“These Things Must Take Place”
“Jesus said to them: ‘. . . These things must take place, but the end is not yet.’”—MATTHEW 24:4-6.
1. What subject should command our interest?
YOU are no doubt interested in your life and in your future. Then you should also be interested in a subject that seized the attention of C. T. Russell back in 1877. Russell, who later founded the Watch Tower Society, wrote The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return. This 64-page booklet dealt with Jesus’ return, or future coming. (John 14:3) On one occasion when on the Mount of Olives, the apostles asked about that return: “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence [or, “coming,” King James Version] and of the conclusion of the system of things?”—Matthew 24:3.
2. Why are there many conflicting views of what Jesus foretold?
2 Do you know and understand Jesus’ answer? It is found in three of the Gospels. Professor D. A. Carson states: “Few chapters of the Bible have called forth more disagreement among interpreters than Matthew 24 and its parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21.” He then gives his own opinion—just another of the conflicting human views. In the last century or so, many such views reflected a lack of faith. Those offering them held that Jesus never said what we read in the Gospels, that his sayings were later corrupted, or that his prediction failed—views shaped by higher criticism. One commentator even approached Mark’s Gospel ‘through the lens of Mahayana-Buddhist philosophy’!
3. How do Jehovah’s Witnesses approach Jesus’ prophecy?
3 In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses accept the authenticity and reliability of the Bible, including what Jesus told the four apostles who were with him on the Mount of Olives three days before his death. Since the days of C. T. Russell, God’s people have progressively gained a clearer understanding of the prophecy Jesus there gave. In the last few years, The Watchtower has clarified yet further their view of this prophecy. Have you absorbed that information, seeing its impact on your life?* Let us review it.
A Tragic Fulfillment in the Offing
4. Why might the apostles have asked Jesus about the future?
4 The apostles knew that Jesus was the Messiah. So when they heard him mention his death, resurrection, and return, they must have wondered, ‘If Jesus dies and goes away, how can he carry out the wonderful things that the Messiah is expected to do?’ Further, Jesus spoke of an end for Jerusalem and its temple. The apostles might have wondered, ‘When and how will that occur?’ In trying to understand these things, the apostles asked: “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; Matthew 16:21, 27, 28; 23:37–24:2.
5. How did what Jesus said find a fulfillment in the first century?
5 Jesus foretold that there would be wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, hatred and persecution of Christians, false messiahs, and a widespread preaching of the good news of the Kingdom. Then the end was to come. (Matthew 24:4-14; Mark 13:5-13; Luke 21:8-19) Jesus said this early in the year 33 C.E. During the following decades, his alert disciples could recognize that the foretold things were in fact occurring in a significant way. Yes, history proves that the sign had a fulfillment at that time, leading to a conclusion of the Jewish system of things at the hands of the Romans in 66-70 C.E. How did that come about?
6. What developed between the Romans and the Jews in 66 C.E.?
6 During the hot Judean summer of 66 C.E., Jewish Zealots led an assault on Roman guards in a fort near the temple in Jerusalem, sparking violence elsewhere in the land. In History of the Jews, Professor Heinrich Graetz relates: “Cestius Gallus, whose duty it was as Governor of Syria to uphold the honor of Roman arms, . . . could no longer witness the rebellion spreading around him without an effort to stem its progress. He called his legions together, and the neighboring princes voluntarily sent their troops.” This army of 30,000 surrounded Jerusalem. After some fighting, the Jews withdrew behind walls near the temple. “During five successive days the Romans stormed the walls, but were always obliged to fall back before the missiles of the Judæans. It was only on the sixth day that they succeeded in undermining a part of the northern wall in front of the Temple.”
7. Why could Jesus’ disciples view things differently from most Jews?
7 Just think how confused the Jews would have been, since they had long felt that God would protect them and their holy city! Jesus’ disciples, though, had been forewarned that calamity awaited Jerusalem. Jesus had foretold: “The days will come upon you when your enemies will build around you a fortification with pointed stakes and will encircle you and distress you from every side, and they will dash you and your children within you to the ground, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you.” (Luke 19:43, 44) But would that spell death for Christians inside Jerusalem in 66 C.E.?
8. What tragedy did Jesus foretell, and who were “the chosen ones” for whom the days would be cut short?
8 When replying to the apostles on the Mount of Olives, Jesus predicted: “Those days will be days of a tribulation such as has not occurred from the beginning of the creation which God created until that time, and will not occur again. In fact, unless Jehovah had cut short the days, no flesh would be saved. But on account of the chosen ones whom he has chosen he has cut short the days.” (Mark 13:19, 20; Matthew 24:21, 22) So the days would be cut short and “the chosen ones” saved. Who were they? Certainly not rebellious Jews who claimed to worship Jehovah but who had rejected his Son. (John 19:1-7; Acts 2:22, 23, 36) The true chosen ones back then were those Jews and non-Jews who exercised faith in Jesus as Messiah and Savior. God had chosen such ones, and on Pentecost 33 C.E., he had formed them into a new spiritual nation, “the Israel of God.”—Galatians 6:16; Luke 18:7; Acts 10:34-45; 1 Peter 2:9.
