Eschatology, the Study of Last Things
by James T. Bartsch
The Nature of the Rapture
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
by James T. Bartsch, WordExplain
Reason 4. Vocabulary
Vocabulary Used to Prove a Post-Tribulation Rapture is Inconclusive
4. Vocabulary. A Post-Tribulation Rapture is not credible because it does not deal adequately with vocabulary.
a. parousia. Parousia (3952) refers to the "coming" or "presence" of someone. A Post-Tribulation Rapture is not credible because its proponents impose a One-Stage Parousia when there is a precedent for and evidence of a Two-Stage Parousia, or coming, one stage for the purpose of Reunion, and the second stage for the purpose of Retribution.
(1) The precedent for a Multi-Stage Coming (Parousia) of Messiah
It can be demonstrated conclusively that the followers of Jesus were convinced that He was the promised Messiah (Matt. 16:16; John 1:40-41, 45-49; 11:27). They were also convinced He had come to set up His Messianic Kingdom in Israel. After all, Jesus had led them to believe that. Both He and His followers, as well as John the Baptist, had announced that "The Kingdom of the Heavens" had drawn near (both chronologically, and spatially - in the person of the King) (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9). Jesus, furthermore, had assured the Twelve of a prominent position in His Kingdom (Matt. 19:28).
Just before His anticlimactic "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem, Jesus had sought to dispel His followers' belief "that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately" (Luke 19:11). But His message seems to have fallen on deaf ears. In a few days, when Jesus was executed, His disciples went into shock. Their hopes had been dashed. The disciples on the road to Emmaus plaintively admitted, "But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21).
Even after Jesus' resurrection, and just prior to His ascension, His apostles asked Him, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Jesus did nothing to correct their theocratic expectations. He did inform them, however, that it was not their prerogative to know the Father's timing of such matters (Acts 1:7). Rather, it was their task now to recruit people for His Kingdom from all over the world (Acts 1:8).
My point is this: The people of Israel expected the Messiah's coming to be a One-Stage coming. The ancient prophecies of a Messiah had been literally fulfilled before their very eyes (Matt. 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18; 3:3; 4:12-16; 8:16-17; 11:2-6, 9-10; 12:15-21, 38-40; 13:13-15, 34-35; 21:4-5, 9, 15-16; 22:42-44; 26:31; 27:9-10, 42-43, 46). They had every reason to believe that Jesus, having now been resurrected and glorified, was about to sit on David's throne in Jerusalem and rule, not only over Israel, but over the whole world (Luke 1:30-33; cf. Ps. 72:8-11; Zech. 14:9, 16-17)! Even though Jesus had left them some fairly definitive instructions as to what would happen in His absence while they were waiting for Him to return (Matt. 13:24-51), they were still under the impression that His Advent would be a One-Stage Advent! But they were wrong! Jesus' Advent would be a Two-Stage Advent!
Bible students often refer to Jesus' Second Coming as His Parousia. The Greek word parousia (3952) can be translated as "coming" or "presence," depending upon the context. A simple word study of parousia will demonstrate that the word is used in a variety of contexts in the NT. The only point I wish to make here is that there is precedent in the NT for the word parousia to be used with reference to more than one coming of Jesus.
For example, Peter, in his second letter, wrote, "For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16, emphasis and parentheses mine). Obviously, Peter was talking about the First Coming of Jesus, as his subsequent comments about having witnessed Jesus' majesty on the Mount of Transfiguration revealed (2 Pet. 1:17-18).
My point is this. The Israelis alive at the time of the Jesus' first coming were solidly under the impression that the Messiah's parousia would be a one-stage event. But they were wrong. The Messiah had planned all along to come one time, depart, then return. It has been nearly 2000 years now, and He still has not returned. But He has promised to return (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). We have solid precedent that the parousia can take place in more than one stage.
Here is my question: Since there is solid precedent for a multi-stage coming (parousia), why is it so impossible that Jesus' Second Coming will also eventuate in two stages?
(2) The evidence for a Two-Stage Second-Coming (Parousia)
i. The Parousia for Reunion. There is solid evidence, I believe, that Jesus is coming back to earth for the purpose of reunion. This reunion occurs on two levels.
First, Jesus will be reunited with believers of the Church Age. The Church is called the Bride of Christ, and this Reunion will reunite the Messiah with His Bride. Jesus' intention is most clearly depicted in His promise to His disciples in John 14:1-3. There, using Bridegroom language familiar to the Jewish people, He said that there were many dwelling places in His Father's house (John 14:2). I take it that the "house" to which Jesus was referring was the gargantuan city of New Jerusalem. Continuing to speak as a Bridegroom, Jesus assured His disciples, representative of the Church, that He was going to prepare a place for them in His Father's house (i.e., New Jerusalem) (John 14:2). And if He departs back to His Father's House, He will surely return and receive them to Himself, so that wherever He might be, there they might be also (John 14:3). Reunion with Jesus is surely the greatest aspect of this parousia of Jesus. They joy of reunion with Jesus at this parousia (1 Thess. 4:15) is captured by Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians. There he states that "we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them (i.e. the previously deceased but now resurrected Church Age believers) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17, emphasis mine). 1 Thess. 4:13-18 gives no details as to what happens after this meeting in the air. To me the passage that best explains what will happen next is John 14:1-3. Jesus will take His Bride up to New Jerusalem to complete her purification process preparatory for the Marriage of the Lamb and the Marriage Supper that will be part of the celebration (Rev. 19:7-9).
Second, Church Age believers will be reunited with one another. The passage that best discusses this aspect of parousia is 1 Thess. 4:13-18. Paul's stay in Thessalonica had been short-lived. He had reasoned in the local synagogue for three Sabbaths, proclaiming that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 17:1-3). A number had believed Paul (Acts 17:4), but jealous Jewish leaders had instigated a mob and set the city in an uproar (Acts 17:5-9). Immediately, Paul had been forced to flee to Berea (Acts 17:10). Nevertheless, Paul had laid something of an eschatological foundation. Reports had reached Paul that the Thessalonian believers had "turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven ... Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:9-10). This is, I might add, consistent with a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. Paul expected the believing Thessalonians to be his (and Silas and Timothy's - see 1 Thess. 1:1) "hope or joy or crown of exultation in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming (parousia, 3952) (1 Thess. 2:19). Furthermore, he prayed that God would establish their "hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming (parousia, 3952) of our Lord Jesus with all His saints" (1 Thess. 3:13).
Yet, despite Paul's eschatological teaching, the Thessalonians were living under a cloud. They evidently believed Christ's return for the Church was imminent. Yet here there were members of their local assembly who were dying prior to Jesus' return. Apparently they were concerned that these loved ones would miss altogether the joys of the soon return of Jesus. So Paul had to set them straight in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. (1) He did not want them to be ignorant. They should not grieve as those who had no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). (2) Paul assured them that, just as surely as Jesus, though He had died, had risen from the dead, so also would God bring these deceased believers back with Jesus when the latter returned (1 Thess. 4:14). (3) In fact, Paul stated on Christ's authority, we Christians (Paul counted himself among them) who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia, 3952) of the Lord would not have an advantage over the departed loved ones (1 Thess. 4:15). (4) The Lord Jesus would descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ would rise from their graves! This would be the first event at Christ's parousia (1 Thess. 4:16). (5) Then those of us "who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17). (6) The Thessalonians should, "therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18).
Without a doubt, Paul was underscoring the incredible hope that Christians have of being reunited with other Christians who have died and gone to be with the Lord before we have. They will not miss the Rapture! We will all participate in it together, though the dead in Christ will have a split-second advantage. This passage does not explicitly state it, but implies that which Paul taught elsewhere. At the moment of the Rapture, the bodies of the living believers will be transformed into immortal bodies without having had to die (1 Cor. 15:50-55).
Conclusion. Nowhere in these Rapture passages cited is there any hint of retribution upon the wicked. Rather, these passages uniformly present the idea of reunion. The reunion is two-fold, of course. There is reunion with Christ, and there is reunion with departed loved ones. These passages have a distinct flavor. They fit in nicely and neatly with a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, one in which Jesus does not proceed all the way to earth, but meets His beloved Church-Age saints in the air. After a joyous reunion, He takes them back up to the Father's House, where He has prepared dwelling places for them (John 14:1-3). Once again, there is no hint of retribution in these passages. Rather, the retribution upon an unbelieving world comes with the Final Phase of Jesus' Second-Coming parousia - His return to this earth to judge the world prior to His setting up His Millennial Kingdom.
ii. The Parousia for Retribution. There are several passages that clearly describe retribution as an essential character of Christ's Second Coming. Admittedly, not all of these passages use the word parousia (3952) ("coming"), but not even Post-Tribulationists would dispute that they describe Christ's Second Coming.
2 Thessalonians 1:4-10. Paul clearly describes the retributive aspect of Christ's return in this portion of his second letter to the Thessalonians. He does not here use the word parousia (3952) ("coming"). However, in 2 Thess. 1:7 he does use a synonym, the noun apokalupsis (602), "revelation," or even more literally, "unveiling." He speaks, literally, of "the unveiling of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His mighty angels" (emphasis mine). Apokalupsis is used in a similar context - "the unveiling" of Jesus in 1 Cor. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:7, 13; 4:13; Rev. 1:1. In the present passage (2 Thess. 1:4-9), Paul sets forth the following:
(1) He acknowledges the fact that his readers have been suffering persecutions and afflictions (2 Thess. 1:4-5).
