What is the end times tribulation?

The tribulation is the period during the end times wherein God judges Israel and the world for their unrighteousness and prepares to establish Jesus as the King of the world. Scholars using different methods of interpretation have arrived at many different opinions as to the timing and duration of the tribulation. But by using a literal method of interpretation and reading the prophecies in a literal sense wherever possible, it becomes evident that the tribulation lasts seven years and will occur between the rapture of the church and the millennial kingdom.

Daniel gives the timing of the tribulation. In Daniel 9:24-27 (NIV), Gabriel explains to him, "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. Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.'…" Daniel's prophecies were so accurate that many skeptics believe the book must have been written historically—after the events occurred. But the date they propose as authorship is 200 years before Christ and cannot take into account this particular passage.

"Seventy 'sevens'" (or "seventy weeks" as in other translations) refers to seventy periods of seven years, or 490 years. These years are broken into three periods. The first, "seven 'sevens'" or forty-nine years would begin at the moment the command to rebuild the temple would be given (Daniel 9:25; Ezra 1:1-4) and last throughout the duration of construction (Ezra 6:14-15). The second, "sixty-two 'sevens'" or 434 years was the time from the completion of the temple to the arrival of the "Anointed One"—Jesus the Messiah. Verse 26 explains that after the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death, and the people of the ruler (identified earlier in Daniel and interpreted as Rome) will destroy the city and the sanctuary, which occurred in AD 70.

This is an account given to Daniel about his people, the Jews. Although we can certainly learn from it, the words were not specifically given for those of us in the church age. Because of that, Gabriel had no reason to refer to the church. There is no detailed description of what was to occur between the sixty-ninth seven and the seventieth seven. This leaves one 'seven'—or one seven-year period—as yet unaccounted for. Verse 27 identifies the beginning of that last period: "He [presumably the Antichrist from Daniel 7:8-26] will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.'" When a world leader from the West (Daniel 8:1-14) initiates a comprehensive treaty between Israel and its surrounding nations, the tribulation will have begun.

The fact that the tribulation is also called the "time of distress for Jacob" (Jeremiah 30:7) indicates that although the entire world will be involved, the purpose of the tribulation primarily relates to Israel. Daniel 9:24 (NIV) gives the reasons for the 490-year period: "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 first three—"to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness"—were accomplished with Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, but have not yet been applied to Israel as a people. The last three have not occurred at all, so we know the seventieth "seven" is yet to come. At the end of the tribulation, all prophecy will be fulfilled, and Israel as a nation will have come to accept Jesus as their Messiah. In addition, the tribulation will be God's tool in holding all the nations of the world accountable for their rejection of Him (Jeremiah 25:30-32; 2 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 6:15).

The overall purpose of the tribulation is to finish the work of verse 24: to bring Israel as a nation to their God by bringing them to their Messiah. As in most of God's dealings with Israel, this is unfortunately best accomplished through the discipline of hardships. Although the tribulation begins with a promise of political peace (Daniel 9:24-27; Deuteronomy 30:4-5), it sets off a series of God's judgments against the world. The seal judgments will gradually grow in intensity as the first half of the tribulation progresses (Revelation 5-6). They include war, famine, pestilence, beasts, the persecution of believers, and natural disasters. The Antichrist will rise to greater and greater political power (1 John 2:18; Revelation 13:1-9; 17:8-14; Daniel 7:8-26), eventually ruling a re-established Roman Empire (Daniel 7). Despite the horrors, 144,000 Jews will come to a saving relationship with Jesus and witness to the world, drawing many in to accept Christ (Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5). And the temple will return to the Temple Mount where faithful Jews will once again perform sacrifices (Daniel 9:27).

At the midpoint of the tribulation, everything will change for Israel. Satan will be cast out of heaven permanently and will resolve to cause as much damage on earth as possible (Revelation 12:7-13). The Antichrist will be assassinated and resurrected (Revelation 13:3, 12, 14), setting the stage for worldwide political and religious domination. He will attack Israel, defile the temple (Daniel 9:27; Matthew 24:15; Revelation 13:14), and demand that the world worship him (Revelation 13:5-7). At this point, Jesus has instructed the Jews to flee (Matthew 24:15-16).

The last half of the tribulation is also known as "the great tribulation" (Revelation 7:14). Politically, the Antichrist will horribly persecute both Jews and believers (Matthew 24:9-24; Revelation 12:6, 13-17). Religiously, most of the world will worship the Antichrist as god (Revelation 13:5-7, 11-18), but the 144,000 witnesses will be joined by two prophets who will preach in Jerusalem and draw many to Jesus (Revelation 7:9-14; Matthew 24:14). God will deal with the sin of the world via two series of judgments. The seven trumpets, which will be scattered over the last 3 ½ years, will include 1/3 of vegetation burnt, creating a famine; 1/3 of sea turned to blood, killing 1/3 sea creatures and destroying 1/3 ships; 1/3 of the fresh water contaminated; 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars darkened; locusts, possibly demonic, torturing people for five months; and a great army, possibly demonic, destroying 1/3 of mankind. The seventh trumpet will be the announcement of Christ's impending reign and the seven bowls (Revelation 8:1-9:21). The seven bowls will be consolidated near the end of the tribulation. Sores will plague those who follow Antichrist; all the seas will turn to blood, killing all the remaining sea creatures; all the fresh water will turn to blood; the sun will heat up; the earth will be covered with supernatural darkness; the Euphrates will dry up so kings from the east can make their way to Armageddon; and a great earthquake will shake the world, joined with 100-pound hailstones (Revelation 16:1-21).

At the end of the tribulation, apparently the nations of the world will revolt against the Antichrist and his rule (Matthew 24:30-31; Revelation 19:11-32). The two witnesses will be killed, left in the street, and resurrected after three and a half days (Revelation 11:7-13). Finally, Jesus will return with His army and destroy the Antichrist and his army (Matthew 24:30; Revelation 19:11-20). The Antichrist will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20), Satan will be bound and thrown into the Abyss for the duration of the millennial kingdom (Revelation 19:20), and all the unbelievers will be killed. Those who follow Christ will gather around Him, and Israel will be given its promised borders (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20; Isaiah 11:11-12:6; Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:3-8; Ezekiel 11:14-18; 37:1-18).

Like the prophecies about the rapture, the purpose of the prophecies about the tribulation are meant to convict and to provide hope. The angel who gave Daniel his prophecy finished by saying, "Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand. From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1290 days. Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1335 days" (Daniel 12:9-12, NIV). Our role, then, is to explain that the suffering of the tribulation can be avoided if people put their trust in Jesus, and to pray that those caught in the tribulation will find these words and understand. Those of us who do have a saving relationship with Jesus can find hope in the words the angel directed at Daniel in verse 13: "As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance" (Daniel 12:13, NIV).

Related Truth:

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How should we understand the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls in the Book of Revelation?

What are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Who are the tribulation saints?

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