Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Eschatology

A QUESTION OF DIVINE JUDGMENT

Jonathan Cahn on site

Jonathan Cahn on site

Review:

The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery that Holds

the Secret of America’s Future

Jonathan Cahn

FrontLine, 2011

253 pp., pb.

Is America tottering on the brink of disaster? Author Jonathan Cahn thinks so, and in this thought-provoking book he presents disturbing evidence that America is, indeed, ripe for divine judgment.

Originally from a Jewish background, Cahn leads a mixed congregation of both Jews and Gentiles in Wayne, NJ. Thus it is perhaps only natural that he would be struck by the similarity between the events of 9/11 and Old Testament prophecy. As a result he has given us a fascinating and intriguing read.

The book reads like a Dan Brown novel, but Cahn insists that what he says in it about America is literally true. (I found the book in the Christian fiction section of our local Barnes & Noble.) His argument runs along three major lines. First, he notes the strong parallels between the events of 9/11 and an obscure prophecy found in Isaiah 9:10. The ancient (northern) kingdom of Israel, sometimes also known by the name of its capital city, Samaria, had long since fallen into religious apostasy and moral decay. Finally, around 733 B.C. it was invaded from the north by the powerful Assyrian army, which captured several districts around the Sea of Galilee. The Israelites apparently reacted to the situation in a spirit of defiance, and Isa. 9:10 summarizes their attitude this way:

“The bricks have fallen down,

But we will rebuild with hewn stones;

The sycamores are cut down,

But we will replace them with cedars.” (NKJV).

The northern kingdom of Israel was finally carried off into captivity in 722 B.C., and disappeared from the stage of history.

Cahn goes through this verse, word by word in the Hebrew original, and points out the astonishing similarities with the events of 9/11. Among other things it turns out that there actually was a sycamore tree at Ground Zero, which was subsequently moved and replaced by a conifer tree on the same site. (Cahn tells us that the Hebrew word ‘erez, usually translated “cedar” in our English versions, could refer to any member of the pine family, although this is debatable.)

More remarkably, however, on at least two occasions leading public officials actually quoted Isa. 9:10 as an expression of America’s own determination to rebuild. The day after 9/11 the Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, quoted the verse on the Senate floor. Three years later, on the anniversary of 9/11, vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking to a Congressional caucus, quoted the same verse again. Apparently neither man was aware that the verse, taken in its context, was actually a rebuke for the attitude thus represented!

The second line of evidence explored by Cahn has to do with the concept of “shemitah,” a Hebrew word that means “remission” or “release.” Under Old Testament law every seventh year was to be kept as a “Sabbath year,” in which the land was allowed to lie fallow. On the last day of the Sabbath year there was supposed to be a “shemitah,” a release of debts in which all the debts of poor people would be forgiven. The Hebrew calendar runs on a different system than our Gregorian calendar and the last day of the Hebrew year would, of course, be the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah generally falls sometime in September or early October on our calendar. As it happens, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack there was a major stock market crash on Sept. 17, 2001, which just happened to be the last day of the year on the Jewish calendar. Then, seven years later, on Sept. 28, 2008, which was the last day of the Jewish calendar for that year, the stock market crashed again, ushering in the Great Recession. On both days fortunes were lost. Was it just a coincidence?

The third line of evidence cited by Cahn involves the inauguration of George Washington as President, which took place in Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. In his Inaugural Address Washington invoked the blessing of God on the newly formed government. Then, having delivered his speech, the newly sworn-in president led a procession to nearby St. Paul’s Chapel for an Episcopal prayer service. The chapel is, in fact, located adjacent to what is now Ground Zero. Cahn compares this to the ancient temple in Jerusalem, the focal point of worship in Israel, which was destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history.

Cahn does not presume to tell us what exactly will happen next, nor does he set dates. His main concern is to warn us that all the signs point to our being a nation under God’s judgement. He ends the book with an evangelistic appeal. Considering the fact that the book has already sold over 2 million copies and was on the New York Times best seller list, we certainly hope that it will make an impact.

Cahn has certainly given us something to think about, but I think that he may have overstated his case a bit. While the similarities between ancient Israel and modern America are striking, there are nonetheless important differences. Chief among them is the fact that America does not have the kind of formal covenant relationship with God that ancient Israel had (unless the language of the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence be construed as an implied covenant). Under the New Covenant, the people of God is the sum total of born-again believers, not a given nation-state. Likewise there is no covenantal obligation for America to practice “shemitah,” although there is a general moral obligation for every human society to relieve the distress of the poor among them. Moreover there is no state church here in the U.S., and hence to central shrine that serves as the focus for national worship. Thus, while the similarities with the shemitah and the temple are interesting, it is hard to know exactly what they prove.

And yet, having said that, there are several things that undoubtedly are true. God is in sovereign control of the universe, and nothing happens by accident. He is holy and righteous, and holds all men accountable for their actions, Jew and Gentile alike. God once destroyed the entire world with a flood because He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Gen. 6:5). On another occasion He rained down fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Were not the San Francisco earthquake of 1984 and Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005) awesome demonstrations of God’s power and judgment?

The fact of the matter is that we are a nation under God’s judgment, and we would do well to take the warning signs seriously. For that reason we can thank Jonathan Cahn for at least getting the conversation started.

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THE FAITHFUL CHURCH

 

The letters to the seven churches of Asia found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 contain many solemn warnings and gloomy predictions, and they are warnings which ought to be taken seriously by every church in every age. But interestingly there were two churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) to which no rebuke was given, and in the examples of these two churches we may take some measure of comfort.

The Philadelphia of which we speak, of course, is not the famous metropolis on the Delaware – it was an ancient city located in the Roman province of Asia, now a part of modern Turkey. Ancient Roman Philadelphia was situated further inland, on the edge of a fertile plateau. But it was also prone to earthquakes, and had been destroyed several times, most recently in A.D. 17. The church itself, we may gather from the letter, was small and not very influential, and subject to persecution. And yet through it all it remained faithful to the Lord, and was therefore commended.

As with the other letters to the seven churches, this one begins with a description of Christ, the One who is speaking to the church. “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, ‘He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens’” (Rev. 3:7; NKJV). Here attention is drawn to Christ’s character: He is “holy” and “true,” the idea being that His motives are true and His word can be relied upon. The second half of the verse (“He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”) is a reference to a passage in the Book of Isaiah (Isa. 22:22) in which “the key of the house of David” apparently represents the authority of the royal steward, an official kind of like a modern prime minister. The reference in the letter to the church of Philadelphia points to Christ’s authority and control over events. No matter how difficult the circumstances, the church may safely trust in Christ to guide it through.

The letter goes on to say several positive things about the church itself. It says, “You have a little strength” – most commentators seem to think that it should be translated “you have but little power” (ESV; cf. NIV), emphasizing how little strength the church had, rather than the fact that it had any at all. Apparently it was a relatively small church, with little in the way of numbers and resources. It was evidently also a persecuted church – the letter refers to “those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie” (v. 9). Apparently the Christians in Philadelphia encountered the same kind of opposition from the Jewish community as did the church of Smyrna (Rev. 2:9). Yet in spite of all these disadvantages and obstacles the church at Philadelphia remained faithful. Our Lord says that they kept His word and did not deny His name (v. 8). In a word, they persevered (v. 10).

This, then, was the type of church which Christ commended. What, then, does our Lord promise it? First of all, He says “See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it” (v. 8). The commentators are not entirely agreed as to what this means, but it apparently has reference to an open door of opportunity to serve the Lord, especially in evangelism.

Our Lord also tells them that He will make their persecutors “come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you” (v. 9). This may refer to a future conversion of Jews (Rom. 11:26-29), as well as the millennial reign of the saints with Christ (Rev. 20:4-6).

And then our Lord tells the church at Philadelphia, “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” (v. 10). Dispensationalists commonly use this verse as a proof text for a “Pretribulation Rapture,” the idea that the Christian church will be completely removed from the earth before the Great Tribulation of the end times begins. But that is probably reading a little too much into the text.

First of all, this is the only one of the seven churches that is told that it will be kept from “the hour of trial.” Two of the other churches, in fact (Smyrna, 2:10; and Thyatira, 2:22) are told to expect tribulation of some sort. Moreover the text doesn’t actually say that the church will be physically removed from the earth – it only says “I will also keep you from the hour of trial,” which might simply mean that Christ will preserve them from suffering during the Tribulation. Persecution does not always fall with equal force in every place. Philadelphia might be spared while Smyrna languishes. The important thing is that the church of Philadelphia will not suffer, at least not greatly. The tribulation will be an “hour of trial,” and their faith had already been tested and found genuine.

