Suffering and tribulation in the book of Revelation

POST OVERVIEW. A survey of the book of Revelation considering the instances of suffering (“tribulation”) in the book and planning for our response of perseverance.

Spectacular! Awesome! Terrifying! Amazing! Glorious! These are words that readily come to our minds as we read through the book of Revelation. This portion of Scripture contains some of the most breathtaking images and events in the entire Bible. In fact, because these vivid images and these clashes between the forces of evil and righteousness capture our attention, it is possible to miss one of the most prominent features of Revelation, namely, the suffering of the church of Jesus Christ. But once we begin to examine the book through the lens of suffering, and specifically the tribulation of the church in the world because we follow Jesus, we realize that the suffering church is a prominent theme in Revelation.

EXPERIENCING TRIBULATION AND REQUIRING PERSEVERANCE

At the beginning of the book, as John introduces his prophecy in Revelation 1:9, he already speaks of “tribulation” (Greek θλῖψις – thlipsis) and “perseverance” (Greek ὑπομονή – hupomonay).

I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Let’s explore these words for a moment. The word here translated as “tribulation” is a common New Testament word. It is usually translated as “tribulation,” but can also be rendered “affliction,” “oppression,” or “distress.” The overwhelming majority of uses of this word refer to the church or to a specific believer suffering for their faith in Jesus. And this is its use here. John the apostle, as “a partaker in the tribulation,” is writing to his fellow partakers in the tribulation. The message is clear: if you would be a witness “of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” then you must be prepared to be a fellow partaker in the tribulation. Affliction, distress, and tribulation are simply an expected part of being a follower of Jesus. If you would follow Jesus, you should expect to suffer.

Tribulation necessitates perseverance. What does John mean by “perseverance?” “In the NT, this is the characteristic of a man who is not swerved from his deliberate purpose and his loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings.” Also implied in this word is the idea of ongoing and patient endurance. In other words, “perseverance” means remaining fixed on the mission or purpose or goal in the face of trials and sufferings, even sufferings that are persistent and that show no signs of abating.

Now, since John begins his prophecy with references to tribulation and perseverance, and since he implicitly encourages and exhorts his fellow partakers in the tribulation to persevere in their testimony of Jesus, it could be argued that one of the main purposes of Revelation is to encourage believers to persevere and be faithful until death (2:10), regardless of their tribulations. Revelation contains much about the suffering church, but if the church expects persecution (2 Tim. 3:12; John 15:18-20) and if the church is steeled to persevere, then our tribulations pose no threat.

INSTANCES OF SUFFERING IN REVELATION

With our study of tribulation and perseverance as a background, we will now survey the occurrences of suffering in Revelation.

  • We have already seen Revelation 1:9 where John himself is a fellow partaker in the tribulation. In war, officers are not exempt from death. Just so, in the gospel advance, apostles are not exempt, but rather serve as examples.
  • The church at Smyrna (2:8-11) is one of the two churches not called to repent by our Lord. Smyrna is a suffering church (2:9-10) who is called to be faithful until death (2:10).
  • In Revelation 6:9-11, we encounter “those who had been slain because of the word of God and because of their testimony” (see 1:2, 9). These souls are told to rest for a little while longer until the full number of martyrs is completed. These believers had already persevered even to a violent death and there were others who would also be faithful until death who would join them in heaven. But notice that their suffering yielded a white robe (6:11).
  • We meet the two witnesses in 11:3-12. These two represent the persecuted church that is faithful even in the face of intense opposition. They faithfully finish their testimony and then are overcome and killed by the beast (11:7). The world rejoices in their deaths, but that celebration is short-lived as the witnesses are taken up to heaven in the cloud.
  • The next chapter, chapter 12, is all about the activity of the dragon (Satan) as he pursues and persecutes “the woman,” who represents the oppressed church. “The woman” flees into the wilderness to hide from the dragon (12:6, 14) and appears to avoid direct persecution by her flight. This chapter shows that there will come a time when believers will be hunted and pursued, but the Lord will protect them.  
  • The tribulation of the church becomes intense and overt in chapter 13 as the beast and the false prophet (“another beast” 13:11) rise to power. In addition to blasphemies against God and a desire to be worshiped, the beast also “makes war with the saints and overcomes them” (13:7) and puts many in prison (“captivity”) and kills many with the sword (13:10). Then the false prophet (“another beast”) “causes as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (13:15) and prevents those who do not have the mark of the beast from buying (food) (13:17).
  • Next, we see the kings of the whole earth gather together under the leadership of the beast and the false prophet (16:13-16) for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty. This is Armageddon (16:16). Although the interpretation of this passage is quite complex, the basic idea is that the forces of evil, led by the beast, are gathered together for the annihilation of the church. We see this same picture in 19:19 and in 20:8-9.
  • There is suffering during the thousand years, as well (20:4-6), for there we see “the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and the word of God” (see also 1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:11).

Thus we see that, in the book of Revelation, the church militant is the church in tribulation, but we are exhorted to persevere and be faithful until death (2:10) and by so doing, we will receive our reward, the crown of life (2:10).

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 1/19/2023                   #613