The Great Tribulation
It is significant that the 20th century - which began with such a tremendous aura of promise and hope, when men really thought that they were approaching the golden age of earth and that we had come at last to the place when war could be eliminated and peace could be established throughout the earth—that this same 20th century has proved to be the most violent century that man has ever experienced. That's remarkable, isn't it? In our day, just recently, we have been appalled at some of the violence that is breaking out in American cities that had never before known this kind of widespread social unrest and violence. We are wondering what is happening to our nation. Some of you may have been associated with times of riots and disturbances in some of our cities recently and you know the terror that is present—the fear, hate and bigotry that is widespread and expressed everywhere.
Yet the Bible says that there is coming a time of stress and terror much worse than this. We recently read of the terrible time in the Congo when missionaries were hunted like animals. Christians were put to death by the hundreds and cruelties of the most rapacious and violent kind were carried out upon people. The civilized world was appalled at this, and yet the Bible says there is coming a time that will grip the whole world and will be much worse than any of this. Many of us still recall reading the accounts of the awful Nazi atrocities in World War II during the time of the persecution of the Jewish people in Germany. Now that the full story has been revealed, even the German people are appalled at what was going on in their own country and the terrible monstrous deeds of cruelty that were perpetrated upon a whole race of people. It sickens and nauseates us and yet the Bible says that a far worse time is coming. Some of us remember the fear that was born with the advent of the atomic age when the terrible atomic bomb was dropped upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki and thirty-thousand people were suddenly eliminated from the earth in a horrible orgasm of fire and blood. Yet this is but a small sampling of what the Bible says is coming to pass on the face of the earth.
As you read back through history there have been times of trouble in the world before. We read of the Mongol hordes that swept out of Asia across the steppes of Siberia and into Eastern Europe. They pillaged, looted and burned cities before them and left the cities of Europe trembling in fear at what was coming to pass -- that these hordes of Asians would sweep on and cover all of Europe. It was a time of great destruction, tremendous cruelty and widespread slaughter. And yet the Bible says that there is coming a time that is worse than any of these.
That makes us take seriously the words of Jesus when he said,
At that time there shall be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world, no, nor ever shall be. (Matthew 24:21 RSV) Those words are found in the 24th chapter of Matthew's gospel, where Jesus is seated on the Mount of Olives talking to his disciples. It is just a few days before he himself is to be crucified. He has announced that the Temple is going to be destroyed and the disciples have come to him with a question about when it will happen. In the course of developing when these things will occur, the Lord tells them that other distresses will come upon the earth and he traces the path that the intervening age will follow after his return to the Father. He tells them that there will come wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines in different places and all this has taken place in the pattern of history exactly as he outlined. He kept saying,
But the time of the end is not yet.
All these things he says,
Are the beginning of sorrows. (Matthew 24:7-8 RSV) The end is not yet. As he went on in his message to them, he came to verse 9 which says,
They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away, betray one another and hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9-14 RSV)
There is some question as to whether these words refer to the opening period of this end time or whether they precede the coming of the last days. However, there is no question at all in the scriptures that there is coming an end to the present affairs of men upon the earth. We can recall that the words of the Lord were literally fulfilled in his predictions about the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, that the Roman army would come in and surround it, and that not one stone would be left standing upon another in the temple. As the gold and silver that was stored in the temple melted under the fires that the Roman army set, it ran down between the rocks and the Romans pried apart the stones with iron bars and they literally left not one stone standing upon the other. When we remember how literally those words were fulfilled, we have a basis for understanding how these other predictions are going to be fulfilled as well.
There will be a time of great tribulation and it will be preceded by the events that center around the nation of Israel. He said Israel will be hated of all nations for his name's sake. They will be persecuted, men will betray one another within their ranks and they will be delivered up and will give testimony before others. The gospel will be preached to all the earth.
