“What will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?”—MATTHEW 24:3.
1. Like the apostles, what do we want to know?
NEAR the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, his disciples wanted to know what would happen in the future. A few days before he died, four of his apostles asked him: “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; Mark 13:3) To answer their question, Jesus gave a prophecy with many details. We can read this prophecy in Matthew chapters 24 and 25. There Jesus foretold many things, and what he said is very important for us because we too want to know what will happen in the future.
2. (a) Through the years, what have we tried to understand more clearly? (b) Which three questions will this article answer?
2 For a long time, Jehovah’s servants have studied Jesus’ prophecy about the last days and prayed for God’s help to understand it. They wanted to understand more clearly when the events in Jesus’ prophecy would happen. This article will answer these three questions: When does the “great tribulation” begin? When does Jesus judge “the sheep” and “the goats”? When does Jesus ‘arrive,’ or come?—Matthew 24:21; 25:31-33.
WHEN DOES THE GREAT TRIBULATION BEGIN?
3. In the past, what did we believe about the great tribulation?
3 In the past, we thought that the great tribulation began in 1914 when World War I started. We thought that Jehovah “cut short” those days in 1918 when the war ended so that the remaining anointed ones on earth could preach the good news to all nations. (Matthew 24:21, 22) After that preaching work would be completed, we expected that Satan’s world would be destroyed. So we thought that there were three parts to the great tribulation. It would begin in 1914, it would be interrupted in 1918, and it would finish at Armageddon.
4. What did we realize about Jesus’ prophecy?
4 Then we realized that a part of Jesus’ prophecy about the last days has two fulfillments. (Matthew 24:4-22) It was fulfilled in the first century in the district of Judea. And in our day there would be a much larger fulfillment that would happen in the whole earth. So we needed to change the way we understood some parts of the prophecy.*—See endnote.
5. (a) What began in 1914? (b) During what years were there similar “pangs of distress” to those in the first century?
5 For example, the great tribulation did not begin in 1914. How do we know this? Because the Bible’s prophecies show that the great tribulation will begin with an attack on false religion. It will not begin with a war among nations. So the war that began in 1914 was not the beginning of the great tribulation. It was the “beginning of pangs of distress.” (Matthew 24:8) These “pangs of distress” were similar to what happened in Jerusalem and the district of Judea from the year 33 to the year 66.
6. How will we know that the great tribulation has started?
6 How will we know when the great tribulation has started? Jesus foretold: “When you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation, as spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in a holy place, (let the reader use discernment,) then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains.” (Matthew 24:15, 16) The first fulfillment was in the year 66 when the Roman army attacked Jerusalem and its temple. The army was “the disgusting thing” that was “standing in a holy place,” that is, a place that the Jews viewed as holy. This prophecy will have a second and larger fulfillment. The United Nations is “the disgusting thing,” and Christendom is viewed as “a holy place” by its followers. The United Nations will attack Christendom and the rest of Babylon the Great, as also foretold at Revelation 17:16-18. This attack on Babylon the Great will be the beginning of the great tribulation.
7. (a) How was ‘flesh saved’ in the first century? (b) What will happen in the future?
7 Jesus also foretold: “Those days will be cut short.” In the first fulfillment, the days were “cut short” in the year 66 when the Roman army stopped its attack on Jerusalem. Then the anointed Christians in Jerusalem and Judea escaped from the city, which allowed their “flesh,” or lives, to “be saved.” (Read Matthew 24:22; Malachi 3:17) What will happen during the second fulfillment? Jehovah will “cut short” the attack of the United Nations on religion so that true religion is not destroyed with the false. His people will be saved.
8. (a) What will happen after the first part of the great tribulation? (b) At what point, apparently, will the last member of the 144,000 receive his heavenly reward? (See endnote.)
8 What happens after the great tribulation is cut short? Jesus explained that several events will happen before Armageddon begins. These events are mentioned at Ezekiel 38:14-16 and Matthew 24:29-31. (Read.)* (See endnote.) Then we will see Armageddon. The battle of Armageddon is the climax of the great tribulation, just as the destruction of Jerusalem was the climax of the first fulfillment of the prophecy. (Malachi 4:1) The great tribulation, with Armageddon as its climax, will be an event such as has not happened “since the world’s beginning.” (Matthew 24:21) After it happens, Christ will rule as King for 1,000 years.
9. How does Jesus’ prophecy about the great tribulation make us feel?
9 This prophecy about the great tribulation gives us strength. Why? Because it tells us that no matter what happens during the great tribulation, Jehovah’s people, as a group, will survive. (Revelation 7:9, 14) And at Armageddon, Jehovah will prove that he has the right to rule and is the best Ruler, and he will sanctify his holy name.—Psalm 83:18; Ezekiel 38:23.
WHEN DOES JESUS JUDGE THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS?
10. In the past, what did we believe about the timing of Jesus’ judgment of the sheep and the goats?
10 Another part of Jesus’ prophecy was the illustration of the sheep and the goats. When does Jesus judge the sheep and the goats? (Matthew 25:31-46) In the past, we thought that Jesus was judging people as sheep or goats from 1914 on. We thought that those who did not accept the Kingdom message and who died before the start of the great tribulation would already be judged as goats and would not have a hope of a resurrection.
11. Why could Jesus not have begun judging people as sheep or goats in 1914?
11 In 1995, The Watchtower gave a new explanation of Matthew 25:31. That verse states: “When the Son of man arrives in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit down on his glorious throne.” The Watchtower said that Jesus became King of God’s Kingdom in 1914, but he did not at that time become the Judge of “all the nations.” (Matthew 25:32; compare Daniel 7:13.) Keep in mind, though, that the illustration of the sheep and the goats is mainly about the work Jesus will do as Judge. (Read Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46.) Since Jesus was not the Judge of all the nations in 1914, he could not have begun judging people as sheep or goats in 1914.* (See endnote.) When will Jesus begin judging all the nations?
