Questions abound regarding the future event theologians have called, "The Tribulation." Questions such as, "Will it last for 3 and 1/2 years or 7 years? Is it figurative or literal? Will Christians suffer through it?" In this message Stephen surveys the diverse responses to these questions and brings us what he believes is the most Biblically consistent and logical answer.
The Rapture & The Tribulation
Ask the average person on the street about national security, world peace attempts, natural resources and the energy crisis and you will hear everything but optimism.
There is uneasiness in our country that hasn’t gone away – in fact, it’s felt by nearly everyone today.
We’ve watched rogue nations acquire sophisticated weapons systems that threaten the balance of world powers.
In the past months we listened to political leaders boast of their growing nuclear capabilities.
Diplomacy in the Middle East regions is attempting one more time to reconcile the irreconcilable.
We’ve listened to leaders predict the danger of earth running out of natural resources and a coming ecological crisis.
The rise of the Far East now finds China with more than 200 million military troops and currency reserves that recently passed the trillion dollar mark – currency reserves that grow at the rate of 30 million dollars an hour. Along with their exploding economy is a war machine that insiders admit is being prepared for war.
The European Union continues to emerge as a growing world power and the prospects of global governance is the ongoing cry of the United Nations.
According to the National Institute of Health, infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death worldwide, and the third leading cause of death in the United States. Diseases thought to be obsolete have once again become a global threat, including an anti-biotic resistant form of tuberculosis which has surfaced in different countries world-wide.
Adapted from Perspective, December 26, 2007
If there were ever times we would call troubled, they are these times.
But here’s the good news: what we are experiencing today is nothing compared to the global crises that will hit this planet in the future – just when it will finally arrive, no one knows.
And the reason no one knows is because it follows the rapture of the church – and nobody knows when the rapture is going to take place.
But how do we know that the rapture is going to take place before the tribulation – we call this view – the pre-tribulation view.
There are other views, such as post-tribulation – which says that Jesus will come for His church after the tribulation. I’ll address that in a moment.
Then there is the mid-tribulation view, that Jesus comes in the middle of the Tribulation – prior to that final 3 ½ years referred to in scripture as the Great Tribulation.
More on that in a moment.
We believe and teach the pre-tribulation view of the rapture – the literal view of scripture that Jesus rescues the church prior to the pouring out of God’s wrath on earth.
Paul’s step-by-step description of the Rapture event:
- The Lord’s appearance is described:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive and are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep
Jesus is referring to Christians who’ve already died. He says they’re actually going to descend with Him (they’re not sleeping in the sense that they’re sleeping in bed; but physically entombed – asleep as it were; Jesus used the same word for Lazarus who had died – Jesus said he was asleep – a figurative expression for the physical body that looks like it’s sleeping).
They have evidently been given temporary bodies which they’ve utilized while in Heaven during the time following their death – when their spirit went immediately to be with the Lord to enjoy the presence of the Lord and their new home in Heaven.
Remember, Jesus told the dying thief hanging next to him on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus said, “Today – the moment you die – you’ll be with me. Not, “after you’ve been asleep for 2,000 years – but today”.
Paul told the Corinthian believers, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8). In other words, when my spirit leaves my dead body, I’m going to be with the Lord!
When the apostle John was given a tour of Heaven, he didn’t see spirits floating around, he saw people – with bodies – eating fruit and singing songs and rejoicing around the throne of Christ.
So the Lord descends with them.
- Various commands are described
Notice further: verse 16; For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.
We’re not told what the command is, or what the tune on that trumpet sounds like – but these expressions have a military ring to them.
This is a command – in my view – to arise, because the first ones affected are the dead bodies of the saints who now come out of their tombs – reconstituted and materialized – reunited with their spirits which have been in Heaven, since the time of their death.
Trumpets were used throughout the ancient world and even in modern times to gather an army – to issue orders – it could be playing the trumpet Reveille to get soldiers outta bed.
Because what happens next here is:
- A resurrection is described
Notice verse 16 again:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
So the bodies of deceased believers will suddenly be resurrected from their grave.
And maybe you’re wondering, why bother? If their spirits have been with the Lord, in temporary bodies, able to enjoy eternity, why bother with recreating/reconstituting their original bodies?
Because this demonstrates the promise of Jesus that He is the resurrection and the life – whoever believes in Him will live, even if he dies (John 11:25).
This demonstrates His claim to have power over death and the grave.
Finally, Paul describes here, the fact that:
- A reunion is described
Then we who are alive and are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
“We will be caught up together” – the verb caught up is harpazo, translated in Latin as rapture or snatched away.
