by Phil Enlow

The following article was written and published in the 1970s. The spiritual climate of our world has gone steadily downhill since then, making these truths more and more relevant to God’s people than ever before.

We might as well face it: tribulation is an essential part of the Christian life. Jesus said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” John 16:33. Paul exhorted the believers in a group of young churches that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” Acts 14:22. He wrote the Thessalonians, “that no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto. For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation.” I Thess. 3:3-4. He even went so far as to characterize the proper Christian attitude toward it in these words: “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” Rom. 5:3.

It should be very evident from these and other scriptures that God has ordained tribulation for His children. Throughout the centuries, everyone who has ever entered the kingdom of God has done so through much tribulation.

That last statement may well raise questions in some minds, but I believe that it is our understanding and not the scripture which errs at this point. As we ponder the word tribulation, all sorts of imaginary scenes may project themselves into our minds: we may picture Christians being stoned, beaten, burned at stakes, haled before authorities, thrown to lions, or, more up-to-date [this was written in the 1970s], sent to a Siberian forced-labor camp. We may recall some very out-standing trial undergone by certain believers.

Such things certainly qualify as “tribulation,” but they are only a small part of the picture. I have often observed believers being puzzled by scriptures which speak of persecution and suffering as the lot of the believer. They have real difficulty relating these scriptures to those modern Christians who live where there is relative religious liberty. Must we seek out persecution because Paul said, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him”? II Tim. 2:12.

Perhaps when the meaning of the word “tribulation” is explored a little, we may find that such questions are answered. The Greek word involved is “thlipsis.” It is translated in several ways: “affliction,” “tribulation,” “anguish,” and “trouble” are the most common translations. In its verb form “thlibo,” it is translated into such related ideas as “to afflict,” “to trouble,” “to throng,” “to persecute,” etc.

There is one English word which I believe captures the central meaning found in all of these translations and that word is “pressure,” in the sense of being “caught in a squeeze.” For example, the word is used in the gospel story of Jesus healing the woman who touched him as he journeyed to Jairus’ house. The crowd “thronged” him, that is, they pressed on him from every side. When we think of tribulation as pressure we can more easily relate it to our everyday Christian lives.

When a believer is arrested and tortured in an attempt to cause him to renounce Christ, the issue is obvious. The man is caught in a squeeze between his allegiance to Christ and his desire for physical comfort and the avoidance of pain. Since his torturers will not allow him to have both, he must choose. This is, in essence, what tribulation is as it relates to the Christian believer: the pressure he experiences as a result of the conflict between his old nature and his new life in Christ.

We may, perhaps, be prone to think of tribulation as something primarily physical or psychological, but such thinking misses the point. Wherever the pressure is exerted, whether upon our bodies, our emotions, our minds, our wills, etc., tribulation is essentially a spiritual matter. These areas of our being are merely the focal point of a spiritual conflict. Tribulation is the result, in the providence of God, of the calculated opposition of the forces of darkness to the workings of God in human lives. In case you haven’t noticed, the Christian life is a battle. One who would live for Christ can expect opposition all the way to glory. Paul spoke of “pressing” forward. Phil. 3:14. Obviously he was encountering opposition that made pressing necessary if he were to move forward at all.

We spoke a moment ago of religious liberty. It is a point worth making that there is a great deal of difference between religious liberty and spiritual liberty. The devil may offer “religious liberty” but he never fails to oppose real spiritual life. Don’t be fooled and lulled to sleep by the difference. Though it offers a degree of religious liberty and pays lip service to a belief in God, America is not a Christian nation. The only Christian nation is the one mentioned in I Peter 2:9-10.

This world system always opposes God. In fact I really believe that the devil has been far more successful in destroying the real quality of Christian life through “liberty” than he has through persecution. Believers in America are lulled to sleep by prosperity and ease and at the same time are inundated by multitudes of false professors of faith in Christ with whom they must co-exist. In places where the enemy of our souls is more direct in his opposition to Christians, the quality and purity of the church is often much greater than it is where there is not that opposition. I have even heard of believers in Communist lands praying for American Christians for this very reason. The truth is that all believers experience tribulation: some of it is just more subtle and often more effective as well.

The thing that makes tribulation possible is the simple fact that we are yet in the flesh and must contend with our old nature. Some teach that there is an experience in which our old natures are eradicated or completely removed, but if there is such an experience, the Apostle John didn’t know about it (I John 1:8). Paul didn’t either because he had to “die daily” (I Cor. 15:31), and was “alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake” (II Cor. 4:11). Such teaching does not really help people to deal with their flesh; it only makes them dishonest.