9, 10. How were the days of the Roman attack “cut short,” and with what result?
9 Were the days “cut short” and the anointed chosen ones in Jerusalem saved? Professor Graetz suggests: “[Cestius Gallus] did not deem it advisable to continue the combat against heroic enthusiasts and embark on a lengthy campaign at that season, when the autumn rains would soon commence . . . and might prevent the army from receiving provisions. On that account probably he thought it more prudent to retrace his steps.” Whatever Cestius Gallus was thinking, the Roman army retreated from the city, with grave losses inflicted by the pursuing Jews.
10 That surprising Roman retreat allowed “flesh”—Jesus’ disciples who were at risk inside Jerusalem—to be saved. History records that when this window of opportunity opened, Christians fled the region. What a display of God’s ability to foreknow the future and to ensure the survival of his worshipers! Yet, what of unbelieving Jews who remained in Jerusalem and Judea?
Contemporaries Would See It
11. What did Jesus say about “this generation”?
11 Many Jews felt that their system of worship, centered on the temple, would long continue. But Jesus said: “Learn from the fig tree . . . this point: Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and it puts forth 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 occur. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.”—Matthew 24:32-35.
12, 13. How would the disciples have understood Jesus’ reference to “this generation”?
12 In the years leading up to 66 C.E., Christians would have seen many of the preliminary elements of the composite sign being fulfilled—wars, famines, even an extensive preaching of the good news of the Kingdom. (Acts 11:28; Colossians 1:23) When, though, would the end come? What did Jesus mean when he said: ‘This generation [Greek, ge·ne·aʹ] will not pass away’? Jesus had often called the contemporaneous mass of opposing Jews, including religious leaders, ‘a wicked, adulterous generation.’ (Matthew 11:16; 12:39, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36) So when, on the Mount of Olives, he again spoke of “this generation,” he evidently did not mean the entire race of Jews throughout history; nor did he mean his followers, even though they were “a chosen race.” (1 Peter 2:9) Neither was Jesus saying that “this generation” is a period of time.
13 Rather, Jesus had in mind the opposing Jews back then who would experience the fulfillment of the sign he gave. Regarding the reference to “this generation” at Luke 21:32, Professor Joel B. Green notes: “In the Third Gospel, ‘this generation’ (and related phrases) has regularly signified a category of people who are resistant to the purpose of God. . . . [It refers] to people who stubbornly turn their backs on the divine purpose.”*
14. What did that “generation” experience, but how was there a different outcome for Christians?
14 The wicked generation of Jewish opposers who could observe the sign being fulfilled would also experience the end. (Matthew 24:6, 13, 14) And that they did! In 70 C.E., the Roman army returned, led by Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian. The suffering of the Jews who were again bottled up in the city is almost beyond belief.* Eyewitness Flavius Josephus reports that by the time the Romans demolished the city, about 1,100,000 Jews had died and some 100,000 were taken captive, most of those soon to perish horribly from starvation or in Roman theaters. Truly, the tribulation of 66-70 C.E. was the greatest that Jerusalem and the Jewish system had ever experienced or would ever experience. How different the outcome was for Christians who had heeded Jesus’ prophetic warning and had left Jerusalem after the departure of the Roman armies in 66 C.E.! The anointed Christian “chosen ones” were “saved,” or kept safe, in 70 C.E.—Matthew 24:16, 22.
Another Fulfillment to Come
15. How can we be sure that Jesus’ prophecy would have a greater fulfillment after 70 C.E.?
15 However, that was not the finale. Earlier, Jesus had indicated that after the city was devastated, he would come in Jehovah’s name. (Matthew 23:38, 39; 24:2) He then made this clearer in his prophecy uttered on the Mount of Olives. Having mentioned the coming “great tribulation,” he said that afterward false Christs would appear, and Jerusalem would be trampled on by the nations for an extended period. (Matthew 24:21, 23-28; Luke 21:24) Could it be that another, a greater, fulfillment was to come? The facts answer yes. When we compare Revelation 6:2-8 (written after the tribulation on Jerusalem in 70 C.E.) with Matthew 24:6-8 and Luke 21:10, 11, we see that warfare, food shortages, and plague on a greater scale lay ahead. This greater fulfillment of Jesus’ words has been occurring since World War I erupted in 1914.
16-18. What do we expect will yet occur?
