I don’t know if you noticed, but our first two posts on Matthew 24 asked you to listen to the conversation Jesus had with his disciples about his kingship a few days before his crucifixion. It’s not always heard as a flowing conversation. Some readers treat it as if Jesus was using jargon to differentiate periods of future history.
Here’s what I mean by treating Jesus’ words as jargon:
- 24:21 (KJV) For then shall be great tribulation: This must be the great tribulation, a 7-year period in our future when evil has taken over the world.
- 24:29 The stars shall fall from heaven: This must be the great judgement, when God destroys the material world, so we all go to live in heaven (or hell) forever.
- 24:30 They shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds: This must be the second coming, the visible return of Christ to earth to reign in Jerusalem for 1000 years.
- 24:40 One will be taken and the other left: This must be the rapture, when Jesus silently removes his people from the evil earth.
- 24:51 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth: This must be hell: eternal conscious torment for those who didn’t get saved.
If you hear Jesus’ words as a jumble of jargon, your next task is to rearrange the pieces to make something coherent. Do you put the tribulation with the rapture, or with the second coming, or does it go in the middle between the two? Do you put the judgement at the second coming, or leave it to after the millennium?
Those questions reveal that we’re importing other assumptions and other texts to reconstrue what Jesus said. Grabbing phrases from different books of the Bible to construct a composite chart of end times feels like lifting pieces from multiple jigsaw puzzles to build an image that wasn’t in any of the original pictures. Wouldn’t it be better to listen to how Matthew (and Mark and Luke) recounted Jesus’ words on Olivet as a meaningful discourse?
We escape that trap when we stop treating Jesus’ words as theological jargon, and hear them as perfectly normal words that, together, contribute to the message Jesus wanted his disciples to hear. In this post, we’ll just look at one of those words.
What is tribulation?
Tribulation (thlipsis) means affliction, trouble, distress, or suffering. The core idea is to be under pressure, stressed. In verse 9, thlipsis was translated as afflicted (KJV), or persecuted (NIV). Elsewhere Jesus used this word as a parallel for persecution (Matthew 13:21), for labour pains (John 16:21), and for the trouble we can expect in the world (John 16:33).
In this context, Jesus used it for the intense anguish that the people of Judea (24:16) would experience when their city fell and the temple was destroyed. (Remember, that’s the question he was addressing: 24:2-3).
And it’s no exaggeration to say this was the most distressing moment of Israel’s history (24:14), worse even than the destruction of the first temple in 587 BC. Within 70 years of the Babylonian exile, they were returning, beginning to rebuild. But within 70 years of the Roman invasion, all attempts to rebuild their nation had been mercilessly crushed, with the emperor ordering that Jerusalem be reduced to a ploughed field (AD 135). With no homeland, his people were scattered across the world. Jesus wasn’t exaggerating when he described it as his people’s greatest distress, suffering, anguish, tribulation.
What was Jesus warning about?
What Jesus wanted in this conversation was for his disciples (and anyone else in Judea who would listen) to run for their lives when they saw the Roman armies laying siege to Jerusalem. The same conversation in Luke reads like this:
Luke 21 20 When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains … (NIV)
Of course, Rome already controlled Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. What precipitated this attack was the Great Revolt of AD 66–68. Several resistance leaders promised to liberate God’s people like the judges of old, but their promises proved false. With in-fighting among the resistance groups and a 7-month siege, Jerusalem fell in the summer of AD 70. The rebels’ last stand at Masada was crushed in AD 73. One more attempt at independence sixty years later was mercilessly squashed. Their great distress felt interminable through the centuries that followed.
Application for today
So is this all ancient history, with no relevance to us today? Absolutely not!
You’ve heard of the holocaust, the German government slaughtering 6 million Jews? Tribulation still exists. The Jewish people have suffered terribly, as have others. We’ve seen other attempted genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. Persecution is rife in North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia and more.
Why such tribulation? Ultimately it comes down to power. Whether it’s Pol Pot in Cambodia, Adolf Hitler in Germany, the papal inquisitions in Europe, Caesar Nero in Rome, Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Shalmaneser in Assyria, or the Pharaoh who afflicted the Hebrews before Israel even was a nation, the affliction of the world comes down to humans grasping power that should be in God’s hands and using it to crush each other.
So, what do we do? Protest? Fight? Drop out?
Christians have a unique solution. We believe that, in the face of the world’s affliction, our eternal sovereign came to us in the person of Jesus his anointed ruler, not to crush the world into submission, but to be crushed by the world’s rebellion, its sin against its sovereign. Jesus believed this was how he would take away the sin of the world. This was how the son of man would receive his kingship (24:30). That’s where the Olivet Discourse is headed.
That’s why Jesus asked his followers not to give up under affliction, to keep loving even when the violence seems so pervasive (24:12), for the person who perseveres towards the goal will be rescued (24:13). His goal is all nations restored to God’s reign. That’s the gospel of the kingdom (24:14).
The pain is real, but so is the kingship that rises from the grave. The gospel of his kingship says, In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage: I have conquered the world (John 16:33).
Open Matthew 24:9-30.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 915:
Josephus’ lurid description of the horrors of the siege (War 5.424–438, 512–518, 567–572; 6.193–213) shows that, while v. 21 uses the hyperbolic language of apocalyptic (cf. Dan 12:1; Joel 2:2; 1QM 1:11–12; Test. Mos. 8:1; Rev 16:18), it is an assessment which would have been agreed by those involved in the events. In passing, we should note that “nor ever will be again” confirms that this passage is about a historical event, not about the end of the world!