Bible Prophecy in Chronology series (post #5)
(Unless otherwise noted, all references are from the N.K.J.V.)
One of the most disputed questions about Bible prophecy is: Will Christians (the church) go through the tribulation period? Another way to word the question is: When will the Rapture take place in regards to the tribulation period? Some sincere students of prophecy contend that Christians will go through the entirety of the tribulation period. This is called the post-tribulation Rapture. Other equally sincere people contend that Christians will go through the first half of the tribulation period. This is called the mid-tribulation Rapture. And then there are those folks, every bit as sincere, who contend that Christians won’t go through any of the tribulation period. This is called the pre-tribulation Rapture.
It is not my purpose in this post to belittle anyone else’s interpretation or point of view, but I do want to present the evidence for a pre-tribulation Rapture. Yes, I’m in the pre-trib. camp. But it isn’t because I just don’t like the idea of me and my family possibly having to experience the tribulation period. I’m in the pre-trib. camp because I’ve reached the honest conclusion that this is what the Bible teaches. You say, “I need some evidence on that, Russell.” Okay, let’s get to it.
Evidence #1: The book of The Revelation is organized in a very specific way.
By in large, the book of The Revelation is organized in a chronological, step-by-step, event-by-event order. Chapter 1 finds the apostle John in persecution exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. While he’s there Jesus appears to him one Sunday and thus begins the incredible revelation that makes up the book. Jesus tells John, “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this” (Revelation 1:19). That’s the outline for the entirety of the book.
Part 1 — “the things which you have seen” — is recorded in chapter 1 as John had seen Jesus. Part 2 — “the things which are” — is recorded in chapters 2 and 3 as Jesus relays messages through John’s writing to seven specific churches that were located in the Asia Minor region at that time. Finally, part 3 — “the things which will take place after this” — is recorded in chapters 4 through 22 as all the future events of the tribulation period and beyond are unfurled.
Clearly, then, a major division in the book occurs with the opening verses of chapter 4, and this division leads into the bulk of the book. So, what happens to John in those opening verses? He sees a door standing open in heaven, hears a voice like a trumpet that says, “Come up here,” and finds himself immediately standing before God’s throne in heaven (Revelation 4:1-2).
If all this sounds familiar, compare it to the description of the Rapture that is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53. By doing so you’ll see why many prophecy experts make the case that John experienced what we might call a Revelation version of the Rapture. That case is further bolstered by the fact that the 24 elders that John subsequently sees in heaven (Revelation 4:4, 9-11) symbolically represent the church, which is comprised of all Christians. The song they sing in Revelation 5:8-10 leaves no doubt as to their identity.
What makes John’s experience so important to the debate about when the Rapture will take place is that it took place after Christ’s messages to those seven churches. Consider this: The words “church” and “churches” are used 19 times in Revelation chapter 1 through 3, but neither word is used again until Revelation 22:16, which is a verse found in the context of John closing out the book. As for the events of the tribulation period, they are laid out in chronological order beginning with the opening of chapter 6 and ending with the closing of chapter 19. Again, though, the church is never mentioned in all those chapters. This is excellent evidence that the church will be raptured away before the beginning of the tribulation period.
Evidence #2: The early Christians were looking for Jesus Christ, not the Antichrist.
First, in Titus 2:12-13, Paul says that Christians, “…should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Notice that Paul doesn’t say that Christians should be looking for the Antichrist, the tribulation period, cataclysmic events, etc. There isn’t any “hope” in all that.
Second, in Philippians 3:20-21, Paul says of his fellow Christians, “…we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body…” It’s hard to misunderstand what Paul is saying in these verses. Not only were he and his fellow Christians eagerly awaiting Jesus, they understood that when He came He would transform their earthly bodies into glorified bodies like His. That is as plain a reference to the Rapture as one can find.
Third, in Colossians 3:4, Paul says to the Christians of Colosse, “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” Here again we have a clear reference to the Rapture. Those early Christians believed that when Jesus appeared, they would immediately be with Him, not on the earth but in glory.
