posted on Aug, 21 2020 @ 05:00 PM
In the context of the New Testament, what is a “tribulation”?
This question relates to a similar question which was considered in a previous thread; “What is an abomination of desolation?” They are both
expected features of “the end-times”. In both cases, it is important to understand the real meaning of the word, so that we can recognise when the
feature has arrived (or not arrived). In fact if I had remembered at the time that this thread title was in my “future ideas” file, I might well
have done them as a pair.
For the sake of accuracy, we need to focus on the Greek word THLIPSIS. The basic meaning is almost literally “being hard pressed”. In the various
New Testament references, it may get translated by “tribulation” or “affliction” or similar words.
Putting these references together, we find that tribulation is normally what happens to the servants of God because they are servants of God. As when
Joseph was sold into Egypt, “God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions” (Acts ch7 v10). The references can be grouped in three
categories, viz. what the followers of Jesus were warned to expect, what the immediate followers of Jesus experienced, and “the Tribulation” as a
grand climax of history.
The warnings of Jesus
For example, what happens to the seed that is sown upon rocky ground? They endure for a while, “then, when tribulation or persecution arises on
account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark ch4 v17).
In the temple discourse, he says to his immediate disciples “Then 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” (Matthew ch24 v9). So “tribulation” is understood to be the same thing as “persecution”.
He calls this “the beginning of the birth pangs”. The same image is used in John’s gospel. Jesus warns the disciples “If they persecuted me,
they will persecute you” (ch15 v20). A little later, he explains how a woman has sorrow when she is in travail, but when the child is born she no
longer remembers her anguish [THLIPSIS] The point is that the experience of persecution is the necessary and unavoidable preliminary to their
experience of the new life to come. “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (ch16 v33).
The experience of the disciples
The church in Acts did experience these things. They were scattered because of the persecution [THLIPSIS] that arose over Stephen (ch11 v19). Paul was
teaching his converts that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (ch14 v22), and he was convinced that imprisonment and
afflictions [THLIPSIS] awaited him in Jerusalem (ch20 v23).
In his letters, too, Paul refers to the tribulations of the Christian communities; “You received the word in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians ch1
v6). “We boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are
enduring” (2 Thessalonians ch1 v4). Sometimes he alludes to his own experience, as when his list of the way the servants of God commend themselves
begins with “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults” (2 Corinthians ch6 vv4-5). But he adds that “this slight
momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians ch4 v17).
He also says “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and In my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his
body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1 v24). This loosely-worded statement could easily be misunderstood. He certainly won’t be intending to
suggest that his own sufferings are part of the work of atonement. I believe the real clue to his thought lies in the question that Jesus asked him on
the Damascus road; “Why are you persecuting me?” The church identifies with Christ and Christ identifies with the church, to the point that
the afflictions of his followers are also the afflictions of Christ. So it may be said that the suffering of the church completes the full picture of
the suffering of Christ, supplementing what he suffered in person. It is Paul’s privilege, because of his work, to be part of that overall picture
of the afflictions of Christ.
And in the opening chapters of Revelation, “tribulation” means the current experience of the church of John’s time; “I share with you in Jesus
the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (ch1 v9). He warns the church of Smyrna; “Behold the devil is about to throw some of
you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation” (ch2 v10).
In short, “tribulation” is the experience of those who belong to Christ, in a hostile environment.
“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 ch24
This is the New Testament equivalent of the statement near the end of Daniel; “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since
there was a nation until that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered” (Daniel ch12 v1).
Both statements refer to the time shortly before the final intervention of God (“the coming of the Son of man”). In other words, the end-times.
Nobody can say that these prophecies have been fulfilled already, because history doesn’t record any tribulations which “cannot be surpassed”,
an essential point in both descriptions.
Are these the troubles of the church or the troubles of the world in general? In Russian history, “time of troubles” refers to the period of civil
war which preceded the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. Inspired by this usage, Arnold Toynbee borrowed the phrase for the long period of
incessant war which (on his theory) follows the “breakdown” of a civilisation and precedes the forced peace of a “universal state”. When we
see the portrait of the world in catastrophe provided by the later chapters of Revelation, it is very tempting to understand that catastrophe as
“the Tribulation”. Especially if there is a danger that “no human being would be saved”. The literal Greek is even more menacing; “all flesh
[PASA SARX] shall not be saved”.
But the message in Daniel is that the time of troubles relates to God’s people themselves; “never since there was a nation… but your people
shall be delivered”. It would be better, then, to follow this clue, and accept that “tribulation” in Matthew ch24 means what it means in most of
the rest of the New Testament. That is, the troubles and afflictions of God’s people, the church, imposed by the hostility of the surrounding world.
Or at least we might take that as the primary meaning, and make room for that phrase “all flesh” by allowing “the ruined state of the world”
as an extended, secondary sense. There is a connection, because the message of Revelation is that the final troubles of the world are a consequence of
the Tribulation of the church.