One might also ask then this “hour of trial” will take place? The church at Philadelphia, after all, existed 2,000 years ago and is no longer around today. How, then, was this promise to be fulfilled? It will be noted that a prophecy can have a double or even triple fulfillment. In this particular case the immediate reference may very well have been to the persecution under the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian around “A.D. 95. But given the overall theme of the Book of Revelation the final, Great Tribulation of the end times must also be in view. And all through church history there have been churches like the one at Philadelphia which have been promised the Lord’s protection in the midst of the trials and difficulties they face.

This letter, like the others, ends with an exhortation and a promise. Christ tells the church at Philadelphia to “Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (v. 11). They are on the right path; they have served Christ well. They must just be careful to stay on that path and finish the race successfully. The “crown” was a wreath or garland that was given as a prize or honor. The crown was theirs because they had remained faithful to the Lord, but they could lose it if they became distracted like some of the other churches. That would be a tragedy indeed.

And then follows the promise to those who “overcome” (v. 12). In this case there are several promises. Christ tells them that He “will make them a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go forth no more.” Here we have the image of permanency and stability.  And then He says that He will write on him several names – the name of God, the name of the city of God, and His own new name, all signifying ownership and belonging. All who genuinely love the Lord and serve Him faithfully have the assurance of His love and protection.

Today there are many small churches that are struggling to survive in a world that has largely grown indifferent towards religion. Circumstances like these should always call for self-examination. Are we truly serving the Lord, or are we merely “going through the motions” through force of habit and tradition? But assuming that our love for Christ is real and genuine, we can take hope. God does not need numbers, money, buildings or TV ministries. What He desires are the faithful few who are genuinely committed to serving Him. To them goes the crown of victory!

THE BOOK OF REVELATION – I

 

Perhaps no book in the Bible is more fascinating and at the same time more perplexing than the Book of the Revelation. It has spawned numerous commentaries, debates, and even best-selling novels. It is, in fact, a book that has an important message for believers today. And yet we largely miss the point of the book, because we bring certain theological assumptions to it, and these assumptions obscure the theme of the book.

The most commonly held assumption is that the church will be raptured before the onset of the Great Tribulation. Since much of Revelation describes the events of the Tribulation, according to the Pretribulation Rapture theory these events will occur after the church is gone. Thus most of what the book says about the plight of the saints does not apply to us, and our main interest in the book is “when does it all take place”?

Many Christians, however, would be surprised to learn that the Pretribulation Rapture view is largely without scriptural evidence to support it. Even its advocates admit that there is no passage that explicitly says that the rapture of the church will occur before the Tribulation. Instead they rely on a series of inferences to support their position. The inferences, however, are tenuous at best.

Another position that has a long history behind it is that of Amillennialism. According to this view there will be no literal, earthly millennial kingdom as described in Revelation chapter 20. But the proponents of this theory typically use an ingenious method of interpretation to support their view – the “Recapitulation Theory.” It is ingenious, too ingenious in our estimation. It amounts to forced exegesis.

We believe that if the theme of the book is traced from beginning to end a startling but coherent interpretation emerges: the church will go through the tribulation, its faith will be severely tested, and it will be rewarded if it remains faithful to the end.

The message was directed initially to seven actual churches that existed in the Roman province of Asia (the western part of the modern country of Turkey) in the First Century. It was a time of persecution, apparently during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96). John himself, who received the revelation, had been banished to the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor.

The Revelation begins with a description of Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth . . . who loved us and redeemed us from our sins”   Thus the book begins by establishing two basic facts, Christ is the sovereign Lord of history, and believers occupy a privileged position in the scheme of redemption. The text then goes on to say, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him . . .” (1:5-7; NKJV). This, of course, is a reference to the Second Coming of Christ, which is the focal point of the book.

Chapters 2 and 3 contain individual letters to the seven churches. All but two of the churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) are criticized for their spiritual and moral laxity and are told to repent. Several churches, however, are commended for their perseverance. Significantly, the Greek word for “perseverance” (hypomone) occurs seven times in the book – it is, in fact, a major theme.

The church at Philadelphia is told about an “hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world” (3:10), an apparent reference to the Great Tribulation. And the purpose of the Tribulation is stated: viz., “to test those who dwell on the earth.” Each of the seven letters concludes with a promise to those who “overcome” (nikao – to conquer, prevail, be victorious, overcome). It is an ominous glimpse of what lies ahead.

