The Great Tribulation

*Here’s the first post of many on this topic. It is primarily in response to some questions my aunt has on these issues; I will be addressing other points in this same realm in the days to come. This is actually a repost from another blog.

Matthew 24:15-28 offers the pericope best known for describing ‘The Great Tribulation’ period. As jerusalem70ada kid, young adult, and even adult; I had believed this Great Tribulation was solely in reference to a future eschatological outcome. In reference to a future time wherein the nation of Israel would experience Jeremiah’s (chapter 30) ‘Jacob’s Trouble’ and be judged for rejecting Jesus as their promised Messiah; as a corollary, this time of ‘Great Tribulation’ would spill over to a universal extent, such that Jacob’s Trouble would become the whole World’s Trouble, which would finally eventuate in the battle of Armageddon at the time of Jesus’ second coming (cf. Rev. 19). My views have changed over the years, as some of you know; but I still hold that an aspect of Jesus’ Olivet prophecy is still yet future; but much of what he was referring to was in reference to a more near referent (relative to Jesus’ earthly time) in the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian in and around 70 A.D. Craig S. Keener in his exhaustive critical commentary on the Gospel of Matthew offers a very helpful index on the various views (as he personally understands the options) that have bubbled up over the years in regard to nuancing various interpretations of what in fact constitutes the enigmatic (for some) referent of ‘The Great Tribulation’; he writes:

In Matthew, the tribulation seems to begin with the sanctuary’s destruction in A.D. 66 and concludes with Jesus’ return (24:29). If, as I think most likely, Matthew writes some years after 70, this allows several interpretive options: in Matthew 24 Jesus (1) skips from this tribulation to the next eschatologically significant event, his return (Fuller 1966;  cf. Lk. 21:24; especially compare Mt 24:21, “nor ever shall,” with Dan 12:1; cf. Jos. War pref. 1); (2) regards the whole interim between the Temple’s demise and his return as an extended tribulation period (“immediately” — 24:29; e.g., Carson 1984b: 507); (3) prophetically blends the tribulation of 66-70 with the final one, which it prefigures (see Bock 1994: 332-33); (4) begins the tribulation in 66 but postpones the rest of it until the end time; (5) intends his “return” in 24:29-31 symbollically for the fall of Jerusalem. [pp. 577-78]

Keener continues in the next paragraph to identify his preferences, relative to the index he just provided, and then he provides a fuller interpretive justification for why he prefers what he does; he continues to write:

I currently favor (1) or (2) with elements of (3). (Against the view of a “spiritual” coming are the many emphatic statements  about a personal, visible coming in the context — 24:27; Gundry 1982: 491). The third option may in fact deserve more attention than my current inclination has given it: certainly the prophetic perspective naturally viewed nearer historical events as precursors of the final events. Early Jewish texts also telescope the generations of history with the final generation (Jub. 23:11-32). As in Mark, the tribulation of 66-70 remains somehow connected with the future parousia (Hare 1967: 179), if only as a final prerequisite. Further, the context may suggest that Jesus employs his description eschatologically, as in some Jewish end-time texts; in this case, the disasters of 66-73 could not have exhausted the point of his words (cf. Harrington 1982: 96). In any case, the view (circulated mainly in current popular circles) that Matthew 24 addresses only a tribulation that even readers after 70 assumed to be wholly future is not tenable; Matthew understands that “all these things” (probably referring to the question about the temple’s demise — 24:2; Mk 13:4) will happen within a generation (Mt 24:34), language throughout Jesus’ teachings in Matthew refers to the generation then living (e.g., 11:16; 12:39, 45; 16:4; 23:36; cf. 27:25). Further, Luke dispenses with much of the symbolism and lays the emphasis almost entirely on the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, in which Judean slaves were carried among the nations. For Luke, the “abomination” that brings about desolation becomes simply the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem, promising desolation (Lk 21:20; A. B. Bruce 1979: 292; Cole 1961: 202). [Craig S. Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew, 577-78.]

