Rethinking “The Great Tribulation” with Gordon Fee

Since Gordon Fee has already dated the Apocalypse at either a late first- or early second-century based on the “tension between church and state that dominates the book, which did not occur in Asia Minor until this time,” it came as no surprise to read his conclusion on “The Great Tribulation”:

This latter word[tribulation] is a most unfortunate—and quite unnecessary—carryover from preceding English translations, since it was co-opted over a century ago by some interpreters to refer to a specific time period.  But time is of no interest at all to John in the present sentence.  Rather he is referring specifically to the great trial that the church of his own time is experiencing, and about which he speaks prophetically as something that will get far worse before it ever gets better.  Thus what was intended primarily as a word of assurance to his readers has been co-opted by later interpreters to refer to something that is yet to come.  (Revelation, pp. 113-14, bold added)

Perhaps Fee would have preferred “great hardship” (CEB) or “great ordeal” (NRSV), since the Greek thlipsis “has been co-opted by later interpreters…”

And this understanding of “The Great Tributlation” is already conditioned by Fee’s understand of “what must soon take place” and “because the time is near,” having “mostly to do with the somber events awaiting the churches of John’s day” (p. 2).

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46 Responses to Rethinking “The Great Tribulation” with Gordon Fee

  1. CDR says:

    Hi TCR,

    I have been a lurker and RSS feed subscriber for awhile…thought I would jump in on this as your posts and Will’s over at Anwoth – have been fun to watch.

    I have long held an indy, fundy, dispy, premill baptist position on Revelation, but find that the immediacy and urgency of John’s letter lends to a closer fulfillment rather than a future event. Thus, I would side with Gentry <a href="http://freebooks.commentary.net/freebooks/docs/html/kgbr/kgbr.html&quot ; on the timing of the book and the close fulfillment.

    Of course…this is a radical change in my theology and I continue to love being engaged in active semper reformanda.

    Chris

    • T.C. R says:

      Chris,

      Yeah, that’s radical. But that is what happens when you start to seriously rethink what has been bequeahed to you. 😉

      So semper reformanda it is!

  2. Bobby Grow says:

    As a Futurist, in many ways, I have no problem with a Historicist reading as well. So in other words, I do hold to a future, literal millennium; and thus I do hold that there is some “sequence” (however that looks) in the book of Revelation. In other words, while I agree with Fee on thlipsis — per the context — at the same time I don’t see why the idea of “because the time is near” (etc) necessarily leads to the conclusion that there aren’t also “far” future events in mind as well. All of this language of “near” “quickly” etc. is obviously framed by a relative notion of chronos; i.e. viz. relative to God’s oikonomia and not ours. I’ve never understand why this kind of language causes such the “stumble” that it seems to for some.

    And of course, what Fee is saying on this passage only illustrates an a priori understanding that he has adopted on “Tribulation” in general before he ever makes his interpretive decision here. Since the idea of the “Great Tribulation” is first postulated in places like Jeremiah, the Olivet Discourse, etc. Although, again, I do agree with his reading here (as far as the near context); although, I probably need to read more of him before I can say that decisively.

    • T.C. R says:

      |All of this language of “near” “quickly” etc. is obviously framed by a relative notion of chronos; i.e. viz. relative to God’s oikonomia and not ours. I’ve never understand why this kind of language causes such the “stumble” that it seems to for some.|

      Bobby,

      But we’re not speaking of an abstract document here. As Fee argues, the very exile of John on Patmos is indicative of what was about to happen to the church.

      |Since the idea of the “Great Tribulation” is first postulated in places like Jeremiah, the Olivet Discourse, etc.|

      Fee would argue that Jeremiah, Olivet Discourse, etc are all point to this thlipsis.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        TCR,

        I know how partial preterists interpret the thlipsis, but as of yet all I’ve heard is assertion from all who would discount any futurist interpretation. And btw, even the PP interpretation “was” futurist; and in fact has “futurist” or “idealic” (so recapitulation or progressive parallelism per Hendricks) referents embedded which in fact is what makes it “partial” — indeed the historicist also has futurist interpretation.