In Chapter 4 attention is turned to “which must take place after this” (4:1). The vision of the future begins with the scene in heaven. Chapter 4 describes God as sitting on a throne, a symbol of power and authority. Then, in chapter 5, we are introduced to “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” (v. 5) who turns out to be a Lamb! Although a Lamb, he is One who can break the seals on the scroll – to unlock the seals of history.

Then follows a succession of seals, trumpets, and bowls. Each event in heaven presages a corresponding event on earth: wars, natural disasters, and persecutions. The implication is that what happens on earth is controlled by decisions made in heaven. History does not unfold by accident or blind fate; it is purposefully guided by the hand of God.

The rationale for what happens in the end times is given to us in Rev. 6:9-11. After the fifth seal is opened the martyrs of the past cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” The answer given is that the martyrs of the past “should rest a little while longer, until both the number oftheir fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”

In Chapter 7 we are introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed on their foreheads, and after them a numberless multitude “of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues,” who are described as “the ones who came out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” To these are given a promise: they are before the throne of God, and God will dwell among them; “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:9-17).

More natural disasters follow, and yet mankind still does not repent (9:20,21). Then, in Chapter 11 we are meet the two witnesses who prophesy for 3 1/2 years. They are gifted with supernatural powers, but are ultimately martyred and then resurrected. We then are shown the scene in heaven, in which the 24 elders fall on their faces before God and worship Him,

“. . . Because you have taken Your great power and reigned.

The nations were angry, and your wrath has come,

And the time of the dead, that they should be judged,

And that You should reward Your servants the prophets and saints,

And those who fear Your name, small and great,

And should destroy those who destroy the earth.” (11:17,18).

And thus the theme of the book is announced. It is about the justice of God, vindicating the persecuted saints and punishing their oppressors. And all of this reaches a climax with the appearance of the Antichrist.

THE RAPTURE – WHEN?

Gustave Dore: The Vision of Death

Gustave Dore: The Vision of Death

 

Recently I had the opportunity to engage in a brief but spirited debate on another blog (www.holdingforthhisword.wordpress.com) about the timing of the Rapture, that moment in the future when the church is removed from the earth and taken up to heaven. The blogger at holdingforthhisword, whose name is Eliza, takes what is known as the Pretribulation Rapture position, i.e., that the Rapture will take place just before the Antichrist appears and the Great Tribulation of the End Times begins. I, on the other hand, take the opposite position. I am convinced, on the strength of Scripture, that the church will remain here on earth through the Tribulation, and that the Rapture will take place at the Second Coming of Christ.

 

How to interpret Scripture

I would want to point out at the very beginning one central fact in the case: there is no passage of Scripture anywhere in the Bible that explicitly states that the Rapture will take place before the Tribulation. The idea of a Pretribulation Rapture is based on inferences, and one pretty much has to presuppose the whole Dispensational scheme of theology to make the inferences hold. No one other than Dispensational theologians has ever found a Pre-trib Rapture in the Bible.

But the proper way to approach Scripture is inductively – let the text speak for itself. We should come to Scripture with a humble and teachable mind, with no preconceived notions or personal agendas. Wherever possible we should take the words of the text in their natural sense, and we should follow the train of thought as it is developed in the context. As one old preacher put it years ago, “If the plain sense makes horse sense, seek no other sense.” What we do not want to do is impose some preconceived system of theology on the text. As Eliza herself likes to point out to people who disagree with her, we should follow Scripture, not human authority. If ever such helpful advice was needed, it is on a topic such as this one.

Eliza’s thesis

            Eliza has written no less than three different blog posts in one day (June 13) on the subject of the Rapture, and she states her central thesis in the first post (“The Rapture: Part One”): “The tribulation is the declared wrath of God poured out upon this world for embracing lawless sinfulness and brazenly, sinfully rejecting God and His Son Jesus Christ.” She then quotes, in full, a number of passages of Scripture from various parts of the Bible: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Luke, Acts, II Thessalonians and Revelation. She then draws her conclusion: The passages above reveal God’s wrath is poured out on unbelievers, not His children. The tribulation is the execution of God’s wrath upon the sinful world; He is not going to include His precious children under that judgment.”

The conclusion, however, is a non-sequitur. The fact that God is pouring out His wrath upon this world during the Tribulation does not preclude the possibility that other things are going on as well. And the plain fact of the matter is that during the Tribulation there are “saints” who are being persecuted by the Antichrist.

