The Church and Tribulation

SYNOPSIS:  In the book of Revelation, faithful saints experience “tribulation,” whereas, the unrepentant undergo “wrath.”

lightning during nighttime

The book of Revelation pictures followers of the Lamb exiting the “Great Tribulation,” not through their removal from the Earth but because of their perseverance through it. This is most pronounced in a vision received by John of an “innumerable multitude” of men and women from every nation coming out of the “Great Tribulation,” to stand before the Lamb who redeemed them by his sacrificial death.

From the very start of his visions, John identifies himself as a “fellow-participant” with the churches of Asia “in THE tribulation” (Revelation 7:9-17).

The term “tribulation” occurs five times in the book of Revelation, each time in relation to believers, not to the lost. In other words, “tribulation” is what the seven churches endured, not the surrounding “inhabitants of the earth.” Invariably, in the New Testament, “tribulation” or thlipsis is what believers experience for the sake of the Gospel (Matthew 13:21, John 16:33, Revelation 1:92:9-107:14).

big waves under cloudy sky

The idea of the Church escaping “tribulation” by its removal from the Earth is not found in Revelation; furthermore, it is contrary to the tenor of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Suffering for his sake is not something to avoid at all costs but, instead, a matter of great honor and cause for rejoicing (Matthew 5:10-12).

According to the Bible, “tribulation” is an integral component of how disciples enter the kingdom of God. And the summons to persevere through tribulation and persecution is at the very heart of the book of Revelation.

(Revelation 1:9) – “I, John, who also am your brother and fellow-participant in THE TRIBULATION and kingdom and endurance in Jesus; I came to be on the isle called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

The Greek noun rendered “tribulation” in John’s statement is thlipsis. It has a basic sense, “pressure, a pressing together.” Derivative meanings include, “affliction, oppression, trouble, tribulation, distress.” This is a general term that can be applied to any type of hardship (Strong’s #G2347).

In his salutation, John identified with the churches of Asia and their sufferings by declaring, “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance in Jesus.” Here, “tribulation” has a definite article or “the,” which signifies something known and identifiable. It was not “a,” but, “the tribulation.” That is, John was participating in the same “tribulation” as the seven churches of Asia.

In the Greek sentence, the one definite article modifies all three nouns – Tribulation, Kingdom, Endurance. Each noun represents a different aspect of the same reality. To be “in Jesus” is to suffer for his kingdom.  John found himself on the isle of Patmos, “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” To suffer for the kingdom is what it means to reign with Christ. “Endurance” or hupomoné occurs six more times in Revelation (Strong’s #G5281), always linked to believers who persevere on account of their testimony:

(Revelation 2:2-3) – “I know your works and your labor, and your endurance…And have borne and have endurance.”

(Revelation 2:19) – “I know your works, and charity, and service, and faith, and your endurance.”

(Revelation 3:10) – “Because thou hast kept the word of my endurance, I also will keep thee from the hour of trial.”

(Revelation 13:10) – “He who is for captivity into captivity goes; he to be killed with sword must with sword be killed. Here is the endurance and the faith of the saints.”

(Revelation 14:12-13) – “Here is the endurance of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.”

Persecution is not something to fear but, instead, perseverance through it is how the saints overcome and inherit the promises given by the Risen Jesus at the end of each of the seven letters to the churches. Nowhere in the book of Revelation does Satan or the Beast wage war against other nation-states or Israel; instead, the Devil attacks those who have the “testimony of Jesus,” the “saints,” the men and women who follow the Lamb:

(Revelation 2:9-10) – “I know your tribulation and destitution, nevertheless, you are rich, and the profane speech from among them who affirm that they themselves are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried and may have tribulation ten days. Become faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.

Only the congregations in the cities of Smyrna and Philadelphia received no rebuke or correction; both were praised for their faithfulness. Jesus was aware of the “tribulation” that the church at Smyrna had endured (“I know your tribulation”). Nevertheless, he declared she was about to suffer even more tribulation (the “things you are going to suffer”).

