6. BIBLICAL REFERENCES TO THE WORD “TRIBULATION”
We will now notice the word “thlipsis” (number 2347 in Strong’s Concordance), the word that is translated “tribulation” in Matthew 24. This word is translated by the following words: tribulation, affliction, anguish, persecution, burdened, and trouble. We shall quote or refer to every text in which this word is used and then draw some conclusions.
TRIBULATION UPON THE JEWS (4 references)
As we have just seen, Jesus spoke of “great TRIBULATION” and about the condition of things “after the TRIBULATION” (Mt. 24:21, 29). Mark’s account of the same passage says: “In those days shall be AFFLICTION (thlipsis — tribulation)” and mentions the time “after that TRIBULATION” (Mk. 13:19, 24). Luke’s account refers to that tribulation in these words: “For there shall be great distress in the land” — the land of Judea, as the context shows — “and wrath upon this people” — the Jews — “and . . . Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:23, 24). All of this came to pass, as we have seen, in 70 A. D.
TRIBULATION AGAINST CHRISTIANS (32 references)
The Bible says: “In the world ye shall have TRIBULATION” (John 16:33). “We must through much TRIBULATION enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “We glory in TRIBULATIONS also: knowing that TRIBULATION worketh patience” (Rom. 5:3).
“TRIBULATION, or distress, or persecution” shall not separate us from Christ (Rom. 8:35-37). We are to be “patient in TRIBULATION” (Rom. 12:12), “joyful in all our TRIBULATIONS” (2 Cor. 7:4), and faint not at TRIBULATION (Eph. 3:13; 2Thess. 1:4). The Lord “comforteth us in all our TRIBULATION, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any TROUBLE [thlipsis — tribulation]” (2 Cor. 1:4). Jesus spoke of those who receive the word but do not become rooted and “when TRIBULATION or persecution ariseth” they give up (Mt. 13:21).
The same word that is translated “tribulation” in these references is translated “affliction” in the following references: Jesus said Christians would be delivered up “to be AFFLICTED” (Mt. 24:9) and that “AFFLICTION or persecution” would stumble some (Mk. 4:17). Christians were persecuted with “reproaches and AFFLICTIONS” (Heb. 10:33); they had “a great trial of AFFLICTION” (2 Cor. 8:2); and they “received the word in much AFFLICTION” (1 Thess. 1:6). But they were exhorted that “no man should be moved by these AFFLICTIONS: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto” (1 Thess. 3:3). Such “AFFLICTION” is light compared with the eternal glory that shall be ours (2 Cor. 4:17).
“Out of much AFFLICTION and anguish of heart”, said Paul, “I wrote unto you with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4), “approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in AFFLICTIONS” (2 Cor. 6:4), in “bonds and AFFLICTIONS” (Acts 20:23), “AFFLICTIONS of Christ . . . for his body’s sake” (Col. 1:24), and “we were comforted over you in all our AFFLICTIONS” (1 Thess. 3:7; see also Phil. 1:16; 4:14).
Thlipsis is translated “trouble” in 2 Cor.1:8: “. . . TROUBLE [tribulation] which came to us in Asia . . . insomuch that we despaired even of life.” The same word is translated “persecution” in Acts 11:19: “. . . the PERSECUTION [tribulation] that arose about Steven.” This persecution is referred to as “great” in Acts 8:1; that is, great tribulation.
To the church at Smyrna, Jesus spoke of their “works, and TRIBULATION, and poverty” and instructed them, “fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer . . . ye shall have TRIBULATION ten days” (Rev. 2:9, 10).
John, writing to the churches, referred to himself as “your brother and companion in TRIBULATION” (Rev. 1:9). Later he was shown a vision of the redeemed — multitudes that no man would number, out of all nations. These are described as “they which came out of great TRIBULATION” (Rev. 7:14). Some have pointed out that the Greek text has “the” in front of the words “great tribulation” in this verse — “THE great tribulation.” But this does not prove that a seven year period at the end of the age is meant, for the Greek also has “the” in Revelation 1:9: “I John, your brother, and partaker with you in THE tribulation.”
John was suffering tribulation back in the first century — THE tribulation — and the whole gospel era has been marked with tribulation for Christians in one place or another, in one way or another. The use of the article designates the type of tribulation that is meant — it was tribulation against Christians. Since the word “great” can be understood extensively as well as intensively, it is quite arbitrary to insist that it must refer only to a period of time at the end of the age.
When John saw the vision of the “great multitude, which no man could number”, he was told that these came out of the great tribulation, or, as some translate it, they came through great tribulation. It does not say they came out BEFORE the tribulation. Nor do dispensationalists understand it as such. The dispensational position is that these are “tribulation saints” that will be converted after the church has been raptured! But to apply these things to a brief period of seven years (or three and a half years, as some say) makes more problems than it solves. How could such a vast multitude be converted — in such a brief period — when the church, according to the theory, will be raptured before this time? Will people who miss the “rapture” win more souls than the faithful and obedient who were ready for the rapture had won? Certainly Revelation 7:14 can add no weight to the dispensational teachings.
The word translated “tribulation” is used in the following seven verses which do not bear directly on our present study, but which are included for the sake of completeness. Thlipsis is translated “burdened” (2 Cor. 8:13), “affliction” (James 1:27; Acts 7:10, 11), “trouble” (1 Cor. 7:28), “anguish” (John 16:21) and “tribulation” (Rev. 2:22). The last verse is a reference to judgment upon certain ones in the church at Thyatira who were seduced by the prophetess “Jezebel”: “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent.” The next verse implies that such would serve as a warning to the other churches: “. . . and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts” (verse 23) which shows the church would still be here to observe her chastisement. This is not used to support the pre-tribulation rapture teaching.
