Why The Great Tribulation Has Already Passed
Like many others, I grew up with intense fears about an encroaching time of cataclysm and disaster. Drawing on a patchwork of biblical verses from Matthew 24 and Daniel 9, I was told that all of creation would enter a seven-year period of tribulation in which an evil Antichrist would come to power. This “beast” would make a seven-year peace treaty with Israel, only to betray the Jews after three and a half years, plunging the world into a geopolitical crisis that ends with the battle of Armageddon.
The apocalyptists loved to cite Matthew 24:21 from their dog-eared King James Bibles: "Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.”
Many would brazenly ask, "Are you confident that God will spare you and your loved ones in the horrifying judgment of the Great Tribulation?"
I was extremely nervous and kept awake at night as I contemplated a violent future for the earth. I thought Jesus was incessantly warning Americans about our dreadful destiny.
However, as I studied more carefully, I realized that this passage was actually addressed to first century Israel. After all, they were the ones living at a critical point of history. The Jewish nation was in "the fullness of times" when the kingdom of God had "drawn near" (Mark 1:15). They witnessed things that "many prophets and righteous men desired to see and . . . hear" (Matthew 13:17).
It is not hard to see that first-century Israel was on the verge of covenantal transition. The priesthood was changing (Hebrews 8-9), and the anticipated era of the Holy Spirit was about to commence (Numbers 11:29; Joel 2:28-32; Isaiah 59:21). Most significantly, the New Covenant was being inaugurated (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Luke 22:30).
The warning about the Great Tribulation was addressed to Jesus’ first-century Jewish audience. In Matthew 24:34, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things take place.” This is indisputably clear. Jesus was talking about something that would transpire within 40 years of 30 AD—the time that He was originally speaking.
Another reason to believe that this was addressed to Jesus’ original audience is because these warnings were specifically directed to those living in Judea. The Lord said,
“Then those in Judea must flee to the hills. A person out on the deck of a roof must not go down into the house to pack. A person out in the field must not return even to get a coat. How terrible it will be for pregnant women and for nursing mothers in those days. And pray that your flight will not be in winter or on the Sabbath. (Matthew 24:15-20)
Why would the Lord encourage Christians from around the world to flee to the Judean mountains or pray that the disaster would not occur on the Sabbath? How could this warning have any application to a Christian living in twenty-first century America?
Luke, in his parallel account (Luke 21), reiterates this interpretation. He says that the tribulation would be “in the land” and that the destruction would be “against this people.” The phrase “the land” is not only a common expression for “the promised land,” but Judea and Jerusalem are specifically mentioned in verses 20, 21, and 24. Luke’s use of the phrase “this people” is also a clear reference to the family of Abraham.
Earlier in the text, Luke recorded the following: "And when Jesus approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, 'If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation'" (Luke 19:41-43).
Jesus' pointed remarks have to be weighed out. His specific declarations about Jerusalem cannot be glossed over. The meaning of the Great Tribulation has to be interpreted within the context of the text. There are a myriad of reasons to believe that this judgment was localized in first-century Israel.
History shows that trouble arose in the mid-60s under Nero’s reign—a tribulation began in which John said he was a “fellow-partaker” (Revelation 1:9). The entire Israeli world ultimately collapsed in AD 70, precisely a generation after Jesus made His address in Matthew 24:34. Jerusalem was decimated and over 1,100,000 Jews perished in this atrocity. The accouterments and forms of the old covenant system—the land, the city, and the Temple—were completely destroyed.
The Great Tribulation referenced in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 transpired as Jesus promised—before that generation passed away. It should now be considered a past event.
It has transformed my anxious worldview to understand that tribulation is no longer in my future. From now on, I’m looking for restoration, not devastation. More than ever, I have hope in the gospel.
How would a similar change of perspective impact you?