Excerpt from a book by Dr. Norman Spurgeon MacPherson*

I. The Term "Tribulation" In The New Testament

The word tribulation translates a Greek word, thlibo (verb) or thlipsis (noun). This Greek word occurs fifty-five times in the New Testament. Thayer translates the verb "to press" (as grapes), "to press hard upon," from which we have the thought of oppression, distress, affliction, and tribulation.

Eight different words are used in the Authorized Version to translate this Greek word in its fifty-five occurrences. They are: tribulation, anguish, burdened, narrow, persecution, throng, trouble, and affliction. We shall do well to examine each passage to discover whether the word has reference to the present pressure to which the Church is subjected or whether the reference is to the unexampled period of suffering yet to take place which is called the Great Tribulation, or whether the suffering is the divine retribution to be visited upon an ungodly world after Christ returns in glory.

Of the fifty-five instances we find that in twenty-two the word is rendered tribulation. Let us first of all look at these.

Matt. 13:21 "Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended."

This reference in the parable of the soils is to the trouble that comes to one who receives God's Word. The affliction has its source in the enemies of God and of His Word. There is no reference to a future Great Tribulation

 Matt. 21.21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.''

Clearly this points to the Great Tribulation, a period of unprecedented suffering in the future. From the immediate context we learn that it will take place when the abomination spoken of by Daniel stands in the holy place, or, to be more accurate, the appearing of this abomination will be the signal that the Great Tribulation is soon to break upon the scene. Those living in Palestine at that time, who have any familiarity with this prophecy, will see in the abomination a warning to flee to the mountains before the fury"”very likely of a military character"” is let loose.

This period of suffering will be shortened for the purpose of manifesting to the elect what may be called survival grace. There is nothing here to indicate who the elect are, although there is every likelihood the term refers to the Church, inasmuch as of the fifteen other occurrences of the word elect in the New Testament, one refers to Christ, another to certain angels, and there is no sound reason for supposing the other thirteen do not refer to the Church, or individual members of the Church.

Matt. 24:29 (Mark 13:24) "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:"

This obviously refers to the same Great Tribulation and fixes the time of it as immediately before the coming of Christ in power and glory, or, more accurately, immediately before the cosmic signs that herald the early arrival of Christ. From this context we learn that at least one purpose of His coming is to gather His elect. The elect here are the same as the ones for whom the Tribulation will be shortened. The most natural reference is to the Church. Just as in the description of the gathering of the elect in 1 Thes. 4, there is the sounding of a trumpet.

In this passage in Matthew our Lord goes on to show what should be the two-fold attitude of His followers (the "ye" of v. 42). It should be one of watchfulness (v. 42) and readiness (v. 44).  The watchfulness undoubtedly refers to "these things" of v. 33, that is, the signs of Christ's coming. The readiness speaks of the heart attitude and faithfulness that characterize those who "love His appearing." Watchfulness helps to produce the readiness. There is thus both an intellectual and a moral preparation for His coming.

John 16:33 "These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

This refers to the suffering which is the lot of all who are identified with Him who was the Man of Sorrows. There is nothing here to indicate that the suffering Church will not go on into the Great Tribulation. Christ's followers are to be of good cheer, not because He will come and remove them from a sphere of suffering but because He will enable them to be overcomers in the midst of it, inasmuch as He has already overcome the evil world system. This promise is particularly illuminating as we look at it in the light of the much-debated Rev. 3: 10, following which is the promise to the overcomer which promise obviously can have no meaning if one is previously removed from the sphere of trial.

The late Dan Crawford of Africa has distinguished between the poets and the Bible. The poet says: "Cheer up! The best is yet to be!" The Bible says: "Cheer up! The worst is yet to come!" There is cheer for believers because our Lord has already overcome the world which is the source of our sorrows.

Acts 14:22 "Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith., and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God."

"Much tribulation" here should be "many tribulations." These words epitomize the message of Paul in the very city of Lystra where shortly before he had been stoned and left for dead. The reference is clearly to the present afflictions of believers. It is interesting to observe, however, that the terminus is "the kingdom of God." It is like going through a dark tunnel only to emerge at last in the glorious light of the Kingdom. The apostle makes it clear in 2 Thes. 1:5 that the faithful endurance of present sufferings in some sense qualifies us for the Kingdom.

Rom. 2:9 "Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;"

If we read thus in the light of its context, particularly verses 5"”8, 16 it will be clear that Paul is referring to the divine judgment that will fall upon the ungodly in the "day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God." This day cannot be held to refer to the Great Tribulation but, as Canon Moule has well said, to "the definite time of the Lord's appearing" to raise the dead and judge the world. This is confirmed in 2 Thes. 1:6"”9 where Paul affirms that Christ's coming in flaming fire introduces the day of wrath against all who have been against God and Christ.

In the following verses the reference is so clearly to the sufferings of the present that I shall be content to merely enumerate the verses: Rom. 5:3; 8:35; 12:12; 2 Cor. 1:4; 7:4; Eph. 3:13; 1 Thes. 3:4; 2 Thes. 1:4,6; Rev. 1:9; 2:9.


Rev. 2:10 "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."

This promise of suffering for ten days has been thought to refer to the ten major persecutions of the Church in early times. There is no clear reference to the Great Tribulation. Even if some should think there is, the principle of a Church removed from a sphere of suffering is not illustrated here but the very opposite, and a reward is promised to the overcomers.


Rev. 2:22 "Behold, I will cast her into a bed and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds."


There is no clear reference here to the Great Tribulation. If any of the pre-Tribulation Rapture School thinks there is, it will give them pause to read the next verse with its "all the churches shall know." It would seem that this passage is simple a general threat of coming judgment upon all apostates who are guilty of spiritual fornication.


