Absent Church in the Tribulation?

SYNOPSIS - The book of Revelation is a message and exhortation for, to, and about the Church, the people of God.

Church at night Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash
Andrew Seaman on Unsplash
The doctrine of a pre-tribulation Rapture assumes that the “Church” is absent from the Earth during the “Great Tribulation” in the book of Revelation, at least, after Chapter 3. A key piece of "evidence" used to support of this view is the omission of any reference to the church in chapters 4-18. Although followers of Jesus may be present, it is argued, they do not constitute the “church,” which was removed already from the planet by the “Rapture.”

As one proponent of this interpretation explained:
  • “In the entirety of Revelation 4-18, no mention of the church on earth is found. Instead, believers are referred to as believing Gentiles or believing Jews but never as the church. The total absence of any reference to the church is difficult to explain unless the pre-tribulationists are correct that the church is in heaven and not on the earth during this period” [John Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 279. Also, Timothy LaHaye and Ed Hinson, Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy (Eugene: Harvest House, 2004), p. 311; Hal Lindsey, Vanished Into Thin Air (Beverly Hills: Western Front, 1999), pp. 223-225; John Hagee, From Daniel to Doomsday (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1999), p. 99].
However, if the Church can be identified and found in the "Great Tribulation," the logic behind this interpretation fails. As John Walvoord of the Dallas Theological Seminary wrote:
  • “In prophetic passages concerning the Tribulation, both Israelites and Gentiles are described, and some of them have faith in Christ and form a godly remnant. If they are part of the church, then the church is in the Tribulation, and the whole question as to whether the church goes through the Tribulation becomes moot” (Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies, p. 282.).
This line of reasoning has several problems, including:
  • It is based on the logical fallacy, argumentum silento, an argument from silence. Since the term “church” is omitted, it is assumed to be absent.
  • It ignores the several other terms in the New Testament applied to the Church, several of which occur in the book of Revelation.
  • It ignores the literary links between the seven messages of chapters 2-3 and the rest of the book.
  • It does not take seriously the descriptions of followers of Jesus in chapters 4-20.
The Greek noun rendered “church” or ekklésia is omitted in the gospels of MarkLuke, and John, and in the letters of 2 TimothyTitus1 Peter2 Peter1 John2 John, and Jude. Based on the preceding logic, should we assume that none of the listed documents are applicable or relevant to the “Church”?

Lighthouse at Dusk Photo by Sebastian Koenig on Unsplash
Sebastian Koenig on Unsplash
This interpretation ignores the several other terms the New Testament applies to the Church, including several used in the letters that omit the term itself. For example, the “
elect ones”, “peculiar people”, “heirs”, “believers”, “saints”, the “called ones,” and, the “redeemed ones” (2 Timothy 2:10, Titus 1:1, Titus 3:8, 1 Peter 1:2, 1:18, 2:4, 2 Peter 1:8, 1 John 3:23, Jude 3).

Several other terms and metaphors are applied to the Church in the New Testament, including, “body of Christ, “Temple of God,” “living stones,” “spiritual house,” “holy priesthood,” “elect race,” “royal priesthood,” “holy nation,” “people of God,” “pilgrims and sojourners” (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 12:12, 12:27, 2 Corinthians 6:16, 1 Peter 2:5-10).

Different terms express different aspects of the one people of God. No single term can do justice to the teaching of the Bible on the people of God, their identity, mission, and destiny. Each term expresses a specific aspect or character. “Church” (ekkésia), for example, means “assembly” or “congregation,” and is derived from Old Testament passages that refer to the “congregation of Israel” and the “congregation of Yahweh” (Exodus 12:3-6, 12:47, 29:42, Leviticus 14:23).

Noteworthy is Paul’s description of the group of believers in his epistle to Titus, a people saved by God--:
  • Not from deeds done in righteousness, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).
The argument that a group comprised of believers in Jesus is NOT the “Church” because the term is not applied to it is a difference without a distinction. It ignores the great variety of terms used by the Bible to portray the people redeemed by Jesus Christ.

