Summary: Let's talk about the 4 Great Tribulations of Revelation (Material adapted from Alger Fitch's book, Revelation, Chapter 2, The Perspective of Opposition, pgs. 39-54)
A friend says to a seminarian, “What subjects are you studying at school?” The young theologian says, “You know, the usual, Biblical Texts, Church History, Ministry and Systematic Theology.” The friend asks if he has studied anything on eschatology in his Systematic class.
The seminarian responds, “I think I missed that class. I don’t know much about the subject, but it’s not the end of the world.”
Revelation talks about the Great Tribulation but more correctly we should say the Great Tribulations. The Christians to whom John wrote then were aware of tribulation. Another word for tribulation is suffering. “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Revelation 1:9, NIV. “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation...” Revelation 1:9, KJV.
John knew full well that his fellow apostles had been martyred. He also knew what persecution was coming upon the churches to whom he was writing from his place of exile.
Thesis: Let’s talk about the 4 Great Tribulations of Revelation
1. The Great Tribulation of the Lost
“And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Revelation 20:10, NIV.
Another way to put this is that the eternal place of great tribulation for the lost is called Hell or Gehenna. Even though John does not use this word many believe that Gehenna, which means Valley of Hinnom, is what John had in mind when he referred 6 times in Revelation to the lake of fire or of burning sulfur. “But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur.” Revelation 19:20, NIV.
Southeast of the walled city of Jerusalem (a type of heaven) was the city’s garbage dump (a type of hell). Before the Jews entered the Promised Land, the valley of Hinnom had been the center of Molech worship. Molech was an iron bull 9 feet tall. It was hollow within and contained a roaring fire, kept burning by its priests. Onto the idol’s two outreached arms, frightened pagan parents placed their infants in human sacrifice to this idol. The pagan priests beat drums to drown out the shrieks of the babies, whose lives were offered to appease this angry god. When the Jews took over the land, they felt it off limits to place their homes in such a place where these horrible practices were performed. They chose to make the valley a place fit only for their garbage. Any day in the time of Jesus, as one looked to the south from the city wall of Jerusalem, he would see smoke rising from the dump.
The last two verses of Revelation 20 mention the condition of being apart from God forever. “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:14, 15, NIV. The next 35 verses as one reads into chapters 21 and 22, describe the glories of being with God eternally in the New Jerusalem. The truth is that God wants to bring all human beings into the protection and radiance of His holy city. The truth also is that those who refuse to enter the Holy City will dwell in the garbage dump.
This message should be taken very seriously. Heaven will be better than what John describes for us. Hell also will be worse than what John describes for us. Heaven is more wonderful that earthly Jerusalem. Hell is more awful than Gehenna. Both are realities. This awareness ought to keep the church at its mission of rescue.
Revelation 14:14-16 pictures the righteous lovingly harvested and 14:17-20 describes the evil totally crushed and eternally damned in Gehenna. We have a job to do. History is not done yet. The remaining time the church has needs to be spent in missions.
2. The Great Tribulation of the Lamb
One great tribulation is in the eternity yet to come. To keep that tribulation from happening to all, another great tribulation occurred in the past. It is mentioned throughout the book of Revelation. This tribulation took place not in Gehenna, but on Golgotha. Reading Revelation, the reader is impressed with the great suffering awaiting the lost, those who refuse to accept God’s grace. He is likewise reminded of the great suffering God’s Lamb went through to offer that grace, to make possible deliverance from eternal judgment.