(2) He speaks of God's justice when He will "repay with affliction those who afflict you" (2 Thess. 1:6). The word "repay" is antapodidômi (467), used seven times in the NT. It is used twice in a benevolent sense of "reward" in Luke 14:14. A variation of this same sense is to be found in Rom. 11:35 and in 1 Thess. 3:9. In the latter instance the thought is the impossibility of rewarding God in appreciation for the joy and rejoicing of the Thessalonians. In the remaining three instances, the idea is of revenge, or "pay back". The Christian is not to take his own revenge, for it is God's prerogative to repay (antapodidômi, 467) with vengeance (Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). The idea of God taking revenge on persecuting unbelievers is also strongly present in 2 Thess. 1:6).
(3) God will grant relief to Christians who are afflicted (2 Thess. 1:7).
(4) This relief will be granted to suffering Christians when "the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire" (2 Thess. 1:7).
(5) The Lord Jesus will deal out "retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess. 1:8). The word "retribution" is ekdikęsis (1557). This word can be used to describe "an act of retributive justice vengeance, punishment, revenge" as in Luke 21:22. Or it can be used to describe the act of meting out justice, "see to it that justice is done" (Luke 18:7) (Friberg Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament). In American jurisprudence, much is made of rehabilitation. Many jail or prison sentences are handed out with the hope of eventually remediating the unlawful behavior of the criminal. But ekdikęsis does not appear to have a restorative aspect. It is rather an attempt to bring justice into the existence of an offender. In God's case, at Christ's return, that justice excludes any hope of remediation or reform.
(6) These offenders "will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:9). There is no remediation here, no appeal, no second chance. These offenders did not know God, and they chose not to heed the Good News about our Lord Jesus. Consequently, the assigned punishment is total, irrevocable, and eternal. They are utterly ruined; and they are banished forever from the face of Jesus. Thus, they will be unable to appreciate the majesty of His omnipotence.
(7) No such penalty accrues, however, to those who belong to Jesus, described as His "holy ones" (hagios, 40) (2 Thess. 1:10). He comes to be "glorified", or "shown to be wonderful" (endoxadzomai, 1740) in them! These "holy ones" (hagiois, 40) are further identified as, literally, "the ones having believed", the aorist participle of (pisteuô, 4100). In the context of this passage, the sense seems to be this. All of their lives as believers in Christ, these "saints" or "holy ones" have been marginalized in their society. They have endured persecutions and afflictions (2 Thess. 1:4). They have suffered (2 Thess. 1:5). They have been afflicted (2 Thess. 1:6, 7). Now they are able to watch as their tormentors have the tables turned on them by the Lord when He returns! They are able to watch Jesus "flex His muscles," so to speak, and render justice to their tormentors. Instead of being marginalized in their daily living, they now are promoted to the position of being "Number One" - simply by virtue of their faithful association with the Conquering King, Jesus! At the same time, however, their feelings of having been vindicated pale by comparison to their awe at the glorious power of Jesus, Messianic King.
This mixed reaction seems to be the same sense that is captured in Rev. 19:1-6. During the Tribulation, the evil, fabulously wealthy political power/false religion of Babylon, characterized by a blood thirsty Prostitute (Rev. 17:1-7, 9, 15, 18; 18:3), will be summarily ruined with fiery destruction (Rev. 17:16). The kings of the earth, the merchants of the earth, and the mariners of the earth will mourn because of her fiery destruction (Rev. 18:1-24). Their mourning coincides with the loss of their source of great financial gain and wealth.
But a great multitude in heaven will rejoice (Rev. 19:1-6)! They will shout, "Hallelujah!" - "Praise be to Yahweh!" (Rev. 19:1, 3, 4, 6). (1) They praise God that salvation, glory, and power belong to Him (Rev. 19:1). (2) They praise God that He has righteously judged the Prostitute Babylon (Rev. 19:2). (3) They praise God that He has avenged the blood of His slaves (doulos, 1401) at the hands of Babylon (Rev. 19:2). They shout, "Hallelujah!" because the smoke of Babylon's destruction rises forever (Rev. 19:3)! (4) The four living creatures and the 24 elders echo the "Hallelujah"! (Rev. 19:4). (5) Finally, a thunderous voice cries, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns!" (Rev. 19:6). This is the same mixed reaction that will take place at Christ's actual return to Earth as described in 2 Thess. 1:4-10.
There are some really striking differences between 2 Thess. 4-10, a retributive passage and 1 Thess. 4:13-18, a reunion passage. (See the differences graphically illustrated in the table.) In conclusion, the emphasis of 2 Thess. 1:4-10 is solidly on the side of retribution, not reunion.
2 Thessalonians 2:8. In this passage Paul graphically describes the retributive aspect of Christ's Second Coming. At "the appearance of His coming (parousia, 3952)," "the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end" the "lawless one" who had recently been "revealed" (literally, "unveiled" - apokaluptô, 601). It should be noted that the two different stages of parousia are addressed in the broader context of this passage. The parousia of 2 Thess. 2:1 describes the parousia of reunion ("our gathering together to Him"). The parousia of 2 Thess. 2:8 describes the parousia of retribution.
"The lawless one" of whom Paul speaks here is also described in the broader context here as, literally, "the man of the lawlessness" and as, literally, "the son of the destruction" (2 Thess. 2:3). Elsewhere, he is described as a "beast coming up out of the sea" (Rev. 13:1). "The beast" is referenced multiple times in the book of Revelation (Rev. 13; 17). John also refers to him once as "antichrist" (1 John 2:18). There is no redemption possible for this powerful world ruler who will one day make his appearance on the stage of human history. His destiny is final retribution. He will be seized and "thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone" (Rev. 19:20). For a more detailed exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17, see A Discussion of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17, The Thessalonian Christians and Clearing Up Their Confusion about the Day of the LORD.
Matthew 24:3, 27, 37 39. This chapter is an extended passage on Christ's Second Coming (parousia, 3952). The so-called Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25) was triggered first of all by the disciples' enthusiastic description to Jesus of the Temple buildings (Matt. 24:1). As was so often the case, Jesus used current conversations as a teaching moment. He asked them if they didn't really perceive the truth conveyed by the Temple Mount. "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down" (Matt. 24:2). As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across the ravine from the majestic Temple complex, His disciples privately asked Him three questions, "Tell us, (1) when will these things happen, and (2) what will be the sign of Your coming (parousia), (3) and of the end of the age?" (Matt. 24:3). Matthew did not record Jesus' answer to the first question, but Luke did (Luke 21:20-24). In Matt. 24, however, Jesus answered the second and third questions.
Our particular concern here is the connection of parousia to Jesus' comments in Matt. 24. When we view the disciples' initial question in Matt. 24:3, we automatically assume our perspective. Our perspective is that Jesus' parousia is still in the future, even after 2000 years have passed. We forget, however, that Jesus' disciples did not share our perspective. They assumed Jesus' parousia was imminent. They thought "the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately" (Luke 19:11). That is what they meant by parousia. They were looking for a grand display of power, majesty, and authority by Jesus, such as is intimated in Zech. 14:3-9 and such as three of them had personally witnessed (Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:26-38). In response, Jesus made three comments about His coming (parousia).
(1) He warned that His parousia could not be localized to a particular geographic venue. If someone claimed that the Messiah were here or there, he would only be announcing a false Messiah (Matt. 24:23-26). Rather, "just as the lightning goes forth from the east, but shines (phainô, 5316) even to the west, so will be the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man" (Matt. 24:27, author's literal translation). Jesus' point is that His parousia will be ubiquitous, not localized. "Every eye will see Him" (Rev. 1:7). The reference to vultures swarming to carrion (Matt. 24:28) hints at the judgment that will coincide with His parousia.
(2) Jesus compared His parousia to the days of Noah (Matt. 24:37, 39). This seems to convey the suddenness of His coming. His return would be as sudden as the Flood in the days of Noah (Matt. 24:37-39), as sudden as an abduction in the middle of a workday (Matt. 24:40-41), and as unexpected as a thief in the middle of the night (Matt. 24:42-43).
In the first instance, the people in Noah's day were eating and drinking and marrying, pursuing the normal activities of life right up until the day Noah entered the ark. They did not understand Noah's warning until the Flood came and washed them all to their deaths. This is just how it will be at the parousia of the Son of Man (Matt. 24:37-39).
In the second instance, two farmers will be working in the field. One will suddenly be taken to judgment while the other is left to enter the Millennial Kingdom. Similarly, two women will be grinding flour at the grain mill. One will be taken to judgment, while the other will be left alive to enter the Millennial Kingdom (Matt. 24:40-41).
In the last instance, if the home owner would have known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into. So we must be alert because the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (Matt. 24:42-44). It should be noted that the word "coming" in Matt. 24:30, 42, 43, 44 is the word erchomai (2064), not the word parousia (3952). Obviously, the two words are synonyms. Nevertheless, the point to be made here is that judgment accompanies Christ's Second Coming, whether the word be parousia or erchomai.
The portion of this Matthew 24 that details the actual arrival of Jesus is Matt. 24:29-31. The following observations can be made from this paragraph:
First, the time of His return for retribution will be after the Tribulation (Matt. 24:29). Jesus had referenced tribulation already in Matt. 24:9, but in Matt. 24:21, he referred to a time of ultimate tribulation. He said, "For then there shall be great tribulation such as has not come to pass from the beginning of the world until now, nor will ever come to pass" (Matt. 24:21, author's translation). The tribulation to which Jesus refers in Matt. 24:21 is the Great Tribulation - the one that is unprecedented, and one of a kind. It is to this Great Tribulation to which Jesus refers again in Matt. 24:29. His coming (parousia, Matt. 24:27; erchomai, Matt. 24:30) will take place after the Great Tribulation.
