By Harry Ironside
WHICH SAINTS WILL BE IN THE GREAT TRIBULATION?
It is evident from the word of God that certain saints will be found on earth in the days of the great tribulation. Many of these will be called on to suffer martyrdom while others will be preserved through this entire period and will enter into the kingdom to be set up on earth. Because of this, it has naturally been concluded that these are necessarily members of the church, the body of Christ.
Many think of the church as a surname by which the entire family of faith from Adam to the end of the millennium is designated. If one thinks of the church in this manner there can be only one answer to the question. "Will the church or any part of it go through the great tribulation?" Certainly many members of the household of faith will have to endure great suffering during that time of trouble. But if one has learned to distinguish clearly from scripture between new birth, common to all children of God in every dispensation, and membership in the body of Christ, which belongs alone to the saints of this present age from Pentecost to the rapture. It should not be difficult to distinguish the saints who will have part in the tribulation from those who will be caught up before it begins. But because many believers are not clear as to this distinction, the point deserves further consideration.
First let it be noted that Old Testament prophecy never refers to this dispensation in which we live (extending from Pentecost to the Lord's coming for His own), save in a most indefinite way (as, for instance, in Daniel 9:26). From Moses to Malachi, scripture is mainly occupied with one nation, Israel (Amos 3:2; Deuteronomy 7:6; Psalm 147:19-20), and the hope of that nation, namely, the raising up of a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), priest (Psalm 110:4; Zechariah 6:13), and king (Isaiah 32; Psalm 2:6). This hope will bring them into everlasting blessing as people (Psalm 132:11-18; Isaiah 35:10; 51:11; 61:7), though not until they have been born again (Ezekiel 36:24-30). The gentiles will share in that blessing (Isaiah 56:6; 65:1), not on the same footing with Israel, but rather in subjection to them (Isaiah 14:1-3; 60:3-5; 62:2-3).
Before the ushering in of that day of Jehovah's power and Messiah's glory the prophets predicted the rejection of the looked-for Redeemer by Israel to whom He came (Isaiah 53). In consequence Israel is set aside by God (Zechariah 7:13-14), while the rejected Messiah takes His place in the heavens on Jehovah's throne (Psalm 110:1), which He will occupy until the future repentance of the people (Hosea 5:15). This setting aside of Israel is not final, as Jeremiah 30-31 declare. But before their restoration to divine favor and the land of Palestine, the Israelites must pass through a short period of unequalled persecution and chastisement, called "the time of Jacob's trouble" (Jeremiah 30:7). At the close of this time they will be ready to acknowledge the crucified one as their Lord, and will "mourn for Him as one mourning for his only son" (Zechariah 12:10-14: 13:6- 7). In the darkest hour of their sorrow, when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies and they are in dire distress, He will appear as their Deliverer and the destroyer of their enemies, after which the tabernacle of David will be raised up and the reign of righteousness ushered in (Zechariah 14: Amos 9:8-15).
In the New Testament we find much new information introduced, without which the present working of the Spirit of God in the world would be inexplicable. In Romans 11 we are told that upon the breaking off of the natural branches (Israel) from the tree of promise, wild branches (gentiles)are put in their place. In other words, Israel's rejection has made way for unforetold grace to be shown to the nations, though Old Testament prophecy of blessing to the heathen can be quoted as proof that such grace is not in opposition to their final blessing. However, this special work among the gentiles is not to go on forever, for if these do not continue in divine goodness, they too shall be cut off and the natural branches grafted in again.
God is doing a work now that is not mentioned in the Jewish oracles, during the time that His earthly people are lo-ammi ("not my people," Hosea 1:9), or unacknowledged by Him, "Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (Romans 11:25). This is one of the "mysteries", one of the secret things (Deuteronomy 29:29) that has until now been unrevealed. The Lord Jesus confirms this (from the political side) in his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, the long period of desolation and gentile supremacy following it, and the end that occurs with his personal appearing. Luke 21:24 records: "Jerusalem shall be trodden of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled."
