Do we need to fear the Great Tribulation in our lifetime? Preterists today say No. Preterists believe that Jesus’ Olivet Discourse Prophecy found in Matthew 24 (cf. Mk. 13) & Luke 21 was fulfilled with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. In fact, they teach that almost the entirety of biblical eschatology was fulfilled in the first century, but this is not a necessary corollary. Many in the early Church, while expecting a future Antichrist and tribulation period, believed these specific prophecies were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem (although there are contrary views). Even Preterism’s arch-rivals, Dispensational Futurists, often agree that in some sense some of these prophecies were fulfilled then (usually relying on Luke 21 only).
This issue is not just important for eschatology but for apologetics. Many atheists and other anti-Christians will point to Jesus’ prophecy of His coming in these passages and say that He must be a false prophet because it did not happen. Popular responses are seen as hermeneutical gymnastics, ad hoc responses to a critical problem. In fact, virtually the same argument is used by Christians against Mormons with respect to their prophet Joseph Smith’s failed prophecy of the Missouri Temple.
Below is presented a commentary on this Olivet Discourse, where Jesus Christ informs the disciples on this very topic. Read and consider what you think when we compare history (not newspapers) and Scripture (not end-time novels) to the words of Christ.
To establish context, let us see who Christ is speaking of and how He describes them, for it will be very important at the end.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ “Consequently you bear witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. “Fill up then the measure of the guilt of your fathers. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?“Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. “Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! “For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” – Matthew 23:29-39
Clearly this is a curse on Jerusalem, her children (the unbelieving Jews), and her house (the temple). Jerusalem is pronounced guilty of all the blood of the martyrs – read Revelation 17-18 to see why this description is important. Notice also that Christ proclaims judgment on THAT generation. This establishes the usage later for it is in the direct context of this speech that the following one is made.
Many prophecy experts today posit a “rebuilt” temple to fulfill the Olivet prophecy, but notice which temple is in mind when Jesus begins His discourse:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God, his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.“Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
Were the apostles looking 2,000 years into the future? Has Christ gone forward in time in order to exit a futuristic temple? Of course not. It was the first century temple that formed the substance of the following question:
But Jesus said, “Do you see all these great buildings… all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, as for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.“
Next we come to the disciple’s question(s) regarding this pronouncement. Pay careful attention to what they ask, for it is the answer to these questions that Christ seems to be answering in the discourse (His second longest) that follows.
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the temple, the disciples Peter, James, John and Andrew came to him privately. “Teacher,” they asked, “Tell us, when will this (these things) happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age…that they are all about to be fulfilled …that they are about to take place?”
There are at least two separate events referred to, three at most:
1. When will the temple they were looking at be destroyed?
2. What will be the sign of Your coming
3. and (what will be the sign) of the end of the age.
Some see the last two questions as referring to the same event. In any case we can at least see two major divisions: When? and What? Therefore we should place time answers in one category and sign answers in another. Notice also who He says will see these things:
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he (the Christ),’ and, ‘The time is near.’ and will deceive many. Do not follow them. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars and revolutions, but see to it that you are not alarmed, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and great earthquakes and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
The Birth Pains
There are six parts to this reply. Collectively they are known as “the beginning of birth pains.” The birth of what? The age to come (notice the reference to the “end of the age”, if one age ends another must begin). They include:
1. false Christs
2. wars and rumors of wars (“nation rising against nation” also means “tribe against tribe”)
6. signs from heaven
Note that every event above is a “sign” answer, but each is negative – these would come but the end was not yet. Christ specifically mentions this so as not to confuse the disciples about what was to follow. In other words, He had not yet answered their question. Notice also that it seems that it is the disciples who were going to see and hear these things. That they did is a matter of history (see below), so why do people continue today to look for their “fulfillment” almost 2,000 years later?
First century Judea was a breeding ground for false messiahs, in fact it was largely due to these charlatans that Judea came under Rome’s disapproval and eventually set the whole of Jerusalem against itself. Josephus clearly records these false messiahs, their names and activities. Consider the following record:
- (A.D. 35) within one year after our Lord’s ascension, rose Dositheus the Samaritan, who had the boldness to assert that he was the Messiah. . . while his disciple Simon Magus deluded multitudes into a belief that he, himself, was the “GREAT POWER”
- (A.D. 38). . . three years afterward another Samaritan impostor appeared, and declared that he would shew the people the sacred utensils, said to have been deposited by Moses, in mount Gerizim. Induced by an idea that the Messiah, their great deliverer, was now come, an armed multitude assembled under him, but Pilate speedily defeated them, and slew their chief.
