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The Great Tribulation, Past or Future?

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 )

photo credit: Patrick Denker via photopin cc

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10 thoughts on “The Great Tribulation, Past or Future?

  1. I personally like this method of explaining eschatology, somewhat Preterism and Historical, for it leaves the Kingdom now open to enter in to for all who believe. There are some snags of course, but it sure makes more sense to me than much of the star wars futuristic stuff plaguing the church today. I personally think that all the futurism views of eschatology detract from Jesus’ gospel… what say you?

    • Hi MT, I agree.

      *Any* futurist interpretation (both historical and dispensational premillennialist views) for all practical purposes deny the power of the gospel to transform the world. Christ’s redemptive work alone is insufficient to make any lasting or widespread impact in this present age. In these views, only the catastrophic Second Advent of Christ, where he establishes a central, bureaucratic earthly government by external force, has the power to transform the world.

      In my view, this is a step backwards from the New Covenant back into the Old. The Old Covenant was one of external control via an external law for a people still unregenerate. The New Covenant is an internal relationship governed by an internal law for a new creation. Futurist views take us back to an external, force-based ideal of the Kingdom of God.

      Furthermore, consistent dispensational premillennialism must hold to a re-established animal sacrificial system that atones for sin, a definite step backwards in the unveiling of God’s salvation for mankind.

    • Also, speaking of Star Wars. The premillennial view that the New Jerusalem is a literal city, a cube or pyramid of approx 2,400 km (1,500 mile) long base and height, makes it over 18 times bigger than the Death Star I and almost exactly 15 times bigger than the Death Star II!

      In fact, it is almost the size of our moon, and when sitting on the earth would stretch over 2,000 km higher than the orbit of the Space Station.

  2. I am wondering where exactly is Jesus. If the events of Matthew 24 have happened, then so it would mean that Jesus would be on earth..Verse 30 specifically says that Christ will appear in the clouds.and everyone will mourn for him.

    Some thing I have to point out. Firstly there aren’t two questions, but three questions. In your second question there are really two question, one was about the sign of his coming and then they ask about the end of the world or era. That makes the order of things a lot different than what you have.

    Also the Abomination of Desolation refers to a covenant that happens. And the Prophesy in Daniel refers to 70 weeks, that being a periods of seventy seven years. From the passaged we see the beginning of this time period is from the rebuilding of the Temple and in the 69th week right at the end the Messiah “shall be cut off” meaning when he was crucified, but the crucial week or seven year period. We know that the time from the Temple being built to the death of Christ is accurate, but no matter what position there is a gap between the 69th week and th 70th week, because that would have meant the end of Israel would hae been AD 40, but we know that didn’t happen. That is what verse 24 says that end of the 70th week will be “…to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness…” As far as i can tell none of these things have happened yet, since sin still abounds and everlasting righteousness isn’t happening right now, which should have happened had the prophecy been fulfilled by now.

    Another problem is the way you use the story of Noah and it is not how Jesus used him. He wasn’t doing a full comparison, since that would mean God would have to break his promise since he said he would no longer flood the earth. The comparison is the the condition of earth when he comes back. We are told that during the days of Noah that the people were living their lives to the full and from Genesis we know that God judged them because of their wickedness, just how Jesus is coming again. But one thing I have noticed is how often you are trying to ignore the fact that God is coming again to judge. If you read John 5 Jesus makes that perfectly clear that he is coming to judge. There will be a time when all the grave will open and all the peoples will be judged. But the great thing for the righteous is that they will be spared. Just like how Noah and his family were righteous before God and were spared judgement. 2 Peter 2:talks how God has always judged the ungodly but spares the righteous from such judgement. In the two examples given in Peter, we have the example of the flood and Sodom and Gomorrha and how both of the example God judged, the righteous were spare and the ungodly were judged and the judgement of God was total.

    About hpyerbole, is that none of the examples you gave were of that. In Egypt there was great morning like that which it had never seen, since God poured out his judgement again her and her idols, whom the presumed were gods. Every single plague was an attack on the gods of Egypt and the final plague was the ultimate insult since the firstborn male of every creature, including humans, were dedicated to a god and thus since God killed all the firstborn males meant the dedication was to a false idol and thus such judgement and such reaction has never happened again to Egypt. And yet again we have an example of how God protects the righteous. “When I see the blood I shall”, is what God said to those who followed his instruction to put blood on their door posts as a sign they were protected, which is a symbol of what God did for us when Christ died on the cross as our Passover. Since we are protected by his blood, when his judgement comes, he will spare us from his judgement. Also if you can’t see how the Babylonian captivity is completely different to what happened around the destruction of the Temple, something is wrong, since the Jew weren’t not take into captivity, but they were dispersed. The first one they were taken prisoners and the second they fled the persecution.

    Because we are talking about future judgement, it means the judgement kept in reserve for those who are ungodly and never does God reserve his judgement for the righteous. Th whole event of the future are firstly to bring back Israel to him and secondly since God is holy he can’t ever be in the presence of sin, so that means sin and sinner have to be judged. God first judged our sin on Christ. God couldn’t even bear to look at Christ while he took our sins upon him and hence his cry out to God. Those who reject God’s offer are subject to his wrath. John 3:36 t4els us how his wrath right now is abiding over everyone who doesn’t believe. But for those who believe we aren’t appointed to wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9, 2 Peter 2:9) and thus when Jesus comes again for the believer it is a time not to be feared, but a time we should be earnestly waiting for and should be comforted by those words. (1 Thessalonians 5:11) For the believer Christ’s coming again means we are no longer going to be It is interesting how 1 Thessalonians 4:16 refer to a trump of God and angels, just like how Jesus said in Matthew. I do like how you ignore the trumpet when you speak about this passage.

