Please explain Matthew 24:21: "[F]or then shall be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be. Premillennialists claim that this prophecy cannot refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, since there have been “tribulations” much greater than those suffered in Jerusalem during the Roman invasion (A.D. 70). For example, the German holocaust of World War II involved many more people than those who died in A.D. 70. Therefore, this passage (they say) must have reference to a “great tribulation” in connection with the second coming of Christ. Please comment on this.
Preliminary to a consideration of this passage, we would encourage our readers to consult A Study of Matthew Twenty-Four. That essay will lay a significant foundation that will help in putting the present passage into proper focus. Having said that, the following points are crucial to understanding Matthew 24:21.
The larger context of this chapter limits the descriptives of Matthew 24:5-22 to the generation contemporary with Christ. Jesus plainly said that “this generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished” (Mt. 24:34).
The term “generation” (Greek
genea) basically refers to “the sum total of those born at the same time,” i.e., “all [those] living at a given time” (see Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 153; Thayer 1958, 112). The expression “this generation” restricts the focus of the passage to the people living at that time (cf. Mt. 11:16; 12:41-42; 23:36).
The immediate context limits the horror of the destruction to the circumstances of ancient Jerusalem. Note that after the Lord’s admonition, relative to fleeing from Jerusalem (in winter or on the Sabbath), Christ says “for then [at that time (cf. Arndt and Gringrich, 831; Thayer, 629)] shall be great tribulation.” Thus Jesus specifies the time—it was near, not remote.
Not the Last Day
The text cannot refer to a tribulation at the end of time, otherwise Christ would not have said “nor ever shall be.” The Lord’s return will signal “the end” (see 1 Cor. 15:24) of earthly affairs (see 2 Peter 3:4ff). That day will be the “last day” (cf. Jn. 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:48).
It would hardly make sense to use the expression “nor ever shall be” when referring to an event that is proximate to the very end of the world itself.
Hyperbolic Language Possible
There is a possibility that the language contains some degree of hyperbole for the purpose of emphasis. Such is common to biblical literature (cf. Jn. 21:25). However, one is not forced to that view. There is ample evidence that the destruction of Jerusalem actually conforms to Matthew’s descriptive.
The terminology is designed to emphasize the nature of the carnage, the intensity of the event, and not the mere numbers per se.
First, it describes a punishment upon the Jews. It was the worst event in their history. It represented the death of Israel nationally! Though the holocaust involved larger numbers, the type of suffering inflicted at Jerusalem was unparalleled in history. The acute famine, the in-fighting, the cannibalism, the savagery, the crucifixions, etc., were horrible beyond words.
Even Josephus commented that “the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews [at the destruction of Jerusalem], are not so considerable as they were” (Wars of the Jews, Preface, 4). The Jewish historian certainly was aware of numerous destructions prior to A.D. 70, even those portrayed in the Old Testament (including the flood). Yet Jerusalem’s misery eclipsed even that.
Several scholars have commented upon this.
Other sieges may have witnessed, before and since, scenes of physical wretchedness equally appalling, but nothing that history records offers anything parallel to the alternations of fanatic hope and frenzied despair that attended the breaking up of the faith and polity of Israel (Plumptre 1959, 148).
No nation had ever piled up a guilt such as that of the Jews who were chosen of God, infinitely blessed, and yet crucified God’s Son and trampled upon all his further grace. No judgment had ever and can ever be so severe. In the history of the world no judgment can be compared with this that wiped out the Jews as a nation (Lenski 1943, 940).
[The] tribulation to Israel [was] unparalleled in the terrible past of its history, and unequalled even in its bloody future. Nay, so dreadful would be the persecution, that, if Divine mercy had not interposed for the sake of the followers of Christ, the whole Jewish race that inhabited the land would have been swept away" (Edersheim 1947, 449).
Matthew 24:21 does not refer to the end of time. Its application, based upon all contextual considerations, was to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.
As supplementary reading, I would recommend an excellent volume by J. Marcellus Kik, Matthew XXIV. It contains an excellent discussion of this matter.