One of the signs of the times leading up to the return of Christ is tribulation. This article discusses the tribulation as described in the New Testament, mainly in Matthew 24. It offers some observations on the nature and occasion for the tribulation.

Source: The Outlook, 1995. 9 pages.

The "Signs of the Times" (4): Tribulation

The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of time and the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all the nations, provoke the opposition and hostility of the world to the extent that it remains under the tyranny of the evil one. As history moves toward the time of Christ's return or revelation from heaven, there is an intensification of the conflict in history between the truth and the lie, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. This intensification of the conflict, far from witnessing to the uncertain prospect of Christ's triumph, only confirms that all things are being ripened for judgment and the consummation of history at Christ's coming again.

Among the signs of the times, accordingly, are several which reflect this intensified conflict as the time of the end nears: tribulation, the Great Tribulation, apostasy and the coming of anti-Christ(s). In this article we will consider the first of these signs of the times which witnesses to the conflict between Christ and the spirit of the anti-Christ: the tribulation experienced by the faithful people of God during the present age. The Bible teaches that one of the marks of the progress of history under the dominion of Christ is the world's opposition to believers whose fellowship with Christ includes a participation in His suffering. Believers may expect that their devotion to Christ and His cause will inevitably provoke the world's opposition and hatred, just as was the case with Christ Himself when He came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.

General References🔗

There are a number of general references in the New Testament that clearly teach that tribulation or trouble will attend the way of the Christian believer in the present age. Though these passages may seem strange to some ears, since the tendency among many today is to ignore or belittle them, they cannot be minimized or overlooked. Unlike the picture so often painted of the Christian life and pilgrimage today, these passages paint a sobering picture of struggle and difficulty as the common circumstance of believers in the present period of history. Such tribulation will not be limited to a specific period of time either in the past or the distant future; it will span the whole period between Christ's first and second coming. Nor will it cease before Christ's revelation at the end of the age (2 Thessalonians 1:6-8).

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus taught His disciples that they could expect suffering and distress as a consequence of their discipleship. The words of Matthew 5:10-12 are well known:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.1

As one of the so-called "Beatitudes," this statement provides a general description of the circumstance of the believing disciple of Jesus Christ in the face of the world's persecution and insults. It suggests that such persecution will be the normal consequence of seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

There are similar warnings about the suffering that will inevitably attend the Christian life in other New Testament passages. In the discourse recorded in the Gospel of John, in which Christ was teaching His disciples in the upper room prior to His crucifixion, John records that Jesus declared, "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (15:20). Here Christ appeals to a principle consistent with the relationship of master and servant — if the master suffered at the hands of the world, surely the disciple can expect the same. A comparable warning is made in John 16:33, "These things I have spoken to you," says the Lord, "that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." In 2 Timothy 3:12, the apostle Paul, immediately after describing the persecutions he had suffered in various places, notes that this will also be the experience of all believers: "And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (compare Acts 14:22).

It is commonly taught in the New Testament, therefore, that the circumstance of the faithful child of God in this present age will be one marked by trouble or persecution. The world's opposition to Christ and His kingdom will inevitably be brought to bear upon the believing child of God.

Tribulation in the "Olivet Discourse"🔗

One of the most important and comprehensive passages in the New Testament for an understanding of the signs of the times is the so-called Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew 24 (parallels in Mark 13:37 and Luke 21:5-36). However, this passage is also much disputed as to its meaning. Some interpreters argue that the signs of the times of which the Lord Jesus Christ speaks in this passage are exclusively restricted to the period immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Undoubtedly, the primary reference of many of the signs in this passage is to this period, but there are good reasons to conclude that they also describe the period of history extending to the time of Christ's coming at the "end of the age." Though we will return to this passage in our next article, when we consider what is meant by "the Great Tribulation" that will occur prior to Christ's return, we must also consider it here since it speaks of tribulation as a general characteristic of the present age.

This passage is known as the "Olivet Discourse" because it records the words of Jesus Christ spoken to His disciples while He was "sitting on the Mount of Olives" (Matthew 24:3). These words were spoken on an occasion after the disciples had pointed out the temple buildings to Christ, and He had responded by declaring, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down" (v. 2). This response of Christ provoked from the disciples a twofold question, "'Tell us, when will these things (the destruction of the temple) be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'" In this question the disciples inquire of the Lord when the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem would take place and what will be the "sign" of His coming (parousia). They desire to know not only how Jesus' words regarding the tearing down of the temple will be fulfilled but also what signs will characterize the period prior to His coming and the end of the age.

