- Jesus said that great tribulation would come upon Jerusalem such as had never occurred before nor would occur again. How could this be? (Mt 24:21)
- What is the great tribulation that the angel spoke of to the apostle John? (Re 7:14)
- What tribulation is referred to at Matthew 24:29?
- Are these three verses related in any way?
Let us consider this verse in context.
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Mt 24:15-21 ESV (Hint: click on any verse number to see parallel renderings)
Was the flood of Noah’s day greater than the destruction of Jerusalem? Will the war of the great day of God the Almighty called Armageddon which will affect the whole earth be greater than the destruction of the nation of Israel by the Romans in the first century? For that matter, were either of the two world wars of greater scope and destructiveness and distress than the death of a million or so Israelites in 70 CE?
We will take it as a given that Jesus cannot lie. It is also highly unlikely that he would engage in hyperbole on such a weighty matter as his warning to the disciples about the coming destruction, and what they had to do to survive it. With that in mind, there appears to be only one conclusion that fits all the facts: Jesus is speaking subjectively.
He is speaking from the viewpoint of his disciples. To Jews, only their nation mattered. The nations of the world were inconsequential. It was only through the nation of Israel that all mankind was to be blessed. Sure, Rome was an annoyance to say the least, but in the great scheme of things, only Israel mattered. Without God’s chosen people, the world was lost. The promise of a blessing upon all the nations which was made to Abraham was to come through his seed. Israel was to produce that seed, and they were promised they would participate as a kingdom of priests. (Ge 18:18; 22:18; Ex 19:6) So from that viewpoint, the loss of the nation, the city, and the temple would be the greatest tribulation of all time.
The destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE was also a great tribulation, but did not result in the eradication of the nation. Many were preserved and taken into exile. Also, the city was rebuilt and came under the rule of Israel once again. The temple was rebuilt and the Jews again worshiped there. Their national identity was preserved by genealogical records going right back to Adam. However, the tribulation they experienced in the first century was far worse. Even today, Jerusalem is a city divided between three great religions. No Jew can trace his ancestry back to Abraham and through him back to Adam.
Jesus assures us that the great tribulation Jerusalem experienced in the first century was the greatest it would ever experience. No greater tribulation will ever come upon the city.
Admittedly, this is a viewpoint. The Bible doesn’t explicitly apply Jesus’ words. Perhaps there is an alternative explanation. Whatever the case, it seems safe to say it is all academic from our perspective 2000 years hence; unless of course there is some sort of secondary application. That is what many believe.
One reason for this belief is the recurring phrase “great tribulation.” It occurs at Matthew 24:21 in the NWT and again at Revelation 7:14. Is the use of a phrase a valid reason for concluding that two passages are prophetically linked? If so, then we must also include Acts 7:11 and Revelation 2:22 where the same phrase, “great tribulation”, is used. Of course, that would be nonsensical as anyone can readily see.
Another viewpoint is that of Preterism which holds that the prophetic contents of Revelation were all fulfilled in the first century, because the book was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, not at the very end of the century as many scholars believe. Preterists would therefore conclude that Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 7:14 are parallel prophecies pertaining to the same event or at least linked in that both were fulfilled in the first century.
It would take too long here and take us too far off topic to discuss why I believe the Preterist view is wrong. However, so as not to be dismissive of those holding that view, I will reserve that discussion for another article dedicated to the subject. For now, if you, like myself, do not hold to the Preterist point of view, you are still left with the question of what tribulation Revelation 7:14 is referring to.
The phrase “great tribulation” is a translation of the Greek: thlipseōs (persecution, affliction, distress, tribulation) and megalēs (large, great, in the widest sense).
How Is Thlipseōs Used in the Christian Scriptures?
Before we can address our second question, we need to understand how the word thlipseōs is used in the Christian Scriptures.
For your convenience, I’ve provided a comprehensive list of every occurrence of the word. You can paste this into your favorite Bible verse lookup program to review them.
