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20 July 2019

Church is Appointed to Tribulation

SYNOPSIS - The New Testament does not equate “tribulation” with “wrath.” Believers escape “wrath” but endure “tribulation” for the sake of the Gospel.

Clouds - Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash
Jakub Kriz on Unsplash
Many commentators present the doctrine of the Rapture as a supposed means of escape from the Planet Earth so that the Church does not endure the “wrath” of God unleashed in the “Great Tribulation.” The underlying assumption of this teaching is that “tribulation” and “wrath” are synonymous.

A verse written to the church at Thessalonica by the Apostle Paul is cited often to validate the proposition:
  • God did not appoint us to wrath, but to the acquiring of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” - (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
As a leading champion of this doctrine explains:
  • “1 Thessalonians 5:9 makes clear that God did not ‘appoint us to wrath’ (the Tribulation) but to ‘obtain salvation’ or deliverance from it” (Timothy LaHaye, The Rapture: Who will Face the Tribulation? [Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2002], p. 53.).
However, a serious problem with this view is found in the very same letter. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians “not to shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this.” Either Paul contradicted himself or he did not equate “tribulation” with “wrath” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).

The Apostle reminded the Thessalonian Christians how they “became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much tribulation with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus taught his disciples to expect tribulation and persecution in this age. They would have tribulation but could be of good cheer, “because I have overcome the world” (Matthew 13:21, John 16:33, 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

Jesus foretold how opponents of the faith would deliver disciples “for tribulation and kill them: and they will be hated by all the nations.”  Before the return of the Son of Man, there would be “great tribulation” but, rather than remove his disciples from the earth, God would “shorten” their period of suffering (“for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” - Matthew 24:9, 24:21-22).

The Lord pronounced those persecuted for his sake, “Blessed!” The Kingdom of God belongs to such ones. “Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice! Be exceeding glad! For great is your reward in heaven!” It is a great honor to be found worthy to suffer for the Kingdom. This does not sound like a hope set on escape from hardship and persecution (Matthew 5:10-12).

The Apostle Peter wrote that it is thankworthy if a man endures suffering and grief for the sake of his conscience toward God. There is no glory or honor if one suffers for doing wrong, but if one patiently endures it for obedience to God, it is praiseworthy. Moreover, believers “have been called for this” very thing. Nothing is said about escape from suffering and persecution (1 Peter 2:19-20, 4:15).
To endure suffering for the Gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus, the Messiah who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial sufferings and death. Christians found worthy to “suffer for righteousness' sake” are "blessed." To suffer for the Gospel is in “accord with the will of God” (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:14-18, 4:19).
In his other letters, Paul encourages Christians to rejoice in suffering. Believers are to “exult in our tribulations because they bring about endurance, and our endurance a testing, and our testing hope” (Romans 5:3, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4).

Lighthouse at Dusk Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash
Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash
Rather than seek escape, Paul boasts how neither “tribulation nor anguish nor persecution nor famine nor nakedness nor peril nor sword” can separate believers from Jesus - “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” In tribulation, Christians must remain patient and “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Romans 8:35-39, 12:12).

It is God who “comforts us in every tribulation, so that we ourselves may be able to comfort those who are in any tribulation.” The tribulations of this life “prepare for us an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 1:4, 4:17).

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul boasted of their steadfastness - they endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations.” All this occurred so they “might be counted worthy of the kingdom of God in behalf of which there were suffering, if, at least, it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” (2 Thessalonians 1:4).

Believers and non-believers are both found alive and present when Jesus arrives from Heaven, an event that will result in vindication for some, but condemnation for others:
  • (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10) – “And unto you that are afflicted release with us,—by the revealing of the Lord Jesus from heaven, with his messengers of power, In a fiery flame; holding forth vengeance—against them that refuse to know God and them who decline to hearken unto the glad-message of our Lord Jesus, Who, indeed, a penalty, shall pay—age-abiding destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might—Whensoever he shall come, to be made all-glorious in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all who believed,—because our witness unto you was believed,—in that day.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Wrath” in the epistles of Paul is NOT identical to “tribulation.” Ultimately, “wrath” is linked to the end of the age and the final judgment. The impenitent man stores up for himself “wrath” and “fury” for the “day of wrath.” Because of sin, the “wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.” Because Christians have been set right by Christ’s blood, they shall “be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 2:5-8, 5:9, Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6-8).

