Watchtower, July 15, 2013
“Tell Us When Will These Things Be”
“What will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?”—MATT. 24:3.
1. Like the apostles, what are we eager to find out?
JESUS’ ministry on earth was coming to an end, and his disciples were eager to find out what the future held for them. So just a few days before his death, 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?” (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:3) Jesus answered by means of an extensive prophecy, recorded in Matthew chapters 24 and 25. In that prophecy, Jesus foretold many noteworthy events. His words have profound meaning for us because we too are keenly interested in knowing what the future holds.
2. (a) Through the years, of what did we seek to get a clearer understanding? (b) Which three questions will we consider?
2 Through the years, Jehovah’s servants have prayerfully studied Jesus’ prophecy about the last days. They have sought to get a clearer understanding of the timing of the fulfillment of Jesus’ words. To illustrate how our understanding has been clarified, let us consider three “when” questions. When does the “great tribulation” begin? When does Jesus judge “the sheep” and “the goats”? When does Jesus ‘arrive,’ or come?—Matt. 24:21; 25:31-33.
WHEN DOES THE GREAT TRIBULATION BEGIN?
3. In the past, what was our understanding of the timing of the great tribulation?
3 For a number of years, we thought that the great tribulation began in 1914 with World War I and that “those days were cut short” by Jehovah in 1918 when the war ended so that the remnant would have the opportunity to preach the good news to all nations. (Matt. 24:21, 22) After the completion of that preaching work, Satan’s empire would be destroyed. Thus, the great tribulation was thought to have three phases: There would be a beginning (1914-1918), the tribulation would be interrupted (from 1918 onward), and it would conclude at Armageddon.
4. What insight led to a clearer understanding of Jesus’ prophecy about the last days?
4 Upon further examination of Jesus’ prophecy, however, we perceived that a part of Jesus’ prophecy about the last days has two fulfillments. (Matt. 24:4-22) There was an initial fulfillment in Judea in the first century C.E., and there would be a worldwide fulfillment in our day. That insight led to several clarifications. *
5. (a) What difficult period began in 1914? (b) That period of distress corresponds to what time period in the first century C.E.?
5 We also discerned that the first part of the great tribulation did not begin in 1914. Why not? Because Bible prophecy reveals that the great tribulation will start, not with a war among nations, but with an attack on false religion. Thus, the events that began in 1914 were, not the beginning of the great tribulation, but the “beginning of pangs of distress.” (Matt. 24:8) These “pangs of distress” correspond to what took place in Jerusalem and Judea from 33 C.E. to 66 C.E.
6. What will signal the beginning of the great tribulation?
Matt. 24:15, 16) In the first fulfillment, the “standing in a holy place” occurred in 66 C.E. when the Roman army (“the disgusting thing”) attacked Jerusalem and its temple (a place holy in the eyes of the Jews). In the larger fulfillment, the “standing” will occur when the United Nations (the modern-day “disgusting thing”) attacks Christendom (which is holy in the eyes of nominal Christians) and the rest of Babylon the Great. The same attack is described at Revelation 17:16-18. That event will be the beginning of the great tribulation.6 What will signal the start of the great tribulation? 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.” (
7. (a) How was ‘flesh saved’ in the first century? (b) What can we expect will happen in the future?
Matthew 24:22;Mal. 3:17) So, what can we expect will happen during the coming great tribulation? Jehovah will “cut short” the attack of the United Nations on false religion, not allowing true religion to be destroyed with the false. This will ensure that God’s people will be saved.7 Jesus also foretold: “Those days will be cut short.” In the initial fulfillment, this happened in 66 C.E. when the Roman army “cut short” its attack. Then, anointed Christians in Jerusalem and Judea fled, allowing for their ‘flesh, or life, to be saved.’ (Read
8. (a) What events will take place after the initial part of the great tribulation has passed? (b) At what point, apparently, will the last member of the 144,000 receive his heavenly reward? (See endnote.)
