1. "Great Tribulation": Its Linguistic and Prophetic Background
This analysis is somewhat of an offshoot from this thread on the great tribulation. The title in that thread does encapsulate some of what I wanted to focus on here, namely, is there a "great tribulation" that will mark the ending of the current age? But I also wanted to cover some related ground which that thread title doesn't seem to include. Hopefully this thread will encapsulate what I have currently come to believe about "the great tribulation."
Additionally, that thread has wondered a bit topically, so that a 'clean sheet of paper' (so-to-speak) seemed the best way to go. If I come across other threads with similar ideas, I will link to them also for cross reference.
When possible, I will include links to pertinent ideas or material so as to cut down on text in this post. That has been my posting custom and it takes advantage of the Internet's unique hyperlinking abilities (in contrast to the written page). It allows for more 'white space' with easier to read and more logical flowing discussion.
How This World Ends
Even without referring to the words "great tribulation," there are numerous scriptures, both in the NT and the OT, that depict this world or age (or "system of things") as coming to an end in a cataclysmic confrontation with God. And there are pre-existing patterns that support this conclusion: The deluge ended the pre-flood world. (Mt 24:37; 2Pe 2:4-5, 9) The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Luke 17:28-30; Jude 7) The Babylonian invasion that ended the era of the Solomonic Temple. And of course, the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE which ended the second Temple era. Past eras don't just go away quietly into the night. Neither should we expect the present age to do so. (2Pe 3:3-7, 10)
Regarding how the present age comes to its end, we have, for example, in the OT, Ezek 38 & 39 describing the nations making a combined assault on God's people, which ends in the destruction of the enemy forces and their populations (Ezek 38:18-23). In Daniel, after envisioning the march of kingdoms across many centuries, Dan 2:44 describes God as 'setting up a kingdom' which then "crushes" all these other kingdoms. Zech 14:1-16 describes a massing of all nations against Jerusalem (at God's instigation, just as in Ezek 38:3-4), which then ends disastrously for the nations, leaving them only some survivors. (Zech 14:16) Numerous other OT examples could be cited. But, in general, they all point to a final, epochal confrontation between the nations of this world and Jehovah God.
The NT also carries this idea, no doubt in part, because of its familiarity with the OT background. Matthew 7:22-23 & 24:36 speak of "that day" which is compared with the catastrophic end of Noah's generation. (Mt 24:37-39) Eph 5:6 speaks of 'God's wrath coming upon the sons of disobedience.' (Compare Eph 2:2) 1Th 5:1-9 also speaks of "the day of the Lord" (1Th 5:2) which is also referred to as a day of "wrath" (1Th 5:9) and which results in "sudden destruction" for all those not ready for it. (1Th 5:3) 2Th 1:6-10 describes the 'revelation of Jesus from heaven' when he brings fiery vengeance upon persecutors of God's people. (See also 2Pe 2:3-10; 3:1-7, 10-12; Jude 14-15)
If there is anything new in the NT references to "that day," it would be mainly the addition of Christ's role in it, although, this is already hinted at in Dan 12:1. Psalm 2 & 110 also include the idea of an appointed king acting in God's behalf against all their enemies massed in opposition. (Ps 2:1-3; 110:5-6)
All of this relates to the question asked in the thread referred to above, namely, whether there will be an age ending great tribulation. One does not need to examine the words "great tribulation" in order to see that the Bible foretells a "great tribulation" or cataclysmic confrontation that brings the present age to its end. But having established that, of further interest is the question of how this age ending event will take place.
Occurrences in the NT
Regarding the word "tribulation" (θλῖψις, thlipsis, Strong's 2347), it occurs 45 times in the NT (see note # 2 below). The vast majority of these instances refer to personal or group sufferings for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, persecution.
Of the 45 occurrences, the only ones that are possibly related to the topic of this thread are: Mt 24:21, 29; Mr 13:19, 24 (which are the parallel to the two verses in Matthew), Rom 2:9, 2Th 1:6, and Rev 7:14.
The phrase "great tribulation" only occurs at Mt 24:21, Rev 2:22 & 7:14. We can exclude Rev 2:22 from this analysis since that verse is referring to what happens to a particular individual and her followers. But we could rightly include Mr 13:19. It doesn't use the exact phrase "great tribulation" (as does its parallel in Mt 24:21), but the phrasing Mark uses has the same meaning.
