Therefore keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt. 25:13)
Those who shy away from the study of prophecy are fond of quoting this verse as their reason for it. But earlier in the same passage, the Lord had admonished all who read His words of prophecy to understand them. (Matt 24:15) In addition the Apostle Paul wrote that the events leading up to the end of the age should not take believers by surprise (1 Thes. 5:4) implying that we should be familiar with them.
Since the Bible cannot contradict itself, these passages must have been aimed at different audiences. And sure enough, a closer look reveals that both the implied timing and the intended audience of the two Matthew passages are different. In Matt 25:13 the Lord is only speaking to people remaining on Earth at His Second Coming, while in Matt. 24:15 he included everyone who would ever read the passage. Of course in 1 Thes 5:4 Paul is addressing the church.
What both the Lord (Matt.24:15) and Paul (1 Thes. 5:4) are saying is that while we won’t know the exact timing of things, we should understand the sequence of events leading up to the Day of the Lord. And perhaps no event in the sequence is more controversial than the Rapture of the Church, especially as it relates to the Great Tribulation.
It seems to me that the first thing we should do in trying to obey the Lord’s commandment to understand all this is to clarify two things:
One, the purpose of the Great Tribulation, and
Two, the nature of the Church
The Purpose of the Great Tribulation
The phrase Great Tribulation makes reference to a specific event, not a general condition. While the Lord warned the disciples that they and we would experience tribulation as a general condition in this world (John 16:33), He clearly identified the Great Tribulation as having a specific beginning and ending. It will begin when the abomination that causes desolation predicted by Daniel is erected in the Temple (in the middle of the last 7 years of history) and will end just prior to the Lord’s return, three and one half years later. (Daniel 9:24-27 & Matt. 24:29-30)
Daniel’s prophecy is pointedly Jewish in perspective and so is the Great Tribulation. It was referred to as the Time of Jacob’s Trouble in the Old Testament, until the Lord coined its new name in Matt 24:21, and the Old Testament is where its purpose is explained.
Let’s ask Jeremiah
Specifically, the explanation is found in Jeremiah 30:1-11. Let’s read it.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess,’ says the LORD.”
These are the words the LORD spoke concerning Israel and Judah: “This is what the LORD says: ” ‘Cries of fear are heard—terror, not peace. Ask and see: Can a man bear children? Then why do I see every strong man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor, every face turned deathly pale?
How awful that day will be! None will be like it. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he will be saved out of it.
” ‘In that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them. Instead, they will serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.
” ‘So do not fear, O Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, O Israel,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will surely save you out of a distant place, your descendants from the land of their exile. Jacob will again have peace and security, and no one will make him afraid.
I am with you and will save you,’declares the LORD. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.’
In this passage the event is foretold, its purpose explained, and the timing is made clear. Let’s take the timing first. According to verse 3 it will take place after Israel is re-gathered in the land, and verse 9 says it will result in David becoming their King again, a Messianic reference.
There have been two re-gatherings since the passage was written, but the first, beginning in 535 BC, didn’t result in David becoming their King. In fact, to this day they have had no legitimate king at all since about 600 BC. Neither were all the nations completely destroyed then.
The second re-gathering began in 1948 AD and continues to this day. Though the population of Israel keeps growing, so do the Jewish populations of all the nations to which the Jews have been scattered, and there are still more Jews outside Israel than there are in the land. All that will soon change as the Lord calls all His people to return to their Promised Land following His victory in the Battle foretold by Ezekiel. (Ezek.39:28)
Now for its purpose. “Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.” (Jere. 30:11) The idea is that Israel has to be purified to receive their coming King, and the nations who rejected the King and persecuted His people must be destroyed.
So the purpose of the Great Tribulation is twofold; discipline (purify) the people of Israel so they’ll be prepared for the coming Messiah, and completely destroy the nations to which they had been scattered and who have rejected Him.
