The Tribulation is the seven-year period that follows the Rapture of the Church. It is a time of horrific judgment brought by God upon the earth. Jesus says of that time, “In those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be” (Mark 13:19). Jesus called it a “great tribulation” (Matt 24:21) as does the book of Revelation (7:14).
How do we know the Tribulation will last for seven years? Recall the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27. From the time of the decree of Artaxerxes permitting the people of Israel to rebuild Jerusalem until the coming of the anointed One as He rode into Jerusalem would be a duration of 69 weeks of years, or 483 years. But the beginning of that prophecy in Daniel 9:24 promises 70 “sevens” (or “weeks of years”), or 490 years, until the end of all things would come. This means one “week” of years, or seven years, is missing—a week of years yet to come. This is the “one week” referred to in Daniel 9:27, the seven-year period known as the Tribulation.
Much is written in both the Old and New Testaments concerning this seven-year Tribulation. To distill this information as concisely as possible, consider the following eight fundamentals for understanding the Tribulation:
1) its Purpose;
2) its Prelude;
3) its Pretender;
4) its Progression;
5) its PivotPoint;
6) its Protection;
7) its Perils; and
8) its Promise.
First, we consider the Purpose of the Tribulation. What is God’s intent in ordaining this seven-year period at the end of the age? The Bible actually relates a three-fold purpose for the coming Tribulation. One main purpose of the Tribulation is that it is intended as a time of chastening for the people of Israel, described by the prophet Jeremiah as the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer 30:7; KJV). During this time God will chasten or discipline Israel like a loving Father toward His children; it will not be a time of condemnation toward Israel—there’s a difference. And why will they be chastened? They will be chastened to woo them to repentance for their ages-long disobedience against God, culminating in their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah (Lev 26:40-45). Ezekiel 20:33-38 depicts God’s coming judgment against Israel in the Tribulation:
‘As I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out, I shall be King over you. I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face.
‘As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you,’ declares the Lord GOD. ‘I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. I will purge out the rebels from among you and those who transgress against Me. I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’
The second main purpose of the Tribulation is to judge the nations of the world, as punishment for their rebellion against God (cf. Rev 3:10). Isaiah 13:11 is one of many passages declaring God’s eschatological judgment against the nations at the end of world history: “I [God] will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.” This will come to pass during the Tribulation.
But even as He metes out His punishment upon a disbelieving Israel and a sinful world, God displays His great mercy to the very end. So, lastly, there is a third purpose of the Tribulation—it is God’s one last time for calling all sinners to repentance—Jews and Gentiles alike. Revelation 7 says that during the time of the Tribulation 144,000 Jews—12,000 from every tribe—will be witnesses of the gospel to the world. In response to this testimony, verse 9 declares, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will come to faith, many of whom will subsequently be martyred for the very same faith.
As to the Prelude to the Tribulation, what initiates this seven-year period? The answer lies in Revelation 5:1-14. In this passage, God is seated upon His throne, holding in His hand a scroll, the will of God regarding the consummation of His Kingdom on earth. As already covered in the Introduction, God rules over His entire creation eternally. However, within God’s all-encompassing rule, He has permitted, for a time, a tiny speck of rebellion on Earth. Heading this rebellion is the devil, who has been delegated limited authority until the time when God’s purposes for such a rebellion are concluded (cf. 1 John 5:19).
Now is that time. In this scene, Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, approaches the throne of His Father and takes the scroll, the content of which amounts to what transpires from Revelation chapter 6 on as each of the seven seals on the scroll are peeled away. This momentous action represents Jesus assuming full control of Earth, once and for all. The devil was permitted to meddle for a time in order to accomplish the sovereign purposes of God, but no longer. The Tribulation is the period when Christ begins fulfilling His role as promised in the Davidic Covenant wherein the Messiah establishes His Kingdom and righteousness on the earth as it is in heaven.
We are about to see what Christ’s unrolling of the scroll means for the world, but before we get there, we have to meet the Pretender of the Tribulation, who is none other than the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8, Paul describes this man, along with the times and events that lead to his ascendency:
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only He who now restrains it [remember, that is the Holy Spirit] will do so until He is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed.
So the lawless one, the Antichrist, comes after the withdrawal of the Spirit’s restraining influence in the world. Paul goes on to write, “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (vv. 9-10). Two developments are thus occurring simultaneously. In heaven, Christ obtains the scroll, the final judgments coming to the earth, which He is about to unroll, bringing universal destruction. And at the same time, on Earth, things are going from bad to worse, until the time comes when the Antichrist rises to a position of authority over all the world (Dan 11:36-45).