Rather than escape, he encouraged the church “not to fear what you are about to suffer,” and he promised they would “be tested and for ten days have tribulation.” There was no thought of escape, fear, or shame. Tribulation was something the healthiest churches of Asia endured. It was not punishment. In the end, faithful endurance in it advanced the Kingdom, brought glory to the Lamb and everlasting rewards to his followers.

The predicted “tribulation of ten days” alludes to the first chapter of Daniel when the prophet and his Jewish compatriots requested a test based on a vegetarian diet. In this way, they hoped to avoid eating food that had been offered to idols:

(Daniel 1:11-15) – “Then said Daniel to the overseer whom the ruler of the eunuchs had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: ‘I pray thee, prove thy servants ten days and let them give us vegetable food, that we may eat and water that we may drinkthen let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenances of the youths who have been eating the delicacies of the king, and as you shall see deal with thy servants.’ So then he hearkened unto them according to this word, and proved them ten-days; and at the end of ten days their countenances appeared more comely and fatter in flesh, than any of the youths who had been eating the delicacies of the king.”

Christians must “be faithful unto death”; not escape, but endurance through suffering is called for, even when it means a saint’s unjust death. Faithfulness in tribulation results in the “crown of life” and avoidance of the “Second Death.”

(Revelation 2:20-23) – “Nevertheless, I have against you, that you allow the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and leads astray my own servants to commit lewdness and to eat idol-sacrifices; and I gave her time that she might repent, and she wills not to repent out of her lewdness. Behold, I cast her into a bed, and them who are committing adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent out of her works; and her children will I slay with death; and all the assemblies shall get to know that I am he that searches reins and hearts, and will give unto you, each one, according to your works.

Jesus rebuked the church at Thyatira for tolerating a false prophetess, “Jezebel.” He was about to throw her “into great tribulation unless she repented.”  This is the only instance where “tribulation” is used negatively in the book, in this instance, to warn believers not to participate in her teachings. In this case, the threat of “tribulation” was not to inflict wrath but, instead, to cause purification.

Elsewhere in Revelation, faithful saints endure the “great tribulation,” a period during which followers of the Lamb are tried and overcome the Beast. It is not to punish erring Christians or inflict “wrath” on the “inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 7:9-17).

(Revelation 7:14-17) – “These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; For this cause are they before the throne of God and are rendering divine service unto him day and night in his sanctuary; and he that sits upon the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them; They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither in any wise shall the sun fall upon them nor any burning heat, Because the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall shepherd them and shall lead them unto life’s fountains of waters; and God shall wipe away every tear out of their eyes.

John saw “an innumerable multitude” of redeemed saints from “every nation…standing before the Throne and the Lamb.” This group was comprised of saints, “who are coming out of the great tribulation”.  Though redeemed, they nevertheless go through the “great tribulation,” the same “tribulation” referred to by John at the start of the vision (Revelation 1:9).

The multitude was clothed in white robes, having “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” They stood before the Throne of God and the Lamb to render priestly service “day and night” in his Tabernacle. This group represents the “kingdom of priests” established by the death of the Lamb, “priests” who reign with him and “shepherd the nations” (Revelation 1:5-6, 2:27, 5:10, 12:5, 19:15, 20:4-6).

Summary Points 

The word “tribulation” is applied to believers in the New Testament, and only rarely to the enemies of the Gospel. This is especially so in the book of Revelation (“All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” – 2 Timothy 3:12).

While believers experience “tribulation,” the unrepentant undergo “wrath.” The “saints” who follow the Lamb are delivered from this final “wrath,” especially from the “second death.” The book of Revelation nowhere equates “tribulation” with “wrath.” In the end, believers overcome the Dragon “by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and because they love not their lives EVEN UNTO DEATH” (Revelation 12:11).

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