The Great Tribulation
E. J. Strange, Bridgwater
THE Lord said to His disciples before His death, " In the world ye shall have tribulation " (John 16. 33).
When Paul and Barnabas revisited the cities of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, they exhorted the disciples to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14. 22).
These are but two of many references in the New Testament which indicate that the normal expectancy of the church upon the earth is one of trouble and persecution. The history of the ' pilgrim church ' has confirmed these prophetic utterances, and it has been truly said that the absence of real persecution in some modern societies, such as with us, is an abnormality. We should thank God for the place and freedom we enjoy, while at the same time we should take warning lest a soft age should produce soft Christians.
Whilst tribulation is thus the expected lot of the child of God upon earth, we have already indicated in a previous paper our belief that there is a coming period, spoken of as ' the great tribulation,' during which the church will be with the Lord, having already been caught away, or raptured, from this scene. We believe this to be so, for two main reasons, the first being that the period marks the renewal of God's special dealings with Israel, preparatory to the setting up of the Messianic kingdom. The second is that the period is penal when God is dealing in judgment and the Scriptures emphatically declare that the believer does not share in the judgment of this world, but that lie waits for God's Son from heaven, even Jesus, " our deliverer from the coining wrath " (I Thess. 1. 10).
It must, however, be admitted that this view (the pre-tribulation rapture of the church) presents certain difficulties which cannot be solved by a stubborn dogmatism. We all need grace, patience, and a real spirit of enquiry into the true meaning of the Word of God. In one short paper it is impossible to deal with the variety of questions that might arise but one difficulty may be noted. In Revelation 7 John sees a great multitude, which no man can number, standing before the throne and the Lamb. They are spoken of as having come out of the great tribulation. Who are these ? Are they the church and, if so, does not the passage refute the view upheld ? There are two alternative interpretations. One is that the church is not here seen at all but that these are the multitudes who shall be saved on the earth after the rapture through the testimony of God's witnesses, the one hundred and forty-four sealed bondservants of God—men of the tribes of Israel (Rev. 7. v. 14). Another explanation of the passage is that ' the great tribulation ' is not confined to the last great time of trouble, but that it is put in this emphatic form to include the sum of all the trouble and trial through winch believers of all ages have passed triumphantly to the glory of God. This view of the passage is the one that is upheld by Dean Alford in his Greek Testament.
In thinking of the great tribulation we must bear in mind that prophecy has often a limited fulfilment as well as a final one. We have seen" this principle illustrated in the fore-shadowings of the Antichrist. The principle is especially to be noted in Matt. 24 ; a great deal of what the Lord said has been fulfilled but some things prophesied have not yet come to pass. Rationalists have seized upon verse 34 to assert that Christ's prediction did not come to pass, for that generation passed away and Christ had not come. Had He not said that all these things would be fulfilled before the passing away of that generation ? Alford, however, points out that the Greek word used for ' generation ' has in Hellenistic Greek the meaning of a ' race or family of people.' He adduces various New Testament instances to show that generation is equivalent to race, or nearly so, ' having, it is true, a more pregnant meaning, implying that the character of one generation stamps itself upon the race.' The evil, unbelieving character of that generation would remain indelibly stamped upon the race until the end. " Blindness in part hath happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in " (Rom. 11. 25).
The local or limited fulfilment of ' the great tribulation was, by a fairly general consensus of view, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army of Titus in A.D. 70. It is believed by some that the sign of ' the abomination of desolation ' was the desecration of the temple by the zealots. Warned by this or in some other way, the Jewish Christians did undoubtedly escape over the mountains to the city of Pella.
The Lord, however, was speaking of something more than the terrible tribulation of the overthrow of Jerusalem. He had referred His disciples to the prophecy of Daniel and, in speaking of great tribulation, He still has that prophecy in mind. The first verse of the last chapter reads, "... there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time." If this verse is taken in its context, the time referred to is ' the end time.' A careful study of the relevant passages in Daniel and in Revelation will show the student that the great tribulation is associated with the zenith of Antichrist's power, and that the duration is definitely limited. When God acts in grace it is ' the acceptable year ' but when He acts in judgment, it is ' the day of vengeance.' The ' day of grace ' has lasted nearly two thousand years, but ' the little moment' of wrath will be limited to a space of forty-two months or three and a half years (Rev. 13. 5). This stated period of time is an unmistakeable link with the half week of Daniel 9, where the Antichrist, the ' coming prince,' confirms a covenant with many for one week (a week of years, or seven years, is the generally accepted interpretation) but in the midst of the week breaks it.
Having noticed the time of the tribulation and its duration, let us consider its character. There are three distinct features.
We note first of all the persecution of the godly. The Antichrist reaches the zenith of his power and shows himself in his true character as the enemy of God and of all goodness. Energised by the evil one who is come down to earth, having great wrath (Rev. 12. 12), he vents all his malice upon Israel, typified in Revelation by the figure of the woman. There will, however, be refuge for the faithful remnant for in the wilderness she is nourished for a time and times and half a time. (Three and a half years.) " Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee. Hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast " (Isa. 26. 20). This persecution is not confined to Israel after the flesh. We read that the dragon makes war with her seed which keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus. It seems that all, who through the faithful witness of godly Israelites, shall be true to God in that evil day, will be subjected to the fiercest persecution. Even as in our dispensation, so then will it be true, " They overcame by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony: and they loved not their lives unto the death " (Rev. 12. 11).
The second feature of the great tribulation is the oppression of all mankind. In our day we hear a great deal about freedom, the liberating forces of democracy, the enlightenment and self-expression of the more backward races, and so on. In spite, however, of all this boasted freedom, there is the ever present bondage of fear. Man without Christ is not free and never will be free. The end time is marked by the most abject bondage. Men no doubt still proclaiming their freedom, will be subjected to ruthless control on the part of the trinity of evil. All must worship the beast; all, both small and great, rich and poor, must receive the mark of the beast. Without that mark it will be impossible either to buy or sell (Rev. 13. 16, 17).
The third and most awful feature of the period is the series of catastrophic judgments that fall upon the earth. While Matthew 24 deals especially with Judea, in Luke 21 we read that there shall be distress of nations, with perplexity. No part of the earth will be exempt from the storm of divine judgment. " Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth " (Rev. 3. 10). The judgment begins with the breaking of the seals (Rev. 6 and 8, v. 1). Seven trumpets are then blown (Rev. 8, from v. 7 to end of ch. 9, and ch. 11, v. 15). Finally, seven golden vials, or bowls ' full of the wrath of God' are poured out upon the earth (Rev. 16). A careful reading of the passages referred to will show a terrible intensification of judgment, so terrible indeed that we can appreciate the words of our Lord Jesus, " Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened " (Matt. 24. 22). Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven—the clear indication that the King is coming immediately to take the dominion which is His by right. This must be dealt with more fully in a later paper.
We note, finally, very tragic statements that are made concerning men in the most intense part of the great tribulation. " They blasphemed the name of God . . . they repented not to give Him glory . . . they blasphemed the God of heaven . . . and repented not of their deeds " (Rev. 16). Humanity, enslaved by sin, wooed by the gospel, suffering the judgment of God, still remains unrepentant.
It is still the day of grace. How earnest and insistent we should be in our proclamation of the gospel that on the part of many there might be repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.