16 For decades now, Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught that the current fulfillment of the sign proves that a “great tribulation” is yet to come. The present wicked “generation” will see that tribulation. It seems that there will again be an opening phase (an attack on all false religion), just as Gallus’ attack in 66 C.E. opened the tribulation on Jerusalem.* Then, after an interval of unspecified length, the end will come—destruction on a worldwide scale, paralleling that in 70 C.E.
17 Referring to the tribulation just ahead of us, Jesus said: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days [the destruction of false religion] 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.”—Matthew 24:29, 30.
18 Hence, Jesus himself says that “after the tribulation of those days,” celestial phenomena of some sort will occur. (Compare Joel 2:28-32; 3:15.) This will so startle and shock disobedient humans that they will “beat themselves in lamentation.” Many will “become faint out of fear and expectation of the things coming upon the inhabited earth.” But this will not be the case with true Christians! These ‘will lift their heads up, because their deliverance is getting near.’—Luke 21:25, 26, 28.
19. How can we establish when the parable of the sheep and the goats will be fulfilled?
19 Note that Matthew 24:29-31 foretells that (1) the Son of man comes, (2) this coming will be with great glory, (3) the angels will be with him, and (4) all the tribes of the earth will see him. Jesus repeats these elements in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46) Hence, we can conclude that this parable deals with the time, after the opening outbreak of tribulation, when Jesus will come with his angels and sit down on his throne to judge. (John 5:22; Acts 17:31; compare 1 Kings 7:7; Daniel 7:10, 13, 14, 22, 26; Matthew 19:28.) Who will be judged, and with what result? The parable shows that Jesus will give attention to all nations, as if they were assembled right before his celestial throne.
20, 21. (a) What will happen to the sheep of Jesus’ parable? (b) The goats will experience what in the future?
20 Sheeplike men and women will be separated to Jesus’ right side of favor. Why? Because they used their opportunities to do good to his brothers—anointed Christians, who will share in Christ’s heavenly Kingdom. (Daniel 7:27; Hebrews 2:9–3:1) In line with the parable, millions of sheeplike Christians have recognized Jesus’ spiritual brothers and have been working in support of them. As a result, the “great crowd” have the Bible-based hope of surviving “the great tribulation” and then living forever in Paradise, the earthly realm of God’s Kingdom.—Revelation 7:9, 14; 21:3, 4; John 10:16.
21 What a different outcome there will be for the goats! They are described at Matthew 24:30 as ‘beating themselves in lamentation’ when Jesus comes. And well they should, for they will have built up a record of rejecting the Kingdom good news, of opposing Jesus’ disciples, and of preferring the world that is passing away. (Matthew 10:16-18; 1 John 2:15-17) Jesus—not any of his disciples on earth—determines who the goats are. Of them he says: “These will depart into everlasting cutting-off.”—Matthew 25:46.
22. What part of Jesus’ prophecy merits our further consideration?
22 Our progress in understanding the prophecy in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 has been thrilling. However, there is a part of Jesus’ prophecy that merits our further attention—‘the disgusting thing that causes desolation standing in a holy place.’ Jesus urged his followers to use discernment regarding this and to be ready to take action. (Matthew 24:15, 16) What is this “disgusting thing”? When does it stand in a holy place? And how are our present and future life prospects involved? The following article will discuss this.
See the study articles in the Watchtower issues of February 15, 1994; October 15 and November 1, 1995; and August 15, 1996.
British scholar G. R. Beasley-Murray observes: “The phrase ‘this generation’ should cause no difficulty for interpreters. While admittedly genea in earlier Greek meant birth, progeny, and so race, . . . in the [Greek Septuagint] it most frequently translated the Hebrew term dôr, meaning age, age of humankind, or generation in the sense of contemporaries. . . . In sayings attributed to Jesus the term appears to have a twofold connotation: on the one hand it always signifies his contemporaries, and on the other hand it always carries an implicit criticism.”
In History of the Jews, Professor Graetz says that the Romans sometimes impaled 500 prisoners a day. Other captured Jews had their hands cut off and then were sent back into the city. What conditions prevailed there? “Money had lost its value, for it could not purchase bread. Men fought desperately in the streets over the most loathsome and disgusting food, a handful of straw, a piece of leather, or offal thrown to the dogs. . . . The rapidly increasing number of unburied corpses made the sultry summer air pestilential, and the populace fell a prey to sickness, famine, and the sword.”
The next article discusses this aspect of the future tribulation.
Do You Recall?
□ What fulfillment did Matthew 24:4-14 have in the first century?
□ In the apostles’ time, how were days cut short and flesh saved, as predicted at Matthew 24:21, 22?
□ What characterized the “generation” mentioned at Matthew 24:34?
□ How do we know that the prophecy given on the Mount of Olives would have another, a larger, fulfillment?
□ When and how will the parable of the sheep and the goats be fulfilled?
[Picture on page 12]
Detail on the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing spoils from Jerusalem’s destruction
Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma