“Tell Us, When Will These Things Be?”
“New things I am telling out. Before they begin to spring up, I cause you people to hear them.”—ISAIAH 42:9.
1, 2. (a) What did Jesus’ apostles ask about the future? (b) How has Jesus’ reply about a composite sign found fulfillment?
DIVINE teaching springs from Jehovah God, “the One telling from the beginning the finale.” (Isaiah 46:10) As the preceding article showed, the apostles sought such teaching from Jesus, asking him: “Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion?”—Mark 13:4.
2 In answer, Jesus described a composite “sign” consisting of evidence that would prove that the Jewish system was soon to end. This was fulfilled with Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. But Jesus’ prophecy would have a greater fulfillment far down the stream of time. Once “the appointed times of the nations” ended in 1914, a sign on a vast scale would be available, manifesting that soon the present wicked system would end in a “great tribulation.”* (Luke 21:24) Millions alive today can testify that this sign has been fulfilled in the world wars and other momentous events of this 20th century. These also mark the major fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, this modern fulfillment being typified by what happened from 33 to 70 C.E.
3. In speaking of another sign, what added developments did Jesus foretell?
3 After Luke’s mention of the appointed times of the nations, the parallel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe a further series of developments that include a sign in addition to the composite ‘sign of the conclusion of the system of things.’ (Matthew 24:3) (On page 15, this point in the account is marked off by a double line.) Matthew says: “Immediately after the tribulation 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. And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send forth his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity.”—Matthew 24:29-31.
Tribulation and Celestial Phenomena
4. What questions arise about the celestial phenomena Jesus mentioned?
4 When would that be fulfilled? All three Gospel accounts mention what we might call celestial phenomena—sun and moon darkened and stars falling. Jesus said that these would follow “the tribulation.” Did Jesus have in mind the tribulation that climaxed in 70 C.E., or was he speaking of the great tribulation that is still future in our modern times?—Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24.
5. What view was once held about the tribulation in modern times?
5 Ever since the appointed times of the nations ended in 1914, God’s people have been keenly interested in “the great tribulation.” (Revelation 7:14) For years they thought that the modern-day great tribulation had an opening part corresponding to the time of World War I, then an interrupting interval, and finally a concluding part, “the war of the great day of God the Almighty.” If that were so, what would occur during the intervening decades of the “conclusion of the system”?—Revelation 16:14; Matthew 13:39; 24:3; 28:20.
6. What was thought to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy about celestial phenomena?
6 Well, it was felt that during this interval the composite sign would be seen, including the preaching work done by God’s gathered people. It seemed also that the foretold celestial phenomena could be expected during the interval after the opening phase in 1914-18. (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24, 25; Luke 21:25) Attention focused on literal things in the heavens—space probes, rockets, cosmic or gamma rays, and landings or bases on the moon.
7. What adjusted understanding about the great tribulation has been provided?
7 However, The Watchtower of January 15, 1970, reexamined Jesus’ prophecy, especially the coming great tribulation. It showed that in view of what happened in the first century, the modern tribulation could not have an opening part in 1914-18, a decades-long interval, and later a resumption. That magazine concluded: “The ‘great tribulation’ such as will not occur again is yet ahead, for it means the destruction of the world empire of false religion (including Christendom) followed by the ‘war of the great day of God the Almighty’ at Armageddon.”
8. With the adjusted view of the modern tribulation, how was Matthew 24:29 explained?
8 But Matthew 24:29 says that the celestial phenomena come “immediately after the tribulation.” How could that be? The Watchtower of May 1, 1975, suggested that here “the tribulation” meant the one that climaxed back in 70 C.E. But in what sense could it be said that celestial phenomena of our time were taking place “immediately” after an event in 70 C.E.? It was reasoned that in God’s sight the centuries in between would be brief. (Romans 16:20; 2 Peter 3:8) However, a deeper examination of this prophecy, particularly of Matthew 24:29-31, points to quite a different explanation. This illustrates how the light shines “more and more unto the perfect day.” (Proverbs 4:18, American Standard Version)* Let us consider why a new, or changed, explanation is appropriate.
9. How do the Hebrew Scriptures provide background for Jesus’ words about developments in the heavens?
9 To four of his apostles, Jesus gave the prophecy of ‘the sun being darkened, the moon not giving light, and the stars falling.’ As Jews, they would recognize such language from the Hebrew Scriptures, where at Zephaniah 1:15, for example, God’s time of judgment was called “a day of storm and of desolation, a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick gloom.” Various Hebrew prophets also described the sun as being darkened, the moon not shining, and the stars not giving light. You will find such language in divine messages against Babylon, Edom, Egypt, and the northern kingdom of Israel.—Isaiah 13:9, 10; 34:4, 5; Jeremiah 4:28; Ezekiel 32:2, 6-8; Amos 5:20; 8:2, 9.
10, 11. (a) What did Joel prophesy as to things in the heavens? (b) Which aspects of Joel’s prophecy were fulfilled in 33 C.E., and which were not?
