Last Sunday, I mentioned a couple of typical objections that people have to the view that Matt 24:15-28 was fulfilled in 70AD. (If you haven’t heard the first few messages in Matthew 24, you can find them here.) The first objection is that v21 describes this time as “great tribulation,” which would seem to coincide with “the great tribulation” mentioned in Revelation 7:14, assumed to be the period just prior to the second coming of Christ. If Matt 24:15-28 describes the great tribulation, how can we say that it was fulfilled in some sense in 70AD? The second objection comes from the same verse, where the magnitude of this great tribulation is described using the clauses, “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” Certainly the trouble of 70AD, terrible as it was, could not be worse than that of the great tribulation described in Revelation. How then can we say that this was fulfilled thousands of years before the last days?
Before addressing these objections, let’s be reminded why one might believe that this passage was fulfilled in 70AD in the first place. The first and most important reason is that in v34, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” If we take this statement at face value – which I believe we must – then vv15-28 had to have been fulfilled in some sense during the lifetimes of the apostles’ generation. Second, the events surrounding the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70AD appear to fit this passage very well. Third, the parallel passage in Luke 21:20-24 sounds far more like the events of 70AD than the events expected in the last days.
As for the first objection, we must keep in mind that we can’t regard the word “tribulation” or the phrase “great tribulation” as if this is the trademarked name of the period just before the second coming so that we believe these words always refer to the last days. John describes his presence on the Isle of Patmos in the first century as “tribulation” in Rev 1:9. The church of Smyrna is recognized as enduring “tribulation” in Rev 2:9-10. Tribulation is normal for the Christian life (2 Tim 3:12; Acts 14:22; Rom 5:3, 8:35-36; John 16:33). Jesus, in Matthew 24:21, has simply added the adjective “great,” which has the effect of amplifying the description of a particular period as one of extreme trouble.
But the phrase “great tribulation” is used in Revelation 7:14 to refer to the end times – doesn’t that make it likely that Jesus’ use of this phrase in Matt 24:21 refers to the same time period? No. Even if you do treat the phrase like a trademarked title for the last days, that the same noun and adjective are used elsewhere does not make it likely that the words have the same referent. But I am not even willing to concede that Revelation 7:14 refers strictly to the last days. The notion that Rev 7:14 has to refer only to the last days is an assumption that rests upon a mountain of other dispensational assumptions. (If you don’t know what dispensationalism is, come to our Wednesday night bible study beginning September 9, when we will begin a survey of biblical eschatology.) There is nothing in the text of Revelation that necessitates this, and a number of things that suggest otherwise. My view is that to read Matt 24:21 this way we must read dispensational theology into the text. “Great tribulation” simply means “extreme trouble” and is not the official biblical name for a specific period of time right before Christ returns. In other words, when we read “great tribulation” in Matt 24:17 or Rev 7:14 we ought not see “Great Tribulation.”
The second objection, at first blush, looks pretty convincing. The text tells of a time of tribulation “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” What is there to argue with?
Remember that we are talking about judgment that has been pronounced upon the Jews for the rejection of the Messiah Jesus. The context is undeniable. Because this text deals with judgment, we should expect it to use the same kind of language that other biblical judgment texts use. We noted in the first message on Matt 24 that apocalyptic texts frequently use hyperbolic language, language that describes an event using universal and radical terms. When we consider other judgment texts in the Bible and the hyperbolic language employed, we should recognize that Jesus is simply using this same device.
Exo 11:6 – There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.
Exo 10:14 – 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.
Joel 2:2 – 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.
Compare also these two texts. Although they are not judgment texts, they do make a helpful point about biblical hyperbole.
2Kings 18:5 – [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.
2Kings 23:25 – Before [Josiah] 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.
Think about this. 2Kings 18:5 says that there would be no king after Hezekiah who would be as devoted to the Lord as he was. Yet regarding Josiah, who came after Hezekiah, 2 Kings 23:25 informs us that no one was like him in terms of his devotion to the Lord. They can’t both be the greatest, can they? No, clearly the text is using hyperbole in both cases to indicate complete devotion to the Lord on the part of both men.
In my opinion, the most persuasive example of hyperbole is Ezekiel 5:9: 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. This text is a prediction regarding the imminent Babylonian captivity, which was fulfilled long before Jesus spoke the words recorded in Matt 24, long before 70AD, and long before the second coming of Christ, yet the Word describes it in ultimate terms. How can this be? The only explanation is that Ezekiel uses hyperbolic language similar to so many other passages of Scripture.
In light of the use of hyperbolic language elsewhere in the Word, and because of the striking similarity between the phraseology of these texts and Matthew 24:21, it is more than reasonable to assume that Jesus is using hyperbole to describe a time of extreme suffering, without expecting his disciples to understand Him literally. We need to remember to consider how the disciples would have heard these things. Their familiarity with the Semitic use of language and the use of hyperbole in specific biblical texts would have made it unlikely that they would interpret Jesus’ words with wooden literalness.
This is an important lesson to take with us as we study Matt 24:29-35 this Sunday. Hyperbole will once again figure prominently and our sensitivity to this kind of figurative language will prevent us from making unwarranted assumptions regarding the timing of the events predicted there.
Perhaps this article has not been persuasive to you. As I’ve said from the beginning of this sermon series, that is fine. We’re not dealing with essential doctrine and so there is room for disagreement. My hope is merely that we’ll all become a bit less dogmatic, understanding that there are other plausible views on this and other eschatological passages. If you’re interested in learning more about eschatology, consider attending our Wednesday night Bible study beginning September 9.