THE GREAT TRIBULATION
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A man who tried never to miss a boxing match had an important business meeting the night of the championship bout. He hated to miss the fight, but he did what he thought was the next best thing. He asked his wife to watch it and tell him about it when he got home. When his meeting was over he rushed home and said, "Well honey, how did the match go-who won?" "Nobody won," she said, "One of the guys got hurt in the first round and fell down unconscious, so they had to quit."
Any sport is hard to interpret when you don't understand the rules. It gets even harder when people have different ideas of what the rules are. Have you ever played a game where the people you are playing with go by different rules than you are use to? You have to work out compromise somewhere, for no game or sport can make any sense unless everybody is playing by the same rules. Christians have their little games too which sometimes lead to major conflicts because they play by different rules. A great illustration of this is the subject called The Great Tribulation. There is a great deal of tribulation over this issue of the Great Tribulation, for Christians have radical different rules by which they interpret the Bible when it comes to this subject.
Believe it or not, the paradox is that there is almost universal agreement among the opponents in this conflict over one key issue. All Christians agree that God's people will escape the wrath of God. Jesus took the wrath of God on Himself at the cross, and now those in Him will not have to suffer that judgment.
It would be totally inconsistent for God to let His wrath fall on His own children. That would be like chasing a car in which your child has just been kidnapped, and forcing it off the road over a cliff. You judge the culprit severely, but at the same time you destroy the innocent. It is not a very wise plan, and not the sort of strategy that an all wise God would use.
When He judged the world with the flood, He saved Noah and his family out of the flood. When He destroyed Sodom He took Lot out of the city. It is just logical, even if the Bible did not say so, that God would spare His own in a day of wrath. So all Christians see this logic, and they are fully agreed. But then we come to the wrath of man and Satan, which is what the Great Tribulation is all about, and the unity of Christians is shattered. Some say the church will be raptured out of the world, and escape this tribulation. They are called the pre-tribulationists. This means the rapture comes before the tribulation.
Other Christians, and keep in mind there are millions on both sides of this issue, say that the church will not be raptured until after the tribulation. They are called the post-tribulationists. So you have your two sides; each writing a ton of books defending their position, and in many cases calling each other lame brain numskulls for not being able to see the obvious truth. There is the mid-tribulationists too, but that is just another form of the pre-trib. Over the last 30 years I have read hundreds of authors on this subject, and there are brilliant and marvelous men of God on both sides. Anyone who thinks all the good guys are on one side are terribly ignorant. To cast doubt on any man's love for Christ, or his love for the Word of God, based on his conviction about the tribulation is a great sign of ignorance. No matter what your conviction is, some of your favorite heroes of the faith are on the other side. When wise and godly people see an issue differently, I like to try and figure out what is true and valid on both sides.
My first conviction is that both sides in this controversy can be shown to be correct in their emphasis as we focus on the tribulation that came in 70 A. D. when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. The pre-trib side is concerned to spare the church from the tribulation, and this appears to be the whole point of Jesus here in Matt. 24. He is giving them these warnings so they can watch and be prepared to escape. When they see the abomination that causes desolation they are to flee to the mountains. By heeding this warning they will be spared from the Great Tribulation. We know from history that the Christians did listen to Jesus, and when Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman legions they fled to a town called Pella 50 miles away. They were spared the great slaughter that killed a million and a half people in Jerusalem, as the city and temple were utterly demolished. So the pre-trib idea of the church being spared is supported here.
On the other hand, the post-trib side who stress that the church has to go through the tribulation are equally supported in this passage. They are spared from death, but they are not spared from the distress of the tribulation. Jesus says that in their fleeing the city they have to forsake their possessions. They are to flee so fast they are not to go into their homes to grab anything, and not even their cloak. In this emergency evacuation they get out with just the clothes on their back, and they lose all else. It will be dreadful for pregnant women and nursing mothers. It will be hard on anyone, but for them even worse. Then in v. 20 Jesus says to pray it does not take place in the winter or on the Sabbath. That will just add to the misery of an already terrible situation.
