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The NIV translated this verse as "great distress" (thlipsis megale, Gk.). "Distress being a common word used throughout the N.T. epistles to describe the adverse conditions that Christians must endure on earth as they preach the Gospel of Christ. (John 16:33, Romans 5:3, 8:35, 12:12, 2 Cor. 1:4, 7:4. Ephesians 3:13, 2 Thess. 1:4, etal.)

There are no capital letters and no preceding articles ("the"). So no specific time frame or event is designated. And further, this whole phrase in verse 21 is a quotation found several times in the O.T. (Joel 2:2,Daniel 12:1) This verse is in the middle of the Olivet Discourse which was prefaced by Jesus saying the Temple, the core of Jewish worship, was to be totally destroyed.

But modern prophecy conferences present "great distress" with Capital Letters and an article in front:the. And teach that it means a 31/2 period of time that is to occur way off in the future (future to Jesus' day). The Great Tribulation! They fill this time gap with all sorts of intrigue, and tribulation, and scurrilous people.

Which, therefore, is the proper interpretation, using the appropriate hermeneutic on this verse?

5 Answers 5

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@Ray Butterworth wrote in a comment:

The destruction of the Temple and the conquest of Jerusalem are hardly on the same scale.

I'd like to answer the question by suggesting that, in fact, it actually was on that scale.

As has been stressed in some comments, context is extremely important. But, context is bigger than the surrounding text.

The core of Israel's very being was Jerusalem and the heart of that was the Temple. The Temple was THE place where God connected with the planet. Picture two funnels connected at their smallest end. Earth being the one large part and Heaven being the other. The neck was Jerusalem and the very center part of that neck was the Temple. This is the Cosmology of the Jews at the time. Every thing from God and every thing to God funneled through that Temple. Scripture describes this as a ladder; more on that in a moment.

The point is: Destroy the Temple, and you disconnected God from the entire population of the planet. No one could survive such a disconnect.

And, given the covenant with Abraham ("bless the nations") the Jewish nation was THE singular and only place through which the entire world would be blessed (consider this statement from a Jewish, not a Christ-centered, perspective). Paul argues that Abraham's seed transferred this charter to Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).

The Temple System also housed all of the elements necessary to carry out religious, judicial, legislative, executive, and business operations for that relationship between God and people. And, let me emphasize (though the Jews of the time completely misunderstood how it was supposed to work--Christ understood perfectly) that it was through Abraham's seed that there was not one group of people that was NOT to be blessed. The intent was world-wide.

This was Israel's charter, and the Temple was the connecting point. The Temple was the center of all that. Remove the Temple, and there was no avenue for blessing. God was gone!

The contrast of this, or should I say, the solution to this, is Christ; and is quite loudly presented by Jesus setting a very high bar with the skeptic Nathaniel: "You believe so easily? Really? You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." [Paraphrase of John 1:50-51]: A very clear reference to Jacob's ladder and the communication connection (cf 'angels', aka messengers). Christ took on the role of the communicating connection. He replaced the Temple. God is not gone!

If that event had not been cut short by Christ Jesus stepping in and shouldering that connection responsibility himself, taking the entire Temple system's purpose on his shoulders, no one would have survived. It would not have been possible. Jesus said that if the Temple was destroyed, he'd raise it again in three days--note the direct connection of Temple to Christ. But, for the sake of those chosen to carry that message forth, the temporal effect of Temple and Jerusalem destruction was shortened. It didn't have the earth shattering impact that it could--and would--have had.

Lastly, and to balance the thought that such a great tribulation (capitalized or otherwise) having happened means that significant tribulations will not now occur, 2 Thessalonians 2 paints the picture of a different time. So, an enormous Satan provided deception and very significant God provided illusion is yet to be seen. That's what Paul is clarifying in this chapter. How distressing and tribulation-like will that be? Good question. But, that's a different time and a different context. I suspect that such a time will be deceptively wonderful for some, and extreme testing for others.

Hermeneutics, at its core, is placing the text within the larger context. The elements I've shared above are not normally considered when discussing Matthew 24, but I think should be. The text needs to be kept in its historical context and words like 'Temple' and 'Jerusalem' need to have their historical and social senses kept in mind during the analysis.

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The answer is in the immediately following verse:

In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive.
But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones. (NLT)

The destruction of the Temple and the conquest of Jerusalem are hardly on the same scale.
They might foreshadow the eventual event, but they certainly aren't the event.

Until very recent times, the idea of some human action that could physically destroy all human life on Earth wasn't possible. (E.g. what could any Roman do that would kill everyone in Australia?)

