In our introduction to the biblical teaching regarding the “signs of the times,” we noted that these signs often stress the antithesis in history between the kingdom of God and the powers of evil. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of time and the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all the nations, provoke the opposition and hostility of the world to the extent that it remains under the tyranny of the evil one. As history moves toward the time of Christ’s return or revelation from heaven, there is an intensification of the conflict in history between the truth and the lie, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. This intensification of the conflict, far from witnessing to the uncertain prospect of Christ’s triumph, only confirms that all things are being ripened for judgment and the consummation of history at Christ’s coming again.
Among the signs of the times, accordingly, are several which reflect this intensified conflict as the time of the end nears: tribulation, the Great Tribulation, apostasy and the coming of anti-Christ(s). In this article we will consider the first of these signs of the times which witnesses to the conflict between Christ and the spirit of the anti-Christ: the tribulation experienced by the faithful people of God during the present age. The Bible teaches that one of the marks of the progress of history under the dominion of Christ is the world’s opposition to believers whose fellowship with Christ includes a participation in His suffering. Believers may expect that their devotion to Christ and His cause will inevitably provoke the world’s opposition and hatred, justas was the case with Christ Himself when He came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.
There are a number of general references in the New Testament that clearly teach that tribulation or trouble will attend the way of the Christian believer in the present age. Though these passages may seem strange to some ears, since the tendency among many today is to ignore or belittle them, they cannot be minimized or overlooked. Unlike the picture so often painted of the Christian life and pilgrimage today, these passages paint a sobering picture of struggle and difficulty as the common circumstance of believers in the present period of history. Such tribulation will not be limited to a specific period of time either in the past or the distant future; it will span the whole period between Christ’s first and second coming. Nor will it cease before Christ’s revelation at the end of the age (2 Thess.1:6–8).
In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus taught His disciples that they could expect suffering and distress as a consequence of their discipleship. The words of Matthew 5:10–12 are well known:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.1
As one of the so-called “Beatitudes,” this statement provides a general description of the circumstance of the believing disciple of Jesus Christ in the face of the world’s persecution and insults. It suggests that such persecution will be the normal consequence of seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
There are similar warnings about the suffering that will inevitably attend the Christian life in other New Testament passages. In the discourse recorded in the Gospel of John, in which Christ was teaching His disciples in the upper room prior to His crucifixion, John records that Jesus declared, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (15:20). Here Christ appeals to a principle consistent with the relationship of master and servant—if the master suffered at the hands of the world, surely the disciple can expect the same. A comparable warning is made in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you,” says the Lord, “that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” In 2 Timothy 3:12, the apostle Paul, immediately after describing the persecutions he had suffered in various places, notes that this will also be the experience of all believers: “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (compare Acts 14:22).
It is commonly taught in the New Testament, therefore, that the circumstance of the faithful child of God in this present age will be one marked by trouble or persecution. The world’s opposition to Christ and His kingdom will inevitably be brought to bear upon the believing child of God.
TRIBULATION IN THE “OLlVET DISCOURSE”
One of the most important and comprehensive passages in the New Testament for an understanding of the signs of the times is the so-called Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew 24 (parallels in Mark 13:37 and Luke 21:5–36). However, this passage is also much disputed as to its meaning. Some interpreters argue that the signs of the times of which the Lord Jesus Christ speaks in this passage are exclusively restricted to the period immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Undoubtedly, the primary reference of many of the signs in this passage is to this period, but there are good reasons to conclude that they also describe the period of history extending to the time of Christ’s coming at the “end of the age.” Though we will return to this passage in our next article, when we consider what is meant by “the Great Tribulation” that will occur prior to Christ’s return, we must also consider it here since it speaks of tribulation as a general characteristic of the present age.
This passage is known as the “Olivet Discourse” because it records the words of Jesus Christ spoken to His disciples while He was “sitting on the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 24:3). These words were spoken on an occasion after the disciples had pointed out the temple buildings to Christ, and He had responded by declaring, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (v. 2). This response of Christ provoked from the disciples a two-fold question, “‘Tell us, when will these things [the destruction of the temple] be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’” In this question the disciples inquire of the Lord when the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem would take place and what will be the “sign” of His coming (parousia). They desire to know not only how Jesus’ words regarding the tearing down of the temple will be fulfilled but also what signs will characterize the period prior to His coming and the end of the age.
In His response to this twofold question of the disciples, Christ begins in vv. 4–14 by mentioning a number of signs that will characterize the present age before “the end shall come” (v. 14). These signs will include such things as the “hearing of wars and rumors of wars,” “famines,” “earthquakes,” “false prophets,” “lawlessness,” and the preaching of the gospel”in the whole world for a witness to all the nations.” Among these signs will also be the experience of tribulation: “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name” (v. 9). These verses seem to speak generally of signs that will characterize the age between the time of Christ’s first and second coming.
