Back to the Future Tribulation: PART 1 Don't worry, it was in their future but in our past.

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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. It 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.
Matthew 24:16-20

Jesus was giving those, who would listen, a special advanced warning. For some reason, this passage has been sometimes 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. Also, if you pay attention, Jesus isn’t talking to the entire world either. Rather, Jesus is describing specific instructions for people living in Palestine at their current present time.

The Tribulation Already Happened

The Great Tribulation described by Jesus is not a 7-year global tribulation that many American Christians have been taught (this belief comes from a misunderstanding of Daniel 9:24-27). The Tribulation was the destruction of Jerusalem and it already happened in 70AD.

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).

Jesus made this statement to his disciples who were alive and present with him at the time. They were the primary audience Jesus was addressing. He was telling his disciples that their generation would still be alive to see all this. Everything described in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 has already happened because it happened during the time of the apostles. Thankfully, 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.
Matthew 24:21

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?

When we think about the Tribulation we need to examine the context of what is being talked about. Let’s take a look at the questions that Jesus is answering.

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?”
Luke 21:5-7

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. This was like predicting snow in the summer. 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 (70 AD), 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. In fact, their suffering was one of the reasons why Paul collected funds from other churches. Other famines would come and intensify until 66-70 AD where the lack of food would drive the Jews to cannibalism during the siege of Jerusalem.

Pestilences were recorded on a massive scale in 40 AD and 65 AD.4 Tacitus, the Roman historian, records that a plague swept through Rome, filling the houses with dead “and the streets with funerals.”5 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 number of earthquakes recorded between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.6 Historians recorded earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campina, Rome, Pompeii, Apamea, and Judea.7 The Bible records earthquakes at Christ’s death and resurrection, also in the book of Acts (16:26). There was even one in Jerusalem on the eve of the Roman siege.8  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.9 There has never been a point in history since the time of Jesus where more Christians were persecuted than the first century.

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-genre 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) The sun and stars did not literally go dark when Babylon and Egypt fell over. The prophets used figurative language and so does Jesus when speaking of Jerusalem.

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.

Despite this phrase being metaphorical, according to Josephus, numerous signs and prodigies were seen before and during the siege of Jerusalem. These included: a star resembling a sword (possibly Halley’s Comet); a bright light that shone on the temple for half an hour one night; a cow that was about to be sacrificed gave birth to a lamb; the heavy eastern gate of the inner court opened by itself (it took 20 men to close it); and in the inner court a strange and ominous voice said, “Let us remove hence.” These were terrifying omens, but the most dramatic sign was the ethereal sight of armed soldiers and chariots “running about among the clouds” above the cities of Judea.10

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 judgment 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. Jesus was specifically quoting Daniel though, and that quote was not one about judgment (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus did not come on Jerusalem in judgment, but he came to heaven with power and great glory. Daniel foretold it and the disciples witnessed it. In Matthew 24 Jesus predicted that even the unbelieving Jews would come to see it, and they would mourn when they did.

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. If Caiaphas lived to see his city and temple destroyed, mourn he likely did.

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 the destruction of 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 Destruction of Jerusalem

Remember what sparked the above prophecy? The disciples asked why Jesus said of the Temple that “not one stone would be left on another.” This wasn’t the first or the last time Jesus would mention the destruction of Jerusalem (which we call the Tribulation). Days prior to this prophecy Jesus wept over the city.

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Luke 19:41-44

Jesus sobbed because he could see what was coming. He saw the famine with its horrors and the legions with their swords. He saw the streets running with blood and the hills of unburied dead. He saw the end of his people and it wrecked him. He wasn’t talking about a day to come thousands of years in the future—he was talking to his contemporaries. Then again, days after the Apostles questions Jesus would mention the destruction of Jerusalem as he carried his cross.

A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then “‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’
Luke 23:27-30

What we call the 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 the Temple Age. What came next was the most horrible thing to ever befall Jerusalem. Read more about it in Part 2.

Footnotes

  1. 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
  2. George Peter Holford, The Destruction of Jerusalem, 1805
  3. Philo of Alexandria, On the Embassy to Gaius XXX.203.
  4. Tacitus and Suetonius
  5. Tacitus (109), The Annals, “Book XVI,”
  6. Plumptre, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” 6: 146.
  7. Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four Exposition, 93.
  8. Josephus in Wars, 4.4.5.
  9. Tertullian
  10. Wars, 6.5.3