Author's Bias: Interpretation: conservative
Inclination: promise
Seminary: none

What and When is the Tribulation?

What does tribulation mean? Is it a term used for all afflictions that a human being experiences? Does it occur in phases? Is it occurring now or does it apply only in the future?

The Greek noun "thlipsis" is translated as "tribulation" or "affliction" and is found in 45 instances in the New Testament. Examining how Jesus and His apostles use the term will provide a clear understanding of its meaning and especially its usage in the book of Revelation.

The first use of "thlipsis" is seen when Jesus teaches the Parable of the Sower.

The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction (thlipsis) or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matt 13:20-21; Mark 4:16-17)

Here Jesus indicates that "affliction" or "tribulation" occurs as the result of one's faith in God. Exclusively applying the term "thlipsis" to Believers, Jesus also limits the use of the term to the persecution of one's faith in God; there is a distinction from other causes of persecution (i.e. racism, socio-economic class, etc.).

Speaking to His disciples, Jesus presents "thlipsis" as occurring very soon and with certain fatality.

Then they will deliver you to tribulation (thlipsis), and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. (Matt 24:9-13; John 16:33)

With His crucifixion and ascension coming soon, Jesus prepares the disciples, aware that they will be His representatives of the gospel to a world ruled by Satan, that they will be recipients of the world's hate. Despite this, no amount of "thlipsis" will separate a genuine Believer from God's agape love and Jesus' work of atonement.

Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish (thlipsis) because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. (John 16:21-22)

Drawing a comparison to a mother's pain in labor, Jesus reassures the disciples that while "thlipsis" is painful, the experience will be temporary and will be supplanted with the everlasting joy of seeing each other again.

With a view towards the end of human history, Jesus portrays "thlipsis" as being a period of great suffering, "as has not occurred since the beginning of the world."

Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. For then there will be a great tribulation (thlipsis), such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. (Matt 24:15-21; Mark 13:14-19)

With a reference to the "abomination of desolation which was spoken through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place," Jesus indicates that the "great tribulation" will occur in the last week of Daniel's 70 week prophecy (Dan 9:27; 12:1) and more specifically the latter half of the 70th week.

In contrast to Jesus' use of the Greek noun "thlipsis", the apostles use the term, in some instances, with a more generic sense of affliction from any cause and not limited to one with a faith in God (Acts 7:10-11; Rom 2:9-10).

But when addressing the church, the apostles use "thlipsis" with the same exclusive application to Believers as Jesus did.

Believers should expect "thlipsis;" and it is a shared experience.

After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations (thlipsis) we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:21-22)

I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation (thlipsis) and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Rev 1:9)

For Believers, "thlipsis" is necessary for the process of sanctification. The implication is that without it, one is not living righteously for Jesus Christ in a manner that draws others to Him.

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations (thlipsis), knowing that tribulation (thlipsis) brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:3-5)

When personally experiencing "thlipsis," it is confirmation that one is living for Jesus Christ which should provide joy to the Believer.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions (thlipsis). Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:24-27)

Through "thlipsis," a Believer can identify with Jesus Christ on the cross even unto death. Just as Jesus was being persecuted for being the Messiah, Believers are being persecuted, because of His name.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction (thlipsis) so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction (thlipsis) with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. (2 Cor 1:3-5)

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation (thlipsis), or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,
"For Your sake we are being put to death all day long;
We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered."(Rom 8:35-36)

When Jesus speaks of the tribulation, He is warning Believers of the persecution they will experience for those who live by God’s word and claim salvation in His name.

When the apostles speak of tribulation, they inform Believers that should be expected for all who identify with Jesus Christ and is part of the process of sanctification. Moreover, the suffering is temporary, shared, and yet rewarding for all who persevere.

The great tribulation that occurs at the end of human history commences when the "abomination of desolation" is "standing in the holy place" and this signals the last 3-1/2 weeks of Daniel’s 70th week prophecy. Because Jesus applies the term "tribulation" exclusively to Believers, it appears that Believers will be living through a part of this period. This is confirmed in the first interlude in the book of Revelation (Rev 7:14), which indentifies the souls released under the altar in the heavenly temple of God when Jesus Christ breaks the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11).


1. Brown C, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, (1979).

2. Walvoord JF, Zuck RB eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, Wheaton: Victor Books, (1983).

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Topical Index: Eschatology: The End Times and End of Human History>Judgment

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