However, in the verses that follow, especially verses 1528, the focus of Christ’s words seems clearly to be upon the events that will precede and accompany the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the period of time contemporary with those to whom Jesus first spoke these words. In fact, in verse 34 Jesus speaks of “all these things” taking place before the passing away of “this generation,” a phrase that seems most obviously to refer to the generation alive when these words were first spoken. A number of interpreters, many of them able and Reformed in their confession, have argued, therefore, that this discourse, together with all the “signs” described in it, refers to events that were fulfilled in the lifetime of that generation, specifically in the year 70 A.D., when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem.2 Sometimes termed the “preterist” or “past time” reading of Matthew 24, this interpretation would mean that the tribulation mentioned in this passage, including the “great tribulation” referred to in v. 21, is a sign that has already been fulfilled and bears no relevance to present history before Christ’s second coming.3 This passage would not, therefore, have anything to teach us about whether tribulation is a sign of the times during the entire period between Christ’s first and second coming.
Though I believe that the primary and immediate reference of the signs of the times in Matthew 24 is to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., I also believe that there are several good reasons why they have a secondary and remote reference to events that will characterize the present age until Christ’s second coming. Without elaborating upon them at length, these reasons are the following:
• To say that all of the events described in Matthew 24 took place before or during 70 AD. does not finally do justice to the disciples’ question and this passage’s language regarding the “end of the age.” This language, and the language about the “coming” (parousia) of Christ used elsewhere in this passage (vv. 27, 30, 42–44), commonly refer in the New Testament to the second coming of Christ.
• As we saw in a previous article on the sign of the preaching of the gospel to all the nations, this sign can only with difficulty be said to have been fulfilled prior to 70 A.D. There is a suggestion in this sign and in the language Christ employs (compare v. 6) of the passage of some time before all will have been fulfilled (compare Luke 19:11, where the disciples are said to have misunderstood Jesus’ words to mean that the “kingdom of God was going to appear immediately”).
• In verses 29–31 of Matthew 24, Jesus seems to be speaking of His second coming, to an event that can hardly to be said to have already occurred in 70 A.D. He speaks of a visible advent in v. 10b that parallels other New Testament descriptions of Christ’s second coming (compare Matt. 16:27; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; Acts 1:9–11; 1 Thess. 4:17; 2 Thess. 1:7; Rev. 1:7). The reference to the “sign of His coming” echoes the language used by the disciples in the second part of their question, and the language of the “great trumpet” and the “angels” in v. 31 is characteristically used of Christ’s return at the end of the age (compare 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16; 2 Thess. 1:7).
• The teaching in verses 36–44 that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s coming or “that day” can best be understood of Christ’s second coming, not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This is also language with New Testament parallels which uniformly refer to the second coming of Christ (Matt. 25:13; Mark 13:32; Luke 12:39–40; Acts 1:6–7; 1 Thess. 5:2; Rev. 16:15).
• It should also be noted that chapters 24 & 25 belong together. They are joined by a series of parables that illustrate the nature of Christ’s coming and the need for preparedness in the light of its certainty (vv. 43–44, the parable of the household; vv. 45–51, the parable of the wise and wicked servant; 25:1–13, the parable of the ten virgins). The language of Matthew 25, in its description of the final judgment of “all,” suggests that the Lord is still speaking of those events which will precede or accompany His coming at the end of the age. Accordingly, if Matthew 24 describes signs of the times that are present and characteristic of the whole period leading up to the coming of Christ at the end of the age, then it can be added to the testimony of those general references considered above which speak of tribulation as the experience of the believer in this present age. No believer should be surprised by the world’s hostility or opposition. Christ Himself predicted that this would be a sign of the end of the age.
SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT TRIBULATION
Assuming that it has been well enough established that tribulation will mark the life of the believer and the believing community during this present age, some observations about the nature and occasion for this tribulation still need to be made. Though this is not an article on the subject of tribulation in the life of the Christian, some brief comments may help to explain further what is meant by this sign of tribulation.
First, the most common New Testament term for tribulation is one which describes that trouble or distress that results from the believer’s commitment to Christ, to the Word of the gospel, and to the cause of the kingdom of God. The term itself is very general and broad in its meaning, referring to whatever disruption or trouble attends the life of the believer because of His devotion to Christ. lnterestingly, in 2 Thessalonians 1:6–8, the tribulation presently suffered by the believer is contrasted with the rest or peaceableness that will result from Christ’s coming at the end of the age. The contrast between the present and future circumstance of believers in this passage, indicates that the tribulations of this present life are those troubles that make the Christian’s present pilgrimage difficult and fall short of the peace that will attend the life to come. These troubles confirm the words of the Lord in Matthew 10:34, when He warned the disciples, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
It is crucial in this connection to notice that this tribulation results from the believer’s commitment to Christ. The tribulation that serves as a sign of the times is not any circumstance of trouble or distress, but that circumstance resulting specifically from the believer’s aim to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Consequently, in many references to the persecution and trouble that will attend the Christian life in the present age, we find language used that joins the experience of tribulation closely with the believer’s relationship with Christ. Nowhere is this language more striking than in Colossians 1:24, where the apostle Paul speaks of his joy in suffering and sharing “in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This passage should not be understood to teach that there was any lack in Christ’s atoning work, but it does speak clearly of a participation on the part of the church in the afflictions of Christ. One important way in which the church has fellowship with Christ is in the way of suffering affliction for His name’s sake. This is the reason Christ could confront Saul before his conversion on the way to Damascus, asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” So intimate is the communion of the believer with Christ that the affliction or persecution of the believer is a communion or participation in Christ’s affliction.
