This blog-article is longer than normal. The explanation is simple — the question is complex and so requires more detailed discussion. However, I trust you will enjoy it.
It might surprise you to learn that the phrase “great tribulation (megalē thlipsis)” only occurs three times in the New Testament. We find it in Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 7:14, as well as in Acts 7:11 where Stephen uses the phrase megalē thlipsis to describe the suffering produced by the famine afflicting Egypt and Canaan in the days of Joseph. In the passage that parallels Matthew 24:21, Luke’s Gospel describes “a great distress” (anagkē megalē 21:23), using a different term that overlaps in meaning with thlipsis (cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:7 where both terms occur). The Gospel of Mark in 13:19 (= Matthew 24:21) in this context uses the simple noun thlipsis without a modifier.
All of the other occurrences of the noun thlipsis in the New Testament (c. 38 times) refer to specific suffering or oppression that humans normally experience in life or believers experience because of their faith commitments. Such distresses are part of the normal course of human history. For example, Paul is thankful that the Philippian Christians are supporting him in his suffering (thlipsis), i.e., his imprisonment (Philippians 4:14). James claims that God looks after orphans and widows in their affliction (thlipsis) (James 1:27). Jesus warns his followers that “in this world you have affliction (thlipsis) (John 16:33). Sometimes the distress is physical and sometimes it refers to inward difficulties (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:4).
The New Testament writers are quite consistent in warning believers that thlipsis is a normal part of the Christian experience. It arises because Jesus’ followers become identified with him in his opposition to Satan and, as Paul states, they “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of the Messiah” (Colossians 1:24). Paul warns believers that “it is necessary for us to enter into the Kingdom of God through many distresses/afflictions (thlipsōn)” (Acts 14.22). Living in the midst of such distress can become very intense and Paul urges believers “not to be shaken in these afflictions (en tais thlipsesin tautais)” (1 Thessalonians 3:6). In Romans 2:9 and 8:2 Paul associates thlipsis with the word stenochōria, referring to “stressful circumstances, anguish, trouble.” No believer should be surprised when trouble comes because of their faith commitments.
In the vast majority of cases in the New Testament thlipsis describes afflictions and distresses that occur throughout this age, between the first and second comings of Jesus. So when we come to a passage such as Mark 13:19 “for those days will be thlipsis” what leads us to think of some, especially intense distress and affliction that marks the end of the age? Or, as frequently it is paraphrase “the great tribulation?”
We should note carefully how this text is worded in Mark’s Gospel. In 13:18 Jesus continues to give instructions related to the warning he gave in 13:14 — “Those in Judea should flee into the mountains.” He adds three generic, third person imperatives in vv. 15-16 (do not come down, do not enter in, do not return) and pronounces a “woe” in v. 17. In v. 18 he urges his followers “now be praying lest [it] happen in winter.” Jesus offers a word of explanation in v. 19 for this need for prayer, marked by the particle gar (“for”). It hinges on the fact that “those days will be distress/affliction (thlipsis).” This is an equative clause and the subject is marked by the article and in this case it is “those days.” The noun thlipsis functions as a complement. In an equative clause a speaker is claiming that A = B. In this case “those days = distress/affliction.”
Jesus then defines in v. 19 what “distress/affliction” will be in this instance, employing a relative clause introduced by hoia…toiautē, which means “such a kind of distress which….” So Jesus wants to make sure his audience knows that there is something special about this thlipsis — “it is of such a kind that has not happened from the beginning of creation…and it will never happen [again].” In the second clause the form of negation with an aorist subjunctive according to Wallace (Greek Beyond the Basics, 468) “is the strongest way to negate something in Greek.” Jesus emphasizes the unique nature of this thlipsis and he seems to connect it with the events that he has just forecast in vv. 7-17. If these events relate to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, then this would be the context for this thlipsis. At some point “after this thlipsis” (v. 24) the Son of Man returns, but Jesus does not indicate how much time will elapse, nor does he state in this Markan account (v. 24), it seems, any particular relationship (such as one event causing other) between “those days that are distress” and the return of Jesus. [For a discussion of Mark 13:20 see my blog article #173.]
The kind of language that Jesus uses in v. 19 to describe this distress occurs elsewhere in scripture. For example, in Exodus 10:14 the writer describes the plague of locusts in the same way: “never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again” (cf. Exodus 9:18; 11:6; Joel 2:2). This kind of language describes a particularly horrendous event. According to France (The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC), 527), this is “apparently” a stock expression “for unparalleled suffering” and should not “be pressed literally. It does not necessarily reflect an “end of the age” kind of distress or affliction.
