Jesus Christ said there would be a period of great tribulation before His second coming to the earth. What did He mean by the Great Tribulation?
The Olivet Prophecy, found in Matthew 24, is one of Jesus’ most extensive explanations of what will occur during the end times prior to His return to earth.
After explaining that there would be religious deception, wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes before His second coming (verses 4-7), Jesus said, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (verse 9, emphasis added throughout).
The word “tribulation” is translated from the Greek word thlipsis, which means “metaphorically oppression, affliction, tribulation, distress, straits” (Thayer’s Greek Definitions). The oppression of God’s people has ebbed and flowed for centuries following Jesus’ death. And the Bible explains that there will also be a future period of tribulation before Christ’s return (Matthew 24:29-30).
Speaking of this time before His return to earth, Jesus said: “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. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (verses 21-22).
This time of suffering and death is called the Great Tribulation because its severity will surpass all previous periods of suffering experienced throughout human history (verse 21). This time of travail and misery is also called “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7), because this great travail will first come to Jacob, also called Israel, meaning the modern descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel in the last days.
The prophet Daniel described this same period of time saying, “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation” (Daniel 12:1).
Who will be affected by this time of trouble?
Through several prophets, God identified the peoples who would primarily be affected by this coming crisis. God explained to Jeremiah that this terrible time would come upon Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 30:4). The modern-day descendants of these people include the predominantly English-speaking and Christian-professing nations and the Jewish peoples today. See the “12 Tribes of Israel Today” section of this website for additional articles explaining this historical connection and its significance.
And as we have already noted, Jesus Christ warned His faithful followers that this coming period of tribulation would be a dangerous time for true Christians as well. Jesus’ instruction—“then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9)—will be fulfilled at the end of this age in the fifth seal of the book of Revelation (Revelation 6:9-11).
How long will this period of tribulation last?
Space does not permit a detailed explanation of why the prophetic term “time” usually means a year and the plural “times” in this setting means two years; but here we see in a number of passages several different ways to express the length of time of the same event. Therefore, when we see the time spans given as 42 months, 1,260 days and “a time, times and half a time,” we can conclude that they all refer to the same 3½ years.
Why will the Great Tribulation occur?
Why will God allow this Great Tribulation? This is perhaps the most essential question of all. God is a long-suffering and merciful God. But just as a loving father corrects his wayward son, so God will bring this severe punishment if warnings are not heeded and widespread sins are not be repented of. The focus of this 42-month period of judgment will come first upon the nations that have historically had a Judeo-Christian heritage.
God declares that before the end of the age, if the modern descendants of ancient Israel don’t make a real return to Him, He will chastise them for their sins. The peoples of these nations largely represent those to whom He previously gave His laws and statutes, and God wanted them to be beacons of godly behavior to the rest of the world.
The peoples of these nations are the ones God has historically called His people. Because they have forgotten their God, He will send a series of natural plagues and disasters to get their attention. If this doesn’t work, these curses will intensify over a period of time.
If these people refuse to repent, God warns that He will send harsh foreign invaders to bring His judgments against them. God warned through Jeremiah, “I will correct you in justice. … With the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of your iniquities, because your sins have increased” (Jeremiah 30:11, Jeremiah 30:14).
God is fair and just. God’s warnings help us to understand why He singles out the modern Israelite nations to be corrected first and then afterward the other nations.
Warning to Jerusalem
The prophet Ezekiel spoke of this future time of Great Tribulation as it pertains to residents of Jerusalem before Christ’s return. This city—the former capital city of the 12 tribes of Israel—is representative of the nations and peoples who have been given the blessing of having the 10 Commandments as the foundation for their national constitutions and codes of conduct.
God speaks to these people who should know better, saying: “Because you have multiplied disobedience more than the nations that are all around you, have not walked in My statutes nor kept My judgments, nor even done according to the judgments of the nations that are all around you. …
“Indeed I, even I, am against you and will execute judgments in your midst in the sight of the nations. And I will do among you what I have never done, and the like of which I will never do again, because of all your abominations. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judgments among you, and all of you who remain I will scatter to all the winds” (Ezekiel 5:7-10).
God will reach a point where His forbearance with wickedness will run out. He explains what will be the fate of His unrepentant people:
“Surely, because you have defiled My sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will also diminish you; My eye will not spare, nor will I have any pity. One-third of you shall die of the pestilence, and be consumed with famine in your midst; and one-third shall fall by the sword all around you; and I will scatter another third to all the winds, and I will draw out a sword after them” (Ezekiel 5:11-12).
Scripture explains that God has great long-suffering with humanity before His anger reaches such a critical point (2 Peter 3:9; Romans 2:4-11). The Great Tribulation represents a time when this point will have been reached with nations that have no excuse because they have been amply warned.
What will happen to the nations that harm Israel?
At the end of this 3½-year period, indications are that God will see a change of heart among the survivors of His people Israel. He will then retaliate on those cruel nations in measure for their heartless treatment toward His people.
God warns the other nations in advance: “Therefore all those who devour you shall be devoured; and all your adversaries, every one of them, shall go into captivity; those who plunder you shall become plunder, and all who prey upon you I will make a prey” (Jeremiah 30:16).
After Israel is disciplined, God will avenge His people. This is described in numerous other prophecies in the Bible, including Deuteronomy 32:43; Isaiah 35:3-4; Isaiah 47:5-15; Joel 3:12-15; Jeremiah 25:29-33; and Ezekiel 25-28.
What is God’s purpose for sending the Great Tribulation?
One purpose for God allowing the Great Tribulation to occur will be to humble the physical nations that have descended from biblical Israel and lead them to repentance. After this period of correction, Christ will return to earth and the survivors of these Israelite nations will undergo a complete transformation. They will become a holy people and an example to all the other nations on earth (Zephaniah 3:11-13).
At the end of the 42 months of tribulation God says of these people: “But one-third shall be left in [the land]: I will bring the one-third through the fire [by deportation into captivity by foreign nations], will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people’; and each one will say, ‘The LORD is my God’” (Zechariah 13:8-9).
There are very encouraging words in the Bible for those who desire to obey God. The apostle John received a vision from God showing that from among these greatly oppressed people, a great multitude will be spiritually purified through the coming trial upon all lands and peoples—the nations of Israel first and then the rest of the nations.
The book of Revelation describes those who turn to God from the modern nations of Israel and from other nations as “ones who [have] come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
How might the Great Tribulation affect you?
Jesus Christ gave a warning to be sure we are heeding His life-transforming message of repentance, faith and righteousness. In Luke’s Gospel Christ told His followers, “So you also, when you see these things happening [the signs He described], know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31-32).
Jesus also said, “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (verse 36).
To help you be able to stand, we encourage you to read the articles in the “Change” section of this website.