Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ready for What’s Next? (Part 4)

But the salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; He is their strength in time of trouble (Ps 37:39)[1]

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:3-5)

In the popular Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the main character, airline pilot, Capt. Rayford Steele, is a nominal “Christian” who attends church under duress in effort to keep peace in the family. His wife, Irene, and his son, Raymie, are zealous Christians, but Rayford does not share their enthusiasm. As the saga unfolds, millions of people all over the earth instantly disappear leaving only their clothes behind. Irene and Raymie are among the missing and Rayford and his college-age daughter, Zoe, are left behind. Soon, nominal Christians who had the “head knowledge” but no heart conviction, realize that the “rapture” has taken place and that the true Christians have been taken to heaven by Jesus. Those that are left behind will have to endure seven years of Tribulation.

The purpose behind the series is to encourage Christians to remain steadfast in their walk with the Lord, and to provide hope that their faithfulness will save them from the wrath to come. It should also spur Christians to witness, knowing that those who are lost will have to live through the greatest judgment of God the world has ever seen. If you know and understand what is coming, you certainly would not want your friends and loved ones to go through that terrible time that is certainly coming and worse yet, to be lost for eternity.

Many evangelical Christians today embrace the view held by theologians such as Tim LaHaye, that is that Christians will be spared the seven-year Tribulation period when Jesus returns “with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:16-17). However, close examination of the proof texts used to support this view are inconclusive to say the least, and require significant amounts of eisegesis to arrive at such a conclusion. In fact, even a good student of the Bible cannot derive such a conclusion without the “guidance” of an end-times prophecy “expert.” I am of the opinion that God’s Word was purposefully composed in the language of the common man, so that the common man could read it and understand it for himself (with the aid of the Holy Spirit) without the help of any expert. One of the fallacies of the Roman Catholic Church is that they have usurped the power of the Holy Spirit to interpret the Scriptures for the common man, and have given that authority to the clergy and specifically, to the Pope. This was one of the major travesties that gave rise to the Reformation. This is not to say that our evangelical scholars are attempting to do the same, but only to point out that the “mysteries” of the Bible are not so ambiguous that the common layman cannot understand them.

Having said that, the proof texts used to substantiate the Pre-tribulation Rapture are extremely vague when read within their context. Many of these verses were covered in Part 3 of this series, so I will not rehash them here. I would, however, like to draw attention to one of the strongest verses in support of the Pre-tribulation Rapture. In Revelation 3:10 Jesus is addressing the Philadelphian Church. This is the only church against which Jesus had nothing negative say, and because of her faithful and persevering character, Jesus gave the following promise: “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” The “hour of testing” is the seven-year Tribulation period which is detailed in chapters 5-19 in the book of Revelation. This church is the church that will be kept from the Tribulation. Now, was this literally the Philadelphian Church that existed at the time of John’s writing or was this symbolic of “church-age” to come? If we accept it as literal, then this promise has been fulfilled and does not apply to us; but if it is symbolically referring to a future church period, then it is plausible that the promise could apply to us, provided that our church holds up to the Philadelphian standard.

Clarence Larkin first attributed symbolism to the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2-3 and subsequent eschatology scholars have hitched a ride on his band wagon. Larkin proposed that the seven churches referred to “Seven Church Periods that would have to elapse before Christ could come back …”[2] The Philadelphian Church Period [3] precedes the final Laodicean Church Period [4] and supposedly “covers the time period between 1750 and 1900.”[5] However, Larkin points out “that the characteristics of all these Periods continue on in the Church down to the end.”[6] It has been over 100 years since Larkin’s Philadelphian Church Period ended and there has been no Rapture and no Tribulation. I do not say that by way of skepticism or cynicism, but I only point out the fact. In one respect, the Philadelphian promise has been fulfilled at least twice, firstly with the literal Philadelphian Church and secondly by the end of the Philadelphian Church Period. Both have been kept from “that hour of testing which is about to come upon the whole world.” But if one keeps in mind Larkin’s remarks that all of these church characteristics continue until the end, then certainly there are churches today, and Christians today, that conform to the standard of the Philadelphian Church, and it is those churches and those Christians that will escape the Tribulation.

