THOUGHTS on the Great Tribulation
by Pastor G.R. Dawe, D.D.
Definition: The word tribulation comes from the Latin tribulatio and means, "great trouble; severe trial; affliction." It is derived from the Latin tribulum, a threshing sledge.
As one reads the prophetic scriptures, there seems little reasonable doubt but that we are living in the period of time designated therein as "the end of the age." The Apostle Paul described himself and the churches of his day as people "upon whom the ends of the ages have come." (1 Cor. 10:11) So they lived at the beginning of the end! Our Lord instructed His followers to "make disciples of all the nations" and promised, "lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the age." (Matt. 28:18-20) If the end was in the prophetic sights of the church then, how much nearer to the end must we be at the present moment!
It has become popular in our day to associate with the end of the age a period of intense and awful tribulation -- a time of suffering unprecedented in the history of our age. Many Christians have been led to believe that the Lord has planned for believers a secret escape from this great tribulation. There arose in Christendom, about 150 years ago, a view of Christian doctrine not held before, that the church would be raptured home to glory before the great tribulation would break upon the world. Some who do not believe this doctrine, nevertheless believe in a comparatively short period of tribulation at the end of the age, through which we all must pass. We believe this to be an erroneous and unscriptural view, and present the following alternative for your consideration.
The tribulation does not mean the same thing to all people. When Jesus spoke of the tribulation in the synoptic gospels, He mentioned it in relation to His own people, Israel. He had been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, and as He emerged from the temple "His disciples came to Him to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, 'Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another that shall not be thrown down." (Matt. 24:1,2) Later, "as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the Age?" (Matt. 24:3) It was in reply to these questions that our Lord mentioned the coming tribulation.
In Matt. 24:4-14 Jesus outlines the general conditions that would prevail throughout the age after His departure, and concludes the section by saying, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come." Then, at verse fifteen, He zeros in on that specific event that would mark the beginning of that age-long tribulation that would affect His people, Israel, so drastically -- the "abomination of desolation." Had He not warned His people, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!" (Matt. 23:37-39) And now He says, "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place' (Whoever reads, let him understand), 'then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the filed not go back to get his clothes. And woe to those who are pregnant and to those with nursing babies in those days! But pray that your flight be not in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened." (Matt. 24:15-22) Thus He described the desolation that shattered Jerusalem under Titus, the Roman prince or general, in 70 A.D. Note that the description is Jewish. He speaks of "the holy place" (v. 15); "Judea" (v. 16); "the Sabbath" (v. 20). The tribulation of those days would be unprecedented and "shortened" (in intensity) "for the elect's sake" (v. 22). But from that point Jesus went on to warn them about the appearing of false messiahs and false prophets, lest they be deceived by them (Matt. 24:23-26), and showed how His own second coming would be identifiable: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be." (v. 27)
Our Lord then describes the conditions that will accompany His coming, and makes this interesting statement: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days..." What days? The days of Israel's dispersion among the nations -- the days of her tribulation. The tribulation is age-long, and who can say that it is yet over? As Jesus was about to leave His beloved disciples and return to His Father in heaven, He comforted them and said, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:32) So Jesus describes His coming in Matthew 24:29-31: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."
The remaining two synoptic gospels are in harmony with Matthew. Notice how Mark follows the same outline, Mark 13:1-27:
The Temple and its Stones
"And as He went out of the temple, one of the disciples said to Him, 'Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!' And Jesus answered and said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down." (vs. 1, 2)
The Questioning Disciples
"And as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, 'Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?" (Mk. 13:3, 4).
General Conditions of the Age
"And Jesus, answering them, began to say: 'Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, "I am He," and will deceive many. And when you hear of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows. But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. And you will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations. But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that: for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all men for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved." (Mark 13:5-13)
Jerusalem Desolated-- the Jews Scattered
"But when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not' (Let the reader understand), 'then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. And let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of the house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his garment. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those with nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight not be in winter. For in those days there will be tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of creation which God created to this time, nor ever shall be. And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake whom He chose, He shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is Christ!' or, 'Look, He is there!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. But take heed; see, I have foretold you all things." (Mark 13:14-23)
Christ's Coming Follows the Tribulation
"But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven." (Mark 13:24-27)
The Gospel of Luke is in agreement, Luke 21:5-28:
The Temple and its Stones
"And as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts, He said, 'As for these things which you see, the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down." (Luke 21:5, 6)
The Disciples' Questions
"And they asked Him, saying, 'Teacher, but when will these things be? And what sign will there be when these things are about to take place?" (Luke 21:7)
General Conditions of the Age
"And He said: 'Take heed that you be not deceived. For many will come in my name, saying, "I am He, and the time has drawn near." Therefore do not go after them. But when you hear of wars and commotions, do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end is not immediate."