Second, there will be uproar and chaos in the heavens (Matt. 24:29). "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not be able to give its light, and the stars will fall from the heaven (singular of ouranos, 3772), and the powers of the heavens (plural of ouranos, 3772) will be shaken" (author's literal translation). There will be chaos in the heavens periodically during the Tribulation (Rev. 8:12-13; 16:8-11). But the chaos immediately prior to Christ's return will be especially noteworthy. Perhaps it will compare to the "Grand Finale" at a fireworks display - an exceptional paroxysm of explosions and light that signals viewers the end has arrived. When there is utter chaos out in our solar system and deep space, people will know God is at work, and terrible judgment is about to commence. There will be no other way to explain it.
Third, the sign of the Son of Man will shine in heaven (Matt. 24:30). The word I have translated "heaven" is the singular of ouranos (3772). NASB translates it "sky," but it is the same word that appears twice in Matt. 24:29. I have deliberately chosen the word "shine" because it is the same word (phainô, 5316) that is used of lightning shining in the sky in Matt. 24:27. Just as lightning is a brilliant light that illuminates the entire sky at night, albeit briefly, so the sign of the coming of the Son of Man will brilliantly illuminate the whole sky signifying Christ's return. But whereas lightning is a momentary phenomenon, this sign will continue in duration. Remember that the sun and moon will be darkened just prior to Christ's return, and so the light which serves as the sign of His coming will be the major light feature up in the heavens. I believe this light is none other than the "shekinah glory" that manifested God's presence in the OT. That glory manifested itself as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It is the glory that made Moses' face glow when he descended from Mt. Sinai. It is the glory with which Jesus was transformed briefly on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-5). That glory was characterized by light as bright as the sun and also by a cloud that overshadowed Him. So it will be when Jesus returns. His sign of His coming will be characterized by blinding light and clouds (cf. Dan. 7:13-14; Matt. 26:64). All people on earth will be able to witness this sign, because all will mourn. It is possible that Jesus' descent to earth takes a considerable amount of time, and that the visible display of His glory will be such that the Earth, in its rotation, will enable all of the people of the world to witness the sign of His arrival.
Fourth, all the tribes of the earth will mourn (Matt. 24:30). When the people of the earth see the sign of Jesus' return, they will be terrified. They will mourn because of what they see (Rev. 1:7). There are two different kinds of mourning. There is a mourning because of sorrow, and there is a mourning because of terror. I once visited a man in jail who had just killed his wife. He was crying. He was not crying because he had lost his wife, but rather, he whimpered, "What will they do to me?" That is exactly, I believe, the sentiment that the vast majority of the people on earth will share. "Oh no! Jesus is coming back! What will He do to me?" They fear judgment, and rightly so.
Fifth, and they (all the tribes of the earth) shall see the Son of Man coming (present participle of erchomai, 2064) upon the clouds of the heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30). We have already noticed that the prophet Daniel witnessed the coming of the Son of Man to Earth to set up His eternal global kingdom as being associated with the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7:13-14). We have also noticed that the temporary display of Jesus' kingdom power and glory on the Mount of Transfiguration included blinding light, white clothes, and an over-shadowing bright cloud (Matt. 17:1-5). We also have been reminded of Jesus' prediction to His enemies at His trial that they would one day witness "the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64). Luke the historian recorded that, as Jesus was lifted up from the earth, a cloud received Him out of the sight of His disciples (Acts 1:9). Two men in in white clothing informed them that Jesus would come (erchomai, 2064) "in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). In the opening verses of Revelation we are told that Jesus Christ "is coming with the clouds" (Rev. 1:7).
It is worth noting that passages which emphasize Jesus' return for reunion do not mention that every eye will see Him (John 14:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:50-47; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:9; 2 Thess. 2:1; Tit. 2:13).
Sixth, "Jesus will send forth His angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather together His chosen ones out of the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other end of them" (Matt. 24:31, author's literal translation).
Post-tribulationists, of course, remark upon all the similarities between Matt. 24:29-31 and 1 Thess. 4:13-18. Both passages include the concepts of "coming," "clouds," "trumpet," "angels," and "heaven," sometimes translated "sky."
But frankly, the dissimilarities outnumber the similarities. The gospel account chronology is "after the tribulation of those days." The epistle account makes no reference to the tribulation in the immediate context. The tribulation is discussed as taking place after the rapture (1 Thess. 5:1-9), though that specific term is not used. The gospel account speaks of cosmic disturbances. The epistle does not. The gospel speaks of the people of earth mourning. The epistle does not. The gospel states that all people will see Christ's coming. The epistle does not state that. In the gospel, angels are said to gather Christ's chosen ones. In the epistle there is the sound or voice of an archangel, but no mention of angels gathering nor of Christ's chosen ones. No resurrection is mentioned in the gospel, but resurrection is a central feature of the epistle. In the gospel there is no evidence that believers are "caught up" (harpazô, 726), but that is a central feature of the epistle account. In the gospel the chosen ones are gathered by angels "out of the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other end of them." This most likely is a regathering of elect Jewish people from the four cardinal points of the globe to meet their King in the Promised Land. In the epistle, on the other hand, both living and resurrected believers are snatched up without the agency of angels to meet the Lord in the air. These believers are members of the Church, not exclusively Israel. In the context of the gospel there is warning. In the epistle the objective is comfort. Finally, in the broader context of the gospel account (Matt. 24-25), judgment takes place upon the earth, both of the sons of Israel who survive the Tribulation period and of Gentiles who survive the tribulation. Only the righteous are left alive to enter Christ's kingdom (Matt. 25:31-46). In the broader context of the epistle account, after the believers are raptured (1 Thess. 4:13-18), destruction and wrath connected with "the day of the Lord" (i.e. the Tribulation period) come upon the sons of darkness (1 Thess. 5:1-11), from which destruction and wrath the "sons of light and sons of the day" are exempt. The destruction and wrath are consistent with retribution upon a godless world, while the return of Christ in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 is for the purpose of reunion.
It makes the most sense, therefore, to conclude that Matthew 24:29-31 is speaking of Christ's return to Jerusalem as King of Israel after the Tribulation, whereas 1 Thess. 4:13-18 is speaking of Christ's return to retrieve His Bride, the Church, from the earth prior to the start of the Great Tribulation. For a more thorough display of the similarities and dissimilarities of the two passages in Table form, see A Comparison of Matthew 24:29-31 with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Conclusion regarding Matthew 24: The broader context (Matt. 24-25) of the return of Christ as presented in Matt. 24:3-51 depicts retribution, or at least judgment, as opposed to reunion. The retributive association includes the following:
(1) The association of corpse and vultures with His coming (parousia, 3952) (Matt. 24:27-28);
(2) The cosmic disturbances accompanying Christ's return (Matt. 24:29);
(3) The terrified mourning of all the tribes of the earth when they see the sign of the Son of Man shining in the sky (Matt. 24:30);
(4) The comparison of Christ's coming (parousia, 3952) (Matt. 24:37, 39) with the judgment of Noah's Flood (Matt. 24:37-39);
(5) The taking away of a farmer in the field to judgment while an adjacent farmer is left to inherit the kingdom at Christ's return (Matt. 24:40);
(6) The taking away of a woman grinding flour to judgment while an adjacent woman is spared to enter the kingdom (Matt. 24:41);
(7) The warning to be ready, because Christ's coming (erchomai, 2064) is likened to a thief breaking and entering (Matt. 24:42-44);
(8) The severe punishment of an evil slave at his master's return, along with his consignment to a place where there "will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 24:48-51);
(9) The bridegroom's utter rejection of and exclusion of the five foolish virgins from the wedding feast, symbolic of the Millennial Kingdom (Matt. 25:1-13);
(10) The slave master's consignment of the "wicked, lazy slave" to "outer darkness," where "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:24-30);
(11) The emphasis on Christ's judgment of "all the nations" at the beginning of His reign following His return (Matt. 25:31-33);
(12) Christ's consignment of the "goats," those on His left hand, as "accused ones" "into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41), also described as "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46).
There are other passages which describe the retributive aspect of Christ's Second Coming, but which do not use the word "coming" (parousia, 3952). For that reason they are not discussed here. For the convenience of the reader, however, I have linked below the titles of articles listed beside the appropriate passages.
Isaiah 63:1-6. The Warrior with the Blood-Stained Robe. (Christ's Return to defend Israel by destroying her enemies.)
Zechariah 14:1-15. The Descent of Yahweh upon the Mount of Olives. (The Second Coming of Christ in defense of Israel and in retribution upon the enemies of God and of Israel.)
Revelation 14:14-20. The Great Winepress of the Wrath of God.
Revelation 19:11-21. The Rider on the White Horse.
b. apantęsis and its cognates. Passages used to prove that raptured saints go to meet Christ and then escort Him back to earth are inconclusive.
apantęsis (529) is a noun that means "meeting." The context must determine the nature of the meeting. Is it a hostile meeting or a friendly meeting? Another question can be asked, "Do those who go out for a meeting accompany the one met, or not?" In a friendly meeting, accompaniment would be expected. In a hostile meeting, one would not expect accompaniment. A final question could be asked. If the meeting is a friendly one, and if there is an accompaniment, which way do they go? In the direction the greeters came from, or in the direction the "guest" came from? I maintain that one cannot assume the same answer to any of these questions. The context must provide clues. And, in the case of 1 Thess. 4:17, context alone cannot govern the answer to all these questions. Another passage must be brought to bear on the situation, for the context of 1 Thess. 4:17 does not indicate what happened after the meeting.
