Revelation 3:10 and Seven Reasons why I don’t believe in a Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church2
Will there be a “Rapture,” a moment in time when all living saints are resurrected and “caught up” both physically and spatially to meet Christ in the air? Yes (1 Thess. 4:13-18), but as you will soon discover, I believe this event is simultaneous with and inseparable from the Parousia or the Second Coming of Christ itself.
Before I go any further into this issue, I need to make it clear that, in my opinion, the so-called “Great Tribulation” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 24 is not a future expectation for the people of God but is an established fact of past history. The great tribulation is our Lord’s way of describing the siege on Jerusalem in 66-70 a.d., by the armies of Rome, that resulted in the utter destruction of both the city and its Temple.
I should also point out that much of the rationale for a future seven-year period of great tribulation and the debate as to when the rapture occurs in relation thereto is tied up inextricably with the belief that God intends to save the great majority of ethnic Jews prior to the end of history and the coming of Christ (or perhaps in some way in conjunction with his coming). But I believe Romans 11 teaches us that the salvation of the elect who are ethnic Jews has been, is, and will continue to unfold and come to fruition in the same way God is saving the elect who are ethnic Gentiles, namely, throughout the course of the present church age. It is in this way that both the “fullness” of the Gentiles” and the “fullness” of Israel will ultimately have come in.
The doctrine of the pretribulational rapture of the Church is also to a large degree dependent on a strictly futuristic reading of the book of Revelation. In other words, it only makes sense on the assumption that what John describes in Revelation 6-18 is largely, if not entirely, in the future. The seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments that he describes are thought by pretribulationists to refer to what occurs wholly within that alleged seven-year tribulational period. But if these judgments are a portrayal of what has, is, and will occur repeatedly throughout the entire church age in which we live, any appeal to them as an argument for a pre-tribulation rapture is baseless.
Yet another alleged basis for the notion of a pretribulation rapture is the idea that the “restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2 refers to the Holy Spirit. The argument by dispensational pretribulationists is that if the Holy Spirit is removed or taken out of the way before the appearance of Antichrist and the inauguration of the seven-year period during which he holds sway, the Church itself must of necessity be removed or taken out from its present location on earth, all this by means of the rapture. It is, however, highly questionable whether John (in his epistles and the book of Revelation) has in mind a single individual when he speaks of the so-called “Antichrist” or Beast of Revelation. At this stage, I can only direct you to my discussion of this issue in my book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative.
All that being said, I want briefly to interact with what is typically believed to be the most important New Testament passage on the subject of the timing of the Rapture. In defense of their doctrine, pretribulationists often point to the words Jesus spoke to the local church in the city of ancient Philadelphia:
“Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev. 3:10-11).
The pretribulational interpretation is that “the hour of trial” refers to a future seven-year period of intense persecution, during which the judgments of God are poured out on the earth. The promise to the church is that God will “keep from” this hour all who believe in Jesus. The only way he can do this, so they say, is by physically removing the Church from the earth prior to the onset of this time of tribulation. A few observations should indicate why I don’t believe that Jesus (or John) had any concept of a yet future pretribulation rapture of the Church in mind when these words were spoken/written.
First, the notion that any Christian is assured of special protection from trials, tribulations, and persecution is unbiblical. One can see repeatedly in the seven letters of Revelation 2-3 alone that suffering for the sake of Christ and the gospel is something all believers must embrace (see Rev. 2:2-3; 2:9-10; 2:13; 3:8-10). According to Paul, it is “through many tribulations (thlipsis; the same word used in Rev. 1:9; 7:14) we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Jesus declared that “in the world you will have tribulation (thlipsis)” (John 16:33). Again, we are to “rejoice in our sufferings (thlipsis)” (Romans 5:3; see also John 15:19-20; Acts 5:40-41; 1 Cor. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 11:24-25; 2 Timothy 3:12).
Second, the trial or tribulation that is coming is designed for the judgment of unbelievers, not Christians. “Those who dwell on the earth” (v. 9) or “earth-dwellers” is a stock phrase in Revelation that always refers to pagan persecutors of the church (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8,12,14; 14:6; 17:2,8). They are the ones who suffer the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments of Revelation which characterize the entire church age, from the first coming of Christ to his second.
Third, the promise, then, is for spiritual protection in the midst of physical tribulation. Jesus is assuring his people that he will provide sufficient sustenance to preserve them in their faith, no matter what they face. The promise here is similar to what we find in Revelation 7:1-3,13-14 where the people of God are “sealed” lest they suffer spiritual harm from “the great tribulation (thlipsis)” (v. 14; cf. also Rev. 11:1-2; 12:6,14-17). Clearly, believers endure and emerge from tribulation spiritually secure. As Beale notes, “they are not preserved from trial by removal from it, but their faith is preserved through trial because they have been sealed by God” (Revelation, 292).
Fourth, pre-tribulationists have typically insisted that the only way God’s people can be spiritually protected from the outpouring of divine wrath is by being physically removed from the earth. But this is clearly not the case, as John 17:15 makes clear (as also does the presence of the Israelites in Egypt during the time of the ten plagues). In this Johannine text we find the only other place in the NT where the precise phrase “kept from” (tereo ek) is used. There Jesus prays to the Father: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
It’s important to note in this text that “keep from” is actually contrasted with the notion of physical removal. Jesus prays not that the Father “take them out of the world” (i.e., physically remove them), but that the Father “keep them from” Satan’s effort to destroy their spiritual life. Thus, when we turn to Revelation 3:10 we see that it is from the wrath of God poured out on “earth-dwellers” (unbelievers) that he promises to “keep” them. In the face of certain opposition and oppression from Satan, the Beast, and unbelievers, this is a glorious promise indeed.