- While Cuspius Fadus was procurator in Judea, another deceiver arose, whose name was Theudas. This man actually succeeded so far as to persuade a very great multitude to take their effects and follow him to Jordan, assuring them, that the river would divide at his command.
- Under the government of Felix, deceivers rose up daily in Judea, and persuaded the people to follow them into the wilderness, assuring them that they should there behold conspicuous signs and wonders performed by the ALMIGHTY.
- (A.D. 55) About this period arose Felix the celebrated Egyptian impostor, who collected thirty-thousand followers, and persuaded them to accompany him to the Mount of Olives, telling, them that from thence they should see the walls of Jerusalem fall down at his command, as, a prelude to the capture of the Roman garrison, and to their obtaining the sovereignty of the city.
- (A.D.60) In the time of Porcius Festus, another distinguished impostor seduced the people, by promising them deliverance from the Roman yoke, if they would follow him into the wilderness.
Again, the fulfillment happened in the disciple’s time.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
Consider the second “pre-sign”, wars and rumors of war. Today this would seem to be almost useless as a sign. Why? Because a sign does little good if it cannot be distinguished from non-signs. There has been almost no time in history that war was not part of the landscape of any culture – so what good would it do to list war as a significant event? The answer is that there was in fact a time when war would have served as an obvious and noticeable sign – toward the end of the first century. At that time the pax romana (peace of Rome) was still in force. Rome served as the great peace keeper over all its domain, which included Judea. When the Jewish wars began in the mid 60’s it would have been highly irregular and noticeable. Wars, rumors of wars, revolutions . . . at a unique time in history when these things would have stood out.
Despite some claims, earthquakes are not on the rise today. Many, however, followed in rapid succession during the first century. While it might be said that this would not be considered an unusually high number today (with our worldwide coverage), it certainly did to the historians:
- The earthquake at the latter place was so destructive, that the emperor, in order to relieve the distresses of the inhabitants, remitted its tribute for five years. Both these earthquakes are recorded by Tacitus.
- There was one also, in the same reign in Crete. This is mentioned by Philostratus.
- In the reign of Nero there was an earthquake at Laodicea. Tacitus records this also.
- . . . likewise mentioned by Eusebius and Orosius, who add that Hieropolis and Colose, as well as Laodicea, were overthrown by an earthquake.
- There was also one in Campania in this reign (of this both Tacitus and Seneca speak)
- and another at Rome in the reign of Galba, recorded by Suetonius ; to all which may be added those which happened on that dreadful night.
- a short time before the siege [of Jerusalem] commenced. “A heavy storm (says Josephus) burst on them during the night violent winds arose, accompanied with the most excessive rains, with constant lightnings, most tremendous thunderings, and with dreadful roarings of earthquakes. It seemed (continues he) as if the system of the world had been confounded for the destruction of mankind ;
- . . . and one might well conjecture that these were signs of no common events.”
Famines and Sicknesses
That these preceded the beginning of the end of Jerusalem have also been documented by the historian Josephus:
- ..children pulled the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their very mouths, and, what was still more to be pitied, so did the mothers do as to their infants;
- … some persons were driven to that terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dung hills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there;
- They also invented terrible methods of torment to discover where any food was, and they were these: to stop up the passages of the privy parts of the miserable wretches, and to drive sharp stakes up their fundaments!
- …and it was now become impossible for her anyway to find anymore food, while the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow, when also her passion was fired to a degree beyond the famine itself;. . . She then attempted a most unnatural thing; . . . she slew her son; and then roasted him,
- . . . the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterward, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath.
- However, when Titus, in going his rounds along those valleys, saw them full of dead bodies, and the thick putrefaction running about them, he gave a groan; and spreading out his hands to heaven, called God to witness that this was not his doing…
- …their dead bodies were thrown to the dogs. Now every sort of death was thought more tolerable than the famine, insomuch that, though the Jews despaired now of mercy, . . . the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the marketplaces like shadows, all swelled with the famine, and fell down dead wheresoever their misery seized them . . .