The noun apantęsis is used in only three passages in the NT. In Matt. 25:6, "But at midnight there was a shout, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet (apantęsis) him." (Literally, the text reads, "Behold the bridegroom! Come out for a meeting!") Proponents of a post-tribulation rapture are quick to seize upon this passage as proof positive that the five wise virgins who go out to the meet the bridegroom (Christ) and accompany him to the wedding feast in the millennium are somehow illustrative of the Church meeting the Bridegroom in the air and accompanying Him to earth to rule (see 1 Thess. 4:17). But the correspondence breaks down. The five wise virgins almost certainly do not represent the Church, but the redeemed of Israel. The fact that the redeemed of Israel meet the Bridegroom on earth and accompany Him into His Millennial Kingdom cannot be a proof that the Church meets Christ in the air (1 Thess. 4:17) and accompanies Him back to earth. We could just as easily argue that the Church meets Christ in the air and accompanies Him back up to His home in heaven. All Matthew 25:6 proves is that that particular meeting was a friendly one, not a hostile one, at least on the part of the virgins. As it turns out, upon closer examination, any presumed parallels between the two passages break down even further. The five prudent virgins who possessed sufficient oil for their lamps were admitted into the wedding feast (i.e. the Millennial Kingdom) (Matt. 25:10). When the foolish virgins finally did procure enough oil and showed up late to the wedding feast, and begged to be admitted, the bridegroom (Christ) refused. He said, "Truly ... I do not know you" (Matt. 25:11-12). So though the foolish virgins might have been friendly toward Christ, He was definitely not friendly toward them. Half the virgins are refused admittance into Christ's Millennial Kingdom. There certainly is no evidence whatever that half the believers who participate in the meeting in 1 Thess. 4:13-17 are refused admittance into His Kingdom!
In Acts 28:15, some Christian brothers from Rome traveled all the way to the Market of Appius and Three Taverns for a meeting (apantesis) with Paul and his retinue. This was another friendly meeting. As such, they accompanied Paul all the way to Rome, for that was his destination. But this fact cannot be used to prove that the meeting in 1 Thess. 4:17 demands that the believers who meet Jesus in the air accompany Him to earth at that point. The text does not say that. In fairness, it also cannot be used to prove that the believers, having met Jesus in the air, accompanied Him up to heaven. Once again, the text does not say where they went. Another passage or passages must be brought to bear on the text to answer that question.
1 Thess. 4:13-18 is the context for the meeting, described in v. 17. Jesus will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first. Then those believers who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia, 3952) of the Lord will be caught up together with them in the clouds for a meeting (apantesis, 529) with the Lord in the air. And they will always remain with the Lord. Once again, this text does not explicitly state what the saints and Jesus did following their ethereal meeting. Did the believers accompany Jesus to the earth? The text does not say. Did Jesus take them back up to heaven from whence He had come? Again, the text does not say. We must look to other Scripture to provide us the necessary clues.
Paul in this passage of his letter, did not specify where Jesus and His resurrected / transformed followers would go. We do know that this was a friendly meeting, not a hostile one. What happens next must be determined by other passages. Post-Tribulationists take Matt. 25:6 as one governing passage. I think John 14:1-3 is a better passage for this reason. Matthew 25:6 views Jesus' coming from the perspective of Israel, represented by virgins - five wise and five foolish. These virgins were invited to the wedding, but were not the bride. John 14:1-3 is another wedding passage. There Jesus, the Bridegroom, informs His Bride, the Church, represented by the Twelve, that He is leaving. He is going to the Father's House to prepare a place for His bride. He will surely return and come to get them, so that where He is, they may be also.
Thus it makes the most sense to see Jesus, in 1 Thess. 4:17 as meeting with His bride in the air, not to accompany them back to their home, the earth, but to have them accompany Him back to His home, the Father's house, up in heaven.
The corresponding verb apantaô (528) is used only twice. It is found first in the passage in Mark 14:12-16, in which Jesus instructs His disciples where they were to celebrate the Passover. He told them to enter the city, and a man would meet (apantaô) them carrying a pitcher of water. They were to trail him (Mark 14:13). Into whatever home he entered, they were to ask the owner of the home where the room was in which the Teacher was to eat the Passover with His disciples (Mark 14:14). The meeting was certainly not a hostile meeting. But it is difficult to say that it was a friendly one, either. At best, it was a neutral meeting. They were not to greet the man that met them, nor were they to provide a friendly escort for him. They were to trail him, for he was merely a means to an end, the owner of the home into which he would eventually enter. Their business was with the homeowner, not the man carrying the water.
The other occurrence is found in the passage describing the cleansing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). As Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem, "ten leprous men who stood at a distance met (apantaô) him" (Luke 17:12). This was certainly a friendly, if distant, meeting. They asked Him to have mercy upon them (Luke 17:13). He told them to go and show themselves to the priest. As they departed, they were healed. But none of the ten accompanied Jesus and His disciples anywhere. In fact, only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank Jesus! And to that lone thankful soul, Jesus instructed, "Stand up and go; your faith has made you well" (Luke 17:19). So the meeting was friendly, but no one accompanied anyone anywhere. This passage cannot be used to prove that believers in Jesus will accompany Him back to earth after their meeting in the air (1 Thess. 4:17).
The cognate noun hupantęsis (5222), "meeting," is related to apantęsis (529), "meeting." It also is used but three times. In Matt. 8:28-34, two demon-possessed men met (hupantaô, 5221) Jesus as they were coming out of the tombs. Jesus permitted the demons to enter a herd of swine. The whole herd rushed over a precipice into the Sea of Galilee below and drowned in the water. The herdsmen ran to report everything to the city. "And behold, the whole city came out to meet (hupantęsis) Jesus; and when they saw Him, they implored Him to leave their region" (Matt. 8:34). In both the case of the verb hupantaô (Matt. 8:28) and the noun hupantęsis (Matt. 8:34) the meetings were hostile, not friendly. And in neither case did anyone from the town accompany Jesus. The point is that, for both apantęsis and hupantęsis, one cannot make a blanket statement, "this word always presumes a friendly meeting and a friendly escort to the intended destination." Both words are context-dependent.
In Matt. 25:1, which introduces the Parable of Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), Jesus said, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet (hupantęsis) the bridegroom." Five prudent virgins had sufficient oil for their lamps while five foolish virgins did not. At midnight there was a shout, "Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet (apantęsis) him" (Matt. 25:6). The five foolish virgins were forced to go out and purchase more oil. While they were gone, the bridegroom came and the five prudent virgins "who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut" (Matt. 25:10). The tardy virgins were denied access to the wedding feast. Some observations are in order: (1) This parable demonstrates that hupantęsis and apantęsis are interchangeable. (2) Certainly a friendly meeting and an escort to the groom's destination were envisioned. (3) However half of the company who planned for a meeting and an escort never achieved their objective. (4) Once again, the virgins represent Israel, not the Church. (5) The Greek words behind the English "meeting" are dependent on the context to derive their significance. The significance cannot be imported by virtue of a presumed meaning that fits a particular interpretational agenda (such as either a presumed Post-Tribulational or Pre-Tribulational eschatology).
On the day of the so-called "Triumphal Entry" (John 12:12-19), a large crowd heard that Jesus was coming to the feast. They took palm branches and went out to meet (hupantęsis, 5222) Him (John 12:13). This was a friendly meeting, and the crowd did accompany Jesus into the city. But the context here, unlike 1 Thess. 4:17, makes this plain.
The cognate verb hupantaô (5221) is used ten times.
We have already encountered the narrative recorded in Matthew 8:28-34. Two demon-possessed men coming out of the tombs met (hupantaô) Jesus (Matt. 8:28). This was an unfriendly encounter initially. It turned into a friendly meeting with the two men after Jesus expelled the demons. But the men did not accompany Jesus anywhere. The townspeople came for a meeting (hupantęsis) with Jesus and begged Him to leave (Matt. 8:34). This was a hostile encounter and no one accompanied Jesus anywhere.
After Jesus' resurrection, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to visit the tomb (Matt. 28:1-10). After hearing the news from the angel (Matt. 28:5-7), the women fled from the tomb with fear and great joy (Matt. 28:8). Jesus met (hupantaô) them and greeted them (Matt. 28:9). This was a joyous encounter - the women took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. But they escorted Him nowhere, for Jesus told them to inform His "brethren" that they were to leave for Galilee, where they would see Him (Matt. 28:10).
Mark 5:1-20 records the parallel account of Jesus' encounter with a demoniac in the region of the Gerasenes. The other passages are found in Matt. 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-39. A man from the tombs met (hupantaô) Jesus. This was initially a hostile encounter. The townspeople begged Jesus to leave (Mark 5:17). The man begged Jesus that he might accompany Him (Mark 5:18). Jesus did not permit him to do so, but instead instructed him to tell his people what great things the Lord had done for him. The man complied (Mark 5:19-20).
Luke 8:26-39 describes the same event. Jesus was met (hupantaô) by a man from the city who was possessed with demons (Luke 8:27). This was an unfriendly meeting. Jesus cast out the demons. The locals asked Jesus to leave (Luke 8:37). The man begged Jesus that he might accompany Him (Luke 8:38). Jesus denied his request and told him, instead, to report on God's grace (Luke 8:39).
In Luke 14:25-33 Jesus discussed the cost of discipleship. In Luke 14:31 He described a king going out to meet (hupantaô) another king in battle. He was required to count the cost of the battle and the potential benefits. This was, by all descriptions, the most hostile encounter one could imagine. And no one was going to voluntarily accompany the other kings' forces anywhere. Any accompaniment would be as an involuntary prisoner!
