God Would not Punish the Church
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv
Probably anyone who has considered the post-tribulational rapture view has wondered why God would allow the church to experience such horrible events. In fact, this is probably the most important reason which motivates Christians to believe in the pre-tribulational rapture. For some time following the reformation the most widely held eschatological theory was one called amillennialism. Many Amillennialists believe that the book of revelation is a description of the forces that will continually be at war during the church age. There are several variations of this general view, some schools of thought hold that the prophetic section of the book describes actual events that were to occur throughout the church age, while another school of thought believes that the section does not describe specific events, but, rather, key players or forces which will constantly do battle. That is why, for example, some Protestants believe that the pope is the antichrist. Many Premillennialists hear such statements and think that it means that Amillennialists believe that there will be a Pope in the future who will be the antichrist. Those two views are actually very different from each other. What the Amillennialist believes is that the antichrist is not one single person, but, rather, a principle at work in the world. That principle is embodied in the institution of the papacy and at any given time through out church history, the reigning pope was or is the principle embodiment of the antichrist principle for that period of time.
In the late nineteenth century, as history continued to gradually approach the time described in the book of Revelation, it became increasingly apparent that the prophetic section of the book of Revelation might actually describe actual climactic events which would occur during the relatively short period of time suggested by a literal reading of the book, a period of only seven years. This literal interpretation of the prophecy also resulted in belief in a literal one thousand year reign of Christ upon the Earth after the climactic events of that seven year period. Belief in this literal physical rule of Christ over the earth is called Premillennialism. Even though Premillennialism is very appealing, it is founded on a literal interpretation of the book of Revelation which also precedes that blissful period of time with seven horrifying years. Such a literal interpretation of the Apocalyptic judgments is very unpalatable. Therefore, a system of theology was developed which preserved the appealing literal teaching of the millennium, but excused the church from the accompanying literal judgments. This view was much more palatable than the view that sent the church to suffer with the rest of humanity. Therefore, it gained a much wider acceptance, even though it was a more recent theory than the other form of premillennialism, that of posttribulational premillennialism, which had been espoused by men such as xxx Spurgeon.
This competition of ideas was especially intense because at that time Premillennialism had to battle Postmillennialism which postulated that man himself would usher in paradise on Earth through his own efforts and present this blessed Earth to Christ as a gift when He returned. A mind influenced by the thought that man can produce paradise on Earth will never believe that the church will ultimately fail and that mankind, the church included, will instead usher in hell on Earth. Ultimately, rejection of the Post-tribulational rapture is based on a failure to have the mind of Christ. Paul commanded us (Phillippians 2:5-11) to:
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of [things] in heaven, and [things] in earth, and [things] under the earth;
11 And [that] every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ [is] Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Christ, the Prince of glory, was willing to suffer unto death in order to obey God, His Father. He knew that this is the only path to true glory. On the other hand, many believers want to share the glory of Christ but are not willing to share in His sufferings. If we were willing to do so, we would look forward to serving Christ during the tremendous opportunity offered by seventieth week, that we may receive great reward. Paul commands us to "Let this mind be in you." We must have the same attitude which Jesus Christ had.
Ultimately, however, the church will suffer through the seventieth week because of her own sins and shortcomings. Most of the church will not have the mind of Christ. Peter said (I Peter 4:12-18):
12 Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:
13 But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.
14 If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy [are ye]; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.
15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or [as] a thief, or [as] an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters.
16 Yet if [any man suffer] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.
17 For the time [is come] that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if [it] first [begin] at us, what shall the end [be] of them that obey not the gospel of God?
18 And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
Notice that here too, Peter exhorts believers to have the same attitude which Paul described as residing in our Lord Jesus Christ. However, he also predicted "that judgment must begin at the house of God" (v. 17). Judgment which results in a fiery trial can only be considered chastisement for sin. The judgments of the seventieth week are meant to purify the church so "That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27)".