This passage is related to Daniel 9, where we see the prophecy of the seventy weeks. Let us briefly consider the main points. From the course of time, seventy weeks of years, or 490 years, are "determined," or "cut off," and given to Daniel's people, or the Jewish nation. Before this period of time expires six important events will have taken place:
1. Transgression will be finished;
2. An end will be made of sins;
3. Atonement (rather than reconciliation) will be made for iniquity;
4. Everlasting righteousness will be brought in;
5. Vision and prophecy will be sealed up, or fulfilled;
6. And the most holy, or holy of holies, of the millennial temple at Jerusalem will be anointed (see Ezekiel 40-48).
The seventy weeks are divided into three unequal periods. The first is seven weeks, or forty-nine years. The second is sixty-two weeks, or 434 years. The third is one week, or seven years. During the first seven weeks, or "the strait times", the city and wall of Jerusalem were to be rebuilt. The date from which to count is found in Nehemiah 2, when a "commandment went forth to restore and build Jerusalem." The sixty-two weeks seem to have immediately followed, and ended in the coming of Messiah. After the conclusion of this period He was cut off and had nothing, but atonement was made. Then comes the present long interval of Jerusalem's treading down. The city is destroyed, as our Lord foretold also, and "even unto the end shall be war," until one arises who confirms a covenant with the Jews for the last final week. Clearly, then, this week is still future. The prophetic clock stopped at Calvary; it will not start again until "the fulness of the Gentiles be come in."
The present is a timeless epoch, parenthetically introduced between the sixty-ninth and seventieth week, in which God is taking out from among the gentiles a people for His name (Acts 15:14). He has utterly given up the Jew, but both Jew and gentile stand on equal footing: "There is no difference: For all have sinned" (Romans 3:22-23). Both are saved through faith in Christ, and all such are made members of the one body, the church.By the Holy Ghost both are united to the Lord Jesus Christ as head in heaven. (See Romans 16:25-28; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; Colossians 1:24-29). This began with the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12:13). It will be completed at the coming of the Lord when He calls His church to be forever with Himself, an event which may take place at any moment (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-54; 2 Thessalonians 2:1).
Then the long-delayed seventieth week will begin to run its course. At its conclusion Daniel's prophecy (as all other millennial prophecies) will be entirely fulfilled. Atonement was made for iniquity after the expiration of the sixty-ninth week. Everlasting righteousness will be brought in at the end of the seventieth. This brief period will be one of judgement. It will include judgement on apostate Christendom, on Israel, and on the nations at large. It is to be the awful result of the rejection of the Prince of Peace. Revelation 4-19 is occupied entirely with its solemn events. The saints of all prior dispensations, as well as the church, are seen enthroned in heaven as the twenty-four elders who have been redeemed with the blood of the lamb (Revelation 5) at the beginning of the week. They ride forth as the "armies of heaven" with "the Word of God" at His glorious appearing at the end.
The last three-and-one-half years will be the time when Israel shall receive "of the Lord's hand double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:2), the "time of Jacob's trouble" spoken of in Jeremiah 30:7 and Daniel 12:1, and the "great tribulation" of Matthew 24 and Revelation 7:14. The covenant breaking prince of Daniel 9 is the beast, the head of the Roman Empire, who makes a league with the wilful king of Revelation 11:36-39. He is the antichrist of prophecy (1 John 2:18), the idol shepherd of Zechariah 11:15-17, who will "come in his own name," as foretold by the Lord Jesus in John 5:43, and will be received by the majority of the Jews as messiah, but who will become the cruel persecutor of a faithful company designated as "the remnant" (Isaiah 11:11; Ezekiel 6:8; Revelation 12:17). In Revelation 7 we read of 144,000 out of all the tribes of Israel and a numberless white-robed multitude of spared gentiles who will follow the Lamb wherever He goes. They are said to have come up out of the great tribulation and to have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Many take it for granted that this is a heavenly company, and one is not surprised at that, for the language used is so nearly like that which we find later on in connection with the saints in the new Jerusalem. But a careful comparison of this chapter with a part of Isaiah 49 makes it clear that this great multitude represents the nucleus of the kingdom to be set up in this world at the time when our Lord returns and the days of heaven prevail on the earth. In other words, it refers to heavenly conditions in this world. In Isaiah 49:8-13, we read:
"Thus saith the Lord. In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee; and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages. That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them; for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted. Behold, these shall come from far; and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim. Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains; for the Lord hath comforted His people, and will have mercy upon His afflicted."
There is no question here of resurrection or the peopling of the heavenly Jerusalem. This entire prophecy has to do with the resurrection of Israel and the blessing of the gentiles through them of the earth in a coming day. The language of verse 10 is almost identical with that of Revelation 7:16. Who then are these saints?
