Teaching series from Revelation

The Great Tribulation

Revelation 6-16

Teaching t23016


We come now to the longest and most ominous section of this book, Rev. 6-16, which is a multi-faceted look at the end of this age, the Great Tribulation.

Although some scholars say this section is not about the end of the age, the evidence is overwhelming. 7:14 speaks of people who have come out of the great tribulation (read). This term purposefully echoes Dan.12:1 and Jesus’ description of the period of evil and judgment immediately prior to his return (read Matt.24:21,22).

Over the next few weeks, we will take a closer look at some of the key characters of this period, who have such symbolic names as “the dragon,” “the beast,” “the false prophet,” and “mystery Babylon.” But today we will survey this entire passage and explore its main theme—God’s extraordinary judgmental and redemptive activity.

God’s judgmental activity

During this period, God is unusually active in judging the world. God’s judgmental activity is portrayed as a series of three 7-fold judgments: the seal judgments (6:1-17; 8:1), the trumpet judgments (8:2-9:21; 11:15-19), and the bowl judgments (15:5-16:21). It is not exactly clear (to me, at least) how these judgments are related to one another chronologically. The three sets of judgments increase in intensity, and they all seem to end with the return of Jesus. The main point is that they describe God’s temporal judgment on humanity at the end of the age, and that they end with Jesus’ return to defeat His enemies and establish God’s kingdom.

This raises the broader biblical question of how God judges in history. Because God is sovereign, all of these events are ultimately His judgments. But God judges historically in two different ways, and it is important to understand the distinction between these judgments.

Sometimes, God judges actively and directly—He intervenes to inflict retribution on His enemies. The plagues of Egypt during Moses’ day, through which God put increasing pressure on Pharaoh, are examples of God’s active judgment.

But more often in this age, God judges indirectly—He allows rebellious people to do what they want to do (see Ps.81:11,12; Rom.1:24,26). God has wise and merciful reasons for doing this, as we will see later.

In the book of Revelation, most of the Tribulational judgments are God’s passive judgment. For the most part, God removes his normal restraint of evil and permits wicked persons (demonic and human) to do what they want and to give rebellious humanity what it wants. Paul’s overview of this same period makes this clear (read and explain 2Thess.2:3-10). Before we turn to the question of why God does this, let’s first look at these Tribulational themselves, noting which ones are indirect (white) and which are direct (yellow).

All but one of the “seal” judgments are God’s passive judgment. Read 6:1,2. This is evidently a description of the emergence of the Antichrist to arise, as he sets out to conquer the world militarily. This sets in motion a series of horrible consequences in the next 3 seals: widespread war (6:3,4), famine (6:5,6), and death (6:7,8). The Antichrist also kills many of Jesus’ followers (6:9; Dan.7:25; Rev.13:7), which is obviously not God’s direct judgment. Only then does God directly intervene (6:12-17) through a series of unique seismic and cosmic events that signal His direct judgment on his enemies. SUMMARIZE.

It appears that most of the “trumpet” judgments are also God’s passive judgment. Trumpets 1-4 evidently record the devastation caused by the Antichrist’s (and Satan’s) horrible rule over humanity: vegetation, ocean, aquifer and atmospheric devastations (8:6-12; could this be the aftermath of nuclear war?). Trumpet 5 records the unleashing of demons to attack humanity (9:1-11; an unfallen angel “unlocks” the pit that unleashes Abaddon, which is Satan or a demon), which is also God’s indirect judgment. Trumpet 6 describes the “releasing” of an army to kill a third of humanity (read 9:14-16). Only then do we read of the direct judgment of God in the 7th trumpet to establish his kingdom and destroy those who have destroyed the earth in this way (read 11:15,18). SUMMARIZE.

The “bowl” judgments are almost all direct judgments by God on the Antichrist and his unrepentant followers. The first five are a series of plagues on them (16:1-9) – like the plagues God poured out on Pharaoh. The sixth is an indirect judgment, which releases demons to gather the rebellious nations together for the final battle against Jesus (16:12-16). The seventh describes God’s direct judgment of “Babylon”—Satan’s evil system (16:17-21; MORE ON THIS IN A FEW WEEKS). SUMMARIZE.

This brings us to another important insight—why God judges in these two ways. Why does God judge passively through most of the Great Tribulation, and why does he judge actively at the end? These two forms of judgment appear to have distinct purposes:

God intervenes in direct judgment to destroy His enemies in order to rescue the earth and humanity from destruction. So even God’s direct, retributive judgment is redemptive in this sense (ALLIES TAKING OUT HITLER; LIMB AMPUTATION).

Why does God judge indirectly by allowing His enemies to do so much damage before He intervenes directly?

Part of the answer seems to be that God is demonstrating the utter folly of rebellion against Him (the ancient lie that angels and humanity need to be independent from God to be “free”). By permitting rebels to do what they want (within limits), God demonstrates to the whole universe and for all time the wisdom of His rulership.