It’s used often in the New Testament for a sudden catching away:
- John 10:12 for a wolf snatching a sheep
- John 10:28 reassuring the believer that no one can “snatch” us out of the Father’s hand
- Acts 8:39 it refers to the deacon and evangelist by the mane of Philip suddenly disappearing – being snatched – or taken – from the Ethiopian eunuch, after baptizing him in the river.
- In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul uses the word for the time when he was raptured – caught up to heaven for his own personal tour.
When the rapture takes place, Paul explains in Philippians 3:21 – “our lowly body will be transformed to be like Christ’s glorious body”.
Paul describes that moment to the Corinthians believers as something taking place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”where we will be changed forever (1 Corinthians 15:52).
And when that happens – with the church now removed from the earth – the tribulation now begins.
So when we think of the literal second-coming of Christ, we need to understand that His coming is two-fold:
The second coming of Christ is two-fold:
- First – to save His church from wrath
- Second – to set up His kingdom on earth
This first part of His second coming is what we call the rapture of the church.
Now how do we know the rapture takes place before the tribulation? Why are we pre-tribulationalists and not mid-tribulationalists or post-tribulationists?
And maybe you’re wondering – why does it matter?
Should we be taking sides in this debate?
I know some people who are so anti-post-tribulationalism that they won’t even eat post-toasties for breakfast.
Prophecy and future events are so divisive – why study it at all?
We care about eschatology – the doctrine of the eschaton – the doctrine of future events for several reasons.
Why study eschatology?
“eschatos” – last things
“ology” – the study of
= the study of last things/end times
We study the end times:
- Because of our view of scripture – we believe as we’ve been told and found true that all scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16)
- Because God wanted us to know what’s going to happen next.
He might not have told us when the rapture takes place, and what year in our calendar the tribulation will take place but just listen to the opening words of the book of Revelation.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place (v. 1); then verse 3 – get this – Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written. (Revelation 1:1 & 3)
Have you ever thought about the fact that the Book of Revelation opens with a promise of blessings for everyone who study this prophecy?
- Because of its prominence in the Gospel
Paul preached to the Athenians and ended his message by telling that God was going to come and judge the earth. Because God has fixed a day on which He will judge the world…” (Acts 17:31)
Judgment is coming. The gospel is not complete without the wrath of God. By the way, the gospel involves much more than God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The gospel is being rescued from the wrath of God (Revelation 3:10)
- Because it motivates evangelism – at least it did for the Apostle Paul who had not only been given much of the truth of coming days, but the glory of heaven.
He wrote of his passion to serve as Christ’s ambassador, begging the world to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20)
Why? Because Paul knew that the next event on the calendar was the snatching away of the believers – and most of those left behind will be doomed to face the wrath of God.
And let me add here: there is the view that the church will succeed in the great commission and win the world to Christ and usher in the kingdom.
Doesn’t Jesus essentially say that in Matthew 24?
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
The problem with those who take this to mean that the church wins the world and ushers in the golden age; essentially replacing Israel too, by the way; the problem is they ignore the context of this chapter. Jesus is describing the Tribulation – He even mentions the tribulation back in verse 9; He mentions the birth pains of God’s wrath through famine and earthquake and global warfare . . . the world is not getting better, it’s getting worse!
Then in verse 14, the gospel is preached around the world to all nations and then the end will come.
This is literally fulfilled at the end of the tribulation. And it isn’t fulfilled by the church, but by an angelic messenger – Revelation 14 describes the angel flying around the world delivering the final invitation of the gospel message – inviting everyone from every tribe and tongue to trust in and worship the true and living God.
By the way, this is how you end up having believers from every tongue tribe and nation entering into the Kingdom over whom we will one day reign.
Where do these millions of believers come from in such a short period of time, who are saved during the tribulation?
I mean the church has been working at the great commission for 2000 years and there are tongues and tribes and nations who've never yet heard the gospel.
So how do you have millions of believers who accept Christ in a very short period of time dash how do they even hear the gospel in their tongue in their language when we don't even have yet the Bible translated in their language.
Here's when it happens at the end of the tribulation.
An Angel is dispatched who will circle the globe delivering the gospel in everyone’s language every tribe every people group every nation and millions will believe.
And then the end – the end of the tribulation – will take place and the Kingdom established as Jesus Christ and all of us, descend with Him to set up His millennial kingdom.
By the way this answers a big question for us. It tells us where the world’s population comes from during the Kingdom, over whom you and reign.
This answers who these kings are who bring the glory of their nation into the Kingdom. Where did they come from?
All the believers were raptured before the tribulation – and yet, when we descend with Christ, we reign with Him over the world’s population. Where does this population come from?
