Examining Matthew 24, Part 7: The Great Tribulation

by | Apr 12, 2020 | Examining Matthew 24 Series, The Great Tribulation, Videos | 15 comments

Hello and welcome to Part 7 of our exegetical consideration of Matthew 24.

At Matthew 24:21, Jesus speaks of a great tribulation that will come upon the Jews.  He refers to it as the worst one of all time.

“for then there will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” (Mt 24:21)

Speaking of tribulation, the Apostle John is told about something called “the great tribulation” at Revelation 7:14.

“So right away I said to him: “My lord, you are the one who knows.” And he said to me: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Re 7:14)

As we saw in our last video, Preterists believe these verses are linked and that they both refer to the same event, the destruction of Jerusalem.  Based on the arguments made in my previous video, I do not accept Preterism as a valid theology, and neither do the majority of Christian denominations.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the majority of churches don’t believe there is a link between the tribulation Jesus spoke of at Matthew 24:21 and the one the angel mentions at Revelation 7:14.  Perhaps this is because both use the same words, “great tribulation”, or perhaps it is because of Jesus’ statement that such a tribulation is greater than anything to come before or after.

Whatever the case, the general idea virtually all these denominations have—including Jehovah’s Witnesses—is nicely summed up by this statement:  “The Catholic Church affirms that “before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers…” (St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church)

Yes, while interpretations vary, most agree with the basic tenet that Christians will endure a great final test of faith at or just before the manifestation of Christ’s presence.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, link that prophecy with what Jesus said would happen to Jerusalem at Matthew 24:21, which they call a minor or typical fulfillment.  They then conclude that Revelation 7:14 depicts a major, or secondary fulfillment, what they call an antitypical fulfillment.

Depicting “the great tribulation” of Revelation as a final test has been a real boon for the power of the churches.  Jehovah’s Witnesses have certainly utilized it to incite the flock to be afraid of the event as a means to get the rank and file to fall in line with Organizational procedures and dictates.  Consider what the Watchtower has to say on the subject:

Obedience that comes from pressing on to maturity will prove to be no less lifesaving when we face the major fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that “there will be great tribulation” of unequaled magnitude. (Matt. 24:21) Will we prove to be obedient to whatever future urgent direction we may receive from “the faithful steward”? (Luke 12:42) How important it is that we learn to ‘become obedient from the heart’!—Rom. 6:17.”
(w09 5/15 p. 13 par. 18 Press On to Maturity—“The Great Day of Jehovah Is Near”)

We will be analysing the parable of “the faithful steward” in an future video of this Matthew 24 series, but let me just say now without fear of any reasonable contradiction that nowhere in the Scriptures is a governing body comprised of just a handful of men commanded by prophesy or depicted in any language to be the provider of do-or-die orders to Christ’s followers.

But we’re getting a little off topic.  If we are going to give any credence to the idea of Matthew 24:21 having a major, secondary, antitypical fulfillment, we need more than the word of some men with a large publishing company behind them.  We need proof from Scripture.

We have three tasks before us.

  1. Decide whether there is any link between the tribulation at Matthew and that at Revelation.
  2. Understand what Matthew’s great tribulation refers to.
  3. Understand what the great tribulation of Revelation refers to.

Let’s start with the supposed link between them.

Both Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 7:14 use the term “great tribulation”.  Is that enough to establish a link?  If so, then there must also be a link to Revelation 2:22 where the same term is used.

“Look! I am about to throw her into a sickbed, and those committing adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds.” (Re 2:22)

Silly, isn’t it?  Further, if Jehovah wanted us to see a link based on word usage, then why didn’t He inspire Luke to also use the same term, “tribulation” (Greek: thlipsis).  Luke describes Jesus’ words as “great distress” (Greek: anagké).

“For there will be great distress on the land and wrath against this people.” (Lu 21:23)

Notice also that Matthew records Jesus as saying simply “great tribulation”, but the angel says to John, “the great tribulation”.  By using the definite article, the angel shows that the tribulation he refers to is unique.  Unique means one of a kind; a specific instance or event, not a general expression of great tribulation or distress.  How can a one-of-a-kind tribulation also be a secondary or antitypical tribulation? By definition, it must stand on its own.

Some might wonder if there is a parallel because of Jesus’ words referring to it as the worst tribulation of all time and something that will never occur again.  They would reason that the destruction of Jerusalem, as bad as it was, doesn’t qualify as the worst tribulation of all time.  The problem with such reasoning is that it ignores the context of Jesus’ words which are very clearly directed to what will soon befall the city of Jerusalem.  That context includes warnings such as “then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains” (verse 16) and “keep praying that your flight may not occur in wintertime nor on the Sabbath day” (verse 20). “Judea”? “the Sabbath day”? These are all terms that apply only to the Jews back in the time of Christ.