TRIBULATION UPON THE WICKED (2 references)
In referring to “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God”, the Bible says that God will “render to every man according to his deeds . . . unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth . . . wrath, TRIBULATION and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil” (Rom. 2:5-9). There is nothing here to indicate a seven year period of time. The reference is to the wrath of God at the end of the age.
“It is a righteous thing with God to recompense TRIBULATION to them that trouble you” (2 Thess. 1:6). But to what does this refer? We continue reading: “And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God” (verse 7). Again, this “tribulation” or “vengeance” that will fall upon the wicked will be in that day when Christ is revealed in flaming fire. There is no idea of a seven year tribulation “period” expressed here. It will be “sudden destruction” (1 Thess. 5:3).
Having now looked at every reference in which the word thlipsis (tribulation) is used, there are certain conclusions that are apparent. The word appears a total of 45 times. Four references are to tribulation that came upon the Jews, Judea, and Jerusalem — a prophecy which was fulfilled in the first century. Seven references use the term in a variety of ways, none of which have any bearing on our present study. Of the remaining 34 references, all but 2 refer to tribulation upon believers because of their stand for Christ! In these 32 references, not one of them is speaking of a future period of time, but of tribulation in general. The remaining two references are linked with the “sudden destruction” that will fall upon the wicked when Christ shall be revealed from heaven in flaming fire! Neither of these passages specify a period of time, but refer to an EVENT!
We have now looked at all of the references to the word that is translated “tribulation” in Matthew 24. If the scriptures teach a tribulation of seven years at the end of the age — and a secret rapture to escape that tribulation — doesn’t it seem strange that none of these verses say anything about it?
Dispensational writers commonly argue that the church will be raptured to heaven before what they call “the tribulation period” because God has not appointed Christians to wrath. After speaking of the tribulation as a seven year period of time, one writer states: “The church of Jesus Christ HAS NEVER BEEN DESTINED TO SUFFER the pangs of the Tribulation Period . . . Scripture: ‘For GOD HATH NOT APPOINTED US (who are BORN AGAIN) TO WRATH (1 Thess. 5:9)’.”1 But what “wrath” is 1 Thess. 5:9 talking about? Notice the context.
As we have seen earlier, the Lord will descend from heaven, believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and “sudden destruction” will fall upon the wicked “and they shall not escape.” It is concerning this wrath — not a seven year tribulation period — that the scripture goes on to say: “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).
Paul said that we are not appointed to wrath, but only a few verses before he did say Christians are appointed to TRIBULATION! “No man should be moved by these afflictions [thlipsis — tribulations]: FOR yourselves know that we are APPOINTED thereunto. FOR verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer TRIBULATION” (1 Thess. 3:3, 4). We are not appointed to wrath, but we are appointed to tribulation for the cause of Christ.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he spoke of Jesus who has “delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). Was he speaking of deliverance from a seven year tribulation period? John asked the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7). No one takes this to mean a seven year tribulation period. Paul said that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). Unbelievers are spoken of as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). “The wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience” (Col. 3:6). “The wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). None of these verses are taken to refer to a dispensational type tribulation period at the end of the age.
In view of these things, why take 1 Thess. 5:9, “God hath not appointed us to wrath” as a reference to a seven year tribulation period and then, upon this assumption, use it as a proof for an extra coming of Christ to rapture the church before this supposed tribulation?
Are we then saying there will be no tribulation period at the end of the age? All through the centuries there have been times of tribulation against Christians — to one degree or another. We have no guarantee that the last days will be any exception to this. But we do not believe there will be the type of tribulation that is commonly given in the dispensational interpretation. The Bible teaches that at the time of the Second Coming, the end of the age, people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, planting and building, buying and selling (Lk. 17:26-30). According to this description, things will be continuing in what will be considered a normal, routine pattern. People will be saying, “Peace and safety” (1 Thess. 5:3).
But if “all hell will break lose” upon the earth in the way some have proclaimed, surely after undergoing this for seven years, people would not be saying, “Peace and safety.” Or if we force a literal interpretation upon Revelation 4-19 and teach that these things will all occur in this brief period of time — surely the idea of peace and safety would be completely out of place. And if the literal sun and the literal moon will be darkened just prior to the Second Coming, would people still be marrying and giving in marriage, planting and building, buying and selling? Would the condition of things be normal?
Writing a number of years ago, Guinness has well said: “If such signs as are imagined by some were to precede the advent, the state of society predicted in these passages could not by any possibility exist. If monstrous, unheard of, supernatural, portentous events were to transpire, would they not be telegraphed the same day all over a startled world, and produce such a sense of alarm and expectation that buying and selling, planting and building, marrying and giving in marriage, would all be arrested together, and ‘peace and safety’ would be far from anyone’s lips?”
Since, according to the Bible, at the time of the Second Coming, people will be doing the routine things — eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, planting and building, buying and selling — we conclude that there will not be the type of tribulation that some have envisioned during the last years of this age. But regardless of how things may go, the important thing is to watch and be ready at all times, “looking for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Copyrighted material used by permission of the Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association.
PO Box 21, Palm Springs, CA 92263