The Great Tribulation of Matthew 24 is not an End Time Prophecy

Chapter 15

Matthew 24

(1) And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple; and his disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple. (2) And Jesus said to them, Do you not see all these things? truly I say to you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. (3) And as he sat on the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world? (4) And Jesus answered and said to them, Take heed that no man deceive you. (5) For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. (6) And you shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you be not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. (7) For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. (8) All these are the beginning of sorrows. (9) Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you; and you shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. (10) And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. (11) And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. (12) And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. (13) But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved. (14) And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then shall the end come. (15) When you therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoever reads, let him understand;) (16) Then let them which be in Judea flee to the mountains; (17) Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house; (18) Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. (19) And woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! (20) But pray you that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day; (21) For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. (22) And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved; but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened. (23) Then if any man shall say to you, Look, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. (24) For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect. (25) Behold, I have told you before. (26) Wherefore if they shall say to you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth; behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. (27) For as the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even to the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (28) For wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together. (29) Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken; (30) And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (31) And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (32) Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is nigh; (33) So likewise you, when you shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. (34) Verily I say to you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. (35) Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. (36) But of that day and hour knows no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. (37) But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (38) For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, (39) and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (40) Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. (41) Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. (42) Watch therefore; for you know not what hour your Lord doth come. (43) But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. (44) Therefore be you also ready; for in such an hour as you think not the Son of man comes. (45) Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? (46) Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he comes shall find so doing. (47) Verily I say to you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. (48) But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delays his coming; (49) And shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; (50) The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, (51) And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There is great difficulty in "rightly dividing" this passage. The reality of the difficulty does not mean that parts of it cannot be understood, while other parts wait for fulfillment to properly understand the eternality that may be involved. If we make mistakes in interpreting the passage let it be on the side of caution. There are portions that would clearly have been understood by the apostles and early Christians which were fulfilled in their lifetimes, while the events that coincide with the second coming will have to happen before they are clear.

For instance verse (34), Verily I say to you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled, has been a problem to many for satisfactory interpretation. A solution proposed based on the words "these things" may have merit. Jesus said, "do you see all these things?" He referred to the temple and Jerusalem. They said, "When will these things happen?" They also meant the temple's destruction; then, after that, they asked the question about the second coming. In verse 33 Jesus said, "When you see all these things then know that the end is near." The end of what? Why, the end of these things. So far these things has referred to Jerusalem and the temple. Thus, in verse 34 when Jesus said, "This generation shall not pass away until all these things are fulfilled," He no doubt still meant the same these things. And that generation did not pass away until all these things concerning the temple and Jerusalem were fulfilled!

Some have insisted that everything in chapter 24 was fulfilled in the lifetime of those hearing Jesus. This is simply impossible to accept, for if accepted would leave doubts forever in the reader's mind. Others solve the problem by noting that the word translated "generation" in Greek is "genos," which may mean "race" or "ethnic group." Thus to them the passage says that the Jews will always exist until the second coming. This is a clever interpretation, but we will not know if it is correct until the Lord comes or the nation of the Jews disappears. Seeing this verse as part mystery, that we will not completely solve, does not stop us from arriving at some absolute conclusions on the major portion of the chapter, which speaks of the destruction of the temple buildings.

A major fact that is clearly understandable is that Jesus was answering three questions, (which may actually be only two), as a result of his saying that the temple buildings would be destroyed. He said, concerning the buildings of the temple, that there would not be one stone of them left standing. In response the disciples asked:

1. "When shall these things be?" If this question did not refer to the destruction of the temple, fulfilled in 70 A.D. then there is no hope of understanding any words in any literature at all.

2. "What is the sign of your coming?"

3. "and of the end of the world?" These last two seem, to me, to be the same question. There seems to be little doubt that the disciples asked questions that extend much further than 70 A.D. Therefore the answers of Jesus in Matthew 24 must refer to these questions. But this is not so in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, where only the destruction of Jerusalem is asked about.

If we can use hindsight to clearly apply those things in the passage, in Matthew, to the first question about the destruction of the temple, which has happened historically, then it is not evasiveness to allow the rest of the prophetic events to be cleared up in the fulfillment. If much material refers to the second coming, as it certainly appears to, then only that event will clear it up.

