The Greek word thliʹpsis, usually rendered “tribulation,” basically means distress, affliction or suffering resulting from the pressures of circumstances. It is used with reference to the affliction associated with childbirth (John 16:21), persecution (Matt. 24:9; Acts 11:19; 20:23; 2 Cor. 1:8; Heb. 10:33; Rev. 1:9), imprisonment (Rev. 2:10), poverty and other adversities common to orphans and widows (Jas. 1:27), famine (Acts 7:11), and punishment for wrongdoing. (Rom. 2:9; Rev. 2:22) The “tribulation” mentioned at 2 Corinthians 2:4 apparently refers to the distress felt by the apostle Paul because of the wrong conduct of the Christians at Corinth and on account of his having to correct them with severity.
MARRIAGE BRINGS TRIBULATION IN THE FLESH
When recommending singleness as the better course, the apostle Paul observed: “But even if you did marry, you would commit no sin. . . . However, those who do will have tribulation in their flesh.” (1 Cor. 7:28) Marriage is attended by certain anxieties and cares for husband, wife and children. (1 Cor. 7:32-35) Sickness can bring burdens and stresses on the family. As to Christians, persecution may arise. Families may be driven from their homes. Fathers may find it hard to provide life’s necessities for their households. Parents or children may be separated by imprisonment, suffer torture at the hands of persecutors or even lose their lives.
FAITHFUL ENDURANCE UNDER TRIBULATION
Tribulation in the form of persecution can have a weakening effect upon the faith of an individual. Christ Jesus, in his illustration of the sower, indicated that certain persons would actually be stumbled on account of tribulation or persecution. (Matt. 13:21; Mark 4:17) Being aware of this danger, the apostle Paul was very much concerned about the newly formed congregation at Thessalonica. Those associated with that congregation had embraced Christianity under much tribulation (1 Thess. 1:6; compare Acts 17:1, 5-10) and continued to experience such. The apostle therefore sent Timothy to strengthen and comfort them, “that no one might be swayed by these tribulations.” (1 Thess. 3:1-3, 5) When Timothy brought back news that the Thessalonians had remained firm in the faith, Paul was greatly comforted. (1 Thess. 3:6, 7) Doubtless the apostle’s efforts in preparing them to expect tribulation also helped the Thessalonians to continue to be faithful servants of God.—1 Thess. 3:4; compare John 16:33; Acts 14:22.
Although tribulation is unpleasant, the Christian can exult while enduring it, since he knows that faithfulness is approved by God and will ultimately lead to the realization of his grand hope. (Rom. 5:3-5; 12:12) The tribulation itself is but momentary and light in comparison with the everlasting glory to be received for remaining faithful. (2 Cor. 4:17, 18) The Christian can also rest assured that God’s loyal love will never waver, whatever tribulation may come upon the faithful believer.—Rom. 8:35-39.
In writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul pointed to yet other factors that would help the Christian to endure tribulation. He stated: “Blessed be the God . . . of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those in any sort of tribulation through the comfort with which we ourselves are being comforted by God. . . . Now whether we are in tribulation, it is for your comfort and salvation; or whether we are being comforted, it is for your comfort that operates to make you endure the same sufferings that we also suffer.” (2 Cor. 1:3-6) The precious promises of God, the help of his holy spirit and his answering the prayers of those experiencing tribulation are a source of comfort to Christians. On the basis of their own experience, they can encourage and comfort still others, their example of faithfulness and expressions of conviction inspiring such ones likewise to remain faithful.
Paul himself appreciated the comfort given to him by fellow believers as he endured tribulations. He commended the Philippian Christians for this: “You acted well in becoming sharers with me in my tribulation.” (Phil. 4:14) Being genuinely interested in Paul, imprisoned at Rome, they assisted him to bear his tribulation by helping him materially.—Phil. 4:15-20.
There are times, however, when certain persons become fearful on account of the tribulation experienced by others. With this in mind, Paul encouraged the Ephesian Christians: “I ask you not to give up on account of these tribulations of mine in your behalf, for these mean glory for you.” (Eph. 3:13) The persecutions or tribulations experienced by Paul resulted from his ministering to the Ephesians and others. For this reason he could speak of them as tribulations ‘in their behalf.’ His faithful endurance under such tribulations meant “glory” for the Ephesian Christians, since it demonstrated that what they had as Christians (including God’s sure promises and their precious relationship with Jehovah God and his Son Christ Jesus) was worth enduring for. (Compare Colossians 1:24.) Had Paul, as an apostle, given up, this would have meant disgrace for the congregation. Others could have been stumbled.—Compare 2 Corinthians 6:3, 4.