In His response to this twofold question of the disciples, Christ begins in vv. 4-14 by mentioning a number of signs that will characterize the present age before "the end shall come" (v. 14). These signs will include such things as the "hearing of wars and rumors of wars," "famines," "earthquakes," "false prophets," "lawlessness," and the preaching of the gospel "in the whole world for a witness to all the nations." Among these signs will also be the experience of tribulation: "Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name" (v. 9). These verses seem to speak generally of signs that will characterize the age between the time of Christ's first and second coming.

However, in the verses that follow, especially verses 15-28, the focus of Christ's words seems clearly to be upon the events that will precede and accompany the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the period of time contemporary with those to whom Jesus first spoke these words. In fact, in verse 34 Jesus speaks of "all these things" taking place before the passing away of "this generation," a phrase that seems most obviously to refer to the generation alive when these words were first spoken. A number of interpreters, many of them able and Reformed in their confession, have argued, therefore, that this discourse, together with all the "signs" described in it, refers to events that were fulfilled in the lifetime of that generation, specifically in the year 70 A.D., when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem.2  Sometimes termed the "preterist" or "past time" reading of Matthew 24, this interpretation would mean that the tribulation mentioned in this passage, including the "great tribulation" referred to in v. 21, is a sign that has already been fulfilled and bears no relevance to present history before Christ's second coming.3 This passage would not, therefore, have anything to teach us about whether tribulation is a sign of the times during the entire period between Christ's first and second coming.

Though I believe that the primary and immediate reference of the signs of the times in Matthew 24 is to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., I also believe that there are several good reasons why they have a secondary and remote reference to events that will characterize the present age until Christ's second coming. Without elaborating upon them at length, these reasons are the following:

  • To say that all of the events described in Matthew 24 took place before or during 70 A.D. does not finally do justice to the disciples' question and this passage's language regarding the "end of the age." This language, and the language about the "coming" (parousia) of Christ used elsewhere in this passage (vv. 27, 30, 42-44), commonly refer in the New Testament to the second coming of Christ.


  • This sign can only with difficulty be said to have been fulfilled prior to 70 A.D. There is a suggestion in this sign and in the language Christ employs (compare v. 6) of the passage of sometime before all will have been fulfilled (compare Luke 19:11, where the disciples are said to have misunderstood Jesus' words to mean that the "kingdom of God was going to appear immediately").
  • In verses 29-31 of Matthew 24, Jesus seems to be speaking of His second coming, to an event that can hardly to be said to have already occurred in 70 A.D. He speaks of a visible advent in v. 30b that parallels other New Testament descriptions of Christ's second coming (compare Matthew 16:27; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Revelation 1:7). The reference to the "sign of His coming" echoes the language used by the disciples in the second part of their question, and the language of the "great trumpet" and the "angels" in v. 31 is characteristically used of Christ's return at the end of the age (compare 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
  • The teaching in verses 36-44 that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ's coming or "that day" can best be understood of Christ's second coming, not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This is also language with New Testament parallels which uniformly refer to the second coming of Christ (Matthew 25:13; Mark 13:32; Luke 12:39-40; Acts 1:6-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 16:15).
  • It should also be noted that chapters 24 & 25 belong together. They are joined by a series of parables that illustrate the nature of Christ's coming and the need for preparedness in the light of its certainty (vv. 43-44, the parable of the household; vv. 45-51, the parable of the wise and wicked servant; 25:1-13, the parable of the ten virgins). The language of Matthew 25, in its description of the final judgment of "all," suggests that the Lord is still speaking of those events which will precede or accompany His coming at the end of the age. Accordingly, if Matthew 24 describes signs of the times that are present and characteristic of the whole period leading up to the coming of Christ at the end of the age, then it can be added to the testimony of those general references considered above which speak of tribulation as the experience of the believer in this present age. No believer should be surprised by the world's hostility or opposition. Christ Himself predicted that this would be a sign of the end of the age.

Some Observations about Tribulation🔗

Assuming that it has been well enough established that tribulation will mark the life of the believer and the believing community during this present age, some observations about the nature and occasion for this tribulation still need to be made. Though this is not an article on the subject of tribulation in the life of the Christian, some brief comments may help to explain further what is meant by this sign of tribulation.

