Is there a great tribulation awaiting the saints of God? According to some who teach end-times prophecy, a great tribulation of seven years follows the rapture of the faithful to the Lord, and those saved during this troubled time will endure great persecution.
We see the term “the great tribulation” in Revelation 7:14 and this is so in the Greek text (in Revelation the term utilized is thlipseos). But there is a question. Is this “great tribulation” is intended to be the same as in Matthew (there the term is the same, but in a different tense – thlipses)? Is this something that modern Christian need to keep on their rader?
The word is used in various tenses 45 times in the King James Version. It is defined by Strong’s as “pressure (literally or figuratively): – afflicted, (-tion), anguish, burdened, persecution, tribulation, trouble.” Of those 45 occurrences, it is coupled with “great”1 on four occasions. Only in Rev. 7:14 is it referred as “the” great tribulation in the Greek. So what does this tell us?
Well, let’s take a look at some context. The tribulation reference in Revelation 7 is in answer to a question addressed to John. In his vision, he had seen 144,000 witnesses, the sealed servants of God who hail from 12 tribes of Israel, followed by an innumerable group of people of all ethnicities who worship around the throne of God. They are wearing white robes. We discover in vs. 14 that this group in white robes had been through “the great tribulation” and endured severe persecution.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev 7:13-14)
Jesus earlier predicts to Smyrna (Rev 2:10) that they would receive tribulation ten days. Same word, but not a “great” tribulation. From this we may ask a few questions about tribulation in general: Are these ten singular days of tribulation, or ten straight days of trouble? Did only Smyrna receive them? Does their prophecy color our understanding of the great tribulation five chapters later?
Throughout the New Testament, tribulation is spoken of as a regular and expected occurrence of the Jesus’ followers (Rom 8:35). So what is it about the tribulation mentioned in Revelation 7 that makes it “the” great tribulation? That these came out of the Great Tribulation seems to say that during this time, there will be great persecution of Christians, for these are washed by Christ’s own blood.
But there is another prediction of great tribulation made in Matthew 24:21-22.
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
In the original Greek text, there is no article “the” for “great tribulation”, saying instead it will be “at that time there will be great tribulation.” Vs. 21 seems to say that this tribulation will be unequaled. The number of dead doesn’t necessarily come into it, because it isn’t about how many died, but that many did die (as implied by verse 22), and they died horribly. in the parallel passage in Luke 21, Jesus specifically says:
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. (Luk 21:20)
So we are meant to understand that the desolation and destruction spoken of in Matthew 24 (and Mark 13) is also this destruction in Luke 21, that is, the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew mentions the “abomination of desolation” in 24:15 which parallels this statement in Luke 21:20, as if to say that the Roman armies are the very harbingers of abomination that is the desolation of the Great City.
In the historical record, we find that the armies of Rome did surround Jerusalem in AD 70, besieged the city, and killed anyone who tried to escape. The evil that occurred within the city itself is typical of sieges, with people turning on each other, and often, eating each other for lack of food. The fire that destroyed Jerusalem was started from within the city, and the Romans simply moved in afterward to get at the gold, which had melted between the stones of the Temple Mount.
Thus as Matthew says, it was a great tribulation for the people in the city at that time. It’s greatness magnified by the fact that the very House of God was utterly destroyed, and would never be rebuilt. No more would there be possibility of offering sacrifice for sin upon its altar. Judaism as they knew it ceased to exist.
It’s like Jesus’ crucifixion. The death of Jesus Christ is the greatest death that ever took place because of its significance. It is the same with the destruction of Jerusalem (as suggested by the parallel text in Luke 21:20-24), not that it is the greatest body count, but that it was Jerusalem, the seat of God’s Temple, that was destroyed, burned down, and utterly ruined.
You might suggest that the Holocaust of the 1940’s was worse than the destruction of Jerusalem (70,000? vs. 4,000,000) and you would probably be correct. The holocaust had a much higher body count. But did it carry a greater MEANING than Jerusalem? The Destruction of Jerusalem meant that God had abandoned His people. The Destruction of Jerusalem was prophesied by Jesus and its fulfillment was proof of His divinity. The holocaust just doesn’t carry as much weight in these areas.
So the greater question is if THE Great Tribulation of Revelation 7 is the same as a great tribulation in Matthew 24. In retrospect, it does seem that the two have different subjects. In Matthew, the ones who suffer are the Jews who ignored Jesus’ warnings and suffer God’s final wrath upon them. In Revelation, the subjects are Christians who have suffered a great deal because they were Christians. They present themselves as martyrs for Christ, not those who have suffered God’s wrath.So is there an historic period that corresponds to this?
I might suggest that this period corresponds to the New Testament period. In the time of the Apostles and the Early Church, many died and were martyred for the cause of Christ (And people continue to do so) What makes this early period unique is that they suffered and died before God’s final judgment on Israel.
If you follow chapter 6 and 7, you find that these are martyrs who suffered in that early period, and were under the altar in heaven. They were given white robes until the full number of their brethren arrived. Then they are fully revealed in chapter 7 as those who emerge from THE great tribulation. All of this takes place within the seven seals. Since this takes place before the fall of the Great City, where our Lord was crucified, it seems that this Great Tribulation didn’t refer to Jerusalem, but to the plight of Christians who suffered for the name of Jesus. This may be what Paul means when he makes this reference:
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
While modern Christians believe they can rest easy, be warned, if it happened before, it can happen again. There is rampant persecution for Christians today all around the world. Pray for our brothers and sisters so suffering, and pray that our nation never becomes like that.
1 Matt 24:21; Acts 7:11; Rev 2:22; 7:14