The Great Tribulation
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 25:15-22
This is week #3 in Matthew 24–25 or what is commonly called the Olivet Discourse. We’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of weeks talking about end times’ events, because this is Jesus’ most significant, preserved prophetic speech.
Thinking about prophecy, Christians often have 2 very different responses. Some people can’t get enough of it. They love to study prophecy and to think about what is to come. And other people don’t see the point. They think, “Just tell me how to live today, because I’m not going to be around for all that stuff anyway.”
The first group is sometimes guilty of wasting their time speculating on details that God hasn’t revealed and ignoring God’s larger purpose. And the second group is often guilty of ignoring massive portions of Scripture, thinking that they are largely unprofitable and not understandable. But we must avoid both ditches. God gave us these prophecies because they teach us necessary truth about God, about the future, and about our lives right now. And so we must study hard with a desire to see what God wants us to see (not to satisfy our curiosity) and with the humility to accept what God hasn’t revealed.
(Chart) Last Sunday, we looked at vv. 4–14, which describe the suffering that will take place after the church is raptured to heaven, during the 7-year Tribulation that precedes the 2nd coming of Christ. Therefore, it’s helpful to clarify that when Jesus says, “You will endure this,” or “You must do this,” he is ultimately addressing the Jews and Christians who will be alive during the Tribulation, not the disciples, because they are all going to be dead long before these things actually happen.
So again, vv. 4–14 primarily describe the suffering that will take place throughout the 7-year tribulation. But remember that the Tribulation will consist of 2 3.5 year periods. The first half is bad, but the second half gets really bad. Our text for today, vv. 15–22 zeros in on what’s coming during the 2nd 3.5 years, which v. 21 calls “The Great Tribulation” (read). Verse 15 begins the section by focusing on a sign that will mark the midpoint of the Tribulation and a terrible turn to greater suffering.
I. The Sign (v. 15)
Jesus tells the Tribulation generation, “When you see…” A couple of weeks ago I said that this phrase “abomination of desolation” is a massively significant prophetic phrase that comes from the prophecies of Daniel around 500 years prior to Christ’s life on earth. But to really understand the abomination of desolation, we need to lay some foundation.
Background to the Abomination of Desolation: Notice first…
The Tribulation will begin when Antichrist leads a “Roman” alliance in defending Israel and signs a treaty with them. Daniel 7:7–8 describe the Roman Empire of Jesus day, but they also look forward to a revived Roman empire/European state during the Tribulation (read).
Notice that the revived Empire will have “ten horns,” and another horn will rise to prominence among them. God explains what this means in 23–25. The 10 horns are 10 kings who will rule this empire. However, one king (antichrist) will rise up to lead them, and ultimately, he will persecute God’s people for “a time (1 year), times (2 additional years), and half a time (half a year), for a total of 3.5 years. This is a reference to the second half of the Tribulation. He will be a terrible enemy of Israel and of Christians.
But he won’t seem like the bad guy at first. You don’t have to follow the news closely to know that there is constant tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And the Scriptures indicate that in the days just before the 7-year Tribulation begins, this tension will grow very deep.
As Israel is facing terrible tension with its Arab neighbors, antichrist is going to deceive them into thinking he is their savior (9:27). God says that the 70th week of Daniel, which we said a couple of weeks ago is the 7-year Tribulation, will begin when antichrist signs a treaty with Israel. He is going to claim that he can finally bring “Peace to the Middle East.” And Israel will jump on board.
And during the first 3.5 years of the Tribulation, will feel secure under antichrist’s protection even as terrible things are happening around the world. But notice in v. 27 “in the middle of the week” (read).
Antichrist will break his treaty with Israel and set up the “abomination of desolation.” Daniel says that antichrist will stop Israel’s temple worship and set up the abomination of desolation until the “consummation” or the return of Christ. Daniel 12:11 says the same thing. Antichrist will stop the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation for 1,290 days, or 3.5 years. Of course, Jesus also says in 15 that Israel will one day see “’the abomination of desolation’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (i.e., the temple).” Of course, you may be wondering what this AD is. I believe we can learn a lot about the future AD by looking at a another AD that Daniel also prophesied about.
Antiochus Epiphanes set up an abomination of desolation in Israel’s temple in 167 B.C. In Daniel 11 God gives Daniel an incredibly accurate prophecy about the coming Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. He would eventually overthrow the Persian and defeat most of the known world.
But after Alexander’s sudden death, 4 of his generals would split his kingdom among them (v. 4), which is exactly what happened. Daniel follows with a remarkably accurate prophecy about the wars between these 4 kingdoms. It’s so accurate that liberals, who don’t believe in predictive prophecy, say despite no historical evidence that Daniel must have been written centuries later after these events occurred. In their minds, theirs no way such an accurate record could have been written before these events.
Among other things, v. 21 predicts that roughly 150 years after Alexander’s death, an especially wicked king would rise up in the northern region of the Greek empire. This ruler is Antiochus Epiphanes, and he ruled from 175–165 B.C. And notice in particular the prophecy of 30b–31.
