The Great Tribulation

May 15, 2016 / No. 3828

Dear Radio Friends,
Today we are going to look at the sign of the great tribulation of the last days. In our previous message we looked at the sign of the mark of the beast from Revelation 13 and we saw that the main point is this, that in the last days it will be very clear who are God’s people and who are the followers of the Antichrist. That will make it very easy for the Antichrist to identify for persecution those who are God’s people. Revelation 13:15 says that he will cause that as many as do not worship the beast or receive his mark will be killed.
I want to begin today’s message by reading a couple of different passages from God’s Word where Jesus speaks of this final tribulation. First I want to read from Luke 21:12-19. There Jesus says:
But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake. And it shall turn to you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer: For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist. And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. But there shall not an hair of your head perish. In your patience possess ye your souls.
Then I want to read from the gospel of Matthew (24:21, 22), where Jesus says, “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.”
As I read those passages of Scripture, did you, as a believer, say, “I hope that I am alive in those days”? Or, “I hope that my children get to see and experience the great tribulation of the last days.” More likely you said, “Those will be dreadful and dark days of persecution when family members betray us,” and so you cry out: “Spare us those days, Lord.” But, if that is our response, we have missed something in what we read—the beautiful promises and prophecies of how God’s saints will endure those days.
The days of persecution will be days of victory, not for Satan but for God’s people. Persecution and tribulation are going to be the setting for the most remarkable victory of the gospel and the church and for the richest experience of God’s grace and the presence of God in all of history. Not one of God’s people will perish. Not even a hair from their head shall perish.
When we speak of the great tribulation, we are speaking of the future and final persecution of the church, when all the combined forces of humanity under Antichrist, all the nations under the devil, will come against God’s people. This is described in the imagery of Revelation 20:7-9 as the loosing of Satan, his deceiving of the nations, and his compassing about the city of God.
When we look at Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24, we see that this is a future reality for the church. Jesus places this specifically after all the other signs during the time of Antichrist and immediately before His second coming. Following the text in Matthew 24, we read in verses 29, 30: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened…and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven.” So this will be the last sign before the sign of Jesus on the clouds of heaven.
Yes, it is true that all through history there is animosity against Christianity and persecution from the unbelieving world, and we see in that that the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ are always present in history, but they increase in intensity and frequency the closer to the time when Jesus comes. This will come to expression in what Jesus calls the Great Tribulation of the last days.
In the Bible, there are two words used for persecution. One of them means to pursue somebody or to chase someone; the other means to press or to squeeze down. That is the word that Jesus uses here in Matthew 24:21 when He says there “shall be great tribulation.” The goal of the persecution of the church by the world is to rid the earth of the existence and the witness of Christianity, to squeeze it out of existence, much as you would squeeze an orange to get juice from it.
In these passages, Jesus tells us some of the specifics of the great tribulation, not to frighten us but to prepare us so that we are not surprised or terrified when this persecution comes. He says, “Ye shall be hated of all nations for my sake.” This means that persecution has its source in the hatred that is in the heart of the unbeliever and of the reprobate not only for the people of God, but for Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus says, “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you.” This will be a universal, worldwide persecution. “You will be hated of all nations,” Matthew 24:9. Luke and Mark both translate that as “all men.” “All nations” indicates that under Antichrist there will be an organized, stated policy of the nations of the earth to persecute Christians. “All men” indicates that there will not be tolerance on any level for Christians and for Christianity. People and local governments will no longer turn a blind eye to the Christian presence. This will be an organized and a legalized persecution. According to Jesus, believers will be brought before rulers and councils. It will not be police beating on your door, but family members will turn you in. Likely, the Antichrist and his kingdom will offer rewards to those who turn in Christians. This great tribulation will involve imprisonment and torture and death. Families will be torn apart. God’s people will be thrown into prison with thieves and murderers and the worst of society. There will be physical tortures that exceed what we have ever seen done to man in the history of this world. This will be a time when it is impossible for God’s people to live a normal life in society. Not only will their buying and selling be restricted, but they will be forced to flee to the mountains and the caves.