[Mt 13:21; 24:9, 21, 29; Mr 4:17; 13:19, 24; 16:21, 33; Ac 7:11; 11:19; Ro 2:9; 5:3; 8:35; 12:12; 1Co 7:28; 2Co 1:4, 6, 8; 2:4; 4:17; Php 1:17; 4:14; 1Th 1:6; 3:4, 7; 2Th 1:6, 7; 1Ti 5:10; He 11:37; Ja 1:27; Re 1:9; 2:9, 10, 22; 7:14]
The word is used to refer to a time of distress and trial, a time of affliction. What is most significant is that every use of the word occurs in the context of Jehovah’s people. Tribulation affected Jehovah’s servants before Christ. (Ac 7:11; He 11:37) Often, the tribulation comes from persecution. (Mt 13:21; Ac 11:19) Sometimes, God brought the tribulation himself upon his servants whose conduct merited it. (2Th 1:6, 7; Re 2:22)
Trials and tribulations upon God’s people were also allowed as a means of refining and perfecting them.
“For though the tribulation is momentary and light, it works out for us a glory that is of more and more surpassing greatness and is everlasting” (2Co 4:17 NWT)
What is the Great Tribulation of Revelation 7:14?
With that thought in mind, let us now examine the angel’s words to John.
“Sir,” I answered, “you know.” So he replied, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Re 7:14 BSB)
The use of thlipseōs megalēs here differs from the other three places the phrase appears. Here, the two words are modified by the use of the definite article, tēs. In fact, the definite article is used twice. A literal translation of the phrase in Revelation 7:14 is: “the tribulation the great” (tēs thlipseōs tēs megalēs)
The use of the definite article would seem to indicate that this “great tribulation” is specific, unique, one of a kind. No such article is used by Jesus to distinguish the tribulation which Jerusalem experiences at its destruction. That turned out to be but one of many tribulations that have come and were yet to come upon Jehovah’s chosen people—physical and spiritual Israel.
The angel further identifies “the great tribulation” by showing that those who survive it have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. The Christians who survived the destruction of Jerusalem are not said to have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb by virtue of their escape from the city. They had to continue to live their lives and remain faithful to death, which might have been many decades later for some.
In other words, that tribulation wasn’t a final testing. However, this appears to be the case with The Great Tribulation. Surviving it puts one in a cleansed state symbolized by the white robes, standing in heaven in the holy of holies—the temple or sanctuary (Gr. naos) before the throne of God and Jesus.
These ones are called a great crowd from all nations, tribes and peoples. – Re 7:9, 13, 14.
Who are these ones? Knowing the answer might help us to determine what The Great Tribulation really is.
We should start by asking ourselves where else are faithful servants depicted wearing white robes?
In Revelation 6:11, we read:
“9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servantsc and their brothersd should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Re 6:11 ESV)
The end only comes when the complete number of faithful servants who have been killed for the word of God and for bearing witness to Jesus is filled. According to Revelation 19:13, Jesus is the word of God. The 144,000 keep following the lamb, Jesus, the word of God, no matter where he goes. (Re 14:4) These are the ones the Devil hates for bearing witness to Jesus. John is of their number. (Re 1:9; 12:17) It follows then that these are the brothers of Christ.
John sees this great crowd standing in heaven, in the presence of both God and the Lamb, rendering them sacred service in the temple sanctuary, the holy of holies. They wear white robes as do those under the altar killed for bearing witness to Jesus. The end comes when the full number of these ones is killed. Again, everything points to these being spirit anointed Christians.[i]
To gain the prize Christ offered us, we must be willing to undergo such tribulation.
“He now called the crowd to him with his disciples and said to them: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him disown himself and pick up his torture stake and keep following me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the good news will save it. 36 Really, what good will it do a man to gain the whole world and to lose his life? 37 What, really, would a man give in exchange for his life? 38 For whoever becomes ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”” (Mr 8:34-38)
The willingness to endure shame for the sake of bearing witness about the Christ is key to enduring the tribulation imposed upon Christians by the world and even—or especially—from within the congregation. Our faith is perfected if we, like Jesus, can learn to despise shame. (He 12:2)
All of the foregoing applies to every Christian. The tribulation that results in a refining began right at the birth of the congregation when Stephen was martyred. (Ac 11:19) It has continued down to our day. Most Christians go through their lives never experiencing persecution. However, most people who call themselves Christian do not follow the Christ wherever he goes. They follow men wherever they go. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, how many are willing to go against the Governing Body and stand for truth? How many Mormons will go against their leadership when they see a divergence between their teachings and those of Christ? The same can be said for Catholics, Baptists, or the members of any other organized religion. How many will follow Jesus over their human leaders, especially when doing so will bring reproach and shame from family and friends?
