Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: November, 2014

A THANKSGIVING PSALM


Psalm 145

Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners

Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners

    Today is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., but how many of us will actually take time today to thank God for what He has done for us during the past year? It is easy to take His blessings for granted. Too often Thanksgiving is all about the turkey and not about the giving of thanks.

    In ancient times King David of Israel understood, though. In Psalm 145, which is attributed to him, he has given us a beautiful meditation on divine providence, and it is a fitting passage upon which to reflect on an occasion such as this.

    David begins by saying, “I will extol You, my God, O King; / And I will bless Your name forever and ever” (Ps. 145:1; NKJV). He then goes on to speak of God’s unsearchable greatness” (v. 3), His “mighty acts” (v. 4), and “the might of Your awesome acts” (v. 6).

    An appreciation of God’s providence begins with an understanding of His sovereignty. We do not live in a chaotic universe ordered by random chance. Rather, David describes God as a powerful king who rules over all of creation. “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, / And Your dominion endures throughout all generations” (v. 13). Human kingdoms come and go because of their inherent weaknesses and limitations. But God’s reign will never end because He is all-powerful. No rival will ever be able to challenge successfully His authority.

    But there are good kings and there are bad kings. There have been some kings who were cruel tyrants. What kind of king is God? The psalm tells us, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, / Slow to anger and great in mercy” (v. 8). This is a reference back to a defining moment in God’s relationship with Israel. In Exodus 34 God revealed Himself directly to Moses and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (Ex. 34:6). The word “gracious” used in our psalm means to show favor to someone freely. “Compassion” is a tender feeling toward someone who is weak and vulnerable, especially as seen in the love of a parent toward a child. “Mercy” (or “lovingkindness,” as it is sometimes translated) signifies a willingness to help others. What all of these terms suggest is that God is kind and generous by nature. He has a genuine care and concern for His creatures – He genuinely desires their well-being.

    But the text also says that God is “slow to anger.” The fact of the matter is that God does get angry over sin. His anger, however, is not the violent passion we often experience. It is not the blind fury that lashes out at its objects in rage. Rather it is the controlled, purposeful outrage at human sin and rebellion. God is angry precisely because He is a God of love. Sin is the exact opposite of what love requires in the way of personal conduct. Thus a loving God cannot help but be indignant at our stubborn rebellion, our chronic selfishness, and our abuse of others.

    But God is “slow to anger.” He delays His judgment because He wants to give us the opportunity to repent, and to ensure that when His judgment finally comes it will be perfectly just. Justice tarries for the moment, but will be true and certain in the end. In the meantime God’s patience and mercy are on full display.

    It is God’s character, then, that leads Him to bestow favors on us. Having stated the principle, David then goes on to draw the logical corollary: “The Lord is good to all, / And His tender mercies are over all His works” (v. 9). First of all, He comes to the aid of those who are in distress. “The Lord upholds all who fall, / And raises up all who are bowed down” (v. 14). God does not promise to keep us from trials and difficulties. Rather, He helps us in our trials. In all that comes our way in life, His hand is in it, and He orders all the circumstances of our lives for His glory and our good.

    But in a very general way He provides for all of His creatures:

        “The eyes of all look expectantly for You,

          And You give them their food in due season.

         You open Your hand

         And satisfy the desire of every living thing.” (vv. 15,16)

At this point some modern thinkers might demur. In our experience doesn’t every event have a natural cause? Isn’t the reason that there is food on the table because I have a job, earned money, and went to the store to buy groceries? Where is the hand of God in all of this? But what David realized is that all of this is possible only because an intelligent Supreme Being so ordered nature as to function this way. The watch keeps time because the watchmaker made it that way. The same thing is true of nature as well. The whole structure of reality bespeaks of wisdom and care that God exercises for all of His creatures. He “gives them their food in due season.” Moreover, what would have been perfectly obvious to an agricultural society is that the crops depend on the weather, and man exercises little control over that. Thus in a very real and concrete sense we are dependent upon God for the food that we eat.

    And finally, God hears and answers prayer.

        “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,

         To all who call upon Him in truth.

         He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;

         He will also hear their cry and save them.” (vv. 18,19).

Here it will be noted that there is both a promise, and a condition attached to the promise. The promise is that God will answer prayer. He will “fulfill our desire” and “save” us. But the condition is that we must “call upon Him in truth” and “fear Him.” To “fear Him” does not mean to be terrified of Him. Rather it means to hold Him in deep reverence. In other words, if we expect to have our prayers heard and answered, we must approach Him sincerely and respectfully. God does not promise to answer hypocritical and half-hearted prayers.

