The Great Tribulation
John J. Stubbs
Bible prophecy makes clear that there is going to be a unique and unparalleled period in the world’s history. It will be the world’s worst forty-two months. This period is known as the Great Tribulation which will take place in the second half of Daniel’s seventieth week. It is variously described in scripture as ‘the coming wrath’, ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble’, ‘the trial which will come upon the earth’, and ‘the day of vengeance’. The whole of the tribulation will cover a seven year period following sometime after the rapture of the church. Joel chapter 2 verse 2 and Matthew chapter 24 verse 21 are two passages that make mention of an unequalled and unrepeatable time of trouble. It is not possible to have two such periods which can be unique and unparalleled. Both of the writers cited refer to disturbances in the heavenly bodies, such as the darkening of the moon just before the Lord comes to the earth.
The Lord, in Matthew chapter 24, predicts what will happen at the beginning of the tribulation, vv. 4-8, in the middle of the tribulation, vv. 15-20, and also at the end of it, v. 29. The Lord will suddenly bring to an end this terrifying period. The return of the Lord to the Mount of Olives is described as ‘the great and notable day of the Lord’. This description must not be confused with the term, ‘the day of the Lord’. The latter takes in the whole course of the tribulation, but the former is rather a pivotal event in the day of the Lord when Israel’s enemies will be dealt with and punished at the second advent of the Lord Jesus. The day of the Lord will take in not only the Tribulation, but also the Millennium, and the final event in the day of the Lord, before the eternal bliss and tranquillity begins. It is the last great act of judgement which will embrace the planet and its atmosphere (see 2 Peter 3. 10).
Let us now consider the Great Tribulation as to its commencement, character and climax.
The tribulation period will commence sometime after the rapture of the church. In 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, we have important information that greatly helps us to see that the tribulation period cannot commence until three events occur. The apostle is giving reasons in this passage that, contrary to what the Thessalonians had been hearing from others, the day of the Lord (‘day of Christ’ KJV in verse 2 should read ‘the day of the Lord’ RV) was not then present. The first reason why this could not be is that the coming of the Lord to the air at the rapture had not yet taken place, v. 1. The second is the apostasy mentioned in verse 3. This is the revolt that will mark the end of the age, when all truth will be abandoned by Israel and Christendom alike. The third is the manifestation of the man of sin, v. 2b. Satan will see to it that this eschatological person will be raised up. He will achieve worldwide power by military exploits and the putting down of other rulers. In my view, it does not necessarily follow that as soon as the Restrainer is removed, v. 7, then immediately the wicked one will be revealed; rather, that the way will then be clear for the awful development of evil and the initiation by God of His judgements upon the earth after the day of grace has expired, Rev. 6-18. We must be careful here and not insist that only a seven year gap will intervene between the rapture and the Second Advent in glory of Christ to the earth. It certainly appears that the Great Tribulation will cover the last three-and-a-half years of Daniel’s seventieth week, but there may well be some time lapse before the last week of Daniel chapter 9 begins.
The question might well be asked, ‘What is the purpose of the tribulation?’ From the Old Testament in particular, we learn that the first phase of the day of the Lord in the period of the tribulation will be one of gloom, darkness and trouble for Israel as a nation. It will be Israel’s great testing and humbling process to prepare them for the shock of the revelation of their Messiah. Chronologically, the first reference to the day of the Lord in the Old Testament is Amos chapter 5 verses 8-20, where the prophet rebukes the ideas of the people as to the day of the Lord and shows that instead of it being a time of victory for Israel over their enemies, it will rather be a period of darkness and inescapable judgement upon themselves. This helpful scripture provides a significant clue as to the nature of the tribulation. Israel will be the special object of divine chastening throughout the course of the tribulation period. This is the same period referred to as ‘Jacob’s trouble’, Jer. 30. 7. We see this pictured in Joseph testing his brethren prior to his revelation to them. Joseph’s bride, Asenath, knew nothing of the seven year famine or the testing of Joseph’s brethren. She was cared for in the palace by Joseph. So the church, the bride of Christ, will be cherished in heaven, having been taken there by the Lord Jesus before the Tribulation begins, see 1 Thess. 1. 10; 5. 9.
The whole world will suffer in the Tribulation time, but especially Israel, who will experience such suffering as they never have endured in their past history. The Lord Jesus speaks of ‘the beginning of sorrows’, Matt. 24. 8. This refers back to the conditions mentioned, vv. 4-7, of false Christs, wars, famines and earthquakes, etc. While it is true these things have occurred in the world’s history, they will happen to a far greater degree in the tribulation time. The Lord, in His Olivet teaching, says of the first three-and-a-half years of the tribulation, ‘All these are the beginning of sorrows’, v. 8. The phrase ‘beginning of sorrows’ was used of the birth pangs of a woman. This is an interesting picture. Israel’s suffering in the tribulation is compared by the Lord to the travail of a woman in child-birth. This suggests that the design of the tribulation in regard to Israel will be to change Israel into a new and restored nation.
The seven year tribulation period will have a very sudden and climactic end with the Lord descending in power and glory from heaven. The Second Advent will be the intervention of the Lord Jesus to deal with man’s affairs on earth. He will end the tribulation to conquer His enemies, to convert Israel nationally, and to control the world in His millennial reign. Physically and geographically speaking, without any exaggeration, the Lord’s feet standing on the Mount of Olives at His revelation in glory will be the most momentous event ever to take place on planet earth. The crisis of Armageddon will be at its height when He returns. Israel as a nation will be on the verge of being destroyed by their many enemies. The Jewish faithful remnant praying and waiting for the Messiah will almost feel all hope has gone. Many of their brethren will have been martyred, while others of them will still be active preaching the coming kingdom. Just before the Lord descends to the earth, God will switch off the lights of creation. There will be great disturbances in the heavenly constellations which will be sandwiched between the end of the Great Tribulation and the Lord’s return to earth. From the dark backdrop of the heavens and the earth He will descend. There will be no need of a spotlight on the Saviour, for all will see Him return to earth in resplendent glory. Just before the Lord comes to the earth the seas and the waves will be roaring and the power of the heavens will be shaken and men’s hearts will fail them from fear, Luke 21. 25-26. It will be, for the majority of the population of earth, a most fearful time.
The One whom soldiers abused when here, will, upon His coming, destroy the largest armies ever assembled together. He who had been at His first advent a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes will appear with His vesture dipped in blood. He whose feet were pierced at Calvary will tread His enemies under His feet. In the days of His flesh men took up stones to cast at Him, but when He comes He will see men crying for the mountains and rocks to hide them from His wrath. The Lord who had in His life been the Man of sorrows will come forth in fury and great power as the Man of war. He will inflict punishment on the beast and the false prophet, and cast Satan into the abyss for one thousand years. What a sequel this will all be to the end of the Great Tribulation. Then, after the terrible heat and darkness of the tribulation period, Israel will enjoy times of refreshing from the Lord, and the world, for the first time, will enjoy peace, prosperity and plenty.