Unlike the rapture, which is a completely made-up event found nowhere in the Bible, the Great Tribulation is real and explicitly taught in the Bible. We just heard it from Revelation: “these are they who are coming out of the Great Tribulation.” And Jesus says, “for then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now.” The question is what is this tribulation? There are all sorts of different theories – pretribulationists, prewrath tribulationists, midtribulationists, postribulationists – so we can’t get into all of them. But the most popular version is what’s found in the Left Behind series, which goes something like this: First, there will be the rapture, where all the Christians are snatched up into heaven bodily. And then the great tribulation will hit the earth for seven years, with terrible things happening constantly. This will be a time for the unbelievers, but especially for the Jews, to repent and realize that Jesus is the true Messiah. Only after these seven years will Jesus come back and reign in Jerusalem for a thousand years and finally judge the world at the end of that millennium. Most of them break up the tribulation into two sections – first a tribulation of three and a half years and then another tribulation, the great one, of three and a half years.
Once again, a seven-year tribulation with nothing but heathen getting demolished by plagues and disasters makes for sensational books and movies, but it isn’t close to what we just heard from the Bible. As with the rapture, the evidence for the 7-year period is non-existent. They claim they get the seven-year period from the prophecy of Daniel 9, which talks about the abomination of desolation in the Temple, but when Jesus quotes that he’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened 2000 years ago, which was in fact a great tribulation, and which, along with Jesus’ death and resurrection, ushered in the new era, that is, the era of Christ’s Holy Church spreading throughout the word. So while the great tribulation can refer to that past event, the long-prophesied destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, what the great tribulation certainly doesn’t refer to is a future seven-year event.
We should always keep in mind that prophecies like those found in Daniel and Revelation are what we call apocalyptic. That means they purposely hide the meaning of their prophecies by making use of symbolism and numbers that are not supposed to be taken literally. It remains one of the greatest of theological ironies that the very same people who insist on taking numbers in Daniel and Revelation literally refuse to take Jesus’ own words literally, when He says, “This is my body. This is my blood.” And whereas we should make the biggest deal out of Jesus’ words, the night before His death, that He gives us His own body and blood, which if a man eat and drink He will live forever, they make little of it and instead make much of figurative prophecies they don’t understand. This is called majoring in minors. And it’s very important for us, as Christians, to realize what the anchor and foundation of all our hope is, and that is in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who now forgives us and unites us to His death and His life by giving us His body and His blood.
But besides the fact that the great tribulation is not a future seven-year event, even more importantly, it’s not an event that excludes Christians. The Bible very clearly teaches, as you just heard, that Christians will take part in the Great Tribulation. It won’t be only for the unbelievers. It’s for us. Jesus explicitly says that the signs and wonders of this time will test the elect, test believers. And the angel of Revelation describes the saints of heaven as those who have just come out of the great tribulation. If they came out of it, they were in it. So I want first to explain why the American evangelicals and dispensationalists say Christians won’t go through this tribulation, say they’ll be taken up into heaven before it occurs. Then we’ll talk about why the biblical teaching is so much more comforting and so much more true to the Christian experience.
First, American religiosity expects a religion of success. We are the country that spawned Mormonism, which is all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and becoming successful by hard work. We are the country of the health-wealth Gospel, the country of Norman Vincent Peale, of Joel Osteen, where Christianity has been turned into a self-help religion, guaranteed to give you your best and most prosperous life now. The goal is to reduce and end suffering in your life, not to welcome it. And so the teaching of suffering, the teaching of Jesus that His Christians should take up their cross and follow Him, that in the world you will have tribulation, the teaching of Paul, that “through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingdom of God,” gets brushed aside in favor of talk about prosperity.
We are also a very political country, with our citizens engaged in politics to a degree unknown since ancient Athens. And American Christians have found it very easy to confuse political success with religious success. So we are the country of Billy Graham, of the Moral Majority, of the Christian Coalition, where the goal of Christianity became not so much to give the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, but to win moral victories in society and political victories in elections across the country. And the mark of progress in this religion was success, not failure, results not suffering defeat.
