachings of Jesus, and to enlarge upon them. On the subject of the heavens and the earth, the Apostle Peter wrote:

“The heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of Judgment and perdition of ungodly men. The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness. Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat. Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”—II Pet. 3:5,7,10-13

In this prophecy Peter gives us added dimensions, which help in the comprehension of the symbols used, particularly the heavens and the earth. He explains that a world (Greek, kosmos, meaning order) comprising a heavens and an earth, passed away at the time of the Flood. (vs. 6) We know that the literal sun, moon, and stars did not pass away at the time of the Deluge, so we know that Peter is also speaking symbolically when referring to the heavens and the earth, which are now.

Likewise, when Peter writes that in keeping with the Lord’s promise we look for new heavens and a new earth, we know that he is not referring literally to a new sun, moon, and stars, but to something symbolized by these created things of God. God’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth is recorded by the Prophet Isaiah, who assures us that a time is coming when “there shall be no more thence an infant of days,” and that in the new regime “they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them.”—Isa. 65:17-22

The Prophet Isaiah associates the new heavens and a new earth with a new Jerusalem which the Lord will also create. These symbolisms are also brought together for us in Revelation 21:1-5,9,10. With the coming of this New Jerusalem, the new heaven and a new earth, there is the destruction of sickness, pain, and death, and the wiping away of tears.

The explanation is given that the New Jerusalem is “the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” The Lamb is Jesus, who was slain for the sins of the world, and his bride is composed of those who have followed him sacrificially into death. (Rev. 14:1-4) Together, these constitute the spiritual phase of the messianic kingdom, which is established for the blessing of all the families of the earth.

The gates into this city have on them the names of the “twelve tribes of Israel.” (Rev. 21:12,13) The gates are the entrance to the city, and the Bible reveals that the Ancient Worthies, those who will be made “princes in all the earth,” will constitute these gates. (Ps. 45:16) It will be through them, and under their leadership, that mankind will enter into the city, the new government of earth, as subjects, and receive the long-promised blessings of happiness and life.—Rev. 21:24-27

A city is used in the Scriptures as a symbol of a government, and since the Holy City of the prophecies is so closely related to the new heavens and new earth, it seems evident that these also symbolize that new government, saying to us in pictorial language that it will have two phases, namely, heavenly and earthly.

Symbols Appropriate

The symbology of the Bible is not arbitrary, but is based upon the known characteristics of the objects used as symbols. All life on this earth is subject to the controlling influences of what we refer to as the heavens. Our climate changes with the movements of the earth as related to the sun, and this in turn has an important bearing upon vegetation, and therefore upon our existence. The tides are influenced by the moon. The heavens also keep in motion the circulatory water system by which all life on earth is sustained.

But humans are dependent creatures in still other ways. While created as free moral agents, they nevertheless look for direction and leadership, and God designed that this should be so. Thus, just as in a literal sense the God-ordained relationship of the heavens and the earth produce conditions suitable to physical well-being and life, God has used these literal creations to symbolize arrangements by which the minds and conduct of the people are governed.

All right-thinking people recognize this need of control over human conduct, and through the ages have subscribed to it. If perchance, in small areas, and temporarily, there is no such control, we describe this as a state of anarchy. The accepted arrangements of law and order we refer to as a social order, or arrangement, and sometimes as a world. Today, for example, we speak of the pre-1914 world.

Throughout the ages it has also been generally recognized that the standards of proper conduct emanate from sources higher than the human mind—that is, from deity. This has been true even among the nations which have not recognized and served the true God of the Bible. Every nationality and people have had their gods by which they have professed to be guided and controlled.

In most cases these gods of the people have been visualized as cruel and licentious. Oftentimes they have been worshiped through various forms of revelry and lust. Nevertheless, they have been recognized as having the right to control through their representatives, the kings and priests among men.

The Bible gives us the true picture in this connection, of what has actually been taking place in all ages. Paul explains that because fallen man desired to forget the true God, he “gave them up.” (Rom. 1:21-32) The righteous laws of the Creator were too binding upon them, so they created gods of their own lustful imaginations, who, as they supposed, were pleased to have them walk in their licentious ways.