First we must consider the 144,000. There has been speculation regarding this company. Some see them a picture of what they call a firstfruits rapture, linking this passage with Revelation 14, where 144,000 are seen standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion. The current teaching states that a select group of believers will be raptured before the great tribulation, while the rest will have to pass through it. The 144,000 are supposed to represent this select group. The great multitude, the majority of the church, will be purified in the fires of the great tribulation. But scripture knows nothing of any such selective rapture. The word of God is perfectly plain. Consider these texts from the Bible: "Christ the firstfruits, afterward they that are Christ's at His coming." "We which are alive and remain shall be caught up together." There is no hint of any division in the church of God, the body of Christ. All are saved by grace, all are alike made "meet to be partakers of the of the inheritance of the saints in light." The rapture is never presented as reward for special devotedness, but is preliminary to the judgement seat of Christ, where we shall all stand to receive our rewards. We will be in a glorified body when we appear at that great tribunal. This could not be true if only a special group were raptured before the tribulation.
It is sad to observe the way various sects and systems seek to identify themselves with the 144,000. According to the Seventh-day Adventists, these are those who keep the commandments perfectly. The Russellites insist that they are a special class of overcomers who will be exalted to the divine nature, whereas others will be saved on a lower plane. Various pentecostal groups declare that they are those who have been baptized with the Spirit and speak in tongues, or are characterized by other remarkable gifts.
But what are the facts? First we have the vision (Revelation 7:1- 3), and then the interpretation (7:4). The 144,000 are out of all tribes of the children of Israel and represent that remnant which will turn to the Lord after the church has been caught up, in accordance with Romans 11:23: "Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in." In the book of Daniel, and in many parts of prophetic scripture, we find this remnant distinguished from the mass. They are the wise who understand. They are the gleanings in the day of Jehovah's wrath, who will be recognized by Him as His own. They are sealed for preservation in view of the coming kingdom, before the dreadful storm of the great tribulation is permitted to break on the earth. In Revelation 14 we see them as a victorious company, safely emerged from that storm, having formed what we might call the bodyguard of the Lamb, when He returns to mount Zion. It is evident that they will be a witnessing company and will carry the gospel of the kingdom to millions who have never heard and rejected the message of grace. As a result of their testimony, we see the great multitude of gentiles brought to a knowledge of Christ and cleansed by His precious blood.
For I know their works and their thoughts; it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my glory. And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them into the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw thee bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles. And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the Lord, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the Lord. And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the Lord (Isaiah 66:18-21).
Here we have God dealing in grace with Israel and the gentile nations during the time of the great tribulation and just before He sets up His glorious kingdom here on earth.
We are told in Daniel 12:3,
"And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever."
This has to do with their testimony in the time of trouble yet to come, but Daniel has told us,
"At that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book."
The hour of their darkest trouble and deepest sorrow will result in the elect among them returning to the Lord. The 144,000 of Revelation 7 are those who will say, "Come, and let us return unto the Lord; for He hath torn, and He will heal us; He hath smitten, and He will bind us up" (Hosea 6:1). Zion's sore travail shall result in a great bringing forth of children, as predicted in Micah 5:3 and Isaiah 66:8.
"Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children."
The "blindness in part"is to be done away, the "fullness of the Gentiles" having come in, as shown also in Hosea 3:4-5:
"For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim: Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the Lord their God, and David their King; and shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days."
This is true not of the nation as a whole (see Zechariah 13:8-9; Isaiah 24:13; also Ezekiel 20:31-44) but of the remnant. The mass will be destroyed for their apostasy. The remnant will be acknowledged as the nation, and "so all Israel shall be saved" (Romans 11:26). To be of the sons of Jacob will not ensure an opportunity of grace. None who refuse the truth now, whether Jew or gentile, can be saved then.
In Matthew 25, we have the judgement of the living nations at the Lord's return. This is to be distinguished from the judgement of the great white throne. The former is premillennial, the latter postmillennial. We read:
"When the Son of man shall come in His glory and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory, and before Him shall be gathered all nations."
Notice there is no word of people here being raised from the dead, as at the final judgement. But we see the living nations gathered before him, and a separation is made according to the treatment afforded those whom the Lord calls "my brethren." Linking this with the passages we have already considered, it would seem to be clear that the "brethren" here referred to are His brethren after the flesh, the remnant of Israel. Those who enter into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world are the gentiles who received these brethren and heeded their message. These are the ones who inherit the millennial kingdom.