Eliza tries to get around this difficulty by arguing that the saints who are persecuted during the Tribulation are a different group of people from the church. Commenting on Matt. 24:31 in “The Rapture: Part Three” she states, “This indicates that Jesus will already have His elect in heaven with Him, those that He has raptured before the tribulation, and will gather the tribulation saints, believers save through faith in Christ Jesus during the reign of Antichrist and the tribulation, from earth at the same time.” Here she is attempting to make a distinction between “His elect” and “the tribulation saints.” But what is the difference between the two? Are they not both elect, and are they not both God’s beloved children? If it would be unthinkable that God would allow the one group (“His elect”) to pass through the Tribulation, why would He allow the other to? Does He love the one group more than the other?

But the Bible itself makes no such distinction between the two. It is a classic example of Dispensational theologians reading something into the text that is simply not there. In Rev. 6:9-11 (which Eliza quotes in a different context) the martyrs already in heaven cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And the answer they receive is that “they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” (NKJV). In other words what we have here is the Church Triumphant (the saints already in heaven) and the Church Militant (the saints still here on earth). But it is all one church, the Bride of Christ: they are “fellow servants” and “brethren.” And many of the ones still on earth are destined to suffer martyrdom.

I & II Thessalonians

Some of the passages cited by Eliza in her blog posts point to the exact opposite conclusion from the one she draws. To look at the references from I & II Thessalonians, in I Thess. 4:13-18 (the classic passage on the Rapture) Paul specifically states that the Rapture will not take place until after the resurrection of the just, and that, in turn, will not take place until after the Antichrist is defeated at the Battle of Armageddon (cf. Rev. 20:4-6). And in I Thess. 5:1-11 Paul states that the “the day of the Lord,” and with it “sudden destruction,” will come “as a thief in the night.” But then Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (v. 4). They will not be surprised when it comes because they will have been expecting it. But the implication is that they will be here on earth to witness it when it happens.

In II Thessalonians Paul commends the Thessalonian believers “for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure” (v. 4). This is what is so hard for the average American Christian to understand. If we are God’s beloved children, if He has promised to answer prayer, why would He allow us to suffer persecutions and tribulations? And yet this was precisely the experience of the Thessalonian Christians. But then Paul goes on to say that God will “give you who are troubled rest with us.” 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 . . .” (vv. 7,8). The clear implication is that Christians will not experience rest from persecution until the Second Coming of Christ.

Eliza also cites II Thess. 2:1-14 in which Paul describes “the man of sin” (i.e., the Antichrist). But Paul begins by saying, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (v. 1). The Greek word translated “coming” is “parousia,” the term commonly used in the New Testament for the Second Coming of Christ. “Our gathering together to Him” almost certainly refers to the Rapture. Paul then tells his readers not to be misled into thinking that “the day of Christ” has already come. It will be noted here that Paul treats “the coming of Christ,” “our gathering together to Him,” and “the day of Christ” as one and the same event. He then specifically states that this event will not take place “unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (v. 3).

In none of these passages is there any hint of a Pretribulation Rapture. And when they are taken together the picture they present is a vastly different one from the one drawn by Eliza. What we see are persecuted saints suffering for their faith, and they look forward to the return of Christ at the end of the Tribulation.

Conclusion

Yes, the Tribulation is a time when God’s wrath is poured out on a sinful human race. There are natural disasters, wars, and economic hardships. But in the midst of it all are faithful saints who refuse to bow the knee before Antichrist, and who suffer persecution and even martyrdom as a result.

One might ask the question, why would God permit such a thing? There are at least two answers to the question that we can see. The first is to purify the visible church. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:6,7). When Christ comes back to receive His bride, it will not be the carnal, worldly church we see today, but the church whose faith and love have been tested and purified by the flames of persecution.

Secondly, believers suffer during the Tribulation precisely so that when the final judgment from God on the wicked comes, it will be absolutely just. After commending the Thessalonian believers for their patience under trial, Paul goes on to say that this is “manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you might be counted worthy of the kingdom of God for which you suffer.” And then he adds, “since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you.” He then goes on to describe the Second Coming of Christ, as we have seen, and this will happen “when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints” (II Thess. 1:5-10).

We cannot tell for certain how close we are to the Great Tribulation. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the American church is about to enter into an experience that it has never had before – the challenge of remaining faithful to Christ while living in a hostile environment. Telling Christians that it is not God’s will that they experience tribulation is not at all helpful., and leaves them unprepared for what surely lies ahead.

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.

A PRETRIBULATION RAPTURE? – I

    One of the most commonly held misconceptions regarding the end times is the idea of a “Pretribulation Rapture” – the notion that the Christian church will be “raptured” (snatched away from earth) before the Great Tribulation of the end times begins. The word “rapture” comes from the Latin word used in I Thess. 4:17: “rapiemur cum illis” – “we shall be snatched away with them.” The text, however, does not say that this rapture will take place before the Tribulation. In fact, it implies that it will take place after. Many conservative, Bible-believing Christians will be startled to discover that the idea of a pretribulation rapture isn’t taught anywhere in Scripture. There is no passage of Scripture that says any such thing. The theory rests on the weakest of exegetical inferences.

    So what does the Bible really say on the subject? Let us return to our Lord’s description of the end times, the Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew chapters 24 and 25. As we have seen, Jesus’ disciples asked Him two questions: when will the temple be destroyed, and “what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3; NKJV). When the disciples asked the latter question they were undoubtedly thinking back to something that Jesus had told them previously. In the Parable of the Wheat and Tares recorded in Matt. 13:24-30 and explained in 13:36-43, Jesus had said that the “harvest” would come at “the end of this age” (te sunteleia tou aionos toutou – 13:40). The disciples properly understood this to coincide with the Lord’s Second Coming (tes ses parousias – 24:3). The question is, when would this event take place?

    Jesus proceeds to tell them that several things must take place first, including the Great Tribulation – “a great tribulation, such as not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). He then foes on to say, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days . . . all of the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (vv. 29,30).

    Up until this point our Dispensationalist brethren would have no problems with what we have said. They would agree wholeheartedly that the Second Coming of Christ “with power and great glory” will occur after the Tribulation. They insist, however, that the church will have been raptured seven years previous to the Second Coming.

    When we look at the broader context, however, there are serious problems with this scenario. Jesus has been addressing His disciples and warning them all along that when they see certain things they should not be deceived by false Messiahs and prophets. Then, in describing the Tribulation itself He says, “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved, bur for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (v. 22). One would naturally expect that the “elect” would be Christian believers who will be alive at the time.

    Jesus then goes on to say that at His Second Coming “they will gather together (episunazousin) His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (v. 31). Jesus goes on to explain that His Coming will be very sudden and unexpected, that no one knows the exact day or the hour. He then cites the examples of the two men in the field, and the two women grinding at the mill, and says of each, “one will be taken and the other left” (vv. 40,41). One would certainly think that this refers to the rapture, which Christ says will occur at “the coming (he parousia) of the Son of Man” (v. 39).

    And then Jesus makes the main point of the entire discourse: “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming . . . Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (vv. 42-44).

    In other words, the “Pre-Trib” position misses the whole point of the passage. The Olivet Discourse was given to us specifically to warn us to be ready when the Lord returns “after the tribulation of those days” (v. 29, emphasis mine). We can expect to meet our Lord in the skies at the end of the Great Tribulation.

    Jesus then goes on to reinforce the point with three parables: The Faithful Servant and the Evil Servant (24:45-51), The Wise and the Foolish Virgins (25:1-13), and the Talents (25:14-30), all of which stress the importance of being faithful and ready until Christ returns. The focus of the entire discourse, then, is on the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the Tribulation, and the clear implication is that the saints will be here on earth until the very end. There is no ground whatsoever for the belief that Christians will be spared form the Tribulation.

    Some Dispensationalists have tried to evade the difficulty by asserting that since the Gospel of Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience, in the Olivet Discourse Jesus was addressing His disciples as representatives of the Jewish nation, and therefore the discourse does not apply to the Gentile church. The flaw in this argument is that most of Matthew 24 is repeated in Mark 13, and even though Mark was writing for a broader audience, he made no attempt to explain to his Gentile readers that the Olivet Discourse was intended only for Jews. The discourse really has to be regarded as intended for the Christian church as a whole.

    We are headed for the Great Tribulation!

BABYLON THE GREAT

John Sloan: The City from Greenwich Village, 1922

John Sloan: The City from Greenwich Village, 1922

    Down through the centuries Christians have had to face daunting challenges of every sort, from physical deprivation to deep discouragement to outright persecution. Yet Christians in the western industrialized nations may be facing the deadliest challenge of all, namely, the challenge of material prosperity. To understand why this particular challenge is so deadly, it is instructive to examine a biblical picture of a prosperous civilization. The example we have chosen is the lamentation over “Babylon” contained in Revelation chapter 18.

