The Great Tribulation is mentioned by Jesus [once] and John [twice]. Debate rages as to when Christians exit the world in relation to this tribulation: pre-trib [Christ returns before], mid-trib [Christ returns half way through], post-trib [Christ returns after].
As with any subject, we need to approach this with an open mind and study the Scripture in context. We need to be careful not to insert our own ideas into Scripture, but to look to see what is really there.
Although John mentions the words "great tribulation" twice, the first time [Rev. 2:22] is referring to God's judgment on the ungodly and is not concerned with what many Christians call The Great Tribulation. So, in fact, there are only two verses in the Bible that directly refer to The Great Tribulation. We will examine each of these verses in turn to discover the truth. When will this Great Tribulation begin? Do we need to live in fear of it?
"For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be...Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken." Matt. 24:21, 29, KJV
A quick reading of Matthew 24, with our preconceived ideas, gives the strong impression that it is referring to the Second Coming. Let's look carefully at what Jesus said.
The words of Jesus in verse 34 are very plain: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Jesus set a specific time limit on when the prophecy of Matthew 24, at least up to this point, would be fulfilled. This is a plain, clear statement. What generation is Jesus referring to? "This" generation. The natural meaning of the words is the generation to whom He was then speaking, i.e. the First Century believers.
Does other Scripture confirm this? Luke 21:5-33 is a companion Scripture. It records the same message of Jesus as can quickly be discovered by comparing it with Matt. 24. In it Jesus gives a specific sign as to the time of tribulation: "And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh." verse 20.
Did this happen? At the beginning of the Jewish War [66AD-70AD] the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem. Then, for no known military or logical reason, they withdrew. At that time all Christians still in the land of Israel fled and escaped the war. Within four years the nation of Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple were all destroyed.
Also look at Luke 23:27-31: "And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"
Please notice Jesus, although suffering immensely Himself on the way to the cross, did NOT say, "Weep for a great tribulation coming 2,000 years from now." No, they were to be very concerned for terrible events which would happen in their own generation.
It is clear that Jesus, as shown in both Matthew and Luke, was warning of an overwhelming tragedy that would happen to the generation then living. The next logical question is: Did such an event happen?
As mentioned above, within 40 years [one generation] of the death of Christ, the Jewish nation and temple were destroyed with tremendous suffering [torture, famine, even cannibalism] and lost of life. The land of Israel was flowing with blood from AD66 to AD70. Much of the torture and murder was done by Jews to Jews. The cruel, heathen Roman armies were at times amazed at how harshly the Jews were treated by their own countrymen. In fact, many Jews fled to the Romans for protection! Yet not one Christian is known to have suffered in this unique and hideous war. Why? Because they understood the words of Jesus, John, and others and fled before the war really got going.
Matthew 24 is referring to a great tribulation which would happen to the generation of Jews who crucified the Messiah. The greatest crime in the universe had to have the greatest punishment possible. There can never be a greater offense than the rejection, betrayal, and murder of the Creator. To say otherwise is to lessen the importance of Jesus and His death.
What about the sky being darkened and the other signs? The answer to that is beyond the scope of this short report, but we do look at in detail in our study of the Book of Revelation. For your own study, look at how prophetic imagery is used in the Old Testament and realize that Jesus is using the same prophetic imagery.
What about the Great Tribulation mentioned by John in the Book of Revelation? That Tribulation is definitely referring to believers not the land of Israel. Also, there is no time limit directly placed on it.
"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands...And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Rev. 7:9, 14, KJV
Does this refer to a great time of trouble at the end of world? As always, we look to context to see what is happening [see Revelation course for a solid, historical - not hystical - context of the entire book]. Here we have a scene in heaven. We have the angels, the living creatures, the elders, and those in white robes. They are all before the throne of God worshiping.
To discover what the Great Tribulation is we need to find out about the people in white robes. We learn several things about the people in white robes:
1. They are a great multitude.
2. They include people from every nation [which means it cannot be referring to same Tribulation that Jesus spoke about in Matt.]
3. They stand before the throne of God and before Christ.
4. They wear white robes.
5. They hold palms in their hands.
6. They worship God continually.
7. They have suffered great tribulation.
8. They have washed their robes - not in their own blood - in the Blood of Christ.
9. As a reward for faithful service they have the joy of serving God.
10. God lives among them.
11. They will no longer suffer from hunger, thirst, heat.
12. They are fed by Christ.
13. They can drink of the living waters.
14. God wipes away their tears.
So who are these people?
Lets start with the white robes.
What does white represent? Righteousness, holiness, and purity [Rev. 19:8]. [We see this even in the traditional wedding ceremony where the bride wears white to symbolize her purity.]
Who wears white robes? Jesus [Matt. 17:2, 28:3], at least some angels [Rev. 15:6], the elders [Rev. 4:4], martyrs [Rev. 6:11], those who are faithful [Rev. 3:4, 3:18], overcomers [Rev. 3:5], and Christ's army [Rev. 19:14].
The bottom line is that all true believers in Christ are clothed in white. They stand in His righteousness. Their robes are washed in the Blood of Christ. This is not limited to martyrs, but includes everyone who has truly come to Christ.
What does the Bible teach about tribulation?
"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." John 16:33, KJV
"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." Acts 14:22, KJV
"Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." 2 Cor. 1:4, KJV
"For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass..." 1 Thess. 3:4, KJV
The Bible tells us that all Christians will face tribulation in this world. It is part of the price that is paid for following Christ. It is not always physical tribulation. It can also be mental, emotional, spiritual, or any combination. Just living in the midst of ungodliness is a tribulation whether we recognize it or not.
"And delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation [life style] of the wicked: (For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;) The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished..." 2 Peter 2:7-9, KJV
The Bible tells us that Lot faced tribulation because of the unrighteousness around him. Likewise, Christians face tribulation just by being surrounded by evil. Sometimes our "flesh" enjoys it but our spirit, in communion with God, is troubled and tormented.
Also notice in Rev. 7:14 it says, "came out of great tribulation..." It does not say, "came out of the great tribulation." The wording itself would seem to indicate that it is not referring to one specific event but to a general situation that Christians will find themselves in.
You may disagree, but I believe from the clear Bible teaching on white robes and tribulation that this great tribulation mentioned in Rev. 7:14 refers to the trouble that all true believers - from creation to the Second Coming - face in this life. They have overcome the trials of this world under the corruption of sin and now rejoice in the presence of God.
Limiting this tribulation seems to me to be making light of the tremendous suffering Christians have endured through the ages. Even in our own era, I am told, about 166,000 people a year lose their lives in the cause of Christ while over 200 million suffer physical danger or intense persecution. Great tribulation is here in many forms and the faithful who overcome will stand in white before the throne of God.
One other thing to notice, while the ultimate fulfillment of this scene is after the faithful pass through death's door, there is no reason to limit it to after death. After all, Scripture declares we are seated with Christ now [Eph. 2:6] and that we currently have access into the throne room of God [Heb. 4:16]. Those who love Jesus come worshiping before the throne now, joining with the angels and those who have gone before, and will enter the fullness of that experience after death.