Those who are martyred under the beast and the anti-christ in that day will be raised from the dead when the Lord descends to take the kingdom, and will thus form the last cohort of the first resurrection. Notice the order indicated in Revelation 20:4-6. First, John says, "I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgement was given unto them." These are undoubtedly identified with the saints who are raised at the rapture before the tribulation. Then John mentions another class.
"And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands, and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years."
These are the martyrs of the tribulation period. They have their part in the heavenly side of the kingdom. As to the unsaved, we are told in verse 5. "But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection." Verse 6 includes the entire company who have part in the various cohorts of the first resurrection. "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection; on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years."
It is plain then that there will be saints on the earth during the great tribulation, but they are not members of the body of Christ, as that body is now constituted by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They will be individual believers, as in Old Testament times, and will through grace be enabled to witness for Christ in that day of great distress. They will share in the kingdom and enjoy the blessing of the Lord in a wonderful way, but they are not included in the body of Christ that occupies a distinct place through all the ages to come.
WHAT IS OUR BLESSED HOPE?
As we thoughtfully read the words of our Lord Jesus recorded in the early verses of John 14 and as we consider the teaching given in the pauline epistles in regard to the hope of the church, it becomes increasingly evident that there is not the least hint that believers of this dispensation were to look forward to a long series of events preceding the return of the Lord Jesus to raise the dead in Christ and change the living and take them to Himself in the Father's house. This blessed hope is always presented as imminent, which it could not be if one had to suppose that the destruction and revival of the Roman empire, the rise of the antichrist, and the great tribulation, must precede that glorious event. Yet there are other scriptures that distinctly show, as we have seen, that there will be saints on the earth when these conditions prevail. But I trust it has already been made clear that they will not belong to the church, the body of Christ.
There are in fact two distinct stages of our Lord's return presented in the New Testament. He is coming for His saints; this is the rapture that precedes the great tribulation. And He is going to be manifested with all His saints when he descends to exercise judgement on those who have persisted in rejecting His grace; this is when He will establish His glorious kingdom to reign in righteousness over this world. In other words, while the Old Testament and the four gospels, together with other scriptures, plainly predict Christ's second coming to establish His kingdom on this earth, it is part of the mystery hidden from past ages that when He comes He will have with Him a bride to share His throne, as well as a host of other redeemed saints from all past dispensations in His train. This is looked on as a visionary interpretation by many, and the attempt has been made again and again to show that this view, which is often called the futurist theory, was originated by Spanish Jesuits in order to turn away opprobrium from Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the Jesuit writers in question, Alchzar and Ribera, simply set forth what was taught with more or less clearness by some of the church fathers in the first three centuries of the Christian era, and was lost sight of later.
Others again have tried to put the stigma of demonism on the precious truth that the Lord may return at any time to take His saints to be with Himself preceding the great tribulation, endeavouring to link this with certain theories taught by the late Edward Irving and his followers in the early part of the nineteenth century. But anyone at all acquainted with Irving's teaching can see how truly false this is. From the time when long- neglected prophetic truth came again into prominence there was a great deal of confusion regarding the two aspects of the Lord's return mentioned above. But eminent Bible teachers who weighed all the scriptures carefully and prayerfully before God were led to see the distinction between the church as the body of Christ and the saints of a coming age. These saints would be witnesses for the Lord in the time of the tribulation and would share with Him in the manifested kingdom. The more carefully these views have been examined by men of God dependent on the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the word, the more they have been seen to be distinctly in harmony with divine revelation.
In recent years, particularly following World War I, there has been a recrudescence of posttribulationism, brought about largely by the fact that so many stirring events have taken place which seem to foreshadow the actual conditions that will prevail during the time of Jacob's trouble. Already the Roman empire seems in process of revival. The rise of dictatorship gives us to understand how readily the great world ruler of the coming day will forge his way to the front and be acclaimed as the very representative of God himself. The return of thousands of Jews to Palestine, involving the rehabilitation of that land, is certainly preparing the way for the very events depicted in the prophets and by our Lord Himself, which are to take place in the last days. All of these things and many others that might be added, seem to have swept some dear brethren away from their moorings. Losing sight of that blessed Hope, they are now fixing their attention on events, rather than on the Person Who is coming. The effect of this is not a healthy thing. It results in occupying the heart and mind with earthly things instead of with the coming Saviour. It has led many to think that perhaps we are entering even now into the great tribulation - perhaps we are actually through the greater part of it and are just waiting for the revelation of the antichrist and then the Lord's actual descent to the Mount of Olives and the establishment of the kingdom.
