21.  “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.

There has always been a certain type of preacher and a certain type of preaching that has as its aim the frightening of men into believing the truth.  Stories of great and terrible woe are meant to lead people to come trembling on their knees to God in order to escape the terrible fate that is in store for them.  In times past, preachers used to speak of the torments of hell, making up many terrible tortures and inventing many heartless cruelties in their attempts to bring men to a place of repentance before God.  In more recent times, the idea of the unpardonable sin has been used, and men are made to greatly fear this unpardonable sin and all it may entail.  Now in this passage we come to another of these topics that is used by preachers to bring people into great vexation and fear, and that is the topic of the great tribulation.

It is the common belief today that the word “tribulation” means a time of great suffering or pain.  The tribulation, in the minds of the common believers of today, is a time of unprecedented horror on earth, a terrible time that makes the recent Holocaust pale in comparison.  There are stories told of the tribulation and predictions made about it that are enough to strike great terror into the hearts of men.  The idea of this “great tribulation” is drawn from several passages in the Bible, one of them being this verse in Matthew.  We are to believe that, after more than nineteen centuries of God showing patience and grace and forgiveness to the world, that the next event to happen is this great tribulation, wherein God at last lets Himself go and pours out His wrath and terrible anger upon the earth.  Yet does this even make sense?  What good would such a display of wrath do?  If the love and mercy of God fail to bring men to Him, will His wrath and anger really do the job?  Moreover, would it not spoil the great record of God’s grace that He has recorded in the dispensation of grace if He followed up this record with a display of terrible anger?  If I hold my patience for a long time, and yet end that time by totally losing my temper and going berserk, does this display of temper not spoil all the record of my previous patience and longsuffering?  Yet, according to this view, this is how God ends His current record of grace!  I simply cannot believe that this is so.  I believe that this time of grace is ended by the greatest act of grace the Lord has yet performed: the bringing in of His Kingdom to the earth.

Yet many teach that the tribulation is next, and they claim that the tribulation causes a certain number of Israelites to realize the truth about God and turn back to Him in repentance.  One thing that we need to keep firmly in mind when studying this topic of the great tribulation is revealed in Jeremiah 30:7, which says:

“7. Alas! For that day is great, So that none is like it; And it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, But he shall be saved out of it.”

This time that is called the great tribulation is made by many to be something that encompasses the whole earth.  There is not a corner of the world that escapes from this tribulation, they claim.  Yet Jeremiah tells us a different story, claiming that this event is actually the time of Jacob’s trouble, not that of all the inhabited earth.  Now, I am not saying that the rest of the world will not be affected by what happens in Israel.  Revelation 3:10 tells us how this time will impact the rest of the world.

“Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”

All the rest of the earth will be tempted by this time, and will have the opportunity to show forth whether they are truly faithful to God or not.  Yet this event centers around Israel, and they are the ones who are troubled by it.  We know that the word “Israel” in the Bible means “God commands,” whereas “Jacob” means “the heel-grabber,” which means a contender or fighter.  Thus, as it is called the time of “Jacob’s trouble,” those in Israel who show forth the Jacob character are the ones who particularly are troubled at this time.  Yet even they are not destroyed because of it, for Jeremiah 30:7 tells us the outcome of this event, and it is that they shall be saved out of it!

But is the tribulation really the cause of Israel turning back to God?  As I said above, some believe this.  Revelation 7:14 is supposed to teach this, which says:

“So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”

This is supposed to mean that these people come to God because of the tribulation.  Yet does this really make sense?  In Israel’s current, rebellious state against God, would more punishment really do the job in turning them back to Him?  Would it really do any more than the torments of Hitler did?  For Hitler brought great suffering to Israel, and yet they are still in rebellion against Jesus Christ.  The fact is that the Bible reveals that further punishment will not turn Israel back to God.  In Isaiah 1:5, God speaks of this futility of punishment in getting His people to turn back to Him.

“Why should you be stricken again?  You will revolt more and more.  The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints.”

In this passage, the Lord reveals His knowledge that further wrath and punishment will not bring Israel back to Himself.  How, then, does He plan on restoring Israel?  He reveals this in Isaiah 1:25-26.

