The Great Tribulation Precedes the Rapture
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv
In the Olivet discourse a period of intensified suffering in the form of persecution follows the period called the beginning of sorrows. This period represents intensified suffering mainly for Jews and believers in Christ, because they are the ones being persecuted. The rest of the population will likely continue a somewhat normal life. This is similar to the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany. While the Jews themselves were undergoing extermination, most Germans were experiencing relative prosperity until the end of the war approached. Many Christians call this period the Great Tribulation to distinguish it from the whole of the seventieth week, which is often called the Tribulation. It is important to keep in mind that the Tribulation and the Great Tribulation refer to two different things. The Great Tribulation is the worst part of the so called Tribulation Period. The Bible itself does not use the term "the Tribulation" but only the term "Great Tribulation". To avoid confusion and to stick to terms that are strictly Biblical it is better to avoid the use of the term tribulation by itself and, instead, use the term seventieth week for the full seven year period. The term tribulation should properly be reserved for the second half of the seventieth week and then be preceded by the adjective ‘great.' Therefore, using strictly Biblical terminology, the Great Tribulation forms the second half of the seventieth week, and there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the tribulation. By calling the whole seventieth week "the Tribulation" an impression has been created that the whole seventieth week represents God's direct judgment upon humanity, but this is not the case. Most of these judgement are indirect, and are the natural result of man's own misguided decisions.
Just like the first four seals of the Apocalypse and their four horsemen seem to describe the same events as those that compose the beginning of sorrows, the fifth seal seems to describe a period of intense persecution similar to the Great Tribulation. "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: 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? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they [were], should be fulfilled." (Revelation 6:9-11).
According to scripture the great tribulation also precedes the rapture. In both Iraq and Yugoslavia social instability soon led to the persecution of unwanted minorities. The persecutions in these two cases were so severe that many people considered them acts of genocide. So too, the persecution of the world's two true minorities, the Jews (God's ethnic people) and the elect (God's spiritual people) will follow the calamities of the last four seals.
The great tribulation begins at the midpoint of the seventieth week down to the day. At the middle of the seventieth week Antichrist will break his treaty with Israel and will make the sacrifices at the temple cease (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). He will then place an abomination in the temple which will make it desolate (the abomination of desolation). This abomination will probably be the image of the beast which the false prophet will make. Many of the Jews will not worship the image and a period of intense persecution against the Jews will then begin. This period of intense persecution is called the great tribulation. The Lord says "then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matthew 24:21). Many of the Jews will escape from the power of the Antichrist by fleeing to a place in the wilderness prepared for Israel by God. However, seeing that many Jews escape, Satan in his diabolical rage against Israel "went to make war with rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17). This most likely refers to gentile believers who are the spiritual children of Israel, not just Jewish believers. These are definitely believers in Jesus and not just ordinary Jews, because it says that they have the testimony of Jesus Christ. The main question is whether these are post-rapture believers or pre-rapture believers identical to present day Christians. We will see that these are church age Christians like you and me. When Satan sees that many of the biological people of God have escaped him he will take revenge by going after the spiritual people of God. Jesus says "and unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:22). The term "elect" almost always refers to church age Christians. We shall further examine this and several other passages which place the great tribulation before the rapture.
In both accounts of the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13) the great tribulation is placed before an event called the in-gathering of the elect, which occurs at the second coming of Jesus Christ. "And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:31). Pretribulationalists teach that this gathering of the elect is the regathering of Israel. There are some problems with that view, however. Isaiah specifically states in various passages that the gentiles, not angels, will bring Israel back to the land. In the passage in Matthew angels bring back the elect, so they must be a different group of elect than the nation of Israel. In Isaiah 49:22 God states that the task of re-gathering Israel will fall on the nations of the world, "Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in [their] arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon [their] shoulders." in 60:8-9 he mentions that the Spanish (Tarshish) and those who dwell in the islands (or coasts) perhaps Latin America, will bring the children of Israel in ships and aircraft (or spaceships) "Who [are] these [that] fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows? Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the LORD thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, because he hath glorified thee."
In Isaiah 66:19-20 the prophet states that various Mediterranean nations will assist in bringing them back. "And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, [to] Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, [to] Tubal, and Javan, [to] the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles. And they shall bring all your brethren [for] an offering unto the LORD out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the LORD, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD. And I will also take of them for priests [and] for Levites, saith the LORD." This is a key passage because it emphasizes that this act by the gentiles of bringing the children of Israel out of their lands and back to the promised land is considered to serve as a sacrifice. These gentiles are what remains of the kingdom of the antichrist, and this act is a required sign of repentance. It loses all meaning if the angels bring back the children of Israel to their lands. Not only that, the gentiles are also the ones who call the children of Israel back to the land. It says above "I will send those that escape of them unto the nations." Consequently, it is unlikely that the angels gather the elect indirectly by producing the call which results in the gentiles physically bringing back the children of Israel. Rather, the gentiles are involved in both phases.