Post-tribulational folks have a big problem here, by the way, because if all believers are raptured at the end of the tribulation, there are no redeemed mortals over whom we reign.
Isaiah the prophet describes the humans on earth during the kingdom – over whom we reign – he says that for one of them to die at the age of 100, they would be considered a young person (Isaiah 65:20).
Well, we’re not gonna die – we’re immortal now; so who on earth is still mortal – and able to die at the age of 100?
This answers that question – these are the people from around the world who believed that angelic messenger; they survived the tribulation – and when Christ descends and sets up His kingdom – we, the raptured church – will with Him reign over them during the millennial kingdom.
And this also answers for us how the world will finally hear the gospel and believers from every tongue – get that – every tongue and tribe and nation will enter into the Kingdom.
Why else should we study end times?
- Because it tells us who we’re waiting to see.
Are we waiting for the antichrist to be introduced and then our lives threatened if we don’t follow him? Or are we waiting for the rapture of the church?
That should make a difference in the preparation and mission of the church. If we’re waiting to go through the Tribulation – it’s described in Revelation 6 through 19 – a time of unparalleled famine and disease. So the church should be storing food and medicine because it will give the church an incredible opportunity for evangelism.
I don’t know of one covenant theologian or pastor or one Presbyterian or Methodist church that is currently storing up food for the coming Tribulation.
Paul was clear that the believers are eagerly awaiting the appearance of the Lord.
Titus 2:13 says that we are:
“Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We’re not waiting for the antichrist – the terrible wrath of God on earth – we’re waiting with anticipation for the glorious appearance of Christ for His church.
- Because it settles fear and anxiety about the future
That was the message of Christ to His disciples in John 14:1-4 where he told them not to be troubled in their hearts – He was leaving, but He was coming back for them.
Paul ended his description of the rapture in First Thessalonians by writing, “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
There was a time in my life when the thought of the rapture wasn’t encouraging – it was terrifying.
Personal testimony – stoplight blinked – called Lowell!
- Because it exalts the supremacy of Christ.
The message of prophecy can be summarized in two words is this, Jesus wins! He wins! Christ reigns!
History is His-story. He will be glorified at last as our sovereign, supreme, ruling, Savior.
And we are right on schedule!
One more motive for studying prophecy . . . we study these prophecy:
- Because it reveals the faithfulness of God.
- He will set all things right
- He will finally judge evil and vindicate righteousness
- He will keep His promises to Israel
- He will preserve His church to the end
- He will fulfill the prophecy of His second coming
- He will fulfill the promise of a new heaven and earth
So . . . what do we do in the meantime?
Listen, God gave us so much prophecy in His word, not just to fill our heads – but to change our hearts; to encourage our hearts; to motivate and purify and impassion and prepare our hearts for Him.
And so . . . while we wait for Him;
We work for Him,
We walk with Him
And we worship Him.
Take a break
Question number 1:
- What exactly is the Tribulation?
A time of unparalleled human suffering, demonic boldness, cosmic disturbance, Jewish awakening, gospel preaching and global crises the world has ever experienced.
The categorical heading for the Tribulation is “The Wrath of God Revealed” and for seven years, the earth will stagger under the weight of God’s wrath.
The first 5 chapters of Revelation revealed the sovereignty of Christ in His church; but these next chapters will reveal the severity of Christ in His wrath or chastisement.
One author said that the Tribulation is “hell on earth” for seven years.
Mark Hitchcock, The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy (Tyndale Publishers, 1999), p. 65
The term Tribulation covers the entire 7 years; but the term Great Tribulation is used by our Lord to describe in Matthew 24:21 the last half of the tribulation.
There are those that believe the rapture will occur at that point – the midway point, believing in what they call a pre-wrath rapture. However, the title “pre-wrath rapture” exposes one of the primary flaws in their view, since the first 3 ½ years are certainly experiencing the wrath of God as well.
Christ, in fact, referred to the first 3 ½ years as labor pains. Try telling your wife as she begins labor that she isn’t really feeling anything.
- What is the purpose of the Tribulation?
- To ready Israel for the Kingdom.
Zechariah 13 records, Two-thirds of the people in the land will be cut off and die, says the Lord. But a third will be left in the land. I will bring that group through the fire and make them pure, just as gold and silver are refined and purified by fire. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, “These are my people,” and they will say, “The Lord is our God.” (Zechariah 13:8-9)
There are many more passages indicating that the kingdom will be preceded by a national period of purifying judgment (Isaiah 2:1-4; Jeremiah 30:1-33; Joel 2 and others)
All that to say, the church has not replaced Israel. Israel will be regathered and God’s promises to His covenant people will literally take place.
