by Wendy Wippel
The most divisive argument, arguably, among evangelical Christians today is the ongoing debate about when Jesus will return for His bride: before, during, or after the tribulation. Proponents of each theory have lists of supporting verses, many from the Old Testament. But actually, you can settle the argument with just the first chapter of Revelation.
The key is (shocker) to really read what it says, and we’ll take it slow: Verse 1:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John.” (Revelation 1:1 NKJV)
We get two things out of that verse. First, it tells us that the purpose of the Book of Revelation is to let us know what is going to happen from the time that John received the revelation until the end of time.
Secondly, it tells us that God is going to convey that information in a not-so-straightforward way. God is going to “signify” it. The meaning of that, however, is unfortunately not necessarily clear to a modern reader. What it means is that God “sign-ified” it. He put it into signs, meaning symbols. Hosea (whose whole book was a giant metaphor of what was to come) tells us that as well:
“I have given symbols through the witness of the prophets.” (Hosea 12:10)
God, through John, begins at the time that John is living on Patmos and relays what will happen for the whole rest of human history, in metaphor.
God starts His narrative like this:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,”
“What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
These were real churches, mostly now excavated. But remember God “sign-ified” what was to come, so they are also metaphors. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
John visions begin with the current conditions, the starting point for “what is to come”.
“I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man…He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death. Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches. (Revelation 1: 12-20)
The man that John saw, obviously, was Jesus, who asks John to record for future generations of believers what he is shown (again, defined as a record of “what is to come”).
Then Jesus defines a couple of the symbols for us. The seven stars that Jesus holds are the angels of the churches, and the seven golden lampstands are the seven churches that Jesus is about to address letters to.
Then come the letters, again, a record of “what is to come”. Letters addressed, specifically, to (in order) Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatyra, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. And as it turns out, the descriptions and names of the churches make it pretty clear how they represent “what is to come”. Because, in the order presented, the descriptions of the successive churches are a spot-on narrative of church history.
The church began at Pentecost (about 33 AD), and the description of that church in Acts is of fervent faith and faithful love among the brethren. The increasing numbers of completed Jews within the synagogues however, bred tension, as some “saved” Jews demanded that others still keep the Law. The tension eventually led to the council at Jerusalem about 50AD, at which (after Peter’s dream) it was ruled that the law did not need to be kept. Ephesus means “desired”, God praised their perseverance and love, and His only admonition was to not lose their first love.
By about 45 AD, however, the growing church was also on the radar of the Roman rulers, and the emperors themselves began persecution of the monotheistic Christians who refused to worship those who ruled them. Nearly all of the apostles were executed by Roman rulers, and many thousands of their brethren. “Smyrna” is related to the word myrrh, an embalming fluid. Jesus’ message to that church is to be faithful until death, and they will never die again.
Next in line is Pergamum. Pergamum means “mixed marriage”, and in 315 persecution stopped because Constantine, the current emperor, made Christianity an acceptable state religion. That was the good news. The bad news is that his decision really honked off the existing system of pagan priests, so Constantine then merged the pagan church with the Christians, producing one mongrel religious system riddled with pockets of heresy. God’s message to the church at Pergamum is that they now dwell where Satan’s throne is, and that have to show the heresy creeping in no tolerance.
It got worse. The next church, Thyatira, is told that, though there works are admirable, they have let heresy take over, and:
“Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come. (Revelation 2:24-25)
Thyatira means perpetual sacrifice, which should give you a clue where we are in church history. The Roman Empire had collapsed by about 476 AD, but the church by then had spread throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman church, which had completely internalized many of the pagan practices introduced by the pagan Roman priests (transubstantiation, for example) rule the thrones of most Roman nations throughout the Middle Ages.
The next church, Sardis, which means “those who escape”, had a fairly definite starting point: October 31, 1517. Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany, contending that salvation is attained not through works, but through faith alone, which marked the beginning of the reformation and the founding of the protestant movement. New believers spread across Europe, and then across the world. But not all is well. God tells Sardis that He has,
“not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent.”
Their works weren’t complete. What does that mean? If you’ve ever read anything besides Luther’s 95 theses, you probably suspect Luther was one of the most viciously anti-Semitic clerics that ever lived. So the church still needed to realize that God’s plans for rest of world history would center not on the church, but on Israel. (which makes it interesting that in Verse 3 God told them to “remember how you have received and heard” And that the Bible wasn’t actually, all about personal perfection.,. So His message to Sardis was,
“Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain that are ready to die”.
The sixth church is the church in Philadelphia, which most of us know means “City of Brotherly Love. Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517; by about 1570, Bibles were being printed in English. With Bibles in their own language in their own hands, new believers rapidly realized that the Bible had lots more in it than rules. They rediscovered prophecy (part of the reason you tend here that the rapture was invented about this time) and the importance of Israel in God’s world plan. The Philadelphia church is commended for their works, including suffering under persecution and preserving the Word. They had a fire to see the whole world hear the wonderful truths they had discovered in their Bibles, and they went all over the world (including the Pilgrims, to the United States, to share God’s love). They are also told that God loves them, and because they have kept His commands to persevere, He will keep them from the hour of trial that is coming upon the whole world.
Finally, Laodicea. We all know that God had nothing but condemnation for this church, even saying that they Laodicea made Him want to vomit. But the real depth of their heresy often escapes us: Jesus tells this church,
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
Jesus is outside of this church. Completely. And that tells us something too.
But we’ll get back to that in just a minute. First, let’s make sure we are on the same page.
Revelation 1 first tells us that it is a record of what’s to come, in metaphors. Then it sets the scene at the starting point. (Chapter 1) Then the letters to the seven churches (as metaphors), lay down all of world history, through the lens of the church, from the Roman Empire until the founding of the United States (Philadelphia) and beyond, with the rise of apostasy within the church, which we see accelerating in our own day. (Chapters 2 and 3)
So were are ready for chapter 4:
“After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne.”
John watches events on Earth until at least our time, then a door opens in heaven, then he hears a voice saying, “come up here”. Then he’s in heaven, and he watches the last seven years from there.
This should be starting to seem familiar.
If you missed it, God makes sure we don’t:
“And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”
Do you remember what the lampstands were in Chapter 1? The churches. Why would this verse say lamps instead of lampstands?
You are the light of the world. Lamps are not put under a basket, but on a stand, “and it gives light to all who are in the house”. (Matthew 5:15)
The lamps needed stands on earth, to be a light to the world. After the churches “come up here” and are in heaven, they do not. They are the seven spirits of God.
And why are all seven of the churches there? I Thessalonians 4: 16: ‘the dead in Christ will rise first”. All the past church saints precede us. We will all go together when we go.
Bottom line? God snatches us out “after these things” – the seven church ages—and before the Tribulation. If not, since the rest of Revelation 1 describes events is strict chronological sequence, surely John would have watched tribulation events described in Revelation from Earth as well.
Furthermore, since God is completely outside of the church at Laodicea, that has to mean that, the Philadelphia church is gone. That they have been airlifted ahead of Tribulation (as promised in Revelation 3:10) in the Rapture.
That’s only one of many, many passages that make pre-trib rapture a certainty, but I’m sure that some of my readers will still have their list of post-trib rapture proof texts to show me. To them, I’ll just borrow a line from a good friend of mine.
We’ll explain it on the way up.