John 4:46-54 records the account of a royal official whose son back in Capernaum was sick. He begged Jesus to heal him before he died. Jesus assured him his son was alive and well. The man believed and left. On his way back to Capernaum, his slaved met him (hupantaô) and informed him his son was living (John 4:51). As a result, the man and his entire household believed in Jesus. The meeting between the slaves and their master was a friendly one. Possibly his slaves accompanied him back to his home, but the text does not say. Escorting is not the main point of this verb, and in this case, was irrelevant.
John 11:1-53 records Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Martha and Mary. After hearing about Lazarus' illness, Jesus deliberately delayed a trip to Bethany. Finally, he arrived after Lazarus was already dead. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet (hupantaô) Him (John 11:20), but Mary stayed in the house. One can argue that this was a friendly meeting, and probably it was, but Martha's first words were reproachful: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21). To her credit, she continued, "Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You" (John 11:22).
John used the word again in John 11:30, "Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met (hupantaô) Him." Mary quickly joined her sister and Jesus outside the village, where she fell at His feet weeping, saying, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:31-32). Jesus was deeply moved and asked to be directed to the tomb. When he arrived there, Martha, at least, had apparently accompanied Him, for she objected to His asking that the stone at the tomb be removed (John 11:39).
We can classify both these meetings in John 11:1-52 as friendly meetings, even though there was reproach connected with them. And we can acknowledge that the sisters evidently accompanied Jesus to the site of the tomb, but that was not John's point, for he does not even mention it. We can only deduce from the narrative that at least one, and presumably both sisters, accompanied him.
The final meeting in John occurred at Jesus' "Triumphal" Entry. The people from Jerusalem went out and met (hupantaô) Jesus, because they had heard that He had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 12:18). While their meeting with Jesus was friendly, it was more out of curiosity than anything else, much like fans who want, for self-serving purposes, to be in the presence of a rock star. Did they accompany Jesus as He walked along? If they wished to catch a glimpse of Him, they probably did, but John does not mention it.
The final occurrence of this verb in the NT is in Acts 16:16. There Luke records that a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination met (hupantaô) us. It was a chance, non-intentional meeting. It did not turn out to be a friendly one. It did include an escort. She kept following (present tense) Paul and his retinue day after day, crying out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation" (Acts 16:17-18). Paul was greatly annoyed, and finally expelled the demon from her. This got Paul and Silas in a great deal of trouble. They were unmercifully beaten and tossed into prison (Acts 16:19-24). This certainly was not a friendly encounter!
In summary, one must conclude that the occurrences of apantęsis and its cognates to argue that the meeting in 1 Thess. 4:17 dictates that the saints who will meet Jesus in the air will necessarily escort Him back to earth are inconclusive.Those who argue from the use of apantęsis that a Post-Tribulation rapture is necessitated are cherry-picking the evidence. Not all of the meetings are friendly. In not all cases is there an escort. And when there is an escort, we certainly cannot tell which direction those who go to meet will be going. Will the greeters escort the greeted back to the place from whence they came? Or will they escort him to the place where He is heading? From 1 Thess. 4:17, we can just as easily argue that Jesus will escort the saints to heaven as we can argue that they will escort Him back to earth. Again, the use of apantęsis in 1 Thess. 4:17 is inconclusive.
It makes more sense to believe that the governing passage is John 14:1-3, where the bridegroom tells His prospective bride, the representatives of the Church, that He is going to His Father's house to prepare them a home. When He comes back to retrieve His bride, He will take them with Him to the place He has prepared in His Father's house. That, it seems, is a more likely explanation of what Paul refers to in 1 Thess. 4:17 than it is to hypothesize that they have gone through the Tribulation and they are resurrected and raptured to escort Him back to earth at His coming. This is particularly evident when Paul, immediately following, the Rapture passage (1 Thess. 4:13-18), argues(1 Thess. 5:1-11) that His readers are not destined to participate in the Day of the Lord (the Tribulation). They are not destined for wrath, but for salvation (1 Thess. 5:9).
c. ekklesia. A Post-Tribulation Rapture is not credible because it fails to account adequately for the total absence of the Greek word ekklęsia (1577 - church) from Revelation 4:1-20:6.
The Greek word ekklęsia (1577) is a relatively important word in the Greek NT. It is used 114 times. The NASB translates the singular as "church" 74X, the plural as "churches" 35X, the singular as "assembly" 3X (Acts 19:32, 39, 41), and as "congregation" 2X (Acts 7:38; Heb. 2:12). It appears most often in Acts (23X), 1 Corinthians (22X), and Revelation (20X). In fourth place is Paul's second letter to the Corinthians (9X). Obviously, the word ekklęsia is an important word in the book of Revelation insofar as frequency of occurrences of the word is concerned.
Here is a list of the uses of ekklęsia in the entire book of Revelation. The frequent occurrence of ekklęsia in chapters Rev. 1:1-3:22, which addresses the Church Age, is nothing short of remarkable. The absence of any use of the term ekklęsia during the entire Tribulation period (Rev. 4:1-18:24), during the return of Christ to earth (Rev. 19:1-21), during Christ's Millennial Reign or the revolt afterwards (Rev. 20:1-10), during the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15), and in John's description of New Earth and New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-22:5) is utterly stunning! Indeed, the final occurrence of ekklęsia appears in Jesus' final statement delivered in real time to John late in the 1st Century A.D. -- "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify these things to you for the churches...." (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 22:16).
If, as Post-Tribulationists insist, the Church remains on earth during the Tribulation period, why is there not a single occurrence of the word ekklęsia during the entire period describing the Tribulation in the book of Revelation? How can we account for this most remarkable anomaly? I believe there is a perfectly logical explanation. That explanation is that the Post-Tribulationists are wrong. The Church does not remain on earth during the Tribulation. That is so because it has been raptured up to heaven prior to the start of the Tribulation. The selective appearance of ekklęsia only in the passages of Revelation that deal with the Church Age is exactly what one would expect in the scenario of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture.
In Rev. 1:4, John writes to the seven churches, just as he has been instructed (Rev. 1:11). Those seven churches are identified as the churches located at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The risen Christ, who has appeared to him, gives to him the inspired outline of the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:19). He is to write (1) what he has just seen (the glorious, resurrected Messiah), i.e. Rev. 1:1-20; (2) "the things which are," which refers to the specific messages to the seven churches in Rev. 2:1-3:22 -- the Church Age; (3) "and the things which take place after these things" -- the state of affairs in Heaven, the Tribulation, the Return of Christ, the Millennial Kingdom, the Final Revolt, the Judgment of the Wicked Dead of All Ages, and the Eternal State -- the glorious city of New Jerusalem in conjunction with New Heaven and New Earth. All these things are outlined in substantial detail in Rev. 4:1-22:5, followed by some closing remarks (Rev. 22:6-21).
Jesus then explains to John what he has just seen. The seven stars are the messengers of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (Rev. 1:20). So in the first 20 verses of Revelation, the word ekklęsia appears 4X (Rev. 1:1-20).
To the Church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7). John is instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1). That this message has a broader appeal to all Christians of the Church Age is seen from the concluding exhortation, "The one having an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 2:7). The word ekklęsia appears 2X.
To the Church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11). John is next instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8). There is a universal appeal to "the one having an ear" to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 2:11). The word ekklęsia appears 2X.
To the Church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17). John is next instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Pergamum (Rev. 2:12). There is a universal appeal to "the one having an ear" to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 2:17). The word ekklęsia appears 2X.
To the Church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29). John is next instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Thyatira (Rev. 2:18). Jesus excoriates the people of Thyatira for tolerating the woman Jezebel (Rev. 2:20). Jesus "will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches (plural of ekklęsia) will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts ..." (Rev. 2:23). There is a universal appeal to "the one having an ear" to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 2:29). The word ekklęsia appears 3X.
To the Church at Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6). John is next instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Sardis (Rev. 3:1). There is a universal appeal to "the one having an ear" to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 3:6). The word ekklęsia appears 2X.
To the Church at Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13). John is next instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7). There is a universal appeal to "the one having an ear" to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 3:13). The word ekklęsia appears 2X.
To the Church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22). John is next instructed to write to the messenger of the church (ekklęsia) in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14). There is a universal appeal to "the one having an ear" to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (plural of ekklęsia) (Rev. 3:22). The word ekklęsia appears 2X.
In the entire section addressed to the seven churches (Rev. 2:1-3:22), the singular or plural of the word church or assembly (ekklęsia) appears 15X. If one adds to that number the occurrences in Rev. 1 (4X), he arrives at a total of 19 uses in the first 3 chapters. Thereafter, the word (ekklęsia) is never used again until Rev. 22:16. The saturation of the word ekklęsia in Rev. 1:1-3:22 contrasted with its total absence in Rev. 4:1-22:15 is nothing short of remarkable.
Revelation 4:1-5:14. In Rev. 4:1 John is called up to heaven. What does that mean? Does it symbolize anything? I believe it symbolizes the Church's call up to heaven at the Rapture. But the word ekklęsia cannot be used to prove it. It does not appear here.
Among other things, John sees 24 elders (Rev. 4:4, 10; 5:6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4). Presumably these are human beings. They are distinguished from four living creatures (Rev. 4:6-8) and from myriads of angels (messengers) (Rev. 5:11). Of what larger group or groups are these elders representatives? We are not told, but we can guess. My best guess is that 12 of these elders represent the Church and 12 represent Israel. But the word ekklęsia does not appear here.
Revelation 6:9-11. The Martyrs Underneath the Altar. In Rev. 6:9-11 John sees the souls of martyrs underneath the altar. They cry out for vengeance upon those dwelling on the earth. They are told to wait until the total number of those who are yet to be killed upon earth -- their fellow slaves and brothers -- is completed. Who are these martyrs? Post-Tribulationists believe they are members of the Church, still upon earth during the Tribulation. But they are not so identified. I think that is because they are not members of the Church, but rather what I term as "Tribulation-era believers" who have been martyred. They are Tribulation Saints. The word ekklęsia does not appear here.