“25. I will turn My hand against you, And thoroughly purge away your dross, And take away all your alloy.  26. I will restore your judges as at the first, And your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”

God does not bring Israel back to Himself by punishing them.  Rather, He does it by purging away their dross, removing their sin and purifying them.  Then, He restores their God-given leadership, which they have not had since the time of the apostles.  These two actions result in an Israel that is righteous.  The action of God that restores Israel is also described in Ezekiel 34:11-15.

11.  “For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.  12.  As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.  13.  And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country.  14.  I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  15.  I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord GOD. 16.  “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.”

So we see that this is how God restores Israel: by searching and seeking, by delivering, by bringing and gathering, by feeding, by binding and strengthening.  He does it by great acts of mercy and love and grace, not by actions of anger and cruelty and punishment.

What, then, of the tribulation?  I believe that an honest study of the Scriptures would show us that this event must take place AFTER God has already restored Israel to their land and given them back their judges, as it says in Isaiah 1.  These twelve apostles, in fact, will have been raised from the dead and will act as judges over Israel.  This entire passage is spoken to them, remember, and is instructions as to what they are to do at this time.  There must be a kingdom dispensation wherein Israel is restored and blessed and her leaders are raised from the dead before this event of the great tribulation ever takes place.

Now, if Israel is restored to her land and made to be faithful to God, why would He then pour out His wrath on them, some may ask, if this is truly what the tribulation is all about: a time of punishment and suffering?  The fact is, though, that this is not at all what the word “tribulation” means.  This English word comes from the word “tribulum,” which was actually a machine for sifting wheat.  We might say that it was a mechanical version of the Bible-times threshing floor.  The wheat, straw, and chaff would be thrown into the air by this machine, and the chaff and straw would be blown away by the wind whereas the pure wheat would fall to the ground.  The point of this machine was to separate the wheat from the chaff, not to damage the wheat in some way.  Thus, this word “tribulation” merely has to do with a severe and thorough testing that results in the separation of men, those who are true followers of God in their hearts from those who are false and do not truly love or fear Him.  Those who live in the world-system at the time this takes place will be tested more completely and thoroughly than they ever have been before or ever will be again.  This testing will result in those whose hearts are not right with God being revealed in all the truth of their rebellion, and those whose hearts are right with God being revealed in all the glory He wishes to bring to them.

Now we might ask, is this testing really the awful horror that most make it out to be?  I do not believe so.  Why should the student who has thoroughly studied for his exam and knows the material as well as he should fear the test?  Rather, for him it is an opportunity to display his knowledge and earn the commendation (or the good grade) that he deserves.  In the same way, those who pass through this tribulation are able to show their love for and loyalty to their God and King.  Of this time God speaks in Hosea 2:15, when He says of Israel,

“I will give her her vineyards from there, And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; She shall sing there, As in the days of her youth, As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

“Achor” in Hebrew means “trouble.”  It is through the troubled times of the tribulation that Israel will find hope, and she will sing then to the Lord.  This time is not so terrible for those who go through it as servants of the Lord.  It only is a time that need be hated and feared for those whose hearts are not right with God!

There are two Greek words from which we get our English word “tribulation,” “thlibo,” which means “trouble,” and “thlipsis,” which means “tribulation.”  The first of these words, “thlibo,” occurs in the Greek of Matthew 7:14.  There, Christ says,

“14.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Here, thlibo is translated as “narrow.”  Indeed, the way to be saved in this tribulation in Matthew 24:21 is “narrow” indeed, for only through fleeing to the mountains, as they are commanded to do here, can these people be saved.

The tribulation at that time is said to be “such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.”  We read why this is in Revelation 12:12, which tells us,

“Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.”

This testing that is to occur, this winnowing of the people on the earth, is more severe than any testing that has ever come before.  And how could it be otherwise, when the devil himself is walking the earth in great wrath?

22.  “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.

This is a statement that is hard to understand.  Revelation 8:12 may give us a clue.

“Then the fourth angel sounded: And a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day did not shine, and likewise the night.”

This mentions a third of the sun being taken away, and brings interesting pictures to mind of days lasting sixteen hours instead of twenty-four.  Although it may be more likely that this is figurative rather than literal, I cannot help but wonder.

