3. THE GREAT TRIBULATION — FUTURE OR FULFILLED?
Matthew: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened” (24:21, 22).
Mark: “For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be. And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days” (13:19, 20).
Luke: “For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled . . . for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles” (21:22-24).
Unless we completely ignore the setting, it is evident that the tribulation mentioned here is that which was to come upon the people of Jerusalem and Judea — tribulation which would result in the destruction of the city and temple. As we have seen, Jesus spoke of various things that would come to pass first — wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, etc. None of these would be the sign of the impending desolation. But when they would see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then they would know that the desolation was nigh, and they should flee into the mountains. Why? “For then shall be GREAT TRIBULATION”, wrote Matthew. Luke’s account says: “For then shall be GREAT DISTRESS in the land [Judea], and wrath upon this people [the Jews]. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles.”
According to the scriptures, the “great tribulation” of which Christ spoke was to bring great affliction, distress, and wrath upon the Jews and destruction upon their city and temple.
Josephus, the Jewish historian who was an eye-witness to these events, wrote a full and detailed account of the tribulation that fell upon that land and people in and prior to 70 A.D. His account, Wars of the Jews, was published about 75A.D., at a time when the events of which he wrote were still fresh in the memory of thousands. Since he was not a Christian, no one can accuse him of slanting his material so as to match the prophecy Christ had given. Nevertheless, the history he recorded fully confirms the fulfillment of the prophecy Jesus gave about the “great tribulation” which came upon that land and people. The references we will give in this chapter are from Josephus.
The trouble in Jerusalem began over differences between the Jews and the Romans. Some of the Jews felt they should revolt against Roman rule; other felt that they should refrain from such actions and hope that a peaceful agreement could be reached. The Jews who favoured revolt became very violent and began to kill those who disagreed with them. Troops were sent in to control the mob. War was on! Not only at Jerusalem, but throughout the land trouble broke out.
“Every city was divided into two armies . . .”, Josephus says, “and the preservation of the one part was in the destruction of the other; so the daytime was spent in shedding blood, and the night in fear — which was of the two the more terrible . . . It was then common to see cities filled with dead bodies, still lying unburied; those of old men mixed with infants, all dead and scattered about together; women also lay amongst them, without any covering for their nakedness: You might then see the whole province full of inexpressible calamities while the dread of still more barbarous practices which were threatened, was everywhere greater than what had been already perpetrated.” (II, 18:2).
The Jews in Alexandria that revolted against t he Romans “were destroyed unmercifully; and this, their destruction, was complete . . . houses were first plundered of what was in them, and then set on fire by the Romans; wherein no mercy was shown to the infants, and no regard had to the aged; but they went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, till all the place was overflowed with blood, and fifty thousand of them lay dead upon heaps.” (II, 18:8).
In one hour, over 20,000 were killed in Caesarea and the battle continued until “all Caesarea was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants . . . Galilee was all over filled with fire and blood, nor was it exempted from any kind of misery or calamity.” (III, 4:1).
Such horror was in the land that one prominent man, in order to save his family from a worse fate, took a sword and killed first his aged father and mother, his wife and children — all submitting to it willingly — and then took his own life. (II, 18:3).
In Jerusalem, those of the revolting party were known as Zelots. They “fell upon the people [who disagreed with them] as upon a flock of profane animals, and cut their throats.” In this way, 12,000 of the more eminent inhabitants perished. “The terror that was upon all the people was so great, that no one had courage enough either to weep openly for the dead man that was related to him, or bury him . . . those that mourned for others soon underwent the same death with those whom they mourned for” (IV, 5:3).
Slaughter continued until “the outer temple was all of it overflowed with blood, and that day they saw 8,500 dead bodies there.” Included in this number were “those that a little before had worn the sacred garments and presided over the public worship, which were cast out naked to be the food of dogs and wild beasts.”
