When it comes to interpreting the book of Revelation, controversy rages in the midst of many diverse opinions.
Some commentators believe John wrote it in code to encourage the first century believers. Others claim Jesus fulfilled all of its prophecies during the first century thus making it an historical account rather than a prophecy. Many assert that the apostle wrote the book as an allegory, but assume some of it relates to a still future time.
Premillennialists regard the book of Revelation as future prophecy, the very thing it claims to be (22:18). As we have acknowledged from the beginning of this series, a discussion of where to place the rapture only makes sense within the teachings of premillennialism, which maintains beliefs in a literal tribulation and a thousand year reign of Jesus on earth before the millennium.
This brings us to our next signpost on our way to establishing a biblical basis for a pretribulation rapture: Absence. The book of Revelation excludes the church from judgments of the tribulation.
KEPT OUT OF THE COMING WORLDWIDE TRIAL
Jesus made this promise to the church in Philadelphia, “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10).
Do Jesus’ words have any significance for us today? Were they just for the church at Philadelphia or so they apply to all those who belong to Jesus in our day?
Let’s look more closely at the promise. The phrase “keep you from” literally means to keep someone out of something. Jesus says He will keep this church out of the coming “hour of trial” that will impact the entire world.
What is the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world?
First, it’s something that will impact all those who dwell on the earth. This signifies more than persecution against believers since this trial includes everyone on earth, not just the saints.
Second, nothing like this happened during the life of the church at Philadelphia or for that matter at any time since then. This much more likely refers to the tribulation John describes in Revelation 6-16.
Third, this is a time of testing specifically for “those who dwell on the earth.” John uses the phrase referring to earth dwellers eight times later in the book of Revelation (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8 12, 14; 14:6; and 17:8). In each of these instances, the phrase refers to either people impacted by the tribulation or those refusing to repent of their sins during this time of God’s wrath on the earth.
In all other places in the book of Revelation, this particular phrase points to those on the earth who will experience the judgments of the tribulation.
Fourth, Jesus says this right after making this promise, “I am coming soon” (3:11). The Greek word for “soon” more accurately points to something happening “quickly.” Jesus ties His quick return for the church to His pledge to keep it out of the time of testing for the entire world.
Since both the time of this testing and Jesus’ appearing are future events, Jesus’ words to the church at Philadelphia apply to us today.
The Lord thus promises to keep His true church, signified by one in Philadelphia, out of the coming tribulation. Those in Christ will not be on the earth during this time because the rapture will take place before it starts. That’s why Jesus said “I am coming quickly” in connection with the promise; He will keep us out of the tribulation by taking us to His Father’s house and the place He’s preparing for us (John 14:2-3).
Dr. Thomas Ice, in his internet article Kept Form the Hour, wrote this in regard to Jesus’ promise:
“Therefore, since the future hour spoken of by in 3:10 is set in contrast with the present set of believers in the church age, and the future ‘earth dwellers’ will be active during the time period in which believers are said to be kept from, it is clear that John speaks of the time or hour of the tribulation. This is why 3:10 is a clear promise that Christ will keep believers from the time of the seven-year tribulation.”
It’s highly significant that recording Jesus instructions to the church in Revelation 2-3, John does not mention the church during the judgments of Revelation 6-16, but rather says these will fall upon the “earth dwellers.”
If the church was destined to endure the horrors of God’s wrath during the tribulation, the Lord undoubtedly would have provided instructions for it during this time, but He does not do so.
In His seven letters, which form an introduction to the book of Revelation, Jesus does not mention the coming tribulation nor does He seek to prepare the churches for it. Instead, He promises the church will be absent from the earth during this time.
If the church is absent from the earth during the tribulation, where is it? It’s with the Lord in heaven as represented by the 24 elders in Revelation 4-5. These elders are not angels, but signify the presence of the church in heaven before the judgments of Revelation 6-16.
Is there a strong case for identifying the 24 elders as representing the church? Yes! The points below are adapted from John MacArthur’s commentary on the book of Revelation:
First, we have the reference to the 24 thrones upon which the elders sat; these signify rule and authority (Rev. 4:4) Scripture never pictures angels as sitting on thrones or ruling with Christ. Hebrews 1:14 describes them as “ministering spirits set out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.”
Second, in Scripture the word “elder” only applies to men, never of angels. The term implies an aging process that does not apply in any way to angels.
Third, the “white garments” (4:4) almost certainly refer to the dress of believers. MacArthur says, “Christ promised the believers at Sardis that they would ‘be clothed in white garments’ (3:5) . . . . White garments symbolize Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers at salvation.”
Fourth, the elders have “crowns on their heads” (4:4). Scripture promises crowns as rewards to believers (2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Pet. 5:4; James 1:12), not to angels. The elders later “cast their crowns before the throne” of the Lord recognizing their rewards really belong to the One who enabled them to live for Him (4:9-11).
Dr. Thomas Ice sums up the significance of identifying the elders as the church:
Since the 24 elders of Revelation represent the church in heaven, this means that the church—the body of Christ and His Bride—is complete, since she has received her rewards (i.e., the crowns) and is in a position of co-rulership with Christ (Rev. 3:21). This depiction supports a pre-trib rapture because from a chronological perspective of Revelation 4 the events of the tribulation have yet to begin. How do we know? We know because Revelation 5 presents the plan for tribulation judgment as contained in the scroll that only the Lamb is worthy to open.[i]
In addition to the above points, the words of the elders in Revelation 5:9 indicate they belong to the church. Notice the King James Version translation of this verse: “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (emphasis mine).
Why is this different from modern translations whose wording makes it less obvious that the elders are referring to themselves as the redeemed? It’s a matter of which Greek manuscript to follow.
Despite the fact that there is only one Greek manuscript of the book of Revelation that omits the word “us” from verse 9, all the modern translations say “you have ransomed people for God” rather than “Thou . . . hast redeemed us to God.” They do so because they claim including the word “us” makes the grammar awkward in the verse despite the all the better Greek manuscripts support for the King James translation.[ii]
Who are the 24 elders of Revelation 4-5? They are those “redeemed” by the Savior’s blood who later say “God has made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). Who else can this be but the church in heaven with Jesus? And to whom besides the church does the Lord promise will reign with Him?
WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
The absence of the church on earth confirms a pretribulation rapture.
Revelation 3:10-11a connects Jesus’ return with His keeping the church out of the worldwide testing to come, the tribulation period. The Apostle John refers to “those who dwell on the earth” many times in connection with judgments of Revelation 6-16, but he never mentions the church during this time nor does he in any way suggest the presence of the church during this time. Why?
It’s because we will not be on earth during this time. The church will be absent from the earth during the time of the tribulation.
The identification of the 24 elders as the church verifies our absence as believers during the tribulation. Apart from the church, no other identification fits the elders who describe themselves as “redeemed” and those who will reign with Jesus on the earth. John pictures them already sitting on thrones in heaven dressed in white robes.
Since Paul assures us of deliverance ahead of the wrath that will fall upon the earth during the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:3-10), it makes sense that we will be in heaven with Jesus before the judgments of Revelation 6-16 start.
Our absence from the earth during the tribulation confirms Paul’s promises to the Thessalonians as well the sense of imminence that characterized the early years of the church.