The length of those times is exactly stated down to the day in Daniel.  This period will last three and one-half years, or 1,290 days (according to the Biblical 360-day year, three and a half years plus one month.)  How then can the days be shortened, unless the literal days are cut down in hours?  It may be that He means that the Lord will bring an end to the days by sending Jesus Christ to earth, whereas if He let them continue without this event, all flesh would be destroyed.  At any rate, it is because of His elect that He shortens those days.  The “elect” in Scripture just means those who are chosen out of the rest of the people of God for some special purpose.  In this case, it is talking about those governmental rulers living in the land of Judea who are the same ones who were to flee to the mountains.  It is for their sakes that this time is shortened.  God is ever willing to cut trouble short to benefit those who truly love and serve Him, and the time of the tribulation is no exception.

23.  “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it.

These elect, these leaders from Judea led out to the mountains by the twelve themselves, are there because of their obedience to God and their faith in what was written in His Word so many centuries before.  Yet here come some among them whose purpose is not to aid these people, but rather to lead them astray.  These will carry stories and rumors, claiming that Christ has returned to earth and is waiting for them in some place or other.  We might imagine that the hearts of these people who have had to flee their homes to live as outcasts in the wilderness will be heavy indeed, and that they will greatly anticipate the return of their Lord to bring an end to this time of trouble.  Yet the words that these people speak are meant only to entice them to leave the place of safety that God has prepared for them.  As long as they remain in the mountains, they will be safe, cared for under the protection of their Lord and Savior.  Yet if they were to leave their place of safety, they would be without protection, and subject to the schemes of their enemies.  Thus these deceivers come among them and attempt to lead them astray.  Yet those who have so faithfully followed God’s command and come into the wilderness will have this command as well: that they are not to listen to these stories and rumors, but are to remain in the place God wishes them to be.  We might pray and hope that those who by faith obeyed the command of the Lord and fled without any preparation to the mountains will likewise have faith in this statement and not believe the reports of those who wish to trap them by leading them astray.

24.  “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.

The intimation, of course, is that it is not possible to deceive the elect.  The reason is that they are all out in the mountains, obeying the command of the Lord in this book, and are not listening to the reports of these christs and prophets, no matter how amazing or enticing they may be.  Yet no doubt, if they know their Scriptures, they will also recognize that these christs did not come in the proper way (the way predicted,) nor do they show forth the proper signs (the signs predicted.)  Notice that these false christs and prophets do work miracles, though!  Satan has great power, and can work great signs and wonders and use his power to deceive.  In our day I hear Christians claim to have “heard the voice of God” or to have seen some angel or person claiming to be Christ, and I cannot help but wonder if these people really have considered the fact that Satan might be counterfeiting these miracles to deceive them?  Too often we think that, being God’s wonderful, honored children, Satan would NEVER think to try to deceive us!  Such a thought is naïve, I think.  Indeed, God is currently working in a secret dispensation.  If anything miraculous happens openly, then we should FIRST assume that it is Satan, not God.

25.  “See, I have told you beforehand.

No doubt those who follow God who are actually living through those days will understand many of these cryptic statements much better than we do today.  These disciples will be among that number in their resurrected roles as judges over the twelve tribes of Israel.  Yet what we can understand here is that the Lord is warning the faithful living then ahead of time that many will arise around the time that His return is imminent claiming that He has already come.  They are instructed not to believe them, knowing that this must be so, and that the time of His coming has not yet arrived.

26.  “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it.

These people who are bringing these faithful exiles these reports try to convince them that Christ is hiding out somewhere even as they are.  He is in the desert, they say, or in some secret chamber.  Yet, as He says in the next verse, this is not the way He is going to return!  The lies being told to them will be for the purpose of deceiving them into leaving the place of safety where they have fled at God’s command.  After all, a desert or a secret chamber is just as good a place for an ambush as it is for a secret rendezvous!  Only in the place God has prepared for them will they be safe and nowhere else.  That is why it would be a fatal error for them to chase after these false rumors.

27.  “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.

This explains how they are to know that these false christs are not who they claim to be.  It will be because they did not come in the proper way!  When Christ comes, all who are on earth (or at least in the land of Israel) will know it immediately because they will be able to see it.  Thus, men like Sun Myong Moon and others who claim to be Christ come again are shown to be liars.  The word for “coming” here is the Greek word parousia.

28.  “For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.

This does not refer to the gathering of people to Christ at His parousia.  This is referring back to those who will come to them claiming to know where Christ has secretly returned to earth.  These men gather together like vultures, and anyone who listens to their voices and follows them to the locations that they claim Christ can be found in will end up as nothing but a carcass.