This will be a persecution that is specifically directed against faithful believers and the true church of God. It will not be a general persecution of Christians and Christianity or anyone who goes under that name but only of the true church and the true people of God. Under the Antichrist, there will be much religion. There will be churches; there will be worship. But the true church will refuse to worship the beast. They will not allow man on the throne of God. They will not allow Satan and the Antichrist the honor that is due to God alone. For this they will be persecuted. So the Scriptures indicate that this great tribulation will come only on the elect of God.
One of the important questions for us to answer is: How will God’s people endure such dark days of persecution? In the passages that we read, what should stand out is that God will preserve them; God will keep them. They will persevere because of the preserving work of God.
You see this in several ways. First of all, they will persevere because of their election. Jesus says in Matthew 24 that “for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” Mark adds, “for the elect’s sake, whom he has chosen”—because of their election by the sovereign God, they will persevere. Election is the eternal choice of God the Father of a specific group of individuals for salvation. He gives them to Jesus Christ; He entrusts them to Jesus Christ’s care. Jesus comes and He lays down His life for them to secure this, that not one of them will perish. Because of our election, we believers will persevere under persecution. Not because we have chosen God, but because we know that He has chosen us.
How do you know that? The question is not: How do you know the secret counsel of God in election? But this: Do you know the grace of God in your life today? Do you have the grace of God that gives you faith to believe the gospel, the grace that brings you into repentance and confession of your sins, the grace on account of which you desire to live a more holy life and to live a life of love and obedience to God? That is the grace of election. And the grace that produces that today in your life is the grace that will preserve you in the last days. That is why Jesus says, “It is impossible that the elect should perish.” Because the Father has chosen us, He will keep us.
Second, we will persevere in those days because, as Jesus says, “Those days will be shortened.” That does not mean that the days will have less daylight hours. Nor does it mean that when persecution comes we will be able to predict the day and the hour of Jesus’ coming. Rather, this is the Scripture’s way of saying that the kingdom of Antichrist will be cut short. In the height of his reign, when he is at his full strength, when he is organized against Christianity—then his kingdom will be interrupted. So we read in the prophecies of Daniel and in Revelation of forty-two months, or three and a half years, which is not a complete but only a half of a period of time. The end of the kingdom of Antichrist will come not because of a gradual disintegration over time and through internal turmoil. It is not that his power will be eroded but because Christ will suddenly come and end that kingdom. In II Thessalonians 2 we read that Jesus will come during the time of Antichrist and destroy him with the power of His coming. There will be a personal show-down, a face-to-face meeting of Jesus Christ and the Antichrist. That will be the end of the kingdom of the Antichrist and the end of persecution.
That is because it is not God’s will that the elect should perish. In Matthew 24:22, Jesus says this: “Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” When Jesus says that “there should no flesh be saved,” He does not mean that if He didn’t come again there would be no people living on the earth anymore or that the elect would lose their salvation. Rather, He is expressing here, in the negative, that it is His will that there should always remain some of His people on the earth and that none of them will ever lose their salvation. Perhaps in the last days the church will be very small and reduced to almost nothing. But always there will be a witness on the part of God’s people, right in the heart of the kingdom of Antichrist, to confess the name of Jesus Christ against the Antichrist. Now we can think of Daniel and his three friends as they appeared before the typical Antichrist, Nebuchadnezzar, and gave witness in his kingdom of God and His truth.