Many religious groups hold that the Great Tribulation spoken of by the angel at Revelation 7:14 is some sort of final test upon Christians prior to Armageddon. Does it make sense that those Christians alive when the Lord returns will need a special test, which the rest who have lived through the past 2,000 years are spared? The brothers of Christ alive at his return will need to be fully tested and have their faith fully perfected just as much as all others who have died prior to his coming. All anointed Christians must wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb of God.
So the idea of some special end-times tribulation does not appear to fit with the need to gather and perfect this group which will serve with Christ in his kingdom. There is very likely to be tribulation at the end of days, but it does not appear that The Great Tribulation of Revelation 7:14 applies only to that time period.
We should bear in mind that every time the word thlipseōs is used in the Christian Scriptures, it is applied in some way to God’s people. Is it therefore unreasonable to believe that the entire period of refinement of the Christian congregation is called The Great Tribulation?
Some might suggest that we shouldn’t stop there. They would go back to Abel, the first martyr. Can the washing of the robes in the blood of the lamb apply to faithful men who died prior to Christ? Hebrews 11:40 suggests that such ones are made perfect together with Christians. Hebrews 11:35 tells us that they performed all the faithful acts listed in chapter 11, because they were reaching out for a better resurrection. Even though the sacred secret of the Christ was not yet fully revealed, Hebrews 11:26 says that Moses “considered the reproach of the Christ to be riches greater than the treasures of Egypt” and that he “looked intently toward the payment of the reward.”
So it could be argued that The Great Tribulation, the great time of trial upon Jehovah’s faithful servants, spans the full extent of human history. Be that as it may, it seems fairly clear that there is no evidence for a brief period of time just prior to Christ’s return in which there will be a special tribulation, some sort of final test. Those alive at Jesus’ presence will be tested, of course. They will be under stress to be sure; but how could that time constitute a greater test than what others have gone through since the founding of the world? Or are we to suggest that those prior to this supposed final test were not also fully tested?
Immediately After the Tribulation of Those Days…
Now we come to the third verse under consideration. Matthew 24:29 also uses thlipseōs but in a time context. Matthew 24:21 is definitely linked to the destruction of Jerusalem. We can tell that from the reading alone. However, the time period covered by the thlipseōs of Revelation 7:14 can only be deduced, so we cannot speak categorically.
It would seem that the timing of the thlipseōs of Matthew 24:29 can also be derived from the context, but there is a problem. Which context?
“29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Mt 24:29-31)
Because Jesus speaks of great tribulation to come upon the people of Jerusalem at the time of its utter destruction by the Romans, many Bible students conclude that Jesus is speaking about the same tribulation here in verse 29. However, it appears this cannot be the case, because right after Jerusalem was destroyed, there were no signs in the sun, moon and stars, nor did the sign of the Son of Man appear in the heavens, nor did the nations see the Lord return in power and glory, nor were the holy ones gathered to their heavenly reward.
Those who draw the conclusion that verse 29 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem overlook the fact that between the end of Jesus’ description of the destruction of Jerusalem and his words, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…”, are six additional verses. Could it be that the events those days are what Jesus refers to as a time of tribulation?
23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Mt 24:23-28 ESV)
While these words have been fulfilled down through the centuries and across the full expanse of Christendom, allow me to use one religious group I’m very familiar with by way of illustration to demonstrate how what Jesus describes here might be considered a tribulation; a time of distress, affliction, or persecution, specifically resulting in a trial or testing of God’s people, his chosen ones.
The leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be anointed while the bulk of their flock (99%) are not. This exalts them to the status of anointed ones (Gr. Christos) or Christs. (The same can often be said about the priests, bishops, cardinals, and ministers of other religious groups.) These ones claim to speak for God as his appointed channel of communication. In the Bible, a prophet is not merely one who foretells the future, but one who speaks inspired utterances. In short, a prophet is one who speaks in the name of God.