Therefore, If the gathering of the elect mentioned in the Olivet Discourse is not the return of the children of Israel to their homeland, the other alternative is that it corresponds to the rapture of the church. No other event mentioned in the Bible could correspond to the gathering of the elect, unless it were a second rapture not mentioned elsewhere, and that is unlikely.
Another problem with identifying the in-gathering of the elect with the return of Israel to her land is that Israel will not be converted until after they see Christ. The term elect is probably the most important term used to identify believers. It describes the Lord's personal selection of some for salvation. This term has the intimacy of a man choosing a young lady to be His wife. For example, Paul says "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies" (Romans. 8:32-33) This passage associates the elect with the fruits of salvation which flow from the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross. It would seem strange that Christ would use the most important and intimate of terms used to designate believers to refer to unregenerate Israel.
Since Israel is not converted until after the revelation of Christ they cannot be considered part of the elect. Zechariah states that they will look upon Him whom they had pierced, and that they will mourn for Him after they see Him (Zechariah 12:10-11:2.) "And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for [his] only [son], and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for [his] firstborn." (Zechariah 12:10). Jesus Christ himself refers to this in Matthew 24:30, "the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn." The word ‘tribes' is often used to refer to Israel. By contrast, non-Israelites are called ‘nations'. Consequently, the trumpet and the gathering of the elect mentioned by Christ cannot be the restoration of Israel because it immediately precedes the second coming of Christ and the conversion of Israel follows His coming. It must refer, rather, to the rapture of the church.
Paul, in his writings, also places the great tribulation before the rapture. II Thessalonians 2:1-12 is one of the most important passages concerning the timing of the rapture.
1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and [by] our gathering together unto him,
2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled,
neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.
3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come], except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
5 Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?
6 And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.
7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth [will let], until he be taken out of the way.
8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming:
9 [Even him], whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,
10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
The problem which Paul was addressing was the teaching that the second coming of Christ (the day of Christ) was imminent. Some were teaching that the second coming of Christ and the judgment associated with that event were about to occur. It is interesting that Paul does not want believers to live in the constant fear that these judgments are about to happen, so he explains the signs which precede this glorious event. This might not be very clear in the King James Version because the passage is introduced by the verse "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and [by] our gathering together unto him," (2:1). This seems to imply that the rapture is the reason that they should not fear. However, most other translations, including the Spanish version translate the verse ""Now we beseech you, brethren, [concerning] the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him." This makes the rapture the object of their fear, specifically that it could happen at any moment. Translating it this way also makes it clear that the Rapture is synonymous with the day of Christ. The Greek term used here is actually the day of the Lord, so the context implies that the rapture and the day of the Lord occur simultaneously. Paul did not want them to go and sell everything they had and live like the world was about to end.
Now, there will be a generation which will live through the events preceding the rapture but they will know it because they will see the signs which Paul mentions. Paul explicitly states that the day of Christ (day of the Lord) will not arrive unless two events happen first. These two events serve as signs that the time of the rapture is approaching. The use of the term 'first' in verse 3 indicates that there is a definite chronology. First two things will happen and then a third thing will happen. However, verse three is an incomplete sentence which reads "for . . . except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed. . ." The phrase "that day shall not come" has been added by the translators to complete the meaning of the sentence. In the Greek text the sentence does not state what third event follows the first two events. If this information were not available the sentence would loose much of its meaning. The only place where the missing information can be found is in the immediate context. The context uses two phrases to identify this third event, a longer, more descriptive phrase and a shorter, more concise phrase. These longer phrase is "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and . . . our gathering together to Him" (v. 1.) and, the shorter phrase is "the day of Christ" (v. 2.)
Those who teach a pre-tribulational rapture believe that the two phrases refer to two distinct events. These two events are, supposedly, the two phases in which Jesus Christ reveals himself to mankind. They believe that the phrase "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . " refers to His revelation to the church at the beginning of the seventieth week when He comes for the church at the rapture and meets her in the air, while the phrase "the day of Christ" or "the day of the Lord," is believed to refer to everything that follows the rapture, including His descent to the surface of the Earth at the culmination of the seventieth week when He reveals himself to those who survived that period of time. However, the structure of the passage shows that the two phrases are simply synonyms for one same event, or, at most, refer to different aspects of the same event. The first phrase "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him" (v. 1) is a more detailed term which Paul uses to announce the topic. This focuses on one aspect of the second coming, that which affects believers. As he develops the topic he again mentions the topic using the more abbreviated and general form, the term, "the day of Christ" or "day of the Lord." There is no evidence in the passage to support the idea that the two phrases refer to two different events, and the interpretation that sees them as synonyms is by far a simpler and more natural reading of the passage. Therefore, Paul is saying that the second coming of Jesus Christ, at which time the rapture of the church occurs, is preceded by two events. That is, the rapture cannot occur until two other predicted events have first taken place. Let us now look at these two events.