We know from Jewish records that in 167 B.C., he turned against the Jews and demanded that they forsake the worship of God and instead worship the Greek gods. In his rage he killed many Jews and sold others into slavery. And not only that, he defiled Israel’s temple by sacrificing a pig, the most unclean of animals, on the altar of burnt offering. He then demanded that the priests eat the pork. And he set up an idol of the Greek god Zeus in the middle of Israel’s temple, and dedicated that temple to Zeus. All of these steps were awful violations of the law and devastating to the Jews.
And notice in v. 31 that Daniel calls this idol “the abomination of desolation.” This is very helpful for understanding our text, because as we saw earlier, Daniel 9:27; 12:11 say that just before “the consummation,” antichrist will set up another “abomination of desolation,” that we can assume will be similar to the idol Antiochus Epiphanes set up. And lest we think all 3 verses are talking about the Zeus idol in 167 B.C., Jesus clearly believed that someday another AD would be set up in Israel’s temple (v. 15).
Jesus predicted a future abomination of desolation. Again, Jesus is specifically addressing the Jews and Christians who are alive during the Tribulation. He can’t be talking about something that the disciples will experience, even if he were talking about Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70. After all, Peter, James, and several other disciples were already dead by AD 70. And John and several others were ministering in Gentile lands. No Jesus is talking to a future generation of Jews and Christians during the Tribulation.
He warns them about how they should respond when they see another abomination of desolation very similar to the idol of Zeus that Antiochus Epiphanes set up in Israel’s temple. Jesus warns that this will be a clear sign that antichrist has broken his treaty and turned against the Jews, and they better get out of there, because trouble is about to come. This is clearly how Paul understood both Daniel and Jesus.
2 Thessalonians 2:1–4 warns that antichrist well set himself up in Israel’s temple as god just before the Christ returns. You can see in 2 that the Thessalonians were concerned that Christ had already returned, but in vv. 3–4 Paul counters by saying that Christ will not return until certain things take place. Specifically, Christ won’t come again until “the man of sin (antichrist) is revealed.” And how will he be identified (v. 4)?
Paul expects antichrist to exalt himself in Israel’s temple, and just like Daniel and Jesus he says this will be an obvious sign that Christ is about to return. We won’t take the time to read it, but Revelation 13:14–15 adds that antichrist will set up an image of himself and demand that all worship it.
So Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and John all predict that antichrist will set himself up as a god in a future temple in Jerusalem. If you don’t believe in a literal, future Tribulation, that’s a problem, especially when you consider the fact that this sign is an indication that Christ is just about to return. It’s quite a stretch to consider AD 70 a sign that Christ is about to return, since it’s now been almost 2,000 years since that happened.
In sum, at the mid point of the Tribulation, antichrist will break his treaty with Israel by setting himself up as god in Israel’s temple. And Jesus warns the generation who will read his words during the Tribulation to watch for the abomination of desolation. It will be a clear sign that antichrist has betrayed the Jewish people, and it will launch a time of terrible suffering and death not only in Israel, but around the world. But before we go on, what significance is there for us in this prophecy?
The Bible is inspired and trustworthy. It is remarkable to compare Daniel’s prophecies about the world empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome to what actually happened. His accuracy is incredible.
But liberal scholars who don’t believe in prophecy say he had to have written much later to give such detail, even though the historical evidence doesn’t support their claims. They refuse to see what is obvious. The Bible is clearly the inspired Word of all-knowing God.
As well, our trip through Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and John demonstrates the unity of Scripture and the fact that God is the ultimate author. These men are separated by 100s of years and lots of space. But they all say the same thing. Why? Because God inspired all of them.
So our culture claims the Bible is outdated and false, and they like to say they have the evidence to prove it. But they don’t. They simply refuse to believe what is clearly true. So don’t be intimidated by their claims. Believe God’s Word, trust God’s Word, and live God’s Word. 2nd…
Hope in God, not in politicians. We’ve seen that when antichrist bursts onto the scene, Israel will think they have their savior. But after 3.5 years, he is going to stab them in the back. My point is not that we need to be cynics who see a conspiracy behind every corner. But politicians and governments, even the most conservative of them, are doomed to disappoint. So don’t waste your energy hoping in any government to bring lasting joy or security.
Christ is our only hope. He’s the only one who will ever establish a truly righteous and just government. So if you are a Christian, remember that you are an alien and pilgrim This world is not your home. Your home is in Christ’s kingdom where will you enjoy a perfect society. And so v. 15 gives the sign that will mark a devastating turn in the Tribulation. Jesus follows in vv. 16–20 by telling the Jews how to respond when they see this sign.
II. The Response (vv. 16–20): First he says…
Go to the mountains (v. 16): Jesus specifically addresses the Jews and Christians who are in Jerusalem when antichrist sets up the AD. He will turn violently against Jews and Christians intending to kill all of them. Therefore, Jesus says, “You need to get out of town, and flee to the mountain caves, to the east of Jerusalem. And they need to…
Go quickly (vv. 17–20): Most homes in Israel had flat roofs that were accessible by an outside stairway. Jesus says, “If you are sitting on your roof when you hear that antichrist has set up the AD, don’t even take the time to go inside to grab a few things. Just get out there. The same goes for the man working in the fields. Don’t even stop to grab your coat. Just run as fast as you can.