Another part of the answer is that God is working through these passive judgments to polarize humanity so that as many as possible will turn to Him before the final judgment. Revelation describes just such a polarization. Many people recognize that this is the hand of God, but refuse to repent and so harden themselves irretrievably (“they did not repent;” “they blasphemed God”). But evidently, millions of others turn to God in part because they realize through these judgments that there is no other answer. The other reason they turn to God is His redemptive activity during this same period of time...

God’s redemptive activity

At the same time that God pours out His judgment on humanity (in the above senses) in an extraordinary way, He also acts in extraordinary ways to reach out to people and invite them to come to his Son Jesus for salvation. The same chapters that describe these Tribulational judgments also describe at least four extraordinary ways that God reaches out to humanity.

THE MARTYRS: The Antichrist kills the followers of God in numbers that make past tyrants look tame. Read 6:9-11. God promises that He will judge their killers, but urges them to wait until the full number of martyrs has been killed. Why would God permit this? Because, as church history has shown, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The ultimate witness for Jesus is when his followers actually die for their faith. This is why the church always grows when it is persecuted. God is willing to allow many of his servants to be martyred so that lost people will see the reality of their faith and turn to Jesus. How can God let his people go through this? Because He did it Himself through Jesus, and because He will more than make it up to them in His eternal kingdom (cf. 20:4; 22:5).

THE 144,000: During the Tribulation, many Jewish people come to faith in Jesus. God raises up 144,000 of them (read 7:1-8) and protects them from the Antichrist, apparently so they can evangelize millions of people all over the world (read 7:9,10; CONTRASTS).

THE 2 WITNESSES: God raises up two extraordinary individuals and supernaturally protects them for a 3.5 year preaching ministry (read 11:3). Many believe that these two witnesses are none other than Moses and Elijah. The Antichrist murders them, apparently demonstrating his authority over Jesus—but then God raises them from the dead to heaven in full view of the world (read 11:7-12). Many come to Christ through their preaching and the resurrection that validates their preaching (11:13).

THE WITNESSING ANGEL: God apparently even sends an unfallen angel to proclaim the good news to the whole earth (read 14:6,7). The massive reaping described in 14:14-16 seems to refer to the people who respond to this amazing witness.

Christians disagree over the specific identity of these figures—but the main point is clear. The God of the Bible, who will eventually judge all unrepentant rebels, is also the God who does not wish for any to perish, and takes extraordinary measures to reach out to them (2Pet.3:9).

So what?

So much for this overview of the Great Tribulation. It’s time to ask how this applies to you, to how God acts judgmentally and redemptively in our lives. The Bible says that God relates to us in basically the same way...

How does God normally respond when we are opposed to Him and reject His right to rule your life? He lets us you go our own way, He lets us reap the consequences of living apart from Him. He does this, not because He doesn’t care, but in the hope that we will realize that our lives are empty and futile without Him, so that we will turn to Him (cf. Lk.15; ME). How much more do you need to experience before you admit this?

Even as He lets us go our own way, He actively reaches out to us. He has spoken to your heart when you were alone and undistracted. He has sent His people to you to tell you that Jesus is real, that He has changed their lives, and that He can change your life. He has drawn you to this Bible study this morning so that you could hear this very point! He is summoning you to Himself!

But you can harden yourself against God’s summons. You can kill that part of you that wants to yield to God, You can get to the point where the only part left is the part that says: “No! Under no circumstances will I submit to His rule!” And then there will be nothing left for you but God’s judgment—the penalty of eternal destruction away from His presence. This is the ultimate, unmitigated tragedy!

So be reconciled to God while there is still time (read 2Cor. 5:20). Admit to Him that you have rebelled against Him, that you have been a fugitive in flight from Him. Come back to Him and ask Him to forgive your through Jesus’ sacrifice. Tell Him that you want to be reconciled to Him and to have Him lead your life. I tell you from the bottom of my heart that this will be the beginning of real life for you!

Additional reasons that Rev. 6-16 is about the end of the age include the following. Any literal interpretation of these events is obviously unfulfilled. Granted that John uses symbolic language, he is still communicating a literal series of events. Unless we completely spiritualize this passage, we are reading about things that have never happened before. The beast (Antichrist), described in chapter 13, corresponds exactly to other passages describing the same person—all of which place this figure at the end of the age, interrupted by the Messiah’s rule (see Matt.24:15-31; 2Thess.2:3-8). The dozens of Old Testament quotes and allusions in this passage are to passages describing the end of the age and establishment of God’s kingdom (cf. 6:12-14; see Isa.24).

There are three common views on this subject: the Equivalence View, that these judgments represent three ways of viewing the same judgments; the Consecutive View, that these judgments are sequential, and the 7th seal and trumpet judgments open the trumpet and bowls judgments, respectively; the Progressive Intensification View, that these judgments are staggered but parallel, resulting in greater and greater intensification until the seventh judgments occur simultaneously resulting in the return of Jesus.

“Though many of the judgments of God inflicted on the earth during the great tribulation originate in divine power rather than satanic influence, the afflictions of the inhabitants of the earth spring largely from the activities of Satan, resulting in the martyrdom of countless saints and in widespread human suffering of every kind.” John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p.194.

See their unusual departures, their appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration as a foretaste of Jesus coming into his kingdom, 11:6 for similar miracles, and Mal.4:4-6.