And, as the Bible reveals, Satan, the great archenemy of God and of man, was quick to take advantage of this situation. Indeed, he helped materially In creating it. Associated with him have been the fallen angels, who, even before the Flood, corrupted mankind by their unholy attempts to govern mankind apart from the Creator’s guidance. In all ages, these higher, or spiritual, powers have had their contacts with the human race largely through the religious leaders, instructors, and rulers.

It is interesting to realize that even before the Flood the people had their various forms of worship, and their priests, to whom they could look for instruction in the proper ways to appease and please their gods. Tablets discovered by archeologists reveal this. In this respect the world before the Flood was not too much different from the world that has existed since.

We believe that it was this religious control, headed by Satan and the fallen angels, who followed his unholy leadership, that constituted the symbolic heavens which existed before the Deluge. The civil rulers and their various arrangements for controlling the people would be the symbolic earth of that time. Together these constituted the world, or social order, which then existed.

And it was an extremely wicked world. We read that “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The unholy angels are referred to as “sons of God,” and we read that these “came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” (vs. 4) These mighty men are also referred to as giants.—Gen. 6:1-5; I Pet. 3:17-22; II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6

The Flood destroyed this wicked world, the symbolic heavens and earth of that time. But it was not long after the Flood that Satan again succeeded in bringing the increasing population of the new world under his control. His pattern of operation was much the same as before the Deluge.

Knowing that the people wanted to look up to a higher power, Satan substituted Imaginary gods for the true God. There were always those who were glad to serve as priests and servants of these false gods, such as the priests of Baal. The more lustful the rituals by which the people worshiped these false gods, the better they liked it, and Satan accommodated them.

As before the Flood, there again were the civil rulers, the kings of the various nations and peoples. These were tied in closely with the religious guides who represented the various gods of the Gentiles in what was, roughly speaking, the counterpart of the church-state systems of more recent times.

The only exception to these arrangements in ancient times was Jehovah’s rulership over the one small nation of Israel. But even here, the people of Israel frequently went into idolatry. (Exod. 34:15; Deut. 31:16; Ezek. 6:9) This typical kingdom of Israel came to an end with the overthrow of its last king, Zedekiah, in the year 606 B.C. Again, the rulership of Satan was unchallenged in the earth, except as God prevented interference with the plan he was developing for the ultimate deliverance of all mankind from sin and death.

Besides, the righteous laws given by God to Israel, while seldom wholeheartedly accepted and obeyed by the Israelites, nevertheless had a certain wholesome influence not only upon God’s own people, but to a lesser degree upon the people of surrounding nations. Because of these laws, and the people who have supported and obeyed them, God’s standards of righteousness have always been present to some extent throughout the earth.

With the coming of Jesus and the introduction of his teachings, true righteousness was given further impetus. Jesus referred to those who were to represent him as the salt of the earth, and they have indeed been a wholesome influence upon society.

The followers of Jesus were not commissioned to establish a righteous rulership over the nations, but merely to preach the Gospel. The righteousness of the Gospel, having its foundation in Israel’s Law, has had a vital and righteous influence in shaping the laws of all the civilized nations of the earth.

Church and State

Not long after the apostles fell asleep in death, the professed church began to lose sight of its real mission in the earth, to preach the Gospel. The ambitious among them began to grasp for power over the people. This led to the unholy church-state systems of Europe. It meant, also, that Satan had overreached these professed followers of the Master, and that now he was able to control the old Roman world in the name of the true God of the Bible.

This was simply a continuance of Satan’s symbolic heavens and earth. So far as the Roman world was concerned, it was merely changing the god who supposedly was in control, but this was in name only. Prior to this, various pagan gods directed the moral behavior of the empire. The heads of state were styled Pontifex Maximus, meaning chief religious ruler. Soon after the change, the popes of Rome assumed this title, and claimed to be the vicegerents of Christ.

But let us not be misunderstood. The church-state rulership of Europe was not wholly unrighteous. Just as Israel’s laws and the teachings of Christ exercised a certain amount of influence for good even among heathen nations, this was even more the case in those church-state governments; for, after all, on the religious side, they were the outgrowth of true Christianity, although terribly distorted.

The Ten Commandments formed the basis of most moral law in the governments which allied themselves with the church, and this was good. The greatest distortions occurred in the other religious teachings and concepts of the people. In this area the motives for obedience to divine law suffered frightening changes. In the true Gospel of Christ, love for God and for man is the motive for obedience. But under the direction of Satan, fear was substituted for love—fear of eternal torture in a hell of fire and brimstone.