Throughout most of the 20th century and down to the present, these anointed (Christos) JWs claim that Jesus has been present since 1914. However, his presence is remote for he sits on his throne in heaven (far away in the wilderness) and his presence is hidden, invisible (in the inner rooms). Moreover, Witnesses received prophecies from the “anointed” leadership concerning dates as to when his presence would be extended to the earth at his coming. Dates such as 1925 and 1975 came and went. They were also given other prophetic interpretations concerning a time period covered by “this generation” which caused them to expect the Lord to arrive within a specific span of time. This time period kept getting changed. They were led to believe that they alone had been given this special knowledge to recognize the presence of the Lord, even though Jesus said it would be like the lightning in the sky which is visible to all.
These prophecies all turned out to be false. Yet these false Christs (anointed ones) and false prophets[ii] continue to make new prophetic interpretations to encourage their flock to calculate and be in eager expectation of the nearness of Christ’s return. The majority continue to believe these men.
When doubt arises, these anointed prophets will point to “great signs and wonders” which prove they are God’s appointed channel of communication. Such wonders include the worldwide preaching work which is described as a modern-day miracle.[iii] They also point to the impressive prophetic elements from the book of Revelation, claiming these “great signs” were fulfilled by Jehovah’s Witnesses through, in part, the reading and adopting of resolutions at district conventions.[iv] The so-called phenomenal growth of Jehovah’s Witnesses is another “wonder” which is used to convince doubters that the sayings of these men are to be believed. They would have their followers overlook the fact that Jesus never pointed to any such things as identifying marks of his true disciples.
Among Jehovah’s Witnesses—as among other denominations in Christendom—are to be found God’s chosen ones, the wheat among weeds. However, as Jesus warned, even the chosen ones can be misled by false Christs and false prophets performing great signs and wonders. Catholics also have their great signs and wonders, as do other Christian denominations. Jehovah’s Witnesses are by no means unique in this regard.
Sadly, many have been misled by such things. Disillusioned by religion, huge numbers have fallen away and no longer believe in God. They failed the time of testing. Others wish to leave, but are afraid of the rejection that will result as friends and family no longer wish to association with them. In some religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses for instance, this shunning is officially enforced. In most others, it is a result of a cultural mindset. In any case, this is also a test, and often one of the most difficult to face. Those who get out from under the influence of false Christs and false prophets often suffer persecution. Throughout history, this was literal physical persecution. In our modern world, it is more often persecution of a psychological and social nature. Nevertheless, such ones are refined by the tribulation. Their faith is perfected.
This tribulation began in the first century and continues down to our day. It is a subset of the great tribulation; a tribulation that does not result from outside forces, such as the civil authorities, but from within the Christian community by those who lift themselves up, claiming to be righteous but are in fact ravenous wolves. – 2Co 11:15; Mt 7:15.
This tribulation will only end when these false Christs and false prophets are removed from the scene. One common understanding of the prophecy in Revelation 16:19 to 17:24 is that it pertains to the destruction of false religion, principally Christendom. Since judgment starts with the house of God, this seems to fit. (1Pe 4:17) So once these false prophets and false Christs are removed by God, this tribulation will have ended. Prior to that time there will still be the opportunity to benefit from this tribulation by removing ourselves from her midst, no matter the personal cost or shame resulting from negative gossip and slander from family and friends. – Re 18:4.
Then, after the tribulation of those days, all the signs predicted in Matthew 24:29-31 will come to pass. At that time, his chosen ones will know without the false words of so-called Christs and self-appointed prophets that their liberation is finally very near. – Luke 21:28
May we all be faithful so that we can come through The Great Tribulation and the “tribulation of those days” and stand before our Lord and God in white robes.
[i] I believe it is a tautology to say ‘spirit anointed Christian’, since to be a true Christian, one must be anointed with holy spirit. Nevertheless, for clarity due to the conflicting theologies of some readers, I’m utilizing the qualifier.
[ii] JW leadership deny they ever claimed to be prophets. Yet refusing to accept the label is meaningless if one walks the walk of a prophet, which the historical evidence clearly shows is the case.
[iii] “The success of the Kingdom-preaching work and the growth and spiritual prosperity of Jehovah’s people can be described as a miracle.” (w09 3/15 p. 17 par. 9 “Be Vigilant”)
[iv] re chap. 21 p. 134 par. 18, 22 Jehovah’s Plagues on Christendom; re chap. 22 p. 147 par. 18 The First Woe—Locusts, re chap. 23 p. 149 par. 5 The Second Woe—Armies of Cavalry