Before All This
We will treat the “signs in the heavens“ when we come to verses 29-30 below. For now we return to the discourse when Jesus refers the disciples back to a time period earlier than that of the pre-signs:
“But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations [tribes] because of Me. “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and prisons and flogged in the synagogues. On account of Me, all on account of My Name, you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations [tribes]. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life, he who stands firm to the end will be saved. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
So, before the pre-signs would occur there would be persecution against the disciples (and by extension Christians in general). This persecution is recorded in Acts. Just as Christ said, most of the disciples were put to death – but not all. John had an attempt made on his life but was saved. Again, all these things are recorded as occurring in the first century . . . to the people Christ said they would happen to. Why look for a future fulfillment?
The Gospel of the Kingdom
Perhaps it is because of the following verse:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
This verse has been used to recruit missionaries as if they held the power to bring Christ back (and, logically, to keep Him away) by their willingness to go preach to the “ignorant heathen.” But does Scripture agree? Consider Paul’s words in his letter to the Colossians (1:5-6):
“the word of truth, the gospel, which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing.”
How could the gospel bear fruit in all the world if it were not in all the world?
Or consider Romans 10:17-18:
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world.”
So by the time the siege of Jerusalem began the gospel, according to Scripture, had been preached to the “whole world” (in the sense of the Roman known world). But the end was still to come.
The Abomination of Desolation
Now we come to the first “when” sign, Christ is about to answer the disciples first question, “When will these things take place?” He begins this section with “So” (in other words, “because of all that I have just said . . .”). This is another clue as to how to interpret this passage. Having covered the pre-signs leading up to the beginning of the end, and foretelling what would occur before those signs, Christ moves on to the sign that “these things” are about to begin:
“So when you see standing in the holy place (where it does not belong) ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— (When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near) then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains . Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house (or enter the house) . Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. Let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.
Now here it is important to understand that Jesus did not have to elaborate on what the “abomination of desolation” was. He expected His disciples to understand Him. It has been recognized that an abomination of desolation in Daniel refers to Antiochus Epiphanies’ defiling of the temple after seizing Jerusalem in 169 B.C. This phrase is clarified for non-Jewish believers by Luke who says that when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies its desolation is near. This was fulfilled in history when the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem and then providentially retreated for a time allowing the escape of Christian believers to the mountains around Judea. History records not a single Christian dying in the siege that shortly followed. Jews and Gentiles alike defiled the temple before, during, and then after the siege . . . eventually resulting in the Roman army’s destruction of the temple. To get at the gold that was melting under the large temple foundation stones from the fire, the Romans literally brought down every stone.
The Great Tribulation
This 3 1/2 year siege is referred to in the discourse as the Great Tribulation. Why, it must be asked yet again, do some evangelical scholars continue to look for a future temple to fulfill that which has already been fulfilled?
How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this (your flight) will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress [great tribulation] in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. Those will be days of distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world (when God created the world) until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short (by the Lord), no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect whom he has chosen, those days will be shortened.
So far every event prophesied by Christ occurred – in order – only a short time after His death. What part, it must be asked, has been left out at this point? Christ continues His discourse by reiterating His warnings regarding the false messiahs that would arise:
At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. So be on your guard, See, I have told you everything ahead of time. “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there also will the vultures be gathered.
As with His warning not to think the end had come with certain signs (war, famine, pestilence, etc.), Christ here is warning against taking anything to be His return – for it has not yet happened. His coming will be so obvious that none of them should question it even in the face of contradictory claims. History records that that very thing was what prolonged the Roman siege. False messiahs arose telling the people that God was about to deliver them, it gave the people courage to continue the pointless resistance. It was this very thing that so enraged the Roman army that when they finally did break into the city they lost all control and slaughtered its inhabitants. In fulfillment of Daniel 9:26 the people of the ruler (and not the ruler – Titus) destroyed the temple against his orders . . . thus removing himself from that action.
