Tribulation. The word disturbs us.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible uses the word ‘tribulation’ quite freely; other translations use the word more sparingly, and some avoid the word altogether.

The original Greek noun used in the New Testament means “pressure, affliction,” from the verb meaning “to press, squeeze, afflict.” The Old Testament word means “distress” or “straitness” (from the word ‘strait’). Translations which avoid the word ‘tribulation’ reflect this meaning by using words such as: suffering, trouble, distress, hardship, affliction and trials.

For many people the word ‘tribulation’ conjures up images of apocalyptic destruction. But God’s purpose is completely different. God’s motivation is mercy.

God would rather not have to use extreme measures to bring people to Himself. His kindness was designed to do that. “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience,” St Paul writes, “not realizing that God’s kindness (goodness, KJV) leads you toward repentance?”[1]

Where kindness and patience do not work, God uses tribulation, trouble, suffering, persecution—whatever you may call it, whatever is necessary—to put pressure on people, to squeeze them to Himself. His method is tribulation; His motive is mercy (for your ultimate good); His response, often delayed, for those who resist Him, is justice.

Our English  word comes from tribulum, a threshing sledge. This shows us the true purpose of tribulation—to separate the wheat from the chaff.

God uses tribulation for three groups of people:

1) for His children – to refine them and make them holy; to separate the wheat in their character from the chaff in their character. God wants to separate them from “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”[2]

So we are instructed: “Endure hardship as discipline, God is treating you as sons… God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”[3]

Though we shudder to think of it, this is true even of the coming “great tribulation.”[4]

2) for the Jews – to get His people to return to Him.

Shortly before Moses’ death, he foretold calamity for his people and explained God’s purpose in it:

“The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell. But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all you soul. When you are in distress [tribulation, KJV] and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.”[5]

3) for unbelieving Gentiles – to drive them to Himself. God is not willing that any should perish, but in the end He will separate the wheat (the God-fearing and Christ-following ones) from the chaff (the God-ignoring ones, the unbelieving and the wicked). Those who refuse God’s mercy will receive justice. Mercy ignored or rejected will be followed by judgment.

How God operates

God demonstrated how He operates in the instance of the great Flood which destroyed the earth in Noah’s time. God in His mercy gave the earth plenty of warning; in fact, He gave three warnings—an early warning, an intermediate warning, and a last call.

Early warning:

The first warning of judgment by flood came 969 years in advance. The warning came in the form of a name. Enoch, who walked with God so perfectly that God took him directly to heaven, named his son Methuselah.

The name Methuselah means “when he dies, it (the javelin) shall be sent.” In short, “when he dies, judgment.” The flood came the very year that Methuselah died.

Intermediate warning:

The intermediate warning is given in Genesis chapter 6.

God said in effect, “I’ll give man 120 years to repent, and that’s it. Then I’ll wipe man off the face of the earth, and with him everything I’ve created. People, animals, creeping things, birds. Everything!”

But God found a man who was righteous and blameless, and made a plan to start afresh. He told Noah He was going to destroy the earth with a flood—but there was an escape plan. He instructed Noah to build an ark and gave him the dimensions and a description for it.

For the next 120 years as Noah and his sons built the ark, they proclaimed the message: “Because of your wickedness God is going to destroy the earth with a flood. The only way of escape is this ark.”

But the people didn’t believe Noah. They thought he was crazy.

News spread throughout the land: “Have you heard of crazy Noah? He is building a huge boat. No mast, no sails; just a big box. And in his back yard, no less. Hundreds of miles from the sea! He says God is going to flood the whole earth and wipe us all out.”

People came to gawk and scoff. “Ark! Ark! The dogs do bark!” they laughed.

But Noah and his sons kept working, building the ark and warning people of the judgment to come. Finally the ark was finished.

Last call:

Then God made another announcement: “Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

As animals began to stream into the ark two by two, people watched with curiosity and amazement, but they didn’t think to get on board. They wanted to watch and see how long it would be before the animals all wandered out again. It was not until God Himself shut the doors of the ark and rain began to fall that people realized everything Noah had warned them about was true.

Mercy had run its course. Judgment fell.

The Coming Tribulation

God will judge the earth again, but not with a flood. “As it was in the days of Noah,…”[6] Jesus said. He will give plenty of warning (which most people will ignore); and He has an escape plan for those who heed the warning.

Early warning:

The early warning was sounded long ago by the Old Testament prophets, by Jesus, by St Paul in his letters to the Thessalonians, and in great detail by the book of Revelation.

Intermediate warning:

The Old Testament prophets and Jesus described many things which will happen at the end of the age. Jesus said, “When you see all these things [starting to happen], you know that [the end] is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”[7]

One of the most unmistakable signs is the rebirth of Israel as a nation. With that event in 1948 we could see God’s clock start its countdown. The generation that saw Israel’s rebirth will see the end of this age and Christ’s return. How long is a generation? Seventy years? Eighty years?[8] We don’t know for sure. But the generation born in 1948 is starting to die off.

Heed the warning. Be ready for Christ’s return. You don’t want to be here for the last call.

Last call:

The last call will come with signs in the sky and a great earthquake. That earthquake will shake every mountain and every island on the planet.

“Every mountain and island was removed from its place,” the Bible says. “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks. ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” [9]

When that happens, you know this age has seven years to go—and your chances of living that long are slim!

In the next 3½ years the planet’s population will be cut drastically. The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, named Death and Hades, will have “power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”[10] Later, at the sixth trumpet call, a third of mankind will be killed.[11]

Your chance of surviving the first 3½ years is little better than fifty-fifty, as disasters other than the two mentioned above also occur. What are the chances of surviving the second 3½ years? Much slimmer.

But God is a God of mercy. His purpose is still to drive, squeeze, afflict and press people to Himself.

Escape plan:

God’s escape plan is simple.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”[12]

“The ‘right time’ is now. Today is the day of salvation.”[13]

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”[14]

Always a Voice of Warning

All during this current Church age there is plenty of opportunity to come to God for salvation. Christ-followers and churches that teach the truth of God’s Word can easily be found today. But they will be snatched away, “raptured,” just prior to the final seven years. How will people be saved after that?

God is still “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”[15] In His mercy God will continue to provide messengers to warn of the coming danger and to explain the way of escape, which will come at the cost of great persecution.

Let’s see what the book of Revelation shows us.


The last call will come, as mentioned above, with the opening of the sixth seal and an earthquake which moves every mountain and every island. Revelation chapter 7 shows us what has happened immediately prior to the opening of the sixth seal.

The Church has been raptured. “I looked,” says John, “and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” When someone asks who these are, the answer comes, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” [16]

But at the beginning of the chapter we see 144,000 members of the tribe of Israel sealed with “the seal of the living God.”

Why are these two groups—the raptured Church and the 144,000—shown to us now? So you can be encouraged that though the Church is gone, God’s mercy is still at work.   Just as Noah was saved by believing in the ark (boat), so people in the end times will continue to be saved by believing in salvation as represented by the Ark of the Covenant. People in heaven are praying for their loved ones to be saved, and God is still “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”[17]

Having shown us the raptured Church in heaven and the 144,000 on earth, the next chapter, Revelation 8, shows the connection between the two.

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

          And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

          Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

While the earth is experiencing disastrous events, God’s people in heaven are praying. They are praying for justice, yes – justice for the persecuted saints. The martyred ones have been asking, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”[18] They are also praying for mercy. They have loved ones on earth for whom they are deeply concerned, and they are praying for their salvation.

What does God do in answer to their prayers? He sends an earthquake that shakes every mountain and every island! Nothing less will catch the attention of those who have ignored God all their lives. Nothing less will shake them up and wake them up to the truth. It’s now or never! Repent or perish. And the first trumpet sounds.

God’s mercy comes in the form of 144,000 recently converted Jews who turn into evangelists. The Jews as a nation have been looking for their Messiah for several thousand years. They didn’t recognize Jesus as their Messiah when He came 2000 years ago. Now they realize that they have both figuratively and literally “missed the boat.” They failed to see the connection between the days of Noah and the present. Now the great day of God’s wrath has unmistakably come, and they are still on earth. They heed the “last call,” but they will have to pay a terrible price. Persecution will be fierce.

These 144,000 messengers are God’s mercy to the rest of the world. The messengers explain salvation, the way of escape, to all who will listen – and to many who won’t.

Two Witnesses:

In addition to the 144,000, there are two witnesses in Jerusalem preaching exclusively to the Jews.[19]

With each sound of the trumpet a new disaster falls on the earth. Even when plagues kill one third of mankind, the survivors “still did not repent.”[20]

All through the book of Revelation the picture keeps returning to the altar of incense[21] (representing “the prayers of all the saints”[22]) and the Temple[23] in heaven with its Ark of the Covenant topped by the “mercy seat.”[24]

The seventh trumpet sounds, but God’s temple in heaven is still open, and “within his temple was seen the ark of the covenant” with its mercy seat. [25] God is still inviting sinners to come to Him.

Time passes, and by Revelation chapter 14 the 144,000 evangelists are in heaven. Who will proclaim the Gospel now?

An Angel:

God is still merciful. An angel takes up the message where the 144,000 left off, proclaiming the eternal gospel to every nation, tribe, language and people. “Fear God and give him glory,” he says, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” [26]

Another angel brings a news flash: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great.”[27]

Still another angel brings a warning: “Don’t receive the mark of the beast or you will drink the wine of God’s fury. You will be tormented with burning sulfur—for ever and ever—in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. Don’t take the mark!”[28]

Too late!

Shortly thereafter the Lord of the Harvest appears. He looks “like a son of man,” wears a gold crown, and holds a “sharp sickle in his hand.” With it he harvests the earth of any remaining believers. The Lord of the Harvest then takes that same sharp sickle to gather the unrepentant and throw them into “the great winepress of God’s wrath.”[29]

The wrath of God is no longer diluted with mercy.

Just before the seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out on the earth, we get another glimpse of heaven. This time the picture is different; it confirms that God’s mercy has run out. The temple is “filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.”[30]

The Ark with its mercy seat is no longer in sight. The angels begin pouring out God’s wrath on the earth.

Watching this vision, John goes on to say, “And I heard the altar [the praying saints] respond: ‘Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.’”[31]

Mercy is temporary; justice is eternal.

Warning: “The ‘right time’ is now. Today is the day of salvation.”

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”


[1] Romans 2:4, emphasis added.

[2] Hebrews 12:1

[3] Hebrews 12:7, 10-11

[4] Revelation 7:14

[5] Deuteronomy 4:27-31, NIV, emphasis added.

[6] Matthew 24:37

[7] Matthew 24:33-34

[8] See Psalm 90:10.

[9] Revelation 6:12-17

[10] Rev. 6:8

[11] Rev. 9:13-15

[12] Acts 16:31

[13] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[14] Hebrews 4:7

[15] 2 Peter 3:9

[16] Revelation 7:9, 14

[17] 2 Peter 3:9

[18] Rev. 6:10

[19] Rev. 11:1-12

[20] Rev. 9:18-21

[21] Rev. 6:9; 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18

[22] Revelation 8:3

[23] Rev. 7:15; 11:1-2, 19; 14:17; 15:5-8; 16:1, 17

[24] See Exodus 25:17, KJV; “atonement cover,” NIV.

[25] Rev. 11:15, 19

[26] Rev. 14:6-7

[27] Rev. 14:8

[28] See Rev. 14:9-11.

[29] Rev. 14:14-16 and 17-20

[30] See Rev. 15:5-8.

[31] Rev. 16:7

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