- Another purpose of the Tribulation is to reveal God’s sovereignty over His creation.
You remember the Pharaoh of Egypt mocking God and refusing to submit and God unleashing the plagues upon his land?
In a similar display of arrogance, the antichrist will set himself up as god. And the human race – which even today worships mother nature – idolizes the universe – worships the creature – God will turn nature upon mankind like never before.
- Another purpose of the Tribulation is to reveal the character of Satan.
The Tribulation will unmask Satan – the angel of light.
He will be revealed for caring nothing for the human race in spite of generations of masquerading through false teachers his desire to improve mankind and provide prosperity and comfort.
His masquerade of light will be thrown aside and he will become the red dragon (Revelation 12:3) and he will want to kill everyone.
But can you imagine his utter hatred for God and God’s creation in that he knows his doom is certain, yet but he plunges ahead in spite of that knowledge.
John records in Revelation 12:12 this amazing description of Satan’s growing insanity, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.”
Imagine that! That’s like a murderer on death row being told he’s going to be released for one hour and he spends that final hour cursing God and killing as many people as he can.
That’s the devil.
Now there’s another reason for the tribulation that I’ve already mentioned:
- Another purpose of the Tribulation is to redeem a host of believers from around the world
Millions who’ve been redeemed by the grace of God will emerge from the horrors of the Tribulation, prepared to serve Christ in the coming Kingdom and enjoy Heaven forever.
- One final purpose of the tribulation is to revive and return Israel to receive her Messiah.
This is the fulfillment of Romans 11 where Paul speaks with great confidence at the faithfulness and completion of God’s election of Israel as he announces that all the remnant of Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:26)
Ethnic Israel will be revived, reconstituted and redeemed as their Messiah returns to earth at the end of the Tribulation.
Zechariah also records that at the end of the tribulation, the redeemed and restored nation of Israel – will look upon Him whom they pierced. (Zechariah 12:9-10)
Daniel and Zechariah are key prophets who inform us of:
- The length of the Tribulation
- The coming of Satan’s Prince – or the antichrist
- The desecration of the Temple
- The coming world empire
- And the conclusion of the Tribulation with the appearance of Christ
Floyd Hamilton, an amillennialist writes, “Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialist pictures.”
Loraine Boettner, a postmillennialist writes, “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that Kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”
Now let me ask and answer a few questions:
If believers in the church age aren’t going to endure the tribulation, why did Christ warn the Disciples about it?
A similar question could be asked about the apostle Peter’s warning of the earth and universe being burned up in the judgment of God.
You could ask the same question about Isaiah’s warning in chapter 39 about the Babylonian captivity which did not occur all the people who were warned had died.
MacArthur, p. 88
What you have here is essentially a warning to every generation of this coming tribulation.
And by the way, remember the fact that the Bible is going to last through the Tribulation.
Which means there will be many who will be able to read the events before they unfold, gaining insight and discovering the gospel for themselves.
Even though specific times for each seal and trumpet and bowl aren’t given and the exact moment of Christ’s return to Jerusalem, what a blessing it will be for Tribulation believers to have the Book of Revelation and all the prophecies to read and study!
Is unleashing the Tribulation on one generation fair treatment?
In other words, is it really fair that this one generation gets the truckload of judgment backed up to it?
For one thing this generation will have more knowledge and more signs and more opportunity to respond to God’s witness than any previous generation. Furthermore, God’s judgment will be linked in its intensity to humanity’s rebellion.
Even beyond that, remember that God’s forbearance with earlier generations, all of which deserved the same punishment, does not exempt this generation from judgment in the final hour.
One more note – every unbeliever in every previous generation is currently in Hades suffering torment.
Adapted from Sam Smith, p. 53
No unrepentant sinner will is going unpunished or will. The horrors of God judgment on earth during the Tribulation are a minor display of His eternal wrath against those who’ve rejected His salvation.
In fact, as horrifying as the Tribulation will be, everyone in Hades would gladly exchange the Tribulation for the torment they will be undergoing in Hades while they await the final judgment.
- How long is the Tribulation?
Remember, Daniel informs us that it lasts for 7 years.
You remember as well that the Lord divided it in two sections, referring the first section to birth pains and the second section to great Tribulation.
The entire Tribulation is an ongoing series of three judgments:
7 seals; 7 trumpets and 7 bowls.
Each section, like birth pains growing greater and greater in intensity.
As if I have the right to talk about birth pains!
Well, I was there . . . they started slowly. I can remember a couple of times – we’ve had 4 children but because of our twins only had to go through the process 3 times.
