Bible Book List
Matthew 24 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Tribulation in History

Various New Testament passages seem to have reapplied Daniel's image of tribulation in different ways; but all agree in warning Christians to be vigilant when they face such testing. In contrast to the false prophets who till the end exhorted Jerusalemites to stand firm and expect sudden deliverance (Jos. War 6.285-86), Jesus warns his followers to accept the perils of this age and escape them when possible. Eusebius reports that the church in Jerusalem responded to true prophets and fled the city before its destruction came (Euseb. H.E. 3.5.3); probably Jesus' words had guided the Christian prophets to a realistic appraisal of the danger, in contrast to some other Jerusalemites. His words likewise may instruct believers facing peril today. They also remind us that judgments, persecution and other sufferings characterize life in this age, summoning us to yearn for our Lord's coming rather than to become complacent with this world.No Religious Symbol Provides Refuge from Divinely Decreed Judgment (24:15) The sanctuary, once desecrated, was doomed, as Jesus had earlier warned (23:38). Earlier desecrations had led others to recognize this pattern in history as well. Over two centuries earlier, a Syrian ruler had defiled the altar, causing an "abomination" that ruined the sanctuary with "desolation" (1 Macc 4:38). Daniel contains three references to an abomination that causes desolation, a sacrilege or defilement that will inevitably lead to destruction. One or two of the passages refer to events surrounding Antiochus Epiphanes, who claimed to be a deity and oppressed Israel (Dan 8:13; 11:31, 36-39); another text associates the same kind of "abomination" with the cutting off of an anointed ruler, close to the time of Jesus (Dan 9:26; compare J. Payne 1962:146; Beckwith 1981). Jewish speculation concerning the end time regularly reapplied Daniel's descriptions in various ways (see F. Bruce 1956:177; Russell 1964:198-201); Revelation may even reapply Daniel's tribulation period to the period between Jesus' first and second comings (Rev 12:1-6, 10).

Jewish people recognized that shedding innocent blood in the sanctuary would profane it (1 Macc 1:37; Jos. Ant. 9.152; so also Mt 23:35), and some saw this defilement as a desolation (1 Macc 1:39; 2:12). Josephus indicated that the shedding of priestly blood in the sanctuary (Jos. War 4.147-201; 4.343; 5.17-18) was the desecration, or abomination, that invited the ultimate desolation of A.D. 70 (Jos. War 5.17-19). Very close to three and a half years after this abomination, the temple was destroyed and violated even more terribly: the Romans erected on its site their standards, which bore the emperor's image, then offered sacrifice to them (Jos. War 6.316). But Jesus' warning must apply to the earlier (66) rather than the final (70) desecration, because shortly after the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, escape (Mt 24:16-18) became increasingly difficult (as in Jos. War 5.420-23, 449).

In Matthew, the tribulation (distress) seems to begin with the sanctuary's desecration in 66 and concludes with Jesus' return (24:29). If this observation is correct, it requires a "tribulation" longer than three and a half years or some other way to bridge the gap between 66 and the end. Scholars offer several explanations for this gap: in Matthew 24 Jesus (1) skips from this tribulation to the next eschatologically significant event, his return (G. Fuller 1966; compare Lk 21:24); (2) regards the whole interim between the temple's demise and his return as an extended tribulation period ("immediately"--Mt 24:29; see Carson 1984:507); (3) prophetically blends the tribulation of 66-70 with the final one, which it prefigures (see Bock 1994:332-33; compare Frost 1924:15-19); (4) begins the tribulation in 66 but postpones the rest of it until the end time; (5) intends his "return" in verses 29-31 symbolically for the fall of Jerusalem (see Tasker 1961:224-26; J. Wenham 1977:71; Barclay 1959; France 1985:333).

Not all these views are mutually exclusive. I currently favor option 1 or 2 with elements of 3. Although many scholars (including a number of conservative scholars) prefer option 5, the many emphatic statements about a personal, visible coming in the context probably rule out a symbolic coming the way they would a "spiritual" one. The third option may in fact deserve more attention than my current inclination has given it: certainly the prophetic perspective naturally viewed nearer historical events as precursors of the final events; see Ladd 1974b:196-201 (with Old Testament examples) and 1978a:36-37; compare Beasley-Murray 1960; Everson 1974:337; Bock 1994:332-33. Early Jewish texts also telescope the generations of history with the final generation (Jub. 23:11-32). As in Mark, the tribulation of 66-70 remains somehow connected with the future parousia, if only as a final prerequisite.

