Defining the Great Tribulation

In movies like The Omega Code and Left Behind, as well as in many popular fiction and prophecy books, such as the popular Left Behind series, the time period to be most dreaded is “the Tribulation period.” This is the time that will witness the rise of the Antichrist, the mark of the beast, the martyrdom of millions of believers, and a series of earthquakes, famines, pestilence, and supernatural disasters like the world has never seen.

If we want to learn more about the Tribulation period, where in the Bible can we find reference to it?

There is no time period in the Bible called “the Tribulation.” If you look in any Bible concordance under “tribulation,” you will find many references to the general trials and tribulations Jesus promises that believers will experience as part of their relationship to Him. You will also find a specific time period called the “Great Tribulation,” which is mentioned by name twice (Matt. 24:21, Rev. 7:14) and is clearly referenced in Mark 13:24.

What does the Bible say about the Great Tribulation?

Defining “the Great Tribulation”

The first reference is in Matthew 24, when Jesus' disciples come to Him and ask, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3) Jesus responds by giving them a long list of signs that includes the rise of false christs, wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, earthquakes, and pestilences in various places. “Then," He says, "they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake” (v. 9).

A few verses later, Jesus continues, “Therefore, when you see the `abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.... For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor even shall be (Matt. 24:15–21).

Notice something very important here. The Great Tribulation starts after the abomination of desolation, which according to Dan. 11:31, is the time when the Antichrist desecrates the temple in Jerusalem. According to Dan. 9:27 and Dan. 11:31, this event will occur at the midpoint of — three and one-half years into — what many people call the “Tribulation period.” By the time the Great Tribulation occurs, the Antichrist will have been in power for more than three-and-one-half years!

Glorious Appearance in the Sky

After this, Jesus answers the disciples' question: “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 the sign of the Son of Man will appear 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 (Matt. 24:29–31).”

Do not miss the impact of these words: “immediately after the tribulation of those days...” In other words, the Great Tribulation starts at the midpoint of this seven-year time period and ends with the cosmic disturbances. A quick reference to Rev. 6:12-13 reveals that these cosmic disturbances are the same as the sixth seal: “I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind” (Rev. 6:12–13).

According to scripture, then, the Great Tribulation is a short, intense period of persecution that starts after the midpoint of the seven-year “Tribulation” period and ends before the opening of the sixth seal. Jesus Himself makes a note of this, saying, “Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved...” (Matt. 24:22). This makes sense since, not only is this an intense time of persecution, but following the sixth seal, there are still 14 more judgments to come: the seven trumpets and the seven bowls.

What This Means for You

When Christians hear people talking about “the Tribulation” period and the rapture of the Church, they should be aware of what the Bible actually teaches. There is no such thing as “the Tribulation period.” There is only the Great Tribulation, which starts after the midpoint of the Antichrist's reign and ends before the sixth seal.

This means that the Church will be on earth during the first half of the Antichrist's reign. And if Jesus actually returns for His Church following the sixth seal (as the Bible teaches), the implications for believers are important. How will you handle the rise of the Antichrist? Will you stand firm for Christ during the great persecution? Will you resist the giving of the mark?

Jesus told His children to be “wise as serpents, but harmless as doves” (Matt.10-16). We are to know His truth, through His Word, so that we can stand firm for the gospel and resist error. This is why it is imperative that Christians not rely solely on the teaching of their pastors, television evangelists, and book authors as sources of biblical doctrine, but read their own Bibles and understand the truths that God is communicating.

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