    The chapter describes the judgment of God on “Babylon the Great.” In trying to understand what “Babylon” represents, we believe that many commentators have overlooked an important and obvious detail: Babylon is described in the chapter as a very wealthy commercial power. Therefore the figure cannot represent an ecclesiastical entity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, nor can it symbolize all secular political power as it has existed throughout the church age, for not every great political power has been economically successful. Rather, Babylon represents a certain type of secular power, namely, a power that has grown wealthy through extensive commerce. It is this financial prosperity, moreover, which creates the distinctive spiritual conditions that are so typical of “Babylon.” That is the picture we have before us in this passage.

    Why, then, does God pour out His judgment upon Babylon? What is so wrong with being prosperous?

    First of all, we are told that Babylon “lived luxuriously” (Rev. 18:3,7,9; NKJV), that is, she maintained a life-style that was marked by the ostentatious display of wealth, or as we would call it today, “conspicuous consumption.” We get a picture of what kind of life-style this was from the list of merchandise she bought contained in verses 12 and 13. It includes precious metals and gems, fine clothes, costly building materials, rare spices and fragrances, as well as livestock and vehicles, much of it imported from as far away as Africa, Arabia, and China. The denizens of this city obviously had a taste for the finer things of life, and spent their money lavishly to acquire them. In a word, Babylon is the very epitome of a materialistic society.

    Secondly, she is proud. “. . . she glorified herself,” and said, “I sit as queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow” (v. 7). In a similar passage in Ezek. 28, it was said of the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre,

        “By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your riches, And

         Your heart is lifted up because of your riches.” (Ezek. 28:5).

    Prosperity tends to make men proud of their achievements, and give them a sense of self-sufficiency. The begin to become more impressed with what they have done for themselves than with what God has done for them. Eventually their philosophy conforms to their hearts, and secular materialism is born.

    What is especially significant, however, is Babylon’s ability to corrupt others with her wealth. “For all the nations have drunk the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury” (v. 3). “. . . for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived” (v. 23) Apparently the idea here is that Babylon’s tremendous wealth had seduced the other nations to partake in her idolatry and other abominable practices. Men were all too willing to compromise their moral and religious principles for the sake of financial success, and thus they were corrupted by Babylon’s imposing wealth and decadent life-style.

    And finally, Babylon persecuted the saints. “And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on earth” (v. 24). If men do not worship the true God, they will worship a false one; and a false religious system cannot tolerate a competing religion that threatens to expose the lie. Thus the opposition must be crushed brutally, and true Christians typically pay with their lives. This, then, is Babylon the Great: materialistic, proud, seductive, and brutal.

    Is this not, in large measure, a picture of our own society today? We are proud of our free market economy, and it has produced the highest standard of living in the world. This, by itself, poses a serious threat to the church. Robert L. Dabney, who was once a professor of church history, made this trenchant observation: “The past answers that there has not been a single instance in which the spiritual health of the church has survived a season of high temporal prosperity. She has survived the sword and the fire. Like the burning bush, persecutions have not consumed her. The power of kings and commonwealths and the gates of hell have not been able to prevail against her; but never, in a single case, has she failed to succumb before the miasm of temporal ease and plenty.” (Discussions, Vol. I, pp. 699-700).

    The reason is not hard to find. Over 3,000 years before, God had warned ancient Israel to beware, lest, when they have prospered in the promised land, “your heart is lifted up and you forget the LORD your God . . . then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth” (Dt. 8:11-17). Prosperity leads to a false sense of self-sufficiency, and this in turn causes us to forget God who is the real source of our blessings. Is it any wonder that the church today is spiritually dead, always looking for the quick fix, but never willing to make any real sacrifice for God?

    It is important to observe, moreover, the morally corrosive effects of a free market economy. Private enterprise is in business to make a profit, and to do this retail merchandisers must sell products. In order to sell a product, the retailer must convince the public that a need exists, and that his product will meet the need. This he does through advertising. Thus an extensive body of propaganda is generated aimed at convincing the public that happiness and fulfillment can be gained through the acquisition of various material possessions. This phenomenon is known as “consumerism.”

    Eventually, as consumerism begins to take hold, a popular culture develops which reflects these materialistic values. With time, there is an inevitable slide into outright hedonism, as an every hungry public refuses to be denied any kind of pleasure. This hedonism is especially pronounced in the communications media that are heavily dependent on advertising revenue, such as magazines, and commercial radio and television. Today, teenage girls and young women in particular are subjected to a barrage of propaganda aimed at convincing them that happiness consists in clothes and a boyfriend, and that the way to get the boyfriend is to wear the suggestive clothing advertised in the fashion magazines. The articles in the magazines reinforce the message in what amounts to an outright assault on morality. Thus, in a sense, the morals of our young women are being corrupted by our business community. Sadly, American films, television programs, and popular music are exported the world over, thereby drawing other nations into our sin.