10 When they heard what Jesus said, Peter and the three others likely recalled Joel’s prophecy found at Joel 2:28-31 and Joe 3:15: “I shall pour out my spirit on every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will certainly prophesy. . . . I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun itself will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah.” “Sun and moon themselves will certainly become dark, and the very stars will actually withdraw their brightness.”
11 As related at Acts 2:1-4 and 14-21, at Pentecost 33 C.E., God poured out holy spirit on 120 disciples, both men and women. The apostle Peter made known that this was what Joel had foretold. What, though, of Joel’s words about ‘the sun being turned into darkness and the moon into blood and the stars withdrawing their brightness’? Nothing indicates that this was fulfilled in 33 C.E. or during the more than 30-year-long span of the conclusion of the Jewish system of things.
12, 13. How were the celestial phenomena Joel foretold fulfilled?
12 Evidently that latter part of Joel’s prediction was more closely linked with “the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah”—the destruction of Jerusalem. The Watchtower of November 15, 1966, said about the tribulation that befell Jerusalem in 70 C.E.: “That was certainly a ‘day of Jehovah’ with reference to Jerusalem and her children. And in connection with that day there was plenty of ‘blood and fire and smoke mist,’ the sun not brightening the gloom of the city by day, and the moon suggesting shed blood, not peaceful, silvery moonlight by night.”*
13 Yes, as with other prophecies that we have noted, the celestial phenomena Joel foretold were to be fulfilled when Jehovah exacted judgment. Rather than extending over the conclusion of the Jewish system, the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars occurred when the executionary forces came against Jerusalem. Logically, we can expect a larger fulfillment of that part of Joel’s prophecy when God’s execution of the present system gets under way.
Which Tribulation Before Celestial Phenomena?
14, 15. What bearing does Joel’s prophecy have on our understanding of Matthew 24:29?
14 The fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (in harmony with other prophecies using similar language) helps us to understand the words at Matthew 24:29. Clearly, what Jesus said about ‘the sun being darkened, the moon not giving light, and the stars falling’ does not refer to things occurring over the many decades of the conclusion of the present system, such as space rocketry, moon landings, and the like. No, he pointed to things tied in with “the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah,” the destruction yet to come.
15 This relates to our understanding of how the celestial phenomena would be “immediately after the tribulation.” Jesus was not referring to the tribulation that culminated in 70 C.E. Rather, he was pointing to the start of the great tribulation to befall the world system in the future, climaxing his promised “presence.” (Matthew 24:3) That tribulation is still ahead of us.
16. To which tribulation was Mark 13:24 pointing, and why so?
16 What about the words at Mark 13:24: “In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light”? Here, both “those” and “that” are forms of the Greek word e·keiʹnos, a demonstrative pronoun indicating something distant in time. E·keiʹnos can be used to indicate something long past (or previously mentioned) or something in the remote future. (Matthew 3:1; 7:22; 10:19; 24:38; Mark 13:11, 17, 32; 14:25; Luke 10:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:10) Thus, Mark 13:24 points to “that tribulation,” not the tribulation stirred up by the Romans, but Jehovah’s mighty act at the end of the present system.
17, 18. What light does Revelation shed on how the great tribulation will develop?
17 Chapters 17 to 19 of Revelation fit and verify this adjusted understanding of Matthew 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, and Luke 21:25-28. In what way? The Gospels show that this tribulation will not start and end at one fell swoop. After it begins, some of disobedient mankind will still be alive to see “the sign of the Son of man” and to react—to lament and, as stated at Luke 21:26, to “become faint out of fear and expectation of the things coming upon the inhabited earth.” That overwhelming fear will be due to their seeing “the sign” that betokens their imminent destruction.
18 The account in Revelation shows that the future great tribulation will begin when the militarized “horns” of the international “wild beast” turn on “the great harlot,” Babylon the Great.* (Revelation 17:1, 10-16) But many people will remain, for kings, merchants, ship captains, and others mourn the end of false religion. Doubtless many will realize that their judgment will be next.—Revelation 18:9-19.
What Is to Come?
19. What can we expect when the great tribulation begins?
19 The Gospel passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke combine with Revelation chapters 17-19 to shed considerable light on what will soon occur. At God’s fixed time, the great tribulation will begin with an attack against the world empire of false religion (Babylon the Great). This will be particularly intense against Christendom, which corresponds to unfaithful Jerusalem. “Immediately after” this phase of the tribulation, “there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth [unprecedented] anguish of nations.”—Matthew 24:29; Luke 21:25.
20. What celestial phenomena can we yet expect?
20 In what sense will ‘the sun be darkened, the moon not give its light, the stars fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens be shaken’? Doubtless, in the early part of the great tribulation, many luminaries—prominent clergymen of the religious world—will have been exposed and eliminated by “the ten horns” mentioned at Revelation 17:16. No doubt political powers too will have been shaken up. Could there also be frightening events in the physical heavens? Quite likely, and far more awe-inspiring than those described by Josephus as occurring near the end of the Jewish system. We know that in the ancient past, God displayed his power to cause such cataclysmic effects, and he can do so again.—Exodus 10:21-23; Joshua 10:12-14; Judges 5:20; Luke 23:44, 45.