And so the idea of Christians escaping the great tribulation fits in well with the American scene. If Christians aren’t taught how to suffer, if they’re taught that Christianity instead is meant to lead to material success and political victory, then the idea of a tribulation that all Christians must go through becomes distasteful and out of place. And preachers stop preaching it.
This is why, while we should love and honor our country as the great gift of God it is and we should use our Christian morals to decide whom we vote for and what causes in society we support, we can never allow any standard to decide what we believe except Jesus and His Word alone.
And His Word tells us that we ourselves will have tribulation. What I quoted just now from Jesus – “in the world you will have tribulation,” you’re used to hearing it as, “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” but the word there for “trouble” is exactly the same Jesus uses when he talks about the great tribulation and exactly the same as the angel in Revelation when he talks of Christians coming out of the great tribulation and exactly the same as Saint Paul when He says that we all must enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations. All the same Greek word. The Christian life is a life of tribulations, of troubles. And we are going through those tribulations now. Every generation of Christians has. They are necessary. That’s what St. Paul says. Literally he says, It is necessary that we enter the Kingdom of God through many tribulations. It’s the only way it happens. He’s echoing what Jesus says, “Wide is the gate and easy is the way that leads to destruction. Narrow is the gate and hard the way that leads to life.”
Suffering becomes the Christian’s companion and the Christian’s friend in this life. Not that we seek out pain or want to get ourselves hurt – of course not, that would be breaking the fifth commandment – we don’t ever seek to harm our own body or others’ bodies, because our bodies belong to God who made them and redeemed them. But when God sends pain we learn to suffer it and turn to Him for our comfort. And through this tribulation we realize that this sinful world fails us. Our expectation of happiness from mammon fails us. Our hope for fulfillment in political victory disappoints. Our desire for perfect happiness always evades us. And we end up driven to ask with Peter, “Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” We end up running to our Lord Jesus as our only hope. These tribulations become our tutor to lead us to Christ.
It may be that things will get worse in the coming years, that there will be a greater tribulation. But the fact is that we are living through the tribulation now and it has lasted some 2000 years. And not only does that mean that God gives sufferings to us now to produce in us endurance and patience and hope for our Savior’s returning, not only does it mean that our God is constantly prodding us toward Himself, so we stop putting our hope and expectation in things that will fail us and learn to put all our trust and our expectation in Him who will fill our every need of body and soul, now and forever, but it also means that the Last Day could come today, tomorrow, any day. And the signs of the times around us should constantly remind us of this. This sinful world is ending. The Lord Jesus will destroy it with fire. It’s pointless and laughable to put our hope in it. Jesus will give us a new heavens and a new earth, without sin and without corruption, forever. This is what His blood has bought for us. This is what we receive when we eat His body and drink His blood. We have become new creations and we wait for the new creation of the heavens and the earth.
I like to remind members who have lost their Christian loved-ones to death that Revelation 7, which we read earlier, is a description of those who have fallen asleep in Christ. We are literally reading about our Christian brothers and sisters in Christ when we read these words, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God and worship Him day and night…” And if we leave this world before our Lord returns for judgment we will join that host. And this will describe us also. That we have come out of the great tribulation. That we have in fact suffered things in this world. The temptations of the devil, the struggle to live according to God’s word, insult for the sake of Christ, swallowing our pride to forgive others, the pain of having spouse or father or mother or dear ones taken from us, physical pain, political uncertainty, persecution for Christ’s sake. And we will come out of it. Why? How?
Because we have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Because our thirst has been satisfied with the living water that Jesus gives. Because our hunger has been filled with the righteousness won by our Lord’s blood. And the tribulations, trials, and sufferings of this time drove us to find our only hope and our life and our expectation in our Lord Jesus, who will wipe away every tear from our eyes. As the Lord said so long ago to His servant Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you,” so it remains now in this tribulation, and Jesus will remain sufficient for us always to the end of the age. Amen.