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There are various interpretations or misconceptions, should I say, to the parts of the Bible that refer to the tribulation, rapture, or the end of the world. Which is really the “end portion” of history, the tribulation or after the tribulation? These things have to be clarified in the context of Biblical interpretation and other interpretations by Bible scholars so as to be able to get a proper view of the Christian beliefs that have influenced many of us.
First, what is the tribulation? And what is the end of the world? Are the “signs of wars” or rumors of war the end of the world?
It is the purpose of this paper to give some views and ideas on the exposition of Matthew 24 and 25 in the context of Biblical passages and to arrive at a safer interpretation after consulting the literature on the various tribulation concepts.
Exposition of Matthew 24 and 25
Matthew 24 connects to the Gospel of Mark Chapter 13, which talks of the “end of the world.” The prophets of the Bible pointed out, and as what the Jews also believed, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple in particular, and the places surrounding it was the foretold end of the world. The prophets speak of the end of the world, which would initiate God’s universal kingdom. And when Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple, the apostles think and understand it as the end of the world.
The Jews asked: when will the end happen? When will the end of history be? The apostles confuse somewhat the two questions, but Jesus makes a clear distinction. The end is near, but not yet, meaning it is about.
Before going any further, are we in the “time” that the Bible refers to as the tribulation? The answer to this is possible, but this is a personal opinion. Bible scholars suggest that the understanding of the Bible, especially the tribulation aspects, should be understood by believers in a logical way.
Further, the Olivet discourse contains Jesus’ warnings about the destruction of the Jewish nation that would occur 30 years after, but what he said clarifies the meaning of the conflicts that occur at present in the whole world.
John comments that “though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him,” and cites the divine, judicial rejection of Israel in Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10 as fulfilled on this occasion (John 12:37-40). Jesus then withdrew from the Temple – His final exit – and from the city, crossed Kidron, and sat upon Olivet, where he spoke His discourse. (Gundry 131)
According to some interpreters, “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 24:14) preached during the tribulation will differ from the Gospel preached in the Church age even though both gospels agree in their soteriology (Gundry 131).
Moreover, Jesus says that the tragedy that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem is near, but that shall not be the end of the world. Those are the “signs of the times,” but the end has yet to come. Is the end of the world the end of everything?
Thirty years after Jesus, the Jews rebelled against Roman oppressors. The Roman Army became stronger after its first defeats and, with its flags adorned with the image of their idols, approached the Holy City. Then many messiahs (v. 22) appeared, that is, those who claimed to be the saviors of the Jewish nation and led many followers.
During the siege, the more fanatic Jews locked themselves in the City of Jerusalem, waiting for God’s intervention; they were so divided that they fought among themselves. Many were arrested by the Romans, who crucified the captives in front of the walls. The Romans destroyed the Temple and the other places surrounding it, took captive the men, women, and children, and made them slaves.
After announcing the end of the Jewish world, Jesus speaks of an even more important event: the end of the world, or better still, its transformation, not the end as in everything is finished or consummated.
The images of the sun and the moon are spoken in Is 13:10 and 34:4, which express the confusion, the surprise, and the disintegration of a man and the Universe before the majesty of the Supreme Judge. The sentence “He will send the angels” is a common image of the Jewish books that spoke of God’s judgment.
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The Biblical connotation for tribulation is “suffering and death”. Paul boasts of the Thessalonians’ “persecution and trials” (the Greek word for tribulation), and God will judge those “who trouble you” (the verb form of “tribulation”) (Fee and Stuart 258).
The Olivet discourse describes the course of the age between two advents and refers to the great tribulation just preceding His second coming to the earth. Having set forth the rejection of Christ in the context of ultimate glorification, the Gospel of Matthew then records the facts of His death, resurrection, and post-resurrection ministry. (Walvoord, “Thy Kingdom Come” 13)
Borne out of the many interpretations on the tribulation message of the Bible are the so-called pretribulationists, midtribulationists, and the posttribulationists. The pretribulationists posit that God would intervene before the tribulation. All nations of the world would join forces to destroy the Holy City of Jerusalem, but right at the moment of greatest despair, God would intervene in a triumphant way to establish his own kingdom.
The question of pretribulationist and posttribulationist interpretation is a major theological problem in the area of eschatology, according to Walvoord.
Walvoord points three reasons:
- “First, a question such as the use of the literal method of interpretation as contrasted to the nonliteral, spiritualizing method is most important.
- “Second, another major factor is the separation of divine programs for Israel and the Church.
- “Third, the larger issue of amillennialism versus premillennialism, which is also involved, makes the doctrine of the Tribulation significant beyond its own borders.” (Walvoord, “The Rapture” 14)
Logic also plays a part in the proper application of theological conclusions in general. To some extent, the interpretation of the tribulation is predetermined by theological conclusions in other aspects of eschatology. (Walvoord, “The Rapture” 15)
The concept of eschatology, the end of the world, and the various interpretations should be understood in a logical process.