The book of Revelation in its entirety is addressed to God’s “servants,” the seven “churches” of Asia “loosed from sins by the blood” of Jesus. That act constituted them a “kingdom of priests.” The members of the seven “churches” are “fellow-participants” in the “tribulation, kingdom, and endurance in Jesus.” Rather than resist or escape from persecution, the churches are called to endure and faithfully bear witness through it. In this way, they “overcome” to inherit the promises in the New Creation (Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:21).

The innumerable company of the redeemed is comprised of men and women from every nation who have been redeemed by and the “blood of the Lamb,” just as the churches of Asia (Revelation 5:6-127:9-1720:4-6).

Christian Cross Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
Joshua Earle on Unsplash
Just as the seven churches of Asia were summoned by Jesus to “
overcome” through faithful endurance, it is by emulating his endurance, “even unto death,” that they gain the right to reign with him. Indeed, the “brethren” overcome Satan, “because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and because they loved not their life even unto death” (Revelation 3:21, 5:5, 12:11).

The perseverance in suffering to which the seven churches are called is epitomized by the faithful endurance of the followers of the Lamb elsewhere in the book of Revelation. Note well the repeated call to each congregation is to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Resistance to the "Beast from the sea" and faithfulness constitute the “perseverance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” The same Spirit that speaks to the churches declares that the “dead who die in the Lord” are blessed (Revelation 13:7-10, 14:12-13).

The book of Revelation in its entirety is the “prophecy” sent by the Risen Jesus for God’s “servants.” It concerns the “things that must soon come to pass.” It is addressed to the churches of Asia and is a revelation from Jesus, the “Faithful Witness, firstborn of the dead, and who freed us from our sins by his blood.” By faithful witness is meant his sacrificial death. The churches are called to become faithful witnesses in the same manner (Revelation 1:1, 1:18, 2:8-13, 3:21, 5:5, 12:11).

Following the expulsion of Satan from Heaven, a loud voice declared the “brethren” victorious, because they overcame the Dragon - “By the blood of the Lamb, by their word of testimony, and because they loved not their life even unto death.” Perseverance and martyrdom accounted for their victory, not any “rapture” or other means of escape. Surely these faithful saints were members of the “church” purchased by the blood of Jesus (Revelation 12:9-11)!

Enraged and cast to the earth, Satan “departed to make war with the rest of her seed.” This “seed” is identified as those, “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus,” that is, they are followers of the Lamb (Revelation 12:17).

The Dragon next prosecuted his “war against the Woman’s seed” through his earthly agent, the Beast. It was given to the Beast to “make war with the saints, and to overcome them”; by “overcome,” the text means, to “kill.” This is confirmed by the description of Verse 10: “If anyone is for captivity, to captivity he goes. If anyone is to be slain by the sword, by the sword he is slain.” This group of martyrs is explicitly named the “saints” (Revelation 13:1-10).

In Chapter 17, John saw “Babylon drunk with the blood of the saints and the witnesses of Jesus.” Previously, “saints” were identified as those who have “the faith” and the “testimony of Jesus.” The victims of the Beast from the sea, likewise, were called “saints.” In view is not a separate group distinct from the church or the previous groups of “saints,” but the same assembly of faithful witnesses (Revelation 17:1-6).

The book’s Epilogue reiterates key themes from the preceding chapters that tie together the entire vision. In the “prophecy,” singular, the angel showed “God’s servants the things that must soon come to pass.” The man or woman who “keeps the words of the prophecy of this scroll” is blessed. John reiterates that he is a “fellow-servant” of his brethren, the prophets; that is, the ones who “keep the words of this scroll.” The angel was sent by Jesus “to bear witness of these things for the churches.” The book is a message for Christian congregations, not for national Israel, a future group of believers distinct from the church of Jesus Christ, or, for that matter, the world at large. The Church does not fall out of the picture after Chapter 3. The book of Revelation is a message for the churches of Jesus.

The book of Revelation is a message and exhortation for, to, and about the Church, the people of God, the “saints” consisting of men and women from every nation and ethnic group who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

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