A proper understanding of Matthew 24 and 25 reveals that the Great Tribulation has already occurred in the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. As a result, all “futurist” interpretations collapse, along with the pessimism created by their view of predestined defeat.
Context – Matt 24:1,2
Jesus and his disciples are discussing the literal, present Jewish Temple then standing in Jerusalem. This is important when we consider the later verses.
The Key – Matt 24:34
“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (ESV)
This time statement is key to understanding the Great Tribulation. The common, premillennial dispensational understanding is that it means “this race”, that is the nation of Israel that sees the beginning of these signs and will not pass away until all these things happen.
However, Jesus was speaking to His present disciples who had just pointed out the stones of the physical Temple (remember the context). It was that Temple which was to be destroyed, which gave rise to this entire discussion. These signs would be experienced by His present disciples: “See that no one leads you astray”, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars”, “See that you are not alarmed”, “they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake”, “when you see the abomination of desolation”, “when you see all these things, you know that he is near”.
Either Jesus was deliberately deceiving His disciples or “this generation” means the contemporary hearers of Jesus words, the very generation of Jews who rejected Him.
The Greek word “genea” (generation) is used throughout Matthew and everywhere else refers to a contemporary generation of people. Whenever Matthew uses the term “this generation”, it everywhere else refers to the generation then living (Matt. 11:16; 12:41,42,45; and 23:36).
The Questions – Matt 24:3
The disciples ask two questions of Jesus. The first, “when will these things be?” That is, when will the Temple be destroyed? The second, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” The first is answered in Matt 24:4-31, the second in Matt 24:36-25:46.
The Precursory Signs – Matt 24:4-14
These signs are called “but the beginning of birth pains” (v8), they are only the pre-indicators of the coming judgment.
False Christs – early writers, including Josephus, document a number of great pretenders who almost certainly made messianic claims.
Wars and rumours of wars – due to the Pax Romana (the peace that the Roman Empire brought), there was an abundance of peace from about the time of the birth of Jesus. This peace was shattered at the time of Nero; the outbreak of the Jewish War and the Roman Civil Wars which almost destroyed the Roman Empire.
Famines, Earthquakes, Persecution, Apostasy and False Prophets – attested to by the early writers, including throughout the New Testament particularly Acts.
The Gospel Preached to the World – Matt 24:14
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations”.
The Greek for ‘world’ (oikumene) often stands for the Roman Empire (Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28). Therefore the “all nations” would refer to those nations subsumed into the ‘whole world’ of the Roman Empire. Elsewhere the New Testament confirms that the gospel was indeed preached to the ‘whole world’ (Col 1:6,23; Acts 2:5; Rom. 1:8; 10:18).
The Abomination of Desolation – Matt 24:15
This refers to the A.D. 70 event of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus refers to Daniel 9:26 which speaks of the destruction of both the Temple and the city. The final act of destruction is described by Josephus, “the holy house itself, and all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the Temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them”. This act of pagan worship to the Emperor was abominable to the Jewish religion.
Lightning and Eagles – Matt 24:27,28
Lightning is frequently used in the Bible as a symbol of destructive power, speaking of the destruction by the Roman armies under the direction of Jesus Christ in judgment. The eagles (the Greek word aetos), were the Roman ensigns set up in the Temple.
The Great Tribulation – Matt 24:21
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”
Objections to the view that the Great Tribulation was in the first century AD state that it “clearly eclipses anything that the world has ever known by way of destruction.” The first century destruction of Jerusalem, although terrible, cannot be called the worst the world has ever or will ever know.
However, a few verses later Jesus mentions the Noahic Flood. This actually did destroy the entire world except for a single family. Even the futurist version of the Great Tribulation leaves more than a single family alive.
The Great Tribulation involves the incredible covenantal significance of the loss of the Jewish Temple and with it, the closing of the Old Covenant era. Jesus is using apocalyptic hyperbole similar to that uses in the tenth Egyptian plague (Ex 11:6), “There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again” and the Babylonian captivity (Ez 5:9), “And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again.” Both these events also describe events of significant judgment with radical changes to the people of God.
Astronomical Signs – Matt 24:29-30
The darkening of the sun and moon is common apocalyptic language for the collapse of nations, such as in Old Testament judgments on Babylon (Isa. 13:1, 10, 19), Idumea (Isa. 34:3-5), Israel Ger. 4:14, 16, 23ff;Joel. 2:10-11), and Egypt (Ezek. 32:2, 7-8, 11_12).
The “tribes of the earth” refer to the “tribes of the land”, the 12 Tribes of Israel (The Greek ‘ge’ can be translated earth or land). Through these events the Jews were to “see” the Son of Man in His judgment-coming in terrifying cloud-glory: clouds are symbols of divine majesty often entailing stormy destruction (Isa. 19:1; cf. Psa. 18:10-14; Lam. 2:1; Ezek. 30:3-5).
The Trumpet Gathering – Matt 24:31
The word “angels” simply means “messenger”, which in this verse does not refer to heavenly messengers but to earthly ones, proclaiming the gospel and gathering people from the four corners of the earth into the Kingdom.
The Second Question
The remainder of the Olivet Discourse (the name by which this passage is commonly known) looks beyond the signs for this generation (and the destruction of the Temple, the first question), to the events of His Second Advent at the end of history (the second question). This generation is contrasted with that day and hour in Matthew 24:36. The destruction of the Temple was imminent and had signs that would forewarn that generation. The Second Advent is not imminent and has no signs.
(This post is summarized from many sources, predominantly Kenneth Gentry’s excellent book He Shall Have Dominion )