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There is an on-going disagreement among Christians as to the nature and time of the so-called Great Tribulation mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24:21. There he 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” (Matt. 24:21).

Many insist that this “great tribulation” (v. 21a) cannot refer to the events of 70 a.d. when the Romans armies sacked Jerusalem and destroyed both the city and the temple because worse and more severe tribulations have since followed (World War II and the Holocaust, Stalin, Pol Pot’s genocidal campaign in Cambodia, etc.). Let me say several things in response to this objection.

Assuming Jesus is speaking in strictly literal terms, it is unlikely that he is referring to a time of tribulation at the end of the age, because of the phrase “no, and never will be.” In other words, this phrase envisions a time following this tribulation in which other, albeit less severe tribulations, might occur. But if the supposed future tribulation is followed immediately by the millennium or the eternal state, it would be pointless to say that a tribulation of such magnitude will never take place again, for there would be no remaining time to prove the assertion.

Once one grasps the dimensions of what occurred in 70 a.d., one realizes that the savagery, cruelty, and the monstrosities that occurred were beyond comparison. Also, never so high a percentage of one city's population was destroyed. Everyone was either killed or sold into slavery. Approximations are that 1,100,000 people were killed and 100,000 were enslaved.

It may well be, however, that the statement in v. 21 is deliberately hyperbolic, a stock saying for an indescribably horrendous time. In other words, it may be proverbial, designed to emphasize how truly horrible an event it was.

Biblical scholars have long recognized that oracles of judgment are often couched in language that is universal and radical. “Such judgment is often framed in terms of prophetic hyperbole, a common apocalyptic device used by the writers of Scripture” (Gentry, The Great Tribulation, 52). Take a moment and carefully read these texts from the Old Testament and note the verbal parallels with our Lord’s statement in Matthew 24:21. I think you will readily see that Jesus is simply employing the terminology widely known in the ancient world for horrific judgment and intense calamity. Neither those who used these terms in the OT nor Jesus himself ever intended for such language to be pressed in such a way that it precluded the possibility for subsequent periods of equal or even more intense judgment to occur. For example (be careful to note the italicized words):

“There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again” (Exod. 11:6).

“Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now” (Exod. 9:18).

“The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever will be again” (Exod. 10:14; cf. Joel 1:1-4).

“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations” (Joel 2:2).

“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” (a reference to the impending Babylonian Captivity; Ezek. 5:9; cf. Matt. 24:21).

“He has confirmed his words which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem” (Dan. 9:12).

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (Dan. 12:1).

Look also at similar terminology in the following two texts:

“He [Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5).

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).

These texts and this unique phraseology prompt Gary DeMar to make this point:

“In 2 Kings 18:5 it is written of Hezekiah that there would be no king after him who would show the same devotion to the Lord as he showed. When we get an assessment of Josiah’s reign, which follows Hezekiah’s reign, we are informed that ‘there was no king like him who turned to the Lord.’ How can Hezekiah’s reign be the greatest (even considering the reign of a future king like Josiah) and Josiah’s reign be the greatest (even considering the reign of a past king like Hezekiah)? Is this a contradiction? There are no contradictions in the Bible. The phraseology is obviously hyperbolic, emphasizing complete devotion to the Lord and His law” (Gary Demar, Last Days Madness, 110. Cf. also 1 Kings 3:12 with Matt. 12:42).

My conclusion, then, is that the statement in Matthew 24:21 cannot be used to argue that the “great tribulation” is a future event. I remain convinced that it is an event of past history, descriptive of that horrific siege on Jerusalem in 66-70 a.d. that resulted in the destruction of the city and the burning to the ground of the temple.

Having said that, there can be no denial of the fact that still to come is “great tribulation” for the church of Jesus Christ. It won’t necessarily be a mere seven years in length. It may be longer. It may be shorter. But the allied forces of the Beast of Revelation will undoubtedly launch a global assault to oppress and, if possible, to extinguish the church of Jesus Christ from the face of the earth. But we live with the rock-solid assurance and hope that Jesus will sustain his people and return to destroy his enemies and redeem and resurrect his precious Bride, the church of Jesus Christ.

1 Comment

We are hearing almost daily about the coming 7 year "great tribulation, and this verse is used to prove it. Thank you for this explanation of the Savior's words.

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