Then, beginning in verse 15, he gives them the sign by which they will recognize when this age has come. Obviously, there have been times of trouble in the earth before. We have recounted some of them. Each time men have said,
Perhaps the Lord is coming now. If you look back through history you will find that people got so excited at times about the imminence of the coming of Christ that they actually sold their property and hundreds of them went out on the hilltops, dressed up in white robes and waited for the coming of the Lord. One prophet named William Miller had predicted the exact day on which it would occur. Everyone who believed him (and there were hundreds and even thousands who did) literally sold everything they had and went out to wait for his coming. They waited all day and all night, and when the Lord did not appear they had to go back to their homes and pick up life where they could and start all over again. They called it
the great disappointment—the understatement of the year.
How will we know when these times are coming? What will be the mark of it? Jesus said,
So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place,—and Matthew added the parenthetical words
let the reader understand. This means go back and read about this in Daniel and think about it; don't expect to have somebody tell you what it means. Read Daniel and think it through. Jesus believed in the prophet Daniel, even though some of today's critics reject this book and say that it was written many hundreds of years after it was claimed to have been written. The Lord Jesus quotes it and says that it was true. He says that Daniel referred to an incident that, when you see it take place, you will know that the end has begun.
Then, he says, let those in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house. Let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 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 shortened, no human being would be saved; but, for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. (Matthew 24:16-22 RSV)
If you turn back to the prophet Daniel, you will find that he mentions this same specific period of time—the time of the Great Tribulation. In Daniel, chapter twelve, he opens with these words:
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people [the great angel who has charge over Israel and the affairs of God's government] and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. (Daniel 12:1-4 RSV)
Many bible students have felt that this last phrase indicates how we will know we are getting to the time of the end. Many will run to and fro, which means a tremendous increase in transportation, and also knowledge shall be suddenly increased. We know that this is the very thing that we are seeing in our own day.
There is no question then that this time of trouble is coming—this time of great tribulation. If we look at just one more prophet that predicted this time very clearly, turn to the prophecy of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah, chapter 30 he too was told something interesting about Israel. Notice how much of prophecy centers around this remarkable nation that God has chosen to be the hub of history, everything centering around Israel.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah, says the Lord. And I will bring them back to the land which I gave to their fathers and they shall take possession of it. (Jeremiah 30:1-3 RSV) This is a prophecy that has been fulfilled. Israel and Judah are back in the land, having possession of it for the first time in almost 2300 years; a sovereign nation in the land. Then the prophecy breaks into a poetic stream and the prophet goes on:
These are the words which the Lord spoke concerning Israel and Judah. Thus says the Lord: We have heard a cry of panic and of terror, and no peace [from the nations of the earth—a time of trouble, panic, terror and no peace]. Ask now and see, can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor? [This is a gesture that occurs when people are frightened. They grip their loins or their bodies in fear. The Lord asks what is causing this—that even men act like a woman in labor.] Alas! That day is so great there is none like it. It is a time of distress for Jacob. Yet he shall be delivered out of it.[Daniel was also told that they would be delivered out of it.] And it shall come to pass in that day, says the Lord of hosts, that I will break the yoke from off their necks and I will burst their bonds; and strangers shall no more make servants of them. But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them. (Jeremiah 30:4-9 RSV)
There are many other passages that we could refer to about this time of trouble, but these are all we need to establish the fact that there is coming a time like this. What will be the character of it? The scriptures are full of passages that indicate what is going to happen during this time of trouble. Matthew 24 shows how Jesus himself indicates certain things that will happen within it and this forms a measuring stick with which we can chronologically fit in some of the other passages of scripture. Our Lord is tracing this in a chronological fashion. He indicates that the desolating sacrilege spoken of by Daniel is a man who sits in the temple of God in Jerusalem and announces that he is God. The apostle Paul refers to him also and describes him in 2nd Thessalonians 2—the man of sin; the man of lawlessness; the man who says that he is really God. When you see that, Jesus said, you will know that the last time is well begun.