Today of course, we have many such means available; the only question being which one will be used first.

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  • (IF THOSE DAYS) The days referred to, JESUS said, would all take place within that generation (verse 34). The historians wrote that the Destruction of Judea (and Jerusalem) was horrendous. (Killing, slavery for gladiator games, torture, etc.) The Roman soldiers showed no mercy. If Titus had not stopped the conquest, "no Jewish flesh would have been saved!" These passages cannot exegetically be torn out of the Olivet Discourse, and plopped down in the 21st century. Context is vital in hermeneutics.
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 21:38
  • One thing for sure: those who claim this was all completely fulfilled in 70 AD aren't changing their story any time soon. I guess prophecy is nothing more than a history lesson? Then why bother? My apologies to history buffs.
    – moron
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 23:37
  • @raygrant says "Context is vital in hermeneutics". Exactly. And this whole chapter is Jesus's response to the question "What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?". Unless the Bible shows that Jesus returned and the world ended in the first century, we're still waiting. Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 0:14
  • (SIGNS?) You leave out the part of the question dealing with the Destruction of the Temple, which generated the questions in the first place ("stone upon stone"). Jesus's response was a correction in their thinking. He had to let them know that signs were to lead to the Destruction...BUT there were to be no signs at His return at the Second Coming! He made this division in His Discourse very clear: "all these things were to happen in this generation" to YOU, YOU, YOU. "Gk. peri-de: 'but concerning that Day.." is the section dealing with the Return. He repeated "no signs" again and again!
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 19:58
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The events in Matthew 24 are a summary of events expanded upon in Revelation. It is likely that the timetable for the great distress or tribulation is the same in each. Since John wrote Revelation after 70 AD and many of the events shown to him were explicitly told to him as being in the future, we must assume the same thing for the Great Tribulation.

This time of distress is described as unparalleled in history. For the Jews, the Holocaust eclipsed the destruction by Nero of Jerusalem. For Christians, tens of millions died in the wars following the Protestant Reformation, often at the hands of other Christians. This rules out 70 AD as being the ultimate fulfillment. Multiple fulfillment of some prophecies is found in the Bible, so the destruction of Jerusalem may have been a foreshadowing of the ultimate time of distress. I believe that still is yet to come.

You ask what hermeneutic should be used. In my book “Peace, like Solomon never knew” I argue that there are seven books in the Bible that constitute the “seven pillars of wisdom”. They are Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Matthew and Revelation. With the opening of each seal on the scroll of Revelation, one of these Books will be opened, explained by the Holy Spirit in a deeper way to increase the wisdom of the church. By my reckoning, the first four seals have already been opened. The fifth will open soon and be accompanied by a great persecution, the “time to hate” of Ecclesiastes 3. That fifth seal’s opening will explain Ecclesiastes. That means that Matthew and Revelation will not be opened until after the sixth and seventh seals are broken.

When a book is opened, the Holy Spirit does so not principally by dictation, but by revealing new hermeneutical principles. Godly scholars then are able to make progress in uncovering and explaining previously hidden mysteries. Those hermeneutical principles themselves are found in the Bible, but were previously overlooked or misunderstood.

So you ask what are the principles that can enable one to understand that prophetic passage of Matthew. I believe that the church has not yet been taught those principles, hence cannot adequately interpret that passage.

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  • (UNDERSTAND ENOUGH TO FLEE) The warnings Jesus gave the disciples had to be clear enough for them to understand in order to "flee." What good would a warning be if it would take centuries of time to understand? The book of Revelation would have been written at a later date than Jesus's Olivet Discourse, so would be useless to the disciples to escape the distress of the 1st century Destruction of Judea! The honest exegete must give full weight to Jesus words about things happening in that generation (v. 34). Notice how many times He said "YOU" to the disciples in this prophecy in the 1st cent.
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 21:47
  • @raygrant asks "What good would a warning be if it would take centuries of time to understand?". If you see the prophesied signs of Christ's imminent return in the next few years, will the warning be "no good" to you? Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 0:09
  • @RayButterworth-What good would a warning be of immanent danger if it would take centuries of time to understand? The Destruction of Jerusalem was just around the corner, in this generation, which Jesus warned, not once, but twice (23:36, 24:34)! Certainly signs of Christ's immanent coming would be helpful, if there were to be any. But the point of Jesus's teaching in the second half of this prophecy was that ,tho there were signs of the Dest., there were to be no signs of the Second Coming. He repeated this multiple times (24:36,, 42, 44, 50, 25:13); this could not be clearer.
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 20:09
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I would say it refers to "Massive End Time trauma." I base this on Matthew 24:3 where the disciples ask Jesus, "Tell us, when will these things be, AND what will be the sign of Your coming, AND the end of the age/world?"