On the other hand, there is no doubt about the events surrounding the destruction of the temple. They have already happened and have been documented. It seems clear to me that the verses from four to twenty eight are exclusively applied to that event and a historical fulfillment is able to be seen in the actual events that match the prophecy perfectly.

1. Jesus gave admonitions to those waiting for the destruction of the temple and the city; and as parallel passages show, many coming would claim to be the Messiah and deceive many, not few. A series of events brought on by a rebellion of Zealot groups in Galilee led to the Jewish Wars of 66 to 70 A.D. When Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman armies it resulted in Jerusalem being divided internally by at least three Jewish factions, all of which were led by men claiming to be the Messiah. Josephus, at great length, describes the Zealot capture of the temple area. He describes the main participants who had messianic aspirations: John of Gishala, Bar Giora, Simon the Idumean and others who gained control of portions of the city; there was great confusion in the city. Civil war was inside and the Roman armies outside.

2. Josephus says that while the Romans surrounded the city and kept it under siege, more people were killed by factional fighting inside the city than the Romans killed in combat. It is said that Titus offered amnesty to anyone who would flee the city but that the factions striving for mastery prevented anyone falling away to the Romans upon threat of death. Those who fled the city had their bellies cut open by Syrians and Idumeans who sought the gold that those in flight may have swallowed to conceal. Those who died or were killed within the city were thrown over the walls. When their dead bodies filled huge areas of ravines and trenches, Titus is said to have lifted his hands to heaven and called upon God as witness that he had not caused such extremities.* The admonition of Jesus to flee to the mountains is understandable and was heeded. The Christians were certainly forewarned of this terrible event.

* Josephus; Book V, XII, 4.
This same event, about which the disciples questioned Jesus, is made clearer in Luke 21, where it is evident that only the first question about the destruction of Jerusalem is being asked and answered. It is not a second coming passage.

(Luke 21:6) As for these things which you see, the days will come, in which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. (7) And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass? ... (20) [Jesus said,] when you shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is near. (21) Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter into it. (22) For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. (23) But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. (24) And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

In the passage above, even though it is obvious that Jesus tells of things which reach beyond the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., it is that event that he speaks of and the rest result from that destruction. The parallel passage in Mark is also related to only one question, and that is about when the buildings of the temple will be thrown down.

(Mark 13:1) And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples said unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! (2) And Jesus answering said unto him, Do you see these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. (3) And as he sat on the mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, (4) Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?

Jesus gives similar warnings to them about false Christs being associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and that they themselves would be persecuted. And He refers to the abomination of desolation in Daniel 9 which Luke clearly predicts as the [Roman] armies surrounding Jerusalem. He also describes the time of trouble or "great tribulation" as Matthew calls it. Continuing in Mark 13:

(Mark 13:14) But when you shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that reads understand,) then let them that be in Judea flee to the mountains; (15) And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter to take any thing out of his house; (16) And let him that is in the field not turn back again to take up his garment. (17) But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! (18) And pray that your flight be not in the winter. (19) For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.

It does not take an expert to know that these verses were clearly fulfilled in 70 A.D. with the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem. A reading of Josephus' Wars of the Jews, Books V and VI, will give a picture of the extremities which befell the Jews who fled into Jerusalem pursued by Roman armies. Vespasian was sent by Nero to put down the rebellion of Jews. As he captured city after city in Galilee and Judea the populace fled to Jerusalem, already crowded by the pilgrims who had come to keep the passover. The city was overcrowded and the siege was then laid. More people died of the famine and disease than from arms, and more people died from civil war in the city than from Roman arms. Vespasian returned to Rome to become the emperor. He left his son Titus to continue the siege. Men would leave the city at night to attack and forage for food. Titus captured the foragers and crucified them. Josephus recorded that the hills around Jerusalem were crowded with crucified victims and in a description, which may or may not be a hyperbole, says they only stopped the crucifixions because they ran out of wood!

Being forewarned the Christians were able to see the times and seasons and actually did depart from the city before these extremities began.

