What About the Great Tribulation?
Don K. Preston
The following objection to Covenant Eschatology has been sent to us: “Rev 7:9, 14 states that there was a multitude in which no man could count that had come out of the great tribulation. How could such a multitude have come from a tribulation which only encompassed the Roman Empire in the First Century?”
We appreciate the question. I would suggest that there are several pre-suppositions that underlie it. As is the case with any topic, if our presuppositions are false, then our doctrine built on those pre-suppositions will be skewed.
The first presupposition that underlies the objection is that idea we must read the text of Scripture within the frame-work of a modern cosmology. In other words, the modern concept of the “world” includes China, Russia, South America, etc.. This is our “world.” Yet, so very often, the Biblical authors use the term “world” or even “whole world” within the framework of their cosmology. This is evident when we read that Augustus Caesar passed a decree that the “whole world” (Greek: pasan ten oikoumenen) was to be taxed (Luke 2:1-2). Likewise, Agabus the prophet foretold that a famine was about to come on the whole world (Greek: Holen ten oikoumenen). Very clearly, the global “world” is not in these texts.
In a similar vein, when we read of a “great multitude” that was to come out of the great tribulation, if we impose modern concepts of global population numbers on the ancient text, we do a disservice to inspiration. If we assume–based on our knowledge of modern global events– that the ancient texts could not, and do not, match our concept of what would constitute “a great multitude,” then, again, we will overlook or reject what the text is telling us. Honoring the context of the original readers is critical to proper Biblical interpretation.
Another problem that faces those attempting to deal with Revelation is that they fail to realize what an incredibly significant event the Jewish War really was. There are two concepts that demonstrate the awesome, “world-wide” meaning of that conflict.
The first concept or theme, and that is tragically overlooked by most commentators, is the covenantal meaning, context and framework of the Jewish War. That conflict was not merely an internecine military conflict. It was the end of the Old Covenant age. YHVH and Israel had maintained a distinctive covenant relationship for 1500 years, and now, that relationship was coming to a cataclysmic end. To miss the awesome significance of that terminus is to virtually ensure that we miss the message of much of the NT.
As Boettner says, “One reason it is so difficult for some people to realize the Great Tribulation had its fulfillment in the siege and fall of Jerusalem is that they do not fully appreciate what a tremendously important event and what a landmark in history the break-up and abolition of the Old Testament economy really was.” (Lorraine Boettner, The Millennium, (Philadelphia, Presbyterian and Reformed Press, 1957)203 ). Likewise, Coffman– no preterist to be sure–said, ”The fall of Jerusalem was the greatest single event of a thousand years, and religiously significant beyond anything else that ever occurred in human history.”(Burton Coffman, Commentary on 1, 2 Peter, (Austin, Tx., Firm Foundation Publishing, 1979)246). More importantly, remember that Jesus himself said of those days, “then shall be great tribulation such as has never been, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). To suggest that the fall of Jerusalem was a strictly localized, insignificant event is a denial of scripture.
The second concept or theme that is overlooked is that the Jewish War was not merely the “localized” event that some would like to make it! In my public debate with Mac Deaver (March, 2008, Carlsbad, N. M.), Deaver tried to argue– as many do– that the Athenians could not have cared less about the fall of Jerusalem, or the fulfillment of the seventy weeks of Daniel 9. In response, I noted that far fewer people knew of Jesus’ passion than the fall of Jerusalem. And, from a geographical perspective, the scope of suffering in the fall of Jerusalem far out-stripped in size the events of Golgotha! I also noted that the Athenians could have cared less about the death of another rabble-rousing Jew at the hands of the Romans! I noted that it is not the geographical size of an event that makes it important. What makes an event important is the meaning that God places on it! (My opponent never raised the “local judgment” argument again. MP3s of that debate are available from me).
It must not be overlooked that Scriptures positively state that the end of the Old Covenant age and fall of Jerusalem was a “universal” event– even keeping in mind what we just noted above. In highly metaphoric, apocalyptic language, Jesus himself described that event in terms of cosmic decreation, the sun being darkened, the moon being turned to blood, the stars falling from the sky. (Matthew 24:29-31). And, take note, that in Luke 21:25f, Jesus also says that the days of the end would be when distress would come on the nations. Men’s hearts would fail for all of the things coming on the earth (oikoumene), and “the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” Undeniably, Jesus wanted his audience to realize that this was a cosmically important event, not merely the destruction of a Jewish outpost sitting in the middle of no where.
