In studying the dispensations of innocence, conscience, government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom, we have seen, at times, a degree of overlap between the various administrative systems through which God has regulated His dealings with mankind.
The Acts period stands out especially, containing elements of law, grace, and kingdom.
A second historical period which does not fit neatly into a dispensational pigeonhole is the coming ‘tribulation’. This brief season of future history fits chronologically between grace and kingdom, although spiritually its characteristics are more akin to law and kingdom. Though short in duration, the tribulation is the subject of much prophecy in both the Old and New Testaments.
In Daniel chapter 9 verses 20 to 27 an angel revealed to the prophet when the present age would end, and God’s kingdom be established on earth. Specifically, from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, Neh. 2. 5-8, to the end of the age, there would be seventy ‘weeks’ of seven years. The prophecy divides these 490 years into three sections, the last section being just seven years long. After the 483rd year ‘the Messiah shall be cut off’ – a prophecy of the death of Christ. Various Bible scholars1 have shown that this section of the prophecy was fulfilled with remarkable accuracy.
We might expect, then, that the kingdom would be established seven years after the death and resurrection of Christ, but, of course, it wasn’t. Because of Israel’s rejection of Messiah, and God’s desire to make the gospel known to the Gentiles, He stopped the prophetic clock, as it were, with seven years yet to run. We live in a span of history not prophesied about in the Old Testament, between Daniel’s sixty-ninth and seventieth ‘weeks’. We sometimes call this ‘the day of grace’ – and, indeed, God is being very gracious to mankind, extending the gospel of grace to all who will believe and delaying the onset of Daniel’s seventieth week, which will be a time of terrible judgement on the earth.
The event which stopped the prophetic clock was the death of Christ. The event which will start it ticking again will be the rapture of the church. Once the church has been caught up to be with the Lord, God will resume His prophetic programme for the earth.
The term ‘tribulation’ comes from the Lord Jesus’ own description of this period in Matthew chapter 24. The tribulation marks the first phase in what Old Testament prophecy refers to as ‘the Day of the Lord’. There will be judgement of the world generally, for its wickedness, and of Israel particularly, for the nation’s rejection of Christ. Revelation chapters 6 to 18 predict in detail events which will happen during this time.
What will God require of mankind during the tribulation? He will raise up 144,000 Jewish witnesses, Rev. 7. 4-8, who will preach ‘the gospel of the kingdom’, Matt. 24. 14 – substantially the same message the Lord and His disciples preached in the Gospels, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’.
Those who repent, whether Jews or Gentiles, will be saved, though many of these tribulation believers will be martyred, Rev. 6. 9. Meanwhile, God’s judgements will increase in severity, and over half the world’s population will die, Rev. 6. 8; 9. 15.
The tribulation will be concluded when the Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory to establish His kingdom, Rev. 19. 11-21.
While much Old Testament prophecy concerns the judgements of the tribulation, there is also a significant emphasis on what God requires of ‘the remnant’ – that is, the small number of Jews and others who will respond to the preaching of the 144,000 and be preparing themselves for the Messiah’s coming. Many of the Psalms have this remnant in view, and it may well be that the Lord Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, as well as the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude, will take on extra-special significance during this time.
The church, the body of Christ, will be caught up to heaven before the tribulation, so scriptures referring to this period do not have direct application to us,2 though we can still learn valuable principles from them. For example, tribulation believers will preach the gospel of the kingdom, ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’;3 but we proclaim the gospel of God’s grace, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved’.4 Tribulation believers will be watching for the prophesied signs of the King returning in glory; we are waiting for our heavenly Bridegroom to come and take us to His Father’s house – but there are no signs given to watch for. He could return for us at any moment! Maranatha! ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus!’