"Jerusalem was taken in the autumn of 70 A.D. Before its fall the Christians had left the doomed city. While the greater part retired beyond the Jordan and founded Christian colonies at Pella and the neighborhood, the principle leaders of the church -- the surviving apostles and other personal disciples of the Lord -- sought a new home in proconsular Asia. Henceforward we find the headquarters of Christendom no more at Jerusalem, nor even at Antioch but, (for the time at least) in Ephesus. Here John fixed his abode after his temporary banishment in Patmos."*
* Lightfoot, J.B.; Translated and edited; Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp; first published 1889; Pub. Hendrickson; Vol. 1, pg. 438.
At the beginning of the siege the city was already crowded because of foreign Jews who had arrived to keep the passover. Thus with the retreating Galileans and Judeans the initial population at the time of the beginning of the siege is estimated to have been three million souls. Josephus estimates two million seven hundred fifty thousand would account for the number of passover participants alone. During and at the conclusion of the siege multitudes were sold as slaves into the Egyptian mines; multitudes more sent to the provinces to die in the arenas. But only 97,000 people were taken captive. Concerning the number who died in the siege Josephus says:

"The number of those that perished during the whole siege [was] one million, one hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were of the same nation but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread and were of a sudden shut up by an army which at the first, occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them and soon afterward such a famine as destroyed them more suddenly... The multitude of them who therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God brought on the world." *
* Josephus; Book VI, IX: 3, 4.
Men were found hiding in the subterranean chambers which abound under Jerusalem and were sealed in by their thousands and thus perished. The last Zealots who fled to Masada left a legacy of mindless zeal known to all. They committed mass suicide a few years later.

The worst part of the siege, which lasted a little over a year and resulted in the destruction of the city even to the removing of the walls, resulted also in the systematic removal of the temple, stone by stone. This, because the gold which adorned the interior, melted by the conflagration, had run between the joints of the stones. The Roman armies, according to Josephus, dismantled the temple to retrieve the gold. There may be more remains of those stones but all this author has heard of is one stone, positively identified, remaining from the temple and that is in the Rockefeller Museum at Jerusalem. It appears that there are not two stones remaining that could be replaced one on top of the other.

Thus was the temple and Jerusalem destroyed. Jerusalem was razed, and would remain a desolation until Hadrian attempted to rebuild it, and a temple to Jupiter on the temple mount, which resulted in the rebellion under Bar Cochbah in A.D. 135.*

* Dio: LXIX, 12:1.The Years A.D. 68 to 70 Were Eventful. Jesus Predicted that Persecutions and Calamities in Nature and Governments would be Associated with the Trouble in Judea.

Five different emperors of Rome would wear the Imperial crown during the time of the Jewish war, which gives some indication of the political chaos of the period of less than three years: they would be Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. What an eventful period the short time between A.D. 68 to 70 was! Vespasian who had won his fame in Britain,[1] actually stationed at Badbury Rings, was ordered to Palestine[2] to put down the momentary and seemingly successful (to the Jews) claim of independence by the Palestinian false prophets. The war blazed up in A.D. 66 and the Romans were not able to subdue any of the Jews until Vespasian arrived in 68.[3] Thus, there were more than three years of independence in which new coins were minted up to year three of the new order.[4] But the rebellion of the Jews was to fail and the war by the Romans make real progress by A.D. 68, (Galilee fell, Josephus was captured and defected to the Romans). At the same time the apostles Peter[5] and Paul[6] were put to death; the only traditions we have say one was beheaded and the other crucified upside down during Nero's last days, which included earthquakes and the burning of Rome and the first major general persecution of the church in which many Christians died in many cities.[7] Shortly, Nero's excesses were consummated--he killed at whim all whom he would, was profligate in every way, sodomized his half-brother and killed him, debauched his sister, actually legally married two men and cohabited openly with them, had his games held at night lighted by humans daubed with pitch and set alight; he murdered his own mother, Agrippina, and then voyeuristically examined her corpse, and was finally rejected and belatedly committed suicide.[8] Galba assumed the Imperial crown, while Vespasian closed the gap on Jerusalem to secure the siege, and according to Dio, held back on committing his troups until he saw how all would go in Rome.[9] It was at this time, when Vespasian withdrew from the city, that the Christians left the city bound for Pella. This also gave time for the factions to kill each other inside the city as they fought for supremacy. Some months later Galba was attacked by Vitellius whose armies proclaimed him emperor in Germany.[10] During this civil war, Otho, friend of Nero, arose and assassinated Galba nine months after he had become emperor and Otho paraded his head on a pole around Rome and to the senate where he was voted emperor by the cowed senators.[11] Vitellius marched on Rome and won singular battles causing Otho to commit suicide three months after his murder of Galba.[12] Tactius calls the civil wars associated with Galba and Vitellius, "a world wide upheaval,"[13] because of the conflicts on sea as well as land. When Vespasian heard Vitellius was emperor he made his move on Rome by way of Alexandria, where he waited while his friends won his crown.[14] He had left Titus who then laid the siege against Jerusalem in greater earnest. Amnesties were continually offered by Titus during the interval just mentioned, and would be offered again by a merciful but conquering Titus, but not as often nor as sincerely. Before Vespasian arrived at Rome a few battles were fought and lost by Vitellius' armies. He himself was living a profligate lifestyle in Rome. Domitian, brother of Titus, was making a place for himself and would have overthrown his father Vespasian if he could, (it would later be said he poisoned his brother Titus to become emperor). Over 50,000 died in the city of Rome itself when Vitellius was rejected and abused by the Roman population.[15] He was publicly beheaded and his head paraded through the city, having worn the Imperial crown just a little less than a year. Vespasian became emperor and Jerusalem was overthrown with a flood of blood.[16] Titus came to Rome to celebrate the Triumph with Vespasian his father.[17] John Bar Giora, perhaps the major one of several false Messiahs, was taken alive to Rome and put to death during the Triumph. [18]