Fifth, a related argument is that since this alleged “Great Tribulation” is to be a time when the wrath of God is poured out on an unbelieving world, Christians cannot be present. After all, believers will never suffer God’s wrath, insofar as Christ has already suffered in their stead on the cross. But this falls short of a convincing reason to posit a pretribulation rapture. In the first place, even pretribulationists concede that believers will be present on the earth during this “Great Tribulation” (having come to faith at some time subsequent to the rapture). But if they do not suffer God’s wrath (and it is certain that they wouldn’t), why should it be any different for those who were purportedly removed from the earth by the rapture? The simple fact is that no believer at any time in redemptive history will ever suffer divine wrath. Thus, if the pretribulationist admits that blood-bought believers will be in the “Tribulation”, a time of God’s wrath, on what basis does he say that blood-bought believers of the Church cannot be present? We mustn’t forget that in Revelation the “wrath” of God never falls on the believer, but only on the wicked (this is true whether the term for “wrath” is thumos, as in Rev. 14:8, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 18:3; 19:15; or orge, as in Rev. 6:16, 17, 14:10; 16:19; 19:15).
Sixth, we must never forget that it is precisely in remaining faithful unto death that our greatest victory is achieved (not in being “raptured” to safety; cf. Rev. 2:10). Believers conquer Satan and the Beast “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
But what, precisely, is “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world,” and when will it occur?
Of one thing I’m certain: the promise of protection must be of practical benefit and reassurance for the people of the church in Philadelphia in the first century. Thus, contrary to what is argued by dispensationalists, this “hour of trial” can’t be restricted to (although it may be inclusive of) a time of tribulation at the end of the present age.
If you are inclined to insist on a strictly futurist interpretation of the “hour of trial”, ask yourself whether it seems odd (dare I say, impossible) that Jesus would promise one church in Asia Minor in the first century that they were to be protected from an event that not one single individual in that church would ever see, indeed, an event that allegedly would not transpire for at least another 1,900 years! How could this “hour of trial” be an event centuries after the Philadelphian Christians lived, especially since their protection from it is the very specific reward to them of their very specific, and historically identifiable, resistance to persecution and steadfast faithfulness in proclaiming the word of God? They are promised protection because they “kept the word” of Christ’s perseverance.
I’m persuaded that Jesus is referring to that “tribulation” (thlipsis) which has already begun for Christians (including the Philadelphians) and will continue throughout the present age. In writing to the churches, John identifies himself as their “brother and partner in the tribulation [thlipsis] and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). In other words, “the hour of trial” is likely a reference to the entire, inter-advent church age, during which there will always be suffering and tribulation for those who stand firm in their witness for Christ.
This isn’t to deny that there will emerge an especially intensified and horrific period of tribulation in connection with the return of Christ at the end of history (regardless of how long you conceive it to be). But Jesus must have in mind an experience that was impending or already present for the Philadelphian believers in the first century and for all believers in subsequent centuries of the church’s existence.
Seventh, pretribulationists often argue that Revelation 3:10 must describe the removal of the Church from the earth insofar as the Greek word ekklesia (“church”) is wholly absent from Revelation 4-18, chapters that purportedly describe the “Great Tribulation.” The ekklesia or “church”, so they say, must be present in heaven. But this argument cuts both ways, insofar as the word ekklesia is not found in any text in Revelation 4-18 that describes a heavenly scene. Should we conclude from this that the Church must be on the earth? Such arguments from silence are extremely dubious. After all, the word “church” is not found in Mark, Luke, John, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, Jude, and not until the sixteenth chapter of Romans! Unless one is prepared to dismiss large portions of the NT as irrelevant to the Church, the absence or presence of the word itself cannot be made a criterion for determining the applicability of a passage to the saints of the present age.
We should also remember that the word “church” as a denotation of the universal body of Christ considered in its totality does not occur at all in the book of Revelation. All nineteen occurrences of the word in chapters one through three refer to particular “local” congregations of Christians. Add to this the fact that terms commonly used to describe members of the Church, such as “servant” (Rev. 2:20; 7:3; 19:2), and “saints” (5:8; 8:3-4; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24) are used throughout Revelation.
Finally, Jesus concludes with both a word of assurance and an exhortation: “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev. 3:11). Is this “coming” the Second Advent at the close of history or a first-century disciplinary visitation? Possibly the former, but assuredly not the latter. After all, given the obedience of the Philadelphian church, there was no need for a “coming” of Jesus to judge or chastise (as was the case with Ephesus in 2:5, Pergamum in 2:16, and Sardis in 3:3).
However, there may be another option. Beale suggests that “the ‘coming’ referred to in this verse is the increased presence of Christ that will protect these believers when they pass through tribulation, as has just been mentioned in v. 10” (293). In other words, this may be a spiritual coming to provide comfort and the power to persevere, a drawing near to their hearts to energize them in their commitment. His “coming” or approach to them is not spatial, but spiritual and sanctifying, in which he intensifies his sustaining influence in their souls. If he can “come” to the churches at Ephesus, Pergamum, and Sardis to discipline, he can certainly “come” to the church at Philadelphia to strengthen and bless.