    Thus God really is the source, either directly or indirectly, of all of the blessing that we enjoy. And thus David could conclude,

        “My mouth shall speak of the praise of the Lord,

         And all flesh shall bless His holy name

         Forever and ever.” (v. 21)

And so should we this Thanksgiving Day!

THE THEME OF REVELATION

    When we turn to the Book of Revelation itself, it is significant that it was written to a persecuted church. John, who saw the visions, identifies himself as “your brother and companion in the tribulations and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ,” who was “on the island that was called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:9; NKJV). As we shall see, “tribulation,” “kingdom,” and “patience” are all major themes of the book.

    According to ancient church tradition, Revelation was written near the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian, a cruel and autocratic ruler who was both sadistic and paranoid. During his reign people were condemned for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor. Thus at least part of the purpose of the Book of Revelation was to give comfort and encouragement to believers who were already suffering persecution in the First Century.

    The book opens with a vision of Christ who has a sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth. Then there follow letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. In at least three of these letters there are references to “the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10).

    Most of the churches addressed in the letters have a variety of spiritual problems and are told to repent. But each letter ends with a promise to him “who overcomes.” The theme of the book, in fact, is contained in a statement in the letter to the church of Thyatira: “But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end. To him I will give power over the nations . . .” (Rev. 2:25,26). Thus the book is a charge to remain faithful to Christ in the face of persecution.

    In Chapter 4, verse 1, attention is turned to the future. John is told, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” The vision begins with the throne of God in heaven, and proceeds to describe a series of plagues and disasters that are sent upon the earth at divine command. It is not until Chapter 13 that we are introduced to the “Beast” (i.e., the Antichrist) and the False Prophet. Significantly we are told that “It was granted to him [i.e., the Antichrist] to make war with the saints and to overcome them” (13:17). The False Prophet, in turn, presides over a religious cult centered on the Antichrist, and it was granted to him to “cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (13:15).

    Chapter 14 goes on to describe those who remain faithful to Christ during the Tribulation. The live faultless lives (vv. 4,5). The gospel is proclaimed throughout the world (vv. 6,7). And the immanent destruction of “Babylon” is announce (v. 8), and a warning is issued against worshipping the Beast (vv. 9-11). And then the theme of the book is restated: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (v. 12). John then says that the heard a voice from heaven saying to him, “Write: ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them” (v. 13). The word translated “patience” (hypomone) means “patient enduring,” or “endurance.” It could also be translated “perseverance” (NASV) or “patient endurance” (NIV). This is the story of patient endurance in the face of persecution.

THE DISPENSATIONAL INTERPRETATION

    So far we have looked at our Lord’s Olivet Discourse and Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonians to see if the widely held belief in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture is really scriptural. Our conclusion so far is that it is not.

    But what about the Book of Revelation? One would expect that if there is such a thing as a Pre-Tribulation Rapture one would find it there. Does the Book of Revelation teach such a thing?

    The short answer, admitted by even many Dispensationalists, is “no.” Most interpreters would agree that the rapture is not mentioned in the book. What the book does make clear, however, is that the Antichrist will persecute the saints. Is this not proof positive that the church will remain on earth throughout the Tribulation? Most Dispensationalists, however, would emphatically deny it. But who, then, are there “tribulation saints”?

    The usual Dispensationalist answer is that these are Jews who are converted after the church has been raptured. To most non-Dispensationalists this answer seems bizarre; “saints” are “saints.” The term is usually applied in the New Testament to Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. But to understand how Dispensationalists arrive at this conclusion one understand the internal logic of their system.

    The Dispensational approach to Scripture involves making sharp distinctions between different things, especially in the way God operates from one period of time to another. In the introduction to his famous Scofield Reference Bible C.I. Scofield quoted approvingly St. Augustine: “Distinguish the ages, and the Scriptures harmonize.” (The various periods of time in Scripture are sometimes referred to as “dispensations.”) In his classic little booklet Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth Dr. Scofield argued, on the basis of II Tim. 2:15, that the word of Truth has divisions, “so any study of that word which ignores these divisions must be in large measure profitless and confusing” (p. 3).