He went on to say that these days would be shortened for the elect's sake in order that some might be saved. He goes on to speak about not being misled by the false Christs and prophets that will arise. In verse 29 he says,
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31 RSV)
This passage gives us a bit of the dimensions of this time of trouble. It is a time spoken of by the prophet Daniel that will be characterized by the revelation of the man of sin who will exalt himself as God in the temple at Jerusalem. I am sure you are following with great interest the magazine reports about plans to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. There is a stirring in Israel about this right now and it is of great and intense interest to anyone who understands prophecy. It will end, Jesus says, with a time when the natural forces of the world are thrown into anarchy—the sun is darkened, the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from the heavens. There will be tremendous earthquakes that will shake the whole framework of the earth—earthquakes such as man has never seen in all of history. Fire and hailstones from heaven will rain upon the earth. As Jesus said in a similar passage in Luke 21—
Men's hearts failing them for fear of looking after the things that will come pass on the face of the earth, the sea and the waves roaring. (Luke 21:25-26 RSV)
These remarkable words give us some of the rough outline, but the question is, how do we know when this time begins? That question takes us back to Daniel's vision of the seventy weeks. In the latter part of Daniel 9, you will find that Daniel was given a vision of a divine calendar—seventy weeks of years. These seventy weeks were marked off to accomplish what God wanted to do with the nation of Israel. In this calendar, one week is seven years long and seventy weeks is 490 years. These seventy weeks would run their course beginning with a specific event which Daniel himself could see. It was the time when a proclamation came forth from the king of Babylon allowing the walls of the city of Jerusalem to be rebuilt and that happened in about 445 B.C. Daniel was told that this period of 490 years would be divided into three sections, first a period of 49 years (or seven weeks) when the temple and the walls of the city would be rebuilt. That was historically fulfilled and accomplished within the first 49 years after Israel's return from captivity.
A long period would immediately follow that would encompass the next section of weeks totaling 483 years altogether. This, Daniel said, would bring them to the Messiah's appearance to the nation of Israel. Read Sir Robert Anderson's book The Coming Prince if you want to read some of the interesting calculations of this section of weeks. He was the head of Scotland Yard in England and studied astronomy. He was also an avid bible student. His studies showed that the 483 years were literally fulfilled on the very day when Jesus rode in triumph into the streets of Jerusalem mounted upon a donkey. When Jesus came into the city on that day he wept over it and he said to them: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not. But now your house is left unto you desolate—because you knew not the day of your visitation. That was the day upon which they should have recognized him as their king. Daniel's vision goes on to say that after the 483 years have been fulfilled (69 of these seventy weeks), Messiah would be cut off but not for himself and he would have nothing, which is certainly a reference to the crucifixion—
He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was laid upon him and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) Then there follows a long period of time, suggested by the words
and unto the end shall be desolations determined. It also says that the city of Jerusalem will be destroyed by
the people of the prince who will come. (Daniel 9:26) We are not told who they were, but we know from history that it was the Roman people.
Then the vision continues
He [the prince who will come] will confirm a covenant with many for one week. This marks the beginning of the seventieth week of Daniel. We are living in that parenthetical gap in between, before the seventieth week of Daniel begins to be fulfilled. The prophecy of Daniel very clearly indicates that there would be a parenthetical time after the 483rd year and before the beginning of the 484th year and the final week that would complete the whole prophecy. Most bible scholars believe that this marks the dimensions of the Great Tribulation—that it will be equal to the seventieth week of Daniel and that is why Jesus refers to it also. It will begin with the political leader of the western world (whoever he is) making a covenant with the nation of Israel that would impact in some way their right establish sacrifices and worship in the temple. That is why everyone is watching so eagerly what is going on in Jerusalem. Then we are told in Daniel that in the midst of the week (after 3½ years of the seven-year period have run their course), he will break this covenant suddenly. At the same time, he offers himself in the temple as God himself. This is the event Jesus warns about. He says that when you see it take place, get out of Jerusalem, because then shall be great tribulation such as you have never seen in the world before. This is when the period known as the Great Tribulation begins.
