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Revelation - Appendix 5: The Doctrine of the Tribulation


The word “tribulation” comes from the Greek word thlipsis (θλιψις) meaning “affliction, distress.” It is used in general of any kind of testing, affliction or distress which people experience throughout life, and especially of the church and her problems in this world (Acts 7:10-11; 11:19; Rom. 5:3; Rev. 1:9; 2:9, 10, 22). But Bible students have also used the term, “the Tribulation,” to refer to a specific eschatological time of trouble, a special time of judgment from God that will come upon the entire world, will be unprecedented in its affliction, and will be culminated by the personal return of Jesus Christ to earth. There are many passages that anticipate this time of trouble under a variety of names (see below), but two very special passages are Matthew 24:4-21 and Revelation 6-19. Others will be mentioned in the progress of this short overview.

For the purpose of accuracy, it should be noted that the word tribulation (thlipsis, θλιψις) is used prophetically to describe the distress that will occur in this specific future time of trouble preceding the return of the Lord only in Matthew 24:9, 21, 29; Mark 13:19, 24; and Revelation 7:14. Each of these passages are dealing with the time of Daniel’s seventieth week, also called the “time of Jacob’s distress” (Jer. 30:7). In five of the passages, the word “tribulation” refers to conditions in the last half of this time period and is either described by some qualifying terms like “great” (Matt. 24:21; Rev. 7:14), by a clause describing the unprecedented nature of the distress in the last half of this short period of time (Mark 13:19), or thlipsis (θλιψις) has the article and in some way refers back to the great distress mentioned in the preceding context (Matthew 24:29 has, “after the tribulation of those days” and Mark 13:24 has, “following that distress” [emphasis mine]).

But since this seven-year period is a time of trouble (distress) involving judgments that will be poured out as the Lamb consecutively opens the seven-sealed scroll, Bible students often referred to this entire period as “the Tribulation,” and rightly so. Since the judgments of the seals, the trumpets, and plagues grow in intensity, the last half is by far greater than the first half, and for this reason, it is called in Scripture, “the Great Tribulation.”

The Source of the Tribulation

The post-tribulational rapturist (those who believe the rapture occurs at the end of the Tribulation) often refuses to distinguish between the general tribulations of this age which the church will endure and the unique, universal, and unprecedented Tribulation of Revelation 6-19 and Matthew 24:4-31. As such, they insist that the Tribulation is not the judgment of God, but that it comes from man and Satan and that the church will go through the majority of the events of Revelation 6 and following. They often see any future tribulation as merely the devil’s wrath poured out against Christians.

True, the Tribulation will witness Satan’s wrath and the persecutions of his man, the beast (Rev. 12:12-17; 13:7), but Scripture shows that even this is a manifestation of God’s wrath using Satan and mankind as the instruments of divine judgment as Assyria was used as the rod of His wrath (Isa. 10:5f). The clear emphasis of Scripture is that the Tribulation (Daniel’s Seventieth Week) is a time of God’s special judgment poured out upon the earth. The events or judgments of the Tribulation (Rev. 6-19) are clearly specified as the result of the sovereign actions of the Lamb who opens the seals which produces the judgments that follow (Rev. 5:6-9; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1).

Key Scriptures: Isaiah 24:1-13; 26:21; Daniel 9:24-27; Joel 1:15; Zeph. 1:18; Revelation 6:1-17; 11:18; 14:7, 10, 19; 15:4, 7; 16:1, 7, 19; 19:1-2.

The Nature and
Character of the Tribulation

Read Deuteronomy 4:30-31; Isaiah 2:l9; 24:1, 3, 6, 19-21; 26:20-21; Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1; Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18, 20.

(1) It is a time of unprecedented trouble (Joel 2:2; Matthew 24:21). Everything about it will be unprecedented. Compare also Zephaniah 1:14-18.

(2) It is a time of God’s wrath or indignation and the vindication of God’s holiness (Zeph. 1:15, 18; Rev. 6:17; 1 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 14:7, 10; 19:2). God’s wrath against man’s sin and rebellion will be withheld no longer.

(3) It is a day of utter darkness, gloom and extreme cloudiness (Joel 2:2; Zeph. 1:15).

(4) It is a day of destruction and global catastrophes (Joel 1:15; 2:3; 1 Thess. 5:3; Rev. 6-19).

(5) It is a day of extreme lawlessness, sin and demonic activity (Rev. 9:20-21; 2 Thess. 2:12).