The point is, though they are spared from the death of this tribulation, they are not spared from the loss and suffering of it. They survive it by God's grace, but they have to go through it. Now we don't have to guess about this, for we have the history of the fulfillment of all this prophecy, and it was just as Jesus said it would be in 70 A. D. The Christians escaped to the city of Pella.
The problem is, though both the pre-trib and the post-trib are right in their basic ideas, with one saying Christians escape, and the other saying they endure tribulation, neither of them is right about the rapture. The pre-trib says the church will be raptured out of the world before the Great Tribulation, but we do not see that here at all. They are warned to flee, and God cuts it short for their survival, but they are not raptured out. The post-trib says the church is raptured after they endure it, but the record of history is clear-they went through it and survived, but they were not raptured out. The Great Tribulation of 70 A. D. did not see Christians raptured before or after. They escaped and had to endure, but there was no rapture.
Now they key fact that has to be established is that 70 A. D. was, in fact, the Great Tribulation that Jesus spoke of, and not some other tribulation at the end of history. Both the pre-trib and post-trib scholars in their desperation to be right twist this passage all out of shape to make it fit their systems. They ignore the context and force this passage to refer to some far off event that has no relevance to the disciples and that generation at all. This chapter is one of the most abused in all of the Bible. Common sense would never dream of the things men do to rip this chapter out of context. Lets put it in context as Jesus does, and see than any attempt to tear this away from the 70 A. D. fall of Jerusalem is abusive. Jesus clearly puts brackets around this Great Tribulation to make clear just what it is.
First he says in chapter 23:35-36, "And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation." The generation that rejected and killed the Son of God, as the last straw of unjust killing, was to be the generation of God's worst judgment. All other generations that were judged were judged for the sins and folly of their own generation, but this generation was to be judged for the sins and folly for all of history. That is why Jesus says in v. 21, "For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now, and never to be equalled again." The Great Tribulation was to come upon that unique generation which crucified the Son of God.
There are many attempts to get around this obvious truth of what Jesus is saying, and not make that generation the most unique in all of history in terms of the judgment that is to come upon them. Many want to push this into the future and some unknown generation. They come up with elaborate theories that take you into the book of Daniel or Revelation, and they make this chapter refer to something totally irrelevant to the disciples and the Christians living in that day. They are clever theories, but they do not hold water. They are buckets without bottoms, in fact, for not only does Jesus tell us before this chapter that that generation was to suffer for all the unjust killing of history, but after telling of the Great Tribulation He says in v. 34, "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
The first three Gospels all record this, but not John's Gospel, for when he wrote it was already history and no longer prophecy. This Great Tribulation was over, and that is why John does not record this longest teaching passage of Jesus on prophecy. I take Jesus at His word, and see that he clearly teaches here that the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. was the greatest tribulation ever in history, and there will never be another like it. The only way to escape from this conclusion is to try and make generation mean something else, like the Jewish race, or Christian race, and many try, but all attempts are futile, for generation is a word Jesus used frequently, and always to refer to the people of His day.
In Matt. 12:41 Jesus says , "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here." In 12:45 He calls them "This wicked generation." In 16:4 He calls them, "A wicked and adulterous generation." In 17:17 he says, "O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you." Jesus is always referring to his contemporaries when He used the word, and that is what He means in Matt. 24. All of the details of the tribulation that Jesus gives here fit that generation, and it is far fetched and meaningless in any other context. If this referred to some future tribulation, as many try to teach, it is really obsolete. How many people in Israel live on their roofs any more? How many work in the field, and what is the relevance of the winter and the Sabbath for travel? The whole picture fits perfectly the events of 70 A. D. To take it out of context of that day and make it refer to some unknown event of the future is purely man made fantasy in order to force this passage to fit some man made scheme. Jesus said it would happen to that generation, and I believe Him.
There is a reason why men work at a theory that makes this refer to some future generation, however, for Jesus says that after this tribulation He will come again in the clouds with power and great glory, and the elect will be gathered from on end of heaven to the other. Obviously, this did not happen after 70 A. D. they say, and so that is what makes this one of the hardest chapters in the Bible to understand. Jesus seems to be teaching that His second coming and the rapture were to happen right after the fall of Jerusalem. This leads to all kinds of theories to try and explain what seems to make Jesus teaching an error. He said He did not know when He was coming, but here He seems to be saying it will be right after this Great Tribulation. Most of the theories to explain this are not very convincing.