Ezekiel 38:14-16 andMatthew 24:29-31. (Read.) * After that, we will witness Armageddon, the climax of the great tribulation, which parallels Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. (Mal. 4:1) With the battle of Armageddon as its climax, that coming great tribulation will be unique—an event “such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning.” (Matt. 24:21) When it has passed, Christ’s Millennial Rule will begin.8 What happens after the initial part of the great tribulation has passed? Jesus’ words indicate that there will be a period of time that will last until the start of Armageddon. What events will occur during that interval? The answer is recorded at
9. What effect does Jesus’ prophecy about the great tribulation have on Jehovah’s people?
9 This prophecy about the great tribulation strengthens us. Why? Because it assures us that no matter what hardships we may face, Jehovah’s people, as a group, will come out of the great tribulation. (Rev. 7:9, 14) Above all, we rejoice because at Armageddon, Jehovah will vindicate his sovereignty and he will sanctify his holy name.—Ps. 83:18; Ezek. 38:23.
WHEN DOES JESUS JUDGE THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS?
10. In the past, what was our understanding of the timing of the judgment of the sheep and the goats?
10 Consider now the timing of another part of Jesus’ prophecy—the parable of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. (Matt. 25:31-46) Previously, we thought that the judging of people as sheep or goats would take place during the entire period of the last days from 1914 onward. We concluded that those who rejected the Kingdom message and who died before the start of the great tribulation would die as goats—without the hope of a resurrection.
11. Why could the judgment of people as sheep or goats not have started in 1914?
11 In the mid-1990’s, The Watchtower reexamined Matthew 25:31, which 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.” It was noted that Jesus became King of God’s Kingdom in 1914, but he did not “sit down on his glorious throne” as Judge of “all the nations.”(Matt. 25:32; compare Daniel 7:13.) However, the parable of the sheep and the goats describes Jesus primarily as Judge. (Read Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46.) Since Jesus was not yet active as Judge of all nations in 1914, his judgment of people as sheep or goats could not have started in that year. * When, then, will Jesus’ judgment begin?
paragraph 8, some of the events that will occur during that time are recorded at Matthew 24:30, 31. When you examine those verses, you will note that Jesus there foretells events that are similar to the ones he mentions in the parable 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 “everlasting life” awaits them. *Those judged as goats “beat themselves in lamentation,” realizing that “everlasting cutting-off” awaits them.—Matt. 25:31-33, 46.12 Jesus’ prophecy about the last days reveals that he will for the very first time act as Judge of all nations after the destruction of false religion. As mentioned in
13. (a) When will Jesus judge the people as sheep or goats? (b) How does this understanding affect our view of our ministry?
Matt. 7:13, 14) To be sure, people may now display a sheeplike or a goatlike disposition. Nevertheless, we should remember that the final judgment of who are sheep and who are goats is during the great tribulation. Therefore, we have good reason for continuing to offer as many people as possible the opportunity to listen to and respond to the Kingdom message.13 So, then, what can we conclude? Jesus will judge people of all nations as sheep or goats when he comes during the great tribulation. Then, at Armageddon, the climax of the great tribulation, the goatlike ones will be ‘cut off’ forever. How does that understanding affect our view of our ministry? It helps us to see how important our preaching work is. Until the great tribulation begins, people still have time to change their thinking and start walking on the cramped road “leading off into life.” (
WHEN DOES JESUS ARRIVE, OR COME?
14, 15. Which four scripture references apply to Christ’s future coming as Judge?
14 Does a further consideration of Jesus’ prophecy reveal that our understanding of the timing of other significant events needs to be adjusted? The prophecy itself gives the answer. Let us see how.
15 In the part of his prophecy that is recorded at Matthew 24:29–25:46, Jesus focuses primarily on what will happen during these last days and during the coming great tribulation. There, Jesus makes eight references to his “coming,” or arrival. * Regarding the great tribulation, he states: “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 parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus states: “The Son of man arrives in his glory.” (Matt. 24:30, 42, 44; 25:31) Each of these four references applies to Christ’s future coming as Judge. Where in Jesus’ prophecy do we find the remaining four references?
16. Jesus’ coming is mentioned in what other scriptures?
16 Regarding the faithful and discreet slave, Jesus says: “Happy is that slave if his master on arriving [“having come,” ftn.] finds him doing so.” In the parable of the virgins, Jesus states: “While they were going off to buy, the bridegroom arrived [“came,” Kingdom Interlinear].” In the parable of the talents, Jesus relates: “After a long time the master of those slaves came.” In the same parable, the master says: “On myarrival [“having come,” Int] I would be receiving what is mine.” (Matt. 24:46; 25:10, 19, 27) To what time do these four instances of Jesus’ coming refer?