One of the two events is the great apostasy and the revelation of the man of sin. Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come], except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition" (2:4).When the Antichrist demands worship in the middle of the seventieth week many will turn away from God and will, indeed, worship the Antichrist. There are two types of apostasy associated with the revelation of the Antichrist. One is the falling away of nominal Christians. Christ says that many will be offended, that the love of many will grow cold, and that there will be little faith on the earth (Mt. 24:10-12; Luke. 18:8.) Paul says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith (I Tim. 4:1.) Secondly, there will also be an apostasy of Israel associated with the revelation of the man of sin. Jesus told the Jews "I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive" (John 5:43.) Therefore, before the rapture occurs Antichrist must be revealed and the two fold great apostasy must take place.
A second event which precedes both the rapture and the revelation of the man of sin is the removal of the restrainer. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth [will let], until he be taken out of the way. (2:7). Pretribulationalists teach that this restrainer is the church or the Holy Spirit as He works through the church and that the rapture of the church allows the unleashing of the forces leading to the manifestation of the Antichrist. However, this passage cannot be implying that the church is the restrainer because the pronoun used here is the masculine singular. The feminine is always used when referring to the church. However, pretribulationalists engage in some complex but faulty logic in order to make this passage prove that the rapture is that event which causes the manifestation of the man of sin. First of all, they assume that only the Holy Spirit can restrain the revelation of Antichrist because only God has the power to restrain Satan. Secondly, they assume that the Holy Spirit can remove Himself from the Earth. Consequently, when the Holy Spirit is removed, the church must also be removed because believers are promised a permanent indwelling of the Spirit. Believers are like fish caught in a net as it is pulled away. However, these two initial assumptions are contrary to the evidence of scripture.
The second assumption is faulty because the Holy Spirit is omnipresent. He is present in all places because He is God, and cannot be removed from the Earth. Perhaps the manifestation of the Holy Spirit might come and go, just as it came at Pentecost. However, it seems forced to think that the by ceasing to manifest Himself the Holy Spirit would cause the rapture of the church.
The other assumption is also incorrect. The Holy Spirit is not the only force which can restrain the work of Satan. God is able to delegate his power and is able to work through His creatures. Since Paul does not identify the restrainer he must be assuming that the identity of this restrainer is common knowledge. The only way this is possible is if his identity is found in the Old Testament scriptures, since that was the Bible of the first Christian churches. Indeed, the Old Testament does mention at least one angelic creature who is powerful enough to restrain the activity of Satan. Daniel states that it is the duty of the archangel Michael to restrain political leaders and the powerful evil spiritual beings which empower them (Dan. 11:13, 20-21.) Daniel states (12:1) that the great tribulation will begin when Michael "stands stills" and ends his restraining activity. The Authorized Version translates this phrase as "stand up" but the Hebrew word used here is often used to refer to "standing still." The later is the one which best fits the context of the passage.
The power of Michael was so well known to first century believers that when Jude needed the image of a very powerful creature to illustrate a point, he picked Michael and presented him as the one who has power to dispute with the devil (even though in this particular passage he refrains from using this power) (Jude 9.) Finally, in the Apocalypse, John describes Michael as the one who expels Satan from heaven. "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. . . .Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man [child]." (Revelation 12:7-9,12-13). In this passage it is clear that this expulsion of Satan by Michael is that which triggers the severe persecutions of the second half of the seventieth week. Therefore, the removal of the restrainer does not represent the rapture of the church. It represents a heavenly event, war in heaven between Michael and Satan and their angels. This occurs before the world leaders reveals himself as the antichrist, just like Paul stated. Both events precede the rapture.
Peter in his writings also places the great tribulation before the rapture in his first epistle 4:12-19. Peter states clearly that the church will pass through a future fiery trial, "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:" (I Pt. 4:12.) This is not just any old trial, this is "THE fiery trial." The purpose of this trial is to prepare the church for the coming of the Lord by partaking of His sufferings. " But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy." (v. 13.) This period of judgment will precede the day of His judgment on unbelievers: "For the time [is come] that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if [it] first [begin] at us, what shall the end [be] of them that obey not the gospel of God? (v. 17.) Notice that the context is the end of all things and the revelation of Jesus Christ "But the end of all things is at hand. . ." and "when his glory shall be revealed. . ." (vv. 7, 13.) consequently, the church must go through a fiery trial before the rapture. In fact, this severe persecution of believers by unbelievers is probably the justification for the subsequent pouring out of God's wrath upon unbelievers at the end of the seventieth week.
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