Interestingly, the phrase, "the great tribulation" (τῆς θλίψεως τῆς μεγάλης, tes thlipseos tes megales, literally, "the tribulation the great"), only occurs once, namely, in Rev 7:14. (The use of the definite article sometimes highlights the uniqueness, specificity, or the particularity of the noun it is used with.) For the reader, this fact about Rev 7:14 may provide a hint as to why this thread is entitled as it is.
In Matthew 24 & Mark 13
The occurrences of "tribulation" in both Matthew 24 and Mark 13 are of interest for this study. For many people, Mt 24:21 & Mr 13:19 are the go to verses when talking about a future "great tribulation."
As indicated just above, Mt 24:21 & Mr 13:19 don't use the articular phrasing, namely, "the great tribulation." Thus, from a purely technical standpoint, someone might claim that Mt 24:21 & Mr 13:19 do not refer to "THE great tribulation." Nevertheless, the phrasing of both verses speak of that "tribulation" as both a unique and never to be repeated event.
Noteworthy about these two verses is the localized context in which they were to occur: "Those in Judea" are told to flee before it happens. And there are "mountains" within fleeing distance. (Mt 24:16; Mr 13:14) People within the context have a habit of having "roofs" that can be occupied. (Mt 24:17; Mr 13:15) They are to pray that it doesn't occur on a Sabbath, where Sabbath laws would make fleeing difficult. (Mt 24:20) The ones being told to flee are understood to live in a largely agrarian society. (Mt 24:18; Mr 13:16) Travel in the "winter" or while being "pregnant" is understood to be difficult. (Mt 24:19-20; Mr 13:18) Indeed, the very fact that Jesus gives directions to flee is an indication that this "great tribulation" is a localized one. (Contrast Am 9:1-3)
The larger context of these two verses has Jesus mentioning this "great tribulation" in connection with a foretold destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (Mt 24:1-2; Mr 13:1-2), and the disciples wanting to know when this would occur (Mt 24:3; Mr 13:3-4). That would argue that Jesus' answer would pertain to desire to know.
Another indication of a localized "great tribulation" in Mt 24:21 & Mr 13:19 (as opposed to a worldwide event) comes from a comparison with Luke's rendition of the Olivet Discourse. In Mt 24:15 & Mr 13:14 Jesus gives a somewhat cryptic sign that indicates when this "great tribulation" is about to occur. This sign answers, in part, to the disciples' question of "when will these things be?" (in Mt 24:3, Mr 13:4 & Lu 21:7). In both Matthew's & Mark's account, this sign requires "discernment." And in Matthew it is related to the prophecies of "Daniel." But the parallel verse in Luke (Lu 21:20) describes the sign this way: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies ..." Perhaps Luke is using plainer language that his gentile acquaintance Theophilus will better appreciate. (Lu 1:3-4) At any rate, it does show that the prophecy was understood to have a first century fulfillment upon the Jewish nation. (Lu 21:21-23) (Regarding the different phrasing in Lu 21:20 compared with Mt 24:15, see also here.)
Mt 24:34, Mr 13:30-31 & Lu 21:32 also describe a localized time limit during which "these things" will take place. And Jesus assures his disciples that it will happen within the collective lifetime of "this generation." (For the use of "generation" within the book of Matthew, see here. And for links to discussions of various aspects of the parable of the fig tree, see this post.)
All these facts about Mt 24:21 and Mr 13:19 point to a "great tribulation" that would occur in the land of Judea, and within the collective lifetimes of the people then alive at the giving of the prophecy (c. 33 CE). And in fact, such an event did occur in the 66-73 CE time frame.
Luke's account of the opening of the Jewish-Roman War is, on the surface, worded quite differently than Matthew's version. Yet, upon closer inspection, Lu 21:20-24 has all the elements of Mt 24:15-21.
- Lu 21:20 ("When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies") would equate with Mt 24:15a ("When you see the desolating abomination standing in a holy place"). Luke's account does not need to be as precise since he is writing to someone who won't be living in Jerusalem when this happens. Matthew's account appears to have a Hebrew audience in mind. And such an audience would be more familiar with "the desolating abomination" from Daniel. Also, Matthew's "standing in a holy place" appears to be an improvement (for a Hebrew audience) upon Mark's "standing where it ought not.
