Not just one; not just two; but three “great” tribulations are found in the Bible. Examine them in Matthew 24, Revelation 2 and Revelation 7. These three texts predict three distinct times of suffering.
The New Testament teaches that from the first century to the end of time, Christians can expect to suffer tribulation (see Insight #20, “Which Tribulation?”). Of all the different tribulations mentioned in the N.T., three are termed “great.” Each one must be studied in its own context.
THE FIRST “GREAT” TRIBULATION
The best known of the three is Matthew 24. Some students would try to push this entire chapter into our future. Others would try to push it all into our past. But many of us believe that neither extreme satisfies the demands of the text. Although opinions may differ as to exactly where the topic changes from 70 A.D. to the end of time, it nevertheless seems clear to many Bible students that the chapter addresses both periods of time.
The context of Matthew 24 simply does not allow us to ignore the events surrounding 70 A.D. Notice this order of events. First, the disciples showed Jesus the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Second, Jesus shocked them by exclaiming, “not one stone shall be left here upon another.” Third, the disciples asked Jesus when it would happen. Fourth, Jesus answered them. Fifth, forty years later, (70 A.D.), Jesus’ prediction about the stones was literally fulfilled.
Any acceptable interpretation of Matthew 24 must begin with these five facts. The first, second and fifth are often totally ignored. However, it is impossible to understand the third point without the first two. Moreover, misunderstanding is more likely if one ignores the parallel passages in Mark and Luke.
Just like many other Gospel accounts, Mark 13 and Luke 21 are parallel passages to Matthew 24, thus giving us three versions of the following:
1) Jesus’ remark about the stones,
2) the disciples’ questions about His remark, and
3) Jesus’ reply to their questions.
Jesus said, “not one stone shall be left here upon another.” The disciples then asked, “When will these things be?” It is noteworthy that in both Mark and Luke, there is no record of the disciples asking Jesus about His coming or about the end of the age. In Mark they ask, “When will these things be? And what [will] [be] the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?” The account in Luke is almost identical to Mark.
Thus, only one Gospel records the questions about Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. (Whatever the disciples may have had in mind with these terms–we can only guess.) But all three Gospels record the question “When will these things be” (of one stone not remaining upon another)? It must therefore be concluded that the central issue was the total destruction of the temple then standing. In verses 15 and 16 (of Matthew 24), Jesus specifically refers to “the holy place” and Judea. In verse 16, He tells believers in Judea to “flee.” In verse 20 He is still talking about “your flight.” Verse 21 begins with the important word “for.” That is, Jesus is now ready to tell them the reason for fleeing. “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.”
Jesus is saying that there is going to be great tribulation in Judea when “the abomination of desolation” stands in “the holy place.” Mark 13:14-19 reads almost identically to Matthew 24:15-21. However, the parallel verses in Luke 21 (verses 20-24) contain several important differences. Instead of the words “great tribulation” we find “days of vengeance,” “great distress in the land and wrath upon this people,” and “Jerusalem will be trampled.” Jesus spelled out the reason for the coming suffering: “Days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.” It is a matter of God’s vengeance upon Israel for rejecting the Messiah.
In summary, the “great tribulation (distress)” of Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 is now past history. It all took place before and during the year 70 A.D. In 30 A.D. the temple veil was rent in two. In 70 A.D. not one stone was left standing upon another.
“Has Not Been… Nor Shall Ever Be”
What about the words “great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be”? Many believe that these words could not refer to 70 A.D. However, it is essential to good Bible interpretation to keep these words in context. We have already seen that the context is the temple that Jesus and the disciples had been looking at. These words must somehow be connected to the destruction of that temple.
Some see in the expression “never before and never again” a Jewish proverbial expression. For example, two kings who really followed God in Judah were Hezekiah and Josiah. Of Hezekiah it is said, “He trusted in the LORD God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5). Just five chapters later, the sacred writer speaks of Josiah. “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did [any] arise like him” (2 Kings 23:25). Thus, “never before… never after” in this case is a figure of speech called hyperbole (an exaggerated statement to emphasize a point). For a parallel example in modern English, how many times have you said, “I never saw anything like it”? On other occasions Jesus unquestionably used hyperbole, in such remarks as “a plank is in your own eye.” Thus, hyperbole cannot be ruled out.
Others, however, prefer a different approach. They point out that whenever something is called “the greatest,” we must ask “greatest in what respect?” In magnitude? In duration? In nature?
We may legitimately ask in what way was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. the “greatest” of all tribulations. There are several possibilities. First, keep in mind that this is not discussing a world war. It is talking about one city. The greatest tribulation for one city. Compare Hiroshima where about 75,000 were killed by the atomic bomb in 1945. Horrible! However, in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. over 1,000,000 died! Secondly, keep in mind that there was more than physical tribulation involved. The war of 70 A.D. once and for all destroyed what had been God’s dwelling place on earth. It brought a complete end to the whole Mosaic system. The Jewish religion has never been the same since. Thirdly, the tribulation that the Jews suffered was not just from the enemy Romans; they suffered even worse at the hands of their very own countrymen.
