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 the above verse as their justification. 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, Matt. 24:15 must have been aimed at a different audience than Matt. 25:13. And sure enough, a closer look reveals that both the implied timing and the intended audience of the two Matthew passages are different. Matt. 24:15 was intended for everyone who would ever read the passage, but in Matt 25:13 the Lord was only speaking to people remaining on Earth at His Second Coming. We know this because it follows Matt. 24:30 which describes the 2nd Coming. Matt. 24:36-37 confirms the context to be the 2nd Coming, as does Matt. 25:1. Of course in 1 Thes 5:4 Paul was addressing the church, who will not be on Earth at the 2nd Coming, but in the presence of the Father (1 Thes. 3:13).
What both the Lord (Matt.24:15) and Paul (1 Thes. 5:4) were 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, 1) the purpose of the Great Tribulation, 2) 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 prophesied 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).
The Great Tribulation is primarily Jewish in its focus. In fact, it was referred to as the Time of Jacob’s Trouble until the Lord coined the phrase Great Tribulation in Matt 24:21. In doing so , He said it would be a time of unparalleled distress, unique in the history of the world.
Jeremiah 30:3-11 gives us the clearest definition of it’s overall purpose. Let’s read it.
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 and Judah are re-gathered in the land as one nation, and verse 9 says it will result in David becoming their King again.
There have been two re-gatherings since the passage was written, but the first, beginning in 535 BC, didn’t result in David becoming Israel’s King. (In fact, from about 600 BC to this day they have had no legitimate king at all.)
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 about as many 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 of Ezekiel 38-39. The second re-gathering is the one that will lead to the fulfillment ofJeremiah 30:3-11. Isaiah foretold that the second re-gathering would put an end to the contention between Israel and Judah (Isaiah 11:11-13), and Ezekiel 37:15-25 confirms that sometime after this reunion David will be their King.
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 in preparation for the Kingdom Age God promised them, and the nations who rejected the Messiah and persecuted His people must be destroyed.
So the purpose of the Great Tribulation is twofold; discipline (purify) the people of Israel, and completely destroy the nations to which they had been scattered.
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 Jews and Gentiles but sharing a destiny with neither. (Ephe. 2:15-16)
The problem had always been that God could never dwell for long 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 sins of mankind. Now, for anyone who would accept it, a full pardon for behavior past, present and future was available, free for the asking.
Accepting this pardon qualifies any person, young or old, Jew or Gentile, good or bad, to become a new creation. 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). No longer being either Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:26-28) means God’s purpose is not served by having us present in the Great Tribulation.
It’s critical that we understand God’s perspective in this because it’s substantially different from ours. To Him, the church is without sin, holy and blameless, and has been since the cross (Ephes. 5:25-27). Whatever sins we as individuals have committed (or will commit) have been forgiven (Colossians 2:13-14) and it’s as if they never happened (2 Cor 5:17). At the cross, the church became as righteous as God Himself (2 Cor 5:21), having been made perfect forever (Hebr. 10:12-14). Because of the cross God has a people with whom He can live in peace. No further purification is necessary.
What’s The Point?
Therefore, no purpose is served by having the Church endure the Great Tribulation. Remember, the Church is a body spanning 40 generations of human life. If we were not all made perfect at the cross, how could the suffering of the final generation of believers serve to purify all those who have preceded us? All the generations of the Church have died in hope of spending eternity with the Lord as the Bible promises us. Is it only ours who will receive this promise and then only after sharing in Israel’s purification? Of course not.
In Israel’s case it’s a different matter. The past generations who rejected their Messiah are lost. The last generation’s purification through the Great Tribulation won’t save those who have gone before. It’s intended to finally open their eyes and hearts to Jesus so that a remnant of God’s chosen people can be preserved. (Zech. 12:10-13)
And as we’ve seen, during the Great Tribulation God’s focus will be on Israel and His focus is always either Israel or the Church, never both at once. (This was explained by James inActs 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, (Ezek. 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 these promises in detail in other studies on the Rapture. My intent in this study is not to review them but rather to demonstrate that 1) the purpose of the Great Tribulation is to discipline Israel and completely destroy the unbelieving nations, and 2) to show that the Church has no need for purification or discipline. Therefore our presence on Earth during that period would serve no purpose and in fact would be in direct opposition to our nature as God sees us.
It’s also in direct opposition to His nature as revealed in the Bible. The basis of Abraham’s negotiation with God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was that God could not destroy the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:23-25). And Peter revealed how history teaches us that God knows how to rescue godly men from trial while holding the unrighteous for the day of judgment (1 Peter 2:4-9). As John did in Rev. 3:10, Peter used the Greek preposition “ek” in the phrase translated from (out of) trial. It means to keep something out of the time, place, or cause of an event. By using that preposition Peter and John were confirming that God knows how to remove us from the time, place, and cause of the coming judgment before unleashing it upon the world. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes. 5:9).