What is the biblical evidence for an end-time time of trouble for the church?
In the Bible the phase “time of trouble” refers to Jacob’s experience the night before he met his brother, Esau. This Old Testament experience is used to prefigure the experience of God’s people shortly before the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. I will examine the experience of Jacob and the pertinent biblical passages.
1. Experience of Jacob: Before meeting Esau, Jacob experienced a strong sense of guilt both for what he did to his brother and because of his fear of death (Gen. 32:11). He was “in great fear and distress [tsarar, “be anxious, in trouble, in distress”]” (verse 7, NIV). His sense of guilt moved him to seek forgiveness from his brother through gifts that would appease Esau (verses 4, 5, 20). That night Jacob went alone to pray in deep anguish, struggling before the Lord with his sense of guilt and fear. Later, as he recalled the experience, he said, “Let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress [tsarah, “distress, anxiety, trouble”]” (Gen. 35:3, NIV). Jacob’s time of trouble and his deliverance became a symbol of hope for those who found themselves in similar situations (Ps. 20:1).
2. End-time Applications in Jeremiah and Daniel: Jeremiah announces to God’s people a future experience similar to that of Jacob. The context of the passage is about the proclamation of the return of the people from the exile (Jer. 30:1-3), interrupted by a message from the Lord that is not about the return from the exile but about a future time of trouble for God’s people from which He will also liberate them (verses 4-9). After that parenthesis, the prophet returns to the hope of a return from exile (verses 10, 11). The time of trouble announced is a day of panic and terror, paleness of face, and the absence of shalom (verses 5, 6). The image of men experiencing labor pains is used to indicate their fear and inability to overcome the enemy by themselves. It is a great day in the sense that there had not been one like it before (verse 7). It is specifically called “a time of trouble [tsarah] for Jacob,” i.e., God’s people (verse 7). But God will intervene and liberate them from it. They will never again be under the power of enemies. The kingdom of God will be established, and they will serve only their messianic King and Lord (verses 8, 9).
Daniel 12:1-3 also refers to a time of trouble for God’s people. As in Jeremiah, it will be an unprecedented “time of distress [tsarah]” (verse 1, NIV). Daniel suggests that the distress is for all humans. While the people of God pass through this anguish, God intervenes and delivers them (verse 1). This terrifying experience is associated with the attempt of the king of the north to exterminate them, from which God will deliver them (Dan. 11:40-45). This time of anguish takes place when Michael arises to liberate them, shortly before the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:2). It is an end-time event.
3. Time of Trouble in Revelation: Revelation knows about a last-day time of trouble for God’s people, called by John “the hour of trial [thlipsis, “trouble, distress”]” (Rev. 3:10, NIV). It is a global tribulation, but it will not destroy the faith of God’s people. They are described as those “who have come out of the great tribulation [thlipsis]” (Rev. 7:14, NIV) and have remained faithful through the blood of the Lamb (verse 14). They go through this experience after the release of the four winds of destruction and shortly before the return of Christ (Rev. 6:17-7:3). Revelation 13:11-17 clarifies that during this time, as in Daniel, God’s enemy will try to exterminate God’s people, but the Lord will deliver them. They, like Jacob, will experience fear of death and a deep sense of their unworthiness. But the reference to the blood of the Lamb indicates that they will absolutely trust in the saving power of God and that none of them will perish. God allows them to go through this difficult experience because they are safe in His hands (Rev. 22:11).