In the believer Satan can appeal to the whole spectrum of human nature. Through Christ we are not helpless against his appeals, but they are very real and can exert great pressure. Don’t pretend to be so super-spiritual that you think you could breeze through a torture chamber. We are still very human and need grace every day to overcome the old man.

In the example above, Satan’s appeal is simple and obvious, but as a rule it is far more subtle. The truth is he uses anything he can find in us and that God allows him to use to create opposition and pressure against our spiritual prosperity and advancement. His strategy is as varied as the people are upon whom he works. Such natural desires as the desire to be liked, the desire for comfort, sex, security, pleasures, wealth, etc., may all become the means of Satan’s opposition. He will appeal to our pride, self-will, laziness, carnal zeal, impatience, busyness or anything else you might name. Whatever appeals Satan finds us susceptible to, he gladly will use to put the squeeze on us.

It might be well to point out here that there are many things in us that he will try to use that are not necessarily sinful. Disliking pain is not inherently sinful, nor is a person who seeks out pain necessarily righteous. Much of our difficulty arises out of weaknesses which are simply a part of our humanity. Of course anything, however natural, becomes sinful when we allow it to possess us and prevent our serving God.

Whether we realize it or not, we spend our entire Christian lives making choices just as real as the one faced by the man in the torture chamber. These days Satan can cool off most any unwary child of God simply by keeping him busy with all sorts of carnal things. He feels under pressure constantly to “do this” or “do that” and then finds himself weakened due to his neglect of spiritual matters. We have all undergone this form of tribulation more than we dare admit.

So tribulation is pressure: the pressure a believer experiences when he must deny himself to choose God. It should now be very obvious why Paul could say so positively that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.

What we’ve said so far is general truth, applicable to those who have lived for God in every age. But I feel impressed to relate this simple truth to the hour in which we are living because I believe we are in an hour unique to all of human history. This is not just any hour and tribulation in our time is not just ordinary tribulation.

The Bible has much to say about the last short period of human history. For the wicked it is a time in which God turns men over to Satan, culminating in the awful final judgments described in many places in the scriptures.

However, my main concern here is the believer. Among the many things the believer is told to expect in the end time, a prominent one is great tribulation. I am well aware of the popular teaching of an escapist rapture followed by 7 years of turmoil, judgments, antichrist reign, etc. Many related issues at this point have been dealt with in other MCM articles so that I’ll pass over a drawn-out refutation of this doctrine. Suffice it to say that I cannot conceive of any believer, unschooled in the dispensational scheme, coming to believe it through an honest inquiry into the scriptures themselves. Such teaching, at the very least, leaves many believers woefully unprepared for what we are so plainly warned of in the scriptures.

In Matthew 24:21-31 we find Jesus warning of a unique time of great tribulation, to be shortened for the elect’s sake, accompanied by great spiritual deception, and to be immediately followed by his second coming. I invite you to read it for yourself and ignore the footnotes of men. Ask God to open His Word to you. According to Jesus, his return to earth will follow the greatest time of spiritual pressure the world has ever known. It is obvious that this pressure will concern God’s elect because it is to be shortened for their sakes.

This is confirmed in Daniel 12:1. “And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.”

The fact that Daniel’s people are not necessarily Jews according to the flesh, or natural descendants of Abraham has been dealt with in other articles. But the New Testament plainly teaches that the true Jew from God’s standpoint is the born-again believer in Christ (Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 3:7, 29; Rom. 9:6-8; Gal. 4:26-28). The Church is God’s holy nation composed of his chosen people (I Peter 2:9-10), the recipient of angel ministry (Heb. 1:14), including that of Michael and his angels (Rev. 12:7).

We are talking about a spiritual matter here involving those whose names are written in God’s book. Surely the modern unbelieving Jew has no more in common with Daniel than does the unbelieving Gentile that they should be called his people. Daniel’s people are simply God’s people.

Daniel was permitted to peer ahead in time and see many puzzling events which were to take place at the end of time. Among other things he saw this unique time of trouble spoken of later by Jesus. He saw saints under pressure needing the deliverance of a mighty angel army. God also showed him the wonderful outcome for those men whose names were written in the book.

But where does all this pressure come from? Why is it so pronounced at this particular point in history? I believe that the New Testament teaches a binding of Satan extending from the cross until just before the return of Christ. Several chapters in the book, Lying Signs and Wonders, deal with this little-understood truth. Nowhere does the scripture teach the absolute binding of Satan and the removal of his influence from humanity. Rather it teaches the limiting of his influence for a period of time, no doubt to allow for the propagation of the gospel.