First, the most common New Testament term for tribulation is one which describes that trouble or distress that results from the believer's commitment to Christ, to the Word of the gospel, and to the cause of the kingdom of God. The term itself is very general and broad in its meaning, referring to whatever disruption or trouble attends the life of the believer because of His devotion to Christ. Interestingly, in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8, the tribulation presently suffered by the believer is contrasted with the rest or peaceableness that will result from Christ's coming at the end of the age. The contrast between the present and future circumstance of believers in this passage, indicates that the tribulations of this present life are those troubles that make the Christian's present pilgrimage difficult and fall short of the peace that will attend the life to come. These troubles confirm the words of the Lord in Matthew 10:34, when He warned the disciples, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

It is crucial in this connection to notice that this tribulation results from the believer's commitment to Christ. The tribulation that serves as a sign of the times is not any circumstance of trouble or distress, but that circumstance resulting specifically from the believer's aim to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Consequently, in many references to the persecution and trouble that will attend the Christian life in the present age, we find language used that joins the experience of tribulation closely with the believer's relationship with Christ. Nowhere is this language more striking than in Colossians 1:24, where the apostle Paul speaks of his joy in suffering and sharing "in filling up that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions." This passage should not be understood to teach that there was any lack in Christ's atoning work, but it does speak clearly of a participation on the part of the church in the afflictions of Christ. One important way in which the church has fellowship with Christ is in the way of suffering affliction for His name's sake. This is the reason Christ could confront Saul before his conversion on the way to Damascus, asking him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" So intimate is the communion of the believer with Christ that the affliction or persecution of the believer is a communion or participation in Christ's affliction.

Second, tribulation in the life of the believer can take many forms. Often it takes the form of open persecution, in which the believer is exposed to the reproach and hostility of those who reject the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1; 2 Timothy 3:12-13; Acts 14:22; Revelation 1:9). It can mean imprisonment, something which the apostles and many believers ever since have experienced (Acts 20:23). Sometimes it means ridicule (Hebrews 10:33), poverty (2 Corinthians 2:4), illness (Revelation 2:22), or inner distress and sorrow (Philippians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 2:4). Whether the believer lives in a country or society friendly or hostile to the gospel, there is no escape from one or another of these forms of tribulation. Each of these forms of tribulation confirms the genuineness of the believer's fellowship with Christ, as well as commitment and devotion to His person and gospel.

Third, this sign of tribulation, like the other signs of the times, does not testify to the uncertainty of Christ's cause but to its certain victory. One of the more dramatic confirmations of this is given to us in Revelation 12:7-12. In this passage we are given a vision of a great battle in heaven between Michael and his angels on the one hand and the dragon and his angels on the other. This battle ends in the victory of Michael and his angels, and the casting down of Satan to the earth, a victory which is said to have been accomplished "because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their (the believers) testimony" (v. 11). However, what is striking about this passage is how the defeat of Satan and his host results in his intensified pursuit and persecution of the church on earth, knowing that his time is short and his defeat certain. The suffering and affliction of the church is, accordingly, witness to the victory of Christ's cross and cause in the purpose and plan of God. Far from being a fearful prospect of doom and gloom for the faithful people of God, it reminds the believer that God's kingdom will prevail.

Fourth, the circumstance of tribulation in the life of the believer can be, and often is, an occasion for growth and maturity in discipleship. Nowhere so much as in affliction does the believer come to realize the depth and the extent of his fellowship with Christ. In suffering affliction believers reflect something of that same pattern evident in the life of Christ Himself, who only entered into His glory after the shame and suffering of the cross. Indeed, the prominent place of tribulation in the life of believers and the church serves as a constant reminder of the centrality of the cross of Christ, not only as the means of atonement, but also as a call to self-denying patience under circumstances of suffering (1 Peter 2:21-25). Through the experience of affliction and trouble, the believer grows in perseverance and hope. As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 5:3-5:

[a]nd not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character, and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

For this reason, believers should count their trials "all joy" and the "testing of the faith" an occasion for growth in the Christian life, growth that produces maturity and completeness (James 1:2-4). In the midst of the trials and troubles of this life, the Christian is like a child disciplined by his father (Hebrews 12:6), like gold which is refined through fire (1 Peter 1:7), or like the vine pruned by the gardener (John 15:1ff.).

This sign of the times — the tribulation that will inevitably accompany the believer's discipleship in the present age — like all of the other dimensions of the Bible's teaching about the future, serves to nurture the believer's hope. It reminds him of the triumphant words of the apostle Paul at the end of Romans 8:

But in all these things (tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword) we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Vv. 37-39)

Among those signs of the times which distinguish the period of history between Christ's first and second coming is the tribulation which will befall the faithful people of God. This tribulation is one of the signs of opposition to Christ and the coming of His kingdom.

