The Apostles Ask for a Sign
MATTHEW 24:3-51 MARK 13:3-37 LUKE 21:7-38
FOUR DISCIPLES ASK FOR A SIGN
FULFILLMENTS IN THE FIRST CENTURY AND BEYOND
WE MUST KEEP ALERT
It is Tuesday afternoon, and Nisan 11 is drawing to a close. Also ending are days of intense activity here on earth for Jesus. By day he has been teaching in the temple, and by night he has lodged outside the city. There has been great interest among the people, who “would come to him early in the morning to hear him in the temple.” (Luke 21:37, 38) Now that is past, and Jesus is seated on the Mount of Olives with four apostles—Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
These four have come to him privately. They are concerned about the temple because Jesus has just foretold that not a stone of it will be left upon a stone. They have more on their minds, though. Jesus had earlier urged them: “Keep ready, because at an hour that you do not think likely, the Son of man is coming.” (Luke 12:40) He had also spoken about the “day when the Son of man is revealed.” (Luke 17:30) Are those comments somehow related to what he just said about the temple? The apostles are very curious. “Tell us,” they say, “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?”—Matthew 24:3.
They may have in mind the end of the very temple that they can see not far away. Also, they ask about the presence of the Son of man. They may recall that Jesus gave an illustration about “a man of noble birth” who ‘traveled to secure kingly power and then to return.’ (Luke 19:11, 12) And, finally, they wonder what “the conclusion of the system of things” will involve.
In his detailed response, Jesus provides a sign that identifies when the existing Jewish system of things, including its temple, will end. But he provides more. This sign will help Christians in the future to know when they are living during his “presence” and near the end of the entire system of things on earth.
As the years go by, the apostles observe Jesus’ prophecy being fulfilled. Yes, many things that he foretold start to occur in their lifetime. Thus, alert Christians who are living 37 years later, in 70 C.E., are not caught unawares by the approaching destruction of the Jewish system with its temple. However, not all that Jesus foretells actually takes place in the period leading up to and including 70 C.E. Hence, what will yet mark his presence in Kingdom power? Jesus reveals the answer to the apostles.
Jesus foretells that there will be “wars and reports of wars” and that “nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:6, 7) He also says that “there will be great earthquakes, and in one place after another food shortages and pestilences.” (Luke 21:11) Jesus warns his disciples: “People will lay their hands on you and persecute you.” (Luke 21:12) False prophets will arise and mislead many. Lawlessness will increase, and the love of the greater number will grow cold. Additionally, he says that the “good news of the Kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”—Matthew 24:14.
Although Jesus’ prophecy is fulfilled in some respects prior to and during the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, might Jesus be including a later, larger fulfillment? Do you see the evidence that Jesus’ momentous prophecy has been undergoing its major fulfillment in modern times?
One thing that Jesus includes in the sign of his presence is the appearance of “the disgusting thing that causes desolation.” (Matthew 24:15) In 66 C.E., this disgusting thing appears in the form of the “encamped armies” of Rome, with their idolatrous standards, or ensigns. The Romans surround Jerusalem and undermine some of its walls. (Luke 21:20) Thus, “the disgusting thing” is standing where it ought not, in what the Jews consider “a holy place.”
Jesus further foretells: “There will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” In 70 C.E., the Romans destroy Jerusalem. That destructive conquest of the Jews’ ‘holy city,’ including its temple, proves to be a great tribulation, with many thousands being killed. (Matthew 4:5; 24:21) It is far greater than any destruction the city and the Jewish people have ever experienced, and it brings to an end the organized system of worship that the Jews had followed for centuries. Accordingly, any later, larger fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic words is certain to be horrific.
CONFIDENCE DURING THE FORETOLD DAYS
Jesus’ discussion with his apostles regarding the sign of his presence in Kingdom power and of the end of the system of things is far from over. He now warns them about chasing after “false Christs and false prophets.” Attempts will be made, he says, “to mislead, if possible, even the chosen ones.” (Matthew 24:24) But these chosen ones will not be misled. False Christs can make only a visible appearance. In contrast, Jesus’ presence will not be visible.
Referring to a larger tribulation that would break out at the end of the present system of things, Jesus says: “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) The apostles hearing those chilling words do not know exactly what will occur, but it certainly will be awesome.
How will these shocking events affect mankind? Jesus says: “People will become faint out of fear and expectation of the things coming upon the inhabited earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:26) Indeed, Jesus is describing what will be the darkest period of human existence.
Encouragingly, Jesus makes it clear to the apostles that not all will be lamenting when ‘the Son of man comes with power and great glory.’ (Matthew 24:30) He had already indicated that God will intervene “on account of the chosen ones.” (Matthew 24:22) So how should such faithful disciples react to the shocking developments that Jesus is outlining? Jesus encourages his followers: “As these things start to occur, stand up straight and lift up your heads, because your deliverance is getting near.”—Luke 21:28.
How, though, would Jesus’ disciples who are living during this foretold period be able to determine the nearness of the end? Jesus gives an illustration about a fig tree: “Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and sprouts its leaves, you know that summer is near. Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors. Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen.”—Matthew 24:32-34.
Thus, when his disciples see the many different features of the sign being fulfilled, they should realize that the end is near. Admonishing the disciples who will be alive during that momentous period, Jesus says:
“Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father. For just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. For as they were in those days before the Flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they took no note until the Flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Matthew 24:36-39) The event that Jesus uses as a parallel—the historic Flood of Noah’s day—had a global impact.
The apostles listening to Jesus on the Mount of Olives must undoubtedly recognize the need to keep alert. Jesus says: “Pay attention to yourselves that your hearts never become weighed down with overeating and heavy drinking and anxieties of life, and suddenly that day be instantly upon you as a snare. For it will come upon all those dwelling on the face of the whole earth. Keep awake, then, all the time making supplication that you may succeed in escaping all these things that must occur and in standing before the Son of man.”—Luke 21:34-36.
Jesus is once again showing that what he is foretelling is not of limited scope. He is not prophesying about events that would occur in a few decades and that would affect only the city of Jerusalem or the Jewish nation. No, he is pointing to developments that “will come upon all those dwelling on the face of the whole earth.”
He says that his disciples will need to keep alert, to be on the watch, and to be ready. Jesus underscores this warning with another illustration: “Know one thing: If the householder had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have kept awake and not allowed his house to be broken into. On this account, you too prove yourselves ready, because the Son of man is coming at an hour that you do not think to be it.”—Matthew 24:43, 44.
Jesus goes on to give his disciples reason for optimism. He assures them that when his prophecy is being fulfilled, there will be a “slave” who is alert and active. Jesus draws on a situation that the apostles can readily picture: “Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? Happy is that slave if his master on coming finds him doing so! Truly I say to you, he will appoint him over all his belongings.” If, though, the “slave” develops an evil attitude and mistreats others, the master will “punish him with the greatest severity.”—Matthew 24:45-51; compare Luke 12:45, 46.
However, Jesus is not saying that a group of his followers will develop an evil disposition. What, then, is the lesson that Jesus wants to impress upon his disciples? He wants them to stay alert and active, as he makes clear in yet another illustration.