You may be able to think of other ways in which there never was anything like the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Whatever ideas you come up with, they must refer to the temple which Jesus and the apostles were looking at.
Josephus Records It
We are indebted to Flavius Josephus for a very detailed eyewitness account that dramatically documents the fulfillment of Jesus’ and Daniel’s prophecies. (For information on the man Josephus, as well as several quotes not included below, look in Insight #27, “Not One Stone Upon Another,” starting at the subtitle “The Siege of Jerusalem.”)
John Chrysostom, famed fourth-century preacher of Antioch in Syria, certainly had a better grasp on Matthew 24 than most preachers today. He believed that the chapter dealt with both Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as well as with the Second Coming of Christ. Note a small portion of what he wrote.
” ‘Pray ye,’ saith He; ‘for then shall be tribulation, such as never was, neither shall be.’ And let not any man suppose this to have been spoken hyperbolically; but let him study the writings of Josephus, and learn the truth of the sayings. For neither can anyone say, that the man being a believer, in order to establish Christ’s words, hath exaggerated the tragical history. For indeed he was both a Jew, and a determined Jew, and very zealous, and among them that lived after Christ’s coming. What then saith this man? That those terrors surpassed all tragedy, and that no such had ever overtaken the nation” (“Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” Homily 76).
Josephus wrote: “Accordingly, it appears to me that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews are not so considerable as they were” (“History of the Jewish Wars,” preface, paragraph 4).
Again: “O most wretched city, what misery so great as this didst thou suffer from the Romans, when they came to purify thee from thy intestine hatred! For thou couldst be no longer a place fit for God” (“Wars,” book 5, chapter 1, paragraph 3).
Jew Against Jew
There were three factions of Jews in the city fighting against each other, that of Eleazar, of John and of Simon. Both John and Simon, as they fought each other “set on fire those houses that were full of corn and all other provisions” thus “destroying what the city had laid up against the siege.” “Almost all the corn was burnt, which would have been sufficient for a siege of many years” (“Wars,” book 5, chapter 1, paragraph 4).
Josephus continues: “And now, as the city was engaged in a war on all sides, from these treacherous crowds of wicked men [the 3 factions], the people of the city, between them, were like a great body torn in pieces. The aged men and the women were in such distress by their internal calamities, that they wished for the Romans, and earnestly hoped for an external war, in order to their delivery from their domestical miseries” (book 5, chapter 1, paragraph 5).
The Siege Begins
“While these factions fought one against another, the people were their prey on both sides… Simon held the upper city… John held the temple… and fought it out, and did everything that the besiegers could desire them to do; for they never suffered any thing that was worse from the Romans than they made each other suffer… those that took it [Jerusalem] did it a greater kindness for I venture to affirm that the sedition destroyed the city, and the Romans destroyed the sedition” (book 5, chapter 6, paragraph 1).
“But the famine was too hard for all other passions… insomuch that children pulled the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their very mouths… the seditious… when they saw any house shut up, this was to them a signal that the people within had gotten some food; whereupon they broke open the doors, and ran in, and took pieces of what they were eating almost up out of their very throats, and this by force: the old men, who held their food fast, were beaten” (book 5, chapter 10, paragraph 3).
Josephus continues: “I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly:–That neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world” (book 5, chapter 10, paragraph 5).
The Roman soldiers began to capture escapees and crucify them–500 a day! The area outside the walls became filled with crosses. “Their multitude was so great that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies” (book 5, chapter 11, paragraph 1).
“The upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine, and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged” (book 5, chapter 12, paragraph 3).
“There was found among the Syrian deserters a certain person who was caught gathering pieces of gold out of the excrements of the Jews’ bellies; for the deserters used to swallow such pieces of gold… So the multitude of the Arabians, with the Syrians, cut up those that came as supplicants, and searched their bellies” (book 5, chapter 13, paragraph 4).
“No fewer than 600,000 were thrown out at the gates… when they were no longer able to carry out the dead bodies of the poor, they laid their corpses on heaps in very large houses, and shut them up therein… some persons were driven to that terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there” (book 5, chapter 13, paragraph 7).
“I am going to relate a matter of fact, the like to which no history relates either among the Greeks or Barbarians! It is horrible to speak of it, and incredible when heard… There was a certain woman that dwelt beyond Jordan, her name was Mary; her father was Eleazar… and it was now become impossible for her any way to find any more food… she slew her son, and then roasted him, and ate the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed. Upon this the seditious came in presently, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had gotten ready. She replied that she had saved a very fine portion of it for them, and withal uncovered what was left of her son. Hereupon they were seized with a horror… and those already dead were esteemed happy, because they had not lived long enough either to hear or to see such miseries” (book 6, chapter 3, paragraphs 3,4). If you are not acquainted with Deuteronomy 28:52-57, it is a “must read”!
“Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be 97,000; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege 1,100,000, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army… Accordingly, the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world… And now the Romans set fire to the extreme parts of the city, and burnt them down, and entirely demolished its walls” (book 6, chapter 9, paragraphs 3,4)
“Great tribulation.” “Not one stone shall be left here upon another.” History has spoken. Jesus’ words are vindicated. The fulfillment of Daniel’s and Jesus’ predictions offers a solid foundation for faith. The first “great tribulation” is an accomplished fact.
THE SECOND “GREAT” TRIBULATION
The second “great” tribulation is predicted in Revelation 7:14. It is impossible to combine the “great tribulation” of Matthew 24 with the “great tribulation” of Revelation 7. They have totally different scenarios.
Here are some highlights of Revelation 7:9-14: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes… saying, ‘Salvation [belongs] to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’… Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ And I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ”
Two differences stand out. First, in Matthew 24 Jews suffer the tribulation. In Revelation 7, Gentiles (people from all the nations of the world) suffer it. Second, in Matthew 24, those who suffer the tribulation are those who do not believe Jesus’ words to flee. They are unbelieving Jews. In Revelation 7, those who suffered are people who had been cleansed by the blood of Christ. They are believing Gentiles.
Revelation 7 says that they have “come out of the great tribulation.” In context, what can that be? Starting with these verses, we must search backward until we find the answer. The first part of chapter 7 presents no tribulation of any kind. The 6th seal (6:12-17) is certainly a time of tribulation. It tells of the “wrath of the Lamb” upon the kings and slaves alike. However, it offers no indication of repentance for salvation.
Only when we back up to the 5th seal (6:9-11) do we find satisfactory information. Here we find “those who had been slain for the word of God.” Surely a time of tribulation. And what did they wear in 6:11? “A white robe was given to each of them,” just like it says in 7:13,14. What better reply can be found–in context–as to which great tribulation is being spoken of in Revelation 7:14? The tribulation of the saints of the fifth seal, who were killed “for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.”
Those of us who accept the historical interpretation of the book of Revelation find the fulfillment of the 5th seal in the persecution of the early church by the Roman Empire. This persecution culminated in Diocletian’s attempt to blot out Christianity, 303-311 A.D.
Philip Schaff, in his classic “History of the Christian Church,” offers some of the details. “All former persecutions of the faith were forgotten in the horror with which men looked back upon the last and greatest [that of Diocletian]… Christian churches were to be destroyed; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; all Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights; and last of all, without exception, were to sacrifice to the gods upon pain of death… All the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed” (“Ante-Nicene Christianity,” chapter 2, section 24).
Even if one rejects this as the fulfillment of the fifth seal, still the fifth seal is obviously a time of persecution of Christians to the death. The ones who received the white robes were the martyred Christians. After 6:11, those white robes are next mentioned in 7:14 as having been received by “the ones who come out of the great tribulation.”
The tribulation of Matthew 24 had to do with the Jews. It was God’s punishment upon them for their unbelief and rejection of their Messiah. The tribulation of Revelation 7 has to do with Gentiles. It was the martyrdom of Christians perpetrated by unbelievers; but the martyrs are the real victors, given white robes and dwelling in peace with God forever. Two different great tribulations.
THE THIRD “GREAT” TRIBULATION
There is a third text that speaks of “great” tribulation. It is Revelation 2:20-22, in the letter to the church of Thyatira. “Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality… Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.”
This “great tribulation” was to punish a false prophetess in the Lord’s church. Christ warned that if she and her followers did not repent, He would cast them into “great tribulation.” There is no way to fit this into the context of either Matthew 24 or Revelation 7.
As far as I know, there is no record of the fulfillment of this great tribulation. In fact, it is not directly a prophecy, but rather a warning of what would happen “if.” We do not know if there was repentance. We do not know if this tribulation became a reality. Nevertheless, if it did, Jesus, the true author of Revelation, said that it would be “great tribulation.”
“YOU WILL HAVE TRIBULATION”
According to many “prophets” today, the “rapture” is the Christian’s hope, because through the “rapture” he will escape “the great tribulation.” However, not one–but three–“great” tribulations are mentioned in the N.T., and all three now belong to past history. On the other hand, as seen in “Insight” #20, tribulation in general is part and parcel of the Christian life.
According to the Word of God, there is no way to limit tribulation to one yet future seven-year period. According to the Word of God, the church throughout all ages cannot escape tribulation. In John 16:33 Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)