Some commentators claim that the events in the beginning of Matthew 24 are events leading up to the tribulation. I tend to disagree, and hopefully can show the reasons why. First, there is a direct one to one correlation between the events in Matthew 24, and Revelation chapter 6. Take a look...
Matt 24:4 Jesus answered: "Watch
out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in
my name, claiming, I am the Christ, and will deceive
Rev 6:2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him; and he went out conquering, and to conquer.
Matt 24:6 You will hear of wars and
rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such
things must happen, but the end is still to come.
Rev 6:4 And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men should slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
Matt 24:7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Rev 6:5 And when He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, "Come." And I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And I heard as it were a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine."7 And when He broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come."8 And I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. And authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Matt 24:9 "Then you will be handed
over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by
all nations because of me.
Rev 6:9 And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;
Matt 24:15 "So when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniellet the reader understand 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
At this point Jesus describes the midpoint, and then goes right to the end. Interestingly, the book of Revelation does the same thing. It should be noted that the course of events that Jesus describes perfectly describes the two periods during the tribulation, the first 3 1/2 years, and second 3 1/2 years, although He doesn't give details of the second part. (Revelation does) He perfectly describes the mid point of the tribulation where the antichrist sits in the temple declaring himself to be God. This shows clearly that the wars and rumors of wars are not events that happen before the tribulation, (Although they may happen), but He is speaking about the first three and one half years of the tribulation. Otherwise we would have to say that He starts explaining the tribulation at the mid point, which doesn't make sense.
All of this does not mean that one can't look at current events and see things being set up. Many things must happen to set up the Endtimes scenario as described in the Bible. For example, the world can't go from a nationalistic attitude in every country in the world to a one world government attitude overnight. This takes time to set up, and we can see that it is indeed being set up. Anyone that denies this isn't aware of what's happening today. Economically and politically the world is being united. Stock markets respond to each other in real time. The European community is trying to work out the political details needed to get a single European currency, and we know that the Bible tells us that the antichrist will be able to stop people all over the world from buying or selling. This only seems possible if the world is united with a single currency, or at least central control over the currencies of the world. (A world banking system in control.) One can get carried away in speculation of all kinds of conspiracy theories on this point though. All conspiracies against God originate with the enemy of God, Satan. More important than worrying about conspiracies in the Endtimes, which can't be stopped by us, is to be found by Him waiting for His return, meditating on the things of God, the truth of God, and not the things of man. (This is not to say that Christians shouldn't be politically active - balance is the key word.)
The seven year tribulation is a literal period of about seven years. I say about because it's not seven years based on our Julian/Gregorian calendar, but based on a 30 day month, which is 1260 days for each 3 1/2 period, or a total of 2520 days. In our calendar that is really 6 years, and 331 days with one leap year.
The books of Daniel, Matthew, and Revelation all tell us that the tribulation will last for two periods of 42 months, or 1260 days. (Which are based on 30 day months)
The period will begin with the signing of a peace agreement between the 'man of sin', or the antichrist, and the nation of Israel.
Daniel 9:27 "And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate."
In Revelation 7 it tells us...
"Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads." 4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel; 5 from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.
The detail given here indicates that this is literal. How God works this out so that there are 12000 from each tribe we don't know, but there is no indication here that it is not to be taken literally.
These Jews are said to be 'bond servants', so no doubt they are going to be evangelizing the nation of Israel, and possibly the whole world. These Jews are not believers at the time of the rapture, but will be saved probably towards the beginning of the tribulation, sealed, and begin a ministry of evangelism. The existence of these believers shows the mercy of God, that even during the last years of history He is still working to save people from the coming judgment through faith in Jesus Christ.