Setting the stage

At the onset of the Great Tribulation, certain things will happen that will make it clear that this last period of time has started. After the Lamb of God takes possession of the book with the seven seals and the heavenly host worship him, “Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12); then, the Lamb of God will begin to open the seals and set the stage for his defeat of Satan and his demonic forces. Jesus described this event in his Olivet discourse shortly before he was crucified. It says in Matthew 24:3, “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'” (NKJV). In response to their questions, Jesus identified several things that will apparently happen before the rapture of his church (Matthew 24:4-14).

According to Jesus, a key feature of the end of the church age is the “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations” (Matthew 24:14). In other words, the Great Commission will have already been completed (Matthew 28:18-19). Then, judgment of the world will begin. In what seems to be quick succession, the first four seals of the book written within and on the backside (Revelation 5:1) are removed and four horsemen enter the scene. The imagery of the four horsemen comes from Zechariah 1:8-17 and 6:1-8 where divine judgment brings peace to the earth. Zechariah was told that the four horsemen were “the four spirits of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth” (Zechariah 6:5). The sequence of the four horsemen’s entrance indicate there will first be a military conquest, then bloodshed, followed by a famine, and finally the death of one fourth of the world’s population (Revelation 6:2-8).

The opening of the first six seals of the book that was given to the Lamb of God seem to precede the sealing of the 144,000 servants of God from the tribes of the children of Israel, but it could be that all these things happen very quickly, perhaps in rapid succession within a single day after the sealing of the servants because the four horsemen are told, “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3). Immediately following the sealing of the servants, John says in Revelation 7:9, “After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”

The appearance of the great multitude before the throne might be a result of the rapture of the church taking place even though it isn’t mentioned specifically. Jesus’ explanation of the signs of the end of the age included an event that appears to be the rapture. He said, “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. ‘Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!'” (Matthew 24:30-33, NKJV). Since Jesus included this event in the signs of the end of the age, it seems reasonable to assume that it takes place before the four horsemen are sent out.

Jesus indicated life would seem normal just before the rapture takes place. He said, “Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:41-42, NKJV). Once the four horsemen are sent out, things will change dramatically on Earth. The opening of the sixth seal of the Lamb’s book indicates cosmic disturbances will take place that leave no doubt God’s judgment of the world is taking place. John said, “I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’” (Revelation 6:12-17, NKJV).

Seven churches

The book of Revelation is believed to have been written by the Apostle John near the end of his life while he was exiled on the island of Patmos. John began his book by explaining his situation. He stated, “I, John, am your Christian brother. I have shared with you in suffering because of Jesus Christ. I have also shared with you His holy nation and we have not given up. I was put on the island called Patmos because I preached the Word of God and told about Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9, NLV). John went on to say that he had received a visit from the resurrected Jesus Christ who told him, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicia” (Revelation 1:11).

The seven churches identified in the book of Revelation were actual churches that existed at the end of the first century, They were all located about 50 miles apart, forming a circle in the Roman province of Asia which lies in modern western Turkey (note on Revelation 1:4). It is not known why these particular churches were singled out, but they apparently had some significance in the establishment of Jesus’ worldwide ministry of spreading the gospel. The seven churches were represented by seven candlesticks in John’s vision of the resurrected Christ. John stated:

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; and in the midst of the candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Revelation 1:12-16)

The representation of the churches by candlesticks may have had something to do with the illustration Jesus used of Christians being salt and light. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15).

The seven churches identified in the book of Revelation were both commended and rebuked by Jesus for the work they were doing to establish God’s kingdom on Earth. John was given specific instructions to write to each of these churches and to let them know what Jesus had told him about their ministries. The seven distinct messages are recorded in Revelation chapters two and three. Each of the messages began with unique identifier of the resurrected Lord and ended with a promised reward for those that overcame a specific type of opposition to their ministry. The message to the Ephesians stated:

“These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: ‘I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary…To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.'” (Revelation 2:1-7, NKJV)

The Greek word translated overcomes, nikao (nik-ah’-o) is derived from the word nike (nee’-kay) which figuratively refers to a means of success (G3529). Jesus’ instruction to the Ephesians was to “do the first works” (Revelation 2:5). What he most likely meant by that was to get back to the basics of preaching the gospel. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed the topic of spiritual warfare. Paul encouraged the believers in Ephesus to, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12, NKJV).

Jesus’ promises to the believers that were able to overcome obstacles to their ministries (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21) indicated there was a spiritual battle going on, even in the early church, that could potentially keep his gospel from being spread around the world. It is likely that John’s messages to the seven churches were meant to shore up their efforts and encourage these early warriors to do as Paul had done, fight the good fight and finish their course (2 Timothy 4:7).

Jesus’ final promise to the church of Laodiceans seemed to be one that applied to all Christians and suggested that the rewards Jesus promised for overcoming applied to his millennial reign on Earth. He said, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Revelation 3:21). At the end of the Great Tribulation, John indicated all believers would reign with Christ for a thousand years. He said, “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4).