The last half of the seven year period (3½ years) is variously described in the bible. Sometimes it is referred to as
a time and times and a half time; one time being a year, two times being two years and a half time of course being a half year. Sometimes it is referred to as a period of 1260 days or forty two months, which also equal 3½ years. The major part of the terrible predictions of trouble and tribulations are centered over this last half of the week.
One other passage that covers this in a wide scope is found in Revelation 6. Most bible scholars feel that the book of Revelation for the most part is a description of the Great Tribulation and these frightening events begin in the sixth chapter. John the apostle sees the Lamb that was slain standing before the throne of God with the little book in his hand, sealed with seven seals. John does not know what that book is, but he discovers that the only one who has the right to open those seals is the Lord Jesus himself. One by one the Lamb begins to open the seals of this book and, as each seal is opened, the book begins to unfold. The book is actually a scroll and it begins to unroll. What is written becomes evident and John suddenly sees it as fulfilled. Most scholars believe that the book is the account of what has to happen on earth in order for human history to arrive at God's predetermined point. That is why John found that no one else could do this but the Lord Jesus Christ. He was slain for us and he has the right to run human history and to maneuver the forces of earth to bring about what has been predicted.
Now John begins to hear these seals open and we read in verse 1:
Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals and I heard one of the four living creatures say as with a voice of thunder, (Rev.6:1-2 RSV) If you want study prophecy, take this sixth chapter of Revelation and lay alongside the 24th chapter of Matthew. You can see how these events correlate and that our Lord's calendar in Matthew and John's calendar in Revelation coincide in most remarkable ways. For example, in Matthew 24 Jesus said that the gospel of the kingdom would be preached unto all the earth and then the end shall come. By the end he means the last half of the seventieth week—the 3½ years that mark the end of it. Therefore, the first event that takes place will be the preaching of the gospel by Israel, not by the church. We believe from other Scriptures that the Church is going to be taken out of the world suddenly, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye before this event takes place. The result will be the awakening of a special band of Israelites—144,000 of them, who, like the apostle Paul, will go throughout the earth preaching the gospel immediately after the church is taken out.
Come. And I saw, and behold, a white horse. And its rider had a bow and a crown was given to him, and he went conquering and to conquer.
Who are the riders in the sixth chapter of Revelation? There have been many guesses about them. The first rider on the white horse has been said to be everyone from Napoleon to FDR to the Lord Jesus Christ himself. It is said that maybe he is the Antichrist or many other individuals. Personally I do not believe that this is a single personage at all, because if you make a personage out of this first rider, then what are you going to do with the other riders? They have to be personages also. If you read the book of Zechariah you will find other riders upon horses and they are divine agents working behind the scenes of human history and that is what they are here. They are the spirits that work among men, both for good and for evil. The first rider, then, is the Holy Spirit at work with the preaching of the gospel. A rider goes out on a white horse with a bow, but no arrow. It is a conquest, but a peaceful conquest and a crown was given to him. He went out conquering and to conquer. One of the most remarkable things about this time of tribulation is that it is going to begin with a great ingathering of people, perhaps the greatest revival the world has ever seen. In the very next chapter of Revelation you read a description that John sees of a great host of people, so vast that no man can number them, of every tongue and tribe and nation that come out and sing songs before the throne of God. When John asks who they are, the angel says,
These are those who come out of the great tribulation. That is the explanation of the first rider.