Revelation 7:1-8. The 144,000. In Rev. 7:1-8, John heard the number of the 144,000 who were "sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel" (Rev. 7:4). There were 12,000 sealed from each of the following tribes: Judah, Reuben, Gad (Rev. 7:5), Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh (Rev. 7:6), Simeon, Levi, Issachar (Rev. 7:7), Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin (Rev. 7:8). These 144,000 were sealed on their foreheads as the slaves (literally) of God before four angels harmed "the earth or the sea or the trees" (Rev. 7:1-3). Who are these 144,000. Who are these 144,000?
Sam Storms, an Amillennialist, holds that "the 144,000 represent the totality of God’s redeemed at that time." He speaks favorably of "the study of Christopher Smith in “The Portrayal of the Church as the New Israel in the Names and Order of the Tribes in Revelation 7.5-8,” JSNT 39 (1990):111-118; and again, “The Tribes of Revelation 7 and the Literary Competence of John the Seer,” JETS 38 (1995):213-218."Obviously, Storms does not interpret the text literally. Clearly John meant what he said. The 144,000 are "sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel" (Rev. 7:4). Injurious to Storms' position, the word ekklęsia does not appear in this paragraph. These are Israelis, not members of the Church. It makes more sense to see the Church as being up in heaven. The nation of Israel is a major player in the Tribulation upon Earth. The Church is not. The word ekklęsia does not appear here.
How do Historical Premillennialists, who believe in a Post-Tribulation Rapture, interpret the 144,000? The answer is that there is not uniformity. Douglas Moo  punts on the issue. He writes, "It does not seem that it can be definitely concluded what group of saints is depicted from Rev. 7:2-8." Obviously, he does not interpret the Scripture literally.
Millard Erickson,  another Historical Premillennialist, is at least honest enough to admit the obvious:
"Revelation 7:4 speaks of 144,000 of all the tribes of Israel. These are not the church, for members of the church are not called "the children of Israel. While members of the church are referred to as children of Abraham, "the Father of us all" (Rom. 4:16), that is quite different from the designation "Children of Israel".
Conclusion: The 144,000 are the sons of Israel (Rev. 7:4), not the Church. The word ekklęsia does not appear here.
Revelation 7:9-16. The Innumerable Crowd in Heaven. In this passage we encounter another group of people. These individuals are evidently up in heaven, the place to which John has been transported (Rev. 4:1), and where he is looking (Rev. 7:9). This vast assembly John witnessed he described as "...a great multitude [ochlos, 3793, crowd] which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands" (Rev. 7:9). They worshiped God and the Lamb (Rev. 7:10), joined by the angels, the elders, and the four living creatures (Rev. 7:11-12) described in Rev. 4:1-5:14. One of the 24 elders asked John the identity and origin of the white-robed people (Rev. 7:13). John was clueless, and reversed the question (Rev. 7:14). The elder responded, "These are the ones coming out of the tribulation, the great one" (Rev. 7:14, author's literal translation). They had washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, thus making them white (Rev. 7:14). So these, in my view, are not Church-age martyrs, but Tribulation Saints who have been martyred for their faith in Christ. They had neither conformed to the worship of the "Beast" nor had they been seduced into the false worship associated with Babylon (Rev. 17:1-6, 15; 18:1-5, 24; 19:1-3).
So how did these Tribulation Saints come to have faith in Christ that eventuated in their martyrdom? To me the answer is apparent -- they were brought to faith in Christ by the extensive evangelistic activities of the Messianic Jews sealed for that purpose from the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel during the Tribulation period (Rev. 7:1-8).
Sam Storms, an Amillennialist, does not take this chapter literally. He asserts, "I believe the innumerable multitude and the 144,000 constitute one group of people: the redeemed of the Church." So to him, the innumerable multitude consists of church-age saints who have been martyred. I dispute that. The Church will have already been raptured. These are Tribulation saints who have been martyred for their faith during the Tribulation. They are not part of the Church. Consistent with my interpretation, the word ekklęsia does not appear here.
Revelation 11:1-14. The Two Witnesses. In this extended passage, "my two witnesses" (pl. of martus, 3144) are identified (Rev. 11:3). The context is the earth, specifically the rebuilt Jewish Temple, and its court, located in "the city city" (i.e. Jerusalem), trodden under foot by the nations for forty-two months (Rev. 11:1-2). The two witnesses will be granted authority to prophesy for 1,260 days (42 months). They are further identified as "the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth" (Rev. 11:4). This seems to be a clear reference to the prophecy found in Zech. 4:3, 11, 14. They are impervious to harm (Rev. 11:5), and they will be endowed with miraculous powers Rev. 11:5-6. "The beast that comes up out of the abyss" will make war with them, conquer them, and kill them (Rev. 11:7). Their dead bodies will lie in the street of Jerusalem for three and a half days while the world rejoices (Rev. 11:8-10). After this the breath of life from God will enter them, and they will stand upon their feet (Rev. 11:11). A loud voice from heaven will call, "Come up here" (Rev. 11:12). They will ascend bodily to heaven in a cloud as their enemies watch (Rev. 11:12), reminiscent of the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:16-17). A great earthquake will ensue, a tenth of Jerusalem will be destroyed, there will be 7,000 fatalities, and the rest of the people will be terrified and give glory to the God of heaven (Rev. 11:13-14). Post-Tribulationists assume these two witnesses are part of the Church, but the word ekklęsia is never used in reference to these believers. It makes more sense to understand them to be Tribulation Saints, and probably, Israeli Tribulation Saints.
Revelation 12:1-2, 4-6, 13-17. The Sign of the Woman clothed with the Sun, standing upon the Moon, with a Crown of Twelve Stars. Many see this woman as representing "the believing covenant-messianic community," including the church. The view of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is that the woman "symbolizes God's people in the Old and the New Testament." Like all Amillennialists, the RCC sees the church as the new Israel. It is far more likely that, based on Joseph's dream (Gen. 37:9-11), the woman refers to Israel alone. The woman gave birth to Christ at His First Advent (Rev. 12:5). He ascended to heaven, and is yet to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. The woman's flight into the wilderness and her nourishment for 1260 days (Rev. 12:6, 13-16) speaks of God's miraculous preservation of the nation during the Great Tribulation, the latter half of the seven-year period referenced in Dan. 9:27. The rest of the children (lit. seed) of the woman, Israel, against whom the dragon, Satan, pursued to make war, are Jews in the Tribulation who believe in Jesus as their Messiah (Rev. 12:16). They will "keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus," but the word ekklęsia is never used of them. And why should it be? They are not part of the Church, because the Church does not appear on earth during the Tribulation.
Rev. 13:7-10. The Saints who are Persecuted by the Beast. Rev. 13:1-1 describes a beast coming up out of the sea (Rev. 13:1). He is to be identified with the ultimate evil global ruler arising, during the Tribulation period, from a future revived Roman Empire. He will also be known as the Antichrist. More to the point, we direct our attention to the people whom this vile ruler persecutes. He will "make war with the saints (or holy ones)" (Rev. 13:7). All will worship him except those whose names have been written in the Lamb's Book of Life (Rev. 13:8). The "saints" (or holy ones) will need perseverance and faith (Rev. 13:10). Who are these believers? Post-Tribulationists insist they are members of the Church, all of whom will be forced to endure the horrors of the Tribulation. But the word ekklęsia is never used to describe them. They are not members of the Church. They are Tribulation Saints. The Church will already have been removed from the earth prior to the Tribulation (1 Thess. 4:13-18), and will not be forced to endure the horrors of the Tribulation (1 Thess. 5:1-11).
Rev. 14:1-5. The 144,000 on Mount Zion. Several questions present themselves:
Who are these 144,000 (Rev. 14:1)? They are evidently the same as those sealed and enumerated in Rev. 7:3-8. It makes little sense to posit two different groups comprised of exactly the same unusual number.
What is the geography of Mount Zion, on which they stand alongside the Lamb (Rev. 14:1)? Some believe it is earthly Mt. Zion. But that would mean the Second Coming of Christ had already occurred. In the chronology of Revelation, Christ's return is not described until Rev. 19:11-21. It seems more likely that it is the 144,000 who are to be identified as the ones singing a new song before the throne, the four living creatures, and the elders (Rev. 14:3). That means the venue is heavenly Mt. Zion, not earthly Mt. Zion.
The objection raised is that the 144,000 were sealed to be protected from harm (Rev. 7:3). If heavenly Mt. Zion is in view, this means they have died. My response is that they were protected from harm while they were engaged in their mission. Their mission, presumably one of evangelism, was highly successful, inasmuch as an incalculable number of people of all nationalities had trusted in Jesus as their Messiah (Rev. 7:9-12). They had subsequently been martyred during the Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:13-14), but were now under the watchful care of the Lamb, who would serve as a superb shepherd (Rev. 7:15-17). Evidently the 144,000 had also been martyred once their mission had been completed to God's satisfaction. There follows here a further discussion of the identity of the 144,000, based upon both Rev. 7:7-17 and Rev. 14:1-5.
(1) They are identified as bond-servants (lit. slaves) of God (7:3).
(2) They are sealed in their foreheads (7:3). This seal evidently contains the names of Jesus and the Father (14:1).
(3) They are Jewish believers, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel listed in 7:4-8).
(4) Their mission, though unstated, is evidently evangelistic, and they are successful, for an innumerable company of martyred tribulation saints are found in heaven after their deaths (7:9-17).