        If in fact what you’re saying is that Revelation has no future components (or prophetic) or referents, then you’ve really confused me! And if you’re only delimiting “future” events in Revelation to particular passages like the last two chptrs, then again your method seems very ad hoc and confusing.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Btw TCR,

        You should know that I’m aware of all the anecdotal responses that amillers typically give to premillers (like your language of “abstract doc” etc); that really doesn’t deal though with the context of Revelation, it’s really just red herring, and I don’t feel like fish tonight 😉 . Btw, as a historic premiller, I definitely see the original context in referent to the 1st cent. churches and the persecution they were experiencing; but of course, as I also see — per the genre (prophetic) futurist as well. Again, I’m trying to look at Revelation through a biblical theological lens (vs a Wrightian one 😉 ) that places the context of Revelation within the broader context of the canonical whole inclusive of all of the former prophetic literature in the TaNaKh (as well as the Jewish context which God chose as the medium through which He has mediated His salvation to the nations).

        Further, I find it interesting that someone who is so interested in the Jewish background of the context of the Text so gravitates to a method of interpretation (amil) that is anything but (see Irenaeus). 🙂

  3. I like Fee here (and generally, for that matter). Our bias in Bible reading must be to the original intent of author and reading community. What possible interest would either have at a far distant future event, especially as things were heating up much closer to home. My take on any far future application is that we will recognize it when we see it, not before.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      What possible interest would either have at a far distant future event . . .

      I think it’s important to bear in mind the “nature” of prophecy and how it functions within the canon itself (which is how we need to understand it in Revelation as part of the canon). Just think of, for example, Is. 6–9, and the near and far components embedded within that prophecy.

      • Craig Benno says:

        Bobby; I would argue that not all prophecy within Scripture has the now and future context.

        While it does seem that the NT writers use that hermeneutic within the NT; we don’t know exactly what criteria they used to judge what is the now and the future.

        In regards to Johns prophecy; I think the context is towards those he was speaking to and its a long bow to draw to say it definitely includes a direct word for a future generation he has no knowledge of.

      • Bobby, I guess the point you make proves mine. The distant application of Isaiah’s prophesy recognized only in retrospection, except of course for the soon coming Assyrian conquerors…

    • Bobby Grow says:

      @Kyle,

      My point was more directed at the idea that there is a future referent — with two-fold range, to the near and far referent (and I’m thinking through prophecies made in the OT of course).

  4. Craig Benno says:

    I like Fee’s approach and think it has a lot of pastoral merit for those who have, are and will suffer persecution…. it also speaks deeply into the current climate of health / wealth and escapism of persecution for the faith.

  5. T.C. R says:

    Kyle and Craig,

    Even before reading Fee’s Revelation, I had already abandoned the “a distant future event,” as Kyle puts it.

    Consider this from Fee: “Himself an exile on Patmos, what John had come to see clearly as awaiting a new generation of believer’s was the church’s coming collision with the Empire over who should rightly be proclaimed as “Lord and Savior”—the Roman emperors or the humble Galilean whom they had crucified, but who their followers asserted had been raised from the dead” (pp. 2-3).

  6. T.C. R says:

    |If in fact what you’re saying is that Revelation has no future components (or prophetic) or referents, then you’ve really confused me! And if you’re only delimiting “future” events in Revelation to particular passages like the last two chptrs, then again your method seems very ad hoc and confusing.|

    Bobby,

    Fee is not discounting futuristic element at all. For Fee, the thlipsis was at the door of John’s readers. But as you work your way through Fee’s Revelation, he tends to be eclectic – so there’s the Final Battle and the New Order still to come.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      TCR,

      You get the same with Robert Mounce’s classic commentary on Revelation (of course he speaks from an hist. premil perspective, which makes it Biblical 😉 ).

      • T.C. R says:

        Bobby,

        I still don’t see the need for a literal millennium. 😉

      • Bobby Grow says:

        @TCR,

        Well, when you’re sitting on your throne, and I on mine, in Jerusalem — during the 1000 yrs — I’ll just remember to sit up in my throne and wink at you 😉 . . . and you’ll know that that means “I told you so!” 😉

  7. I’m not sure what Fee’s views are on the context surrounding the term used in Revelation 7:14, but it seems that it is being overlooked. The fifth seal showed martyrs under the altar crying out for vengeance. The sixth seal pictured cosmic signs which had a visible reaction to unbelievers here on the earth. Immediately after this is when this multitude is pictured standing before the throne of God having come out of “great tribulation”. Let’s remember the context of the martyrs crying out for vengeance and then move to the language of “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. This is the language of the physical bodily resurrection from Isaiah 25:8. So great tribulation ends with cosmic signs and deliverance of the saints via the resurrection.

    And where is the term “great tribulation” used elsewhere in the scriptures? Historicist indeed! I see no reason to depart from a futurist reading of Matthew 24:29-31.

    Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  8. T.C. R says:

    Mailman,

    For Fee these seals are about what is about to happen.

    According to the Greek text, it’s “those coming out of the great tribution,” not “have come out.”

    Fee says nothing about Matthew 24:29.

  9. T.C. R says:

    |Well, when you’re sitting on your throne, and I on mine, in Jerusalem — during the 1000 yrs — I’ll just remember to sit up in my throne and wink at you . . . and you’ll know that that means “I told you so!”|

    Bobby,

    Only if we’re martyrs. 😉

  10. “For Fee these seals are about what is about to happen.”

    Pretty vague, TC.


  11. “According to the Greek text, it’s “those coming out of the great tribution,” not “have come out.””

    TC, here is a commentary that I read on the Greek language used here. Tell me what you think.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    The speaker uses the aorist middle indicative of erchomai. The aorist tense, USUALLY expresses a completed action idea, but depends on the entire context to determine the actual KIND of action that is in view. And here, the context was already established at verse 9, John sees the entire group already there.
    This can’t be translated as “from where are they coming” because the context of verse 9 has already established that they are ALL already there.
    That is why the aorist tense is used, “from where HAVE THEY COME.” The context shows us what the intent of the aorist tense is – that they ARE THERE right now.

    At verse 14, John states that he does not know the answer, and the elder tells him.
    1. These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation:
    The present tense of the verb, erchomai is in the participial form (present middle participle) and is descriptive (like an adjective) rather than durative (coming).
    The descriptive use indicates that these are characterized by coming out of the tribulation – NOT, that they are in the process of coming out.
    It has been claimed that the present tense of COME, at Revelation 7:14 requires an on-going arrival of the people in view. The original language IN THE CONTEXT DEMANDS that this refer to a group of people who are ALL in heaven at the time of John’s vision.

    The context requires that the present participle describes the present characteristic of this multitude in reference to the question that was asked. It describes them as those who come out of the tribulation – Not CAME, and not ARE COMING. It is simply identifying them as to where they come from. It cannot be used to support a “just arrived” idea nor an “on-going arrival” idea.

    And once again, the context of the previous verses shows us the INTENT of this present tense – that the arrival of this multitude is COMPLETE. They are ALL already there.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  12. T.C. R says:

    Mailman,

    I wish not to bore you with Greek. But here’s the Greek construction in question: οἱ ἐρχόμενοι. This is what you call an articular present particle, not aorist.

    But your quote argues for the present tense participle! What’s going on here?

    • Bobby Grow says:

      Don’t you mean participle? 😉

    • TC-

      Read the quote again, don’t just skim. There are two times that the word erchomai is used, once in the question of the elder and once in the explanation of the elder. If you would be so kind, would you please read the commentary and tell me what you think?

      Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

      -The Orange Mailman

      • T.C. R says:

        Mail,

        This second use of erchomai it at the end of verse 13, though your quote doesn’t mention it. But I see your point.

        As for what I think, the aspects of these verbals are conditioned by the way John chooses to describe events that had not happened yet at the time of his writing.

  13. T.C. R says:

    Bobby,

    I’ll have to put together my view of who will be in the millennial reign. Don’t worry, you’ll be in. 😉

  14. T.C. R says:

    Bobby,

    Yes, there’re the particles alright, but I had someting of a typo and you catched. Thanks. But I’m glad we got some good out of it. 🙂

  15. kenny chmiel says:

    I don’t if any of you saw this, but it’s good (because N.T. Wright is always good) and maybe fitting for this post.
    Revelation and Christian Hope: Political Implications of the Revelation to John

  16. T.C. R says:

    Kenny,

    Thanks. Yeah, I already have a link to the NT Wright page.

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  19. ScottL says:

    Great quote!

    Would have never thought of Fee as a preterist(?). Might have thought he was dispensational because he is part of the Assembly of God church. But he is egalitarian as well, so he surprises us (in a good way!).

    • T.C. R says:

      Fee is his own man, so to speak. 😉

    • NorrinRadd says:

      Per their “Position Papers” and such, AG is (officially, if not practically) egalitarian in terms of ministerial roles, and rather confused and inconsistent in terms of household roles.

    • NorrinRadd says:

      Fee has directly and repeatedly disputed in writing several of the AG’s “16 Fundamental Truths” (numbers 7, 8, 13, and 14), which include two of their “Four Cardinal Doctrines.”

      In addition to official doctrines, he has also directly disputed traditional practices, such as delivering “messages” in tongues.

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