My conviction is, let the so-called prophecy experts create their mazes, and have their fun trying to guide people through them. I prefer to stick with Jesus, and just see if we can make sense of what He is saying without abandoning His clear words that this was all to take place in that generation. I can agree with the many, even the majority of scholars, who see Jesus using the 70 A. D. tribulation as an illustration and type of the final tribulation of history, and the literal rapture and coming again. That is what makes this chapter relevant to every age, and not just that generation. This fits the pattern all through the Bible. But you cannot escape the fact that Jesus linked end time events with that generation and 70 A. D.
Before we can see how this applies to every generation we need to see how it applied to the generation Jesus is speaking of and to. First of all, lets look at the startling signs in the heavens in v. 29. "The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken." From our point of view this is an astronomical catastrophe and the end of the universe, and not just Jerusalem. But that is because we do not understand apocalyptic language. The people of that day were used to hearing this kind of language. It was not only a part of their popular reading material, it was a part of their Old Testament.
When Isaiah described the fall of Babylon, this is how he wrote in Isa. 13:10, "The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light." In v. 13 he adds, "Therefore I will make the heavens tremble and the earth will shake from its place." The judgment of God is pictorially displayed in the heavens. If this was an isolated thing we could not make much of it, but when we see it is a common pattern of Hebrew thought, then we begin to see the picture. Later on Isaiah describes God's judgment on Edam, and other evil nations, and he writes in Isa. 34:4, "All the stars of heaven will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine." We know, of course, if God ever did such a thing literally it would be the end of the entire universe, but God did not literally do it. This is just the Hebrew way of describing the anger and judgment of God.
When Ezekiel describes God's judgment on Pharaoh king of Egypt, this is what he writes in Ezek. 32:7-8, "When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you." Whenever God comes in judgment the prophets describe nature going bezerk. In Joel 2 we read, "For the day of the Lord is coming-a day of darkness and gloom....the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened and the stars no longer shine."
When God breaks into history in any way the heavens register it. Thus, the star of Bethlehem at the Incarnation. Even when the Holy Spirit came on the church at Pentecost Peter makes a point of quoting Joel's prophecy with its heavenly signs. In Acts 2:17 we read, "In the last days, God says I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams." But then he goes on in v. 19, "I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below. Blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood..." Peter says this was fulfilled at Pentecost in the coming of the Holy Spirit. There are other examples but these make the point clear. Whenever a Hebrew wants to tell you that God is radically involved with events in time, the heavens and heavenly bodies participate.
Here in Matt. 24 Jesus is saying that Israel is going out as the light of God in the world. He was going to close shop and abandon the temple for good, and destroy it not leaving one stone upon another. This was radical judgment, and the heavens speak their peace. This is apocalyptic language so common to the Jews, but so foreign to us. In verse 30 He says, "The sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of the sky with power and great glory." This sounds like it has to refer to the second coming. How could this possibly apply to the fall of Jerusalem? It is our limited understanding of biblical language that leads to all the problems and complex theories. If we just take Jesus at His word, and take Him literally, this all fits into a very simple message that is fulfilled in 70 A. D.
If you say Jesus could not have come in the clouds in power and glory in 70 A. D., then you are really going to have a tough time with Matt. 16:27 where Jesus says, "For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father's glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what He has done." That has to be the second coming at the end of history, does it not? Not so, for Jesus says in verse 28, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." This coming He speaks of is not a far off event, but one in the lifetime of those who heard Him.
Let's try to see history from the point of view of Jesus. He has rejected those who have rejected Him. The temple is to be abandoned and destroyed, and the light of God's glory will be shifted to Him as the new temple of God. The nation of Israel will be severely judged for all the unjust blood of history, and will no longer represent God's people in the world. He and His followers will be the new people of God, and the light of the world. So when God comes in judgment and the temple is wiped out in 70 A. D., what is to follow? Naturally, it is the kingdom of Christ. Jesus pictures the destruction of the old and the beginning of the new world order where He is king, and His kingdom is to spread into all the world. So in verse 31 we see the going into all the world to gather His elect that will make up His kingdom that will be forever. Christ's angels and His messengers on earth are linked everywhere in the Bible. Here they bring in the great harvest from the seed of the Gospel.