Fourth, the Christians of Thessalonica were confused by recent events in view of their expectancy of the Rapture. Do you know why we have Paul’s classic description of the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18? It’s because those Christians had expressed their concern to him over the fact that some of their fellow Christians had died and Jesus hadn’t returned yet. Those deaths had caused the surviving members of the church to lose hope in the coming of Jesus. That’s why Paul explained to them about the Rapture and told them not to “sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) and to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). The point here is that those Thessalonian Christians weren’t expecting the Antichrist, the tribulation period, and all the rest of it. Not only were they expecting Jesus at any moment, they were expecting Him to come before any of their fellow church members died.
Fifth, we have Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians 1:10. There he encourages those Christians of Thessalonica to, “…wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” While it’s true that the phrase “wrath to come” might refer to God’s eternal judgment rather than the events of the tribulation period, it cannot be denied that this verse shows again that Paul and those early Christians were waiting for Jesus Christ, not the Antichrist. (For the record, the promise that the Christian will be delivered from God’s wrath, whatever exactly that specifically means, is also found in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 and Romans 5:9.)
Really, though, in light of what had happened when Jesus had ascended to heaven, how could those early Christians not have been looking for Him to return? Remember that as Christ’s followers had stood there, having just watched Jesus disappear into a cloud, two men in white apparel — no doubt angels — had said to them, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
You see, that’s the event those early Christians were expecting each and every day. Jesus had disappeared into the clouds and He would surely come back to snatch them away into the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Even old John himself, who wrote The Revelation, remembered Jesus saying to him and the rest of the chosen 12, “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3, N.A.S.B.).
Evidence #3: Jesus Himself spoke of an escape from all the tribulation period.
In Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Jesus gives His most extensive teaching concerning the tribulation period. As a matter of fact, the term “the tribulation period” stems from His words in Matthew 24:21 as He says, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.”
Matthew isn’t the only gospel writer, however, who provides us with a record of that particular teaching. Luke’s account of it is found in Luke chapter 21, and even though he doesn’t give us nearly as much of the teaching as Matthew does, he includes a few quotes that Matthew doesn’t. One of them is Luke 21:36, which in Luke’s gospel serves as Christ’s closing statement to the teaching. And what does Jesus say to close out His most detailed teaching on the tribulation period? He says, “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to ESCAPE ALL these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man (Christ’s favorite title for Himself).” So, how could it be possible for anyone to escape all the events of the tribulation period and come to stand before Jesus Himself? You got it: the Rapture.
Under this same heading, it should also be noted that Jesus promised the Christians of the church in Philadelphia that He would keep them from (not through) the tribulation period. This promise is found in Revelation 3:10, and it’s a part of Christ’s words via John to that church. Jesus says to those Christians, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” The phrase “the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world” simply cannot refer to anything other than the coming tribulation period. No other “hour of trial” ever involved “the whole world” simultaneously. Therefore, if Jesus promised to keep those Christians of Philadelphia from the tribulation period, it shows us that He promises the same for all Christians. After all, He sees each one of us as being part of the same body (Ephesians 5:23).
Furthermore, many students of prophecy apply a secondary interpretation to each of the churches to whom Jesus speaks in The Revelation. Under this secondary interpretation, each church represents not only a literal body of believers that was in existence during John’s lifetime but also a distinct era of church history. For example, the first church to whom Jesus speaks — the church of Ephesus — represents the earliest decades of the church age. Those decades began with Christians having a zealous love for Jesus, but over the course of the years that zealous love waned somewhat. Next, the second church — the church of Smyrna — represents the era when the Roman government leveled its most intense persecution upon the church.
On and on the interpretation goes like that, making its way chronologically down through the major eras of church history by having each of the seven churches represent an era of that history. Under this interpretation, then, the sixth church to whom Jesus speaks — the church in Philadelphia — represents the era in which the Rapture will take place. That’s why Jesus said as a part of His remarks to that church, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” Obviously, the “hour of trial” He is describing must involve “the whole world” (not just the Roman empire), and it will test “those who dwell on the earth” (a phrase that is very different from “those who are part of the church,” “those who are believers,” etc.).