17. What have we stated about the arrival mentioned at Matthew 24:46?
17 In the past, we have stated in our publications that these last four references apply to Jesus’ arriving, or coming, in 1918. As an example, take Jesus’ statement about “the faithful and discreet slave.”(Read Matthew 24:45-47.) We understood that the “arriving” mentioned in verse 46 was linked to the time when Jesus came to inspect the spiritual condition of the anointed in 1918 and that the appointment of the slave over all the Master’s belongings occurred in 1919. (Mal. 3:1) However, a further consideration of Jesus’ prophecy indicates that an adjustment in our understanding of the timing of certain aspects of Jesus’ prophecy is needed. Why so?
18. A consideration of Jesus’ prophecy in its entirety leads us to what conclusion about Jesus’ coming?
Matthew 24:46, the word “coming” refers consistently to the time when Jesus comes to pronounce and execute judgment during the great tribulation. (Matt. 24:30, 42, 44) Also, as we considered in paragraph 12, Jesus’ ‘arriving’ mentioned atMatthew 25:31 refers to that same future time of judgment. So it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ arrival to appoint the faithful slave over all his belongings, mentioned at Matthew 24:46, 47, also applies to his future coming, during the great tribulation. * Indeed, a consideration of Jesus’ prophecy in its entirety makes it clear that each of these eight references to his coming applies to the future time of judgment during the great tribulation.18 In the verses that lead up to
19. What adjustments in understanding did we consider, and what questions will be answered in the following articles?
19 In review, what have we learned? In the beginning of this article, we raised three “when” questions. We first considered that the great tribulation did not begin in 1914 but will start when the United Nations attacks Babylon the Great. Then, we reviewed why Jesus’ judgment of the sheep and the goats did not begin in 1914 but will occur during the great tribulation. Finally, we examined why Jesus’ arrival to appoint the faithful slave over all his belongings did not occur in 1919 but will take place during the great tribulation. So, then, all three “whens” apply to the same future time period—the great tribulation. How does this adjusted view further affect our understanding of the illustration of the faithful slave? Also, how does it affect our understanding of other parables, or illustrations, of Jesus that are being fulfilled during this time of the end? These important questions will be considered in the following articles.
“Tell Us, When Will These Things Be?”
The first sentence is NOT the way the context of Matthew 24 has ever been presented before in the Wt publications. (Should state that it’s similar to w2/15/1994.) The question the disciples asked him was in response to Jesus saying that the temple at Jerusalem was going to be so thoroughly destroyed that every one of it’s stones would be thrown down, toppled. Without that crucial bit of context the implication is that the disciples had knowledge that Jesus earthly ministry was about to end, and that made them anxious and eager to ask about their own future. (At least for four of them — although Matthew never mentions there were only 4 who asked that particular question.) In the book of Mark, four of his apostles are the ones who privately ask 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?” In Luke it’s not specifically four who are mentioned, but there is no reason to assume it’s not the same four mentioned in Mark. In Luke the phrase is “Teacher, when will these things actually be, and what will be the sign when these things are destined to occur?” The small differences in wording may not be important, but since no apostles are spoken of as approaching him privately, perhaps Matthew is meant to get at the overall gist of the question that all disciples were asking, and Luke and Mark appear to be more directly speaking of a specific question that 4 of the disciples asked. Note that there is no question about a “parousia” or “presence” in Mark or Luke. There is no question of a “conclusion of the system of things” in Mark or Luke. Yet it is only in Luke where it is specified that “certain of the disciples” asked, or “four of them asked their own question privately. This might not be significant, but I wonder about it for the very reason that Matthew’s question is very different from the one mentioned in Mark and Luke.