(6) It is a day of extreme deception and delusion (2 Thess. 2:9-12; Rev. 9:1f; 13:2-3, 11-18; Dan. 8:24f). This deception is caused by a number of factors: (a) the removal of the Spirit indwelt church with its restraining influence (2 Thess. 2:6-8), (b) the increase of demonic activity (2 Thess. 2:8-10), and (c) the blinding judgment of God (2 Thess. 2:11-12).

(7) It is a time of death (Rev. 6:3-11; 9:15, 18; 11:13). Large portions of the populations of the earth will be wiped out suddenly, both human and animal.

(8) It is a time of utter negative volition, cold indifference, and rebellion against God even though the world will know it is under the wrath of God (Rev. 6:14-17; 9:20; 11:10, 18).

(9) It is a time of internationalism religiously (Rev. 17), politically (Rev. 13:17), economically (Rev. 18), militarily (Joel 3:2, 9-14; Rev. 17).

(10) It is a time of extreme anti-Semitism (Rev. 12; Matthew 24:9, 13f).

(11) It is a time of unprecedented apostasy and blasphemy against God (Rev. 11:1f; 13:1f; 2 Thess 2:3f).

(12) It is a time of the martyrdom of believers, both Jew and Gentile (Rev. 6:9; 7:14f).

(13) It is a time of global and universal war, human and angelic (Rev. 6:2-4; 16:14; 19:14f; Joel 3:2, 9f; Rev. 12:7).

(14) But it is also a time of unprecedented evangelism (Rev. 7:9; Matt. 24:14).

Names Used of the Tribulation

(1) Jacob’s trouble or distress (Daniel 9:24-27)

(2) Daniel’s 70th week (Daniel 9:24-27)

(3) A time of trouble or distress (Daniel 12:1)

(4) The great day, the one of their wrath (Rev. 6:17)

(5) The hour of testing which shall try the whole earth (Rev. 3:10)

(6) The indignation (Isaiah 26:26)

(7) Tribulation and the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:9, 21, 29; Mark 13:19, 24; Rev. 7:14)

(8) The Day of the Lord (Joel 1:15; 2:1; 1 Thess. 5:2)

In Scripture, “The Day of the Lord” is often associated with this time of great judgment which God will pour out on the earth against Israel and the nations. But it is also associated with the time of millennial blessings which follow during which the Lord will rule on earth. Compare Isaiah 13:6-22 speaks of judgment, but 14:1-3 the result which is peace with Israel re-gathered and in blessing (Joel 1:15f; 2:1f, 12-18f; 3:1f).

Key Players and Personages

(1) Unbelievers: The Tribulation will begin with only unbelievers since the body of Christ will have been removed through the rapture and kept from this hour of trial (Rev. 3:10; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9). The Tribulation is uniquely a time to test the earth dwellers (Rev. 3:10; Isa. 24:17), those who during the church age had no time nor interest in spiritual things and who therefore never received Christ as their Savior by faith (2 Thess. 2:10-12). The Tribulation is a time of God’s wrath or judgment. For believers in Christ there is no judgment (Rom. 8:1), we are not appointed to the Day of the Lord, the time of wrath (1 Thess. 5:2, 9).

(2) Jews and Gentiles: The participants of the Tribulation may be further categorized according to their racial heritage as either Jews or Gentiles. Scripture categorizes men today in three categories: (a) The church; (b) Israel; and (c) the Gentiles or the nations (1 Cor. 10:32). In the Tribulation the church will be gone, so the world will consist of only Jews (Israel) and Gentiles. Compare Ephesians 2:11-22 for the reason why the church is a new entity of people, i.e., a new man, a new creation where Jew and Gentile are made one in Jesus Christ.

The reason for these two categories is found in the dispensational purposes of God and God’s special calling and purpose for Israel according to the Old Testament covenants with Abraham and the patriarchs, and with David (Gen. 10; 11; 12; 2 Sam. 7:12-16; Rom. 3:9, 19; 11:1-32; Luke 21:24).

(3) 144,00 Bondservants of God: 12,000 Jews from each of the twelve tribes. These are Jews who will be saved after the Tribulation begins. They are sealed, which refers to their salvation, identification and protection for special service during the rest of the Tribulation. From the context of Revelation 7, it appears they will be the special evangelists whom God will use to lead multitudes to Christ from every nation, tribe, people and tongue (cf. Rev. 7:1-8 with 9-10).

(4) The Two Witnesses: This refers to the two men who will come on the scene as a virtual (though probably not literal) Moses and Elijah. They will perform miracles like those of Moses and Elijah, and will prophesy during one half of the Tribulation—most probably the last half (Rev. 11:1-14).

