What About the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24:21?
“If Matthew 24:5-33 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as some contend, how does one explain verse 21 — that this was the worst calamity in history?”
Many scholars have argued the case that the earlier portion of Matthew 24 has to do with the impending fall of Jerusalem (accomplished in A.D. 70 when invaded by the Romans), and not with events associated with the Second Coming of Christ — as commonly alleged by dispensationalists. However, some suggest that verse 21 of this chapter is a formidable argument against this position.
In this text the Savior said: " . . .for then shall be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be."
It is contended that other nations have suffered far greater casualties in times of war. Thus, it is supposed that the prophecy must pertain to the future, and not the destruction of Jerusalem.
We do not believe this objection is valid.
In viewing the destruction of A.D. 70, several factors must be taken into consideration — the guilt of the nation, the intensity of the suffering, the degradation of the victims, and the lingering consequences of this divine judgment. And make no mistake about it; this invasion was a punishment from the Almighty (cf. Mt. 22:7).
Consider the following factors:
The Accountability of the First-Century Jews
No body of people has ever been more culpable of crimes against God than the Jews of the first century. They had the advantages of twenty centuries of divine cultivation in preparation for the coming of the “seed” of Abraham, through whom the world was to be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). Yet they rejected their own Messiah, and pled: “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Mt. 27:25). That petition was granted!
Their ancestors had seen the mighty works of God on numerous occasions, and the record of those events had been carefully preserved in sacred writings across the centuries. Yet these Hebrews stiffened their necks and, for the most part, resisted God at every turn in the redemptive road. Not only so, but they actively persecuted the messengers sent by the Lord to lovingly turn them to repentance. Christ pointedly addressed this very matter.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the sepulchres of the prophets, and garnish the tombs of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we should not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore you witness to yourselves, that you are sons of them that slew the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how shall you escape the judgment of hell? Therefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: some of them shall you kill and crucify; and some of them shall you scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous unto the blood of Zachariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the sanctuary and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation” (Mt. 23:29-36).
The judgment of A.D. 70 was, therefore, cumulative in its effect. Should it be argued that such a punishment represented an injustice on the part of God, it must be noted that the Lord provided ample warnings of the impending tragedy. Those who heeded his words escaped the city in advance of the horror. So far as the historical record indicates, none of those who obeyed Christ’s instructions perished. The historian Eusebius recorded that the early Christians fled Jerusalem and found refuge at Pella beyond the Jordan river (Ecclesiastical History 3.5).
The carnage of the siege, which lasted five months, was horrible beyond belief. Thousands died of starvation. When the Romans finally broke into the city, the sight of so many corpses shocked even hardened soldiers. The slaughter of the city’s citizens was so terrible that fires were extinguished by the profusion of blood (Josephus, Wars 6.8.5).
Josephus records that 1,100,000 Jews were killed in Jerusalem, and that some 97,000 others were taken as slaves into captivity. It has been estimated that some 1,337,490 Jews in Jerusalem (and in the regions adjacent to Judaea) died — by famine, by the sword, by burning, and by crucifixion (Wars 6.9.3-4).
Some scholars believe that even these figures are too conservative. In fact, Josephus himself expressed the view that the suffering of this holocaust exceeded anything known to man previously (Wars, Preface, 4; 9.4).
It is worthy of notation that it is at least possible that Jesus’ comments of v. 21 might have been restricted to the Jews’ suffering, and not mankind as a whole, though the facts of history do not force one to that conclusion.
It must be observed also that Jerusalem’s punishment did not end when the city was taken in the summer of A.D. 70. Christ specifically said that “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). A good case can be made for the view that the “times of the Gentiles” embraces the whole of that era from Jerusalem’s destruction until history concludes with the return of Christ (see R.C.H. Lenski, St. Luke’s Gospel, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946, pp. 1021-1022).
For many years following the events of A.D. 70, no Jew was permitted into the once-sacred city. Only once a year could they assemble on nearby hills overlooking the Jerusalem and mourn their loss.
In A.D. 132, after some Jewish re-infiltration of the city, there was another revolt and the Romans again invaded and demolished the city. The Roman emperor Hadrian, who reigned from A.D. 117-138, paganized Jerusalem considerably. In the time of Constantine a so-called “Christian” influence prevailed in Jerusalem, but that came to an end when the Muslim movement took the city in A.D. 637 (see Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956, pp. 528-529).
There is, therefore, sufficient evidence to reasonably argue the case that Matthew 24:21 was literally fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem, and with the aftermath of that crushing episode.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.