    The timing of when Jesus puts “this generation” is important. The first thing we notice with this discourse is that Jesus answers the questions in order they are asked. Had Jesus put it right at the beginning, then it most definitely would refer to those he was talking to, but that verse happens much latter on in the discourse. The “this generation” is talking about those when those events happen and not the present generation Jesus was talking to. Why? We see right next to is that Jesus talking about heaven and earth passing away, which will be the final judgement on our sin and the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth

    • Hi Ian – thanks for taking the time to comment. You have raised some interesting and important issues.

      Regarding judgement – I agree with most of what you write, so I don’t know how you can say that I ignore the fact that Jesus is coming to judge. When you see the Great Tribulation as a future judgment, I see the Bible teaching us that it has already happened. Yet there still remains the final judgment at the end of the age (which I have already written about in an earlier post).

      You asked that if the Great Tribulation is in the past, why wasn’t Christ physically present on the earth. Firstly, verse 30 states that the *sign* of the Son of Man will appear, it doesn’t say that the Son of Man appears. Furthermore, the phrase “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is well used in other prophetic literature in the Bible to represent judgement that is directed by God, and not a bodily appearance as if Jesus is riding a cloud down from heaven.

      For example, Isaiah 9:1 “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt.” God didn’t bodily appear to the Egyptians, it is an image of glorious judgement. Similarly in Psalm 18:10-14 and Ezekekiel 30:3-5. If we let Scripture interpret Scripture this is a valid and well-supported interpretation of Matthew 4:30. If, as you say, it is not a symbolic image of glorious judgement directed by Jesus Christ but is meant to be taken as a literal, bodily appearance on a literal cloud, where is your scriptural support for this and why must Matthew 24:30 be literal when these other Scriptures clearly are not?

      Even if there are three questions, it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus answered the first question of when would the temple be torn down in verses 4-31. You hold that the Great Tribulation is future, but Jesus said that these were the signs and events that surrounded the destruction of the temple.

      Your argument about Jesus’ use of the term “this generation” is faulty. The disciples asked Jesus when would the present day temple be destroyed. Jesus answers this question saying that a number of signs and events that would be involved in the temple’s destruction. After he details these signs, then he says “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Which “things”? The signs and events he just spoke about. Which “generation”? The generation to which he was talking. No one reading the plain meaning of the grammar of this passage (whether in English or in the Greek), can come up with an understanding that “this generation” means the generation of Jews living over 2,000 years from when Jesus answered these questions.

      You said that verse 35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” signifies that the very next thing on the prophetic agenda after the Great Tribulation is “the final judgement on our sin and the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth”. If that is so, why is there over a chapter left of Jesus Christ speaking about the Second Coming and of the end of the age? It is clear that verse 35 is not some statement about what is about to happen. It is a statement about the truthfulness and trustworthiness of what Jesus has just told his disciples. Jesus said something almost identical in Matthew 5:18, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

      You talk about Noah’s flood and do a great job of explaining what Jesus meant by including it in his discourse, I wholeheartedly agree. What I am saying is that some people argue that A.D. 70 could not have been the Great Tribulation because it was not the enormously destructive event that they think the Bible means when it says “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.” I was explaining that this statement is prophetic hyperbole, and not literally the worst thing that will ever happen on earth on a global scale. I used the Noah Flood event to illustrate that even the futurist view doesn’t say that the Great Tribulation will be worse than that. This statement speaks of something besides the immensity of destruction. I am saying that the events of A.D. 70 were enormously significant in their impact on the history of salvation, the closing of the Old Covenant and the final establishment of the New Covenant.

      On your paragraph on prophetic, I never said that these passages were in any way *like* the Great Tribulation. These passages use similar language to that which Jesus used to describe significant events in the history of the Jewish people. It is a literary device used to magnify the significance of the event, not a literal description of a feature of the event. If it is meant to be taken literally, then either Noah’s Flood, which destroyed every living thing besides one family and two of each kind of animal, is a far greater a calamity than the Great Tribulation and so is a myth can’t be true.

      You mentioned Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. I will write another post to detail what this means and how it fits in with an A.D. 70 view. However, you said that no matter what position on eschatology you hold, you need to have a gap between the 69th and 70th week. This is not true. Only the Dispensational Premillennial view inserts this unwarranted ‘gap’. Historic Premillennialism, Amillennialism and Postmillennialism all understand there to be no gap.

  3. It is of course a format of snags… no matter which path we take, as is evident by simply reading the comments toward the comments.

    Still, I see the Kingdom now present with what Paul would define as the body of Christ visibly present in every nation, some more and some less, but visibly present none the less. For me, the Revelation of Jesus Christ only makes sense with the washing away of the old covenant and the ushering in of the new, the wine that cannot be put in an old wineskin, the good news that Jesus has come in the flesh and now reigns from His throne at the right hand of the Father; the Head of the body leading and guiding His people to build His Kingdom here and now. Wah-hoo!

  4. If you read the events that are happening right now in the Middle East and the persecution of Christians that Verses 4-14, especially the fact that right now Christians are being murdered for their beliefs, but that is not the end. But history is full of Christians being persecuted at one stage or another.

    • Indeed, the persecution of Christians in non-Christian countries is horrific. However, I don’t see the need to equate the current persecution with what is prophesied in Matthew 24. In fact, Matt 24 is quite specific in what it predicts, which can all be seen to be fulfilled in the events surrounding the 70 A.D. destruction.

      It is better to see these current-day events relating to what Jesus spoke about in Mark 10:29-31. It is persecution that results from living a Christian life in a decidedly ant-Christian (dare we say antichrist?) culture.

      29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

      I wouldn’t connect current-day persecution with the destruction of the Jewish Temple that is being predicted in Matt 24.

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