Jesus then goes on to explain what will began to happen from verses 4-14, which by the way are happening today. Then at vs15, Jesus gives a tip off or warning when He says, "Therefore when you see the Abomination of Desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place, (let the reader understand),"

At this point from verses 16-28 Jesus explains, "Get out of Dodge." Then at vs29, "But immediately AFTER the tribulation of those days the sign of His coming is upon us, verses 30-31. As far as I know the antichrist has not been revealed nor has the Son of Man been revealed and He has not sent forth His angels to gather together His elect.

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  • (TIP OFF?) The "tip off" mentioned could not be correct. Verse 34, JESUS said, "All those things would happen within that generation!" Remember that it was the disciples who listed the 3 aspects of THEIR question, not Jesus, in verse 3. Their lumping them together was the object of Jesus's correcting them. "Get out of Dodge" (all Judea, not just Jeru.) referred to the Conquest by the Romans which happened just like Jesus said, "in this generation"
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 21:30
  • Prophecy tends to be dual in application and fulfillment. As a general rule you go with the former fulfillment (70 AD) and stay with that until you come to "no flesh be saved" which steers you to the yet future final, and on a much larger scale, fulfillment.
    – moron
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 23:33
  • @raygrant Tell me ray, when did Matthew 24:29-31 happen? And another thing to consider is that the Apostle John wrote, (and this is an estimation) 1 John was written between 95 and 110AD. I bring this up because at 1 John 2:18 he says the following "Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist (singular) is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour." I'm not arguing that in 70 AD the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and a huge number of Jews left Judaea. Like moron stated we have a dual application and fulfillment
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 0:04
  • @raygrant, G1074 - genea - Strong's Greek Lexicon shows that the word doesn't have to mean "generation". Some translations footnote it as "age", "nation" or "race". ¶ There's also the interpretation that "this generation" refers to the generation that sees the signs, which could be a generation that sees the signs 2000 years later. Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 0:06
  • (SEEING SIGNS) Does it make sense, according to the pop-interpretation that "The generation that sees these signs will not pass away until it sees these signs"? It makes more sense to stick to the first century...IN WHICH all those signs did occur! Read Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews.
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 20:04
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First, the "tribulation" described in Matt 24:21 is actually called "great tribulation" and is preceded by the article, "the" in Matt 24:29 and Mark 13:24. In Rev 7:14 it is called, "the great tribulation" (with some emphasis in the Greek! τῆς θλίψεως τῆς μεγάλης).

It is also described as worse than at any other time, hence the epithet, "great" in Matt 24 & Mark 13. This is further emphasized by the fact that other Bible authors describe other "tribulations" of the Christian life as "many" (Acts 14:22" and "light" (2 Cor 4:17).

Thus, the Bible writers do give some prominence to "the great tribulation" of Matt 24 & Mark 13.

Second,

The great tribulation of the last days is intimately associated with the "Abomination of Desolation" in these same passages. Indeed, the great tribulation is described as occurring as a direct result of the abomination of desolation.

Thus, one cannot consider the great tribulation without also considering the abomination of desolation. See the appendix below.

Third: I can find no 3½ year period directly associated with the great tribulation, despite the protests of some exegetes.

Conclusion

As shown in the appendix below, the great tribulation appears to allude to the extreme difficulties experienced by Jews during and immediately following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. However, it also appears to definitely have an eschatological dimension involving the entire earth and all nations. Thus, again, Jesus used the destruction of Jerusalem as a teaching and warning device to teach about the end of time and the remainder of Christian history.

APPENDIX - Abomination of Desolation

In the Greek NT, the phrase βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως (= “abomination of desolation”) has a pivotal occurrence in both first century events and apocalyptic events that overlap. The word ἐρημώσεως (eremoseos) is from the root word ἐρήμωσις (erémósis) which BDAG defines as, the “state of being made uninhabitable, devastation, destruction, depopulation”. This word only occurs in the following places in the NT:

  • Matt 24:15, “abomination of desolation which was spoken by Daniel the prophet …”
  • Mark 13:14, “abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be …”
  • Luke 21:20, “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.”

The “abomination of desolation” (or similar phrase) occurs elsewhere only in Daniel 8:13, 9:27, 11:31, 12:11. The phrase might be more helpfully translated, “depopulating sacrilege”. It is also alluded to in several other places as we shall see. Let us list the characteristics of the abomination of desolation from these references.