Then the second rider follows immediately:
When he opened the second seal I heard the second living creature say, (Rev. 6:4 RSV) It seems very likely that there will be a great response at first when the church is gone and Israel begins to proclaim the gospel. People will be stirred by what has been happening in the earth, since the disappearance of thousands and millions of people will make a huge disturbance in the affairs of men. But the enemy will be quick to move in and stir up trouble. He will be given the authority to release war on the earth. It will be a special kind of war—a war with a great sword. Perhaps this is predictive of nuclear destruction. We have never seen weapons of war like we have today—incredible bombs that can destroy millions of living creatures in an instant of time. This would indicate that nuclear war breaks out among men immediately following this time of the gospel being preached.
Come! Another horse went out, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword.
When he opened the third seal I heard the third living creature say, (Rev. 6:5-6 RSV) A denarius was a coin that was worth about fifteen cents in our money, but it was the equivalent of a full day's work among the Hebrews. What this means was that you could buy just a quart of wheat, which is about what one individual needs for a full-day's ration, for a full-day's work. Or you could get three quarts of barley, which is a much cheaper cereal and not nearly as nutritive, for a full-day's work. This suggests that a time of famine and inflation will follow the warfare. Famine and inflation always follow warfare and they create great problems and difficulties. It is difficult to eat and exist because of inflationary spirals that continue on and on. It will take a full-day's work to even buy enough to barely get along.
Come. And I saw, and behold, a black horse and its rider had a balance in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying,
A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not harm the oil and the wine.
This is followed by a fourth seal.
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, (Rev. 6:7 RSV) A fourth of the population of the earth would involve a total of some 780 million people today. That would mean the most extensive period of destruction the world has ever seen. It seems very likely that the beginning of this fourth seal marks the middle of the week when, as Jesus said,
Come. And I saw and, behold, a pale horse. And its rider's name was Death and Hades followed him. And they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
would come great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of time, no, nor ever will be. (Matthew 24:21) The time of nuclear destruction that precedes this will not be the worst time. The worst is this time of great tribulation when death, pestilence, radioactive fallout and all these other terrible things take their toll of mankind.
It is interesting to note at this point that these seven seals cover the entire span of the great tribulation period, from its beginning to its end. They encompass within their ranks the other two series of sevens that the book of Revelation mentions—the seven trumpets and the seven vials of plagues of the wrath of God. These seem to be intensified descriptions of what happens during this time of great tribulation. They are described for us in very vivid terms as strange forms of death that come upon men—that eat their flesh, destroy their eyesight and pollute the waters of earth so that men cannot drink them. They turn water into blood and make it impossible for human life to continue over vast sections of the earth. In the light of the advancements of modern science, it would seem to be describing the results of a nuclear destruction with its fallout and its radioactivity eating away the flesh of human beings and destroying life in vast numbers over the earth.
Then we read:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. (Rev. 6:9 RSV) Now this does not include all those who have been martyrs throughout the centuries, since when the Lord comes for his church the dead in Christ will be caught up with him. These souls under the altar are the martyrs of the tribulation period. Later on John himself describes them as those who do not take the mark of the beast and would not worship him and so they are slain. John says:
And they cried out with a loud voice, (Rev. 6:10-11 RSV) Here John sees the terrible time of persecution that comes during this period, which is described elsewhere in the book of Revelation, when God's people are hunted and hounded and driven into the desert wilderness. They have to exist only by the most precarious means and many thousands or even perhaps the majority of them actually have to give their lives as a testimony during this time. They are a great crowd of Gentiles who believe the witness of the true remnant of Israel during the Tribulation.
O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth? Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Then we come to the sixth seal:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked and, behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood. And the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.(Rev. 6:12-14 RSV)
When you put these verses alongside Matthew 24 you can see where you are in the timeline.
Immediately after the tribulation of these days, said Jesus,
the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give its light. And the stars shall fall from the heaven. This is what John saw, too. In addition, the same thing is predicted by Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah and Zephaniah. There are many prophetic voices that describe a time when the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give its light. Many have speculated that this is caused by the near approach to the earth by another heavenly body whose gravitational pull affects the tides of the sea and the magma that flows underneath volcanoes. This magma is drawn to the surface and mountains begin to spout. Volcanoes that once were long extinct come into activity again and the frame of the earth is shaken by earthquakes. Remarkable things take place in the sky as great hailstones of ice, fire and brimstone come down from heaven. All this is a result of the approach of another heavenly body near to the earth.