This is because antichrist will move swiftly to gather and to kill Jews and Christians. As such in 19 Jesus mourns for pregnant women and those with young children who are trying to flee that day. It will be very hard for them to escape antichrist’s rapidly moving forces. And Jesus prays that they will not need to make this retreat during winter, when the nights are cold and Israel’s rivers were swollen with water and hard to cross.
Finally he prays that they will not need to make this journey on a Sabbath. This is because the Jews restricted what they would do and how far they would travel on the Sabbath. Therefore, some might hesitate to flee, and others would be slow to help those who are fleeing.
Together, vv. 16–20 picture an urgent and terrifying Antichrist will suddenly turn with swift and terrible violence against Christians and Jews, and Jesus says, “Run for your lives as fast as you can.”
But in the midst of this darkness Revelation 12:6 pictures God’s remarkable grace. The verse begins by describing how Israel (pictured here as a woman) will flee the wrath of Satan and antichrist on that terrifying day.
But God will not let them destroy his people. The text doesn’t give any specifics, but it says that God will have a place prepared for them. And for 1,260 days (3.5 years, referring to the second half of the Tribulation), God will protect and provide for his people.
It’s an incredible picture of God’s care. The world will experience violence and death like it has never seen during those 3.5 years. And antichrist will be determined to kill every Jew. Yet God will not let him. He will preserve a remnant. He will keep his promise.
It’s a powerful illustration of God’s power and promise to protect us from Satan’s attempts to destroy or faith. Romans 8:35–36 describe the struggles we endure that could cause our faith to collapse (read). Like those tribulation Jews, we have some evil enemies. But they will not succeed.
Notice the promise of 37–39. We who are in Christ live in an impenetrable fortress of grace. And no enemy and no trial can pluck us out of his hand.
Folks, God never promised it would be easy, but he did promise to keep us. He is strong and faithful to keep us through every trial. He will not let us go. If you are struggling today with deep trials or you just feel spiritually weak, then don’t lose heart. You are safe in the love of Christ. He will not abandon you. And he will bring you home. So endure by faith. Returning to our text, vv. 16–20 tell Israel to flee, and then vv. 21–22 state why.
III. The Suffering (vv. 21–22): 3 Observations…
Jesus is describing the 2nd5 years of the Tribulation. Again, Daniel 9:27 says that in the “middle of the week” the abomination of desolation will be set up. And there are numerous prophecies about a coming 3.5-year period of unparalleled suffering (Dan 7:25; 9:27; 12:11; Rev 11:2, 3; 12:14; 13:5). As well, nothing in history, including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, can be described a “great tribulation…” So Jesus is describing the 3.5 years that will begin when antichrist turns on Israel and will end when Christ returns in glory and destroys antichrist and all evil powers. Second…
“The Great Tribulation” will be a time of unparalleled suffering. Jesus is pretty clear. This will be a time of suffering like the world has never seen. When you consider some of the awful events in world history, this quite the claim, and yet Jesus’ word is always true. He even goes on to say in 22 that the violence and suffering will be so bad that if the great tribulation were allowed to continue too long, humanity would be eradicated from the earth. That’s a heavy statement isn’t it?
Revelation goes into great detail regarding all the judgments that mankind will endure during these 3.5 years. There will be violent wars, natural disasters, and terrible diseases. Death will be everywhere, as God pours out his wrath on the wickedness of humanity.
It’s all a powerful, sobering picture of how evil sin really is and of the judgment that all sin, especially mine deserves. We have no ability to comprehend how terrible of an offence our sin truly is. Praise the Lord for the protective grace of the cross. Third…
Christ will shorten the Great Tribulation for the elect. We saw last week in 14 that despite these terrible atrocities and antichrist’s efforts to stamp out Christianity, the gospel of the kingdom will spread to every corner of the world, and many will be saved. These people will suffer dearly for their faith during the Tribulation.
But no matter how dark it gets, God will continue to be with them. Antichrist will kill many of them. But God will sustain their faith, and finally after 3.5 years, v. 22 says, “For the elect’s sake these days will be shortened.” God cares for his own, and he will not let these weary saints suffer too long. Christ will return, rescue the elect, and richly reward them for all their service. Praise the Lord that he is faithful and full of grace.
So what’s the point of all of this for our lives today? 2 Peter 3:3–13 provides a perfect conclusion (read vv. 1–10). Just like Peter said, most people assume that Jesus isn’t coming, and life will just continue on as it always has. Even Christians can fall into this lie. But the day of God’s judgment will come, and all the stuff of this world that we care about so deeply “will melt with fervent heat.” So how should we respond? Peter answers in vv. 11–13. Live a holy life in hope of a righteous kingdom.