Not only was the fear of future torment used to force obedience to the church-state systems, but during the Dark Ages the church authorized and practiced extreme cruelties upon those who dared to disagree with its doctrines, or to disobey its edicts. The so-called Holy Inquisition is a hideous blot upon the pages of church history. Millions of people were tortured and killed during that terrible period of unchallenged religious control, particularly over the people of Spain.

With the coming of enlightenment and the Reformation, this outward and cruel torture of the people subsided. But the fear of even worse torture after death continued to be used as a scourge to frighten the people into obedience. Indeed, there is still a religious leader here and there who claims that it is necessary to preach hell-fire and brimstone to keep the people in line with moral law. However, we are thankful that this God-dishonoring claim is not so frequently heard as formerly was the case.

The Loss of Faith

Following the Reformation, and as a result of increasing knowledge, the people as a whole gradually have been losing confidence in religious standards of all kinds. They look at the creeds of the Dark Ages with their distortions of truth concerning God, and their enlightened reason leads them to reject such concepts of deity. Too often, however, the righteous laws which came originally from the God of the Bible are also rejected, and millions are deciding that the matter of right and wrong is something we determine in our own minds, and that there is no God in heaven who has set standards for us.

This trend has been accentuated by the two global wars of our generation. In the First World War, the clergy of the various denominations on both sides of the struggle served as recruiting agents to induce young men to join the army and fight for God. They were often told that death on the battlefield was a sure way of getting to heaven. Many of these young men who returned alive came back disillusioned. They discovered that the enemies against whom they fought were also told by their religious leaders that they were fighting for God.

Besides, with few exceptions, the church-state governments of Europe did not survive that first global struggle. Godless communism replaced it in Russia. A republican form of government was set up in Germany, which was followed by Nazi dictatorship. In Italy fascism took over. This meant that throughout Europe religious authority as an official aspect of government had virtually ceased.

The breakdown of religious restraints became more and more reflected in world affairs. National and international treaties were no longer held sacred as formerly. Some of the powerful nations no longer paid serious heed to international law. The world was told that religion was an opiate for the poor.

Then came the second global war, with all the horrors which it produced. Beyond the demolishing of cities and the destruction of millions of innocents was the further breakdown of faith in a higher power interested in caring for his human creatures. This was particularly true in the minds and hearts of the young. Not all the young became unbelievers, but millions did, thus seriously weakening the former religious restraints which through the centuries constituted the basis of what was called civilization.

One of the results of this has been the alarming increase of crime throughout the world; and it is still increasing. And when we speak of crime we do not refer only to shoplifting, bank robberies, rape, and murder, but also to dishonesty and corruption in government circles, high and low—to all forms of amoral and immoral conduct which evinces a lack of respect for moral and religious standards—in private life, in business, and in government.

Powers Shaken

We call attention to this dark and shameful situation because we think it indicates a beginning of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that in the end of the age, and the time of his second presence, the powers of heaven would be shaken. He was referring, we believe, to the controlling powers of the symbolic heaven.

Nor is this weakening of religious restraints over human conduct limited to the professed Christian world. It is the same in essentially all heathen countries, especially where communism is in control. Religion has also been divorced from the government of Japan.

This weakening of the symbolic heavens has gone on hand-in-hand with the disintegration of the former civil governments of earth. In Isaiah’s prophecy (already quoted) these kingdoms are symbolized by mountains, which the prophet said would be melted with their blood, the blood of their armies. (Isa. 34:3) The tremendous shedding of blood throughout our generation has indeed melted the symbolic mountains of earth. And the disintegration continues, as evidenced, for example, in the rapidly approaching bankruptcy of the nations in maintaining their boasted military might.

Isaiah indicates that while the mountains are thus melting, “all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.” (vs. 4) Three illustrations are here given to indicate the manner in which the powers of heaven are shaken. They dissolve, they roll together as a scroll, they fall down as a leaf from the vine, and as a falling fig from a fig tree.

The dissolving of the heavens is described by Peter as the elements melting with fervent heat. This reminds us that the powers of religious control are composed of various elements. There are, for example, the Protestant and Catholic elements. These melt, not in numbers, necessarily, but as heavens which are unable, as they were able in the past, to control moral and religious standards of the people.