Then we read that the kings of the earth, the great men, the generals, the rich, the strong and everyone, slave and free—all classes of society, all levels of mankind, no distinctions made—
hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, (Rev. 6:15-16 RSV) Let us link these verses to the prophecy of Isaiah to show how accurate scripture is and how it ties in one passage with another. In the second chapter of Isaiah this great prophet, looking ahead, saw the same event:
Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath is come, and who can stand before it?
Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust, from before the terror of the Lord and from the glory of his majesty. The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high, against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up, and against all the oaks of Bashan; against all the high mountains and against all the lofty hills; against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; against all the ships of Tarshish and against all the beautiful craft. And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled. And the pride of men shall be brought low. And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day and the idols shall utterly pass away. And men shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground from before the terror of the Lord and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. In that day men will cast forth their idols of silver and their idols of gold which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats, to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs from before the terror of the Lord and the glory of his majesty when he rises to terrify the earth.[And what is the conclusion?] Turn away from man, in whose nostrils is breath. For of what account is he? (Isaiah 2:10-22 RSV)
As Jesus said: And then shall they see the sign of the coming of the Son of Man; and the Son of Man shall come with all his glorious angels and shall be seated upon the throne of his power to judge the nations of the earth. Now that's the time of tribulation.
Let's look at one more passage, from the writings of the apostle Paul in the first chapter of second Thessalonians. These dear Thessalonian Christians were going through some difficulties right in their own time. Paul refers to these sufferings in verse 5:
This is the evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God for which you are suffering; since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thes. 1:5-10 RSV)
Now you say, What is the purpose of this event? Why does God do this strange thing? It is a strange thing; in fact, Isaiah refers to it that way saying,
God does his strange work. God does not like judgment, he never did. God withholds judgment as long as he possibly can. He is slow to wrath and quick to mercy, but at last he does have to move in judgment. Why? From the passages that we have read, three reasons stand out.
The first one is that the Great Tribulation occurs in order to restore Israel to a spiritual awareness, to remove the blindness from Israel's eyes and to help them to see the truth about their Messiah. They never would see it otherwise, for the gospel has been preached now for some 1900 years and most of Israel has simply refused to hear it. There have been many Hebrew Christians and we thank God for them. Paul speaks of himself as that remnant of grace when he says that the blindness was lifted from his heart and he saw the Lord. But that blindness has continued through the centuries and it is only during the time of Jacob's trouble that Israel will begin to see that Jesus is the Lord, repenting of their self assurance. They will recognize again that they cannot escape their destiny—that they are called to be the people of God and, unless they are in fellowship with the Son of God, there can be no permanent blessing for Israel. This trouble develops and they will see certain of their own people filled with the Spirit of God, proclaiming the truth of God, blessed by God, kept by God and preserved by God. At last, there dawns upon Israel the fact that the Messiah that they had been long expecting and waiting for across the centuries had already come—he came in weakness, despised and rejected of men. When they see him, the Old Testament Scriptures that speak of his rejection will come to life and they will realize that Christ was the one. Zechariah the prophet says that they shall look on him whom they have pierced. They shall say to him,
What are these wounds in your hands? And he will say,
These are the wounds that I have received in the house of my friends. And then they shall mourn; as one man, the whole nation shall mourn. The whole length and breadth of the land, Zechariah says, will be turned into mourning,
as a man mourns for his only son. They will recognize the one whom they once had rejected. This comes out of the Great Tribulation.