The Nature of the Church
According to Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the church is nothing less than a new race of mankind, coming from among both Jew and Gentile but sharing a destiny with neither. (Ephe. 2:15-16)
The problem had always been that God never could dwell in the midst of His creation. Our sins always eventually drove Him away. At the cross, He reconciled all things to himself, things in heaven and on earth (Col 1:19-20). This meant that He was now at peace with His creation for the first time since the Fall of Man. He accomplished this by paying the price for all the sin of mankind. Now, for anyone who would accept it, a full pardon for behavior past, present and future was available, free for the asking.
You’re a Perfect Example of What I’m Talking About
Accepting this pardon qualifies any person, young or old, Jew or Gentile, good or bad, to become a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). When we do it permits God to look upon us as if we are without sin altogether; and in fact as if we had never sinned to begin with. It also requires the division of mankind into three groups: Jew, Gentile and Church. (1 Cor. 10:32)
It’s critical that we understand God’s perspective in this because it’s way different from ours. To Him, the church is without sin, holy and blameless, and has been since the cross. Whatever sins we as individuals have committed (or will commit) have been forgiven and forgotten. It’s as if they never happened (Ephe 1:4-8). At the cross, the church became as pure and holy as God Himself (2 Cor 5:21), having been made perfect forever. (Hebr. 10:14) Finally God has a people with whom He can live in peace. Because the Man from heaven agreed to become outfitted for earth, men from earth can now be outfitted for heaven.
The nature of the Church is to be as though sinless. As Paul said we’re like a chaste virgin (2 Cor. 11:2), without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, holy and blameless. (Ephes. 5:27) We’ve been washed from our sins in the Lord’s own blood (Rev. 1:5).
(I have recently noticed a resurgence of the view that not all Christians will inherit eternal life with the Lord, but only those judged worthy by their works. This view holds that while saved, some born again believers will actually share the destiny of unbelievers, being cast into the outer darkness and away from the presence of God forever. Proponents of this view demonstrate a remarkable ignorance of New Testament Theology as summarized in the verses I’ve cited here.)
What’s the Point?
First, not needing purification, no purpose is fulfilled by having the Church endure the Great Tribulation. And even if purification was needed, how could the suffering of one generation of believers serve to purify all the generations of believers who have preceded us?
In Israel’s case the generations since the cross are lost, having rejected their Messiah. The last generation’s discipline is intended to finally bring them to that realization and to open their eyes and hearts to Jesus so that a remnant of God’s people can be preserved. (Zech. 12:10-13)
But all the generations of the Church have died in hope of spending eternity with the Lord as the Bible promised them. Is it only ours who will receive this promise and then only after sharing in Israel’s purification? Of course not.
Second, the focus of the Great Tribulation is Jewish and God’s focus seems to be either Israel or the church, never both. (This was explained by James in Acts 15:12-18 and by Paul in Romans 11:25-27.) If you take the view, as I do, that the Battle of Ezekiel 38 occurs before the Great Tribulation, and realize that one outcome of that battle is to turn Israel back to God, (Eze 39:28-29) then you know the church’s days on Earth have to end at the same time. This is what makes the fact that Israel exists again an important sign that the end is near.
Of course the Scriptures promise that the church won’t be present on Earth for the Great Tribulation and we’ve covered them in detail in other studies on the Rapture.
My intent in this study is not to review them but rather to achieve the following:
1. to demonstrate that the purpose of the Great Tribulation is to discipline Israel and completely destroy the Nations, and
2. to show that the Church has no need for purification or discipline, and therefore our presence here during that period would be in direct opposition to our nature as viewed by God.
Because of this God has promised to remove the Church well before the Great Tribulation begins. In 1 Thes 1:10 and 5:9 Paul said first that the Church will be rescued from God’s wrath and then that the church was not appointed to suffer wrath. By Rev 6 His wrath will have arrived. The Greek preposition translated from in 1 Thes 1:10, means from the time, place or any relation to the event. The Church will be rescued from the time, place, or any relation to God’s wrath. This promise had first been made over 750 years earlier in Isaiah 26:20 and it’s still good today.