Two days before the end of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, He passed, with His disciples, through the courts of the Temple. He had just delivered an excoriating rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees, closing with the solemn declaration: “Ye shall not see Me henceforth, till ye shall say, ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord”‘ (Matt 23:39). Now, as He left the Temple courts for the last time, the disciples, motivated perhaps by glorious visions of a day of recognition, drew His attention to the splendor of the buildings. This, they must have assumed, would be the place where the Messiah would be acknowledged by the nation. Surely these courts would echo with the acclaim of a people who had finally come to share Peter’s recognition that here was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). But all their expectations were overturned by the blunt clarity of the Savior’s response: “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2).
It is not difficult to imagine the confusion and consternation that filled the disciples’ minds as they made their way, in awkward silence, toward the Mount of Olives. Eventually, their desire for clarification spilled over into speech. Approaching the Lord Who always dealt so patiently with their questions and queries they asked, “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (v3). In response to their anxious query, the Lord Jesus delivered to them a revelation of crucial importance, an unveiling of prophetic truth sometimes known as the “little apocalypse.”
Periods of the Tribulation
In this discourse the Savior spoke of two periods of global turmoil. The first, outlined in verses 5–14, will be marked by national conflict and natural calamities: “nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (v7). This period is described as the “beginning of sorrows” (v8). The end of this period is marked by a prodigious occurrence, when men would see “the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place” (v15). This event will be followed by a period of intensified trouble, chillingly described by the Lord Jesus as “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (v21). This period of unparalleled affliction will be so extensive in its scale and so appalling in its severity as to surpass all the horrors of history. Then, “immediately after the tribulation of those days,” the darkening of the sun and the moon, and the shaking of the heavens would signal the event that was central to the disciples’ question – “the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (vv29, 30).
The Savior had made explicit reference to Daniel the prophet, but even had He not done so, the minds of the disciples would surely have gone to Daniel 9, and to the prophecy of the last of Daniel’s 70 weeks: “And he [the prince that shall come] shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate” (Dan 9:27). This passage provides us with the timeframe of the events outlined in Matthew 24. The seven years of this last week (often known as the Tribulation, or the Day of the Lord) will be divided by the setting up of the Abomination of Desolation into two equal three-and-a-half year periods – the beginning of sorrows and the Great Tribulation, also known as “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer 30:7).
People of the Tribulation
The Tribulation will be marked by dramatic and devastating events. Involved in these events will be a number of significant figures. The first of these we have encountered in an earlier article. He is the “prince that shall come” of Daniel 9; the man of sin, and the lawless one of 2 Thessalonians 2; and the first beast of Revelation 11, 13, and 18. This remarkable world leader will arise from the Gentile nations. He will rise to power at the head of a revived Roman empire (Dan 9:26). His abilities will be immense, and his ascent of the ladder of earthly power unstoppable; but behind it all will be the working of the power of Satan.
This man will be joined by another figure – the second beast of Revelation 13, who is also described as the false prophet (Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). While the first beast rises from the sea – the symbol of the Gentile nations – the second beast rises from the land. He will be a Jew, and will lead the apostate religion that will emerge after the rapture. He will have the power to perform lying miracles. At the end of the first half of the Tribulation, he will give life to the image of the beast and “and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed” (Rev 13:15).
As the Tribulation unfolds, these evil figures will stride across the world stage. Their political, religious, and social dominion will be all but absolute. But Satan’s triumph will not be complete for, in this as in every age, God has preserved a remnant for, and testimony to, Himself. The first element of this testimony will be the ministry of the two witnesses outlined in Revelation 11. These men will stand in the street of Jerusalem clothed in sackcloth. Under direct divine protection they will testify for 1,260 days (or three-and-a-half years) until they have finished their testimony and are put to death by the beast, only to rise after three-and-a-half days, and ascend to heaven. Some debate exists as to the identity of these witnesses – Are they two literal figures, or is two simply symbolic of witness? Are they actually or symbolically Moses and Elijah? Similarly, there is disagreement as to the period of their ministry. It seems likely, however, that they are two literal individuals who will testify for the first half of the Tribulation, a solemn voice of warning that will be disregarded by the great majority of mankind.
These witnesses will not be alone in their testimony. Revelation 7 describes the sealing of 144,000 witnesses, drawn from the 12 tribes of Israel, who will go forth during the Tribulation with a worldwide mission to preach the gospel of the kingdom. These Jewish witnesses will have trusted Christ after the rapture, and their ministry will be directed to those in every part of the globe who have not previously rejected the gospel message (2Thess 2:10). Under divine protection, and in the face of intense persecution, they go forth to preach. And their ministry will prosper. The fruits of their preaching will be “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev 7:9), who “have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). Even as evil rages rampant through the globe, God will be at work saving souls and preparing a vast multitude to enter the blessings of the Millennial kingdom.
These are some of the people who will be involved in the Tribulation. Let us not forget that there is one group who will not experience anything of its turmoil and suffering. How blessed it is to know that we who have trusted Christ have not been appointed to wrath, but “to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thess 5:9). Reader, where do you stand? If it should be that you have never trusted Christ, let the truths that we have considered be a solemn voice of warning. “Flee from the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7).