(5) Satan and his Demons: Revelation 9:1-11; 12:3-17; 16:13-14; 13:2. Obviously, as a day of delusion and great darkness, Satan and his demon hosts are key figures in this drama. All the lawlessness, the murders, drugs, wars and blasphemies of this period are a result of satanic activity in conjunction with the degeneracy of man (2 Thess. 2:9-12).

(6) The Beast: Revelation 13:1f; 16:13; Daniel 2:40-43; 9:27; 8:23f; 7:23-26; 11:36f. This title applies to both a man and his governmental system. The system is the revived imperial form of the Old Roman Empire which is a consolidation of ten European countries into one 10 nation confederation. But this system is headed up and controlled by a Satan-possessed man from whom the system gets its character and beastly nature.

(7) The False Prophet: While the beast is primarily a political figure (though he later becomes religious in that he seeks to be worshipped and claims to be God), the False Prophet is religious and promotes the ministry and person of the beast (Rev. 13:11-18). Since the first beast is Satan-possessed, this forms the unholy trinity, Satan, the beast, and the False Prophet. Satan is to the beast what the Father is to the Son, and the False Prophet is to the beast what the Holy Spirit is to Christ.

(8) The Fallen Angels and Michael and His Angels: Rev. 12:7. The entire Book is filled with the ministries of the angels of God in service to God and of the activity of fallen angels that do Satan’s bidding.

(9) The Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings, The Lamb and Lion from the tribe of Judah: Rev. 4; 5; and 19. He is the central figure who is revealed in all His glory and splendor, person, and work and who puts an end to God’s enemies and establishes God’s kingdom on earth.

(10) The Bride of Christ, the Church: Rev. 19:7f. She is viewed as married to the Lamb and coming with Christ at His second advent for the marriage supper, the millennial kingdom where she will reign with Christ.

(11) The Great Harlot, Religious Babylon: This is the great religious system, the mother-child cult, the mother of all harlotry stemming from the time of ancient Babylon. It finally becomes a great ecumenical, one-world religious system of the Tribulation (Rev. 17).

(12) The Merchants of the World: Rev. 18. This refers to the conglomeration of multinational companies and organizations and their merchandising of the world.

(13) The Ten Nations of Europe: Rev. 17:12. This refers to ten nations, a Mediterranean or European federation which falls under the power and authority of the beast.

(14) The Kings of the East: Rev. 16:12f. This refers to an oriental block of nations who will march across the Euphrates River when it is miraculously dried up. Their goal is to enter Palestine for the final battle of the campaign of Armageddon to be fought on the plain of Esdraelon near the Mount of Megiddo.

The Time of the Tribulation

The Tribulation occurs after the removal of the church (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:l-9) and is followed by the 1,000 year reign of Jesus Christ (Rev. 20:1-4; Ezek. 20:33-38; Matt 24 and 25). It is that period of time through which the Lamb defeats His enemies and establishes His right to rule on earth (Rev. 4 and 5; 11:15-18).

Some arguments for the pre-tribulational rapture, i.e., that Christ comes for His church before the Tribulation are:

(1) It is a time of divine wrath and judgment upon sin and the church has not been appointed to wrath (1 Thess. 5:9; Rom. 8:1; John 5:24).

(2) The church has been specifically promised it will be kept out. See chart and the exposition of Revelation 3:10 in lesson 10.

(3) The church and Israel are two distinct groups or peoples of God (1 Cor. 10:32; Rom 9; 10; 11). The church age is a parenthesis in God’s program with Israel. The Tribulation is the resumption of God’s program with Israel, to conclude it and establish the kingdom. The Tribulation is thus Jacob’s Trouble, Jeremiah 30:7. It is for Israel and not the church, the Body of Christ.

(4) The coming of Christ for the church is seen as imminent in the epistles. By this we mean it is not preceded by signs. Christ could come for us today (1 Thess. 1:10; Titus 2:13; John 2:22). If the church had to go through the Tribulation, then His coming could not be imminent, but would be preceded by signs.21

(5) The contrasts between Christ’s return for His saints (the church) and His return after the Tribulation also support two separate and distinct events separated by some time. (See the contrasts at the end of this Appendix.)

The Purposes of the Tribulation

(1) For Israel: Being uniquely a time of Jacob’s (Israel’s) distress (Jer. 30:7), it is a time to discipline Israel for her stubbornness and rejection of Christ, to purge out the rebels and to bring the nation to faith in Christ and so prepare her for restoration and regathering for the millennium (Matt. 23:37-39; Ezek. 20:33-38; Zech. 12:10; Jer. 30:1-17). The Tribulation is also designed to break the yoke of Gentile bondage (Jer. 30:8, 11; 31:11).