(5) They have a special affinity for Jesus, for after their martyrdom, they are seen standing with the Lamb on heavenly Mt. Zion (14:1), and they follow Him wherever He goes (14:4).
(6) They alone are able to sing a new song of praise with spectacular accompaniment before the throne of God (14:2-3).
(7) They are celibate males who kept themselves morally pure throughout their lives on earth (14:4).
(8) They are men of high ethics and integrity -- they tell no lies and are blameless in their conduct (14:5).
(9) They serve, evidently throughout eternity, as first fruits from among men to God and to the Lamb. Thus they are wholly dedicated to the Lord and follow the Lamb wherever He goes (14:4). As first fruits, they stand as a guarantee of a greater harvest yet to come -- people who will yet be redeemed and follow the Lamb from both the remainder of the Tribulation period and from the Millennial Kingdom yet to come.
It is worth noting that, in all the discussion of these 144,000 sealed from among the "sons of Israel" (Rev. 7:4), having the Lamb's name and His Father's name written on their foreheads (Rev. 14:1), there is not a single mention that they are affiliated with the Church. The word ekklęsia is never used to describe them. They are not the "new Israel," the Church. There is no such thing. They are Messianic Jews, part of the remnant of Israel, and they are completely separate from the Church. The Church has already been raptured and is in heaven at this point.
Rev. 15:1-4. The Victors over the Beast. John saw up in the heaven something like a sea of glass mixed together with fire (Rev. 15:1-2). He saw those conquering the beast and his statue and the number of his name. They were standing on the sea of glass and were holding harps of God (Rev. 15:2). They were singing the song of Moses, the slave of God, and the song of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3). They were praising the Almighty God for His great and marvelous works. They were praising the King of the Nations for His righteous and true ways (Rev. 15:3). They wondered aloud who would not fear the Lord and glorify His name, because He alone is holy. Quoting from Psalm 89:6 and alluding to Isa. 66:23, they predicted, "All the nations will come and will bow down before You, because all Your righteous ordinances have been revealed" (author's translation) (Rev. 15:4). Who are these victors over the beast? It seems most likely they belong to the category of people described as "the nations" (ethnos, 1484), a term used in Rev. 15:3, 4. Post-Tribulationists would have us believe they are part of the Church. But to describe them that way is inaccurate. That is because they are not part of the Church. The Church has already been raptured. The word for "church" - ekklesia, appears nowhere in the chapters of Revelation which describe the Tribulation. Rather, these martyred believers are Tribulation Saints. As the Tribulation goes on, more and more people will trust in Jesus as the Messiah instead of worshiping the Beast (Rev. 13:4, 8). These worshipers of Messiah will be seen by government officials as rebels. And most of them will be put to death. They will join those described earlier in the Book of Revelation, and earlier in the Tribulation period -- the Souls under the Altar (Rev. 6:9-11), along with the Innumerable Crowd (Rev. 7:9-17). They are designated as "Victors over the Beast" (Rev. 15:2).
Rev. 19:7-9. The Bride of the Lamb and the Invited Guests. Not only did heaven rejoice at the destruction of the Great Prostitute, Babylon (Rev. 19:1-4), but something like the sound of a great multitude, rushing water, and pealing thunder shouted, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready" (Rev. 19:6-7). John then wrote, "It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev. 19:8). What is the identity of the people who comprise the bride of the Lamb? We are not told in this passage who they are, other than that they are "the saints" or "holy ones" (plural of hagios, 40). One thing is certain. Those "saints" who comprise the bride are to be differentiated from the blessed ones having been invited or called (perfect passive participle of kaleô, 2564) to the marriage dinner of the Lamb. (Rev. 19:9). A bride cannot be invited or called to her own wedding. She will be there with or without guests. Clearly, the guests at the wedding feast are different than the bride. We are left with four questions: (1) Who are those who comprise the Bride of the Lamb? (2) When and how will the Bride be purifed? (3) When and where will the Wedding Feast take place? (4) And who are the Guests who will be invited to the marriage feast? We are not left without clues in Scripture.
(1) Who are those who comprise the Bride of the Lamb? Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, revealed that the marriage of a Christian husband to his Christian wife is to be modeled after Christ's marriage to the Church (Eph. 5:22-32). (a) The husband is the head of his wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, being, as He is, the Savior of the body. So as the Church is subject to Christ, so ought wives to be to their husbands in everything (Eph. 5:22-24). (b) Husbands are to love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). I believe there is demonstrable evidence that the Bride of Christ in Rev. 19:7-8 is none other than the Church. Ephesians 5:22-25 supports that conclusion.
(2) When and how will the Bride be purified? Christ gave Himself for His Bride, the Church, in order that He might sanctify and cleanse her, ultimately presenting her to Himself in all her glory, holy and blameless, without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:26-27). Jesus died on the cross to pay for the sins of all mankind. He rose again to secure redemption and eternal life. Beginning with the Day of Pentecost, all who trust in Jesus become part of His Bride, the Church. Their sins are forgiven. But they do not achieve sinless perfection. Jesus is presently sanctyifying and purifying His Bride, the Church, while she is here upon earth. But the Bride in her present state is far from being completely purified. Revelation 19:7-9 depicts the Bride has having been provided ultimate sanctification. She "has made herself ready" (Rev. 19:7). "It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev. 19:8). When and how will the Bride be purified? After the Bride has been raptured to heaven, prior to the start of the Tribulation period, she will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10). The process of this judgment is described in 1 Cor. 3:9-15. The Judgment Seat of Christ does not determine whether one's destiny is heaven or hell. That issue is not even raised at this Judgment. This judgment is for Church-Age believers only. It is an evaluation of works and faithfulness, not of eternal destiny. None who appear here are condemned. But all are evaluated for faithfulness and for motives. The fact that the Bride of Christ is described in such glowing terms in Rev. 19:7-8 leads us to believe that, at this point in history, at the end of the Tribulation (Rev. 6:1-18:24), and just prior to the Second Coming of Christ to set up His Kingdom (Rev. 19:11-20:6), the Bride has successfully completed her examination at the Judgment Seat of Christ. She has been completely purged and purified of all impurities. She is a fit Virgin to be united to Christ and become His Wife throughout eternity. The time for her marriage to the Lamb has come (Rev. 19:7). And following the ceremony, the Bride will be ready for her Wedding Feast (Rev. 19:7, 9).
(3) When and where will the Wedding Feast take place? The Return of Christ in power and great glory at the close of the Tribulation period paves the way for the Wedding Feast to begin. But it will not begin immediately. First, the returning Monarch will destroy all the enemy combatants arrayed against Him. In this regard, at least four central passages stand out: Isaiah 63:1-6; Joel 3:1-16; Zechariah 14:3, 12-15; and Revelation 19:11-21. Following the return of Christ, the King will judge all those who survive the Tribulation and the closing battle. The Judgment of Israeli survivors of the Tribulation is recorded in Ezekiel 20:33-38 and Matt. 25:1-13, 14-30. The Judgment of Gentile survivors of the Tribulation is recorded in Matt. 25:31-46.
After the climactic battles and the judgments of the survivors of the Tribulation, the King will commence His Wedding Banquet upon earth at the beginning of His Millennial Reign. This Feast will be held on the earth on Mount Zion. I believe the Wedding Feast is predicted in Isaiah 28:6. "The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine" (see also Isa. 2:2-4; 56:7). Jesus told a parable in which He depicted the kingdom of heaven as a king (God) giving a wedding feast for his son (Jesus) (Matt. 22:1-14). This wedding feast took place upon the earth. We can ascertain that because, when the wedding hall was finally filled with dinner guests (Matt. 22:10), the king came in and found a man not dressed in wedding clothes (Matt. 22:11-12). The king told His servants to bind the man and throw Him into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 22:13). That is the sort of activity that will take place in time, not in eternity. In other words, the actions described will take place in the Millennium on earth, not in eternity in New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-22:5). The same can be said for Jesus' description of the Kingdom of heaven in His parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). Jesus is the bridegroom. Ten virgins went out to meet Him. Five imprudent virgins did not have enough oil for their lamps. When the bridegroom came, the five wise virgins who possessed oil were admitted to the wedding feast (Matt. 25:10). The other five virgins finally came, but the door was shut. The bridegroom refused them admittance, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you" (Matt. 25:11-12). Again this language depicts entrance into and banning from the Millennial Kingdom here upon earth.
(4) Who are those who are the guests invited to the Wedding Feast? After describing the heavenly praise of the Bride's having been prepared for her marriage to the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-7), John described the apparel of the bride (Rev. 19:8). Then an angel told John, "Write, 'Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb'" (Rev. 19:9). Only by ignoring the subtleties of the vocabulary can we assume there is no distinction between the bride and those invited to the wedding supper. Clearly, guests at the wedding are not the bride. The Bride, as we have demonstrated, is the Church. Who then are the guests invited to the Wedding Feast?
I believe we learn from Matt. 25:1-13 that the five prudent virgins who had sufficient oil are believing Israelis who are admitted to the Millennial Kingdom. These five wise virgins are also the ones who are also described as the King's "brothers" in Matt. 25:40, 45. The five imprudent virgins are unbelieving Israelis who are not admitted to the Millennial Kingdom. These are to be identified with the rebels who are banned from entry into the land and into the Kingdom (Ezek. 20:33-38). I also believe that in Jesus' parable of the Wedding Feast in Matt. 22:1-14, the second tier of guests invited to the wedding were Gentiles. I believe Jesus referenced these saved Gentiles who will participate in banquet in the Kingdom in Matt. 8:10-11. So those invited to the Wedding of Christ to His Bride, the Church, will be believing Jews and Gentiles.