We have to look at the subject of tribulation once more, this time in terms of what is often called "the great tribulation." Does the Bible teach that the tribulation which characterizes the present age will issue in a circumstance of intensified tribulation, a great tribulation, prior to the return of Christ? Is there anything more that believers should expect than a general and intermittent kind of distress or trouble during the entirety of the period prior to Christ's coming?

The subject of the great tribulation has been especially prominent among Christian believers who are dispensational premillennialists. In its classic or original form, dispensationalism taught that the return of Christ would occur in two stages, the first often called the "parousia," and the second often called the "revelation" of Christ. In this view Christ would first come "for His saints" at the time of the secret "rapture" of believers, and only subsequently would He come "with His saints" to reign upon the earth for a period of one thousand years, the millennium. Since in dispensationalism the rapture of believers would precede the period of "great tribulation" (usually thought to be for a period of seven years), this position is often known as the "pre-tribulational rapture" position.4 However, among dispensationalists a distinct minority have taught that the rapture would occur in the middle of the period of great tribulation; this position is known as "mid-tribulational" premillennialism. Non-dispensational premillennialists teach that Christ will return only after this period of great tribulation. Hence, this position is known as "post-tribulational" premillennialism.5

I do not mention these various views within premillennialism to confuse the issue. Rather, they illustrate the bearing the issue of great tribulation has upon the various millennial views that we have yet to consider. These views cannot be wholly ignored at this point, since any position which concludes that believers will experience that great tribulation is incompatible with the traditional view of dispensationalism.6 The understanding that I will defend could be compatible with some forms of pre-millennialism, but not with the classic view of dispensationalism.

The "Great Tribulation" in Matthew 24🔗

The most important passage which speaks of the great tribulation is Matthew 24, a passage we have already had occasion to consider (compare Mark 13:19). In this passage, as part of Jesus' answer to the disciples' questions about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the sign of His coming and the "end of the age," Jesus speaks of a coming period of "great tribulation" that will precede His return in glory at the end of the age.

Due to the importance of this passage and its specific description of this great tribulation, it will be useful to quote it at some length.

Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! But pray that your flight may not be in winter, or on a Sabbath; for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short (vv. 15-22).

In this passage Christ clearly teaches that one of the signs that will precede the destruction of the temple is a period, not only of general tribulation, but also of intensified tribulation. He also clearly associates this period of great tribulation with the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple, a fulfillment that did indeed occur at the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. It is impossible to deny that the events described did take place at that time.

As we have noted before, the primary and immediate reference in these verses is to those events that took place in the period of the generation to whom Jesus first spoke these words. The question remains, however, whether they might not also have reference to yet another and subsequent "great tribulation" that will occur prior to the end of the age.

We considered several reasons for applying the signs of the times in Matthew 24 to the entirety of the period between Christ's first and second coming. In my judgment, it is impossible to restrict the application of these verses to the events preceding and accompanying the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This passage, like many other biblical prophecies, displays the characteristics of prophetic foreshortening and biblical typology. Though there is clearly a fulfillment of the prophecy in 70 A.D. that fulfillment may well be understood as a kind of initial fulfillment which typifies circumstances that will subsequently recur and anticipate the return of Christ at the end of the age. What transpired in 70 A.D. therefore, was a type of that further and final "great tribulation" that will precede Christ's coming and the consummation of history at the last judgment.

Admittedly, this understanding of the passage has some difficulties, but these are not as insurmountable as the understanding which insists that it refers exclusively to events that occurred in the past (from our present vantage point) and has no bearing upon events in the present or future that will precede Christ's return.7 The language employed in this passage also refers to those events that will take place before Christ's coming at the end of the age. Just as the prophecy of Daniel regarding the desecration of the temple had an earlier and initial fulfillment in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (before the first coming of Christ), and then a subsequent and further fulfillment at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so we may understand our Lord's prophecy in Matthew 24 to encompass the further and final fulfillment (of which these earlier fulfillments were typical) at the end of the age.8 In this understanding, the tribulation that characterizes the circumstance of the faithful church' in the interim period between Christ's first and second advent will reach its most intensified expression in the period preceding Christ's coming.