(2) For the Nations: The Tribulation will serve as divine judgment for anti-Semitism (Zech. 1:15-21; 12:3f; 14:3; Joel 3:2; Jer. 30:8, 11, 16). The Tribulation will also be used to bring many Gentiles to faith in Christ (Rev. 7:9; 13:10). Finally, it is a test to try all the inhabitants of the earth.

(3) In Relation to Satan: The Tribulation will reveal the true character and program of Satan. The Tribulation will permit Satan’s program to come to its logical conclusion resulting in judgment from God. It will demonstrate that Satan is the cause of war, murder, and deception, and that he deserves his judgment from God (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 12:7-12; 20:1-3; Isa. 14:12-17; Ezek. 28:12-19).

(4) In General: The Tribulation is an open judgment against all mankind for rebellion to God and rejection of Jesus Christ (Zeph. 1:15, 17, 18; Joel 3:12-14; Rev. 6:16-17).

(5) In Relation to God: The Tribulation will demonstrate that God is holy, righteous, just, and still on the throne. That He has not ignored man’s rebellion or sin, but that He has held back only in mercy and longsuffering, not willing that any should perish (2 Pet. 3:9).

The Length of the Tribulation

Daniel 9:24-27 teaches us that the Tribulation (Daniel’s 70th week) consists of seven years. This is further verified by the time periods of Revelation which divide the Tribulation into two periods of three and one-half years. (Rev. 11:2-3; 13:5; 12:6; Daniel 7: 25; Rev. 12:14).

Understanding these basic truths concerning the Tribulation will help prepare the student for a study of Revelation 6-19.

Contrasts and Comparisons Between
the Two Phases of Christ’s Second Coming


Christ’s Coming for the Church, the Rapture

Christ’s Coming to the World

(1) At the rapture believers meet Christ in the air. It is the translation of all believers (1 Thess. 4:17).

(1) At His second coming to earth, no translation is seen (Zech. 14:4).

(2) His coming is as a thief. Only believers of the church will see him (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:17).

(2) Every eye shall see Him, it is open, public, and manifest to the world (Rev. 5:16; Matt. 24:30).

(3) Believers are taken off the earth and unbelievers remain to go into the Tribulation (1 Thess. 4:13-17; John 14:3).

(3) Unbelievers are taken and believers are left to go into the millennium (Matt. 24:37-39; Rev. 19:17-21).

(4) Christ comes for His saints and they return with Him into the heavens (1 Thess. 4:17).

(4) Christ comes with His saints (1 Thess. 3:13; 2 Thess. 2:10-12; Zech. 14:5; Rev. 19:7f).

(5) It is imminent, not preceded by any specific signs (Tit. 2:13; 1 Thess. 1:10; Rom. 13:11-14; 1 John 2:28).

(5) It is preceded by specific signs included in the Tribulation (Matt. 24).

(6) Christ comes as our Deliverer from the wrath to come. He keeps believers out of the Tribulation (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:9-10; Rev. 3:10).

(6) Christ comes as Judge. The world is judged (Matt. 25:31-32, 46; Rev. 6-19; Matt. 3:11-12; Joel. 2:1-11; 3:1-17; Jude 15.

(7) It is a source of comfort to believers (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:9; Rev. 3:10).

(7) It is a source of fear to man (Rev. 6:15-17; 9-11).

(8) There are no recorded changes in nature mentioned in connection with the rapture.

(8) Many changes in nature recorded (Rev. 6; Isa. 35).

(9) It is a mystery, a truth hidden in the OT (1 Cor. 15:51).

(9) It is the subject of extended prophecy in the OT.

(10) No reference or dealing with Satan. Instead, his activity increases (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18 with 2 Thess. 2:1f).

(10) Satan is bound for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-3).

(11) At the rapture the Mount of Olives is unchanged.

(11) At His return, the Mount of Olives is split and forms a valley (Zech. 14:4-5).

(12) At the rapture we have the examination, rewards, and wedding of the bride (Rev. 19:7-10).

(12) Christ’s return to earth is followed by the wedding feast and the church is seen already rewarded.

(13) At the rapture believers receive a glorified body (1 Cor. 15:51-53)

(13) Believers of the Tribulation go into the millennium with mortal bodies (Isa. 65:20-25).

21 For an excellent discussion concerning the imminent return of the Lord, see the chapter by Earl D. Radmacher in Issues in Dispensationalism, Welsey R. Willis, John R. Master, General Editors, Charles Ryrie, Consulting Editor, Moody Press, Chicago, pp. 247-267. Also, see J. Barton Payne’s, The Imminent Appearing of Christ.

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