By Jack Kelly
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NKJV)
“For 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.” (Matt. 24:21 NKJV)
Every now and then I get a question from someone who says even though the pre-trib position seems to make sense scripturally, they can't accept it because Jesus said we would have tribulation in this world, and that must mean the church will go through at least the first part of the Tribulation. When they say this they're thinking of the first 3 ½ years.
Let's get this straight. There is no mention anywhere in the Bible of a seven year tribulation. According to Strong's Concordance the Greek word translated tribulation in these two passages appears 45 times in the New Testament and tribulation is the English word of choice in 21 of them, including the two above. It comes from a root meaning “to press” as grapes are pressed. When used metaphorically it can mean oppression, affliction, tribulation, distress, hardship, or trouble. But while tribulation is the word that appears in both these verses, their intent is completely different.
What Does That Mean?
In John 16:33 Jesus said, in effect, that becoming a believer doesn't mean your troubles are over. Troubles are characteristic of this world and as long as you're in it you'll have them. But He has overcome this world and through faith in Him you will over come it too.
He was referring to the fact that because of our faith we can have peace even in times of trouble (Phil 4:4-7). First because we know he's working everything in our lives together for our good (Romans 8:28) and second because one day this will all be over and we'll live in a state of eternal peace and happiness with Him. Therefore we should focus on that world not this one (2 Cor. 4:16-18). When you read the passage in context you can see that John 16:33 is meant for the entire Church Age and addresses individuals and our individual lives.
A Different Matter
But Matt. 24:21 is a different matter altogether. First of all it applies to a specific period of time, commencing on the heels of the abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:15) and ending just before the 2nd Coming (Matt. 24:29). And Jesus prefaced the word tribulation with “great” saying nothing like it has ever happened in the history of the world, or ever will happen again. From other references we know the Great Tribulation will last for 3 ½ years and will be far more severe than anyone can imagine. So much so that if the Lord doesn't return to put an end to it, not a single human will survive (Matt. 24:22)
So as far as the Bible is concerned, there are two kinds of tribulation. The first is the general condition of our fallen creation. Hardship, illness, persecution and other kinds of unfair treatment, and a general state of uncertainty characterize our world. These are facts of human life that to a greater or lesser extent have impacted all human beings throughout the Age of Man. This is the tribulation Jesus spoke of in John 16:33. Of the 21 times the word tribulation appears in the New Testament (KJV) 16 of them are in this context.
Then, there's the Great Tribulation. Three and one half years of extreme judgments that will fall upon just one generation, the one alive just before the second coming. This is the focus of Matt. 24:21 and just four other verses (Matt. 24:29, Mark 13:24, Rev. 2:22, Rev. 7:14) . You can see that the conditions of the two kinds of tribulation are very different. Whenever the word tribulation appears it's referring to one of these two kinds and you know which one the Bible has in view by looking at context in which the word is being used. But you'll never see it used to describe the seven years just prior to the 2nd Coming.
Where Did That Come From?
So how did the idea of a seven year tribulation originate? Well if it didn't come from God, it had to have come from man. In researching this, I was not able to discover who first taught this, but I believe it started in the days when even the most learned scholars didn't realize that Israel would be reborn. Neither did they understand that the Age of Grace didn't follow the Age of Law but rather interrupted it seven years short of its completion. So calling the last seven years by their Old Testament name, Daniel's 70th Week, didn't make sense because doing so implied that Israel would come back from the dead and play a part in the End Times. This is something most scholars believed would not happen.
Even so there were seven years that had to be accounted for. The last three and a half were easy, Jesus had already named them the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24:21). That just left the first three and a half. These have been variously called the beginning of sorrows or the false peace or the tribulation period, but eventually scholars incorrectly began calling the entire seven year period the tribulation with the last half being the Great Tribulation. Since the rapture takes place before the seven years begin, it has also been incorrectly named. Instead of being pre-trib, it's really pre 70th Week.
So What's The Problem?
Other questions I've received concern the effect of this incorrect interpretation. “Why does it matter?” they ask. It matters because it isn't Biblical. And what's more it's confusing, as questions I get on the End Times demonstrate. Many people don't distinguish between the two uses of the word tribulation and incorrectly use John 16:33 and similar passages to deny the pre-trib rapture.
For example, Acts 14:21-22 (KJV) is another passage some times used to question the pre-trib rapture.
And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch,
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.
Paul and Barnabas were encouraging new gentile converts to keep the faith in spite of the hardship and persecution they were facing, in effect saying it was something that should be expected as a result of their profession of faith. Reading about the current plight of Christians in places like India, Indonesia and China shows us these things are still going on in the world. Even in America we're becoming used to seeing two things our constitution forbids. Persecution of Christians and promotion of other religions. But like it was in Paul's day this has nothing to do with the Great Tribulation, and everything to do with religious persecution.
Also, referring to Daniel's 70th Week (which concerns Israel) as the tribulation (which is world wide) hides the fact that Israel and the Church can't co-exist during that time. Because of this, many Christians don't realize that during Daniel's 70th Week God's focus will be on Israel, with its Old Covenant Temple, animal sacrifice, keeping the commandments and all things Jewish. How can the dispensation of Law and the Dispensation of Grace exist in the same place at the same time when the two are theologically incompatible? Truth be told this is perhaps the most compelling reason for a pre 70th Week rapture.
After We're Gone
In Romans 11:25-27 Paul said that Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in, but after that Israel will be saved. The Greek word for hardening also means blinded. This is a clear indication that God's unfinished business with Israel won't be concluded until he's finished with the Church. We know He won't be finished with us until the rapture. Until then Israel will remain at least partly blinded to the truth, just as Jesus warned would happen in Luke 19:41-44.
This sentiment was echoed at the Council of Jerusalem when James disclosed that God would first take from the Gentiles a people for Himself (the Church) and after that would turn again to Israel (Acts 15:13-18). In Greek the phrase translated take from literally means “to take in order to carry away from” and is another reference to the rapture.
These two passages of Scripture are not widely used in defense of the pre-trib rapture because they speak to the theology behind the Church's disappearance rather than the event itself. But they're extremely helpful in putting the missing week of Daniel 9:24-27 in its proper perspective. It's the remaining 7 years of God's assignment for Israel to complete 6 tasks in preparation for the coming Kingdom, as outlined in Daniel 9:24,
“Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy (place).”
The phrase seventy sevens means seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. Some of these tasks were at least partially completed in the 483rd year at the time of the Crucifixion. But Israel's rejection of the Messiah stopped the clock 7 years short of the total leaving the rest undone. These 7 years are yet to be completed, but as Paul and James both specified, the clock will not start running again until the Church disappears. This is what makes knowing all about Daniel's 70th Week so important to the Church. It helps us understand why the rapture can't happen during any part of it.
The Bible is not a book of generalities, it's a book of specifics. Those last 7 years are missing and must be completed. When you read the Bible literally, as was intended, there's no sense in which they can be placed in the past. They're part of the future and they're not called the tribulation, they're called Daniel's 70th Week.