21. How will a future “sign” occur?
21 At this point all three Gospel writers use toʹte (then) to introduce the next development. “Then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven.” (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27) Since World War I, Jesus’ true disciples have discerned the composite sign of his invisible presence, while most people have not recognized it. But Matthew 24:30 points forward to a further “sign” appearing in the future, that of “the Son of man,” and all nations will be compelled to take note. When Jesus comes with clouds of invisibility, opposing humans worldwide will have to recognize that “coming” (Greek, er·khoʹme·non) because of a supernatural demonstration of his kingly power.—Revelation 1:7.
22. What will be the effect of seeing “the sign” of Matthew 24:30?
22 Matthew 24:30 uses toʹte again to introduce what comes next. Then the nations, sensing the consequence of their situation, will beat themselves and lament, perhaps recognizing that their destruction is imminent. How different with God’s servants, for we will be able to lift our heads up, knowing deliverance is near! (Luke 21:28) Revelation 19:1-6 also shows true worshipers in heaven and on earth rejoicing over the end of the great harlot.
23. (a) Jesus will take what action toward the chosen ones? (b) What may be said about the remnant’s being taken to heaven?
23 Jesus’ prophecy goes on to say, at Mark 13:27: “Then [toʹte] he will send forth the angels and will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from earth’s extremity to heaven’s extremity.” Jesus here focuses on the remnant of the 144,000 “chosen ones” still alive on earth. Early in the conclusion of the system of things, these anointed disciples of Jesus were brought into theocratic unity. However, according to the sequence employed, Mark 13:27 and Matthew 24:31 describe something else. “With a great trumpet sound,” the remaining “chosen ones” will be gathered from the ends of the earth. How will they be gathered? Unquestionably, they will be “sealed” and clearly identified by Jehovah as part of “those called and chosen and faithful.” And at God’s designated time, they will be gathered up to heaven to be king-priests.* This will bring joy to them and to their faithful companions, the “great crowd,” who will themselves be marked for ‘coming out of the great tribulation’ to enjoy blessings on a paradise earth.—Matthew 24:22; Revelation 7:3, 4, 9-17; 17:14; 20:6; Ezekiel 9:4, 6.
24. Matthew 24:29-31 reveals what sequence as to coming developments?
24 When the apostles said, “Tell us . . . ,” Jesus’ reply covered more than they could grasp. Yet, within their lifetime they rejoiced to see the typical fulfillment of his prophecy. Our study of Jesus’ reply has focused on the part of his prophecy that will come to pass in the near future. (Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27; Luke 21:25-28) Already we can see that our deliverance is getting nearer. We can look forward to the start of the great tribulation, then the sign of the Son of man, and then God’s gathering of the chosen ones. Finally, as Jehovah’s Executioner at Armageddon, our Warrior-King, the enthroned Jesus, will “complete his conquest.” (Revelation 6:2) That day of Jehovah, when he executes vengeance, will come as a grand finale to the conclusion of the system of things that has marked the day of the Lord Jesus from 1914 onward.
25. How can we share in the yet future fulfillment of Luke 21:28?
25 May you continue to benefit yourself by divine teaching, in order to respond to the yet future fulfillment of Jesus’ words: “As these things start to occur, raise yourselves erect and lift your heads up, because your deliverance is getting near.” (Luke 21:28) What a future lies before the chosen ones and the great crowd as Jehovah proceeds to sanctify his holy name!
Jehovah’s Witnesses are pleased to provide proof of this, showing how the physical facts of our day fulfill Bible prophecy.
Additional material appeared on pages 296-323 of God’s Kingdom of a Thousand Years Has Approached, published in 1973 by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., and The Watchtower of September 15, 1982, pages 17-22.
Josephus writes of developments between the Romans’ first assault on Jerusalem (66 C.E.) and its destruction: “During the night a devastating storm broke; a hurricane raged, rain fell in torrents, lightning flashed continuously, the thunderclaps were terrifying, the earth quaked with deafening roars. Disaster to the human race was plainly foreshadowed by this collapse of the whole framework of things, and no one could doubt that the omens portended a catastrophe without parallel.”
What Jesus spoke of as “great tribulation” and “a tribulation” in its first application was the destruction of the Jewish system. But in verses that apply only to our day, he used the definite article “the,” saying “the tribulation.” (Matthew 24:21, 29; Mark 13:19, 24) Revelation 7:14 termed this future event “the great tribulation,” literally “the tribulation the great.”
See “Questions From Readers” in The Watchtower of August 15, 1990.
Do You Recall?
□ Which tribulation is Matthew 24:29 referring to, and why do we conclude that?
□ To what celestial phenomena does Matthew 24:29 point, and how can this be immediately after the tribulation?
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.