Additional Biblical References🔗

Any interpretation of Matthew 24's reference to a "great tribulation" that restricts it to an event in the past seems to conflict with several additional biblical references that suggest a period of intensified tribulation prior to Christ's coming at the end of the age. Even were it possible to confine the reference to a "great tribulation" in Matthew 24 to the year 70 A.D., these passages indicate that a circumstance of intensified opposition to Christ and His gospel will mark off the period of history immediately prior to Christ's second coming.

In the book of Revelation, for example, there are several references to a circumstance of great tribulation that will characterize the experience of the church in history before Christ's return. In Revelation 2:22, in the letter to the "angel of the church in Thyatira," Christ warns that He will "cast her (the woman Jezebel) upon a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds." Though some interpreters have sought to restrict this warning to the church in the first century, it would seem more appropriate to regard it as a solemn warning to the church during the entire age prior to Christ's return. However direct and specific this warning may have been to the church of Thyatira in the first century, it remains one of Christ's warnings to the seven churches which typify the entirety of the church in her situation prior to the end of the age. Similarly, in Revelation 7:9-17 the apostle John describes his vision of that "great multitude, which no one could count ... clothed with white robes" (v.9). In the description of this multitude, we are told that this great multitude is comprised of those "who are coming out of the great tribulation" (v. 14, emphasis mine). This passage, like that in Revelation 2:22, would seem to use the language of "great tribulation" to describe an ongoing experience of the saints in this present age. If such language can be employed to describe what is common to the period between Christ's first and second coming, it seems appropriate that it also be applicable to the period just prior to Christ's return.

Furthermore, though the express terminology of "great tribulation" is not used in Revelation 20, it is instructive to observe that this passage also speaks of Satan's "little season" at the end of the millennium, the period of one thousand years during which Satan is bound so as not to be able to deceive the nations. It seems most likely that this "little season" corresponds with that period of intensified opposition to the gospel and the cause of Christ that will characterize the close of the age prior to Christ's return.

Another similar and important passage is 2 Thessalonians 1:1-15 which describes the coming of the "man of lawlessness" prior to the coming of Christ. In this passage, which follows one in which Christ's revelation from heaven will bring rest to the beleaguered and persecuted believers (2 Thessalonians 1), it is evident that the coming of the "man of lawlessness" will be accompanied by persecution of and apostasy within the church. Interestingly, the language in this passage used to describe the coming of the "man of lawlessness" bears a striking resemblance to the references in Daniel 9 and Matthew 24 to the "abomination of desolation." One of the features of this "man of lawlessness" will be his effort to exalt himself "above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being god" (v.4). Though this is not the place to consider such additional signs of the times as apostasy or the coming of the anti-Christ, it appears likely that in these and other passages there are a constellation of signs — the Great Tribulation, the Great Apostasy, the Anti-Christ — that mark out the period of history immediately prior to the close of the age. They suggest a pattern in which those signs of the times which bespeak opposition to Christ come to a culminating and intensified expression as the end draws near.

Concluding Observations🔗

When we introduced this study of the Bible's teaching about the future, we emphasized the need for caution and circumspection in drawing hard-and-fast conclusions about some aspects of this teaching. The need for appropriate caution is especially evident when we consider the Bible's teaching about the signs of the times. Thus, it is with a measure of tentativeness that I propose the following concluding observations about the "great tribulation."

  • First, the "great tribulation" that will likely characterize history shortly before the close of the present age is but an intensified and culminating expression of that tribulation that marks the whole period between Christ's first and second coming. For this reason, it is even possible, as we have seen, to speak of a "great tribulation" that is an ongoing experience of the saints in this present age. However, as history draws to its close under the reign and rule of Christ, it appears, according to biblical teaching, to be the case that Satan's opposition to Christ will come to acute and final expression in a short season of greater and more acute tribulation.


