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21 August 2019

The Tribulation of the Church

Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash
The book of Revelation portrays followers of Jesus in the great tribulation (Revelation 1:9-10, 7:14). In his vision of the sealing of God’s servants, John saw an “innumerable multitude” of believers “coming out of the great tribulation,” men and women redeemed by the Lamb from every nation.
The term “tribulation” occurs five times in the book of Revelation, in each instance, it is related to the church (1:9, 2:9, 2:10, 2:22, 7:14). “Tribulation” is what the church endures, not the “inhabitants of the earth.”
Elsewhere in the Bible, “tribulation” is what believers endure for the sake of Jesus Christ (e.g., Matthew 13:21, 24:9, Mark 4:17, John 16:33, Acts 11:19, 14:22, 20:23, Romans 5:3, 8:35, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4, 1:8, 2:4, 4:17, 6:4, 7:4, 8:2, Ephesians 3:13, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 3:3, 3:7, 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6, Hebrews 10:33).
The idea of the Church being removed from the earth so that it can escape tribulation and persecution is not found; it is contrary to the heart of New Testament teaching.
Rather than something to avoid at all costs, believers suffering tribulation  and persecution on account of the gospel is a matter of great honor and a cause for rejoicing (Matthew 5:10-12, Romans 5:3, Romans 12:12, 2 Corinthians 4:17, 7:4, 8:2, Colossians 1:24, 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
According to God’s own purpose, “tribulation” and persecution are integral parts of how disciples enter and establish the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22, Romans 5:3, 2 Corinthians 4:17, Colossians 1:24, 1 Thessalonians 3:3).
The first vision of John in Revelation includes seven letters addressed to the churches of Asia (1:9 – 3:22). Each letter ends with an exhortation to “overcome” and promises rewards in the New Creation to the believer who succeeds in doing so (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26, 3:5, 3:12). In the interim, the churches are summoned to persevere through tribulations and persecution, all while bearing faithful witness as “lampstands” of the risen Christ (1:20).
[Revelation 1:9] – “I, John, who also am your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus; I came to be on the isle called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
In his salutation to the churches of Asia, the Apostle John identifies himself with their plight. He is “your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9). “Fellow participant” translates the compound noun sunkoinōnos, which means “partaker with, partaker, companion, joint partner.”
In this verse, “tribulation” has a definite article or “the,” which signifies something known and identifiable. The single definite article modifies all three nouns: tribulation, kingdom, endurance. They are different sides of the same coin. To endure tribulation is what it means to belong to the kingdom.
Jesus is described in the book’s prologue as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth…and he made us a kingdom, priests unto his God and Father.” He became the “faithful witness” in his sacrificial death whereby he “loosed us from our sins” and constituted us a “kingdom of priests.”
John was on the isle of Patmos “on account of the testimony of Jesus Christ,” a theme found throughout the book of Revelation and the cause of persecution (cp. Revelation 6:9, 11:7, 12:11, 12:17, 19:10, 20:4).
In Revelation, persecution is not something to fear or from which to escape. Persevering through it is how the saints overcome the Dragon (cp. 2:9-13, 3:18, 11:7, 12:11, 13:7, 17:6, 20:4-10)
[Revelation 2:9-10] – “I know your tribulation and destitution, nevertheless, you are rich, and the profane speech from among them who affirm that they themselves are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (10) Do not fear the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried and may have tribulation ten days. Become faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.
Smyrna is only one of two of the seven churches that receives no rebuke or correction; it is a faithful congregation that has resisted deceivers from within and endured persecution from without.
Jesus is fully informed on the “tribulation” that Smyrna has endured (“I know your tribulation”). Nevertheless, despite her perseverance, he declares that Smyrna is about to suffer even more tribulation (the “things you are going to suffer”). Rather than escape, Jesus encourages this church “not to fear what you are about to suffer.” He promises they will “be tested and for ten days have tribulation” (cp. Daniel 1:11-15).
Tribulation is something the healthiest churches; it is not punishment for sin or faithlessness. In this, the risen Christ bestows a great honor on this faithful assembly. In response, Christians at Smyrna must remain “faithful unto death,” which will result in their receipt of “the crown of life.” What they “escape” through perseverance is something far worse than tribulation – “the Second Death.”
[Revelation 2:20-23] – “Nevertheless, I have against you, that you allow the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and leads astray my own servants to commit lewdness and to eat idol-sacrifices;  and I gave her time that she might repent, and she wills not to repent out of her lewdness. Behold, I cast her into a bed, and them who are committing adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent out of her works; and her children will I slay with death; and all the assemblies shall get to know that I am he that searches reins and hearts, and will give unto you, each one, according to your works. 
Jesus rebukes the church at Thyatira for tolerating a false prophetess, “Jezebel.” He is about to throw her and her followers “into great tribulation unless they repent.”  This is the only instance in Revelation where “tribulation” is used negatively to warn believers. Regardless, as elsewhere, it is used in reference to believers.
In this case, the threat of “tribulation” is used to cause errant believers to repent and “overcome” while there is still time (Revelation 2:18-29). There is no definite article or “the” with “great tribulation” in this passage; the point is the severity of the tribulation rather than its identification with a specific event. And the warning is very specific to this congregation, not to any of the other six churches.
[Revelation 7:14-17] – “These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; For this cause are they before the throne of God and are rendering divine service unto him day and night in his sanctuary; and he that sits upon the throne shall spread his tent over them; They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither in any wise shall the sun fall upon them nor any burning heat, Because the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall shepherd them and shall lead them unto life’s fountains of waters; and God shall wipe away every tear out of their eyes.
John saw “a great innumerable multitude” of redeemed saints from “every nation and tribe and people and tongue standing before the Throne and before the Lamb.”
This group represents “those who are coming out of the great tribulation.” Though redeemed by the Lamb, they go through the tribulation. This is the same “tribulation” referred to by John while on Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
The multitude is clothed in white robes, “having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Consequently, they are seen standing before the Throne of God where they “render priestly service day and night in his Temple.” This is none other than the kingdom of “priests” established through the sacrificial death of the Lamb (1:5-6, 5:10). But, first, they must remain faithful through the great tribulation.
Paul wrote, “God did not appoint us to wrath” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). In the same epistle, he also stated that “we are appointed for tribulations” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).
There is no contradiction in Paul’s mind; the two terms refer to different things. “Wrath” is retributive judgment upon the wicked, “tribulation” is the persecution and suffering Christians endure for the gospel.
Jesus predicted that anyone who chooses to follow him would undergo persecution. Suffering for his sake is not punishment. Being found “worthy” to suffer for him is a great honor.
“Tribulation” is applied in the New Testament to believers and only rarely to their opponents. It is what Christians endure; “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). The unrepentant, on the other hand, undergo Divine “wrath.”
There is an escape for believers but not from tribulation and persecution. Instead, saints that “overcome” will not taste of the “second death” or suffer God’s ultimate wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 5:9). The New Testament does not equate the terms “tribulation” and “wrath.”
It is understandable why human beings dread persecution and other forms of hardship.  But from the perspective of the gospel, suffering for the sake of Jesus is not a thing to fear or from which to escape. Christians can rejoice in tribulations, not because they enjoy suffering but because they understand their eternal reward will be great for doing so.

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