Conclusion: The word "church" -- ekklesia, does not appear anywhere in reference to either the Bride of the Lamb or in reference to those invited to the Wedding Feast. That, however, is not surprising. The Church is identified as the pure Bride of the Lamb. This is in sharp contrast to the the Religion of Babylon, identified as a blood-thirsty Prostitute (Rev. 17:1-19:4). The following contrasts are worth noting:
Rev. 20:4-6. The Resurrected Martyrs who Reign with Christ a Thousand Years. After Christ's return to Earth for retribution upon His enemies (Rev. 19:11-21), Satan will be bound for a thousand years so he can no longer deceive the nations (Rev. 20:1-3). Then John wrote, "Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them" (Rev. 20:4). The language is economical, and those who exercise judgment are not identified. But I would be surprised if the twelve apostles will not be among their number (Matt. 19:28). Since the twelve apostles will exercise judgment only over the nation of Israel, the judges John witnessed probably far exceed the number of twelve. A great many more judges will be required to assist in judging all the Gentile nations during the length of the Millennium. Those they judge will consist of the survivors of the Tribulation -- that is, those who were believers and remained alive after Christ's return to participate in Christ's kingdom.
John next identified another group whom he saw. "I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded (pelekizô, 3990) because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years" (Rev. 20:4). Post-Tribulationists must assume these are members of the Church. But the word ekklesia is never used to describe them. That is consistent with the interpretation that they are not members of the Church, but are, in fact Tribulation Saints who were beheaded for their faith in Christ and their non-cooperation with the global government.
John further describes the resurrection in which these martyred Tribulation Saints participated as "the first resurrection" (Rev. 20:5). He pronounced a blessing upon those who partake of the "first resurrection." Over them "the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6). Post-Tribulationists pounce upon this passage to postulate that there can only be one general resurrection of the righteous. In their view, therefore, a Pre-Tribulation Rapture must be ruled out.
We who believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture counter by saying that the term "first resurrection" identifies a category of resurrection, not a number in a sequence of resurrections. We believe that the term "first resurrection" identifies all those who participate in a resurrection to eternal Life as opposed to a resurrection unto eternal Death.
As a matter of fact there has already been an inaugural event in the "First Resurrection." Our Lord Himself participated in the First Resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-49; John 20:1-29; Acts 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:1-8). Since He is the "first fruits" (1 Cor. 15:23), after His resurrection other believers also were resurrected (Matt. 27:52-53). At the Pre-Tribulation Rapture, the church will participate in the First Resurrection. So also will Tribulation Saints at Jesus' return to reign and rule. Perhaps OT saints will also be resurrected at the same time. But there will be those who live in their natural bodies upon Earth during the Millennium. These too will have to experience a resurrection or translation of their earthly bodies into resurrected bodies in order to inhabit eternity (1 Cor. 15:50-53). So it seems best to understand the "First Resurrection" as a qualitative resurrection to Life as opposed to the presumed ''Second Resurrection," which is a resurrection to Death (Rev. 20:11-15).
Miscellaneous References: There are some brief, incidental references to believers in portions of the Book of Revelation.
(1) John refers to "the prayers of (all) the saints" (pl. of hagios, 40) (Rev. 8:3, 4) which appeared on the golden altar before the throne up in heaven. Post-Tribulationists must assume these saints are members of the Church during the Tribulation. But the word "church" (ekklęsia) never appears here. It makes more sense to understand these "holy ones" as Tribulation Saints, not as Church Saints.
(2) It is implied (in Rev. 9:4) that there are men who "have the seal of God on their foreheads." Undoubtedly this terminology hearkens back to the 144,000 bond-servants (literally, slaves, pl. of doulos, 1401) of God who were sealed on their foreheads (Rev. 7:2-4). It is possible that the implied designation in Rev. 9:4 is broader than the 144,000, but we cannot know that for certain. Regardless, the word ekklęsia is not used of these believers. They are Tribulation Saints.
(3) A loud voice in heaven stated, after a war in heaven at the conclusion of which Satan and his angels were thrown down to the earth (Rev. 12:7-9), that "the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down" (Rev. 12:10). These "brethren" conquered Satan "because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death" (Rev. 12:11). Post-Tribulationists must assume that these "brethren" are part of the Church, but the word ekklęsia does not appear here. They are better understood as Tribulation Saints who, after their deaths, joined the innumerable crowd in heaven already described in Rev. 7:9-17.
(4) A "third angel" loudly pronounces doom upon the worshipers of the beast (Rev. 14:9-13). If any person worships the beast and his image and receives a mark on his forehead or his hand, he will drink of the wine of God's wrath, and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone without reprieve forever (Rev. 14:9-11). These facts behoove the perseverance of the saints in keeping God's commands and trusting in Jesus (Rev. 14:12). Indeed, those who die in the Lord from this point onward are blessed! Indeed, they will rest from their labors, and their works will follow after them (Rev. 14:13). Who are these faithful martyrs? Post-Tribulationists would have us believe they are Church saints who must endure the terrible wrath of the Tribulation. But the word "church" (ekklęsia) is never used here. In fact, they are not members of the Church. They are Tribulation Saints.
(5) A third angel poured out his bowl of God's wrath onto the rivers and springs on earth. When he had done so, they became blood (Rev. 16:4). He praised God's righeousness in authorizing this terrible plague (Rev. 16:5). God was righteous in giving the people of the earth blood to drink since they had shed the blood of "saints and prophets" (Rev. 16:6). When this prophecy is fulfilled, some, at least, of these "saints and martyrs" will be killed during the Tribulation. The "Two Witnesses" who will be killed by the Beast (Rev. 11:1-7) will account for at least two of the prophets (see the word prophęteuô (4395) used in Rev. 11:3). Are these "saints and prophets" members of the Church? The evidence would suggest otherwise. Not once are they identified as belonging to the ekklesia (1577, church). It makes more sense to view them as Tribulation Saints.
(6) One of the angels who poured out the Seven Bowls of God's Wrath upon the earth showed the Apostle John the Judgment of the Great Prostitute, Babylon the Great (Rev. 17:1-18:24). Of particular note for our purposes is that John "saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus" (Rev. 17:6). After the demise of the city / religion, John observed, "And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints and of all who have been slain on the earth" (Rev. 18:24). While the kings, merchants, and mariners mourned upon earth (Rev. 18:9, 11, 15, 17-19), heaven, saints, apostles and prophets were exhorted to rejoice over God's judgment of the Prostitute (Rev. 18:20). A great multitude loudly praised God for judging the Great Prostitute and avenging the blood of His slaves (Rev. 19:1-4). Who are these saints, witnesses, and prophets who will have been slain upon the earth? Post-Tribulationists contend they will be members of the Church. But the word ekklęsia (1577) never appears here. They are not, in fact, members of the Church. They are Tribulation Saints.
(7) There was an angel who interacted with the Apostle John about the ones being called to the feast of the marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). John fell at his feet to worship him. But the angel warned him, "See that you don't do it. I am a fellow-slave of yours and of your brothers having the testimony of Jesus. Worship God, for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of the prophecy" (Rev. 19:10, author's translation). Of particular interest is the angel's reference to John's brothers having the testimony of Jesus. Though John was certainly a participant in the Church era (Rev. 1:4-3:22), his "brothers" were not designated as being part of the ekklesia (1577). Why is that? We cannot know for certain. But one explanation might be that his "brothers" spanned more than the church. Those who would live on earth during most of the time-span of the text of Revelation, i.e. from Rev. 4:1-19:10, would not be members of the Church. They would be Tribulation saints. The angel probably included Tribulation Saints in his thinking.
(8) Rev. 19:11-16 is a marvelous picture of Jesus, the Warrior-King, about to descend to earth to wreak vengeance on an evil world. "...And He Himself treads the wine press of the wine of the wrath of the anger of God the Almighty" (Rev. 19:15, author's literal translation). But he is not alone. He is accompanied by "the armies (plural of strateuma, 4753) in the heaven" (Rev. 19:14). These armies were following Him astride white horses. The riders were described as "having been clothed with fine linen, bright, clean" (Rev. 19:14, author's literal translation). The language is reminiscent of the description of the apparel of the Bride (Rev. 19:7-8). Who are these armies? Ordinarily, we would think of angels as comprising the armies of heaven (2 Kings 6:17; Matt. 13:41; 16:27; 24:30-31; 26:53; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 2 Thess. 1:7). But since the language of Rev. 19:8, 14 is so similar, it might be best to understand that there are more armies than one. The plural of strateuma allows for both angels and the Bride to descend with Christ as armies. It seems that at least a portion of the armies appear to be noncombatants. By the time the heavenly host arrives upon earth, the Beast, the kings of the earth and their armies are arrayed against the Rider on the White Horse and against His army (singular) (Rev. 19:19). We know that Christ is capable of merely speaking commands and His enemy foes will be vanquished (Rev. 19:15). Perhaps because of the complex nature of the "armies" following Christ, the word ekklesia is not used in describing any of the participants.
Deduction: Revelation 1:1-3:22 deals with the Church Age. Revelation 4:1-22:21 deals with events after the Church Age. That, and that alone, adequately accounts for the sharp disparity in uses of ekklęsia in chapters in Rev. 1:1-3:22 and afterwards.
Conclusion: The Church does not appear on earth during the entire Tribulation period as addressed in Revelation 6:1-18:24 because the Church will be raptured to heaven before the Tribulation begins. A Post-Tribulation Rapture is not credible because it fails to account adequately for the total absence of the Greek word ekklęsia (1577 - church) from Revelation 4:1-20:6.
Prepared by James T. Bartsch
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)