- Who is Jesus referring to at Matthew 24:33?
- Does the great tribulation of Matthew 24:21 have a secondary fulfillment
In our previous article, This Generation – A Modern-Day Fulfillment, we found that the only conclusion that was consistent with the evidence was that Jesus’ words at Matthew 24:34 applied only to a first century fulfillment. However, for us to be truly content that this application is accurate, we must be assured that it harmonizes with all relevant texts.
That said, there are two texts that appear to cause us problems: Matthew 24:21 and 33.
However, we will not follow the pattern of the publications of the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society. That is to say, we will not require the reader to make unfounded assumptions, such as creating a dual-fulfillment scenario where some parts of the prophecy are fulfilled in a so-called minor fulfillment, while other parts correspond only to a later, major fulfillment.
No, we must find our answers in the Bible, not in the conjecture of men.
Let us begin with Matthew 24:33.
Who Is Near at the Doors?
We will start by reviewing the immediate context of verse 33:
“Now learn this illustration from the fig tree: Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and sprouts its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors. 34 Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” (Mt 24:32-35)
Most of us, if we come from a JW background, will jump to the conclusion that Jesus is speaking of himself in the third person. The cross reference the NWT gives for this verse certainly supports the conclusion.
This creates a problem however, because Jesus didn’t appear at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, he has yet to return. This is where the Watchtower’s dual-fulfillment scenario was born. However, a dual fulfillment cannot be the answer. For the past 140 years since the days of C.T. Russell down till now, we have tried over and over to make this work. The latest effort of the Governing Body is the stretched-beyond-all-credulity overlapping generations doctrine. How often do we have to cobble together a new understanding before we get the message we are on the wrong track?
Remember, Jesus is the Master Teacher and Matthew 24:33-35 is his reassurance to his disciples. What kind of a teacher would he be if the assurance was so couched in obscurity that none could figure it out? The fact is, it is all quite simple and obvious and all the clues are in the text. It is men with their own agendas who have introduced all the confusion.
Before talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus alluded to Daniel the prophet with the warning words: “Let the reader use discernment.”
If you were listening to his words back then, what would have been the first thing you would have done when the opportunity presented itself? You would likely have gone to the synagogue where the scrolls were kept and looked up Daniel’s prophecy. If so, this is what you would have found:
“And the people of a leader who is coming will destroy the city and the holy place. And its end will be by the flood. And until the end there will be war; what is decided upon is desolations….And on the wing of disgusting things there will be the one causing desolation; and until an extermination, what was decided on will be poured out also on the one lying desolate.” (Da 9:26, 27)
Now compare the relevant part of Matthew:
“Therefore, when you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation, as spoken about by Daniel the prophet, standing in a holy place (let the reader use discernment),” (Mt 24:15)
Jesus’ “disgusting thing that causes desolation” is Daniel’s “leader who is coming…the one causing desolation.”
Given the exhortation that the reader (us) should use discernment in this application of Daniel’s words, is it not reasonable that the “he” who was near at the doors would be this one, the leader of a people?
That clearly fits with the facts of history and does not require us to jump through any speculative hoops. It just fits.
An Alternative to “he”
One alert reader in a comment pointed out that many translations render this verse with the gender neutral pronoun “it”. This is the rendering the King James Bible gives. According to the Interlinear bible, estin, should be rendered “it is”. Therefore, an argument could be made that Jesus was saying that when you see these signs, know that “it”—the destruction of the city and the temple—is near at the doors.
Whichever rendering turns out to be the most faithful to Jesus’ words, both support the idea of the nearness of the City’s end being apparent by the visible signs for all to see.
We must be wary of allowing personal bias to creep in causing us to ignore Bible harmony in favor of personal belief, such as evidently happened for the translators of the New Living Translation: “In the same way, when you see all these things, you can know his return is very near, right at the door”; and the International Standard Version: “In the same way, when you see all these things, you’ll know that the Son of Man is near, right at the door.
What Is the Great Tribulation?
Do you see what I’ve just done there? I’ve introduced an idea that is not in the text of Matthew 24:21. How? By simply using the definite article. “The Great Tribulation” is different from a great tribulation, is it not? Jesus doesn’t use the definite article at Matthew 24:21. To illustrate how critical this is, consider that the war of 1914-1918 was called “The Great War”, because there had never been another like it. We didn’t call it World War I back then; not till there was a second one even greater. Then we started to number them. It was not longer The Great War. It was just a great war.
The only difficulty that arises with Jesus’ words, “for then there will be great tribulation”, comes when we try to link it with Revelation 7:13, 14. But is there any real basis for that?
The phrase “great tribulation” only occurs four times in the Christian Scriptures:
“for then there will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” (Mt 24:21)
“But a famine came upon the whole of Egypt and Caʹnaan, even a great tribulation; and our forefathers were not finding any provisions.” (Ac 7:11)
“Look! I am about to throw her into a sickbed, and those committing adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds.” (Re 2:22)
“And in response one of the elders said to me: “These who are dressed in the white robes, who are they and where did they come from?” 14 So right away I said to him: “My lord, you are the one that knows.” And he said to me: “These are the ones that come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Re 7:13, 14)
It is self-evident that its use in Acts 7:11 and Re 2:22 bears no relation at all to its application in Mt 24:21. So what about its use at Re 7:13, 14? Are Mt 24:21 and Re 7:13, 14 linked? John’s vision or Revelation occurred long after a great tribulation that came upon the Jews. He speaks of those who are yet to come out of a time of tribulation, not those who already did, as was the case with the Christians who escaped in 66 C.E.
John’s vision is not of “great tribulation” as used at Mt 24:21 and Re 2:22, nor is it of “a great tribulation” as recorded at Acts 7:11. It is “the great tribulation.” The use of the definite article is only found here and imparts the idea of a uniqueness attached to this tribulation separating it from all the others.
Therefore, there is no basis for linking it to the tribulation that came upon the city in 66 C.E., the one that was cut short. Doing so, creates a long list of irreconcilable complications. First of all, we must accept that Jesus’ words had a dual fulfillment. There is no Bible basis for this and we get into the murky waters of types and antitypes again. For example, we then have to find a secondary fulfillment for the destruction of Jerusalem, and another for the generation. Of course, Jesus only returns once, so how do we explain Mt 24:29-31? Do we say there is no secondary fulfillment for those words? Now we’re cherry picking what is dual fulfillment and what is one time only. It is a dog’s breakfast which, frankly, the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has created for itself. Confounding matters further is the recent admission that types and antitypes (which a dual fulfillment clearly comprises) which are not explicitly applied in Scripture (which this is not) are to be rejected as—to quote David Splane—“going beyond the things written”. (2014 Annual Meeting Discourse.)
If we are committed to avoiding the errors of the past, we must conclude that the weight of historical and Scriptural evidence leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ reference to “great tribulation” applies only to the events surrounding and involving the destruction of the temple, the city, and the Jewish system of things.
Something Still Pending
While it seems that all the loose ends relating to our application of Mt 24:34 have been tied up in a way that does not conflict with Scripture nor involve wild speculation, some serious questions remain. The answer to these in no way affects our conclusion regarding the identification of “this generation.” However, they are questions that beg for clarification.
- Why did Jesus refer to the tribulation that befell Jerusalem as the greatest of all time? Surely the flood of Noah’s day, or Armageddon did or will surpass it.
- What is the great tribulation that the angel spoke of to the apostle John?
For a consideration of these questions, please read Trials and Tribulations.