I am in line with Keener’s preferences as well; I hold to a combination of his (1), (2), and (3). This would mean, for me anyway, that I understand that much of the Tribulation referents are grounded in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem; but this would also mean that I see this kind of Tribulation as characteristic of a yet future and final Tribulation which the world has been moving towards in birth pangs ever since this initial fulfillment and aspect of this prophecy provided by Jesus in 70 A.D. This also means that I do not necessarily believe that the Great Tribulation at the end (yet future) requires that it be physically located in Jerusalem (although it might be). I am still considering some of this, and so this is all I will communicate for now.

How might you parse your views on ‘The Great Tribulation’ if you were to use Keener’s index as a guide?

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9 comments

  1. It’s a very nice feature of the present that we all seem to come around to acknowledging 70 as a key event in the formation of the Gospels. But whatever tensions existed in the period leading up to the razing of the Temple mount, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that the period between 70 and the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt was worse. Judea went from live-in political oppression—with peacetime imperial governance hiding behind the mask of a sense of continued legitimate Hasmonean self-rule—to something much worse.

    That period ends with the Temple mount being restored from its ruins … as the site of Hadrian’s garrisoned city dedicated to Jupiter. Which could well be seen as a “desolating sacrilege,” but certainly isn’t the Markan use of the Daniel reference, and nobody really thinks Matthew or Luke are anything like that late. But it’s a period of impending doom and messianic hope, throughout which Jerusalem stands in ruins. And those ruins are the site of a contest. “The vultures gather together wherever there is a corpse.” Or, more correctly to the Greek: “The eagles convene wherever there is a ruin.” This is Rome we’re talking about, after all.

    Mark, being earliest, speaks to 70. Matthew, among the ways the author chooses to modify the Markan material, seems to be more forward-looking here. But I don’t see a reason to expect that this forward look is to anything beyond the resolution of this contest for Jerusalem. That is the messianic hope: restoration. Clearly the flight in this part of Matthew is influenced by 1 Macc. 1 and the application of the “desolating sacrilege” to Antiochus Epiphanes. Which ends in the overthrow of the Seleucids and the beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty.

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  2. What I don’t get is why anyone should read “thlipsis megale” as though it were an event to be expected, “the Great Tribulation,” when the text describes it as a feature of the period that will be “cut short” by the messianic triumph. There will in that time be great tribulation, not a kind of singular moment of trouble at the end of it.

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  3. I guess that means I’m closest to #2, that “tribulation” is one of the marks of the period between the razing of the Temple mount and the messianic coming.

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  4. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for weighing in. I know that many take the events that you refer to—between 70ad and the revolt–as a kind of type of what happened during 70ad. I see future referent in Jesus’ language, and so it makes sense to presume that he is at least referring to 70ad with the backdrop of what you have mentioned in mind; if not with an eye towards a final ‘thlipsis megale’ at the *end*.

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  5. Bobby,

    I very much agree with your take in your response to Matt. Having just taught this passage of Scripture last Sunday, I think much depends on one’s interpretation of the note that’s attached to the “abomination of desolation” reference in Matthew 24:15 (“whoever reads, let him understand”). Since there are three references in Daniel to an/the “abomination of desolation”, one has to determine which reference Jesus is referring to. It’s clear He’s not addressing the reference in Dan. 11:31, as that was fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanies in 167 BC. Depending on how one understands the other two references (Dan. 9:27 and 12:11), and whether or not they are seen as one-and-the-same, will play some part in whether one understands the 70AD event to be a total or pre/partial fulfillment of the other two Daniel passages.

    For myself, I understand 70AD to be a fulfillment of part of the Matthew 24 passage, but not the total. I’m of the opinion that Daniel 9:27 and 12:11 are speaking of the same event, which is a “day of the Lord” type event.

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  6. Yeah, lot’s of cold and flu bug going around right now. I laughed when you posted this because I was studying that passage at the time…and using Keener’s commentary in the process! I figured you might be trying to drop a few hints. 😉

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