This coming “wrath” is connected to the day Jesus returns in glory. God has not appointed the church to experience this “wrath” but, instead, the acquisition of salvation through Jesus. Salvation means believers do not experience His “wrath” at the end of the age, not that they escape suffering and trials in this life (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9).

When John addressed the seven churches of Asia, he identified himself with their situation - “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the perseverance in Jesus” – Here, “tribulation” has a definite article or “the tribulation,” signifying something known and identifiable (Revelation 1:9).

In the seven “letters” to the churches of Asia, only the congregations at Smyrna and Philadelphia received no rebuke or correction - Both were praised for their faithfulness. Yet, in Smyrna, Jesus declared to the congregants - “I know your tribulation and things you are going to suffer.” Rather than escape, he encouraged them “not to fear what you are about to suffer” and promises they will “have tribulation for ten days.” It seems the healthiest churches were assigned to undergo even more persecution and tribulation (Revelation 2:8-11).

Jesus summoned Christians at the city of Smyrna to “be faithful unto death,” even if it meant a martyr’s death. In this way, believers would “overcome” and escape something far worse and longer-lasting than tribulation – “the Second Death.”

Stormy Sea Photo by Stephanie Bergeron on Unsplash
Stephanie Bergeron on Unsplash
In one vision, John saw a great innumerable multitude of redeemed saints from every nation standing before the Throne comprised of men women who “were coming out of the great tribulation.” This refers to the same tribulation mentioned previously by John on the isle of Patmos (Revelation 7:9-17).

Wrath” first appears in the book of Revelation when the sixth seal is opened. This results in a final day characterized by celestial and terrestrial upheaval, and the "wrath" of the Lamb and God. This is not an extended period of tribulation but the final day of wrath. Unredeemed men from every walk of life attempt to “hide 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 has come!” (Revelation 6:12-17).

Wrath” occurs next in when the seventh trumpet sounds. God begins His final reign, it is the time for the “dead to be vindicated and to give their reward to God’s servants the prophets and to the saints,” but, also, for God’s “wrath and the time for the dead to be judged.” This is a picture of the final judgment when the righteous are vindicated and the wicked condemned (Revelation 11:15-19).

The final hour to reap the harvest of the earth is declared in the fourteenth chapter. Those who rebelled against the Lamb will “drink the wine of God's wrath poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence…of the Lamb.” This portrays the same event as the one described when the Rider on a White Horse “treads the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty,” following the final battle with the Beast and the armies of the earth (Revelation 14:14-20, 19:11-21).

In the book of Revelation, “wrath” refers to God’s final judgment against His enemies at the end of the age.  The Dragon persecutes the Son by waging war against the “seed of the woman,” identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.” The victims of Satan’s persecuting activity are “saints,” men and women who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Revelation 12:17, 13:7, 14:12).
Paul wrote, “God did not appoint us to wrath.” This was in the same epistle in which he stated, “We are appointed for tribulation.” There is no contradiction. For Paul, the terms refer to two different things. “Wrath” is God’s retributive judgment upon the wicked. “Tribulation” is what the world inflicts on Christians for the Gospel’s sake.
Tribulation” is something disciples of Jesus experience - It is a part of what it means to follow the Lamb. He predicted those who follow him would undergo persecution. Suffering for his sake is not punishment or aberration but, instead, grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer for the Gospel is a great honor and blessing. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

In contrast, the unrepentant undergo “wrath” at the end of the age, a dreadful thing reserved for the unrepentant to be avoided at all costs. The New Testament does not equate “tribulation” with “wrath”; they are not synonymous.

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