These were also to be rolled together as a scroll. A scroll is unrolled for use, and rolled together when it is not to be used. So here again is another apt symbol, teaching that the symbolic heavens of this “present evil world” are no longer to be in use.—Gal. 1:4

It has been suggested that the rolling together of the two ends of this symbolic scroll could well picture the desire and efforts of the two main elements of the heavens—Catholicism and Protestantism—to work more in unison for their mutual strength and protection. This might well be, for certainly we see trends in this direction.

“All their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.” It is the dying leaves that fall from the vine. It is the useless figs that fall from the fig tree—either because they are diseased or over-ripe. These also are vivid illustrations of how the powers of heaven are shaken.

Filled with Fear

Our text reveals that the hearts of the people would be filled with fear on account of the powers of heaven being shaken. This is true in the world today. The people recognize that chaos is increasing on every hand. They sense that human wisdom has lost control of the situation. They know that the forces of godlessness which threaten to engulf the world have no respect for what the noble-minded among the people still believe to be proper standards of righteousness.

Thinking men and women also realize that the moral and righteous standards of the western world have so broken down that it is impossible to raise a united front against the forces that are destroying what is left of civilization. Recognizing this, they see no hope, and their hearts are filled with fear as they look ahead to the things coming upon the earth.

It is true that church membership in the United States is at an all-time high. But even this has been brought about largely through fear. It does not represent a real revival of religious fervor. There is little evidence of devotion and self-sacrifice that could effectively help to stem the inrushing tide of materialism and unbelief.

Offsetting the large church membership in the United States is the fact that, the world over, Christianity is losing ground, not only in numbers but in other ways as well. In Italy, of all places, there is a serious growing shortage of Catholic priests. The shortage in the ranks of the clergy in this country, both in the Catholic and Protestant churches is also serious, and large numbers of laymen are being trained and used to supply the need.


The authoritarian aspect of Catholicism, and to a lesser extent of Protestantism, was one of the elements of the symbolic heavens which gave them power. This was displayed in the sectarianism of churchianity. The Catholic Church claimed to be the only true church, and its people were not to fraternize with those of other churches along religious lines. The time was when this was also true of many Protestant groups.

But this too is changing. The whole trend now is to get together. This also is being induced largely by fear. The desire is to strengthen their position against the rising tide of atheistic communism. To work together, overlooking past differences, is salutary, but it weakens the powers of heaven, for it is an admission that none of the groups can be too sure any more that it, and it alone, is the one and only. The effect of this could well be that the public at large will wonder if any of them really represent the Lord.

However, the prophecies of the Bible are definite that all the elements of the symbolic heavens are to melt with fervent heat, and that all the host of heaven are to fall down. This is the final prophetic picture. This being true, how we rejoice in the assurance that there is to be new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.—II Pet. 3:13; Isa. 65:17-25; Rev. 21:1-5

In that new heavens, Christ will shine forth as the “Sun of Righteousness” with “healing in his wings.” (Mal. 4:2) With him, also shining forth “as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” will be Christ’s true followers of the Gospel Age, the “children of the kingdom,” symbolized by the wheat in the parable of the wheat and the tares.—Matt. 13:43,38

This will be, primarily, the new spiritual power of control, which, under another symbol, is described as “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (Rev. 22:1) “A pure river of water of life, clear as crystal” will flow out from this throne; and there will be “the tree of life” bearing life-giving fruit, and “the leaves of the tree” will be “for the healing of the nations.”—vs. 2

This is symbolic language, but how beautifully it portrays the great changes which will take place when the powers of the new heavens take control. How the nations will need healing, and how glad the people will be to realize that the loving God of heaven has intervened in human affairs and has established peace and security, and is providing health and life for all the willing and obedient.

The Prophet Isaiah wrote, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain [kingdom]: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:9) And this will be the true knowledge of God, not adulterated by distorted and blasphemous theories which have maligned the character of God. It is described by the Prophet Zephaniah as a “pure language,” under the inspiration of which the people will serve the Lord “with one consent.”—Zeph. 3:9

Let us then not fear as we see the prophecies of the Bible being fulfilled in the disintegration of civil and religious authority in the earth. Let us, rather, rejoice in the promises of God to establish his own social order, even his righteous kingdom. We know that with the fulfillment of these promises, the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and will learn war no more. (Mic. 4:1-4) Then will indeed come a new heaven and a new earth!

Dawn Bible Students Association
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