Suffering Tribulations and the Great Tribulation

Johannes Pflaum

Societal developments are worrying. Christians are consoling themselves with the fact that they’ll be raptured before the situation gets really bad. Why this is a fallacy, even for those who believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture.

John 16:33 contains an insightful message: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

His conversion, the mercy of God he experienced, would become a model for everyone who would come to faith in the future: through grace alone, without works. In his own body, however, Paul not only represented perfect grace, but also the suffering inherent to the Church experience. He repeatedly urged the believers: “Be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:16).

The word “tribulation” could also be translated as “distress, need, fear,” or “being under pressure.” “World” doesn’t refer to an amazing sunset in the Bahamas, or the beautiful snow-covered Alps. “World” represents humanity in its revolt and rebellion against God. Satan is the world ruler of fallen creation. The Lord Jesus didn’t tell His disciples, “In the world you might have tribulation,” or, “There might occasionally be tribulation.” Rather, He unequivocally predicts that among a humanity separated from God, you will be “in need” or “under pressure.” It’s inescapably tied to being His follower.

This is the exact term used in Revelation 7 and Matthew 24 for the Great Tribulation, apart from the adjective “great.” In other words, even if the Rapture should occur before the Great Tribulation, in this world Jesus’ disciples can expect tribulation, fear, hardship, and distress for Christ’s sake. That should protect us against a naïve expectation, a world seen through rose-colored glasses. It’s also likely to mean that as we face the developments occurring around us, we shouldn’t expect that freedom of belief will continue as before.

A reliable source reported on the circumstances of the Christian Church in China:

“This Western missions movement had brought many gifts to the Church, but they had also promoted the idea that the Church would escape the final period of tribulation. When the missionaries were expelled [during the Cultural Revolution], local Christians believed that God had ‘raptured’ these missionaries to heaven and left the local Christians to suffer the Great Tribulation by themselves. Happily, God then used them to evangelize their own people.

“Now, after the worst period of suffering was subsiding, missionaries returned, to the astonishment of these local Christians. ‘You told us that we were not going to experience the Great Tribulation,’ the local Christians accused. ‘We thought you had left us behind to endure this on our own. But God has used us. We do not need you here. We can do this task on our own now.’ This was not the experience of all Christians in China, but it does illustrate how the idea of Christians escaping tribulation can leave us unready for sufferings we may genuinely face.”

This account teaches us to be careful not to harbor unfounded expectations, or let our fear of suffering dictate our belief in the pre-Tribulation Rapture.

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be guided by pious, suffering-averse wishful thinking, and fall into the error of believing that since the Rapture will take place before the Tribulation, we’ll probably retain our freedom of religion. Instead, we’d do well to prepare ourselves for the tribulations and afflictions of discipleship that our Lord spoke of.

One example from the Islamic world: A few years ago, I spoke with a brother who has good insight into the issue of the Rapture where Islamic countries are concerned. He told me that the question of whether the Rapture would occur pre- or post-Tribulation was typically a Western discussion. He said that the persecuted Christians in Islamic countries didn’t concern themselves with it. They only cried out, “Lord, come quickly!” He then wondered what the point would be of telling the suffering church that their suffering wasn’t so bad after all, because the Great Tribulation was yet to come. Our fellow believers in North Korea or Islamic states, know how real the word of our Lord in John 16:33 is. And in the liberal West, we must not fall into the piously disguised superstition that our freedom of religion is guaranteed.

Anyone going about their business in the world with their eyes open, can’t miss how hostility and societal opposition to the gospel are increasing, while the air grows thinner and thinner under the totalitarian dictatorship of tolerance. Totalitarian dictatorship of tolerance—isn’t that an oxymoron? No: Today’s tolerance mindset specifies exactly what is tolerable and what isn’t. For example: All religions are tolerated, but our Lord’s absolute claims are rejected. Tolerance used to mean having firm opinions and being able to say what you considered good and bad, right and wrong. But if someone else had a different view, you nonetheless accepted that they held that opinion. This new form of tolerance is different, as Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler pointed out years ago in their book The New Tolerance. This new tolerance no longer permits people to say that they find something bad or evil. Instead, we should be affirming everything others choose to do (or at the very least not judging them).

Instead of fighting each other about when the Rapture is going to happen, we should be examining whether we will be in submission to the tribulations that following Jesus will bring into our lives today and in the future—even as we all share the natural reflex of avoiding or suppressing unpleasant things.

In his day, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf took in persecuted asylum-seekers from Bohemia and allowed them to build the village of Herrnhut. Even though they were now living in freedom, he knew that they would still suffer afflictions for Jesus’ sake, which he reflected in his hymn Jesus Guide Our Way. He took up the theme from John 16:33 in its second stanza:

When we danger meet
Steadfast make our feet;
Lord, preserve us uncomplaining
Mid the darkness round us reigning:
Through adversity lies our way to Thee.

This perspective stands in sharp contrast to the one suggested by modern worship songs: that we’re standing before the throne of God today, being overcome by His glory.

Our Lord has foretold that we will experience hardship, pressure, and fear in this world. We should be praying that the Lord will prepare us inwardly for the time when we will suffer for the sake of the faith: that He will make us stand firm and assent to it. Persevering through suffering and affliction doesn’t happen effortlessly. We can’t just power through on our own through sheer force of will. Our Lord tells us in John 16:33, that we will have tribulation in this world that remains separated from God. Of course, nobody wants that, which makes it all the more amazing that the verse continues by telling us that we should take heart! Not by being a Pollyanna and downplaying the affliction. Not that pain is enjoyable—God doesn’t ask us to be masochists! And not because our plight will be resolved as soon as we want it to, or once we’ve become strong enough. It’s for another reason entirely.

We can take heart because Christ has conquered the world. The victory is already won! In his Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Fritz Rienecker draws our attention to the fact that the victory is proclaimed as won, even though the disciples’ suffering still lies ahead of them: “νενικήκα perf. νικάω to conquer. The perf. tense denotes an abiding victory.”

Our Lord speaks of giving His disciples His peace at the beginning of our key verse, and He says that they should take heart at the end of it. Because of our prosperity, we’re inclined to think that we can only have peace and be of good cheer, so long as we continue to prosper and retain our freedom of belief. If we’re doing well, we should praise God and sing psalms, as we’re instructed in James. But in John 16:33, our Lord’s peace and courage with regard to His victory, are inseparable from the pressures and hardships of a world separated from Him. So, we don’t need to despair if our external freedoms should change. In John 16:33 we have a great promise, as well as encouragement that finds its power in the midst of hardships. Christ Himself accomplished the victory; and in the midst of distress, He will share in it with those who elong to Him. Even if the Rapture were to occur before the Great Tribulation, we as members of the Church of Jesus can still face persecution and suffering. In that respect, it appears that we’re also facing a turning point. What comes next? Religious freedom’s decades-long state of complacency, will give way to conditions more resembling that of the early Church: oppression. But, above all else, there is the great promise of the Lord’s peace, precisely in times of distress. We can take heart that He has conquered and overcome the world.

Midnight Call - 09/2022

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