This raises a second question. What sin will the church commit to warrant such judgment? The church through out history has frequently disappointed the Lord and often such disobedience has gone unpunished. I believe that there are two answers. First of all, the church will be punished for the sins mentioned in the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation. Two or maybe three churches appear destined to suffer the brunt of the persecutions. The first of these is the church represented by the church of Smyrna: "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast [some] of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (2:10.) It seems that this church suffers purely out of faithfulness. It seems that this church is in a place which is already hostile to the gospel before the seventieth week "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty" (2:9) and their neighbors become even more hostile as time goes by.
Another church which might bear a significant amount of persecution is that represented by Pergamos. Christ tells this church "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (2:16). If this fighting by Christ is immediate and direct, then it must be placed at His second coming at the end of the seventieth week. However, the Lord might fight against them using mediators, just as He punished Babylon by means of the Medes. "Behold, I [am] against thee, [O thou] most proud, saith the Lord GOD of hosts: for thy day is come, the time [that] I will visit thee." (Jeremiah 50:31) This visitation was by means of the Medes. "Make bright the arrows; gather the shields: the LORD hath raised up the spirit of the kings of the Medes: for his device [is] against Babylon, to destroy it; because it [is] the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance of his temple. (Jeremiah 51:11) If this coming of Christ in judgement against Pergamos represents an indirect judgment, then it would be through persecution. There is a historical precedent for this second possibility. There actually was a real church in a real town called Pergamus. This prophecy is first and foremost directed at that literal church. That prophecy was fulfilled literally by the invasion of the Muslim Turks into what was then the nominally Christian Byzantine empire in (1500s'?). These armies came bearing the sword of the false prophet Mohammad and used them against these compromising Christians. God used unbelievers to fulfil His warning of judgement against this church. This church probably represents the Eastern Orthodox churches and they appear destined to suffer significant persecution during the seventieth week because some among them held to the "doctrine of Balaam" (2:14) and the "doctrine of the Nicolaitanes" (2:15).
Finally, the church which will face the most intense persecution is that part of the church which is represented by the church of Thyatira "Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works" (2:22-23). This church is destined to suffer because of its rampant idolatry and immorality "Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols" (2:20). The term ‘few' is not in the Greek text, and the beginning of the verse might be better translated "but I have against thee that. . . ." This church probably represents the Roman Catholic Church, Jezebel representing the Roman (Babylonian) component of the Church. Apparently, during the second part of the seventieth week, the part called the Great Tribulation, her deal with the devil, so to speak, will go sour and she will be persecuted severely.
When it comes to the other four, it seems that three of those churches disintegrate altogether so they will not suffer much persecution as a church. The first of these vanishing churches is the church of Ephesus. This church appears to disperse during the seventieth week and might become incorporated into other churches. "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (2:5). This church committed the sin of lovelessness by leaving her first love. The actual city of Ephesus was the third largest metropolis of the Empire, but its harbor became filled in with silt and the city slowly disappeared, the remnant of its inhabitants built a small town in a nearby hill. It is not clear who this church represents, but many fundamentalists and conservative separatist Christians seem to identify themselves closely with this church. Since this church also might represent the early post apostolic church which had a significant Jewish population, it is possible that it also represents the modern messianic Jewish movement. It probably represents those churches which have focused on works, rules and standards at the expense of the first and second great commandments; at the expense of love for Christ and the fellow man.
The name Ephesus means, well spoken of. These churches have a good reputation and a good behavior, but have abandoned the source of that behavior. It is to the churches represented by the church of Ephesus that this book, City on a Hill, is primarily addressed. If one takes the churches of the first two chapters of Revelation to represent a historical progression, that is, stages in church history, then, Ephesus was followed by Smyrna. This might suggest that when this church is scattered, most of it ends up transforming itself into Smyrna, the persecuted faithful church.
The church represented by the church at Sardis is called a dead church "thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (3:1). This church has no idea what is going on and will be caught by surprise when the Lord returns. "If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee" (3:3). This is a church that disintegrates spiritually. A dead church is no threat to the devil, in fact it can well serve his purposes. This liberal secularist modern church will probably be paraded out by the world government as the model western Christian church which fits happily into the world agenda. It is merely a cultural institution empty of any significant doctrine. It will preserve some Christian customs, probably confusing what is western with what is Christian, but it will preserve few Christian doctrines. Those who feel happy following the benign aspects of the quaint lifestyle of their forefathers will be able to do so free of the threat of persecution in this defanged church. This church probably represents the liberal state-tolerated Anglo-Germanic Protestantism of Northern Europe and North America. The liberal wings of the Anglican and Lutheran churches are probably important modern forerunners of this church.
