Q: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have several tribulation statements. So, too, do the Second Letter of Peter and other parts of Scripture. What do skilled exegetes say about these statements? I’m not interested in the “when” but in the “what” of these tribulations. Some people say that such statements are not to be understood literally, but I’m not so sure. Can you clarify this?
A: The short answer is that all such statements urge us to remember that we cannot guarantee the length and circumstances of our lives, but we can always count on God to strengthen us and lead us.
Let’s start with Mark 13:3-37. After foretelling the eventual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told Peter, James, John and Andrew: “See that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will deceive many.”
Indeed they have, even as recently as 2011 when two dates were predicted and widely publicized in the United States and elsewhere. The dates passed without incident.
Concerning Mark 13:3-37, the editors of the New American Bible write that Jesus’ eschatological discourse prior to his imminent death “contained instruction and consolation exhorting the disciples and the church to faith and obedience through the trials that would confront them (5-13). The sign is the presence of the desolating abomination (14; see Dn 9:27), i.e., of the Roman power profaning the temple. Flight from Jerusalem is urged rather than defense of the city through misguided messianic hope (14-23). Intervention will occur only after destruction (24-27), which will happen before the end of the first Christian generation (28-31). No one but the Father knows the precise time, or that of the parousia (32); hence the necessity of constant vigilance (33-37).”
Similar passages occur in Matthew 10:19-22 and 24:9-22, as well as Luke 12:11-12; 17:31 and 21:12-24. See also Ephesians 5:6, 2 Thessalonians 2:3, as well as Daniel 9:27 and 12:1.
The Greek term apokalypsis means “revelation.” The Book of Revelation reflects this style, but so do parts of other New Testament books, such as 2 Peter 3:1-18. Apocalyptic writing is not meant to scare people into being good but, rather, to assure them that God’s ways are never foolish — even if people (Jews first and later Christians) should lose their lives because of their fidelity. Caesar’s power may be strong but can never rival God’s absolute power.
Living with a clear conscience, seeking God’s forgiveness whenever necessary, is the best preparation for the Last Judgment.
The Collegeville Bible Commentary, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament are helpful for understanding these passages.