Features, Preaching, Theology

Why a Great Tribulation?

Preaching through Mark 13 was hard. The themes taken up in this chapter—the destruction of the temple and fall of Jerusalem, the Great Tribulation, Second Coming of Christ, and faithful discipleship—are both humbling and exhilarating to study.

I remember coming to verse 14 and the “abomination of desolation.” I sought to demonstrate from the text how this future event will take place during an unprecedented period of tribulation on earth—indeed, “such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be” (v. 19). The Great Tribulation is significant not only because it exceeds in horror any known event in human history, but also because it marks the period of time immediately preceding the Second Coming of Christ. Therefore, Jesus exhorts us to “be on guard” or “take heart” or “not be led astray” from the path of discipleship (v. 23).

I had several questions of this text. One of my questions was, Why? Why a Great Tribulation? Why would God do this? I offered three biblical reasons for the Great Tribulation:

Reason #1: The Great Tribulation Will Make Clear the Elect 

Only the elect will endure to the end (vv. 13, 20, 22). During the Great Tribulation all religious pretenders will be exposed. Tribulation of the magnitude prophesied by Jesus will result in a profound “sifting” of the saved and the lost. Tribulation will make plain who truly are followers of Jesus Christ. Tribulation, like nothing else it seems, has a way of bringing out what is in us. Isn’t this how the Apostle Peter thought? “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). The fire of tribulation brings to light genuine faith—God’s people will be made clear to the world!

Reason #2: The Great Tribulation Will Vindicate the Justice of God

Consider 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 where the Apostle Paul describes the events preceding the return of Christ including the revealing of the “man of lawlessness” (what I take to be commentary on the “abomination of desolation” in Mark 13:14):

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

The Great Tribulation, including the “activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and . . . all wicked deception,” will overwhelm those “who are perishing” (vv. 9-10). In terms of the vindication of God’s justice, we have to see the reason Paul gives for why people perish: “because they [the perishing] refused to love the truth and so be saved” (v. 10). The Great Tribulation, and the resulting triumph of Christ in his glorious Second Coming, will prove God’s justice absolutely righteous. For people will follow not Christ but lawlessness, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. In other words, the condemned are those who “did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (v. 12). For this reason, their condemnation is justified and God is vindicated.

Reason #3: The Great Tribulation Will Increase the Joy of the Saved and Magnify the Greatness of God

As I’ve prayerfully meditated on this text and tried to consider what it would be like to go through tribulation on a scale described by our Lord, I’m reminded of Noah and what it must have felt like when the roaring, violent, devastating global flood gave way to merciful doldrums and quiet winds. What joy must have filled his heart when the sun again burst forth its light expelling the darkness of God’s wrath! Such will be the case for God’s people at the end of the Great Tribulation. Oh, what joy will fill our hearts when tribulation gives way to the Son of Man coming in glorious power, when he sends out the angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven (Mark 13:26-27)!

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul wants us to see in Romans 9:22-24 where he reveals for us part of the reason God demonstrates his wrath in the world—God wants his people to behold it so that we marvel all the more at the riches of his glory:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

The essential result of going through the Great Tribulation is that the church will glory more in God than we would otherwise. And this is the ultimate reason why God would do this. It’s for his glory.

Come, Lord Jesus!