We now come to the Progression of the Tribulation, which Jesus relates in His Olivet Discourse (cf. Matt 24:9-35; Luke 21:8-32; Mark 13:5-31) and is described in even greater detail in Revelation 6-19. Here is the sequence of the Tribulation: the scroll, which Jesus holds, is itself held together by seven seals. Each of these seals represents a distinct development upon the earth during the Tribulation. As each seal is opened in heaven, that development occurs on the earth. When the seventh seal is opened, it elicits seven “trumpet” judgments, and the seventh trumpet judgment contains seven “bowls of wrath” judgments poured out upon the earth. So the seals are broken in regular sequence, but when you get to the seventh seal, which are the seven trumpet judgments, the pace of God’s judgment upon the earth quickens. And by the time you get to the seventh trumpet judgment, containing the seven bowls of wrath, the events are all coming in rapid-fire succession.
The Seal Judgments
As the Tribulation commences, we see the first four seals revealing four successive horses, each with its own rider, the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” With the opening of the first seal comes a rider on a white horse, holding a bow but no arrows. This horse and rider represent the world’s general fascination with peace, regardless of its price or permanence. This false peace will be coordinated by a succession of false messiahs (cf. Matt 24:3-5), culminating with the Antichrist.1 He makes a false peace with Israel at the outset of the Tribulation, and pretends to offer her security. Daniel 9:27 says this covenant of protection with Israel will last for one week, understood as one seven-year period.
The worldwide illusion of peace is broken, however, with the opening of the second seal, which is represented by a rider on a red horse, bringing war upon the earth. The third seal is then opened, and a rider on a black horse is seen, bringing famine to the world. This is followed by the opening of the fourth seal, revealing a rider on a pale horse, bringing death to one-fourth of the world from a combination of war, famine, pestilence and “wild beasts” (cf. Rev 6:8).
As Christ opens the fifth seal, we see the martyred saints of the Tribulation crying out to God to avenge their deaths. Who are these? Even though the Tribulation is a time of God’s judgment upon the earth, the gospel message will still be proclaimed, and many will believe (cf. Rev 7:9-17). This evangelism will be spearheaded by 144,000 Jews, 12,000 from each tribe. They will be converted early in the Tribulation and then go about as gospel witnesses throughout the earth.2 These saints of the fifth seal are the Tribulation converts who are martyred as a result of their newly found faith. They are depicted in Revelation 6:9-10 as crying out to God to avenge their deaths. In response, each is given a white robe, and told to be patient a while longer, until the total number of God’s chosen Tribulation martyrs are gathered in.
Now, at this period between the fifth and sixth seals, we reach the Pivot Point of the Tribulation. Up to now, the Antichrist has secured a false peace for the people of Israel. But at this moment, three-and-a-half years into the Tribulation, he suddenly reneges on that pledge of protection and initiates a persecution against Israel, and against all believers (Rev 13:7). This Pivot Point therefore represents the transition from the Tribulation into the Great Tribulation. Just when conditions upon the earth look altogether bleak, they become frightfully worse. How will one know when this Pivot Point comes? Jesus cautions it will come “when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be” (Mark 13:14). What does He mean?
To understand Christ’s warning, it is assumed that during the first half of the Tribulation, under the rubric of a “false peace” secured between the Jews and the Antichrist (Dan 9:27), the temple of Jerusalem will be rebuilt. There, upon this sacred place of old from which they have been excluded for many centuries, the Jews will be permitted to offer sacrifices once again. But at this Pivot Point, the sacrifices will be halted, and the Antichrist will establish himself as the god to be worshipped by all (this is the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Christ in His Olivet Discourse; cf. Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14; Dan 12:11). Daniel 9:27 relates that halfway through the “week” (or seven-year period of the Tribulation), “he [the Antichrist] shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” From that point on until the time of his defeat, the Antichrist will tolerate no other worship but to himself.
So the desolator is the Antichrist, and when he desecrates the temple with his abominable decree that he alone be worshipped as god, that will signal the halfway point, or Pivot Point, of the Tribulation. At that point, three-and-a-half years are concluded; there now remain three-and-a-half years, or 42 months (Rev 13:5), or 1260 days (Rev 11:3; 12:6) until the end is accomplished. At this mid-point of the Tribulation, the Antichrist will direct all his fury against the Jews (Matt 24:15-28; Rev 11:7; 12:17), as well as against Gentile believers (Rev 13:7). They will be massacred in tremendous numbers, and as they are martyred, they will join the Tribulation saints of the fifth seal judgment (Rev 6:9-11). But be assured of this: God will not allow all Israel to perish (Rev 12:6). They remain His chosen people to the end, for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). God has promised an earthly Kingdom to Israel, and in order to inherit an earthly Kingdom, a subset of Jews must therefore remain alive.
And this brings us to the Protection of the Tribulation. God has promised that a remnant of Israel, as well as Gentile believers who are “children of Abraham by faith” (Rom 3:29-30; Gal 3:9, 29), will survive the furies of the Tribulation and the wrath of the Antichrist in order to enter into the earthly Kingdom promised of old (2 Sam 7:12; Rom 11:25-32). How many will be delivered in this manner? Zechariah 13:8 reveals: “In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive.”