Mark’s account says much the same thing, but it is Luke that removes any doubt that Jesus was only referring to Jerusalem.

“However, when you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, let those in the midst of her leave, and let those in the countryside not enter into her, because these are days for meting out justice in order that all the things written may be fulfilled. Woe to the pregnant women and those nursing a baby in those days! For there will be great distress on the land and wrath against this people.” (Lu 21:20-23)

The land Jesus refers to is Judea with Jerusalem as its capital; the people are the Jews.  Jesus is here referring to the greatest distress the nation of Israel had ever and would ever experience.

Given all this, why would anyone think there is a secondary, antitypical, or major fulfillment? Does anything in these three accounts state that we should look for a secondary fulfillment of this great tribulation or great distress? According to the Governing Body, we should no longer look for any typical/antitypical or primary/secondary fulfillments in the Scriptures, unless the Scriptures themselves clearly identify them. David Splane himself says that to do so would be to go beyond what is written. (I will put a reference to that information in the description of this video.)

Some of you may not be satisfied with the thought that there is only a single, first-century fulfillment to Matthew 24:21.  You might be reasoning: “How could it not apply to the future since the tribulation that came on Jerusalem was not the worst of all time?  It wasn’t even the worst tribulation to come upon the Jews.  What about the holocaust, for instance?”

This is where humility comes in. What is more important, the interpretation of men or what Jesus actually said?  Since Jesus’ words clearly apply to Jerusalem, we have to understand them in that context.  We have to bear in mind that these words were spoken within a cultural context very different from our own. Some people look at Scripture with a very literal or absolute view.  They don’t want to accept a subjective understanding of any Scripture.  Therefore, they reason that since Jesus said it was the greatest tribulation of all time, then in a literal or absolute way, it had to be the greatest tribulation of all time. But the Jews didn’t think in absolutes and we shouldn’t either. We need to be very careful to maintain an exegetical approach to Bible research and not impose our preconceived ideas onto Scripture.

There is very little in life that is absolute.  There is such a thing as relative or subjective truth.  Jesus was here speaking truths that were relative to the culture of his listeners.  For instance, the nation of Israel was the only nation that carried God’s name. It was the only nation he had chosen out of all the earth.  It was the only one with whom he had concluded a covenant.  Other nations could come and go, but Israel with its capital at Jerusalem was special, unique.  How could it ever end? What a catastrophe that would have been to the mind of a Jew; the worst possible kind of devastation.

Sure, the city with its temple had been destroyed in 588 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the survivors taken into exile, but the nation didn’t end then. They were restored to their land, they rebuilt their city with its temple. True worship survived with the survival of the Aaronic priesthood and the keeping of all the laws. The genealogical records tracing every Israelite’s lineage all the way back to Adam also survived. The nation with its covenant with God continued unabated.

All of that was lost when the Romans came in 70 CE.  The Jews lost their city, their temple, their national identity, the Aaronic priesthood, the genetic genealogical records, and most important, their covenant relationship with God as his one chosen nation.

Jesus’ words were therefore fulfilled completely. There is simply no basis to consider this as the basis for some secondary or antitypical fulfillment.

It follows then that the great tribulation of Revelation 7:14 must stand alone as a separate entity.  Is that tribulation a final test, as the churches teach?  Is it something in our future we should be concerned about?  Is it even a single event?

We are not going to impose our own pet interpretation on this. We are not seeking to control people by the use of unwarranted fear. Instead, we’ll do what we always do, we will look at the context, which reads:

“After this I saw, and look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes; and there were palm branches in their hands. And they keep shouting with a loud voice, saying: “Salvation we owe to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, saying: “Amen! Let the praise and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” In response one of the elders said to me: “These who are dressed in the white robes, who are they and where did they come from?” So right away I said to him: “My lord, you are the one who knows.” And he said to me: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. That is why they are before the throne of God, and they are rendering him sacred service day and night in his temple; and the One seated on the throne will spread his tent over them.” (Revelation 7:9-15 NWT)

In our previous video on Preterism, we established that both the external evidence of contemporary witnesses as well as the internal evidence from the book itself when compared with historical data indicate its time of writing was toward the end of the first century, well after Jerusalem’s destruction.  Therefore, we are looking for a fulfillment that doesn’t end in the first century.

Let’s examine the individual elements of this vision:

  1. People from all nations;
  2. Shouting they owe their salvation to God and Jesus;
  3. Holding palm branches;
  4. Standing before the throne;
  5. Dressed in white robes washed in the Lamb’s blood;
  6. Coming out of the great tribulation;
  7. Rendering service in God’s temple;
  8. And God spreads his tent over them.

