The Great Tribulation is a time of war, famine, earthquakes, persecution, and death. Jesus describes it in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 as a horrible period of time with much suffering, then he prophesies that the end will come. Sounds like something that most would want to avoid! Thankfully, Jesus goes on to describe how his followers can avoid the Tribulation:
…then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.
Jesus was giving those who would listen a special advanced warning. For some reason, this passage has been used to teach a belief in something called the Rapture. Telling us we need to be fleeing to the mountains, not be wasting time getting our things, the mention of winter making travel more difficult— these tips don’t sound like the Rapture. That is because the Rapture is not a thing. Rather, Jesus is describing specific instructions for people living in Palestine at the time.
The Tribulation Already Happened
The Great Tribulation described by Jesus is not a 7-year global tribulation that many have been taught. The Tribulation was the destruction of Jerusalem and it already happened in 70 AD.
Jesus makes it emphatically clear that the tribulation would happen within 40 years when he says, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24:34)
Everything described in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 has already happened. This is very good news because of what Jesus says after describing this period of tribulation:
For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.
Since Jesus claimed that things will never be as horrible as they were, that means that the worst this world has seen has already happened. We don’t have to anticipate things getting worse. We are left with the promise that the best is yet to come.
Throughout Church history most Christians believed the great tribulation had already happened.1 It was a horrible event that was well documented by first century historians. Still not convinced? Keep reading to see how everything that Jesus prophesied came to pass between the years 66-70 AD.
What Are The Signs?
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
Jesus, for the second time, prophesied the destruction of the Temple and all of Jerusalem. His disciples immediately ask him when it will happen and what will be the signs. Jesus names eight signs signaling the Tribulation and end of the Jewish Temple age:
1. False messiahs and false prophets (Matthew 24:4-5, 11, 23-26)
Just one year after Jesus ascended, someone would have the boldness to claim that he was the Messiah whom Moses prophesied. His name was Dositheus. His disciple, Simon Magus, deluded multitudes into a belief that he, himself, was the “great power of God.” Theudas, Felix, Simon bar Giora, and many more claimed to be a messiah or a prophet.2 Read more about all those claiming to be messiah here.
2. Wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation (Matthew 24:6-7)
Jesus declared “wars and rumors of wars” during the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace,” which was the only time in history when war had essentially ceased because the empire had conquered all of its enemies. At any other time in history, wars would have been a poor “sign of the times” because wars were always happening. But Jesus was right, a stream of wars were about to happen.
About three years after the death of Christ, a war broke out between Herod and Aretas, king of Arabia Petraea, in which the army of the former was cut off. Seven years later, the Roman emperor Caligula, ordered his statue to be placed in the Temple of Jerusalem. The whole nation was so alarmed by the mere rumors of war that they neglected even to till their lands.3
The Greeks and Syrians rose against the Jews in the area of Babylon, killing more than fifty thousand. Four years later, a Roman soldier showed disrespect in the Temple area causing a violent uprising by the Jews. Ten thousand Jews were killed. Israel fought the Samaritans, at Caesarea they fought the Syrians, resulting in twenty thousand Jews slain. Wars broke out in Damascus, Tyre, Ascalon, Gadara, Scythopolis, and many more places. In Alexandria the Jews rose up against the Romans and fifty thousand died. At Jopata, forty thousand died.
Within the space of eighteen months, Rome went through four different emperors. From the time Jesus prophesied (30AD), to when Jerusalem was destroyed (70AD), there was more war than the Jewish world had ever seen.
3. Famines and Pestilences (Matthew 24:7, Luke 21:11)
In the book of Acts (11:28), the prophet Agabus foretold that a massive famine would strike the entire world (Roman). This of course came to pass. It was so bad that one day of food would end up costing about a week’s wages. Other famines would come and intensify until 66-70AD where the lack of food would drive the Jews to cannibalism during the siege of Jerusalem.
Pestilences were recorded on a massive scale in 40AD and 65AD.4 After Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman armies, pestilential diseases ravaged the city due to the famine and the amount of unburied dead bodies.
4. Earthquakes (Matthew 24:7)
Perhaps no period in world history has been marked by the amount of earthquakes recorded between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.5 Historians recorded earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campina, Rome, Pompeii, Apamea, and Judea.6 The Bible records earthquakes at Christ’s death and resurrection, also in the book of Acts (16:26). During the time period Jesus predicted, earthquakes were rampant.
5. Persecution of believers (Matthew 24:9)
Paul, before converting, contributed to the persecution of Christians (Acts 26:10-11). Eleven of the apostles were brutally murdered for their faith in Jesus Christ. Christians were fed to lions and burned alive by the thousands. The persecution under emperor Nero has been recorded to be unparalleled in its cruelty.7
6. Signs in the sky (Matthew 24:29)
To the first century Jewish listeners, “signs in the sky” was a figure of speech from the Old Testament, apocalyptic language referring to the destruction of a government or city. There are multiple examples of cities receiving prophecies of their destruction using terms related to heavenly bodies. (Ezekiel 32:7-8; Isaiah 34:4-5, 13:10; Amos 3:9; Habakkuk 3)
In these passages, we find overwhelming proof that celestial imagery—“signs in the sky”— often foretold the destruction of a city or nation. Jesus’ listeners would have known he was speaking in Old Testament symbolism about the destruction of Jerusalem (the topic in discussion), not the end of the world.
7. Son on Man coming on the clouds (Matthew 24:30)
The phrase “coming on the clouds of heaven,” was a common Old Testament symbol for God coming in judgement upon ancient historical people and nations (Psalm 18:7-15, 104:3; Isaiah 19:1; Joel 2:1-2; Zephaniah 1:4,15). The first century Jewish listeners would have understood this. When Jesus was arrested and brought before Caiaphas he says “I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven“ (Matthew 26:64). Caiaphas, who was in the first year of his High Priestly reign, would live to see the Son of Man coming on the clouds.
8. The gospel preached in the whole world (Matthew 24:14)
The root word oikoumene, used for “world” in this passage, actually means the world of the empire or “inhabited or civilized world,” not world as in global planet earth (that would be the Greek word kosmos). This is the same Greek word used in Luke 2:1: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
The apostle Paul used this same word later to confirm four times that the gospel had reached the whole world as Jesus predicted (Romans 1:8; 10:18; Col 1:5-6, 23). Jesus was saying that the gospel would be preached throughout the Roman Empire before he would come in judgment upon Jerusalem and the Temple. He was right. This has been fulfilled, and it has no further fulfillment in our future. We are not waiting for every person to hear the gospel so “an end” can come.
The Great Tribulation didn’t end with these signs. These were all signals of a war that was to come that would end the Jewish world and Temple Age. What came next was the most horrible thing to ever befall Jerusalem. Read more about it in Part 2.
- A few of these Church leaders include: Eusebius, John Wesley, John Chrysostom, Charles Spurgeon, John Lightfoot, Phillip Doddridge, Thomas Newton, Adam Clarke, John Calvin, N.T. Wright, R.C. Sproul
- George Peter Holford, The Destruction of Jerusalem, 1805
- Philo of Alexandria, On the Embassy to Gaius XXX.203.
- Tacitus and Suetonius
- Plumptre, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” 6: 146.
- Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four Exposition, 93.