Now here is a subject which gains a considerable amount of attention in modern Christian writings. But even at a casual glance across the Internet, one comes away with the impression that all Christians are going to be whisked away out of this troubled world very soon, and then the Antichrist will take over, eventually producing this horrible period of time which the Bible calls “the great tribulation.” However, the future cannot be laid down in letters engraved in marble, as though it was already past and readily remembered. Let’s take stock of what we find in the Bible, and ask a few pertinent questions.
Matt.24:21. Our Lord said, during His Olivet discourse, “Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” The word “then” must be understood within the context of the whole discourse, and it soon becomes plain that our Lord was referring to the generation then living, and particularly the lot of those Jews who were violently antagonistic to all that Jesus taught, eventually leading to the crucifixion, and the mob taunt of “His blood be on our heads”. There is nothing in the immediate context that speaks about some distant future time.
In point of fact, this all happened within that generation, because when Titus attacked Judaea and Jerusalem in A.D. 70, we are told by the Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus that as a result of the siege, some 1,100,000 Jews were slaughtered within the city, about 250,000 lost their lives in the surrounding country, and 97,000 were taken captive. The city was then razed to the ground, the Temple burned, and virtually all traces of the Jewish way of life eliminated from the region. It was because the Lord saw prospectively what was going to happen, that He warned His disciples to get out as soon as they saw the signs begin to appear. History tells us that word got round amongst the believers of that day, and as a result there was a steady exodus of Christians to a place known as Pella, where they were able to escape the ravages of Roman occupation.
As far as I can see, the great tribulation the Lord spoke about was this very event in history. It was indeed (according to the most graphic description in Josephus) a time of great tribulation, with conditions in Jerusalem during the siege so appalling that it makes one’s stomach turn over in reading about it. Incidentally, some may argue that this contradicts what I wrote before, concerning the “forgiveness”, and the renewed mission to the Jews. But in fact it doesn’t, because from a judicial point of view, God gave them the opportunity to repent of the crucifixion, so that none of them could say they were never given the chance.
It would seem as though the nightmare of history is really past, and not still in the future. So why has there been all this emphasis on some future replay of the event? This is where the problems begin, and we’ll face them squarely.
First of all, we find that our Lord was quoting from Daniel when He spoke about the great tribulation. “At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince who stands for your people, and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation until that time, but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book.” (12:1) Already we’ve seen that the prophecy came true. The disaster brought about by Rome actually occurred, and the believers were actually delivered, as a result of the timely warning spoken by the Lord.
But Daniel had more to prophesy. The quotation doesn’t end at verse one. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to age-lasting life, and some to age-lasting shame and contempt.” (12:2) Was the prophetic telescope operating here, referring to events thousands of years ahead, even though spoken with no more than a comma separating it from that which went before? We know that this happens in prophecy, which is the outpouring of the mind of God, rather than prediction, which specifies some actual event. Some have referred this second verse to Matthew 27:52, at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection, when “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, went into the Holy City and appeared to many.” This would account for a part of Daniel’s prophecy, but not all of it. Undoubtedly these raised saints, who entered the Holy City, were those “found written in the book,” but there is no record of others raised to a state of shame and contempt.
The only way to grapple with situations like this is to realise that prophecy is a fluid function, by which the mind of God is set forth, and worked out through history in accordance with prevailing circumstances. It is the biggest conundrum for some to accept that God weaves His tapestry of history in this way, without in the least minding that He might be giving the impression that He doesn’t know the future until it happens. The sovereignty of God remains inviolable, and we must remember that in our own lowly condition, all such high matters must forever remain as a partial understanding.
Now we must turn to that passage in Rev.7:14 which uses the expression. “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night within His Temple.” Earlier, in verse 9, we are told that these are a “great multitude that no man can number, from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue.” There can be no doubt that this refers to Gentile saints, and the passage contrasts strongly with that which formed the earlier portion of the chapter, where a very definite number of saints, described as “the servants of our God”, is mentioned, “out of every tribe of the sons of Israel.” Furthermore, these numbered saints are “sealed” before the horrors are unleashed upon the earth, which the great multitude presumably have to go through.
This raises several questions. First of all, how could the Apostle John speak about 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes, when only those from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and some of Levi were stillrecognised in the Land of Israel at that time. The other “10 lost tribes” were scattered amongst the nations, and even though James wrote to “the twelve tribes of the dispersion” it is doubtful that the Apostles met many of them. In Acts, where Paul meets up with the dispersion, he always speaks about “the Jews”, which signifies only the tribe of Judah. Unless John was using figurative language, I cannot see how the 144,000 can be rationalised at that period of history.