Eschatological Framework of the New Testament
Authors Fee and Stuart suggest that the basic theological framework of the entire New Testament is eschatological. The Greek word for the end the Jews were looking for is eschaton.
To be eschatological in one’s thinking meant to be looking for the end (Fee and Stuart 145).
A diagram symbolical of the cross is presented here (Fee and Stuart 145):
The eschatological way of looking at life is figured with the cross. Early Christians understood this – Jesus’ coming, death and resurrection, and his giving of the Spirit – were all related to that end which they all expected to be the “Day of the Lord.”
The early Christians understood how to look at life in an eschatological way. Jesus’ life on earth, his passion and crucifixion, his resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are all related to their expectations of the coming of the end.
The coming of the end also meant a new beginning or the beginning of the messianic age, also referred to as the kingdom of God, “the time of God’s rule” (Fee and Stuart 146).
More biblical passages and meanings of the eschatological concept are found in Isa. 11-4-5, a time of righteousness; the people would live in peace (e.g., Isa 2:2-4); a time for the fullness of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-30) when the New Covenant spoken of by Jeremiah would be realized (Jer 31:31-34); sin and sickness would be done away with (Zech 13:1; Isa 53:5).
Eschatological fervor reached a fever pitch during the time John the Baptist announced to the people that the coming of the end was to be near, and when he baptized Jesus, the Son of God. This was the new beginning that the people of Israel were expecting. But like any other event, there were misconceptions that only Jesus and the Holy Spirit could give light.
Jesus came and announced with his ministry that the kingdom was at hand (e.g., Mark 1:14-15; Luke 17:20-21). He drove out demons, worked miracles, and freely accepted the outcasts and sinners – all signs that the end is at hand (Fee and Stuart 146).
When Jesus was performing these miracles, everyone was watching, and they thought he was the “Coming One.” But Jesus was tried by Pilate, accused by the Pharisees for rebellion (and maybe for usurping their authority), and subsequently was crucified. However, on the third day, Jesus rose again from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection brought another stage in the eschatological concept again. Was he now to restore the kingdom of God?
The inspired prophecy of Peter, which states that skeptics would ask the question “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” (2 Peter 3:4), is still being fulfilled (Walvoord, “The Rapture” 11).
Beginning with Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, the early Christians came to realize that Jesus had not come to usher in the ‘final’ end but the ‘beginning’ of the end, as it were (Fee and Stuart 146).
With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the blessings and benefits that the believers had acquired and felt, it was like the end had come. But still, the end has to be consummated because the Lord Jesus has to come again, we still die but will be brought to life, and there will still be future judgment. Because of this continuing eschatological and theological framework, we continue to wait for the next stage or coming.
Mark 13:7 (when you hear about wars) does not mean that God leaves the world in the hands of evil. It is more delivery than a failure because humanity is maturing, and the nations encounter more complex problems in their life and development. The crisis suffered by the Jewish nation in the time of Jesus was similar to that experienced by other civilizations.
The same chapter of Mark (v. 32), regarding the day, this is the day of the judgment, also called the “Day of Yahweh,” spoken in the prophets Anis and Zeph 1:15. And Jesus states it clearly, “No one knows when.”
Back to Matthew 24, v. 4-28, Jesus speaks of the days of anguish that will conclude with the destruction of Jerusalem, which the listeners of Jesus will witness. It will be possible to run away before the disaster occurs (15-20); a time for evangelization, a time for persecutions, and for Christians’ testimony before the Jewish and pagan worlds (9-14).
Jesus shows that this general confusion about the true savior is very far moved from what will happen when he returns at the end of time. Jesus talks about his glorious coming. Then Jesus reasserts two things: the events and signs which refer to the end of Jerusalem will take place in the present generation (32-35).
The comparison of the two men (or women) working together means that, upon the coming of Jesus, the Judgement will take place, then there could be separation within the same social or family group: some headed towards the Lord, others to be condemned (37:41).
How is it that Jesus related the destruction of Jerusalem to the end of time? This is because each event concludes one phase of Holy Scripture. First, Israel is the chosen people; God nurtured their development and made them a model for all nations. Jesus arrives at a perfect time when the nation Israel is in a crisis, but Jesus introduces them to the Gospel. A minority of the Jews believed.
The Gospel was (is being) preached to other nations – the era of the New Testament. The Church does have a new awareness of what the Gospel means for humankind and will have it as the center of all her teachings and actions. Amid a crisis, universal this time, in which all humankind will be submerged in violence and hatred, a new era of intense evangelization will take place with reconciliation as its main theme. This is the coming of Jesus.
The postmillennial point of view of Charles Hodge (qtd. in Walvoord, “The Rapture” 15) “considers the Tribulation a final state of trouble just preceding the grand climax of the triumph of the gospel.”
The emphasis in Scripture on the Forty-two months preceding the Second Coming of Christ an indication of a midtribulational rapture?