So God protects this remnant of believers. Next question: how does He do it? First, He gives them instruction as to how to respond when the Great Tribulation comes. Jesus warns those living during this time:
But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “Look, there He is!” do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.Mark 13:14-23
God gives His chosen of the Tribulation this warning: they are to flee from Jerusalem when they witness the “abomination of desolation,” the worship of the Antichrist in the temple.
Second, the Bible states that God will aid their flight to safety supernaturally. Revelation 12:14 reveals that Israel will be given two “wings of the great eagle” to aid her escape. This language describes how God will providentially protect His chosen remnant in its flight from danger. Lastly, that same chapter (Rev 12) tells us that the forces of the Antichrist, which will come like a great flood in pursuit of Israel and other believers, will be supernaturally swallowed up by the earth. In this manner, by these three means, God will preserve a remnant of believing Jews and Gentiles alive for the Kingdom to come.
Returning to the Progression of the Tribulation, recall the Pivot Point prior to the opening of the sixth seal judgment, which we noted was the transition from the Tribulation to the Great Tribulation. It is here we must now address the Perils of the Great Tribulation. As the sixth seal is broken, the text says,
Behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”Rev 6:12-17
The situation has become alarming for all those who reject God, because they know their doom draws nigh.
Then comes the seventh seal, and there is a pause, which is the hush of heaven as it anticipates the tremendous final judgments God is about to unleash upon the world. These follow in rapid-fire succession as seven angels blow their trumpets (Rev 8:1-13; 9:1-21).
The Trumpet Judgments
The first trumpet sounds and brings hail and fire mixed with blood upon the earth, and a third of the earth is burned up (Rev 8:7). The second trumpet sounds and “something like a great mountain, burning with fire” is thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea becomes blood, and a third of things living in the sea die, and a third of the ships are destroyed (8:8-9). With the third trumpet, a great star falls from heaven to earth, and it contaminates a third of the fresh waters of the earth, and many people die from the poisonous water (8:10-11). The fourth trumpet sounds and blights a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars, so that their light is darkened, and the day/night cycle is disrupted (8:12).
At this point, an eagle appears, crying, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (Rev 8:13). The fifth trumpet sounds, and the bottomless pit is opened to release hordes of demons who come upon the earth like locusts (9:1-11). They will attack those who are not sealed as believers in God, and will inflict such terror and pain that the text says, “…people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them” (9:6).
Then the sixth angel sounds its trumpet, and a great demon army comes numbering two hundred million, killing a third of mankind. Yet remarkably, even in the face of such devastation and terror, those who remain will not repent of their sins and seek the forgiveness of God (Rev 9:13-21). Finally, the seventh angel sounds its trumpet, and from heaven come loud voices announcing, “The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever” (11:15). And this seventh trumpet blast ushers in the six rapid-fire bowl judgments that are listed in Revelation 16.
The Bowl Judgments
The first bowl is poured out on the earth and unloads a malignant sore on those people who bear the mark of the beast—the Antichrist—and who worship his image (Rev 16:2).3 The second angel pours its bowl into the sea, and every living thing in the sea will die (16:3). The third angel then pours out its bowl and all the fresh water becomes like blood (16:4).
The fourth bowl is then poured out, causing the sun to scorch men with fire; in response, they blaspheme the name of God (16:8). The fifth angel pours out his bowl on the throne of the beast (another name for Antichrist) and everything becomes dark. By this point, those who remain on the earth are said to gnaw their tongues because of pain and sores. But amazingly, despite their sufferings, they do not cease to blaspheme God, nor do they repent of their deeds (16:10-11). The sixth angel then pours out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, which—interestingly—is the eastern border of the land promised to Israel (Gen 15:18; Deut 1:7; Josh 1:4). With this, the river’s water is dried up, allowing passage for the kings and their armies arriving from the East, all coming to make war at Armageddon (Rev 16:12-16).
Finally, the seventh angel pours out his bowl, and a loud voice from the throne of God announces, “It is done!” (Rev 16:17). With this judgment comes “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth” (v. 18). Not only that, great hailstones fall upon the earth, and people curse God because the plague of the hailstones is so severe. This seventh bowl of devastation is the culmination of God’s wrath upon the earth. The horrific judgment is concluded. The Purpose, the Prelude, the Pretender, the Progression, the Pivot Point, the Protection, and the Perils of the Tribulation have all been revealed. One feature of the Tribulation remains: its Promise.
And what is the Promise of the Tribulation? Stay tuned for the next article on this topic, in which we will consider exactly that.
1. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, 1970.
2. The evangelical witness of the 144,000 during the Tribulation will be aided by two special witnesses, discussed in Revelation 11, and by a flying angel witness spoken of in Revelation 14.
3. This “mark of the beast” is the well-known symbol “666” (Rev 13:18).
You can read more on this topic in Colin’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future.