The 'Church' & the Tribulation


‘The Church’ and ‘The Great Tribulation'

Will ‘The Church’ go through the tribulation has been asked by some for many years, and while we may need to clarify what we mean by  church,’ for me there can be but one answer and that is a resounding ‘No!”   The question arises from three misunderstanding: as to: first, the nature of the church; secondly. the nature of churches (assemblies); and thirdly,  the severity of the great tribulation.

  1. As to the nature of the Church.

Let us gather a few facts together.

First of all there are only two churches, or perhaps types of churches, in the New Testament and both are brought before us in the Gospel of Matthew.   The first is the Church which is the Body of Christ where speaking to Peter regarding his confession that he was the Christ the Son of God, the Lord said “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  (Matt 16:18).   This teaches us at least two things: first, that when the Lord spoke His church was yet future and secondly, that not all the powers of hell and the Devil could destroy it.  It is very precious to Him. 

This means that it was not something in existence in Old Testament times, and although there may have been some hints, for example in Joseph taking a Gentile bride or Rebecca acknowledging the headship of Isaac; there is no specific teaching about the Church.

In addition the Lord speaks of it as 'my church’ - it belongs to Him, and He is the Head.   Not only so, but he has a special love for it, a love manifested in His death.   The Epistle to the Ephesians we read that “Christ …. loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he may present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

The church, therefore, was and is something for which Christ gave himself on the Cross; and which it is his intention ultimately to present to himself holy and without blemish.  This concept of the Church being the Body of Christ is something specially revealed to the Apostle Paul and is only brought before us in the Epistle to the Ephesians and the Epistle to the Colossians.  

‘The word church (Gr. ecclesia) is never used in the New Testament in the singular number to embrace all believers in a country, or district or the churches in a locality.’  (W.E. Vine - ‘The Church and the Churches’ p.47).   There is no such thing as ‘the church’ in the sense of being a universal corporate group or authority on earth.  The idea of ‘the church of God on earth’ is not scriptural, neither is the notion of a national ‘church’ such as the church of England, church of Scotland, church of Rome, Eastern Orthodox church or any national corporate grouping.  There is a mistaken belief that some sort of corporate ecclesiastical power has been given to a body on earth and investing it with apostolic authority.  This could not be further from the truth.

The expression “The Church on earth” itself is not found in Scripture,  and this error sewn by the Adversary himself is calculated to draw our eyes away from what is the true church, and to pretend that the church has a place of authority on the earth.   It is this that has led some to to adopt the notion of what is called ‘replacement theology’ where all the blessings promised to Israel are transferred to ‘the church’ by which they mean the ecclesiastical church.

It is disappointing that some brethren do use the expression ‘the church’ by which they mean believers in some sort of collective sense other than the local assembly.  It might be understandable, but it is unfortunate as it perpetuates the idea that their is such a body, rather than describing them as, say, ‘christians” or ‘the saints’ or indeed ‘the believers’ apart from which they are part of ‘christendom’ or perhaps of ‘the kingdom of God’ which we do not have time to go into in this brief article.

Let us remember that the Church is essentially and entirely a spiritual entity which has its Head in heaven, and comprises all believers from Pentecost to the Rapture.    It does seem odd that some should believe that upon a relatively small last group of believers remaining on earth just before the Lord returns should be poured out the judgements of God.  This would mean that the judgements of the great tribulation would be inflicted on part of the body of Christ, and inflicted by Christ Himself.   The notion is ridiculous, since the Church is seen as raised together and seated with Christ in the Heavenlies even now. (Eph. 2:6)  My mind wanders to the epistle to the Ephesians: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” (Eph. 5:29,30).  Allowing even a part of His body to suffer under the judgements of God hardly seems nourishing and cherishing it.   The thought of Christ acting in this way is derisible and borders on blasphemy.

2. As to the nature of local churches (assemblies)

The second ‘church’ mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew is in Chapter 18, where the Lord raises the issue of a brother trespassing against another and the way in which this might be resolved.   First of all he tells the offended brother to go to the other and tell him about the problem “between thee and him alone” (v.15).  If however, he will not hear thee, then says the Lord “take with thee two or three witnesses;”  (v.16); and finally if he refuses to hear them he has to take the problem “to the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” (v.17)

It is self evident that this can only take place in a ‘local church’ which the Lord describes as being “gathered together in [or unto] my name” (v.20) and therefore possessing His authority in relation to structure and discipline.  Clearly local believers or elders would not have the authority to cast out of the church which is His Body.  How could that be, since, as we have said, the Church is seen as seated with Christ in the heavenlies.  It is also the expression "are gathered in (or unto) my name” is not meant to refer to any group of believers wherever they might happen to be, but rather a company that has been gathered together by the Spirit of God owning the authority of Christ as an assembly.

Wherever the apostle Paul writes to a church it is always a local group of believers even although within that letter he might refer to the body of Christ, teaching that we are part of a far greater company.   In the letter to the Hebrews the writer tells us that we “are come… to the general assembly (i.e. the festal gathering of the whole people) and church (ecclesia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…”   We should note that the word ‘firstborn’ is plural and refers to all those whose names are written in heaven.   

A group of people gathered unto the name of our Lord Jesus Christ can have no authority or jurisdiction over another assembly elsewhere, although we may enjoy fellowship and have a moral relationship with believers elsewhere.  

We should also note that the word ‘church’ as generally understood by many as referring to a building, does not originate from within the New Testament.   The origin of the word is from Old English related to the Dutch kerk and German kirche, based on medieval Greek from the Greek kiarjkon ‘Lord’s (house)’ (Compare Scottish ‘kirk’).