{1} Dio: Book LXIV, 8:3.
[2] Dio: Book LXIII, 1.
[3] Eusebius: Book 2, 26:2.
[4] Comway, Joan; The Temple of Jerusalem; Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1975. For pictures of coins struck by the independent Jewish state after A.D. 67, see pg. 181.
[5] Foxe, John, edited William Forbush: Fox's Book of Martyrs; Holt, Rinehart, Co., 1926; first published 1547. Fox cites Hegesippus, and Jerome for his information. Pg. 4.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. pg, 6.
[8] Suetonius; VI, 49.
[9] Dio: LXIV, 8:3
[10] Dio: LXIII, 5-7.
[11] Dio: ibid.
[12] . Dio: LXIII, 10-15.
[13] Tacitus: The Histories; Book 2:16.
[14] Suetonius: X, 7-8.
[15] Dio: Book LXIV, 20:1,2.
[16] Josephus: Wars of the Jews; Books V and VI.
[17] Dio: Book LXV, 13:1.
[18] Dio: LXV, 7:1.

There has not been from the foundation of Babylon of old to this day a more horrible destruction. No other city has ever lost over one million people, dead in a single siege! Dio says over 540,000 Jews died directly from battle and the people who died as a result of famine and disease and internal disorder were uncountable. Eusebius gives the same number as Josephus, or 1,100,000 total dead in the siege.*

* Josephus: Wars of the Jews; Book VI, 9:3; Eusebius: Book 3, 5:1-4.
Thus are fulfilled the words of Jesus that there would be great tribulation of these proportions associated with the destruction of Jerusalem as well as nations rising against nation. Incredibly, the Christians were able to save themselves and flee the city, on the basis of faith in this prophecy. Eusebius said a prophet warned them of the time.*
Eusebius: Book III, 5:4.
"The members of the Jerusalem church by means of an oracle, given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the city before the war began and settle in a town in Peraea called Pella."

The people of that day believed Jesus' prophecy and warning. How strange it is for people of this generation to forget this faith-building verification of Jesus' knowledge of the future, and to trust in fables.

This passage is much abused by futurist interpreters who assign this tribulation to an event they think will happen, almost unbelievably, when the church will have no fear of it. According to them it starts three and a half years after the rapture and will continue through the short reign of the supposed future antichrist! This same school of thought also misuses the seventy week prophecy of Daniel 9 as we have shown in our comments on that chapter. The great tribulation of Matthew 24 is not an "end time" prophecy! It was marvelously fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem which is clearly seen to have been predicted in the passages quoted from the synoptic gospels above. If the great tribulation is actually fulfilled in those events of 68 to 70 A.D. then the doctrine of "a pretribulation rapture" is fantasy with no scriptural substance to support it. Eusebius also adds the comments that show that the general view, at his time, in the fourth century church, was that these events fulfilled the prophecy given by Jesus in Matthew 24.* What an eventful three years those of A.D. 68 to 70 were!

* Eusebius; Book 3, 7:1-3

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