The reason I went to such length on this potentially minor point is to point out that Jesus disciples asked a question about Jerusalem and some of them tied this information about Jerusalem — not to end of Jesus ministry — but to the event Jesus just told them about. Jesus had just dropped a bombshell. In political terms, it would be like President Bush telling his cabinet and security advisors something like: “You see these Twin Towers, The World Trade Center?” I’m telling you that the time will come when they will be toppled to the ground.” Everyone would be asking questions about when. “When will these things be?” How will we know? You have intelligence about this? What will we need to look out for? — Of course, in the case of Jesus and his disciples there were likely many such questions worded in several different ways, and the importance of the differences in wording between Matthew, Mark and Luke are not all that significant. What Matthew wants to make clear is that the disciples could tell that because Jesus KNEW about this major cataclysmic event, and had the power to prophesy about it — that it was obviously related to the end of the age, to Jesus own Parousia/Presence. They thought of his Presence/Parousia therefore as the same thing as the “end of the age”. Although parousia sometimes meant a simple presence when speaking of non-royalty, Roman coins and papyrii were discovered around 1910 to show that the Greek word had a special meaning when used of royalty. This is borne out in the Watchtower’s Reference Bible if you click through the word parousia from Matthew 24:3 in the “Online Library” Appendix 5Bhttp://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1001060093 . The last paragraph there says: Also, Bauer, p. 630, states that pa·rou·si′a “became the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, esp[ecially] of kings and emperors visiting a province.” In Mt 24:3, as well as in other texts such as 1Th 3:13 and 2Th 2:1, the word pa·rou·si′a refers to the royal presence of Jesus Christ since his enthronement as King in the last days of this system of things. — Since this fact was virtually unknown until around 1910, all the translations that were used to support the NWT translation of “presence” come from 1864, 1897, and 1903 as you can see from the top of the page in the same Appendix 5B.
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The extensive comment above should serve as a reminder that the context of Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13 were tied very closely to events of the first century. It proves very difficult to re-apply this prophecy to any other time period. Since there is nothing in Jesus’ words that indicates that he meant for us to find another prophecy related to a later century, this must explain whey it has been so difficult for the Watchtower to maintain a stable explanation about the meanings and applications of various verses within the chapter. Almost all of them appear to apply perfectly well to the event at Jerusalem, except for just one short passage of two verses. These are the only two verses that appear to apply outside of the first century destruction of Jerusalem: ————– 30 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.*+ 31 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. ———— Trying to make analogies and fulfillments out of everything else so that it applies not just to the first century but also to the 20th and 21st centuries, as we have always done, is fraught with difficulties. Portions of the Watchtower explanations have changed every few years about at least some part of Matthew 24 and 25.
Paragraph 2 indicates that we (JWs, Jehovah’s servants) have studied this subject for years. The variations on our beliefs about the parousia and last days makes for a lengthy study on its own. The first explanation of the “last days” was that they started in 1799. Curiously this was part of a chronology that the Watchtower held for over 50 years, long past 1914. I had been raised to believe that men of faith who had Jehovah’s spirit and who were being selected and judged by Jesus during the years shortly after his Kingship began had proven that they had eyes of faith, and had “impressed” Jesus with the seriousness of their study and had basically predicted that Jesus would return and had returned in 1914. In effect they saw his Kingdom and his presence begin in 1914. So clearly that they were able to predict this date many years in advance. I was surprised to find out that 1914 came and went and NOT ONE person associated with the Watchtower Society had any clue that Jesus presence had begun that year, or that his Kingdom had begun that year. Before, during and after 1914, the Watchtower continued to say that Jesus presence had begun in 1874, that his Kingdom had begun in 1878, that the resurrection had already occurred in 1878 and that the anointed had already been completely selected in 1881, with a few possible newcomers selected as late as the 1920’s. Many of these dates were not changed until around 1930, and not fully determined until 1943. (According to Watchtower publications.) This is an important point to be reminded of so that we realize that the single examples in paragraph three about 1914 through 1918 were just ONE of the several beliefs the Watchtower had promoted about the last days and the “great tribulation”.
The doctrine that the “great tribulation” had originally started in 1914-1918 was first explained in the May 1, 1925 Wt. (Although the writer of the following article only indicated 1939, this part of the belief was already clear 14 years earlier) and the belief was just about officially ended in 1969, with the clarifying explanation making it official in 1970. This is indicated in a 1999 Watchtower as follows: ————*** w99 5/1 pp. 15-17 pars. 8-13 “Let the Reader Use Discernment” ***
10 God’s people once understood that the first phase of the great tribulation began in 1914 and that the final part would come at the battle of Armageddon. (Revelation 16:14, 16; compare The Watchtower, April 1, 1939, page 110.) So we can understand why it was once thought that the latter-day “disgusting thing” must have stood in a holy place soon after World War I.
