The Dangerous Presumption of ‘Exemption from Tribulation’

On Thu, Oct 9, 2008 at 9:36 AM, Bill Nordstrom wrote:
Reggie,
Perhaps you remember that I pray regularly with an Assembly of God pastor regarding his church and ministry in our city. This is the same pastor who brought a halt to plans for me to teach on the end times after objections to my post trib approach to eschatology. I have given him the little book, ‘Rapture… sure but when,’ and recently asked if he has had a chance to give it a read. I believe his response is typical of so many entrenched in pre trib doctrine…… Any insight?

[I have had a struggle getting into the book but I will. What confuses me is how I feel so outside the anointing and the heart of God when I start considering doctrines that are contrary to what I have known all my life. I can tell you, my “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13) is not to spend up to 7 years in incredible suffering and danger. I am purposed to find out what the Holy Spirit reveals to me about this end time. I know you have said you have already had such a revelation, but I must have it for myself. I cannot take an other’s revelations or opinion as my own unless I have a confirmation by the Holy Spirit about it So far I do not have such a revelation and without that I can not walk in assurance. I will seek to know truth…]


B

First, the “blessed hope” has been sadly misinterpreted and misappropriated if it is understood only to mean exemption from the church’s common experience of tribulation (see Acts 14:22; 1Thes 3:4). The blessed hope is not exemption from tribulation, but perfected union with Jesus.

The great tribulation is not called ‘unequaled’ simply because of some unprecedented degree of human suffering. Though the ‘scale’ of human suffering will indeed be without precedent during the last tribulation, what individuals might face personally cannot be worse than what others of our brethren have faced throughout history without a rapture. The the final tribulation is said to be without equal because it extends to all the natural order. So, of course, human suffering will be co-extensive with the upheaval of a creation that has come to its greatest time of travail.

Therefore, it is not the ‘degree’ of personal suffering that makes this tribulation exceptional from all others, but its ‘scale’ of impact on the world of nature. So I ask: Do we detect a certain selfishness, or subtle presumption of moral superiority in the modern church’s expectation of exemption from a last repeat of the same kind of persecution that their ‘fellow servants and their brethren’ have faced in every age (see Rev 6:11)? I must say that such a doctrine sounds suspiciously accommodating of a soft and untested church that has embraced the cross only in theory as a historical fact in Jesus’ experience, and not as the invariable pattern of the very ‘way’ of God in the experience of every believer before and after Christ (but see Act 14:22).

The same is true of Jewish suffering. Except for its unprecedented global scale, the personal suffering of individual Jews throughout the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble’ (Jer 30:7) will not necessarily exceed what their forebears have endured in past calamities. I believe that the reason this time will have such a different end from those earlier tribulations is precisely because of the presence of a martyr witness church. The church will use the prophetic key of interpretation (Dan 11:33; Mt 24:14) to explain these events in the light of God’s age old covenant contention with Israel. It is something the church should be doing now.

Through God’s use of the church’s witness, an unprecedented entire third of the nation will be born in one day by the transforming revelation of Christ (Isa 66:8; Ezek 39:22-29; Zech 3:9; 13:8-9). This happens as the saved remnant will say with one voice, “blessed is He that cometh …” (Mt 23:39; Zech 12:10 with Acts 3:21; Ro 11:25-26; Rev 1:7). However, this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the result of God’s gracious use of a preceding travail and witness of the church! I see this transforming revelation in analogy with the delayed impact that Stephan’s martyr witness had on Saul, the persecutor.

Of course, pre-tribulationists assign this task of final witness to Israel and the nations to the 144,000, whom they assume to be Jewish evangelists that have come to salvation sometime after the rapture. But here is a great curiosity: Pre-tribulationists acknowledge the presence in the tribulation of a witnessing people called ‘the elect and the saints’. However, they deny to them the name ‘church’. This brings the great question as to how we define the church, which is the real heart of the debate. In any case, it is evident that the saints of the tribulation are both ‘sealed’ and ‘fed’ (Rev 7:3; 12:6), and this does not require a rapture. How then, I ask, is the ‘blessed hope’ of Christ’s glorious appearing any the less ‘blessed’ for these tribulation servants of God? One does not require removal from tribulation, or the common experience of persecution in order to be assured exemption from the wrath of God. It is a mistake to confuse tribulation with divine wrath. In fact, the judgments of the bowels of wrath are not directed on Israel or the saints, but upon the wicked that have followed the Beast.

We must not confuse the blessed hope, which is the common inheritance of every believer with some special privilege of exemption from tribulation. It is an error to suppose that our present standing in Christ owes to some moral advantage over those that are not called of God until after the tribulation has begun. The church as I understand the meaning of that term necessarily includes the saints of the tribulation and all those that God has called and will call henceforth. The saints of the present time are not entitled to a special exemption from tribulation only because their salvation has taken place on the ‘happier side’ of an expected pre-tribulational rapture. Many have represented the tribulation as a punishment for those that have neglected to avail themselves of salvation on this side of the rapture. There is a subtle humanism in this presumption that reveals an erroneous, and I think prideful view, of the very nature of divine calling, but that is another discussion.

Rather, through the refinement that comes to the church through these events (see Dan 11:35 w/ 12:7), the church will attain to its promised fullness of stature (Ro 11:25; Eph 4:13), as it gives its final witness by an obedience unto death (Rev 12:10), which results in the salvation of a number too great to number [Note: This is evident since the ‘tribulation’ mentioned in Rev 7:14 carries the double article in Greek which is literally translated “the tribulation, the great one,” showing that this vast multitude of the saved has specific reference to the future and final tribulation; see also Dan 11:33 with 12:3]. It will be the church’s ‘finest hour’.

Finally, I believe the brother’s natural aversion to consider something “contrary to what he has known all his life” is not because this necessarily moves him “outside the anointing and the heart of God,” but because it is inherently ‘up-ending’ of ‘safe’ and trusted categories, and this implies a suffering in its own right. It is nothing less than a holy resignation to follow the Lamb wheresoever He may lead (invariably to a death of one form or another) that can free us from the security (and sometimes presumption) of the ‘safe’ and the familiar. We tend to shrink from suffering, but that is the test of our profession. Why don’t we consider that the church that is so manifestly ‘sub-apostolic’ is in this condition for a reason? We need to identify the reasons.

Through the humility that comes from the blessed experience of being completely wrong, the church will be truer priest that can more fully identify with the ‘ignorant, the blind, and the out of the way’. Nothing less than a church that has passed through the searching judgment that must begin at the house of God could ever be entrusted with bearing final witness to Israel. In her final flight from Antichrist persecution, Israel will meet a humbled church that has been raised out of its own profound self-judgment. It is only a church that has known the real meaning of ‘mercy’ that can bring an effective witness to Israel (Ro 11:31).

I would urge this pastor to be ruthlessly exegetical, and follow the evidence wheresoever it may lead, even to the death of some familiar categories and modes of thinking. The evidence will show that there is no trace that the early church knew anything of such a doctrine, as even the more academically informed pre-tribulationists will admit. The time is short; the stakes are high.

Yours in the Beloved, Reggie

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