Which "Audience" Will God "Keep From the Tribulation" (Rev 3:10)?
Most would prefer to avoid the Great Tribulation through a "pretrib rapture." In my experience, Revelation 3:10 is often used to prove this since it promises to keep "thee" from a global hour of testing for all on earth. But who is "thee"—all believers or someone else? The audience of any passage is what determines that. Ignoring the audience is a major source of false doctrine that deceives and even puts us in bondage. Learn how to pay attention to audience through several examples including the letter to the Church in Philadelphia of Revelation 3.
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People ask me all the time how to study the Bible. How does one go about making sense of it systematically? That's not an easy question to answer. The Bible is neither short nor simple and the meaning of its many verses are surrounded in much controversy. It is enough for most people to give up in frustration.
The only way I know to penetrate its mystique and controversy is the way I did it myself. I came to understand the Bible's mysteries which had puzzled me since I was a boy by reading everything I could get my hands on. In time, I found a few good solid answers. After much trial and error, common characteristics of good answers emerged. These characteristics pointed to certain keys of sound interpretation of the Bible. I have expressed a couple of these keys in my site's main article on understanding Revelation: the keys of literal interpretation and the prophetic “feasts of the LORD.”
Since writing that article, I have become more focused on another key. I had known about and followed it earlier, but lately I have come to see how more universal and helpful this key is for Christians and Bible students. If you want to keep out of bondage to false doctrine taught in many congregations and on the Internet, you need to become aware of and pay attention to this rule. It is the rule of paying taking care to understand the audience of a passage.
Pretribulation Rapture View of Revelation 3:10
What triggered my writing about this old key, finally, was this reader's question:
I would like your opinion on Revelation 3:10. I am sure you have had to respond to this many times as any pretribber would question. The Greek translation is to "keep OUT of the hour of trial" not keep through.
Revelation 3:10 is one of the main proof texts used to argue the "pretribulation rapture”, the only rapture position that most Christians have ever heard of. I have had the honor of having several people arrive on my site and write or call to ask me to tell them more about “this post-tribulation rapture” because it was new to them. I have seen how when they get exposed to the actual Biblical evidence for the real timing of the rapture, they often change their mind about the pretrib rapture.
But it does not end there. Leaving the pretrib rapture position means you have to reconsider the meaning of many verses previously understood as pretrib rapture proof-texts. Revelation 3:10 is one of the more popular ones because it states a pretty clear promise of escape from the Great Tribulation:
Revelation 3:10 (KJV) — Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
So, how does this Revelation 3:10 "prove" a pretribulation rapture? The assumption is made that this promise pertains to all believers. In other words, if anyone keeps Jesus' word, then he does not have to worry about anything in the Book of Revelation that follows because Revelation 3:10 says so!
This type of assumption on audience is, in my experience, the #1 cause behind erroneous doctrine among Bible believers. It is the mistake of overlooking the specific audience of a passage and transferring it to any believer who reads it in their Bible. People believe such interpretations easily because Christians easily imagine that most everything in the Bible applies to them directly. (Or at the very least, seeing the Old Testament as obsolete, everything in the New Testament applies to them.)
Examples of Ignoring Audience
It is easy to come up with several examples of false doctrines that come from breaking this rule. No doubt you have heard other believers state one or more of the following Bible teachings:
- Drinking Justification: “The Bible teaches in 1 Timothy 5:23 that we should drink wine because it is good or good for health, or at least good for digestion.” [1 Timothy 5:23 Don’t continue drinking only water, but use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.]
- Required Family Building: “The Bible teaches in Genesis 1:28 and 9:1 that Christians should get married and have children, preferably many.” [Genesis 1:28 (ESV) And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it... 9:1 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.]
- Required Tithing: “The Bible teaches in Malachi 3:10 that Christians should tithe 10% of their income to their local church or be cursed.” [Malachi 3:10 (ESV) Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.]
In all the above examples, the verses in question have been misused to justify or require some activity. And in each case, the teaching can be disproved by going back to who the original audience of the recorded message was and why it was said to them.
Let's look at each verse in context to find and restore the audience and with it the proper interpretation.