Even those who came with sacrifices were slain, “and sprinkled that altar . . . with their own blood; till the dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.” (V, 1:3).
“The noise also of those that were fighting was incessant, both by day and by night; but the lamentations of those that mourned exceeded the other . . . their calamities came perpetually, one upon another . . . But for the seditious themselves, they fought against each other, while they trod upon the dead bodies as they lay heaped one upon another, and taking up a mad rage from those dead bodies that were under their feet, became the fiercer thereupon . . . and when they had resolved upon anything, they executed it without mercy, and omitted no method of torment or of barbarity.” (V, 1:5).
No wonder Jesus said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for yourselves, and for your children” (Lk. 23:28), knowing that all these things would come upon that generation!
Jesus had said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and surely this was true of Jerusalem. Many Jews were killed by Jews, not by the enemy outside the walls. Josephus says that the Jews “never suffered from the Romans anything worse than they made each other suffer.” Such madness and insanity shows the validity of Jesus’ words when he likened that generation to a man who becomes demon-possessed, so that his latter state is worse than the first. (Mt. 12:43-45).
As Jerusalem became surrounded by the Romans, food became scarce within the walls of the city. Many of the Jews went by night into the valleys in search of food. These were caught, “tormented with all sorts of torture” and then crucified in the sight of those on the walls. About 500 every day were thus killed until the number finally became so great that there was not room enough for the crosses, nor enough crosses for the victims. Often several were nailed to the same torture stake. Imagine the torment of those who would see or hear of their loved ones being thus tortured a short distance from the walls. Many had their hands cut off. (V, 11:1, 2).
“Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children dying by famine; and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged; a kind of deadly night, had seized upon the city.” (V, 12:3).
“Thus did the miseries of Jerusalem grow worse and worse every day . . . the multitude of carcasses that lay in heaps one upon another was a horrible sight, and produced a pestilential stench.” (VI, 1:1).
“The number of those that perished by famine in the city was prodigious, and their miseries were unspeakable. For if so much as the shadow of any kind of food did anywhere appear, a war was commenced presently, and the dearest friends fell fighting one another about it . . . Children pulled the very morsel that their fathers were eating, out of their very mouths, and what was still more to be pitied, so did the mothers do to their infants: and when those that were almost dead were perishing under their hands, they were not ashamed to take from them the very last drops that might preserve their lives . . . The seditious . . . also invented terrible methods of torment to discover where any food was, and they were these: to stop up the passages of the privy parts of the miserable wretches, and to drive sharp stakes up their fundaments! and a man was forced to bear what it is terrible even to hear.” (V, 10:3).
One woman of prominence killed her infant son and roasted him. After eating half of the body, the other half was hid. Shortly after this, certain seditious Jews came to search her house. When they smelled the scent of roasted flesh, they threatened to cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had prepared. She then uncovered the remaining half of the little body, saying: “Come, eat of this food; for I have eaten of it myself! Do not you pretend to be either more tender than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother.” But even those hardened men were horrified at the sight and left the house trembling. (VI, 3:4).
Surely these things were a fulfillment of the warning that had been given centuries before. “The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far.., a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; a nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young . . . And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down . . . And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters . . . The tender and delicate woman among you, which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil toward . . . her young one that cometh from between her feet, and toward her children which she shall bear: for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly in the siege and straitness, wherewith thine enemy shall distress thee in thy gates.” (Deut. 28:49-57).
Some who tried to escape from the city after it had been surrounded by the Roman armies, swallowed pieces of gold in order to take them unnoticed. Word got out that such was being done and many of those who tried to escape were cut open by the enemy to see if they had swallowed any gold. “Nor does it seem to me that any misery befell the Jews that was more terrible than this, since in one night about 2,000 of these deserters were thus dissected.” (V, 13:4).
