When Was (Is) the Great Tribulation?
“And they will deliver YOU up to tribulation. . . .” (Matthew 24:9)
“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom. . . .” (Revelation 1:9)
From the above citations we can clearly see that (1) Jesus taught that those to whom He was speaking in the first century would witness the tribulation, and (b) the tribulation had arrived when John was writing Revelation. Now note this passage:
“When YOU see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. . . for THESE are the days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. . . .” (Luke 21:20-22)
In this passage, a parallel passage to Matthew 24, Jesus said that He was living in the time that would FULFILL ALL OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY, and ties fulfillment of prophecy to the coming destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Luke 21:5-6).
Also note in Luke 21 that THEY could escape the coming tribulation by fleeing to the mountains. This precludes a world-wide catastrophe, as most people think! The Great Tribulation was a local event associated with the coming fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Romans from AD 66-70. According to Josephus, over a million people were killed by the Romans in this tragedy. And the glorious temple was completely destroyed.
Then, in case they didn’t get it at first, Jesus reiterated the time-line for fulfillment:
“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Matthew 24:34)
And, if there was any lingering doubt about when it would happen, Jesus said:
“Pray that you may be able to escape all that is ABOUT TO happen.” (Luke 21:36, see the NIV or literal translations such as the YLT)
Next, consider this passage:
“For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole EARTH.” (Luke 21:35)
Was Jesus speaking of the entire globe as we know it today, or was He speaking of the world in which He and his contemporaries lived, that is, Judea? The word translated as “earth” here in Luke 21 is the Greek word “ge.” The online Blue Letter Bible interlinear gives several meanings for this word, including: (a) the inhabited earth, (b) country, land enclosed within fixed boundaries, a tract of land, territory, or region. As always, context and audience relevance determine how to interpret the Bible. Let’s take a look at another time we find this word in the immediate context of the Olivet Discourse:
“That upon YOU may come all the righteous blood shed upon the EARTH [ge], from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias.” (Matthew 23:35)
In this passage from Matthew 23, Jesus puts an astounding curse of judgment on the Jews of his day. This is a clear reference to the Jewish people of the Old Covenant order, and not to all the people on the entire globe thousands of years later. Why would Jesus be so harsh on them? The context is clear—for their sins and failure to accept Him as Messiah.
These texts limit the extent of the Tribulation to the immediate region in Jesus’ day—not the whole globe as we think of it today.
If you think that the Great Tribulation is a global event thousands of years later, you are reading something into the text that is not there. But wait. Didn’t Jesus say it would be the worst tribulation ever (Matthew 24:21)? Wasn’t the holocaust worse? Jesus’ frequent use of hyperbole aside, in terms of Jewish history AND covenant, the events surrounding AD 70 were indeed, without exaggeration, the most horrific days ever to befall God’s people.
What about Revelation 1:9 cited above? (See also Revelation 2:9-10). John said he and his contemporaries were living in the tribulation. Dozens of scholars are persuaded that Revelation was written in the 60’s AD. While many think that Revelation was written around AD 95, there is nothing in that time period that would qualify as the Great Tribulation. But there are two overlapping events in the 60’s AD that could qualify: both the Jewish-Roman War of AD 66-70 and the Christian persecution of Christians under Nero during AD 64-68. In either case, this is consistent with Jesus’ “this generation” statements (Matthew 24:34; Luke 21:32).
Conclusion: The events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem as predicted by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse were restricted by Him to the region and the people of Judea in the first century. This was the Great Tribulation, when Jesus returned in judgment against Old Covenant Israel. There is NO indication in God’s Word that it will ever happen again. To read a future “great tribulation” into the text does violence to the text and promises of Jesus.
For more information about Bible prophecy, see my book Christian Hope through Fulfilled Prophecy, available at Amazon: