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What Does Tribulation Mean?

What does "tribulation" mean in Bible uses such as:

"For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be." (Matt 24:21)
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:" (Matt 24:29)

We read about tribulation in the Bible especially in association with the last days. It would be good to have some idea of what is involved even if we can't know all the details (and are probably better off not knowing them). And, along with "what does tribulation mean?" is the question: who will be subject to it? The Bible definitely describes a time of trouble, as in the verses above, to precede the Second Coming.

Definition of Tribulation

Let's look first at the term tribulation. The word "tribulation" is from the Greek word "thlipsis" (Strong's G2347) which the King James Bible uses 45 times in various ways:

  1. tribulation 21
  2. affliction 17
  3. trouble 3
  4. anguish 1
  5. persecution 1
  6. burdened 1
  7. to be afflicted 1

It comes from the Greek word "thlibo" (Strong's G2346) which is most often translated as "trouble." It definitely does not sound like a fun time. Just looking at the context in which Jesus used the term tribulation in Matthew chapter 24 helps us to understand some of what that tribulation will involve.

The verses preceding Matthew 24:21 that we opened with are part of Jesus' answer to the disciples question regarding His Second Coming:

"... what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (Matt 24:3)

This definitely puts the time of tribulation in a last-days context. Here is one verse that may help show who will be subject to the tribulations:

"Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." (Rev 3:10)

See a more detailed discussion of this verse in the context of Revelation chapter 3.

Dwell on the Earth

"Them that dwell upon the earth" consistently refers to the wicked. Here are all the verses in Revelation that contain the eight uses of that phrase or variations of it:

"And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" (Rev 6:10)
"And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!" (Rev 8:13)
"And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth." (Rev 11:10)

The prophets are not goinf to torment God's people.

"And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." (Rev 13:8)
"And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live." (Rev 13:14)
"And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people," (Rev 14:6)
"The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is." (Rev 17:8)

God's people, while they physically live on earth at the moment, have a different perspective and a different outlook regarding the things of this earth:

"Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth." (Col 3:2)
"Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness." (2 Peter 3:13)
"For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;" (Phil 3:20, New American Standard Bible)

They do not dwell on the earth in the sense of focusing all their attention on the things of this earth but are more heavenly-minded. Recognizing that God's people, in a sense, do not dwell on this earth puts the seven verses above in a different and more encouraging light as God's people are in a different category than those who dwell on the earth.

In regard to God's people:

  1. they are not avenged for the blood of the martyrs (Rev 6:10)
  2. the woes do not threaten them (Rev 8:13)
  3. they do not rejoice over the death of the two witnesses (Rev 11:10)
  4. they were not tormented by the two witnesses (Rev 11:10)
  5. they do not worship the beast (Rev 13:8)
  6. they are not deceived by the miracles of the second beast (Rev 13:14)
  7. the gospel is not preached to them as they already understand it and, in fact, are very involved in proclaiming it (Rev 14:6)
  8. they do not wonder or marvel at the beast (Rev 17:8)

This helps for some of the verses that seem to include everyone (eg.- "deceiveth them that dwell on the earth.") It shows that God's people are in a different category and are not the subject of those verses.

So the question "what does tribulation mean?" would be answered differently for different groups of people because they will have quite different experiences.

I believe that for most people the answer to "what does tribulation mean?" will be that it will be a time of mental anguish of trying to decide whether to accept the everlasting gospel or under great pressure to go along with an earthly system that will reject that gospel.

For God's people, who have already decided to accept the gospel, the question "what does tribulation mean?" will have a very different answer. While they will be enduring great hardship as will everyone in earth's last days they will have mental peace:

"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." (John 14:27)

So what does tribulation mean to you or what will it mean to you in the last days? That will be determined largely by the choices you make before that time comes.

"And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Josh 24:15)
Make the right choices and the time of tribulation for you will not be a time of mental anguish (difficult as it might be otherwise) but a time of eagerly looking forward to soon-coming redemption.  

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