How would John have understood what he was seeing?

To John, “people out of all nations” would mean non-Jews.   To a Jew, there were only two kinds of people on earth. Jews and everybody else.  So, he is here seeing the gentiles who have been saved.

These would be the “other sheep” of John 10:16, but not the “other sheep” as depicted by Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Witnesses believe the other sheep survive the end of the system of things into the New World, but continue living as imperfect sinners awaiting the end of the 1,000-year reign of Christ to reach a justified status before God.  The JW other sheep are not permitted to partake of the bread and wine that represent the lifesaving flesh and blood of the Lamb.  As a consequence of this refusal, they cannot enter into the New Covenant relationship with the Father through Jesus as their mediator.  In fact, they have no mediator.  They are also not God’s children, but are counted only as his friends.

Because of all this, they can hardly be depicted as wearing white robes washed in the blood of the lamb.

What is the significance of the white robes?  They are only mentioned in one other place in Revelation.

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness they had given. They shouted with a loud voice, saying: “Until when, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number was filled of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were about to be killed as they had been.” (Re 6:9-11)

These verses refer to the anointed children of God who are martyred for their bearing witness about the Lord.  Based on both accounts, it would appear that the white robes signify their approved standing before God.  They are justified for eternal life by God’s grace.

As for the significance of the palm branches, the only other reference is found at John 12:12, 13 where the crowd is praising Jesus as the one who comes in God’s name as the King of Israel.  The great crowd recognize Jesus as their King.

The location of the great crowd gives further evidence that we are not speaking of some earthly class of sinners waiting for their chance at life by the end of the thousand-year reign of Christ.  The great crowd are not only standing before the throne of God which is in heaven, but they are depicted as “rendering him sacred service day and night in his temple”.  The Greek word here translated “temple” is naos.  According to Strong’s Concordance, this is used to indicate “a temple, a shrine, that part of the temple where God himself resides.”  In other words, the part of the temple where only the high priest was allowed to go.  Even if we expand it to refer to both the Holy and the Holy of Holies, we are still talking about the exclusive domain of the priesthood.  Only the chosen ones, the children of God, are given the privilege to serve with Christ as both kings and priests.

“and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10 ESV)

(Incidentally, I didn’t use the New World Translation for that quotation because evidently bias has caused the translators to use “over” for the Greek epi which really means “on” or “upon” based on Strong’s Concordance.  This indicates that these priests will be present ON earth to effect the curing of the nations – Revelation 22:1-5.)

Now that we understand that it is the children of God who come out of the great tribulation, we are more prepared to understand what it refers to.  Let’s start with the word in Greek, thlipsis, which according to Strong’s means “persecution, affliction, distress, tribulation”. You will notice it doesn’t mean destruction.

A word search in the JW Library program lists 48 occurrences of “tribulation” in both the singular and plural.  A scan throughout the Christian Scriptures indicates that the word is almost invariably applied to Christians and the context is one of persecution, pain, distress, trials and testing.  In fact, it becomes apparent that tribulation is the means by which Christians are proven and refined.  For instance:

“For though the tribulation is momentary and light, it works out for us a glory that is of more and more surpassing weight and is everlasting; while we keep our eyes, not on the things seen, but on the things unseen. For the things seen are temporary, but the things unseen are everlasting.” (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18)

The ‘persecution, affliction, distress, and tribulation’ upon the congregation of Christ began shortly after his death and has continued ever since.  It has never abated.  It is only by enduring that tribulation and coming out the other side with one’s integrity intact that one gets the white robe of God’s approval.

For the last two thousand years, the Christian community has endured unending tribulation and testing for their salvation.  In the middle ages, it was often the Catholic church that persecuted and killed the chosen ones for bearing witness to the truth. During the reformation, many new Christian denominations came into being and took up the mantle of the Catholic Church by also persecuting the true disciples of Christ.  We’ve seen recently how Jehovah’s Witnesses love to cry foul and claim they are being persecuted, often by the very persons they are themselves shunning and persecuting.

This is called “projection”.  Projecting one’s sin onto one’s victims.

This shunning is just one tiny part of the tribulation that Christians have endured at the hands of organized religion down through the ages.

Now, here’s the problem: If we try to limit the application of the great tribulation to a tiny segment of time such as that represented by events pertaining to the end of the world, then what of all the Christians who died since the time of Christ?  Are we suggesting that those who happen to be living at the manifestation of Jesus’ presence are different from all other Christians? That they are special in some way and must receive an exceptional level of testing that the rest do not need?

