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An Introduction to Bible Prophecy (4): The Great Tribulation

J Hay, Comrie

We have noted formerly that the Rapture will precede the Great Tribulation; believers of this present church age will be removed before the storm of wrath breaks.

Descriptions of the Tribulation

The Day of the Lord is a term used to describe that age. For men of the world, it will come as unexpectedly as a thief in the night, and as inevitably as the labour pains of an expectant mother (1 Thess 5.2-3). The Day of the Lord will be "a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness" (Zeph 1.15). It is "the great and the terrible day of the Lord" (Joel 2.31). It should be noted that the Day of the Lord extends far beyond the Tribulation period. In its latter stages it incorporates the dissolution of the heavens and the earth (2 Pet 3.10).

Another phrase that we use to describe that period is Daniel’s Seventieth Week. In Daniel 9.24-27 there is the notable prophecy of the seventy weeks, a prophecy relating to Daniel’s people Israel, and Daniel’s city Jerusalem (v.24). The word "week" is literally heptad, a group of seven, and, with hindsight, we understand that these were "weeks" or "sevens" of years rather than of days. The first sixty-nine weeks (483 years) have had their fulfilment, culminating in Messiah being "cut off" with the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple (v.26). Week seventy awaits fulfilment; nothing in history matches the predictions regarding it.

Some suggest that it is inconsistent interpretation to suggest that sixty-nine weeks have run their course with a major time lag before week seventy. However, this is not unique in Scripture. In Isaiah 9.6-7 there is a prediction of the birth of Christ, but then the prophecy jumps the centuries to anticipate His reigning "upon the throne of David". Isaiah 61 foresees His healing ministry before taking a huge leap to "the day of vengeance of our God" (vv.1-2). Micah foretells His birth at Bethlehem, and then spans the generations to speak of Him as "ruler in Israel" (5.2). In Zechariah 9, centuries intervene between verses 9 and 10, verse 9 anticipating the triumphal entry, and verse 10 the establishing of His universal reign.

The point is, with the rejection of Messiah God suspended His dealings with Israel as a nation and imposed a blindness upon them (Rom 11.7). The chapter speaks of "their fall" (v.12, RV). It refers to "the casting away of them" (v.15). It likens them to branches broken off an olive tree (vv.16-24). However, Israel’s blindness is "in part" (v.25), in that some Jews are being saved in this present age (vv.1-5). The blindness is not permanent, but only "until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (v.25). Thus, with the completion of the church age God will resume His association with Israel as a nation, and Daniel’s seventieth week will then run its course. The nation has been sidelined temporarily, hence the gap between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks.

The event that will trigger the commencement of the final seven year period will be the signing of a treaty between "the prince that shall come", the Beast, and "many" in Israel, the Christ-rejecting governing class and its supporters (vv.26-27). It appears that part of the agreement is that the dictator will guarantee freedom of worship, with the Old Testament sacrificial system resurrected in association with a temple that will then be in place. "In the midst of the week", that is, after three and a half years, the Beast will renege on his commitment and "cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease". All religion will be outlawed and he will demand universal homage (2 Thess 2.4). He will desecrate the temple by entering it and masquerading as God, and then his image will be installed there (Mt 24.15). The breaking of the treaty divides Daniel’s seventieth week into two periods of three and a half years.

Based on Matthew 24.21 and Revelation 7.14, we are inclined to call the whole period the Great Tribulation, but to be strictly accurate that term applies to the second half of "the week". Subsequent to "the abomination of desolation" standing in the holy place (Mt 24.15), "then shall be great tribulation" (v.21). A suitable label for the first three and a half years would be "the beginning of sorrows" (v.8). During that time there will be horrendous events on earth, but the full horror of the Tribulation will be experienced during the second half of "the week", warranting the title, the Great Tribulation.

The Uniqueness of the Tribulation

The Lord explained that the Tribulation years will be unparalleled in the annals of history: "great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Mt 24.21). Were it allowed to continue unabated it would mean the extermination of life on the planet (v.22). The world has experienced terrible times in the past. History has thrown up a rash of natural calamities. Plagues claiming millions of lives have swept continents. Two world wars have decimated the young life of the nations involved. It all pales, in contrast to the relentless tide of catastrophes that will sweep across the globe in that coming day. The central core of the Revelation is devoted to describing these cataclysmic events.

The Source of the Tribulation

God Himself will be the major source of the judgments that the earth will experience. It is "the great and the terrible day of the Lord" (Joel 2.31). He personally will initiate various phases of judgment commencing with the Lord Jesus breaking the seals of the book (Rev 6). In the presence of God seven trumpets will be given to seven angels (8.2), and as each angel sounds another horrific deluge of wrath will be unleashed upon the planet. As of 16.1, the trumpet judgments give way to the vial judgments, and the angels are instructed, "Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth". Divine wrath will engulf the world and its inhabitants.

To add to the world’s misery, the devil will vent his fury against the earth’s population (Rev 12.12). Defeat in a conflict in the spirit realm will result in Satan’s movements being confined to the earth. It is clear that this will take place at the mid point of the seventieth week for in the chapter there is mention of 1,260 days (three and a half years), and "a time (one year), and times (two years), and half a time (six months)" totalling three and a half years in all. Satan’s "short time" will run concurrently with the Great Tribulation period with grave consequences for the world at large. In particular, his malice will be directed towards the nation of Israel. Thwarted in his purpose to exterminate her, he will target particularly "the remnant of her seed" (v.17), those who have embraced the Messiah and obey God’s commandments.

Some may wonder how it is that God will have a people on earth during that period. If every believer in Christ will be removed at the Rapture, how can we account for the presence of a people of God on earth after that event? It has already been noted that Israel is presently blinded, but that blindness is not permanent. When God lifts the blindness after the Rapture, there will be those who will admit the blunder that the nation made in rejecting its Messiah, and they will acknowledge Him. They are described as "the servants of our God" (Rev 7.3). Presumably, they are the servants who will then preach the gospel of the kingdom "in all the world for a witness unto all nations" (Mt 24.14). Multitudes will believe it and for many it will mean martyrdom. Those who survive till the end of the Tribulation are "the sheep" of Matthew 25.31-46 who will enter the kingdom. They are called "the righteous" (vv.37,46). It is a general principle of Scripture that people are accounted righteous by faith alone, and thus their kindness to Christ’s brethren (v.40) is evidence of their faith; theirs is no works-based salvation.

The Victims of the Tribulation

The main sufferers of the period will be the people of Israel. Primarily, it is "the time of Jacob’s trouble" (Jer 30.7). The Lord Jesus said that "there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people" (Lk 21.23). But if Israel will be the epicentre of the Tribulation, the shock waves will be felt universally, for it is "the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world" (Rev 3.10). Even a cursory reading of Revelation shows that the plagues and catastrophes of the Tribulation period will not be localised but will affect the whole planet resulting in a savage reduction in its population.

To be continued.


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