25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” 29 His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. 33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
— John 16:25-33, ESV
Over the past thirty years of pastoral ministry, I have found various ways and means to cause trouble in churches. These include believing the Bible, preaching the gospel, and applying scriptural standards for church membership and leadership. Such principles should not have been controversial, but too much of the world had crept into the church.
When the world gets into the church there will be trouble. When the church goes into the world there will be trouble. Forty-five times the New Testament calls this theological conflict “tribulation,” including three occasions when it is referred to as “great tribulation.”
Great tribulation comes to Christians because of the great revelation God has given to us of Himself and His plan of salvation. Since the advent of Jesus Christ, time and humanity have been divided by this revelation. You either believe it, like Jesus and His first followers, or you don’t, like the self-righteous Jews and unrighteous Gentiles. Great revelation creates ideological and sometimes literal battle lines. Then great tribulation occurs, in more ways than one.
The great revelation that Jesus spoke of had yet to arrive. It awaited “that day.” Perhaps He meant the third day, the day the gospel would be written on a rolled away stone. Maybe He meant the fiftieth day, Pentecost, when God the Spirit spoke through the mouths of the Apostles what God the Son had done to fulfill the plan of God the Father. Truly, all the days between the first coming and second of Jesus Christ could be considered “that day,” when figures of speech become plain and God and the gospel become clear.
What is plain and clear, from the intimate upper room discourse and the events immediately following, is the disciples of Jesus did not get the cross until after the cross. They didn’t get the whole story of Jesus until after the whole story unfurled, which had to include Jesus’ death and resurrection. Complete Christian faith, in this brief dispensation of overlapping lines between the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and inauguration of the New Covenant, was a work in progress.
Jesus promised “the hour is coming” for them, when the great revelation would come, and great tribulation would ensue. Let’s make sure we get the great revelation first, then we’ll discuss how to deal with the great tribulation.
Jesus came to give us a great revelation of God and the gospel. Over a period of three years, He revealed theological truths in figures of speech, parabolic tales, and vague fulfillments of prophecies. Beginning with the upper room discourse, and continuing on for forty post-resurrection days ahead of them, certain teachings about God became plain and clear.
The tri-unity of God, or the Trinity, is a great revelation of God. The disciples begin to get it in this text, confessing “we believe that you came from God.” Hearkening back to the “I Am” statements and the miraculous signs of deity, the disciples finally understood what Jesus had told them months or years before, “I and the Father are one” (ref. John 10:30). Combine this with Jesus’ recent teaching on the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of the Trinity becomes formulated as apostolic doctrine.
The personal and powerful love of God is a great revelation of God. Before the advent of Christ, God seemed distant and transcendent to the Israelites. Jesus broke that barrier with the incarnation, and His ministry made God imminent to those who believe drew near to Him. Christ’s presence and Christ’s passion proved one powerful truth, God “the Father Himself loves you,” if you love and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus had said so, years before, “For God so loved the world” (ref. John 3:16). To borrow a line from Burt Bacharach, what the world needs now is love. But it needs more than love, it needs the gospel.
Jesus came to give us a great revelation about the gospel. The words in this text are “figures of speech,” where “I came from the Father [and] I am going back to the Father” shed light on that previous revelation in John 3:16. God showed His love by giving Himself in the person and work of the Son. The Son’s mission was to bring a new covenant for all nations, be killed to kill sin, live again to give life, and leave the earth with the promise of Heaven to all those who accept the great revelation and risk the great tribulation.
The disciples’ profession of faith is commendable. However, there is more than an ounce of sarcasm in Jesus’ question, “Do you now believe?” Perhaps great revelation requires great tribulation to bring it to great realization.
Jesus promised the disciples, that as a result of their affirmation of His revelation, “You will be scattered, each to his own home.” Furthermore, the Lord punctuated the discourse with another promise, “In the world you will have tribulation.”
Unlike other theologians, I do not make a great dichotomy between “tribulation” and “great tribulation.” All tribulation is great, if you are the one going through it. It is like the difference between suffering and intense suffering, or surgery and major surgery. All suffering is intense and all surgery is major if it is happening to you.
Focus for a moment on the meaning of the word “tribulation.” It means trouble, suffering, or persecution brought on by unbelievers against Christ, Christianity, Christians, and the Christian church. If something negative happens to you because you are a Christian, you can rightly call it tribulation. It has always been, and it is always been great.
Jesus experienced great tribulation at the hands of Judas, soldiers, Herod, Pilate and the cross. Those first disciples and Apostles, to a man, experienced great tribulation as they spread the gospel and planted churches in Judaea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. The early church, the medieval church, the reformers, the missionaries, and our contemporary brothers and sisters in hot spots all over the world can tell us about tribulation, and it is always great, in more ways than one.
On one hand, tribulation can cause great pain and shame. The disciples were about to abandon Jesus when Judas and the soldiers showed up. Peter made a brief, misguided effort of defense, and John would eventually follow from a distance, but overall they were scattered until after the resurrection. People make false professions of faith in Christ all the time, and sometimes true Christians make false denials when threatened with tribulation, and that’s not great.
Tribulation is great, however, when it causes personal and numerical growth in the body of Christ. Tribulation does a great job of separating the sheep from the goats (ref. Matthew 13:21), scattering believers into fields of mission and service (ref. Acts 11:19), producing perseverance (ref. Romans 5:3), and creating stronger bonds between Christ and the Christian (ref. Romans 8:31-39). Tribulation will be great when it ushers in the new heaven and earth (ref. Matthew 24:29). Tribulation will result in great vengeance and wrath poured out upon the enemies of Christ (ref. 2 Thessalonians 1:6; Revelation 7:14). When Christ returns, all tribulation will be considered great, and great will be both the reward and retribution of the Lord.
The question we must ask ourselves now is, is accepting the great revelation of the gospel worth the great tribulation that follows followers of Christ?
Yes, says the Lord Jesus Christ (ref. Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:5; Hebrews 12:2). Yes, says Paul (ref. Romans 8:18; Philippians 1:21). Yes, says John (ref. 1 John 3:1-3), who penned the text we pan today for gold, and find it. To those who trust the great revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and prove it by enduring great tribulation for the sake of Christ, we have the promise of peace from Christ, which enables us to say with Christ, “I have overcome the world.”