Appointed to Tribulation

SYNOPSIS – According to Paul, disciples of Jesus escape “wrath” but endure “tribulation” - To which they have been “appointed – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4

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In the New Testament, the terms “tribulation” and “wrath” are NOT synonymous. “Tribulation” is what disciples of Jesus endure for his sake and the Kingdom. Most often, “wrath” refers to the fate of the wicked at the “end of the age” – “Wrath” is what unrepentant sinners endure as the just punishment for their rebellion and iniquities.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul taught that the church is not destined for “wrath.” However, in the very same letter, he declared that it has been appointed to “suffer tribulation” - At least the church at Thessalonica:
  • God did not appoint us to wrath, but to the acquiring of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” - (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
  • Wherefore, no longer concealing our anxiety, we were well-pleased to be left in Athens alone; And sent Timothy—our brother and God’s minister in the glad-message of the Christ—that he might confirm and console you over your faith, That no one, might be shrinking back in these tribulations. For ye yourselves know that hereunto are we appointed; For even when we were with you, we told you beforehand—we are destined to suffer tribulation! even as it also came to pass, and ye know” - (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4).
In this letter, either Paul contradicted himself or he did not equate “tribulation” with “wrath.”

By enduring persecution, the Thessalonian Christians “became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much tribulation with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus taught his disciples to expect tribulation and persecution in this age. They would have tribulation but could be of good cheer - “Because I have overcome the world” - (1 Thessalonians 1:6, Matthew 13:21).

Jesus warned that opponents of the faith would deliver disciples “for tribulation and kill them: and they will be hated by all the nations.”  Before his return, there would be “great tribulation” for the saints. Only “he who endures to the end” will be saved - (Matthew 24:9, 24:21-22).

According to Jesus, and contrary to human wisdom, men and women who endure persecution for his sake are pronounced “Blessed!” The Kingdom of God belongs to these very ones:
  • (Matthew 5:10-12) - “Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice! Be exceeding glad! For great is your reward in heaven!”
Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul encourages us to rejoice in suffering. We are to “exult in our tribulations because they bring about endurance, and our endurance a testing, and our testing hope” - (Romans 5:3, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4).

Neither “tribulation nor anguish nor persecution nor famine nor nakedness nor peril nor sword” can separate us from Jesus - “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” In “tribulations,” Christians must remain patient and “continue steadfastly in prayer.” It is God who “comforts us in every tribulation, so that we ourselves may be able to comfort those who are in any tribulation.” Tribulations “prepare for us an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (Romans 8:35-39, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4, 4:17).

According to Peter, it is thankworthy if a man endures suffering for the sake of his “conscience toward God” - There is no glory or honor if one suffers for doing wrong. However, if a man or woman suffers patiently for his or her obedience to God, it is praiseworthy. Moreover, believers “have been called for this” very thing - (1 Peter 2:19-20, 4:15).

To suffer for the gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus, who “left us an example” in his self-sacrificial death. Disciples found worthy to “suffer for righteousness' sake” are blessed, and this is in “accord with the will of God” - (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:14-18, 4:19).

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul boasted of their steadfastness - They endured faithfully through “all their persecutions and tribulations.” Note well the use of plural nouns. Believers and non-believers are both found alive when Jesus arrives from Heaven, an event that will result in the vindication of some, but the condemnation of others. The sufferings of the Thessalonian disciples occurred so that:
  • They “might be counted worthy of the kingdom of God in behalf of which they were suffering, if, at least, it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” - (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
In his epistles, “wrath” is NOT identical to “tribulation.” Ultimately, “wrath” is linked to the “end of the age” and the final judgment of the wicked. The impenitent man stores up for himself “wrath” and “fury” for the “day of wrath.” Because of sin, the “wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.” Because Christians have been set right by Jesus, they shall “be saved by him from the wrath of God” - (Romans 2:5-8, 5:9, Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6-8).
This coming “wrath” is connected to the day Jesus returns in glory. God has not appointed the church to experience it, but instead, to the acquisition of salvation through Jesus. Salvation means that believers do not experience His “wrath” at the end of the age, not that they escape suffering and trials in this life - (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9).
In the book of Revelation, when John addressed the seven churches of Asia – While in exile on the isle of Patmos - He identified himself with their situation:
  • (Revelation 1:9) – “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the perseverance in Jesus.”
In this verse, “tribulation” has a definite article or “the tribulation,” which signifies something that is known and identifiable. Among the seven churches of Asia, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no correction - Both are praised for their faithfulness. Yet to Smyrna Jesus declares - “I know your tribulation and things you are going to suffer.” He encouraged them “not to fear what you are about to suffer” and promised that they would have tribulation for ten days.” Apparently, the healthiest churches are destined to undergo even more persecution and tribulation - (Revelation 2:8-11).

The Christians in Smyrna were summoned to “be faithful unto death,” even if that meant a martyr’s death. In this very way, saints “overcome” and escape something far worse and longer-lasting than tribulation – The “Second Death.”

In one vision, John saw a great innumerable multitude of saints redeemed from every nation standing before the Throne and the Lamb, men and women who “were coming out of the great tribulation.” This term refers to the same tribulation mentioned previously by John - (Revelation 1:9, 7:9-17).

Wrath” first appears in Revelation when the sixth seal is opened, which results in a final day characterized by celestial and terrestrial upheaval, and the “wrath of the Lamb” and God. This is not an extended period of tribulation but the final day of wrath:
  • And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, that a great earthquake took place; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the full moon became as blood, and the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig-tree sheddeth her winter figs when, by a great wind, it is shaken, and the heaven was withdrawn as a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island, out of their places, were shaken. And the kings of the earth and the great men, and the rulers of thousands, and the rich, and the mighty, and every bondman and freeman, hid themselves within the caves and within the rocks of the mountains; and they say unto the mountains and unto the rocks—Fall upon us and hide us from the face of him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; Because the great day of their wrath is come, and who is able to stand?” - (Revelation 6:12-17).
"Wrath” occurs next when the seventh trumpet sounds. It is the time for the “dead to be vindicated and to give their reward to God’s servants the prophets and to the saints,” but also for God’s “wrath and the time for the dead to be judged.” This is a picture of the final judgment when the righteous are vindicated and the wicked condemned - (Revelation 11:15-19).

The final “hour” to reap the harvest of the earth is declared in the fourteenth chapter. All men who rebelled against the “Lamb” will then “drink the wine of God's wrath - Poured unmixed into the cup of his anger.” This portrays the same event as the one when the Rider on a White Horse “treads the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” after the final battle with the “Beast and False Prophet” - (Revelation 14:14-20, 19:11-21).

In the book of Revelation, “wrath” refers to the final judgment against the enemies of God. “Tribulation” is what the “saints” endure at the hands of the “Dragon” and his earthly agents - (Revelation 12:17, 13:7, 14:12).

In the same letter, Paul wrote that “God did not appoint us to wrath,” and that “we are appointed for tribulation.” There is no contradiction. For him, the terms refer to two different things - “Wrath” is God’s judicial sentence on the wicked. “Tribulation” is what the world inflicts on Christians for the sake of the gospel.

Tribulation” is what disciples of Jesus endure - It is a part of what it means to follow the “Lamb wherever he goes,” to daily “deny yourself and take up the cross.”  Suffering for his sake is not punishment or aberration, but instead, grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer persecution for him is the highest honor and greatest “blessing” to befall a disciple - “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” - (2 Timothy 3:12).

In contrast, the unrepentant undergo “wrath” at the end of the age, a dreadful thing reserved for the unrepentant, something to be avoided at all costs.