Luke 21:20-24 relates the same events expressed in Mark’s Gospel 13:7-20, to a time when Jerusalem is besieged by an army. This is a specific historic circumstance. When people observe this happening, those living in Judea should flee and not seek safety within Jerusalem’s walls (v.21), because “these days of retribution are to fulfill all the things written.” Jesus explains that it will be particularly grievous for pregnant and nursing women in those days “for a great distress (anagkē megalē) shall be on the land and wrath against this people.” This “great distress” seems localized in Jerusalem and Judea and afflicts “this people,” presumably those associated with Jerusalem and Judea. Most commentators relate these events to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans during the Jewish-Roman War (66-72 CE). This is how Luke’s Gospel characterizes the thlipsis described in Mark 13:18. It is a terribly tragic distress, that nonetheless occurs in the course of human history and located apparently in the first century CE, but not directly connected with the Messiah’s Second Coming.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ disciples ask two distinct questions in response to Jesus’s prophecy about the destruction of the Temple (24:2): “when will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” (24:3). In Mark’s Gospel their questions are phrased somewhat differently: “when will these things be and what will be the sign whenever all these things are about to transpire” (13:4). Their questions in Luke’s account (21:7) are similar to those expressed in Mark’s Gospel. So in Matthew’s Gospel the disciples link the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple with the Messiah’s coming and the end of the age.
In Matthew 24:4-14 we discern the first part of Jesus’ response. The end will come only after the gospel is proclaimed in all the inhabited world (14; Mark 13:10; cf. Luke 21:13). The critical question for interpreting Jesus’ discourse is this: what great event is Jesus referencing in 24:15-28? Is Jesus, as in Mark 13:14-20 discussing specifically the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, that will occur in 70 CE, and events associated with that judgment? If the reference to “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven” in v. 30 refers to “the sign of your coming” in v. 3, then this might suggest that vv. 15-28 pertain to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and not to the end time just prior to the return of the Messiah.
Much discussion occurs about the sense of the adverb eutheōs that begins v. 29 and translated in the NIV (2011) as “immediately (after the distress of those days).” A careful examination of the use of this adverb in Matthew’s Gospel shows that it defines sequencing of actions. Action B ‘directly’ follows action A, but the context must determine what ‘directly’ means, as the variety of renderings of this adverb in Matthew’s Gospel attests. It may well be that the four disciples in framing their question are associating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple with the return of the Son of Man. Once again Jesus has to correct their misunderstanding and let them know that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple will happen first, and then, next in sequence is the return of the Son of Man. However, Jesus separates the two events, so that second, while following the first, is not bound to the first and part of it. This interpretation would coincide with the perspective in Mark 13:24, 26 — “in those days after that thlipsis…and then they shall see the Son of Man coming….” It is quite probable that Jesus’ Jewish disciples would regard an attack upon Jerusalem and the Temple by Gentile nations, as the trigger for the coming of the Messiah. So Jesus would have to correct their assumption. This destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, just as that which occurred in the 6th century BCE, is Yahweh’s response to Israel’s failure to embrace the person and message of Jesus, his messiah.
We find indication of Jesus’ intention to distinguish these two events in the two short parable clusters that conclude his discourse. In the first (Matthew 24:32-35) Jesus affirms that people of his generation will still be alive when “all these things happen,” which I take as a reference to the events prophesied in 24:4-28. They also will know “that it is near at the door.” The second cluster of parables (24:42-51) emphasizes that with respect to the timing of his Second Coming (24:29-31), “concerning that day and hour no one knows” (24:36). With these two different parable messages, Jesus signals that he is describing two separate and distinctive events in 23:4-36 and it is important to understand their difference.
Now it is true that the language Jesus uses to describe this thlipsis in Mark 13:19 and Matthew 24:21 reflects terminology found in the Greek translations of Daniel 12:1 — “That is a day of affliction, which will be such as has not occurred since they were born until that day” (Old Greek Version (NETS)) and “And there will be a time of affliction such as had not occurred since a nation first came into existence until that time” (Theodotion Version (NETS)). Both Daniel Greek texts use the term thlipsis and use it to describe an unparalleled distress or affliction. However, neither in Matthew’s or Mark’s account does Jesus mark this language in his discourse as a quotation nor does he indicate that the thlipsis about which he is prophesying is a fulfillment of Daniel’s message. Further, Jesus makes a significant change in the time frame, saying that parallels to this distress will not occur “until the present/the now (tou nun).” He does not refer to some distant eschatological time, but to the time period in which he lives. Jesus sometimes uses biblical language to communicate the message he wants to communicate. For this reason we should not seek to define the thlipsis in Mark 13:19 or Matthew 24:21 in terms of Daniel 12:1.
I have suggested in this blog article that thlipsis in Jesus’ final discourse in the Gospels of Mark (12:19) and Matthew (24:21) does not refer to an age-ending intense persecution of Christians that immediately precedes the Second coming, but rather describes the terrible afflictions that will accompany the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Roman armies. I recognize that this may sound novel to some, but this interpretation, in my view, makes better sense of the discourse contexts in Mark 13 and Matthew 24, in which the term is found . It is important to seek an interpretation that is consistent with all three Gospel accounts, including Luke 21.