Finally the Roman armies broke through the wall and an enraged soldier caught the temple afire. “While the holy house was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity; but children, and old men, and profane persons, and priests, were all slain in the same manner . . . The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those that were slain . . . nor can one imagine anything either greater or more terrible than this noise . . . Moreover, many, when they saw the fire, exerted their utmost strength, and did break out into groans and outcries . . . Yet was the misery itself more terrible than this disorder; for one would have thought that the hill itself, on which the temple stood, was seething-hot, as full of fire on every part of it, that the blood was larger in quantity than the fire, and those that were slain more in number than those that slew them; for the ground did nowhere appear visible, for the dead bodies that lay on it.” (VI, 5:1).
The burning of the temple is especially significant in that the very date on which it was burned by the armies of Titus, was the same date that Nebuchadnezzar had burned it centuries before! This seems like more than a mere accident. “But, as for that house, God had for certain long ago doomed it to the fire, and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution of the ages: it was the tenth day of the month Ab, upon which it was formerly burnt by the king, of Babylon”! (VI, 4:5).
As the temple burned, the Jews knew all hope for deliverance was gone. The aqueducts and the city sewers were crowded as the last place of refuge for the hopeless. When these were searched, two thousand people were found dead there, and those that yet remained alive were dragged from thence and slain.
The scriptures had warned: “And the Lord shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you” (Deut. 28:68). Josephus tells how those that survived were led away captives, some being taken into Egypt! “As for the rest of the multitude that were above 17 years old, he put them into bonds, and sent them to the Egyptian mines . . . and sold the rest of the multitude with their wives and children, and every one of them at a low price, and that because such were sold were very many, and the buyers few.” (VI, 8, 9).
There were 97, 000 that were sold as slaves and 1,100,000 people that perished during the fierce tribulation of those days. “Now the number of those that were carried captive during the whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished in the whole siege, eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation, but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army . . . the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destruction that either men or God ever brought upon the world.” (VI, 9:3, 4).
Josephus summed it up in these words: “I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly: — that neither did any other city suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world.” (V, 10:5).
Josephus says the calamities which befell the Jews were “the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but, in a manner, of those that ever were heard of; both of those wherein cities have fought against cities, or nations against nations . . . it appears to me that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were.” (Preface, p. 427).
The scholarly Christian translator of Josephus’ works mentions this in a footnote: “That these calamities of the Jews, who were our Saviour’s murderers, were to be the greatest that had ever been since the beginning of the world, our Saviour had directly foretold (Mt. 24:21; Mk. 13:19; Lk. 21:23,24) and that they proved to be such accordingly, Josephus is here a most authentic witness.” (Preface, p.429).
Concerning our Lord’s statement about unparalled tribulation that was to come upon the Jews, Boettner has well said:
When Jesus spoke of tribulation “such as was not since the beginning of the world . . . nor ever shall be”, it seems he was using a proverbial form of expression. Similar expressions are found in various ways in the scriptures. Concerning the plague of locusts that devoured Egypt, for example, we read that “before them there was no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such” (Ex. 10:14). God said to Solomon, “I will give thee riches, and wealth, and honour, such as none of the kings have had that have been before thee, neither shall there any after thee have the like” (2 Chron. 1:12). “. . . there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee” (l Kings 3:12). “I will do in thee that which I have not done, and whereunto I will not do any more the like” (Ez. 5:8, 9). Joel spoke of “a great people . . . there hath not been ever the like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many generations” (Joel 2:2). Daniel wrote of “a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Dan. 12:1), and in the historical writings of Maccabees, we read: “There was a great affliction in Israel, the like whereof was not since the time that a prophet was seen among them” (l Mac. 9:27).
Some might argue that there has been greater tribulation since 70 A. D. They could also argue that there have been kings that have had more wealth and honour than Solomon. But such arguments are not merely differences in interpretation, they become arguments against the Bible itself. Seeing how this expression was used in the scriptures, we should not attempt to press it beyond its intended meaning. We believe the historical fulfillment fully meets the requirements of the prophecy that Jesus gave in this connection.