Rev. 7:14 " These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."


Here is the only New Testament passage in which the definite article is used, in the original, before Great Tribulation, and therefore there is no doubt of the meaning here. It is a picture of a great company of people who have come out of the Great Tribulation. They have been drawn from all nations and tribes and stand before the heavenly throne cleansed by the blood of Christ. God Himself wipes away the tears of tribulation. No clearer picture in the Bible can be found of the Church of Christ. This identification would seem inevitable except to those who feel constrained by a pre-Tribulation rapture theory to interpret the twenty-four elders of Revelation as symbolical of the Church. And so one naturally concludes that if the Church here is seen to come out of Great Tribulation, it must have gone into it, or through it.

Now that we have examined the passages in which thlibo, thlipsis is translated tribulation, we shall briefly notice those in which it is translated by the seven other words already referred to. On twenty-one occasions it is rendered affliction or one of its derivatives. In but one of these is the reference clearly to the future Great Tribulation, namely in Mark 13:19, and this corresponds to Matt. 24:21 upon which we have already commented.

Seven times the word is rendered trouble or one of its derivatives. In no instance is there any reference to the Great Tribulation. Thlipsis is rendered but once in each of the following anguish, burdened. narrow, persecution, and throng. In each instance there is no clear connection with the Great Tribulation. The interpretation is so obvious that I omit the references, which, if one cares to examine them, can readily be found in an analytical concordance.




Of the fifty-five occurrences of the word thlibo, thlipsis, there are but three passages that clearly refer to the Great Tribulation, namely Matt. 24:21 (Mark 13:19), Matt. 24:29 (Mark 13:24), and Rev. 7:14. Most of the other passages relate to the sufferings of the Church in this present age.

This Great Tribulation is described as a time of unprecedented suffering to come upon the world. It will begin soon after the abomination, predicted by Daniel, stands in the holy place of the restored Jewish temple. It will be followed by the glorious appearing of Christ who comes for the purpose of gathering out of the world His elect. This period will be shortened as a manifestation of His grace. To prepare the elect for Christ's coming, certain signs of His near advent will be given. The elect are to watch for the signs and be ready for the coming. After the Great Tribulation is past, a great multitude of blood-washed from all the nations and tribes appears before the throne of God who wipes away the tears occasioned by their tribulation.

In each of these three passages that speak clearly of the Great Tribulation, there are indications that point to the Church passing through the period.  In Matt. 24:21 we find the period shortened for the elect, a term that in the New Testament always refers to the Church or individual Christians, except in two instances where the reference is to Christ and to certain angels. In Matt. 21:29 we learn that the Great Tribulation is just before Christ returns for the purpose of gathering His elect. In Rev. 7:14 we see a great blood-washed throng before the throne, the description of which fits the Church perfectly.

Therefore it would seem that the conclusion is inevitable that, so far as these three clear passages are concerned, we are fully justified in believing the Church will pass through the Great Tribulation. At least, there is nothing in these passages that teaches the contrary and much that argues for it.

II. The Great Tribulation In The Old Testament

WITHOUT attempting an exhaustive survey of Old Testament passages that speak of the Great Tribulation, I would mention a few that are said to refer to it.

Deut. 4:30-31 "When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto His voice; (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God); He will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which He sware unto them."

It is said that this is the first clear delineation of the coming Great Tribulation to be found in the Old Testament. The words, "in the latter days," serve to identify it.

Jer. 30:7 "Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble, but he shall be saved out of it."

Many have identified this passage with the Great Tribulation and with good reason, for the unparalleled degree of suffering ties in with our Lord's description of the Tribulation as a time when suffering will be at its zenith. It is instructive to note in v. 24 that "in the latter days" the suffering of the Jews will provoke deep thought.

It would seem that at the end of the age there will be an unequaled attempt to exterminate the Jews but, as Jeremiah says, it will prove abortive, for Israel will be saved out of this time of trouble. God will preserve a remnant that will come through the fire unscathed, even as the three Hebrews went through the fiery trial of Nebuchadnezzar. We find confirmation of this in Rev. 7:1-8 where we are told that destructive forces are to be held in check until God has sealed 144,000 (very likely a symbolical number) from the twelve tribes of Israel. Dr. Harry Ironside in his Not Wrath But Rapture says in this connection that this period is the time of Jacob's trouble, not the time of the Church's trouble. He says the Church is having its time of trouble now. But, let us ask, what is there to hinder both the Church and Israel being in trouble at the same time? If Jacob is not having trouble now, as we think of the millions of Jews in Europe that are being slowly or suddenly exterminated, who knows what trouble is?


Dan. 12:1 "And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book."


The unprecedented character of the trial here set forth clearly identifies this with the Great Tribulation. As in Jer. 30:7 it is said that Israel will be saved or delivered out of it.

Dr. Ironside mentions Isa. 13:6-13 as a passage that refers to the Great Tribulation. The events in that passage are said to take place at the Day of the Lord, which I believe can be proved to be not the Tribulation at all but rather the time of the manifestation of divine wrath at the coming of Christ. This passage speaks of certain cosmic signs in sun, moon, and stars, and if one reads this in the light of Matt. 24:29 which says that these take place "immediately after the tribulation," one will not be likely to confound Isa. 13:6-13 with the Great Tribulation. Scofield confirms this by referring to Rev. 19:11-21 as a parallel passage.

* This article is from Triumph Through Tribulation (c) 1944, by Dr. Norman Spurgeon MacPherson. See the whole book here: Triumph Through Tribulation. Dr MacPhersons writings posted on this website with the kind permission of his son Dave MacPherson.

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