Even so, I would be hard-pressed to lay the whole burden of proof on only one verse. That there will be a rapture – a catching away – of the church there is no question. [7] The Bible is clear in that regard, but as to the timing – whether it takes place before the Tribulation, in the midst of the Tribulation or at the end of the Tribulation just prior to Christ’s return – the matter is more nebulous. Hope placed on escape from “that hour of testing” is misplaced hope, but hope placed on God’s grace is never misplaced because He has promised His presence along the way. “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut 31:6) Jesus also promised, “I will not leave you as orphans;” (John 14:18).

The most applicable maxim in these times of uncertainty is “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” While there is nothing wrong with hoping to escape the Tribulation, it would be more prudent to prepare to endure the Tribulation. If the Lord wills that we pass through the time of Tribulation and we are prepared to do so, God will strengthen us to endure the hardships, and our eyes will see the manifestation of His power. On the other hand, if our hope has been placed in the hope of the Rapture and it does not come to pass, we may lose our faith, and all we will see is the misery.

The Day of the Lord is very near at hand, and we need to be ready. The godless government that God has placed to rule our nation is historic for more reasons than the fact that we have our first black President. The outcome of this administration’s policies will impact not only our nation, but the whole world. The economic interdependency of the nations, especially as they look to the US for leadership, is raising the storm clouds of a one world government which will give rise to the world leader that we know as the Antichrist. Therefore it behooves us to be alert and watchful to the events going on in our nation and the world. Paul exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:6: Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. There are many around us oblivious to the signs of the times and their only concern is for how this economic downturn affects them personally. Their focus on their immediate circumstances blinds them to the bigger picture. Others are almost giddy at the prospect of how “big brother” will meet all of their needs. We need not be blind or asleep, but be watchful and assess the situation with a sober mind under the control of the Holy Spirit. Paul goes on to say, “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation." (1 Thess 5:8) We are “of the day.” We are not in darkness. All of these things should be clear to us, but as we see these things clearly and soberly analyze the situation, we should fearlessly prepare for battle. Our armor is faith in God our Savior who will accompany us through the worst of trial and will fill us with His love for one another and for the dying lost. Our mind is kept sober and protected by the helmet that is the hope of our eternal salvation, not the hope of temporary relief from a world of trouble. Paul encourages us to “comfort each other and edify each another, just as you also are doing." ( 1 Thess 5:11) We need to encourage one another and build up one another. During the time of Tribulation, we will need to heavily depend on each other, so we may as well start practicing that now. Finally, Paul urges us to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”( 1 Thess 5:11) This will not be a time for wishy-washy Christians that vacillate between opinions. We need to know the Word and hold firm to its teachings. If we are not in the habit of personal Bible study and prayer, there is no better time to start than now. We will not be able to withstand the trials that are about to come if we confront them with our own opinions or the opinions of some religious “expert.” We need to know what God’s Word has to say for ourselves.

If Larkin and the many modern evangelicals that hold to a Pre-tribulation Rapture are correct and God spares us from the “hour of testing which is to come upon the whole world,” our preparation will not have been in vain. We can gladly receive our Lord’s commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord." (Matt 25:21, KJV). I hope that Larkin and the others are right, but I am preparing in case they are wrong.

Lead on, O King Eternal, we follow not with fears;
For gladness breaks like morning where’re Thy face appears;
Thy cross is lifted o’re us; we journey in its light:
The crown awaits the conquest; lead on O God of might.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quoted is from THE NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE UPDATE. (The Lockman Foundation, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995).
[2] Larkin, Clarence, The Book of Revelation, (Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, Philadelphia, 1919), p. 18.
[3] Revelation 3:7-13
[4] Revelation 3:14-22
[5] Larkin, p. 27
[6] Ibid.
[7] 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53; John 14: 3
[8] Shurtleff, Ernest W., “Lead On, O King Eternal,” The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, Convention Press, 1975), Hymn 420, third stanza.

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