Jesus said: “For then shall be great tribulation” (Matthew); “For there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people . . . Jerusalem shall be trodden down of . . . Gentiles” (Luke) Did great tribulation or distress come upon the Jews and that land? Yes. Was Jerusalem “trodden down of the Gentiles” and destroyed so that one stone was not left upon another? Yes. Was there great wrath, affliction, and distress upon that people? Yes.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he spoke of “the Jews: who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us . . . to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:14-16). The word translated “uttermost” here is the same word that is used in Matthew 24:6, l7 where it is translated “end.” The word “wrath” that is used in this passage is the same as the one used in Luke 21:23: “ . . . wrath upon this people.”
An arch was erected in Rome to commemorate the victory of Titus and the Roman armies in the destruction of Jerusalem. Seven hundred of the Jewish captives were reserved by Titus to follow the carriage in which he made his triumphal entry into Rome. Carried in the procession were the spoils taken from the temple — the golden table, the seven-branched candlestick, the veils of the sanctuary, and the book of the law. These things are sculptured on the arch of Titus in Rome. This monument has been a witness through the centuries to the fact that the words of Jesus were fulfilled concerning the tribulation and destruction that was to come upon Jerusalem and Judea.
The prophecy that Jesus gave continues with these words: “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved [alive]; but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened” (Mt. 24:22; Mk. 13:20).
We must bear in mind that the reference here is to the area upon which the tribulation of those days fell — Judea and Jerusalem. It should not be wrested from its proper setting.
Concerning the destruction that came upon this same land and city in the Old Testament, we read: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate . . . Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:1, 7, 9). With the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, of course, there was no flesh saved alive. It was total destruction.
There is an obvious similarity here. In the Old Testament, “Except the Lord” had left a remnant, no flesh would have been saved alive. In the New Testament, “Except the Lord” had shortened the days, there would no flesh be saved alive. The meaning is basically the same in both cases.
We will notice in more detail later that the destruction that came upon that land and people was the judgment of God. It was no mere accident that things happened the way they did. The tribulation had definite bounds, however; it could only continue for a limited period of time. The days, we are plainly told, had been shortened. The Gentile armies could only go so far!
Looking at Luke’s account of “the days of vengeance” and “great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people”, we read: “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles.” Now, who were the Gentiles that did this? It was Titus and his armies. And how long were they to tread it down? “Until the times of the Gentiles [Titus and his armies] be fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). In other words, only a certain length of time was allotted for them to carry out the work of judgment; or, as Matthew and Mark put it, the days had been shortened!
Some have pulled these five words, “The times of the Gentiles”, out of their setting and have attempted to stretch them into a long age of time for which there is no real proof in this passage. One noted writer of the dispensational school says: “`the times of the Gentiles’ covers the entire period during which the nation of the Jews, the city of Jerusalem, and the land of Palestine are under Gentile domination. This began with Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Palestine and will end at the Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven at the close of the Great Tribulation.”2 This is the teaching set forth in the notes of the Scofield Bible.3
But considering the setting, this verse about “the times of the Gentiles” is not talking about who is ruling Jerusalem, it is talking about Jerusalem being trodden down. It is not talking about long ages of time, but of Jerusalem being trodden down by Gentiles, the Gentiles being those that destroyed it in 70 A.D. — Titus and his armies!
It was no exaggeration when Jesus spoke about no flesh being saved alive in that land upon which his judgment came. Josephus informs us that “the populace was almost annihilated . . . there was no part of Judea, which did not partake of the calamities of the capital city.” But for the elect’s sake, those days were shortened; the times allotted the Gentile armies to inflict that tribulation were limited. Though the Christians had escaped into the mountains, living without housing or provisions, they too could have eventually been destroyed by sword or famine if those days of tribulation had not been shortened.
Copyrighted material used by permission of the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association.
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