Second, tribulation in the life of the believer can take many forms. Often it takes the form of open persecution, in which the believer is exposed to the reproach and hostility of those who reject the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 1; 2 Tim. 3:12–13; Acts 14:22; Rev. 1:9). It can mean imprisonment, something which the apostles and many believers ever since have experienced (Acts 20:23). Sometimes it means ridicule (Heb. 10:33), poverty (2 Cor. 2:4), illness (Rev. 2:22), or inner distress and sorrow (Phil. 1:17; 2 Cor. 2:4). Whether the believer lives in a country or society friendly or hostile to the gospel, there is no escape from one or another of these forms of tribulation. Each of these forms of tribulation confirms the genuineness of the believer’s fellowship with Christ, as well as commitment and devotion to His person and gospel.
Third, this sign of tribulation, like the other signs of the times, does not testify to the uncertainty of Christ’s cause but to its certain victory. One of the more dramatic confirmations of this is given to us in Revelation 12:7–12. In this passage we are given a vision of a great battle in heaven between Michael and his angels on the one hand and the dragon and his angels on the other. This battle ends in the victory of Michael and his angels, and the casting down of Satan to the earth, a victory which is said to have been accomplished “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their [the believers’] testimony” (v. 11). However, what is striking about this passage is how the defeat of Satan and his host results in his intensified pursuit and persecution of the church on earth, knowing that his time is short and his defeat certain. The suffering and affliction of the church is, accordingly, witness to the victory of Christ’s cross and cause in the purpose and plan of God. Far from being a fearful prospect of doom and gloom for the faithful people of God, it reminds the believer that God’s kingdom will prevail.
Fourth, the circumstance of tribulation in the life of the believer can be, and often is, an occasion for growth and maturity in discipleship. Nowhere so much as in affliction does the believer come to realize the depth and the extent of his fellowship with Christ. In suffering affliction believers reflect something of that same pattern evident in the life of Christ Himself, who only entered into His glory after the shame and suffering of the cross. Indeed, the prominent place of tribulation in the life of believers and the church serves as a constant reminder of the centrality of the cross of Christ, not only as the means of atonement, but also as a call to self-denying patience under circumstances of suffering (1 Pet. 2:21–25). Through the experience of affliction and trouble, the believer grows in perseverance and hope. As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 5:3–5:
[a]nd not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character, and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
For this reason, believers should count their trials “all joy” and the “testing of the faith” an occasion for growth in the Christian life, growth that produces maturity and completeness (James 1:2–4). In the midst of the trials and troubles of this life, the Christian is like a child diSCiplined by his father (Heb. 12:6), like gold which is refined through fire (1 Pet. 1:7), or like the vine pruned by the gardener (John 15:1ff.).
This sign of the times—the tribulation that will inevitably accompany the believer’s discipleship in the present age—like all of the other dimensions of the Bible’s teaching about the future, serves to nurture the believer’s hope. It reminds him of the triumphant words of the apostle Paul at the end of Romans 8:
But in all these things [tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword] we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Vv.37–39)
1 In a parallel passage in Luke 6:22, we read: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.”
2 See J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg. NJ: Presbyterian&Reformed,1971), pp. 53–173, who argues extensively that Matthew 24:1–35 refers to events that took place before and during 70 A.D. Kik believes the chapter is divided at verse 36 which introduces for the first time the subject of the “end of the age” in the strict sense of Christ’s second coming. Compare Ed Stevens, What Happened in 70 A.D. (Ashtabula, Ohio: Northeast Ohio Bible Institute, 1981), for a defense of a consistent preterist reading of Matthew 24.
3 It should be added here, however, that, even were this reading correct, this would not mean that tribulation is not a present reality or sign of the times. The general references mentioned in our previous section are dearly not limited to any specific time period prior to Christ’s return, but describe the circumstance of the believer during this present period of history. Consequently, the teaching that tribulation is a sign characteristic of the present age does not finally depend upon whether Matthew 24 or the Olivet Discourse refers to past events only or not.
Dr. Venema, contributing editor of The Outlook, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, now located in Dyer, IN.