  • It causes the cessation of the “daily” (Heb: Tamid) usually understood to be the daily (or continual) sacrifice (Dan 8:13). More correctly, (See Annex), it points to the ministry of Jesus our High Priest and His continual ministry in the heavenly sanctuary.
  • It occurs because of rebellion (presumably of those supposed to be God’s people. Non-Christians and non-Jews cannot rebel because they have not declared loyalty to God.) (Dan 8:13)
  • It ushers in a period (“times of Gentiles” according to Luke 21:20-24) where the sanctuary and God’s people will be trampled underfoot (Dan 8:13, Rev 11:2)
  • It is associated with a coming ruler (not Messiah), presumably, the antichrist (Dan 9:27); in 2 Thess 2:1-12 he is called the “man of lawlessness”, and, “son of destruction”.
  • Dan 11:31 appears to equate the King of the North with the one who would abolish the “continual” (Heb: “Tamid”) and desecrate the temple fortress and thus depopulate the temple of worshipers.
  • As a direct result of the above, the abomination of desolation is closely associated with the “great tribulation” in Matt 24:9, 21, 29, Mark 13:19, 24, Rev 7:14.
  • There are several time periods associated with the abomination of desolation: 2300 days until its end (Dan 8:13); 1290 days from its beginning (Dan 12:11); 70 weeks (Dan 9:24-27). [There may also be a "42 months" association as well by comparing Luke 21:20-24, and Rev 11:2, but this may be a stretch.]
  • The abomination of desolation is to stand in the holy place (Hebrew idiom for either the temple or Jerusalem, Matt 4:5, 27:53, 24:15, Acts 6:13, 21:28) and is where this ruler does not belong (Mark 13:14). This is the signal for those in Jerusalem to immediately flee and thus precipitate immanent depopulation of Jerusalem of Christians.
  • The abomination of desolation was in Jesus’ time still future (Matt 24:15). (Therefore, this could not have been Antiochus Epiphanes.)

It is immediately obvious that Jesus applied this prophecy (at least in part) to the destruction of the temple (which occurred in 70 AD) that temporarily despoiled and depopulated Jerusalem, in his famous “Synoptic Apocalypse”. But it is also obvious that Jesus intended far more than this from the numerous references in this sermon to the end of the world. The question that prompted this sermon is a two-fold question (Matt 24:3) about both (a) the destruction of Jerusalem, and, (b) Jesus’ Second Advent. Jesus’ response was to answer both questions simultaneously by giving a dual prophecy. The advantage we have is to learn lessons from the destruction of Jerusalem and apply these to the remainder of Christian history since. Thus, while some parts of Jesus’ final sermon are clearly apocalyptic, much has a dual application as we shall soon see.

In Jesus’ time, the abomination of desolation was fulfilled when the pagan Roman government (by its army) stood in Jerusalem and soon destroyed it by desecrating the temple and temporarily depopulating the city . Apocalyptically and eschatologically, Paul tells us what would happen in 2 Thess 2:3 & 4 - Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. This uses the same language as Jesus’ sermon. The “man of lawlessness” would precipitate the abomination of desolation by blasphemously trying to usurp the rights and prerogatives of God Himself by removing Christ from the heavenly sanctuary and the continual (Heb: “Tamid”) intercession He offers for us (1 Tim 2:5, Heb 4:14-16, 7:23-28, 8:1, 2, 9:1-28, 10:1-18) as our High Priest.

Thus, we find that the little horn of Daniel 7, the (latter part) of the little horn of Daniel 8, the (latter part) of the king of the north that causes the abomination of desolation, the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2, and the sea beast of Rev 13, are all prophecies about the same medieval power that is blasphemous and sets itself against Jesus and His faithful people and persecutes Christ’s followers.

This medieval political power is different from all other political powers in that it blasphemously claims to usurp Christ and His salvation and thus is a legalistic, works based pseudo-Christian power, different from any other political or civil power. Thus, the abomination of desolation is an alternate means of salvation that takes away Christ as our mediator and high priest and replaces Him with a man-made system.