The binding referred to in Rev. 20:1-3 is with respect to the deceiving of the nations. Satan has not been permitted to carry out his ultimate goal: to so totally deceive humanity as to unite the world under his absolute dominion. He has been unable to gather all men into a world union controlled by the spirit of antichrist. It was shortly before going to the cross that Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” John 12:31. And he was. At the cross Jesus triumphed over the devil and paraded the hosts of darkness in defeat (Col. 2:15). After his resurrection Jesus told his followers that all authority in heaven and in earth had been given to him and therefore — because of that fact — they were to go to all nations with the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). At the cross Jesus bound Satan and obtained an authority from God to gather out of the nations a people for God.

At the end of time, God has purposed to loose Satan for a little season that he might temporarily achieve his goal, at least in lost humanity. Notice the brief summary of events following Satan’s loosing given in Rev. 20:7-9. He sets out immediately to unite the world against God and His people. This he does rather quickly. There is a battle. The saints are opposed by a united Satan-inspired world. Before they can succeed in their attempt to banish God’s kingdom from the earth, God steps in and ends world history with their destruction, an event immediately followed by the final judgment.

NOTE THIS: The mere fact that Satan’s loosing quickly results in this specific chain of events is strong evidence to me that his binding was indeed relative, relative to his desire to achieve the kind of dominion over mankind described in this passage. If he has been loose all this time why has he not done this long before now?

Paul spoke in II Thess. 2:1-12 of the great falling away, the climax of the working of the mystery of iniquity in mankind, and the total deception of unbelievers by the decree of God and the working of Satan. This condition having reached its climax, the Lord will appear in judgment. The same pattern is seen here from a different viewpoint. When Satan’s influence is permitted to reach its zenith, the end will follow shortly.

In short, the cause of this time of unparalleled spiritual pressure is the loosing of Satan. I believe with all of my heart that God has revealed that Satan is loose now as he has not been before. This is the explanation of world conditions as we see them today. And more important than all of the external conditions which we may readily observe is the growing spiritual darkness which is engrossing the souls of unbelievers. While on the one hand Satan is working to enthrone himself in lost mankind, on the other he is seeking to exert every pressure at his disposal upon God’s people.

This will not happen overnight, but is rather a process which will ultimately see all men divided into two clear-cut and opposed camps: the tiny remnant of true believers, and all the rest. Though men will increasingly turn against us as they are given over to reprobation, our real enemies are the hosts of darkness: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). We are counseled to take to ourselves the whole armor of God that we might withstand in the evil day (verse 13). Though this scripture certainly has had application throughout church history, how much more does it speak of The Evil Day — the climax of all evil days, Satan’s last stand.

The purpose of writing all of this is not to inspire fear, but to awaken and to instruct. Knowledge is the basic weapon of the child of God. If we know by revelation what is happening we can meet it with faith in the promises of God. If we are unaware, we are an easy prey of our adversary.

The words of Daniel in 11:32-33 apply wonderfully today: “The people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits. And they that understand among the people shall instruct many.” In Daniel 12:10 we read, “Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.”

Fellow believers, though we face, and I believe are already in, great tribulation, we must always look to God, believe His Word, and remember that He has everything under control. His grace is sufficient. He has ordained this time and He will end it. Every true child of God will be delivered.

Don’t be surprised by anything that happens, by anything Satan is permitted to do. Christians will experience every form of tribulation imaginable — and triumph!

Perhaps as you have read you have become more aware of what you and others have been experiencing. It seems that a prominent observation among Christians today is the steady increase of pressure they both feel and observe.

The means of overcoming Satan which God has revealed to us will of necessity become very practical in the days ahead. We will learn as we never have before to rely upon the blood of Christ in all its implications, to stand in faith upon the word of God, to resist Satan by the authority of our great Head, Jesus Christ, and to cast down imaginations (Rev. 12:11, Eph. 6:10-18, James 4:7, II Cor. 10:4-5). We will learn what it means to not love our lives unto the death: that is, to choose to cooperate with God and to die to our own life and nature.

The great tribulation is a spiritual thing, a time of great satanic pressure on the church. What Satan has designed to destroy us, God has ordained to purify and unite us and prepare us for Christ’s very soon return.

In the light of what you have read, and as a fitting conclusion, please read Rom. 8:31-39 and II Cor. 4:17-18. Even so come, Lord Jesus!

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