  • Second, the period of great tribulation is not one from which the church will be preserved through some kind of pre-tribulational "rapture," as has commonly been taught in dispensationalism. In none of the passages we have considered, is it taught that believers will be snatched away prior to the great tribulation. Rather, the consistent emphasis seems to be the call to patient endurance in the expectation of Christ's certain return and triumph. That return and triumph will bring "rest" to the beleaguered church at the end of the age (compare 2 Thessalonians 1).9
  • Third, the Bible's teaching about the prospect of a great tribulation shortly before the return of Christ ought not to be understood to allow any "prediction" of the time of Christ's return. For example, some might conclude from what we have said about this great tribulation that it is presently impossible that Christ should return. They might argue that, since the church is not experiencing universally (in every place and situation) this kind of acute trial or distress, we must not be living in a period that is proximate to the second coming of Christ. Similarly, they might argue that, when such a circumstance of tribulation becomes manifest, it will then be possible to say with a certainty, "now is the time of Christ's coming." Against this kind of temptation to predict or pinpoint when and whether Christ can come again, we need to recall what we said earlier about no one knowing the day or the hour, the time, of Christ's return. No one should be so confident of their understanding of the Bible's teaching about the great tribulation that they conclude that Christ could not return in the near future. Such a conclusion would be tantamount to knowing something about the day or hour of Christ's coming, namely, that the present time is not and cannot be that day or hour!
  • And fourth, the Bible's teaching about the church's tribulation in this present age and in the period shortly before Christ's return is insufficiently clear to permit us any confident conclusions about the precise nature and course of a great tribulation that might be yet to come. We simply do not know whether this tribulation will suddenly befall the faithful church or whether it will gradually intensify as the end of the age draws near. Neither do we know whether such a great tribulation will come upon the whole church in every place at the same time or in the same way. Much remains unclear and uncertain in these respects. Consequently, no one may be too sure or dogmatic about these things.

Only one thing is absolutely certain, so far as the biblical view of Christ's coming is concerned: whatever the present trial and distress, whatever the future intensity of opposition to Christ's gospel and cause, Christ "must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25). Tribulation, even great tribulation, cannot and will not separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35-39).


  1. ^ In a parallel passage in Luke 6:22, we read: "Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man."
  2. ^ See J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1971), pp. 53-173, who argues extensively that Matthew 24:1-35 refers to events that took place before and during 70 A.D. Kik believes the chapter is divided at verse 36 which introduces for the first time the subject of the "end of the age" in the strict sense of Christ's second coming. Compare Ed Stevens, What Happened in 70 A.D. (Ashtabula, Ohio: Northeast Ohio Bible Institute, 1981), for a defense of a consistent preterist reading of Matthew 24. 
  3. ^ It should be added here, however, that, even were this reading correct, this would not mean that tribulation is not a present reality or sign of the times. The general references mentioned in our previous section are clearly not limited to any specific time period prior to Christ's return, but describe the circumstance of the believer during this present period of history. Consequently, the teaching that tribulation is a sign characteristic of the present age does not finally depend upon whether Matthew 24 or the Olivet Discourse refers to past events only or not.
  4. ^ Though this is not the place to consider the biblical basis offered for dispensationalism, the two passages most prominent in their argument for a pre-tribulational rapture of believers occurring before a seven year period of tribulation are 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Daniel 9:20-27. The first of these passages is said to teach a "secret rapture" of believers who return with Christ to heaven during the seven year period of tribulation. The second of these passages is said to describe 70 weeks during which the Lord's purposes with ethnic Israel will be realized, the seventieth week being the seven-year period of tribulation during which the Lord will resume His dealings with Israel (the period between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks being that interim period of the church in which the Lord deals with the Gentile nations through the gospel).
  5. ^ See Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), pp. 125-181, for a discussion of the differences between "pre-," "mid-," and "post-tribulational" views of Christ's return.
  6. ^ It should be noted, however, that the classic pre-millennial view of the future typically taught that the church, and all believers, would suffer this period of great tribulation before Christ returned to establish the millennial kingdom. The preponderance of Christian interpreters throughout history, accordingly, whether pre-millennialists, a-millennialists or post-millennialists, have taught that Christ will return only after the great tribulation, not before.
  7. ^ It is noteworthy, for example, that Jesus speaks of the "elect" in Matthew 24:22, a group that can only with difficulty be limited to those delivered at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
  8. ^ Antiochus Epiphanes was one of the kings of the Seleudid dynasty (founded in Syria by Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander, which ruled Syria in whole or part from about 321 to 65 B.C.). It is generally acknowledged that his destruction and desecration of the temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C. was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27, to which Christ also makes reference in Matthew 24, when he prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
  9. ^ Though there is a variety of opinion among post-millennialists, some of them would restrict the reference in Matthew 24 and elsewhere to a "great tribulation," to the events relating to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In this view, there is a tendency to reject the idea that the faithful church will experience an intensified tribulation as the return of Christ approaches. However, even these post-millennialists have to reckon with the teaching of Revelation 20 that the millennium before Christ's return will conclude with Satan's "little season" in which he will presumably be permitted to deceive the nations and turn them against Christ.

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