Thirdly, the Lord states that he will spew the repugnant church represented by Laodicea out of His mouth. It seems that this church will depart from any semblance of Christianity whatsoever. It is possible that the act of Christ spewing them out spiritually will be manifested visibly on Earth by actions whereby the church removes Christ out of its midst. Christ is found outside the door of the church calling to them: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (3:20). This is a rich materialistic church and probably represents the nondenominational megachurches of the world where psychobabble replaces Biblical exhortation and emotionalism replaces reasoned faith. Such a large but weak although arrogant church will probably be easily deceived by the Antichrist and will be sucked into a westernized version of the Islamophilic world church of the second half of the seventieth week.
Finally, in a class by itself, there is one church which is protected outside of the world system. Jesus promises this church in particular that "Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. (Revelation 3:10). Pretribulationalists believe this is a reference to the rapture. However, this is unlikely. First of all, only this church in particular is offered protection and there is a condition associated with this protection. These Christians have "gone out" away from the clutches of that system, leaving corrupt churches and capitulating countries. This is seen in the promise given to them that "he shall go no more out" (3:12). This may be a reference to the times the Philadelphians had to abandon their city in times of earthquakes. The reason for this protection and what might be involved is the subject of the third part of this book. However, this protection is not likely to be the rapture.
Another reason that this protection is unlikely to be the rapture is the general tenor of the protection which Jesus offers the church elsewhere. Jesus Christ himself prayed to the father in Getsemany, "I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one" (John 17:18 nkjv). The phrase "keep them from" in this verse uses the same Greek words used in the letter to Philadelphia. The task of the church is to represent Jesus Christ in the world during His absence "Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world" (17:11) and "As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world" (17:18). He later tells His disciples "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you" (John 20:21). At the second coming of Christ the task of the church will be completed so it will be raptured to meet the Lord as His welcoming party. This is evident in the parable of the ten virgins "And at midnight a cry was heard: 'behold the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!" (Matthew 25:6).
In addition to the sins listed in the seven epistles contained in the book of Revelation there is another sin which is not explicitly mentioned, but is probably the essence of the sin of the church represented by the church of Ephesus. The lack of such a sin may be the virtue of the church of Philadelphia. Christ said that the greatest commandment is to love God and this is manifested by loving one's neighbor. There is no greater gift than the gift of eternal life, which means that there is no greater expression of love than to present this gift to one's neighbor. Christ drove this point home when He made it the essence of His parting words. He said "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world. Amen." (Matthew 28:19-20).
The church's greatest sin is to horde the greatest treasure while those outside are suffering the greatest condemnation. This brings to mind the story of the lepers outside the starving city of Jerusalem who found that the attacking Assyrians had left in a rush and left behind great quantities of food and booty. Even these lepers realized that hoarding such a great treasure was not right and that doing so would bring punishment. "Then they said one to another, We do not well: this day [is] a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry till the morning light, some mischief will come upon us: now therefore come, that we may go and tell the king's household. (II Kings 7:9)
If we do not care that the world is dying and going to a literal eternal hell, why should God care if we go through a temporary purgatory here on Earth? It seems that the church of Philadelphia, whose name means brotherly love, had "gone out" to evangelize the world. The structure set up to accomplish this task will serve as its protection from the horrors of the tribulation. Jesus emphasizes that during the seventieth week the gospel will be preached through out the whole world. This makes it likely that it is partly for disobedience to the great commission that the church must go through the great tribulation because that will provide the church an opportunity to rectify its mistake. If anyone thinks that the modern church has obeyed this commission the author challenges him spend even a year in one of the many poorly evangelized countries of the world and he will no longer think such foolish thoughts.
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