Before we go on, let us look briefly at what has occurred:
|False Christs (messiahs)||multiple important false messiahs from A.D.35 up to and including the siege of Jerusalem|
|Wars and Rumors of Wars||Roman civil wars during the long lasting pax romana. Attacks from within as well as without. The “Jewish Wars” prompted by a revolt in Europe. Subsequent retaliations from Rome culminating finally in Jerusalem’s siege.|
|Famines||MANY recorded in the land, made impossibly worse during the actual siege.|
|Earthquakes||At least 7 major ones recorded in this time period.|
|Pestilences||Natural result of famine and inability of city to dispose of dead bodies.|
|False messiahs||Many in Jerusalem during the time of the siege, prolonging it with promises of redemption.|
|Abomination of Desolation||Jerusalem was surrounded, besieged, and the temple was desecrated by the Jews and Romans alike.|
|Temple Destruction||Happened exactly as foretold with even the foundation stones being torn apart.|
|The Great Tribulation (encompassing these events)||Never has Jerusalem seen such horror. Even the holocaust could not be compared, as Jews were not turing on Jews. The madness that went on inside the city during those 3 1/2 years has never occurred since.|
The Day of the Lord
It should be clear from the above chart that all Christ had predicted had in fact come to pass within the generation spoken to. The disciples would be a part of it just as Christ said, and the temple that existed when the discourse was given was the one that was destroyed in the manner predicted by Daniel. Nothing was left out of this very detailed prophecy in the events that unfolded between Christ’s death and A.D. 70. If the discourse ended here, so would the debate over the timing of its fulfillment. It is the next two verses that have radically changed how this discourse is sometimes understood, for it is the “time sign” that points us to the answer to the disciples’ “When?” question:
“Immediately after the distress of those days (in those days, following that distress) there will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, and all the nations [tribes] of the earth [land] will mourn. They (men) will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And He will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens (the ends of the earth) to the other (the ends of the heavens).
It would appear at first glance that this completely undermines any kind of first century fulfillment. While Luke has been seen by some to allude to an intervening gap (the “times of the gentiles”), it appears that this is a side note on what Jerusalem’s fate will be aside from the siege (even today the city is being “trampled upon”, if the “Church Age” is equivalent to the “times of the Gentiles” then it makes even more sense). We are told that immediately after the Great Tribulation the signs in the heavens would occur. Christ here quotes an Old Testament description of the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:10; 24:23; Ezk. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31 & 3:15; Amos 5:20, 8:9 etc. – see below, also see the sixth seal judgment in Rev. 6).
The Day of the Lord in the Old Testament meant that God was judging a nation by sending a foreign power against them (Egypt, Babylon, and others were all promised a Day of the Lord when they were destroyed). Knowing that this phrase would call to mind these previous judgments against other nations, could not Christ have meant the same for Judea? If not, why use this wording at all?
Christ specifically says that Jerusalem would not see HIM until they said, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” But what they would see and recognize was His apocalyptic judgment in the coming of the Roman armies in 70 A.D. The description of this event in Revelation (the sixth seal) so closely matches Josephus‘s description of the final days of the siege that it appears almost contrived! The only “leap” one must make to “fit” this last piece of the prophetic puzzle into place is to simply recognize verses 29-30 the same way in the NT as we do in the OT (e.g., Isa. 13; Ezk. 32; Joel 2; Amos 5, Zeph. 1-2). If the Day of the Lord does not have to mean a visible sighting of God the Father in the OT, why does it have to mean that when it refers to God the Son in the NT?
This prophecy in Matthew that has actually been used by atheists to make Christ out to be a false prophet! How?
He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near, it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Earlier it was stated that the term “this generation” was very important, it should be clear now why that is so. If we take “this generation” to refer to what it refers to in its other uses in the gospel (and in the context 23:36 cf. Luke 21:22) we would have to conclude that Jesus meant that all He had prophesied regarding Jerusalem including His coming would occur before the end of the generation then living (about 40 years). These words were spoken between 30-34 A.D. depending on which dating scheme is followed. Forty years later would have been 70-74 A.D. By then the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple had in fact taken place.
If it is argued that verses 29-30 have not come to pass, then an explanation must be given as to why. It seems a much more difficult position to defend, and has in fact left the door wide open for criticism (it also removes our ability to criticize similar prophecies from cultists). Why not take the easy way out by simply referencing the OT usage of the phrase as having the same meaning here and leaving it at that? Doing so allows us to “have our cake and eat it too.” We eagerly await the time when Jesus will return to the earth for the final time (Rev. 20-22) – we simply do not confuse this with the Great Tribulation which is now past (even if there is a kind of “dual fulfillment” in our future).