11 However, in later years we have come to see things differently. On Thursday, July 10, 1969, at the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly in New York City, F. W. Franz, then vice president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, gave an electrifying talk. In reviewing the previous understanding of Jesus’ prophecy, Brother Franz said: “The explanation was given that the ‘great tribulation’ had begun in 1914 C.E. and that it was not allowed to run its full course then but God stopped World War I in November of 1918. From then on God was allowing an interval for the activity of his anointed remnant of elect Christians before he let the final part of the ‘great tribulation’ resume at the battle of Armageddon.”
12 Then a significantly adjusted explanation was offered: “To correspond with the events of the first century, . . . the antitypical ‘great tribulation’ did not begin in 1914 C.E. Rather, what took place upon Jerusalem’s modern antitype in 1914-1918 was merely ‘a beginning of pangs of distress’ . . . 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.” This meant that the entire great tribulation was yet ahead.
Paragraph 3 is not very clear about when it was thought that the “Great Tribulation” had begun in 1914, had lasted through 1918, and then was “cut short” until Armageddon. It is true that a Great Tribulation was expected to come on the earth in conjunction with the ending of the Gentile nations. The end of the nations of the earth was to commence around October 1914, but because this tribulation was expected to start some time before and lead up to the end of the Gentile nations — end of the Gentile times — the Wt published that perhaps it would start as late as October 1915. Of course, WWI did finally start in advance of October 1914 so that Russell, who had admitted losing his faith in what he predicted for 1914, was able to get back on track and confidently state in October 1914 that the Gentile times have indeed ended and therefore these Gentile nations were now falling.When the war ended and all nations and man-made organizations had NOT fallen, there would be an adjustment to why this tribulation had not ended in Armageddon, which was another definition of the fall of the Gentile nations. (In Revelation, the nations of the earth [Gentile nations] gather for the great day of God the Almighty at Harmageddon.) —— So it was clear that a change in understanding would be forthcoming, and it was developed almost completely in the May 1, 1925 Watchtower, and fully developed in 1939, (Wt April 1, 1939). —————– Note, however that this believe did not last as long as the belief that the last days started in 1799, or that Jesus presence had started in 1874, or his kingship in in 1878, or that the resurrection had already occurred in 1881, etc. —–That’s because this belief was changed at the Peace on Earth Assembly in a talk by F W Franz on July 10, 1969 (see May 1, 1999 Wt, p15-17). The change was clarified and explained further in the January 15, 1970 Wt p.52. So the doctrine lasted 44 years. Another belief about the great tribulation in relation to the last days had generally held for the first 50 years of Watchtower publications, then this belief for another 45, after which the current belief has been held for the last 43 years. There is therefore no change in doctrine presented in this article about the “great tribulation” that is related to the 1914 through 1918 belief, nor that we are living in a time when that “great tribulation” had been cut short. That had already happened in 1969.
One might get the impression from the beginning of paragraph 4 that there was a further perception and discernment about two fulfillments of Matthew 24 in two different time periods. In fact, the Wt had been declaring both a first century and a worldwide fulfillment for over 120 years, from the very start of the Wt magazine. This was nothing new. The 1994 Wt did add some interesting developments, but these changes were somewhat troubling in that they gave in to what opposers of the Watchtower position had been stating was a problem with Witness doctrine for some time. ———- However, the basic use of this information in paragraphs 4 and 5 appears to be intended show that what was “further…perceived” and “discerned” [around 1994] that the first part of the great tribulation did not begin in 1914. Of course this was not from this time period, when nothing new was added. It was from 1969, a quarter-century earlier. ————- Curiously, paragraph 5 implies that the reason why a 1914 tribulation was dropped was due to a discernment that an attack on false religion was the beginning of the great tribulation, as opposed to starting with war among nations. However, that was never the reason for changing the belief. This belief about great tribulation being tied to Jehovah’s future “greater” judgment against false religion was already clearly espoused by Joseph Rutherford from the early 1930’s up to his death in 1942. It was spelled out in books from “You May Survive Armageddon into God’s New World” (1955) up to the 1963 book “Babylon the Great Has Fallen.” It never was seen to contradict the earlier belief about the great tribulation because that tribulation was to be cut short only to reach its height before Armageddon when Jehovah’s people would be saved in the midst of an attack on false religion.