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Insight #224 — Tribulation Saints

One day a student of our Bible Correspondence Course asked a question about “the tribulation.” I responded simply by asking: “Which tribulation?” He wrote back: “You’re a Bible teacher and don’t even know about the tribulation!” This simple exchange highlights a wide-spread problem. The problem is not just that someone might receive wrong answers. The problem is that people ask the wrong questions. When they ask about “the” tribulation, they are assuming that “tribulation” is a technical term which refers only to one period of history yet in our future. Is that what the Bible teaches?

Let’s begin our investigation with Revelation. At the outset, the apostle says, “I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation” (1:9). Amazing. John says that he and the other Christians were already “in tribulation.” Before the prophecies of Revelation begin, Jesus tells the church in Smyrna, “I know your works, and tribulation” (2:9). They were already in tribulation.

Outside of “Bible talk,” I suppose most of us seldom use the word “tribulation.” Even our Bibles often use more common words. The Greek word translated as “tribulation” in the King James Version (Strong’s #2347), is also rendered “affliction, trouble, anguish, persecution, and burdened.” I looked at just three verses in a dozen versions and found all the following renderings of #2347: tribulation, affliction, oppression, persecution, suffering, hardships, problems, trouble. Clearly, “tribulation” is not a technical term referring to one specific time in history. It is just a general term that can be (and is) translated many ways. In the KJV, the word is translated “affliction” almost as many times as “tribulation.”

“Yes,” futurism says, “but when we speak of the tribulation we have in mind “the great tribulation.” Actually, “great tribulation” is a topic in itself. In Insight # 55, I discuss in depth three great tribulations spoken of in Scripture, none of which are in our future.

Futurism today claims that the NT speaks of two classes of saints: 1) the saints before the rapture, and 2) those who are left behind and become saints after the rapture. They teach that the saints mentioned in Revelation will not belong to the church (because the church was raptured); rather, the saints in Revelation will be “tribulation saints.” Two classes of saints: “church saints” today and “tribulation saints” tomorrow.

The truth is that all saints are tribulation saints! “Tribulation” in the NT most often refers to what Christians in the church now suffer. For example, in the parable of the sower Jesus warned of seed sown in the stony ground: “when affliction or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended” (Mark 4:17). Paul and Barnabas made it plain to the new Christians in what is now Turkey: “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). In 2 Thess. 1:4 Paul speaks of “patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure.” Jesus told his apostles: “In the world you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Far from teaching that God will protect Christians from tribulation, the Word teaches that tribulation can even be beneficial spiritually, regardless of its source: “Not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation works patience” (Rom. 5:3). Tribulation develops Christian character if we allow it to. Romans 12:12 commands us to be “patient in tribulation.”

Then there are the powerfully beautiful words in Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:35-37).

“More than conquerors” in tribulation. Today we, the church, are tribulation saints. We should not promise people that they can accept Jesus and be raptured out of the world to avoid “the” tribulation. Rather, we should encourage people that they can be more than conquerors in the very midst of today’s tribulation.