12 Jesus’ prophecy about the last days shows that he will for the very first time judge all the nations only after false religion is destroyed. As mentioned in paragraph 8, some of the events that will occur during that time are described in Matthew 24:30, 31. Notice that the events Jesus mentions here are similar to the ones that he mentions in the illustration of the sheep and the goats. For example, the Son of man comes with glory and with angels; all tribes and nations are gathered; those judged as sheep ‘lift their heads up’ because they will receive “everlasting life.”* (See endnote.) Those judged as goats “beat themselves in lamentation” because they realize that they will receive “everlasting cutting-off,” that is, destruction.—Matthew 25:31-33, 46.
13. (a) When will Jesus judge the people as sheep or goats? (b) How does this understanding affect our view of the ministry?
13 Jesus will judge people of all nations as sheep or goats when he comes during the great tribulation. Then, at Armageddon, the goats will be ‘cut off’ forever, that is, destroyed. So this shows us how important our preaching work is. Before the great tribulation begins, people still have time to change their thinking and start living in a way that puts them on the road “leading off into life.” (Matthew 7:13, 14) It is true that some people may now have an attitude that might make us think that they are a sheep or a goat. But we should remember that it is during the great tribulation that Jesus will make the final judgment of the sheep and the goats. It is very important to keep preaching the Kingdom message to as many as possible so that they have an opportunity to accept it.
WHEN DOES JESUS ARRIVE, OR COME?
14, 15. Which four scriptures refer to Christ’s coming in the future as Judge?
14 As we continue to examine Jesus’ prophecy, will it be necessary to change our understanding about the timing of other important events in Jesus’ prophecy? The prophecy will give us the answer. Let us see how.
15 In the part of his prophecy that is recorded at Matthew 24:29–25:46, Jesus speaks mainly about what will happen during the last days and during the great tribulation. There, Jesus speaks eight times about his “coming,” that is, when he “arrives.”* (See endnote.) He says the following about the great tribulation: “They will see the Son of man coming on the clouds.” “You do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” “At an hour that you do not think to be it, the Son of man is coming.” And in his illustration of the sheep and the goats, Jesus states: “The Son of man arrives in his glory.” (Matthew 24:30, 42, 44; 25:31) Each of these four verses refers to the time in the future when Christ comes as Judge. Where in Jesus’ prophecy are the remaining four times he speaks about his “coming”?
16. Jesus’ coming is mentioned in what other scriptures?
16 Jesus says the following about the faithful and discreet slave: “Happy is that slave if his master on arriving [“having come,” footnote] finds him doing so.” In the illustration of the virgins, Jesus states: “While they were going off to buy, the bridegroom arrived [“came,” Kingdom Interlinear].” In the illustration of the talents, Jesus says: “After a long time the master of those slaves came.” In the same illustration, the master says: “On my arrival [“having come,” Kingdom Interlinear] I would be receiving what is mine.” (Matthew 24:46; 25:10, 19, 27) When does Jesus come, or arrive, as described in these verses?
17. In the past, what did we say about the arrival of Jesus, as described at Matthew 24:46?
17 In the past, we have stated in our publications that these last four scriptures apply to Jesus’ arriving, or coming, in 1918. For example, notice how the word “arriving” is used in Jesus’ statement about “the faithful and discreet slave.” (Read Matthew 24:45-47.) We understood that Jesus’ “arriving,” as described at Matthew 24:46, meant that he came to inspect the anointed in 1918 and that he appointed the slave over all the Master’s belongings in 1919. (Malachi 3:1) However, we need to change our understanding of when some of the events Jesus foretold would happen. Why?
18. What does Jesus’ prophecy help us to understand about his coming?
18 Each time the word “coming” is used in the verses before Matthew 24:46, it refers to the time when Jesus will come to judge the nations and execute his judgment during the great tribulation. (Matthew 24:30, 42, 44) Also, as we learned in paragraph 12, Matthew 25:31 describes the same time in the future when Jesus judges the nations. So there is good reason for us to understand Matthew 24:46, 47 to mean that Jesus will arrive to appoint the faithful slave over all his belongings at that time in the future during the great tribulation.* (See endnote.) Jesus’ prophecy shows that all eight of these scriptures that mention his coming refer to the time of judgment during the great tribulation.
19. What new things did we learn in this article? What questions will be answered in the following articles?
19 What have we learned in this article? We answered three questions about when certain events would happen. First, the great tribulation did not begin in 1914 but will start when the United Nations attacks Babylon the Great. Second, Jesus did not begin to judge the sheep and the goats in 1914. Instead, he will begin judging during the great tribulation. Third, Jesus did not appoint the faithful slave over all his belongings in 1919. He will do this during the great tribulation. So all three of the events mentioned at the beginning of this article will happen during the great tribulation. Does this change anything else about the way we understand the illustration of the faithful slave? Does it affect the way we understand other illustrations of Jesus that are being fulfilled during the time of the end? These important questions will be answered in the following articles.
Paragraph 8: One of the events mentioned in these verses is that the “chosen ones” will be gathered. (Matthew 24:31) Therefore, it seems that any anointed ones who are still on the earth will be raised to heaven before the battle of Armageddon begins. This is different from what we said in “Questions From Readers” in The Watchtower of August 15, 1990, page 30.
Paragraph 11: See The Watchtower, October 15, 1995, pages 18-28.
Paragraph 12: See the parallel account at Luke 21:28.
Paragraph 15: The words “coming” and “arriving” are translations of forms of the same Greek verb, erʹkho·mai.