Annex: תָּמִיד (tamid)

In the book of Daniel, the word תָּמִיד (tamid), meaning continual or regular, occurs just five times, Dan 8:11, 12, 13, 11:31, 12:11 as an adverb. It is always associated with the apostate power that removed this “continual” from the sanctuary. The same word occurs almost 100 times in the rest of the OT. It is often associated with various things in the sanctuary such as:

  • The shew bread which was to be on the table continually, Ex 25:30, Lev 24:8, Num 4:7, 16, 2 Chron 2:4
  • The menorah which was to burn continually, Ex 27:20, Lev 24:2-4
  • The High Priests’ breast plate as a continual memorial, Ex 28:29, 30
  • The High Priests’ blue ribbon attached to his turban as a continual reminder of the presence of God, Ex 28:37, 38
  • The morning and evening sacrifice of a burnt offering (a lamb) on the sanctuary altar, Ex 29:41, 42, Num 28:3-6, 10, 15, 23, 24, 31, 29:6, 11, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, 34, 1 Chron 16:37, 40, 2 Chron 24:14, Ezra 3:5, Neh 10:33, Ps 50:8, Eze 46:15
  • The burning wood in the altar of offering, continually, Ex 30:8, Lev 6:13
  • Offering of fine flour was to be continual, Lev 6:20, Neh 10:33, Eze 46:14
  • The continual presence of the cloud over the sanctuary, Num 9:16
  • The blowing continually of trumpets, 1 Chron 16:6
  • The ceremonies of the sanctuary, generally, that operated continually, 1 Chron 16:37, 23:31.

Note two important things about this survey:

  1. There is MUCH more than just the continual/regular (morning and evening) burnt offering of a lamb associated with the word תָּמִיד (tamid); however, that is the most common. תָּמִיד (tamid) is also associated with shew bread, the light (menorah), the High Priests’ breast plate, the blue ribbon, fire on the altar, grain offering, trumpeting, sanctuary services generally.
  2. All the features associated with the תָּמִיד (tamid), “continual” are taken up in the NT as symbols of the ministry of Jesus as our High Priest both here and in heaven, Heb 4:14-16, 7:23-28, 8:1, 2, 9:1-28, 10:1-18. Note the following:
  • Jesus was the fulfilment of what the sanctuary/temple typified, John 2:19-21, Heb 9:1-28, 10:1-18
  • Jesus represented the foundation of the temple as well, 1 Peter 2:4-8 (Compare Isa 28:16, Ps 118:22)
  • Jesus was the bread of life, John 6:35, 41, 48 (compare Ex 25:23-30, Lev 24:8).
  • Jesus was the light of life, John 8:12, 9:5 (compare the lampstand Ex 25:31-39, Lev 24:3, 4, Isa 53:11, Ps 56:13, etc)
  • Jesus was the Passover Lamb and thus the promised Messiah, John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19 (compare Ex 12:1-14).
  • Jesus is the High Priest of the New Covenant in fulfilment of the Levitical covenant, Heb 4:14-16, 7:23-28, because He was “pure, blameless, set apart” exactly as the Levites were. See also Heb 9:15, 12:24.
  • Even the blue cord signifying the presence of God was fulfilled in and of Jesus, John 14:10, 11, etc.
  • Jesus provided the blood of the new covenant of which the communion ceremony was to be a memorial, Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, Heb 13:20, 1 Peter 1:19 (compare Ex 24:5, 8).

Now back to Daniel and his תָּמִיד (tamid). Many of the English versions add “sacrifice” after “continual” - is this valid? Yes and no! “Yes” if we understand it refers to the sanctuary ceremonies generally; “no” of we understand it refers to the sacrifices exclusively. I believe that Daniel is alluding to all that pointed to Jesus and His perfect ministry as our intercessor (1 Tim 2:5, Heb 8:6, 12:24, etc).

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  • @Dottard-The research highlighting the Roman conquest is commendable. However the excursions off into Daniel at length, and Revelation seem to detract from the limitations of this posted query. Verse 21 was used as a springboard into speculation about all the "bad men" in Daniel and medieval politics. Perhaps all the material in the Appendix and the Annex could be migrated to two separate posted questions by themselves!? They detract from the topic of this question. Jesus just quoted from Daniel 12, which traditionally has been interpreted as reference to Jerusalem's Destruction. (v.15,21)
    – ray grant
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 21:29
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    @Dottard, Revelation 3:10 references "the hour of trial coming upon the whole world," and the rest of the book seems to describe that trial, which would certainly be unprecedented in magnitude! I have a suspicion, a wild speculation, that if in the 40 years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the Jewish nation had come to accept Yeshua ben Yosef as their promised Messiah, then all prophesied events might well have been completed in that time frame.
    – Dieter
    Commented May 15 at 23:24
  • This is not an unexceptional answer. Far from it in fact. Everything mentioned is relatable. It's a definite but albeit belated upvote from me. Commented May 17 at 0:26

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