Gleason Archer (qtd. in Walvoord, “The Rapture” 127) called attention to the fact that in both the Old and New Testaments, the last three and one-half years prior to the Battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ are emphasized.
Archer cites chapters 7, 9, and 12 of Daniel and chapters 11 and 12 of Revelation, which give importance to the 3½ years (or forty-two months) when some great event will mark the midpoint of the final seven years of pre-Kingdom history. This is, according to Archer, the fulfillment of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, the sudden removal of the Church from the world scene. (Walvoord, “The Rapture” 127)
Archer also cites the passages in Daniel 7:25; 9:27; and 12:7, 11. These all state the Great Tribulation will be three and one-half years, although Walvoord argues that whether the rapture will automatically take place immediately before the final three and one-half years is the question in point.
Archer (qtd. in Walvoord, “The Rapture” 127) also takes support from Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Archer states: “There is no explicit reference to welcoming the Church into the presence of Christ prior to the final doom of Armageddon, and most advocates of the any-moment rapture question whether it is even alluded to in this prophetic message of Christ during Passion Week. Nevertheless, it is highly significant that the same term for the coming of the Lord is employed in the Olivet discourse as is used in the rapture passage of 1 Thessalonians 4.”
As a Jew himself, Matthew writes an account of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah from a Jewish standpoint for the purpose of winning Jews to Christianity and confirming Jewish believers in their Christian faith (Gundry 130-131).
The three parables in Chapter 25 present three aspects of God’s judgment. The first one is addressed to the members of the Church.
Because the chief priests, scribes, and elders rebuffed and challenged his authority, Jesus retorted with three parables of judgment which signify that because the Jewish nation had rejected him, the King’s son, God the King had rejected the Jewish nation. The second parable climaxes with these terrible words: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:43). (Gundry 131)
The kingdom of God is compared to a wedding, in which some young girls are chosen to form part of the entourage: Like them, we have also been selected by God to prepare for the wedding of the Lord Jesus with humanity.
The girls were ready for the wedding, but Jesus was delayed and time passed by. The sleep which takes possession of the girls is not the result of negligence on their part, but it simply means that the time when they could have entered without problems was over. We, likewise, when we began our journey in faith, could not foresee that we would meet trials. Young People do not believe that one day it will cost them everything to remain faithful to their commitment. They do not realize that, as time goes by, their attitudes and obedience to the faith will change.
During the time of Jesus, a talent was a coin worth some precious metal, but in the parable, when Jesus spoke of talents, he meant the abilities given by God to each of us.
The way to wait for the kingdom is to work for it to be realized. The servant who hid his talent represents the lazy or the indifferent person who considers faith as family inheritance, or the coward who never dares to take initiatives that would be helpful for everyone. Faith should be nurtured and cultivated. We should work for our own salvation. When the Master realizes that we can be entrusted with a few talents, He will entrust us with more.
How will God judge the unbelievers? The Jews envisioned a huge multitude, ready to “devour them,” like a restless world where God should one day impose His law. They used to call them: the nations.
Jesus answers these fears in the last parable of the Gospel of Matthew, saying that he will return as King of all the nations. All those who, without knowing Christ, have shared in the common destiny of humankind will be judged by him. In fact, he never abandoned them but placed at their side “those little ones who are his brothers” as his representatives.
Christ spoke through John in Revelation. To the Church at Smyrna, Christ warns the believers that they can expect tribulation for ten days (2:10). While it is probable that this is not referring to the climactic, end-of-history tribulation, it should be noted that believers are promised persecution and possible death. Similar to this verse is 2:22, only, in this case, those who engage in Jezebel’s sin are promised “great tribulation” – the lack of article suggests that this refers to suffering in a general sense. Thirdly, Christ exhorts the Church at Sardis to repent and warns: “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (3:3). (Archer et al. 197)
In Revelation 3:10, it is probable that the reference is to the Great Tribulation, and all agree that the Philadelphian church is promised protection from it. The question is how: through physical removal in pretribulational or midtribulational rapture or through divine safekeeping during the period of distress? (Archer et al. 197)
Part of the tribulation “promise” is the trials and sufferings of Christians as they go along preaching and doing the “work” that Jesus has entrusted them to do. Whilst the end will really come, and it is the hope that Christians have in their hearts, to wait for it is the same as the Jews’ wait for the kingdom, the eschaton.
We are in the midst of the tribulation, the suffering, the wars, and the rumors of war have happened or are happening, and no matter what the literature have all espoused for us to believe for as long as we do the will of the one who was with us and will be with us, Jesus Christ, it only matters if we slow down our faith.
Archer, G., Feinberg, P., Gundry, S., Moo, D., and Retter, R. Three Views on the Rapture. U.S.A.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.
Fee, Gordon D. and Stuart, D. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: OMF Literature, 2003.
Gundry, Robert H. The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
Walvoord, John F. Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come A Commentary on the First Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1974.
Walvoord, John F. The Rapture Question. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979.