Second, it will be a time when the emptiness and vanity of man's pride is revealed. Think of our civilization today, how much of it rests upon the illusion that man is able to solve his own problems. Think of the philosophy that underlies our educational system—that if we just educate people enough, teach them the right truths, and illustrate the right lines of approach to various problems, man can solve his own problems without God. That has been the underlying philosophy of man's development over the centuries and all civilization rests upon it. But, as Isaiah said, there is coming a time when all of this will be tested. Man will see that all he has put is trust in is nothing but a broken reed and cannot be depended upon. He will also see that our educational processes are inadequate as long as you have an unregenerate heart. Finally he will discover that the power of legislation and human government is unable to cope with the terrible destructive forces that seethe within the human breast. We are beginning to see something of that already as government leaders acknowledge that they cannot do anything with the power of force if there is not also a moral atmosphere that makes change possible. The book of Hebrews says that there is coming a time when everything will be shaken that can be shaken and during this time men will see the total collapse of everything they put their trust in. All the great financial empires shall crumble. Governmental powers shall fail. All that man has trusted to make his life happy, beautiful and filled with luxury and ease shall not be of any avail. When the pride of man is humbled and abased, men will actually flee to the rocks and cry out to hide them from the face of him who sits upon the throne. Then will come the day when men will realize that God alone is truth and only he can be trusted. That is the day when every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. It is going to take tribulation to show the world this—nothing else will do it.
Finally, God's righteousness will be vindicated by the tribulation. Have you ever thought how many times people have flung into God's face His apparent impotence and helplessness in times of human distress? Isn't it strange that the very people who say God is so loving that he can never judge anybody are almost invariably the first ones to cry out when something happens to them and say,
Where is God? Why didn't he do something about this? How could he have let this thing happen to me? And they cry for vengeance, justice and for the righting of wrongs. For 1900 years God's vengeance has been withheld and God has put up with the taunts of men about his helplessness and his impotence. He has let men run their course, but he cannot do that forever. One of these days God has to answer the claims of men as to whether he is a just God or not. The apostle Paul says that it will be done in the day when the Lord Jesus comes in flaming fire, taking vengeance upon the forces, philosophies and the philosophers who have followed the satanic lie that God is an unjust God and that he has no power to right wrong upon the earth. This is also what comes out of the Great Tribulation. When that day comes, men will not think like they think now. Man will not have anything to stand upon or any ground of pride. When the Lord Jesus returns at last, he does not come to offer grace but to offer judgment. That will be followed by the time when God's will at last will be done. Do you know that you have been praying for that perhaps all your life?
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That's what you've been praying for, and God is going to answer that prayer one of these days.
Our Father, we are sobered by this and we're challenged by it—how this reveals and sets against a dark and hideous background some of the philosophies that we've been following, some of the goals that we've been making our own. How foolish we've been, even some of us Christians, in wanting to make a name for ourselves in the earth and wanting to win the plaudits and the favor of the world—the very world that crucified the Lord Jesus. How empty all that is! How filled with vanity it all will be in that day when You destroy the pride and haughtiness of men! The only things that will count as worthwhile will be those moments when we've acted in love and tenderness and mercy and grace; when we've let the love of Jesus fill our hearts and motivate our actions and spent some time ministering to someone else, helping another person and bearing one another's burdens, thus fulfilling the law of Christ. Our Father, when we think of the measurements of eternity, we tremble at some of the things that we've been doing and some of the things that we've been wanting to do. We pray that you'll judge them now in our own life and heart and make us to walk in the light of this, as we see these things coming to pass on the earth and feel that we're drawing very near this time. We ask that you'll search us and make us to be men and women who walk in the light of the truth, walk in the light of eternity. We thank you for our young people here, some of whom will almost certainly have to live through the events that lead up to these days. God grant that they may be kept from deceit, from the foolishness of the world, from its lies and its subtle allurements. Draw them away from these things, Lord, and give them the strength and the grace to be God's men and women from head to foot in this great day of human history. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
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