My wife would say, “Honey, we need to go to the hospital.” She would be calm, cool . . . in fact, I remember being amazed by just the way she had it together, until, as every mother can testify, the pain became nearly unbearable.
This is the Lord’s metaphor for the growing intensity of His judgment. The kingdom in Israel will be birthed as it were through the pain of Israel’s Tribulation.
- What Tribulation pain and terror unfolds first?
Revelation provides the details to add to Christ’s sermon.
The first four seals, which we’ll look at in detail next Lord’s day reveal the coming of Four Horsemen.
These are the famous horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The first rides a White horse – representing the deception of anti-Christs
The second rider appears on a Red Horse – representing the destructiveness of global war
Then there’s the black Horse – which represents the devastation of famine
Finally, the Pale Horse gallops throughout the world, prefiguring the disease and death of untold millions of people.
Revelation 6 and verse 8 tells us that 1/4th of the world population on will be killed at the outset of the tribulation.
Imagine what that would mean today. Our world’s current population that would mean that 1.6 billion people would die in a matter of a couple of years! Imagine 60-70 million Americans alone dying in 24 months.
That’s around 3 million every month. That’s nearly 100,000 people dying every single day.
They won’t be able to make caskets fast enough!
The devastation of death will be unimaginable.
- Will anyone survive the Tribulation?
The time of Tribulation will be cut short for the sake of the elect remnant but millions of others who will survive as well. (Matthew 24:22)
Those who have believed in Christ, during the Tribulation, will enter the kingdom – as we’ll study in future days. They will marry and populate the earth over the course of the 1,000 year reign with wonderful, just rule provided by Christ on David’s throne and we, the body of Christ reigning with Him.
Next question – question #11.
- What do all the horrors of the tribulation reveal?
Primarily this: that God will literally keep His promises of wrath and justice as well as His covenant with His people Israel.
God will literally keep His promises and His program in place:
His literal promise and program of a kingdom
His literal promise and program of judgment
His literal promise and program for Israel’s redemption
His literal promise and program of an earthly reign
The Tribulation reveals that God keeps His word.
- Can unbelievers accept Christ during the tribulation?
The answer is yes . . . in fact, people will come to Christ by the millions.
This has been noted already in the fact that Tribulation martyrs from every tribe and nation are found before the throne of heaven.
As an added question to this one, I’ve been asked over the years if those who rejected Christ during the church age can accept Christ after the rapture – after they realize they’ve been left behind.
2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 refers to the strong delusion sent by God upon those who follow the lie of the antichrist.
While that verse is often used as support for those who say it’s forever too late for the one who rejected the gospel prior to the rapture, this verse actually says that those people who fall under the delusion of God are actually those who, after the rapture, choose to follow the antichrist.
I have every reason to believe that those who rejected Christ before the rapture will continue to reject Him after the rapture.
What we do know for sure is that there will be untold millions of sinners who will come to faith in the Son of God during the tribulation. (Revelation 7:9-14)
Let me add a few more thoughts here; many people overlook the fact that another tangible benefit of the Tribulation is the delivery of a final, worldwide invitation of the gospel literally around the world.
Even though Satan will do everything in his power to defeat the witness of Christ; even though hell will continue to pour out demons to wreak havoc on earth, Jesus Christ will be testified.
Postmillennialists envision the church’s evangelistic efforts eventually winning the world to Christ and thus preparing the way for Christ to establish His kingdom on earth.
Nowhere are we told this in scripture.
You say, what about Matthew 24:14 – an oft repeated verse where Christ says, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.”
Many believe that the church is successful in completing the great commission in one final generation.
Listen, the church is no more successful in fulfilling her mandate to disciple those from every tongue and tribe anymore than Israel was successful in fulfilling her mandate to be a blessing to the nations.
The program of God does not depend upon us – although those who are obedient to Christ seek to take the gospel around the world.
But the church at large will be disobedient and lazy and fail their Lord.
So, what about the gospel being preached to the whole world?
Clearly, this is a promise to be fulfilled in the latter part of the Tribulation.
And in case you’re not convinced, Revelation clears up the fog as it delivers the clear truth that just before the final days of the tribulation, an angel will fly throughout the world delivering the gospel of Christ and inviting everyone from every tribe and tongue to trust in and worship the true and living God. (Revelation 14:17)
And the end will soon come.
Imagine that – a world-wide gospel message, delivered by a heavenly herald sent on a worldwide tour – in the language of every human being on earth, delivering one final, universal invitation to believe in their Creator God.
And still – many will not believe.
For those of us today who believe in Christ, these texts bring incredible awe and holy reverence before our great God.