By putting all of this together, we can see that the phrase “the hour of trial” can be taken to be a reference to the tribulation period, the Christians who live in the era just prior to the beginning of that time will be kept from that hour, and the seventh church — the church of the Laodiceans — can be understood to figuratively represent the false church that will continue to meet in the tribulation period after the Rapture. Because every “member” (for lack of a better word) of that false church will in actuality be a lost unbeliever who missed the Rapture, it makes perfect sense that Jesus says of that church, “I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
Evidence #4: The Holy Spirit has to be removed for the Antichrist to be revealed.
The passage here is 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8. In those verses, Paul says to the Christians of Thessalonica: “And now you know what is restraining, that he (the Antichrist) may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one (the Antichrist) will be revealed…”
Okay, so who is this “He” who is doing so much restraining that the Antichrist can’t be revealed until He is taken out of the way? The answer is: God the Holy Spirit. No single individual or human institution is big enough and powerful enough to restrain the devil from unleashing his masterpiece of destruction upon the earth. Only God can handle that job. And where does God the Holy Spirit dwell upon this earth? He dwells inside the bodies of born-again Christians (Romans 5:5, Romans 8:5-11, 1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 5:5).
Ask any true Christian why he/she doesn’t do certain sinful things they’d like to do, and the answer you’ll get is, “It’s because the Holy Spirit inside me brings me under so much conviction.” You see, the Holy Spirit is a restrainer of evil even among Christians. So, if you think this world is morally deplorable now, just imagine how much worse things will get when all the restraining that God the Holy Spirit is doing through Christians is taken out of it.
It should be understood, though, that there will be people who get saved during the tribulation period (I’ll talk more about that in another post) and the Holy Spirit will have a ministry during those years. Whatever is meant by the Spirit being “taken out of the way” it doesn’t mean that He will retire to heaven and never been heard from again. What it does mean is that in the tribulation period the Spirit will no longer play the role of restrainer. During those years the “mystery of lawlessness” that was already at work in Paul’s day will run loose and rampant to the fullest degree, and as a part of that the Antichrist, who is called not coincidentally “the lawless one,” will be fully revealed upon the earth.
As an aside thought here, let me point out that we Christians don’t give ourselves enough credit for the job we’re doing in holding back Satan’s tide in this world. In 1 John 4:4, the same John who wrote The Revelation says to Christians, “…He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” The “He” who is inside each and every authentic Christian is none other than God the Holy Spirit, and when you get multiplied millions of Christians around the world allowing the indwelling Holy Spirit to work and minister through them, it makes for a powerful restraining force against Satan’s evil tide. That force is gone, though, at the moment of the Rapture, and that will allow the Antichrist to step forward to the spotlight of the world stage and start ushering in Satan’s tribulation-period agenda.
Now, in closing, let me say one final thing concerning Christians going through the tribulation period. For the most part, those who teach that Christians will go through all or part of the tribulation period cite as their reason the idea that Christians must somehow be “purged” through the trying events of those years to be made ready for heaven. Oftentimes you’ll hear it described as the bride of Christ (the church) being made spiritually spotless and without blemish for her wedding.
While I do understand this line of thought, there are two facts that it doesn’t take into account. First, just because a Christian is forced to endure trying times, it doesn’t automatically mean that the Christian will repent of his/her sins. To the contrary, sometimes trying times can cause the Christian to become angry with God and frustrated to the point of sinning all the more because living a holy life doesn’t seem to be helping. Could this not happen to Christians in the tribulation period?
And then, second, the truth of the matter is that millions of Christians have already missed their opportunity to be “purged” and made ready for Jesus by way of the tribulation period. They missed it by dying and going to heaven before the period began. Is there any valid reason then why God would force the Christians who have the misfortune of being alive when the period begins to go through it? Surely there isn’t. Therefore, this becomes yet another piece of evidence that the Rapture will take place before the tribulation period and Christians really will miss all of those dark and trying days.