Disciples of Jesus will escape God’s “wrath” but are appointed for “tribulation” in this life for the gospel‘s sake.
The terms “tribulation” and “wrath” are NOT synonymous in the New Testament. The former is what disciples endure for the gospel, but the latter is the horrific fate that awaits those men and women who reject the good news of the kingdom. Rather than life, they along with apostates will undergo the “second death.”
In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul wrote that God has not appointed his saints to “wrath.” But in the very same letter, he declares the church has been set by God 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, or he did not equate “tribulation” with “wrath.” By enduring persecution, the Thessalonian believers “become 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, the teachings of Jesus instruct his disciples to expect tribulation. Their opponents will deliver them “for tribulation and kill them: and they will be hated by all the nations.” Before his return, there will be “great tribulation” for his “elect,” so much so that only “he who endures to the end” will be saved – (Matthew 13:21, 24:9, 24:21-22).
REJOICE IN TRIBULATION
Contrary to human wisdom, disciples who endure persecution will be pronounced “blessed” in the Kingdom of God. Suffering for its sake 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 likewise encouraged his congregations 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).
His disciples are to remain patient in tribulations and to “continue steadfastly in prayer” in their sufferings. 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 honor if we suffer for doing wrong, but if we suffer patiently for our obedience to God, it is most praiseworthy. And as believers, we “have been called for this” very thing – (1 Peter 2:19-20, 4:15).
FOLLOWING HIS EXAMPLE
To suffer for the gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial death. Disciples accounted 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 boasts of their steadfastness. They have 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 disciples of Christ endure 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 to “tribulation.” The impenitent man stores up for himself “wrath” and “fury” for 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, 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.” It does not mean they will escape suffering and persecution in this life – (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9).
In the book of Revelation, John identified himself as “your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the perseverance in Jesus” to the churches of Asia. He had been exiled on the isle Patmos “because of his testimony.”
In John’s declaration, “tribulation” has the definite article, he was a participant in “THE tribulation.” The article signifies something that is known. Even at that early stage in church history, many saints were experiencing “the tribulation.”
To the church at Smyrna, Jesus declared – “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 promised they would “have tribulation for ten days,” and he summoned his saints to “become faithful unto death.” It is in this way that they “overcome” and escape something far worse than persecution – the “Second Death.”
Later, John saw an innumerable multitude of men from every nation standing before the “throne” and the “Lamb,” saints who “were coming out of the great tribulation.” The term refers to the same tribulation in which John and the seven churches of Asia were participating already – (Revelation 1:9, 7:9-17).
“Wrath” refers to the final judgment against God’s enemies. “Tribulation” is what the “saints” endure at the hands of the “Dragon” and his agents – (Revelation 12:17, 13:7, 14:12).
When Paul states that “God did not appoint us to wrath” and “we are appointed for tribulation,” there is no contradiction. The terms refer to different things. “Wrath” is God’s judicial sentence on the wicked, and “tribulation” is what the world inflicts on the true church.
“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 grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer for him is the highest honor that can befall a disciple.