I use to struggle with these words of Jesus, as do most Christians. How can He say He will come again in power and great glory, and then not do it? But then I discovered the apocalyptic literature of Israel and realized that Jesus really could have come in 70 A. D. as He said, and all of this could be literally fulfilled in that generation. This whole scene in verses 29-31 is the judgment of God's wrath and the Gospel of His love in apocalyptic language. He judged Israel severely and all heaven went black. But then God comes in mercy, and with love, and then the sinful world mourns in repentance at the sight of the crucified Christ coming as King, and they are received into the kingdom. Judgment and grace is what you have here, just as you have it all through the Bible.
Jesus says in verse 30 that the nations of the earth will mourn when they see the sign of the Son of Man. This mourning I always pushed off to the final coming of Christ, and I never dreamed it could have been fulfilled in 70 A. D. but if you look at Scripture and logic, all the evidence points to that time. First of all, when people saw that what He said was coming to pass they would realize their folly and rejecting Him, and mourn in grief or repentance. In Rev. 1:7 John writes, "Look He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of Him." How can John tell us to look if it is a coming in the far future, and not one that can be seen by the readers in the first century and every century since.
We don't have time to look at the many comings of Christ. There is only one final and glorious coming of Christ to end history, but there are many comings in judgment, conversion, and death, to name the major ones. The Bible calls these comings by the same term as the Second Coming. So what I am saying is that we should not write off the reality of His coming in 70 A. D., for it fits perfectly what He said would happen.
In Zech. 12:10 we read, "They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child." Commentators says this points to the first coming of Christ where even at the cross some beat their breast in grief recognizing they had made a big mistake. How much more would this be so after the judgment on Jerusalem? You do not have to push this to the end of history. In 70 A. D. all of this could take place literally with some of the actual people who pierced Jesus seeing Him come to power, and His kingdom ascending as theirs lay in the ashes.
Our problem with seeing all this take place in that generation is because we do not think in apocalyptic images like the Jews. When Isaiah says in Isa. 19:1, "See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt," the Jews did not look up expecting to see God riding on a fast moving cloud. It was a word picture, and the Bible is full of them. But for us it is like saying, "See, the 747 up in the clouds," and we expect to be able to look up and see it, and that is how we also see this phrase, "See the Lord in the clouds." We have a hard time thinking in pictures that appeal to the imagination. We think in concepts which appeal to the intellect. When we are told that He is coming in the clouds, we expect to look up and see Him. The Jews would be able to say that they see that He has come in glory, and that He reigns.
Jesus prophesied there would be men alive who heard Him, and who would see Him come in His kingdom. Either Jesus blew it, or we blow it by not seeing that He did so come. He put Judaism out of business officially in destroying the temple, and His new temple, the church, began to be built up rapidly. They saw Jesus come in power and glory. Edersheim in his famous Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah tells us the Jewish conviction about the Roman Empire being the last world Empire that was to be followed by the reign of Messiah. That is precisely what happened, even though the Jews never dreamed it would be with a new people of God composed of both Jews and Gentiles. He says the language of Matt. 24 shows that the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of Christ are linked. Jesus obviously did this on purpose, for as Edersheim says, the whole motivation of the church to watch and be in a state of hopeful expectancy would have been lost had He said His coming would not be for centuries after the fall of the temple.
The point is, Jesus really did come in some way then, and He really does come in judgment, in conversion, and at death, all through history. All the nearness passages are relevant to every generation of Christians just as they were to the first generation. Everything Jesus taught He meant for His disciples to take seriously, and He meant it to be taken seriously by every Christian all through time. One generation will see the final fulfillment of this message when the Gospel has gone into all the world. Edersheim says this is really the only sign of the end of the present age.
This interpretation that I have shared with you is the simplest of all the interpretations. It makes the teaching of Jesus fit the people He is talking to, and it opens the door to some exciting biblical teaching on the many comings of Christ that we seldom to never see because we assume there is only the one final coming.