The church in the New Testament, however, means a group of people called out (ek kaleo)  into an assembly (a congregation) and refers to the people, and never to the place where they might meet.  It is expressed well by James “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” (Acts 15:14).  However, it was on the direct instruction of another James (James I king of Great Britain and Ireland) who commanded that the 1611 Translation  was to “keep the old ecclesiastical words viz. the word church not to be translated congregation, etc”  (See The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version, by Derek Wilson, Lion 2010 p89).

The New Testament shows clearly that the individual assemblies (churches), were entirely autonomous, guided by elders, but owning no other authority but Christ himself.   They were the local expression of that greater body, had no central control, and while enjoying a spiritual and moral relationship to other similar assemblies, were nevertheless independent.   There was no corporate governance that could result in the whole being known collectively as 'the church’

3.  As to the nature and severity of ‘The Tribulation’

That the Lord said to his disciples that in the world ye shall have tribulation is something without doubt, and it is true that at varying times and degrees this has been so throughout history.  However, it is important that we do not identify these times of tribulations of the churches with what is called ‘The Tribulation, the Great’ (Rev. 7: lit.) about which the Lord taught in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, when the disciples asked him “what shall be the sign of thy coming and of the end of the age”  (The King James Version has ‘end of the world’ but the word is ionios (age).  What did the disciples have in minds when they asked that question?  Precisely what, we shall never know, but we can gather from other scriptures in the New Testament that perhaps they expected (as John the baptist did), that the introduction of the times of refreshing should be brought in immediately.

Let us look at some of the characteristics of the ‘tribulation’ in the two accounts in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 combined:

     - False christs
     - Wars and rumours of wars
     - Nation agains nation
     - Famines, pestilences
     - Earthquakes in various places
     - Great signs from heaven
     - Disciples hated of all nations 
     - Desolation nigh
     - False prophets
     - Abounding iniquity
     - Abomination of desolation
     - Great tribulation
     - Jerusalem compassed by armies
     - Jerusalem trodden underfoot
     - Signs in the heavens
     - Men’s hearts failing them
     - Son of Man Returns in power

The Old Testament

If we examine the features of the Day of the Lord in Isaiah 13 we would find that it has these characteristics:

    - The Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle (v. 4) 

    - Weapons of the Lord’s indignation (v.5)

    - A destruction from the Almighty (v.6)

    - Hands shall be faint, hearts shall melt (v.7)

    - Marked by pangs and sorrows (v.8)

    - Manifestations in the heavens (v.10)

    - The Wrath of the Lord (v. 9)

    - The Day of His fierce anger (v. 9)

    - Judgement upon Babylon as the overthrow of Sodom & Gomorrah            (v.19)

Consistently throughout Scripture the expression “the day of the Lord” is used of the final judgement of God upon the nation Israel, mankind in general and the introduction of the kingdom from above.  It is not used of interim judgements, however severe.

“For this is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge him of his adversaries: and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood: for the Lord GOD of hosts hath a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.” (Jer. 46:10)

“For the day is near, even the day of the LORD is near, a cloudy day; it shall be the time of the heathen.” (Ezek. 30:3)

In Isaiah Chapter 13 we find these words: “For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.” (Isa. 13:10)  Isaiah’s prophecy anticipates the teaching of the Lord Jesus shortly before his death, when he warned his disciples of the character of the times before his return to earth. 

It is worth pondering the words of the Saviour in Matthew’s Gospel: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.  And except those days should be, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.” (Matt. 24:21,22)

If we were to look at the Book of Revelation in which there is depicted the consumation of these things we will see that these days are marked by the outpouring of the wrath of God upon an unbelieving and Christ rejecting world.   

In Revelation Chapter 5 there is depicted war, famine and death, and the terror of the inhabitants of the earth who are seen as hiding themselves in the dens and rocks of the mountains desiring that they might fall on them to hide them from the face of him that sitteth on the throne and from the Lamb.  It is the great day of his wrath.

In Chapter 8 we are told that there will be hail and fire mingled with blood, trees and all green grass burnt up.  Sea creatures and ships destroyed.   And towards the end of the chapter we have the words “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices which are yet to sound.” (Rev. 8:13).  Later in the book we find “Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” (Rev. 12:12).

We could go on, but this will suffice to show that this is no ordinary tribulation that has been experienced before, but nothing less than the outpouring of the wrath of God.

But says the Apostle Paul “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (1 Thess. 5:9).   The salvation here is not the salvation from the wrath at the judgement throne of God (though it involves that), but from the wrath to be poured out on mankind.   It confirms the word used earlier where he speaks of “His Son from the heavens, whom he raised from among the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath(1 Thess 1:10 JND)

I do not doubt that the Letters to the Seven Churches, so called, are partly to be seen as symbolic of conditions prevailing during this age.   One of those conditions is found at Philadelphia, which I doubt not refers to believers who still remain on the earth when the Lord comes and is a word of encouragement for their faithfulness: where we are told “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation (or trial), which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” (Revelation 3:10).  That hour of trial is unfolded in succeeding chapters.   Being kept from that hour of trial is one of the great promises to believers.

We do not await the Great Tribulation, but we are “awaiting the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ;” (Titus 2:13 JND), and fulfilment of the promise that “when He shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

What a wonderful hope is set before us.

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The significance of the Kingdom of God in mystery (Matt. 13); the prophetic teaching of the ‘Letters to the Seven Churches’ (Rev. 2 & 3), and the significance of the 70th Week of Daniel (Dan. 9), have not been touched upon here although they do have something to say on the subject before us.



© Douglas Carr 2021