    What Christians in such a society must realize is that they are surrounded by Satanic propaganda on every side, deceiving and enticing in every manner possible. The warning we have been given by God , however, is contained in Rev. 18:4: “. . . Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” We must turn off the TV, put down the magazine, and stop the CD. To drink from the poisoned cup is to invite spiritual death. If we value our souls, we will not allow ourselves to be defiled by the pollution of the world. May God give us grace to flee from Babylon the Great!

Note: this blog post originally appeared as Chapter 24 in The Road to Heaven: A Practical Guide to the Faith of Our Fathers, by the blogger, copyright 2004.

THE ANTICHRIST

The Bible tells us that just prior to the return of Christ a worldwide empire will arise headed by a charismatic dictator. This person is variously designated in Scripture as “the man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” and “the Antichrist.” It is a sobering glimpse into what lies ahead.

    The Scriptures indicate that the domain of the Antichrist will be global in extent. “And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 13:7b; NKJV). But what is especially significant about this figure is the role that religion plays in his regime. We are told that he “opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (II Thess. 2:4). What we have here, in other words, is a political cult, with all the outward trappings of religion, used to reinforce political power. The dictator will command respect and loyalty by presenting himself as an incarnation of deity.

    To assist him in this he will receive the support of organized religion. Revelation 13 describes a false prophet who promotes the cult of the Antichrist. The prophet is described as possessing supernatural powers. “He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men” (v. 13). A statue of the Antichrist will be erected, and the false prophet will be able “to give breath to the image of the beast [i.e., the Antichrist], that the image should . . . speak” (v. 15).

    To reinforce the religious cult economic power is used. In a passage that has been much discussed and debated, the false prophet is said to “cause all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (vv. 16,17). The number is 666.

    We can only begin to guess what this will mean in actual practice. One of the better commentators on the Book of Revelation, George Eldon Ladd, says “It is not at all clear that John is thinking of a literal brand visible on the person of the worshipers of the beast.” But whatever it is, it will have the effect of punishing people economically for refusing to worship the Antichrist.

    All of this may seem a little far-fetched to the modern, sophisticated reader, until it is remembered that we have already come close to this in the not so distant past. The fact of the matter is that totalitarian states will often use the trappings of religion to control public opinion and promote loyalty to the regime.

    Probably the most outstanding example of this is Nazi Germany. The Nazis were skillful manipulators of the masses. British historian Michael Burleigh describes the annual rallies held at Nuremberg to honor the Nazi regime. “Using architecture, sound, light and quasi-liturgical responses, those rallies were the nadir of Nazi attempts to replace politics as rational conversation with affect and sensation.” “. . . every audible or optical effect was carefully managed,” and the participants “found themselves in a world of aesthetic and emotional intoxication” (Sacred Causes, p. 114).Adolf Hitler-Der Fuehrer-34

    It must be remembered that this happened in Germany, one of the most cultured and sophisticated states in the world at the time. It happened because Germany had already started to lose faith in Christian orthodoxy. While it still maintained the external forms and rituals of worship, confidence in the Bible as the inspired Word of God had long since eroded. This loss of faith created an emotional void, which could then be filled by a skilled manipulator.

    The loss of faith in moral absolutes also allowed the Nazis to act without moral restraint. Eric Voegelin noted that “without a moral code derived from a transcendent God there was nothing to inhibit them. Any means were justified, from lying propaganda to physical mass murder, to bring about the desired realm of God on earth. . . ” (Burleigh, p. 120).

    Because of the quasi-religious nature of such a regime, and its claims on the undivided loyalty of the masses, it ultimately becomes a rival to the older, established religions, and eventually seeks to displace them. This means that it inevitably persecutes those who remain loyal to the old religion. Christian believers, then, are faced with a difficult choice: either they conform or risk prison sentences, torture, or even death. It forces the believer to determine where his true loyalties lie. Does he have a genuine faith, an unshakable confidence that God exists and that His will will eventually prevail? Or is his faith merely a cultural one – a desire to fit in with the rest of society and look respectable? In a situation like this the religious chaff is separated from the wheat.

    Are we prepared for what lies ahead?