Is the Church Absent in Revelation?

SYNOPSISThe New Testament applies the plans of the rulers of the nations to destroy the Son described in the second Psalm to the conspiracy of the leaders of the Jewish nation to slay Jesus.

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash
Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash
Proponents of the Pre-Tribulation “Rapture” claim that the “Church” is not present during the events portrayed in Revelation, at least, not after chapter 3. Thereafter, the book portrays the Great Tribulation during the final seven years before Jesus returns.
The main argument for this proposition stems from the omission of the term “church” in chapters 4-18 of Revelation. Although followers of Jesus may be present in the tribulation, they do not constitute the “church.” Supposedly, it is to be removed from the planet via “rapture” at the start of the Great Tribulation.
As one proponent wrote, “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].
But if the Church can be identified in the Great Tribulation, the logic behind the Pre-Tribulation Rapture collapses. As John Walvoord wrote, the late president of Dallas Theological Seminary, “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:
1.   It is based on the logical fallacy argumentum silento, an argument from silence. Because the term “church” is omitted, it is assumed absent.
2.  It ignores the several other terms in the New Testament applied to the Church, several of which occur in Revelation.
3.   It ignores the literary links between the seven messages of chapters 2-3 with the rest of the book.
4.  It does not take seriously the descriptions of followers of Jesus in chapters 4-20.
The Greek noun rendered “church” (ekklésia) is omitted in the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, and in the letters of 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John and Jude. Based on the logic of the Pre-Tribulation position, it can be assumed none of these documents are directly applicable or relevant to the “Church.” Yet many key Christian doctrines are touched on if not dealt with in detail in these ten documents.
The rationale of the Pre-Tribulation position ignores the several other terms the New Testament applies to the Church, including in the letters that omit the term “church.” For example, the terms “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 used to describe 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. Each term and image express a specific aspect or character. “Church” or ekkésia, for example, means “assembly” or “congregation.” It 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 in view in his epistle to Titus, a people God saved, “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 of believers is not the Church simply because that term is not applied to them 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 is addressed to God’s “bond-servants” (doulos – 1:1-9, 2:20), the seven “churches” of Asia “loosed from sins by the blood” of Jesus, which he constituted a “kingdom of priests.” The seven “churches” are symbolized in the opening vision by seven “lampstands.” 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).
Likewise, those sealed by the Seal of God are identified as the “bond-servants of God,” as are those slain by the Great Harlot (Revelation 7:2-4, 19:2).
The innumerable company of the redeemed consists of men and women from every nation who have been purchased by and washed their robes white in the “blood of the Lamb.” They constitute a kingdom of priests that reign on the earth (Revelation 5:10, 7:13, 20:6).
Just as the seven churches were called to “overcome” through faithful endurance, it is by emulating Christ’s endurance “even unto death” that believers 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 in Revelation 4-18. The call repeated to each of the churches is to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Resistance to the Beast and faithful witness 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 14:12-13).
The book of Revelation in its entirety is the prophecy meant for God’s “servants.” It concerns the “things that must soon come to pass.” It is addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia, a revelation from Jesus who is the “Faithful Witness, firstborn of the dead, and who freed us from our sins by his blood.” By faithful witness is meant Christ’s self-sacrificial death. The churches are called to be faithful witnesses in the same manner (Revelation 1:1, 1:18, 2:8-13, 3:21, 5:5, 12:11).
Relevant is how John identifies himself as a “fellow-participant in the Tribulation and Kingdom and perseverance in Jesus.” In the Greek sentence, there is one definite article or “the” that marks all three nouns; all are aspects of the same experience. There is no kingdom rule without tribulation and perseverance. John wrote this when he was in exile on the Island of Patmos, “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
The church at Smyrna had suffered “tribulation” and found itself “destitute.” Nevertheless, in Christ’s eyes, this congregation was truly “rich” for having faithfully endured slander and persecution. Rather than escape, this church was promised further “tribulation for ten days,” therefore, its members were exhorted to become “faithful until death.” It is precisely in this way that they would inherit the “crown of life” and avoid the Second Death.
In Chapter 5, John saw the One Sitting on the Throne holding a sealed scroll in his right hand. No one in heaven, on the earth or under it could be found who was worthy to unseal and open the Scroll. This caused John to weep profusely. But one of the elders told John to weep not because the “Lion the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome to open the scroll and its seals.” Jesus “overcame” and earned the right to execute the contents of the scroll, but he did so through his sacrificial death, not by escape or resistance. Martyrdom is the key to victory, not “rapture” or military conquest.
In the opening of the fifth seal, John saw “under the altar the souls of the ones slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” In Revelation 7:1-4, John saw an angel seal the “bond-servants of God” (doulos) on the forehead with the seal of the Living God. He then saw an innumerable multitude from “every nation, tribe, people, and tongue,” men and women who had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This vast company was seen “coming out of the Great Tribulation.” In Revelation, tribulation or thlipsis is something that followers of Jesus endure, not the lost inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 1:9, 2:8-10, 2:22, 7:14).
Following the expulsion of Satan from Heaven, a loud voice declared that the “brethren” overcame him “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 a “rapture” or escape (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 them, “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus,” that is, followers of the Lamb (Revelation 12:17).
The Dragon next prosecutes his “war against the Woman’s seed” through his earthly agent, the Beast. It is given to the Beast to “make war with the saints, and to overcome them”; by “overcome,” the text means “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” (Revelation 13:1-10).
In Revelation 17:1-6, John sees 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, and as those who persevere through the “wars” of the Beast. In view is not a separate group but the same assembly of faithful witnesses previously called “saints.”
Revelation’s epilogue reiterates key themes from the book. Chapters 4-18 is not a section separated from the first three chapters; it is not about an entirely different set of subjects. Instead, it is an integral part of the whole.
In this “prophecy,” singular, God’s angel has “shown his 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 again describes himself as a “fellow-servant” of his brethren, the prophets; 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 or the world in general. The Church does not fall out of the picture after chapter 3.
The book of Revelation is a message and exhortation for and about the Church, the people of God made up of men and women from every nation and ethnic group; believers who have been redeemed by Christ’s death.

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