So, to see Jerusalem as YHVH saw her, and to honor the language of the scope of that conflict, is to force us to re-evaluate the objection above, based on these few facts alone. However, there is much, much more, that demands that we see Revelation 7 as fulfilled in the first century events and the end of the Old Covenant age.
The 144,000 and the Great Tribulation
To focus on the “Great Multitude” to the exclusion of the 144,000 is misplaced. Who ever the great multitude is, or was, they must be seen within the identical temporal framework as the 144,000. They all belong together.
Of course, our Dispensational friends tell us that during the supposedly future great tribulation, the 144,000 will be Jewish “super-evangelists” who will help turn the nation of Israel to Jesus. However, any futurist application of the 144,000 or the great multitude is misplaced, and violates the inspired text.
Notice Revelation 14:1-4:
“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty–four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. 3 They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty–four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. 4 These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being first fruits to God and to the Lamb.”
Notice that John was told that the 144,000 were the first fruits to God and to Christ. This is incredibly significant, for, it demands that they were the very first generation of Jewish Christians! This is commonly overlooked, ignored, or flagrantly distorted. Just recently I listened to a TV evangelist telling his audience – after reading from Revelation 14 – that we today can become that first fruit 144,000! Forgive the strong words, but, that is unmitigated nonsense. First fruit means, well, the first fruit! It does not mean forty generations, or fifty generations after the first fruit.Telling people living 2000 years beyond the time of the first fruit is like telling the 10th of 10 children that he / she was born first!
We learn from Revelation 7:14 that these, “are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” So, here is my argument:
The 144,000 were first generation, first century Jewish Christians.
But, the 144,000 experienced the great tribulation.
Therefore, the great tribulation occurred in the first century generation!
This is incontrovertible. In my formal debate with Messianic millennialist Michael Bugg (Memphis, 2007), Mr. Bugg tried to say that unless we know the specific identity of the 144,000 then we can’t know when these events were to occur! This is specious at best. The text is emphatic that the 144,000 were first generation, Jewish Christians. We do not have to know the names of these believers to know when the great tribulation occurred. Whatever their names were, they were the first fruit of those redeemed to God from men. They were the first (Jewish) Christians! As I responded to Mr. Bugg, I noted that if a person breaks into their house and steals all of their property, does he have to know the name of the thief to know that someone had stolen his goods?
For the record, note that James, writing to “the twelve tribes scattered abroad” (James 1:1), says to them: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). Likewise, the author of Hebrews 12 says to his Jewish audience: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22f). Notice the perfect correlation between the concept of the first fruit, the approach to Zion (cf. Revelation 14:1-2) and the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a great demonstration of the unity, both thematically and temporally between Revelation and Hebrews.
Most of all, this unity shows that the first fruit of those redeemed to God from among men were alive, under persecution, in the first century. And this demands that we see Revelation 7 and 14 within that context. Since John was told that the fulfillment of the Apocalypse was near and coming quickly, we must honor that. And, when we couple those times statements with the emphatic and irrefutable fact that the 144,000– and thus the great multitude– were first century, first generation Christians, it is impossible to rightly extrapolate the fulfillment of Revelation into a present or distant future.
A great deal more could be said about Revelation 7 and 14, but space forbids. However, let me recommend that you examine my Who Is This Babylon? The book is over 300 pages of examination of the identity of Babylon of Revelation, and application to the impending fall of Jerusalem in A.D.70) where I comment more extensively on the significance of the 144,000 as martyrs of God, and the connection with Matthew 23. This connection irrefutably demands a first century application and fulfillment of Revelation. Also, see my book Blast From the Past, the Truth About Armageddon, for a refutation of the futurist application of the Great Tribulation.
So, the objection that John mentions a great multitude of people, and that this ostensibly demands a future fulfillment of Revelation, is shown to overlook the covenantal context of the fall of Jerusalem.
It overlooks the spiritual meaning of the fall of Jerusalem.
It overlooks the fact that the N. T.–indeed the OT as well– describes the fall of Jerusalem in “universal” language.
It overlooks the meaning of first fruit of those redeemed to God.
We cannot overlook or ignore these contextual markers and expect to rightly apply the text.