A Doctrine of Tribulation

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For your consideration.

As most of you know, I am an enthusiastic reader of history and have been since I learned to read at the ripe old age of five years old. As a pastor, this enthusiasm for history has been directed at church history. Of course, any study of church history must begin with the Scriptures before branching out to the “apostolic fathers,” and the early church “fathers.” But what a wealth of information and evidence for the practical application of the gospel we find in the study of the early church.

In our own age, when tribulation for the saint comes in the form of verbal assault and abuse, hateful words and behaviors from our own unbelieving family members, and even the prospect of further persecution from our own culture and government, the saints of the past hold for us a certain wisdom and encouragement.

I have often said that every saint of the Lord Jesus Christ must have a well-developed theology of suffering if we are expected to face the trials of this life faithfully. This is precisely what we find in the instruction to us from Scripture.

Christ has promised for us peace in Him, but persecution in the world: “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)”

The Lord was very clear, the world hates His people because it hates Him: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)”

This is most certainly what the early church understood as it endured severe persecution. A cursory reading of any record concerning the martyrs reveals that they had no other expectation in this world, and that their hope was in Christ alone because it was through Him that they had been called out of this world.

Just as we find in the Scriptures concerning our hope in Christ in a world that hates us for His name sake, we find the same expectation in the saints who were witnesses for their Lord:

About A.D. 107, Ignatius was arrested by the Roman authorities because of his Christian profession, and was sent to Rome to be executed by being thrown to the wild beasts. Ignatius met his fate unafraid saying, “May the wild beasts be eager to rush upon me. If they are unwilling, I will compel them. Come, crowds of wild beasts; come, tearing and mangling, wracking of bone and hacking of limbs; come, cruel tortures of the devil; only let me attain unto Christ.”

As Ignatius faced death bravely, so did the philosopher Justin Martyr, who was scourged and beheaded in Rome with six other Christians. Justin’s last words were, “We desire nothing more than to suffer for our Lord Jesus Christ, for this gives us salvation and joyfulness before His dreadful judgment seat.”

Perhaps the best known of the early martyrs is Polycarp, who ministered in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) as bishop of Smyrna. When the hour of his execution came, the proconsul offered Polycarp a way to escape. “Revile Christ, and I will release you,” said the proconsul. But Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme Him, my King, who has saved me? I am a Christian!”

I am again reading another volume on church history that was written by a pastor I knew as a very young man. It is concise and helpful as it is a reminder that all throughout the history of the church, the saints of God in Christ have endured various forms of persecution and tribulation. The fact of the matter is that this is precisely what has been promised us in this life as we traverse this fallen world as pilgrims awaiting the “promised land.” If we truly come to understand what the nature of our lives is in a lost and dying world, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ our only hope is in Him and the inheritance that He has secured for us that is not of this world, nor will it be in this world.

Here is a helpful outline presented by that dear, now departed pastor who so influenced me as a young man:


1. The word tribulation is found twenty two times in the Authorized Version. The word tribulations is found four times.

2. To suffer tribulation (Gk. thilipsis) is to suffer affliction, to be troubled, to suffer due to the pressure of circumstances, or the antagonism of persons.

3. In examining the passages that speak of tribulation, it becomes evident that all God’s people in all ages have known emotional, spiritual, and physical affliction (Deut. 4:30; Judg. 10:14; 1 Sam. 26:24; 1 Sam. 10:19; Matt. 13:21).

4. Tribulation also comes to those who are not God’s people, in the form of Divine discipline (Matt. 24:21,29; Mk. 13:24; 2 Thess. 1:6; Rom. 2:9).

5. Of particular concern is the Christian and tribulation. The Bible clearly makes the following statements.

a. For as long as they are in the world, the disciples of Christ shall have tribulation (Jn. 16:33).

b. Only through much tribulation will the saints enter into the kingdom (Acts 14:22).

c. The value of tribulation is that it works patience (Rom. 5:3; 12:12).

d. To endure tribulation is not to be loved less by Christ, for nothing shall separate Christians from His faithful love (Rom. 8:35).

e. God finds a special way to comfort the saints who suffer (2 Cor. 1:4).

f. Paul could find reasons to rejoice in the very midst of tribulation (2 Cor. 7:4; Rom. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:4), and therefore did not want anyone else to worry on his behalf (Eph. 3:13).

g. When believers at Thessalonica were surprised at the suffering they had to endure, Paul reminded them he had taught that Christians must suffer (1 Thess. 3:4).

h. John on the isle of Patmos does not divorce himself from tribulation, nor does he ever say of himself that he represents those who shall not suffer tribulation. On the contrary, John considers himself at the moment of his writing to be a companion in suffering (Rev. 1:9).

i. The tribulation of the saints is well known to the Lord (Rev. 2:9-10), and is for a stated purpose.

j. Always, God’s people emerge victorious out of tribulation, no matter how great (Rev. 7:14).

6. In all the Biblical passages, there is not a single word that God will spare His people from the purifying effects of tribulation. Just the opposite is stated and demonstrated time and again.

7. The story of the Old Testament, the writing of the New Testament, and the documentation of 2,000 years of history testify to the blood of the saints in the Church.

8. Any teaching which seeks to exempt God’s people from tribulation during any period of human history, will not find support from the twenty-six passages in the scriptures which use this word.

For further reading, click on the link below:

A Glorious Institution: The Church in History, by Stanford E. Murrell, pg. 11-12

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