Sunday, March 12, 2023

Evidence for the Rapture in Revelation [1]

Oddly, as we approach the end of our present age, the Bible’s teaching about the rapture of the church is increasingly falling into disrepute among believers. Some call it false teaching, others ridicule it as a scare tactic, still others claim Paul never taught a “rapture” at all. Some reject it because it clashes with their established eschatological beliefs, others because they are ignorant of the scriptures that teach it, still others because they dislike the idea of Christians getting to view the end of the world from the press box instead of from down on the playing field where (they believe) we belong.

Much of this rejection of harpazō-related teaching (the Greek word meaning “caught up” that Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4) is due to the rapid growth of Reformed theology, which increasingly dominates the evangelical landscape in the U.S. Wikipedia lists 53 separate Reformed denominations with churches in America. The rejection of dispensational teaching and a pre-tribulation rapture generally comes as part of the Reformed doctrinal package. Mind you, Christian filmmakers and writers have done their share of damage to the credibility of a rapture for the church as well, their cartoonish take on the end times in many cases serving to make the idea look ridiculous.

An article by former evangelical Joshua Rivera in Slate a couple of years ago claimed the idea of the rapture “emerged from” the book of Revelation. This is quite wrong; the doctrine of the rapture is taught explicitly only in 1 Thessalonians. You don’t find the rapture taught in Revelation at all. What you find in Revelation is very much consistent with Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians, but the Lord appears to have felt no need to recapitulate for John the truths he had previously shared with Paul by way of special revelation, and which Paul shared with the church of his day, and subsequently with us.

What I’d like to do in my next two posts is explore how the things John saw and heard in Revelation serve to confirm what Paul had written between twenty and forty years earlier.

Persecution and Wrath

To be clear, my position is not that the church will never undergo troubles, persecution or tribulation from hateful unsaved people, especially as we approach the end of our present age. Persecution and even martyrdom are the church’s lot in this world, and many Christians experience these things in the world even now. A situation in which all kinds of bad things happen to believers because we identify with Christ and the world hates us for it would not be the least bit inconsistent with the character or historic purposes of God.

What would be inconsistent with the character of God is for him to let loose his wrath on earth without first separating the righteous from the wicked. Historically speaking, he never does that. Noah, Lot, Israel during the Egyptian plagues and the godly citizens of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 9 all testify to this.

Prophetically speaking, there is nothing in Revelation to suggest God will behave differently in the future than he has in the past. 1 Thessalonians confirms that, saying directly to present era believers: “Jesus … delivers us from the wrath to come” and “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” The “awake or asleep” there refers back to the rapture teaching of chapter 4.

Thus it should be beyond question that before introducing his wrath into the already chaotic Great Tribulation picture, God will separate out all his own from those who are objects of his wrath. Some will be separated from his wrath by a seal, some will be separated from his wrath by dying before he unleashes it, and yes, some will be separated by being caught up to meet Christ in the air.

So then, in what ways does the book of Revelation confirm and reflect the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 4?

1/ The Great Tribulation Has Nothing to Do With the Church

It is evident the great tribulation serves a number of purposes from the Lord’s perspective, but none of these are related to his church:

  1. The great tribulation is the time in which God displays his wrath against a sinful and unrepentant world and judges its nations. The church is made up of those who have already repented and are not subject to God’s wrath. We constitute a nation of our own, and God’s judgment began with us two thousand years ago. It doesn’t need to end with us as well. Our “purgatory” is now, not during the great tribulation.
  2. The great tribulation is the period in which Israel is finally purified and comes to a place of repentance and faith. Zechariah says, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” This is a necessary part of Israel’s redemption arc, but it has nothing to do with the church, or, for that matter, with the Jews of the last two millennia who have put their faith in Christ during the present age.
  3. The great tribulation is also the time in which the Lord will utterly expose and destroy the great false religious system of this world. Two and a half chapters of Revelation are devoted to the fall of “Babylon the great”. Wonderful stuff, but again, nothing to do with the church.
  4. The great tribulation will serve as a “last call” for salvation to the world. A “great multitude” will wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb during this period, just as you and I have already done.

In keeping with point 2 above, the great tribulation is, as we might expect, very Jewish in its character. It gets its name from the Lord’s description of the period in Matthew 24. John also uses the expression in Revelation, but that came much later. The events of Matthew 24 center around Jerusalem. The abomination of desolation will stand in “the holy place” (the temple in Jerusalem). Those who are “in Judea” will flee to the mountains. Jeremiah called this period “the time of Jacob’s trouble”, not the time of the church’s trouble. Daniel refers to “a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time”, unquestionably this same period. He talks about Michael arising, “the great prince who has charge of your people” and he says, “at that time your people shall be delivered”. There is no mention of us in any of these places, and why should there be?

Revelation continues this very Jewish theme. The 144,000 sealed during the tribulation period are from “the sons of Israel”. The early chapters of Revelation portray Christ in his relationship to Israel, not the church. In the context of the coming wrath and judgment, he is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David”, not the Head of the church or the Bridegroom of the Bride. The two witnesses of chapter 11 prophesy “in the holy city”. The woman of chapter 12 is Israel, and she is the focus of Satan’s fury. The harvest of the earth in chapter 14 takes place “outside the city”, again Jerusalem.

The question has to be asked: What purpose would be served for the church to go through the great tribulation? What would God be trying to accomplish, unless it is some kind of earthly version of purgatory to “purify” believers? And if indeed the great tribulation is intended to serve as some kind of purification ritual for believers, why is it that 99.9% of Christians throughout church history have already escaped or will escape it?

The fact is that the great tribulation has nothing to do with the church, other than serving to inspire us to glorify God for his marvelous works as he exalts his Son and unveils his final plans for this world. We can do that as easily in heaven as here. In fact, we can do it much better there.

2/ The Timing of the Marriage Supper

Throughout much of the book of Revelation, the order of events does not appear to be strictly linear. This is not the case in the final few chapters, where expressions like “after this” [μετά ταῦτα] and “then” [καί] suggest an uninterrupted sequence of events is now in view. References in the new sections that commence with καί to events already described in previous sections as being in the past confirm this. So from chapter 19 on, in order, we find this sequence of events, which I believe to be linear:

Celebration of the judgment of the great prostitute (19:1-4)
Marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6-10)
Christ triumphant (19:11-19)
Beast and false prophet thrown into the lake of fire (19:20-21)
Satan thrown into the bottomless pit (20:1-3)
Tribulation martyrs resurrected to reign with Christ (20:6)

                  ***Millennial kingdom***

Satan’s final coup and end in the lake of fire (20:7-10)
Resurrection of the unsaved dead and Great White Throne (20:11-15)
New Jerusalem and the eternal state (21:1-22:21)

If these events are indeed to happen consecutively, as appears, then the marriage supper of the Lamb precedes Christ’s final victory, and occurs prior to his millennial reign. This strongly suggests the judgment seat of Christ that Paul refers to, in which the works of believers are assessed, must take place prior to the marriage supper, while the events of the great tribulation are unfolding on earth. Chapter 19 tells us, “His Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” and “the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints”. The Bride can hardly clothe herself with her righteous deeds unless the Bridegroom has first evaluated those works and pronounced them appropriate wedding attire.

Further, if both the judgment seat and the marriage supper of the Lamb occur either before or during the great tribulation rather than in its aftermath, it is quite impossible for the church to be present on earth for at least the latter portion of it, and there is no plausible reason the Lord could not have an earlier exit for his people in mind.

More evidence from Revelation for the rapture in Tuesday’s post.

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