- Mt 24:15b ("spoken about by Daniel the prophet ... let the reader understand") becomes Lu 21:22 ("for these are days for vengeance, to fulfill all that is written"). (Compare this with Matthew's "fig tree" in Mt 24:32 versus Lu 21:29, "fig tree and all the trees"). Luke's more general statement ("to fulfill all that is written") would seem to make more sense when understood to be addressed to a Gentile student. (Lu 1:3-4) Matthew's more precise statement ("spoken about by Daniel the prophet") makes more sense when understood to have been written originally to a Jewish audience, already familiar with the OT. (Similarly, Matthew's "fig tree" makes more sense when written to a Hebrew audience where fig trees were more prominent. Luke's "fig tree and all the other trees" [Lu 21:29 NET] captures the gist of what Jesus is saying, but makes more sense to a Gentile living where fig trees are less prominent or even non-existent.)
- The instructions to flee in Mt 24:16-20 are included in Lu 21:21, 23a. (There are some interesting differences in wording between the two accounts. Matthew's seems to have more local detail. Luke's seems to have a more distant viewpoint.)
- Matthew's warning about pregnant and nursing mothers (Mt 24:19) is mirrored in Lu 21:23. But Luke leaves out Matthew's warning about winter and Sabbath travel. (Mt 24:20) Something a Gentile reader would not be so familiar with (the Sabbath, that is).
- Matthew's "those days" in Mt 24:19 and "great tribulation" in Mt 24:21 becomes "For there will be great distress upon the earth (i.e. "land"; Gk ges) and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations" in Lu 21:23b & 24a.
Luke's wording makes a lot of sense when seen as an attempt to explain this account to a Gentile who is fairly new to Christianity. (Lu 1:3-4) By comparison, Matthew's version makes more sense when seen as originally written to an audience already familiar with Jewish and Christian teaching. From the view point that these writings were meant to be beneficial to audiences across many centuries (2Ti 3:16-17), this combination of accounts provides a way to explain them better. Perhaps one could gain some insight into why Holy Spirit would choose the different writers for the gospel accounts.
- And finally, Matthew's, 'nor will ever happen again' (Mt 24:21b) becomes, "and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (i.e. to the end of the present age). (Lu 21:24b) Implying that Jerusalem would never again be a center for true worship throughout the rest of this present age. (See the link in this post which goes to an online Jewish library article which posits that all the Jewish troubles since the first century have their roots in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE. Regarding the phrase "Gentile Times" see note # 1 below.)
Admittedly, there is some seemingly extravagant phrasing used (Mt 24:14, 21), that is, extravagant for a first century only fulfillment. And there are allusions to OT prophecies that are left unexplained (Mt 24:29=Isa 13:10; 34:4; Mt 24:30=Dan 7:13-14; Mt 24:31=De 30:4, Zech 2:10 LXX, Isa 27:13). These things strongly suggest to some that there must be some extended fulfillment to Mt 24:21 and Mr 13:19 beyond the first century. But a straightforward reading of the prophecy within its context lends itself to seeing a "great tribulation" that befell the first century nation of Israel.
(See also this post which argues that the literary structuring of Matthew chapter 24 requires Mt 24:4-35 to be Jesus' answer to the disciples first question in Mt 24:3 about the destruction of the Temple.)
(Part 2 continues in the next post.)
2. Below are all of the occurrences of θλῖψις (thlipsis; "tribulation" or "distress"; Strong's # 2347) in the NT:
Mt 13:21; 24:9, 21, 29 (4x); Mr 4:17; 13:19, 24 (3x); Jn 16:21, 33 (2x); Ac 7:10, 11; 11:19; 14:22; 20:23 (5x); Rom 2:9; 5:3; 8:35; 12:12 (5x); 1Co 7:28; 2Co 1:4, 8; 2:4; 4:17; 6:4; 7:4; 8:2, 13 (9x); Eph 3:13; Php 1:17; 4:14 (2x); Col 1:24; 1Th 1:6; 3:3, 7 (3x); 2Th 1:4, 6 (2x); Heb 10:33; Jas 1:27; Rev 1:9; 2:9, 10, 22; 7:14 (5x)