"Then He said to them, 'Nation will rise against kingdom. And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and rulers for My name's sake. And it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict nor resist. And you will be betrayed both by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will cause some of you to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. In your patience possess your souls." (Luke 21:8-19)
The Specific Sign
"And when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." (Luke 21:20- 24) Notice how the tribulation which began with the desolation of Jerusalem continues "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled."
The Signs Heralding Christ's Coming
"And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near." (Luke 21:24-28)
From these considerations we conclude that the great tribulation:
- Is not a climax but a continuing discipline.
- Is not an unprecedented catastrophe crammed into a tribulum of seven years at the end of this dispensation of time, but rather a disciplinary instrument necessary to the ultimate achievement of God's purpose for His people in this age of grace.
- That "the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet," (Matt. 24:15 cf.. Dan.11:31) is not something yet to be fulfilled in some future temple, but rather is an event that has already taken place in the ordered history of Jerusalem and God's chosen people.
- Is not merely "great" in intensity, but also in duration.
- Is not something we may hope to escape, but something we are privileged to endure for Christ's sake.
When our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was accounted worthy to take the scroll of the pre-written history of this age, and to open the seven seals, had broken the sixth seal, John the recorder saw "a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb," John was asked by one of the elders, "Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?" and he answered, "Sir, you know." The spokesman said, "These are the ones who came out of the great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (Rev. 5: 1-10; 7:9-17) This is a picture of the redeemed of the Lord -- "Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it! Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb; Redeemed through His infinite mercy, His child, and forever I am," as Fanny Crosby puts it. The company whom John saw is "the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven." (Heb. 12:23)
Thus this age has been one of great tribulation. For the Jew it began with the desolation of their beloved Jerusalem and continued through a long period of dispersion and many pogroms, including Auschwitz. And who can say that their tribulation is over? Not until they shall say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." (Matt. 23:38, 39) For believers in Christ it began with dispersion, persecution and death in the times of the apostles (Acts 7:54-60; 8:1-4; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2). It continued for the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome; during the dark middle ages by tortures and burnings, and the iniquitous inquisition suffered at the hand of the antichrist. In the present it continues in untold imprisonments and deaths in an increasing number of countries being engulfed by communism. ( Note from Historicism.com: These words were penned by the author before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. However, one need only observe the headlines in the news today to witness the accounts of a "multitude" of Christians being persecuted for their faith, even to the point of death, under racial, religious, and political oppression. ) The "blessed hope" is not the hope of escape from tribulation, but rather the "glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ" who, as we have seen, will come after (or at the close of ) the great tribulation.
Having written thus on the them of THE GREAT TRIBULATION, I do not mean to imply that tribulation will not intensify as the age draws to its close. We are told plainly that "evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived," (2 Tim. 3:13 ) ; "that in the last days perilous times will come," (2 Tim. 3:1 ) . Daniel warns, "there will be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that time," (Dan. 12:1 ). Both for Israel and the nations there are serious times ahead. Zechariah speaks for God when he says, "Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy (Israel's) spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle... Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations...," (Zech. 14:1- 3 ). And, again, "And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it," (Zech. 12: 3 ). The apostle, Peter, informs us "that scoffers will come in the last days" to deny that there will be any change in the normal state of the world. He warns them that God, who destroyed the earth once with a flood, will destroy it again with fire. "But the heavens and the earth which now exist are kept in store by the same word, reserved for fire until the day of judgement and perdition of ungodly men," (2 Pet. 3: 3- 7 ). Nowhere does it say that Christians will escape the tribulations that must come upon the world as a result of the machinations of evil men, but Jesus does say, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world," (John 16:33 )
Let me conclude with the words of the Apostle Paul which he wrote to Timothy. After warning him of "perilous times" to come, he said: "But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me in Antioch, in Iconium, in Lystra -- what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." (2 Tim. 3:10- 12 )
(All Old Testament Scripture references have been quoted from the Authorised Version and all New Testament references from "The New King James Bible, New Testament.")
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