Drinking Justification – 1 Timothy 5:23You may know people who drink too much that use this verse to justify it. I will let the MacArthur New Testament Commentary explain how this verse is a very personal aside from Paul to Timothy in the midst of his more generally applicable teaching:
Verse 23 is a personal note, a parenthetical aside to Timothy in which Paul clarifies his exhortation to purity in verse 22. By calling for Timothy to remain pure, Paul was not advocating a rigid asceticism. He did not want Timothy to injure his health, and so encouraged him to no longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. Timothy had obviously committed himself to total abstinence from wine. He desired to be a model of spiritual virtue and never establish a pattern that could make someone assume a liberty that would destroy them (cf. Rom. 14:13-23; 1 Cor. 8:12-13). Paul instructed him not to let that commitment injure his health. Water in the ancient world was impure and the carrier of diseases such as dysentery. Paul's advice to use a little wine would help safeguard Timothy's health from the sickness-producing effects of polluted water. It was also in keeping with the medicinal use of wine in the ancient world. The Talmud, Hippocrates, Pliny, and Plutarch all spoke of the value of wine in countering stomach ailments caused by impure water (Gordon D. Fee, New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988], 135). By advocating the temporary, curative use of wine, Paul does not ask Timothy to alter his commitment to the highest standard of behavior for leaders (cf. Num. 6:1-4; Prov. 31:4).Audience: Timothy, with a stomach ailment
Required Family Building – Genesis 1:28; 9:1
Many fundamental and evangelic Christians look at the verses as a call to marry and have children. Orthodox Judaism have large families because of these verses as well. They consider them as the basis for one of “613 commandments” they find in the Torah. But who was the original audience? The family of Adam and Noah. Both families represented the only humans alive. If they did not multiply, the human race would have died out with them. That is why this command was given to each of them. Of course, it is not true with any of us that if we do not have children that the human race will end. Thus, there is no need for God to command us this.
There is another interesting detail about the command if you notice. All the people who heard this command were already married (Adam and Eve, Noah and “Mrs. Noah”, and Shem, Ham and Japheth and their respective wives)! In other words, they had everything in place to obey that command. Unlike them, the rest of us since the command was given start out single and need to find a partner before we can even attempt to comply.
For this reason, it would be unfeasible for God to even make a universal command about having children. Not every person is guaranteed to ever find a partner. Many can not and do not. Some people are sterile, asexual, a terror to live with, etc. It takes all kinds and God did not ever expect all the be married and have children, even if they become his servant. Therefore God cannot and did not make a blanket command for all to have children.
Audience: Adam and Eve; Noah and his sons, all married
Required Tithing – Malachi 3:10
Malachi 3:10 was address to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. Despite their recent punishment for disobedience, they had again become lax in doing what was right. They had neglected to tithe. The produce of their land both animals and crops had been withheld. The food storehouses of the temple where the tithes were to be collected were empty. It was in this scenario that Malachi addressed the Jewish audience to follow the tradition they had been given in the Torah of supporting the Temple (Lev 27:30-32).
They were the only peoples ever commanded to tithe who could also be accused of stealing from God if they did not (Mal 3:8-9). They were accountable to do what they were told or be considered thieves. God never commanded anyone else on this, including followers of Jesus. (If you want to study more about reading about tithing in the Bible according to its proper context and audience see The Tithing Dilemma.)
Therefore, when you know the audience of Malachi 3:10 (and other verses commanding tithing) you find that do not and cannot apply to anyone who reads a Bible.
Audience: post-exilic Jews in Jerusalem after 515 BCE (who already had been taught to tithe)
Why Audience Is So Often Missed
You might have noticed by now that figuring out the audience of a passage is not always obvious just by reading your Bible alone. It usually takes doing some homework. Research into the cultural and historical context of a passage using good commentaries will help. Once that is done the verse's meaning and purpose should fall into place. It becomes much harder after that to misunderstand or misuse the verse after that.
In other words, you could say that the reason people are able to so easily use verses of the Bible as proof texts for all kinds of false doctrines is because of simple ignorance. Out of their grammatical, historical and cultural context, the verses look like they can mean just about anything. Some people are happy to find verses that seem to agree with their position, like the aforementioned heavy drinkers using 1 Timothy, and are not going to be motivated to dig deeper and possibly find an unwelcome truth. But for those who are truth seekers, with proper research the verses become much more clear, understandable and specific.
Getting back to who it is promised to be kept from the Great Tribulation, let us now look at the context and audience of Revelation 3:10.
“Pretrib Rapture” - Revelation 3:10
Revelation 3:10 is part of the Letter to the Church of Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13). Philadelphia is one of seven churches addressed with its own letter in Revelation 2 & 3. The complete list of the seven churches includes Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The Book of Revelation itself is addressed to these same seven churches (Rev 1:4). The churches were all on an old Roman Empire mail circuit that progressed in the order listed through western Turkey.