In any case, the view that the whole of Matthew 24 addresses only a future tribulation (often assumed automatically in circles unaware of the history of 66-70) is not tenable; Matthew understands that "all these things" (probably referring to the question about the temple's demise--24:2; Mk 13:4) will happen within a generation (Mt 24:34), language that throughout Jesus' teachings in Matthew refers to the generation then living (as in 12:39, 45; 16:4; 23:36; compare 27:25).Believers Must Flee Impending Judgment with Haste (24:16-20) Once the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, its inhabitants could still leave the city safely until the spring of A.D. 68 (Jos. War 4.377-80, 410; Lane 1974:468). Later deserters to the Romans, suspected of having swallowed jewels to escape with them, were often cut open by Syrian auxiliaries (Jos. War 5.550-52). Jesus' command to flee to the mountains (v. 16) makes good sense; Palestine's central mountain range provided a natural refuge (as in 1 Sam 23:14; Ezek 7:15-16; Jos. War 2.504).

The admonitions to leave the rooftop without entering the house (v. 17) and to leave the field without returning for one's cloak (v. 18) indicate that life matters more than even its basic necessities, which might later be replaced (compare 1 Macc 2:28). Because outside staircases led up to the flat rooftops, one could descend without entering the house to retrieve possessions (Lane 1974:470). One normally slept in one's outer garment and wore it during the cold of morning labor in the fields, but left it at the edge of the field as the day grew warmer (Anderson 1976:296). As essential as this outer cloak was, Jesus declares that running at the news of impending destruction was more urgent still.

The "woe" over the pregnant and nursing (how dreadful, v. 19) signifies the difficulty of flight and survival (Lk 23:29), implying the sorrow of losing infants in the trauma (compare 2 Baruch 10:13-15). Verse 20 also reveals foresight concerning the sabbath and winter. On the former (mentioned only by Matthew) one could not secure animals for transport. Winter's cold limited travel; even armies stopped traveling campaigns during this season (as in Jos. War 4.442; Ant. 18.262). Further, winter rains could flood the roads and bury them deep in mud (m. Ta`anit 1:3; Jeremias 1969:58); indeed, in spring 68, because the Jordan was flowing high, Gadarene fugitives were delayed in crossing and were slaughtered by the Romans (Jos. War 4.433; Lane 1974:470-71).

Although Jesus' words specifically address the fall of Jerusalem, they provide us with some important principles. Christians who remember the nature of the time ought not to be attached to worldly possessions; we should value our lives enough to flee immediately. Indeed, God may judge materialistic Western and other societies at times to turn us from our pursuit of what does not matter so we may learn to pursue what really does. Nor ought we to believe false prophets of peace proclaiming that judgment will never strike our own locality (for example, Jer 6:14); rather than sparing a locality, God sometimes warns his servants to leave (Gen 19:15-30).

God Cares About His Servants in Distress (24:21-28) Daniel spoke of an end-time tribulation greater than any that had preceded it (Dan 12:1); by indicating that no tribulation before or after this one would rival it, Matthew may suggest that it is a tribulation within history, not necessarily the final one (compare Jos. War 1.12). In any case, he warns against believing anyone who claims to be Christ, for when our Lord really returns even the sky will declare it (24:23-28).

When faith is tested, patience may wane; like Abraham and Sarah, we may be tempted to look for less difficult solutions than trusting God to fulfill his promise literally (Gen 16:1-2). But if our allegiance is to the Lord of the universe, we dare not settle for counterfeits. Signs and wonders (Mt 24:24) alone are inadequate to demonstrate a prophet's authenticity (7:21; Deut 13:1-5; 2 Thess 2:9). At what time will Jesus return? The same day the vultures gather around the corpses of the wicked slain in judgment (Mt 24:28).

Previous commentary:
Not Yet the End

Next commentary:
Jesus' Return

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.