But the very fact that we see conditions shaping themselves for tribulation times should only lead us to realize the nearness of our hope. At any moment now the Lord may descend from heaven to raise the dead and change the living, and then will come the dark days predicted in both Testaments for apostate Israel and apostate Christendom.
Another view that has clouded the faith of many is what is commonly known as the partial or firstfruits rapture. This, however, is in plain contradiction to the testimony of the Holy Spirit given through the apostle Paul and our blessed Lord Himself. The Saviour made no distinction among His heavenly people when he said, "If I go...I will come again and receive you unto Myself." He had just foretold the defection of Peter, but He did not even hint that unless Peter is restored he will have no part in the heavenly Father's house. In fact, our Lord addressed Himself particularly to Peter when He said, "Let not your heart be troubled." He of course had made provision for the restoration of the soul of his disciples, as He does for all of us; but He gave no suggestion that any would be left behind when He would return for His own. In the epistles the rapture is seen to be all- embracing. We read: "They that are Christ's at His coming." We do not read that they are eminently faithful, nor that they speak with tongues, but simply that "they that are Christ's." And again, in 1 Thessalonians, we have the statement, "We which are alive and remain shall be caught up together." There are no distinctions made between mature and immature Christians in these words. If other scriptures are cited which seem to indicate that some will not be ready when the Lord comes, a careful examination of the context will show that in each instance the reference is to the coming of the Son of man at the end of the great tribulation, and not to the descent of the Lord to the aid to receive the saints of this dispensation and past ages to be with Himself in the Father's house.
Therefore it may be confidently affirmed that neither posttribulationism nor partial rapture theories are taught in the word of God. It seems perfectly evident that the blessed Hope is intended to be the daily expectation of the believers, which could not be if certain events had to take place before its fulfillment.
Moreover, it I put anything in my thinking between the present moment and the return of the Lord, I am losing what is of infinite value in connection with my personal walk and Christian experience. "Every man that hath this Hope in him purifieth himself even as he is pure." I know of nothing that is so effectual in controlling the heart and mind of the believer, so that his one aim and object will be to walk in holy separation to the Lord Himself, as the thought that at any moment He Who has redeemed us may return and take us to the Father's house. One may hold certain intellectual views of the second coming of Christ, even the view of the pretribulation rapture, and not be practically sanctified thereby. But if this hope holds me, it cannot but result in increased personal piety.
Then too we need to remember that it is at the return of the Lord for His saints that He will go over our record as servants when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. At that time, we are to be rewarded according to the deeds done in the body, and our place in the coming kingdom indicated. It is then that the crowns of reward are to be distributed, and in this connection it is significant to note that in the book of Revelation, we see the twenty-four elders crowned and enthroned around the central throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 4 and 5), before the solemn judgements begin to fall on the earth. Almost all futurist interpreters are agreed that in chapters 6-19 of Revelation, we have the great tribulation period. It is then that the wrath of the Lamb and the wrath of God will be poured on the habitable earth, and Satan will be cast down from the heavenlies, having great wrath, knowing that his time is short.
These are the circumstances of the great tribulation. We are looking for Christ as our deliverer from the wrath to come. Whatever view we may take of the symbolic elders, whether we think of them as twenty-four individuals, or as representing the entire heavenly priesthood, which to me is clearly the true interpretation, there is this to bear in mind;they are seen crowned in heaven before the judgements begin. Consider these facts: the tribulation period does not begin until the Lamb receives the seven-sealed book and breaks the seals. But the Lamb does not receive the book until crowned saints are seen in heaven. No saints have yet received their crowns, nor will there be crowned saints in heaven until the judgement seat of Christ is past. The apostle Paul declares definitely that the crown of righteousness will be given to him and to all who love Christ's appearing in that day; this is the day of the manifestation following our Lord's return for His saints. Therefore it seems plainly evident that the great tribulation cannot possibly begin until after the rapture of the church.
There is much more that might be said, but I leave the matter here, commending the entire subject to the spiritual judgement of the people of God, feeling assured that the more carefully this matter is weighed, the clearer it will be that the church, the body of Christ, is not to look forward to a time when the wrath of God will be poured out on this world, but is to live in daily expectation of the Lord's return to take us to be with Himself before the time of grief begins.
May it be our privilege to search the scriptures daily concerning the truth of these things, and to live in the power of that blessed Hope.
Praise God for our blessed Hope, Jesus Christ.