His disciples escape God’s “wrath” but endure “tribulation” to which they have been “appointed” – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4.
In the New Testament, the terms “tribulation” and “wrath” are NOT synonymous. “Tribulation” is what disciples endure for the sake of Jesus, but “wrath” is the horrific fate awaiting the wicked at the “end of the age,” the “second death,” which unrepentant sinners and apostates endure on account of their iniquities and betrayals.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul taught that God has not appointed the church to “wrath.” However, in the very same letter, he declared the church has been set to “suffer tribulation,” persevering through trials and persecutions is part and parcel of being a disciple of Jesus:
- “God did not appoint us to wrath, but to the acquiring of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” – (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
- “Wherefore, no longer concealing our anxiety, we were well-pleased to be left in Athens alone; and sent Timothy, our brother and God’s minister in the gospel of the Christ, that he might confirm and console you over your faith, that no one might be shrinking back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that hereunto are we appointed. For even when we were with you, we told you beforehand, we are destined to suffer tribulation! Even as it also came to pass, and you know” – (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4).
Either Paul contradicted himself in this letter, or he did not equate “tribulation” with “wrath.” By enduring persecution, the believers in Thessalonica “became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much tribulation with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” – (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
Likewise, Jesus taught his disciples to expect tribulation and persecution. Opponents of the faith will deliver disciples “for tribulation and kill them: and they will be hated by all the nations.” Before his return, there will be “great tribulation” for the saints; so much so, that only “he who endures to the end” will be saved – (Matthew 13:21, 24:9, 24:21-22).
Contrary to human wisdom, men and women who endure persecution will be pronounced “blessed” in the Kingdom of God. Suffering for him is a matter for great rejoicing – “Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice! Be exceeding glad! For great is your reward in heaven!” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Paul also encouraged his churches to rejoice in suffering. We are to “exult in our tribulations because they bring about endurance, and our endurance a testing, and our testing hope” – (Romans 5:3, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4).
We are to remain patient in tribulations and “continue steadfastly in prayer.” It is God who “comforts us in every tribulation, so that we ourselves may be able to comfort those who are in any tribulation.” Tribulations “prepare for us an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” – (Romans 8:35-39, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4, 4:17).
According to Peter, it is thankworthy if we suffer for the sake of our “conscience towards God.” There is no glory or honor if we suffer for doing wrong, but if we suffer patiently for our obedience to God, it is praiseworthy. Moreover, as believers, we “have been called for this” very thing – (1 Peter 2:19-20, 4:15).
To suffer for the gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial death. Disciples found worthy to “suffer for righteousness” are blessed, and this is in “accord with the will of God” – (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:14-18, 4:19).
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul boasted of the Thessalonians’ steadfastness. They had endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations.”
Both believers and non-believers will be found alive when Jesus arrives from Heaven, an event that will result in the vindication of the former, but the condemnation of the latter. And the Thessalonians endured persecution so that they “might be counted worthy of the kingdom of God on behalf of which they were suffering, if at least, it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” – (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
In Paul’s epistles, “wrath” is NOT identical with “tribulation.” The impenitent man stores up for himself “wrath” and “fury” that he will reap on the “day of wrath.” Because of sin, the “wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.” In contrast, the saints have been justified by Jesus and, consequently, they will “be saved by him from the wrath of God” – (Romans 2:5-8, 5:9, Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6-8).
In Paul’s writings, the coming “wrath” of God is connected to the day when Jesus returns in glory. God has not appointed the church to experience that “wrath.” Instead, the saints will acquire salvation through Jesus, and that means they will not experience His “wrath” at the end of the age. It does not mean they will escape suffering and persecution in this life – (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9).
In Revelation, when John addressed the seven churches of Asia from the isle of Patmos, he identified himself with their situation – “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the perseverance in Jesus.” Already, he had been exiled “because of his testimony” – (Revelation 1:9).
In John’s declaration, “tribulation” has the definite article, that is, he was a participant in “THE tribulation.” The article signifies something that is known. Even at that early stage in church history, the churches were experiencing “the tribulation.”
To the church at Smyrna, Jesus declared that “I know your tribulation and the things you are going to suffer.” He encouraged them “not to fear what you are about to suffer,” and he promised they would “have tribulation for ten days.” He summoned this church to “become faithful unto death” even when that meant martyrdom. And it is in this very way that the saints “overcome” and escape something far worse than persecution – the “Second Death.”
Later, John saw a great innumerable multitude of saints from every nation standing before the “Throne” and the “Lamb,” men and women who “were coming out of the great tribulation.” Here, the term refers to the same tribulation in which John and the seven churches of Asia were “fellow participants” – (Revelation 1:9, 7:9-17).
In Revelation, the term “wrath” first appears when the sixth seal is opened. This results in the final day characterized by celestial and terrestrial upheaval, and the arrival of the “wrath of the Lamb” – (Revelation 6:12-17).
Similarly, “wrath” occurs when the seventh trumpet sounds. It signifies the time for the righteous “dead to be vindicated and to give their reward to God’s servants the prophets and to the saints,” but also for God’s “wrath and the time for the dead to be judged.” This portrays the final judgment when the righteous are vindicated and the wicked condemned to “wrath” – (Revelation 11:15-19).
The final “hour” to reap the harvest of the earth is declared in the fourteenth chapter of Revelation. All men who have rebelled against Jesus will drink “the wine of God’s wrath, poured out unmixed into the cup of his anger.” The image pictures the same event that was presented when the rider on a white horse “tread the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” after the final battle with the “Beast and False Prophet” – (Revelation 14:14-20, 19:11-21).
Thus, in Revelation, “wrath” refers to the final judgment against the enemies of God. “Tribulation” is what the “saints” endure at the hands of the “Dragon” and his earthly agents – (Revelation 12:17, 13:7, 14:12).
When Paul wrote that “God did not appoint us to wrath,” and that “we are appointed for tribulation,” there was no contradiction. For him, the terms referred to two different things. “Wrath” is God’s judicial sentence on the wicked, and “tribulation” is what the world inflicts on Christians.
“Tribulation” is part of what it means to follow the “Lamb wherever he goes,” to daily “deny yourself and take up the cross.” Suffering for his sake is not punishment or aberration, but instead, grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer for him is the highest honor and greatest “blessing” for his disciple. For that matter, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”