Obviously this clear and specific literal audience leaves no room to apply Revelation 3:10 to anyone else.
Audience: The Church of Philadelphia
Seven Prophetic Churches or Church Eras
However, the fact that these letters appear in a prophetic book suggests the possibility that the letters have a dual purpose. They could apply to both the seven literal churches of that day and to future churches that would share similar characteristics.
One theory is that instead of seven future churches, the seven churches represent seven successive “church eras” that would exist between Christ's First and Second Comings and come in the same order listed. These church eras would have different centers due to the changes over time in where the Gospel (and Bible) is flourishing.
This makes a lot of sense when you consider a few points from the seven letters:
- The first era, Ephesus, mentions apostles, specifically those who call themselves such but are not. No other church letter mentions them. The apostles, of course, died out soon after the First Century.
- The last era, Laodicea, best describes the modern Christian religion centered in America (and other Western Nations). We have the richest standard of living and, just as this did to King Solomon, a distracted and backslidden spirituality. The cares of life have corrupted this generation and it is in need of the better works, better teaching and more sacrifice.
- The sixth era, Philadelphia, gives the perfect description of the Great Tribulation in “the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Rev 3:10). It promises Philadelphia will be kept from it. This is fitting since the sixth era must end and give way to the seventh and last era, the only one to witness the Great Tribulation and return of Christ. If the seven churches represent only the literal First Century churches in Asia, then is it not true that all of them were kept from it since all these churches are gone now? Why only promise it to the sixth era?
If there are seven church eras, then it is very fitting that the one church era promised that it would be kept from the Great Tribulation is the sixth, or second to last one. The rest of the Bible is plain about the rapture happening after the Great Tribulation or Antichrist rules (Mt 24:29-31; 2The 2:1, 3). In light of this, the only people that could be promised that they would not see the Great Tribulation would be of a church era that ends before the era of the Great Tribulation comes. If there were a pretrib rapture, then it would make more sense for the promise of keeping the church from the Great Tribulation to be given to the last or Laodicean era, the one during which it comes.
The One Way To Stay Out of The Great Tribulation
Whichever way you want to interpret Revelation 3:10, it is tenuous to change its audience to all believers and therefore support a pretrib rapture escape from the Great Tribulation. You could try to say that it represents a group of true-blue faithful “Philadelphia” believers concurrent with six other kinds of believers in the end times. But the other letters have pretty positive things to say about their churches, too. It's hard to imagine God not letting some of the other “classes of end time believers” escape the Great Tribulation, too.
This leaves us with the conclusion that the only way the promise to keep Philadelphians from the Great Tribulation is fulfilled is through the passing of that era. In other words, the way they escape the Great Tribulation is through dying out before it comes. Quite bluntly, I have to say that the same applies to all of us. The only way you and I will be kept from going through the time of trial coming over the face of the earth is through our life ending first.
This concept of being saved from trouble through death sounds strange at first—until you see that it is a recurring theme in the Bible. First and Second Kings, among my favorite books of the Bible, have a few examples of it. An otherwise or previously wicked king is sometimes granted a reprieve from disaster. The judgment is simply held off until he dies and his son takes over. For example, this happened with Solomon due to his backsliding with his pagan wives and their pagan gods. Nothing happened in his lifetime for the sake of his righteous father David. Instead, his son Rehoboam suffered the loss of the northern tribes who seceded from Judah (leaving the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel, or the so-called Two Houses).
Isaiah also expresses a similar principle about God letting the people pass to save them from evil times:
Isaiah 57:1 (HCSB) — The righteous one perishes, and no one takes it to heart; faithful men are swept away, with no one realizing that the righteous one is swept away from the presence of evil.
As you can see, this is a common strategy God uses to deliver on his promise to keep people from an distasteful time.
Revelation 3:10 is often quoted to support the pretrib rapture doctrine or an escape from the Great Tribulation for all believers. However like all other verses, it has a specific audience and making the verse a proof text for the rapture ignores this audience. Ignoring the audience of any verse is a very common way to reach wrong conclusions and produce erroneous doctrines. In fact, it leads to some of the most damaging doctrines in Christianity that have believers in bondage. Learning how to recognize audience and other aspects of the context of a passage will help you avoid being deceived by misuse of the Bible.
The audience in this case is the Philadelphia church of the First Century or the prophetic church era that already ended before our current Laodicean era began. Our backslidden church era is the one awaiting the Great Tribulation who must go through it. In other words, the Bible teaches that the only way to to be kept from the time of trouble coming over the face of the earth is to reach the end of your time before the end times.
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