All Christians, from the original twelve apostles right down to our day must be tried and tested.  We all must go through a process by which, like our Lord, we learn obedience and are made perfect—in the sense of being complete.   Speaking of Jesus, Hebrews reads:

“Although he was a son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. And after he had been made perfect, he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him. . .” (Heb 5:8, 9)

Of course, we are not all the same, so this process varies from one person to the next. God knows what the type of testing will benefit each of us individually.  The point is that every one of us must follow in the footsteps of our Lord.

“And whoever does not accept his torture stake and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)

Whether you prefer “torture stake” to “cross” is beside the point here.  The real issue is what it represents.  When Jesus said this, he was speaking to Jews who understood that being nailed to a stake or a cross was the most shameful way to die.  You were first stripped of all your belongings. Your family and friends turned their backs on you.  You were even stripped of your outer garments and paraded publicly half-naked while being forced to carry the instrument of your torture and death.

Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus despised the shame of the cross.

To despise something is to abhor it to the point that it has a negative value to you.  It means less than nothing to you.  It would have to rise in value just to get to the level of meaning nothing to you.  If we are to please our Lord, we must be willing to give up everything of value if called upon to do so.  Paul looked at all the honor, praise, wealth and position he could have attained as a privileged Pharisee and counted it as just so much garbage (Philippians 3:8).  How do you feel about garbage? Do you yearn for it?

Christians have been suffering tribulation for the past 2,000 years.  But can we rightly claim that the great tribulation of Revelation 7:14 spans such a length of time?  Why not?  Is there some time limitation on how long a tribulation can last that we are unaware of?  In fact, should we be limiting the great tribulation to just the past 2,000 years?

Let’s look at the big picture.  The human race has been suffering for well over six thousand years.  From the very beginning, Jehovah purposed to provide a seed for the salvation of the human family.  That seed is comprised of Christ together with the children of God.  In all of human history, has there been anything more important than the formation of that seed?  Can any process, or development, or project, or plan surpass God’s purpose to gather and refine individuals from the human race for the task of reconciling humankind back into the family of God?  That process, as we’ve just seen, involves putting each one through a period of tribulation as a means to test and refine—to weed out the chaff and gather the wheat.  Would you not refer to that singular process by the definite article “the”?  And would you not further identify it by the distinctive adjective “great”.  Or is there a greater tribulation or testing period than this one?

Really, by this understanding, “the great tribulation” must span all of human history.  From faithful Abel right down to the last child of God to be raptured up.  Jesus foretold this when he said:

“But I tell YOU that many from eastern parts and western parts will come and recline at the table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens…” (Matthew 8:11)

Those from eastern parts and western parts must refer to the gentiles that will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the forefathers of the Jewish nation—at the table with Jesus in the kingdom of the heavens.

From this, it seems evident that the angel is expanding on Jesus’ words when he tells John that a great crowd of gentiles which no man can number will also come out of the great tribulation to serve in the kingdom of the heavens.  So, the great crowd are not the only ones to come out of the great tribulation. Obviously, Jewish Christians and faithful men from pre-Christian times were tried and tested; but the angel in John’s vision only makes reference to the testing of the great crowd of gentiles.

Jesus said that knowing the truth will set us free. Think about how Revelation 7:14 has been misused by the clergy to instill fear in the flock so as to better control their fellow Christians. Paul said:

“I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among YOU and will not treat the flock with tenderness. . .” (Ac 20:29)

How many Christians throughout time have lived in dread of the future, contemplating a horrific test of their faith in some planet-wide cataclysm.  To make matters even worse, this false teaching diverts everyone’s attention from the real test that is our ongoing day-to-day tribulation of carrying our own cross as we strive to live the life of a true Christian in humility and faith.

Shame on those who presume to lead the flock of God and misuse Scripture so as to Lord it over their fellow Christians.

“But if ever that evil slave should say in his heart, ‘My master is delaying,’ and should start to beat his fellow slaves and should eat and drink with the confirmed drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day that he does not expect and in an hour that he does not know, and will punish him with the greatest severity and will assign him his part with the hypocrites. There is where [his] weeping and the gnashing of [his] teeth will be.” (Matthew 24:48-51)

Yes, shame on them. But also, shame on us if we continue to fall for their tricks and deceptions.

The Christ has set us free!  Let us embrace that freedom and not go back to being slaves of men.

If you appreciate the work we are doing and wish to keep us going and expanding, there is a link in the description of this video that you can use to help out.   You can also help us out by sharing this video with friends.

You can leave a comment below, or if you have a need to safeguard your privacy, you can contact me at meleti.vivlon@gmail.com.

Thank you very much for your time.

Meleti Vivlon

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