For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. (Matthew 24:21–22, NIV 1984).
The Hebrew word for Tribulation means narrow or compressed. The Greek word for Tribulation also conveys the idea of severe constriction, narrowing, or pressing together. Similar notions underlie the Latin word which means a threshing sledge used to crush and separate grain (separating the wheat from the chaff).
In addition to its timing in relation to the Rapture and Parousia, the primary questions about the Tribulation is whether believers will be subjected to it, the distinction between Tribulation and Great Tribulation, how long it will last, and why it is necessary.
The Bible does say that believers will experience tribulation. When believers go through tribulation, it has several distinguishing characteristics. First, they will be patterned after the sufferings of Christ. (Matthew 13:21; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Romans 8:35; 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; Revelation 1:9), Second, they are, in essence, a participation in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24; 2 Corinthians. 1:5; 4:10; Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13). Third, they facilitate transformation into the likeness of Christ (Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:8–12, 16). Fourth, they are used to teach believers to give comfort and encouragement to others facing similar situations, thus enabling those suffering to persevere and persist in their own tribulations (2 Corinthians 1:4; 4:10; Colossians 1:24; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). They in turn can help others and so on.
The Great Tribulation refers to a time of “great distress,” and “suffer[ing] intensely” that will usher in the second coming of Christ (Matthew 24:21; Revelation 2:22). Jesus warned that the Great Tribulation will be a time of such “great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world” that its calamities will nearly decimate all life (Matthew 24:15–22). Jesus’ words mirror Daniel 12:1, “a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time.”
Many distinguish the tribulation that believers are expected to undergo from the Tribulation or the Great Tribulation. One is a general tribulation that has and will continue throughout Church history. The other is a more specific tribulation limited to a specific time and duration. This is usually not a matter for debate. The great debate is whether Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “for God did not appoint us to suffer wrath,” means that believers will not go through the Great Tribulation or that they will be protected during the Great Tribulation. Since the Great Tribulation is generally understood as an outpouring of God’s wrath on non-believers, many contend that Christians will be Raptured or removed beforehand (Pretribulation or Midtribulation Rapture).
In contrast to the Age of Grace, which has extended for nearly 2000 years, the Tribulation (also called the Age of Wrath) is expected to last seven years. The Tribulation will begin when the man of sin (another name for the Anti-Christ, who many believe will be the leader of some federation of nations, signs a treaty with the Jewish people (Daniel 9:27). The period that it covers is also believed by many to be the seventieth week of Daniel’s great prophecy of the “seventy sevens” recorded in Daniel 9:24–27. Half of the time is generally understood to be 42 months, 1,260 days (Revelation 11:2–3), or three and a half years (based on a 30-day month). At the mid-point of the Tribulation the Anti-Christ is expected to break his treaty with Israel, cease being Israel’s protector, demand to be worshiped himself (2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Daniel 9:27) and seek to conquer and rule the entire world (not merely his confederation).
While both the first and second part of the Tribulation will be characterized by intense persecution and judgment, the second half will be much more severe. This leads some to conclude that only the second half of this period is the Great Tribulation, and that Christians will be Raptured at the mid-point, before the Great Tribulation (Midtribulation Rapture). Others see the entire seven-year period as the Great Tribulation (Pretribulation Rapture).
Two characteristics distinguish the Tribulation or the Great Tribulation from all other times of persecution that the world has experienced up to that point. First, it will be worldwide in its scope, not localized (Revelation 3:10). Only the great flood in the days of Noah was worldwide in its scope. Second, people will not only realize that the end of the world is near, but they will act like it is coming. In one of the early judgments, men will hide themselves in the dens and caves of the mountains and say, “fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16). Throughout history, men have often talked as if the end were near. But people did not necessarily act as if they really believed that the end was really at hand. When the Tribulation finally comes, men will prefer death to life, because the end that they envision will be so horrific that they view death as an escape.
One might wonder why there will be a period of Tribulation before Christ returns? What purpose will it serve? Why would Jesus not simply return to earth, judge the people and begin eternity? At least two, perhaps three, reasons have been offered in answer to this question. First, the wickedness of man must be punished. Even though it may seem like God is not doing enough about evil now, someday He will act openly against it. Second, men and women must by one means or another acknowledge that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. This may be done voluntarily beforehand by coming to Christ in faith and receiving salvation. If not before, one will have to bow later. For “it is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God (Romans 14:11)’.” But then it will be too late to receive salvation. Third, this outpouring of God’s wrath could be God’s final effort to urge mankind to repentance and salvation that they rejected during the Age of Grace. Could it be that many more (“a great multitude”) will accept Christ during the Great Tribulation than during the Church Age (“only a few find it”)? Will those who are alive and “reach out” for Christ and “find Him” during the Great Tribulation not have done so if they had lived during a different time? Could that be why God “determined” that this specific time is “set for them?” In essence, could God’s wrath during the Great Tribulation be a further manifestation of His abundant grace, because God is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)?”
|So That Man Would Seek Him|
|Church Age (Age of Grace)||Tribulation Age (Age of Wrath)|
|Only a Few Find It – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord,’ …then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:13, 14, 22, 23)||A Great Multitude – After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9, 14)|
|The Times Set for Them – “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27)|
There are more people alive today (more than 8 billion) than have ever been alive at any other time in history. According to the lower estimates of the United States Census Bureau, the entire world population around the time of Christ’s birth (1 AD) was approximately 170 million and did not reach 1 billion until the early 1800’s. A United Nations’ study suggests that the total world population was approximately 500 million in 1492, the year Columbus discovered America.
For the more than 8 billion people alive today, the “times set for them” are obviously now. But why now for them? Perhaps because this is a time in history where the Gospel is accessible by more people and translated into more languages than it has ever been before. “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”
This further underscores the fact that the outpouring of God’s wrath during the Great Tribulation just could be a further manifestation of His abundant grace. Wrath and grace intersected once before at the cross, when Christ bore God’s wrath on Himself in order to extend God’s Grace to us. During the Tribulation, God’s grace will bear down directly on mankind as His final invitation to accept His offer of grace.
My Advice – If you are not among the few that accept God’s grace before the Tribulation, there is no guarantee you will be among the “great multitude” during the Tribulation. “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2, NIV 1984).
Schemm, P. (2003). Rapture. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1366). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Norman, S. (2003). Tribulation. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 1624). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Ryrie, C. C. (1972). A survey of Bible doctrine. Chicago: Moody Press.
One thought on “The Tribulation”
Thank you for this timely study. Blessings, Steve!
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