Third, believers will endure in the last days because of a special work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will speak through God’s people. In Luke 21, Jesus gives us instruction on how to handle the court cases and the trials of the last days. You have been drawn before judges and kings. You are in a courtroom, and here is the news camera and the judge who has condemned others to death for their faith. There is the prosecuting attorney. The temptation for us in those days will be to mull ahead of time over and over what we will say, to try to come up with the best answer in our court case. Jesus said, “Don’t worry about that, don’t prepare for that day because, in that day, you will be given a special grace and a special measure of the Holy Spirit to speak before kings and rulers who hate God. God,” He says, “will give us wisdom and a mouth to speak.” The Holy Spirit will work through us in such circumstances. What a speech that will be. Just think of Stephen, the first martyr, and the boldness he was given to speak before his persecutors. Even the grace that he was given by God to pray for his persecutors that God not lay this sin to their charge; and the glimpse of the glory of Jesus Christ at God’s right hand that gave him that special grace. In that day the Holy Spirit will give the grace of patience, of perseverance, to God’s people. Revelation 13:10 speaks of the patience of the saints, and in Luke 21:19 we have the same idea. Right when it would be our inclination to stop, to sit, to remain silent—then God will give us the strength of His Holy Spirit and God will fill our souls with the power to persevere even under persecution, in the face of the dragon’s wrath, to confess His name. So Jesus says in Luke 21 that this will turn to your advantage and to your testimony, that is, it will give you an opportunity to speak of the great victory of the gospel right when it looks as though Satan and the world has his victory; to speak the life and the salvation and the victory that is ours in Jesus Christ in the midst of the death and the animosity and the persecution of the Antichrist. So strong will that be that the persecutors, the Antichrist and his people, will not be able to answer the faith of God’s people.
Here is the strength that God’s people will have in that day. God will keep them. He has chosen them. He will shorten those days and He will give them a special measure of His grace. Because He will, Jesus tells us to pray and to watch with the Word of God open, alert, waiting and watching. God will grant our requests. He will help us. He will surround us with His presence, and our experience will be that we know His strength and His power and His presence as never before. What a day of victory that will be!
Jesus gives us wonderfully comforting promises. In Luke 21: “Not a hair of your head shall perish.” He does not mean here simply that all the hairs of your head are numbered and that God knows them, but this, not even a hair of your head will go to hell. The devil may take our lives in that day; our families may be taken from us; our possessions may be destroyed. But he cannot remove us from our salvation. He cannot remove so much as a hair of our head from our salvation.
There is promise, in that, of the future bodily resurrection of God’s people. “Not a hair of your head shall perish.” Every part of you will be raised to live with Christ and to reign with Him eternally in the new heaven and the new earth.
So we should think of persecution as a privilege. What a privilege it will be. In the book of Acts, chapter 5, the disciples rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. They saw it to be a privilege to be a part of the era of the fastest growth of the church. But they also saw it a privilege during that time to suffer for Jesus Christ on account of their faith. Philippians 1:29 describes persecution as a gracious gift: “To you it is given not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” Our privilege will be to fill up the remainder of the cup of the suffering of Jesus Christ. Not a suffering for sin, but a suffering at the hands of the wicked world against Jesus Christ and His witness and His bride, the church. In that day, when we suffer for the name of Jesus Christ, we will say, “I’m not worthy of the suffering. This is the grace of God that has equipped me and prepared me for this.” “Blessed are ye,” said Jesus, “when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.”
So, this should be our perspective on the suffering of God’s people in this world. What a day of grace that will be! The saints who will stand in that day will stand so close to Jesus Christ and His cause, and they will have an experience of the grace of God such as never was, nor ever shall be. Not only will the tribulation be the greatest that ever was, but the grace and the perseverance of God’s people will be greater than ever before. What a day of victory that will be!
So, do not be afraid as you think about the day of persecution. Go back to the first question that I asked: When you think about the great tribulation, do you say, “I hope I’m living on that day”? or “I hope that my children get to experience that”? What we should say is this: “Oh, that that may be my privilege as a child of God!” Not that we want persecution, not that we want to give our lives up, but what a privilege it will be to stand with Christ and to stand for Christ in the heart of the kingdom of the Antichrist and to experience in that the presence of Christ and the fullness of His grace.
So we think about this sign and we say: “Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly.”
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the grace that Thou dost give to Thy people to endure every trial and every persecution and the animosity and the hatred of the world—not just to them, not just to us, but to Thy Word and to Thy gospel. We pray, Lord, that Thou wilt help us to see it as a privilege and in it to experience the greatness of Thy presence and grace that will preserve us till the day of Jesus Christ. Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly. Amen.