    The first such division that Dr. Scofield discusses in his booklet is between “The Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God,” and he says that “comparing, then, what is said in Scripture concerning Israel and the Church, he finds that in origin, calling, promise, worship, principles of conduct, and future destiny – all is contrast” (p. 6). He then goes on to say, “In the predictions concerning the future of Israel and the Church, the distinction is still more striking. The church will be taken away from the earth entirely, but restored Israel is yet to have her greatest earthly splendor and power” (p. 9). In other words, God had two different chosen peoples, Israel and the Church, and has a separate plan and destiny for each. Thus it is possible for Dr. Scofield to argue that the Great Tribulation pertains to Israel – it is “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), and the Church has nothing to do with it.

    The underlying premise, however, is faulty. Paul specifically says that Christ “has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation . . . that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross . . . ” (Eph. 2:11-22; NKJV). And even if the premise were true, the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise. Just because Israel is destined to pass through the last Great Tribulation does not mean that the Church will not also pass through the same Tribulation. As we shall see when we examine the Book of Revelation, that is exactly what Christian believers, whether Jew or Gentile, should expect.

A PRETRIBULATION RAPTURE? – II

    We have seen how Jesus in the Olivet Discourse leads us to believe that the rapture of the Church will occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (Matt. 24:29; NKJV). But what about the rest of Scripture? What does the rest of the Bible say about the subject?

    The apostle Paul addressed the subject of the End Times at some length in his letters to the Thessalonians. He describes the rapture itself in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, where he says, “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord” (v. 17). But the passage does not say when the rapture will take place. Or does it?

    The passage does mention one important detail regarding the timing of the event. The main point of the passage in question is that those who die in Christ will someday rise from the dead. But Paul makes a point of emphasizing that the resurrection of the righteous dead will precede the rapture of the living saints. “. . .we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up . . .” (vv. 15-17). And when does the resurrection of the righteous occur? At the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the Great Tribulation (Rev. 20:4-6). And the language of the text itself (“the parousia of the Lord,” “a shout,” “the voice of the archangel,” “the trumpet of God”) suggests that the rapture will occur at the Second Coming of Christ.

    But Paul goes on in the next chapter to elaborate further. He says, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night” (5:1,2). The standard Dispensational interpretation is that Paul here is introducing a new subject. In 4:13-18 he has been discussing the Rapture, whereas in 5:1-11 he is discussing the “Revelation,” i.e., the Second Coming of Christ. But there is little in the passage itself to indicate a transition of thought, and upon close examination it is evident that he is, in fact, discussing the same event.

    When we look more closely at 5:1-11 it becomes apparent that the Church will be here, on earth, when Christ returns at “the Revelation.” In verse 3 Paul says, “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.” But then he goes on in verse 4 to say, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.” The clear implication is that the Church will be here to witness the same event. Paul then goes on to exhort his readers to “watch and be sober” (vv. 6-8).

    Dispensationalists have long used verse 0 as a proof text for a pre-trib rapture. “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” But the “wrath” in verse 9 most likely refers to the “sudden destruction” in verse 3, not for the Tribulation as a whole. What we are spared from is the judgment of God that falls on the human race at the very end of the Tribulation, not the persecution of the saints by the Antichrist during the Tribulation itself.

    Apparently Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians did not resolve all of their difficulties, and he was soon compelled to write a second letter. He begins this letter by mentioning their “patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure” (1:4). It is worth noting that he is writing to a persecuted church, and aims to help them put their sufferings in context. He tells them that they have been “counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer” (v. 5), and that God will “repay with tribulation those who trouble you” (v. 6). But then he says that God will “give you who are troubled rest with us” (v. 7). When? “. . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (vv. 7,8). The clear implication is that we will not experience rest until the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the Tribulation.

    But Paul is even more explicit in Chapter 2. He says “Now, brethren, concerning the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him . . .” The word translated “gathering together” is episynagoges, which is noun form of the verb that Jesus used in Matt. 24:31: “and they will gather together His elect . . .” It almost certainly refers to the rapture described in I Thess. 4:17. Paul then lumps both events together (the “coming of our Lord” and “our gathering together”) into “the day of Christ” (some manuscripts read “the day of the Lord” – cf. NASV,NIV,ESV), and says that that Day will not come “unless the falling away come first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (v. 3). He then goes on to describe the career of the Antichrist, as we have seen before. But Paul’s whole point in the passage is that “our gathering together to Him” will not take place until after the rise of Antichrist.

    It is hard for us to conceive of this because, unlike the Thessalonian church , we have not experienced persecution. It is easy for us to imagine that ours is the normal state of the church. But for most of the church’s long history the true believers have been persecuted, as they are even now in many countries around the world. There is therefore no real reason to expect that we will be spared from the last great final tribulation at the end of the age. Indeed, the whole point of these passages about the end times is to prepare us for it.