Then the question of numbers has to be faced. Most people would assume that these are “round numbers”, used in the same sense that Elijah was told about the “seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” (1 Kings 19:18, Rom.11:4) If the number seven represents “spiritual perfection”, to describe how God estimated His faithful remnant in Elijah’s day, does the number twelve describe the“perfect government” of these latter day saints? If so, then we may have a partial answer to the question. These “servants of our God” were selected by the Lord as being sufficiently mature, experienced, trained by many tests, to make them ready for His Kingdom, and as such needed to be “sealed”, against any further devastating problems that were shortly to arise. That being so, then two classes of believers arespoken of in chapter seven. Both go through the “great tribulation”, but the numbered few are untouched by its depredations, whilst the unnumbered many are “tried by fire” to bring them to maturity.
A further question must be asked. At what point in time did John receive and write his revelations? I’ll quote Dr Bullinger in his introductory notes in the Companion Bible. DATE OF WRITING. This by almost unanimous consent of the early Church writers is ascribed to the close of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, about A.D. 96. At the time of the so-called “Second General Persecution” of the “Christians.” It takes a lot of courage to go against a statement of this type, but I have to ask, if this is true, then it is long after the dispersion of Jews from the Land of Israel in A.D. 70, and makes the whole passage about 12,000 from “every tribe” even more difficult to understand.
I must be content to leave the matter unresolved. The passage in Revelation 7 had to be introduced because of the words “great tribulation”, which is the subject of our present enquiry, but to pin-point the actual period of time when this tribulation occurred, or is to occur, is, I believe, beyond our ability to establish.
The 30th chapter of Jeremiah contains a prophetic message which applies seasonably to Israel today, and uses the expression “the time of Jacob’s trouble”. The prophet begins by saying that God is to “restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah. I will bring them back to the land which I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it.” He then goes on to say what will happen when this is achieved. He speaks of “a cry of panic, of terror, and no peace.” Thus far, we have an accurate depiction of what has happened since the Jews returned to their land in 1948. The word continues, “Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, yet he shall be saved out of it.” The unbelieving nation of Israel is to go through a time of unprecedented agony which the prophet describes as equivalent to “national labour pains”, in order to bring them face to face with God. One is reminded of Paul’s words, that “the Deliverer will come to Zion and turn ungodliness from Jacob. This will be my covenant with them, when I take away their sins, and so all Israel will be saved.”(Rom.11:26-27)
Could this “time of Jacob’s trouble” be just another way of describing a great tribulation? The word tribulation (THLIPSIS in Greek) speaks of pressure being applied from every side, of not knowing which way to turn. It is a painful process which the Lord applies to people in order to bring them to the place and the condition which He has in store for them, but which they could not attain without the application of pressure. Israel, at this moment in time, is surrounded by Islamic pressure groups on all sides, with dire warnings of extermination. But Jeremiah was told to say, “It will come to pass in that day that I will break the yoke from off their neck, and I will burst their bonds, and strangers will no longer make servants of them. But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their King, whom I shall raise up for them.” (Jer.30:8-9) The Lord says, “I will not make a full end of you, but I will chasten you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished.”
This is still future, but we are now seeing the pressure being applied to Israel in greater and greater measure. When it has accomplished God’s purpose, the Lord promises to raise up David to be their King. This speaks of the time of resurrection, and therefore the events in the Middle East must be watched carefully, as Jeremiah’s prophecy is enacted. When the Jews have “looked upon the One whom they pierced, and mourned”, and when they have said, “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” then all these things shall have been accomplished.
Isaiah also speaks about the day of “birth pangs” in chapter 26. But he ends that section with a word of warning from the Lord. “Come my people, enter your chambers and shut your doors behind you, hide yourselves for a little while until the indignation is past, for behold the Lord is coming forth out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed upon it, and will no more cover its slain.” (Isa.26:20-21)
Hebrews 12:26-27. “Now He has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain.” (Quoted from Haggai 2:6-7)
It is time to draw this study to a close. I have not answered most of the questions that have arisen, but I can see a process being spelled out more and more clearly, namely that God uses times of tribulation to bring His people to their senses, purify, and refine them, and make them ready for some higher service. As Paul said, “through much tribulation we must enter the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Can any of us say before God that we do not need this type of treatment? Can we aver, as some do, that we shall be “caught up to meet the Lord before the great tribulation begins”? Whatever lies ahead, let us fall into the hands of the Living God, who is a consuming fire, and be dealt with in His crucible, that He may bring us out as gold refined in the fire, and acceptable in His sight. In these disastrous days in which we now live, in which both Jew and Christian are being attacked more ferociously than ever, let us look up, for our redemption draws nigh. Surely we live in the days where the “signs of the times” speak clearly of the near-return of the Lord.