THE “GREAT TRIBULATION”
When answering the question of his disciples concerning the sign of his presence and the conclusion of the system of things, Jesus mentioned a “great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” (Matt. 24:3, 21) As a comparison of Matthew 24:15-22 with Luke 21:20-24 reveals, this had initial reference to a tribulation to come upon Jerusalem. The fulfillment came in 70 C.E., when the city was besieged by the Roman armies under General Titus. This resulted in severe famine conditions and much loss of life. The Jewish historian Josephus relates that 1,100,000 Jews were killed or died, whereas 97,000 survived and were taken into captivity. Such a “great tribulation” has not occurred again or been repeated upon Jerusalem.
Jesus also referred to this tribulation in connection with his coming in glory: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send forth his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity.” (Matt. 24:29-31) The term “immediately” in this passage does not rule out the possibility of a lapse of a considerable period between the tribulation upon Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and the events that were to follow. Writes Greek scholar A. T. Robertson: “This word, common in Mark’s Gospel as euthus, gives trouble if one stresses the time element. The problem is how much time intervenes between ‘the tribulation of those days’ and the vivid symbolism of verse 29. The use of en tachei [“shortly”] in Rev. 1:1 should make one pause before he decides. Here we have a prophetic panorama like that with foreshortened perspective. The apocalyptic pictures in verse 29 [of Matthew 24] also call for sobriety of judgment. . . . Literalism is not appropriate in this apocalyptic eschatology.”—Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. I, pp. 192, 193.
Others have made like observations concerning the use of the Greek word rendered “immediately” at Matthew 24:29. A footnote on this text in The Westminster Version of the Sacred Scriptures reads: “‘Straightway’ [immediately] is probably here ‘a term of prophecy, not of history’, and so does not imply immediate sequence, which indeed in any case is not always to be pressed . . . Similar terms are common in apocalyptic literature to introduce a new scene in a rapidly changing series of visions: cf. Apoc. xi. 14: xxii. 12.” Commentator Matthew Henry writes: “It is usual, in the prophetical style, to speak of things great and certain as near and just at hand, only to express the greatness and certainty of them. . . . A thousand years are, in God’s sight, but as one day, 2 Pet. iii.8. It is there urged, with reference to this very thing, and so it might be said to be immediately after.”—A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. V, p. 205.
Biblical evidence indicates that the tribulation upon Jerusalem in 70 C.E. pointed forward to a far greater tribulation. About three decades after Jerusalem’s destruction, the apostle John, with reference to a great crowd of persons from all nations, tribes and peoples, was told: “These are the ones that come out of the great tribulation.” (Rev. 7:13, 14) Earlier, the apostle John had seen “four angels” holding back destructive winds so that the sealing of the 144,000 slaves of God might be completed. This sealing evidently links up with the ‘gathering of the chosen ones’ that Jesus foretold would follow the tribulation upon earthly Jerusalem. (Matt. 24:31) Accordingly, the “great tribulation” must come after the chosen ones have been gathered and their sealing completed and when the four angels release the four winds to blow upon the earth, sea and trees. (Rev. 7:1-4) The fact that a great crowd ‘comes out of the great tribulation’ shows that they survive it. This is confirmed by a similar expression at Acts 7:9, 10: “God was with [Joseph], and he delivered him out of all his tribulations.” Joseph’s being delivered out of all his tribulations meant, not only that he was enabled to endure them, but also that he survived the afflictions he experienced.
It is noteworthy that the apostle Paul referred to the execution of God’s judgment upon the ungodly as tribulation. He wrote: “This takes into account that it is righteous on God’s part to repay tribulation to those who make tribulation for you, but, to you who suffer tribulation, relief along with us at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels in a flaming fire, as he brings vengeance upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news about our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thess. 1:6-8) The book of Revelation shows that “Babylon the Great” and the “wild beast” have brought tribulation upon God’s holy ones. (Rev. 13:3-10; 17:5, 6) It therefore logically follows that the tribulation to come upon “Babylon the Great” and the “wild beast” is included in the “great tribulation.”—Rev. 18:20; 19:11-21.