Recently an online posting has been circulating around, listing a number of well-known Christians throughout history who supposedly believed in a pre-tribulational rapture. This posting does not include any actual source quotes from the people claimed to have believed in a pre-trib rapture, but asserts a “pre-trib” view for many of the early church fathers including Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Victorinus, as well as post-Reformation pre-19th century teachers including John Gill and Morgan Edwards.
I had already seen several quotes from the specific early church fathers, statements that show they understood that the saints (same group as the church), would experience the future time of antichrist. Here are a few such statements, showing also their futurist (and premillennial) understanding of the events in Revelation:
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, XXV, 4
And then he points out the time that his tyranny shall last, during which the saints shall be put to flight, they who offer a pure sacrifice unto God: ‘And in the midst of the week,’ he says, ‘the sacrifice and the libation shall be taken away, and the abomination of desolation [shall be brought] into the temple: even unto the consummation of the time shall the desolation be complete.’ Now three years and six months constitute the half-week.
Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 47
For this is meant by the little horn that grows up. He, being now elated in heart, begins to exalt himself, and to glorify himself as God, persecuting the saints and blaspheming Christ, even as Daniel says, ‘I considered the horn, and, behold, in the horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things; and he opened his mouth to blaspheme God. And that horn made war against the saints, and prevailed against them until the beast was slain, and perished, and his body was given to be burned.’
Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 61
That refers to the one thousand two hundred and threescore days (the half of the week) during which the tyrant is to reign and persecute the Church, which flees from city to city, and seeks concealment in the wilderness among the mountains,…
Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 20:1
The little season signifies three years and six months, in which with all his power the devil will avenge himself trader Antichrist against the Church.
As to the many current-day claims of pre-trib belief before the mid-19th century, it is interesting to note here that previous generations of dispensationalists – Darby himself, also Scofield and later John Walvoord – all recognized and admitted that the pre-trib teaching was in fact a recent development. This agrees with S. Lewis Johnson’s observation in 1989 during his series through Revelation, that those who held to pre-trib acknowledged that it was a recent teaching. The claims of pre-trib belief prior to the mid-19th century, are themselves a revision introduced by more recent pre-trib and prophecy teachers.
The idea that historicist Christians, including Morgan Edwards and John Gill, believed in a type of “pre-tribulational rapture,” comes from a twisting of their “pre-conflagration” statements, such as the following from John Gill: He’ll stay in the air, and His saints shall meet Him there, and whom He’ll take up with Him into the third heaven, till the general conflagration and burning of the world is over, and to preserve them from it…. I note here, first, that these statements still show an idea of one First Resurrection and not a two-stage coming with one group before the Great Tribulation followed by another resurrection/rapture after that event – really a type of “pre-wrath” rapture of believers taken out before God’s wrath.
A further point of distinction must also be noted here: the difference between historicist and futurist ideas of the book of Revelation. The historicists were generally premillennial (John Gill, and at least a few others), but they understood the Great Tribulation in a non-literal way, as occurring throughout church history, with the events in Revelation describing longer periods of time, symbolic descriptions of various wars with the Turks or other enemies throughout the church age. According to the historicist view, the Great Tribulation is already occurring, we are already experiencing it: an idea obviously incompatible with the very notion of a pre-Tribulational rapture of one group of believers. If the whole church age is the Tribulation, a “pre-trib rapture” could only occur before the church age began, which becomes speculative nonsense.
Thus, the present-day claims of a pre-1830 belief in a pretribulational rapture of the church, “found” in the statements of 18th century historicist pre-conflagrationists, is really deceptive handling of true Christian doctrine (what these men actually believed) and church history. Here I also can appreciate the honesty of the earlier dispensationalists, such as Walvoord, who at least recognized the correct time period for the origin of the pre-trib rapture idea.
A recent conversation briefly addressed the question of how, from the post-trib premillennial perspective, the millennial kingdom will be populated with living saints. The answer includes what the scriptures say related to the Second Advent; many people (having experienced the Great Tribulation and seeing His return at the end), during the time interval between Christ’s return and the establishment of the kingdom, will repent and turn to the Lord. We see this mentioned in the scriptures in reference to the people of Israel, as for instance Zechariah 12:7-10, that they will see Him and “mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child” plus other indications regarding the Gentiles alive at the Second Coming.
One person considering this answer, responded “how can such people have faith?” when they can see Christ in His glory and vengeance – surely that would be similar to the people at the Great White Throne judgment seeing Christ in His judgment and their own condemnation.
But consider the following in the details: one obvious difference is that the people at the Great White Throne have already died, their eternal condition made permanent, and then resurrected — while the people who see Christ at His Return (before the millennial period) are still living. We can also consider other scriptures, though, regarding the question of people who came to belief after seeing the risen Christ, and here we see several such examples.
“Doubting” Thomas did not believe until he saw the resurrected Christ. The same was true of all the apostles; the others had seen the Lord the week before, but even they were rebuked by Christ for their hardness in unbelief and refusing to believe what other witnesses had told them. The account of Christ with Thomas includes a special blessing for the rest of us: “you believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Jesus’ human brothers (later children of Joseph and Mary) likewise did not believe until after they saw the resurrected Christ.
The Apostle Paul is an even clearer case: one who was actively working against the Lord and persecuting His saints, who yet believed on the Lord Jesus when he saw Him on the Damascus Road.
The point here is that saving faith is not restricted to only those people who believe without having seen (though that is how most people, including every believer since the generation that experience the First Coming, has experienced it). The early Old Testament believers (those who saw the ‘Angel of the Lord’ the pre-incarnate Christ) in Old Testament times, as well as those who saw the Risen, Glorified Christ before they believed, did come to believe at a point in their lives, with the added experience of actually seeing Him. We have an extra blessing given to us, as those who have not seen and yet believe. But God has also brought into the one people of God some who did see and believe – and He will again do so at His Second Coming.
I’ve recently been studying the pre-wrath rapture view, a more recently developed variation on the post-tribulation rapture. (The early proponents, Robert Van Kampen and Marv Rosenthal, published their books in the late 1980s. Other proponents include Alan Kurschner and Pastor Ryan Habbena of Signet Ring Ministries. As noted in this article, Steve Anderson’s pre-wrath view is considered ‘off’ and not part of the standard teaching.) This view attempts a compromise between the original post-trib rapture timing and the later developed pre-trib view. As with post-trib, the pre-wrath view places the rapture immediately before the Day of the Lord (the wrath that we’re not appointed to). Like the pre-trib view, pre-wrath (at least some of its proponents) understands Revelation 3:10 as complete removal — but recognizing that Revelation 3:10 does not mean removal from the full 7 year period. Also similar to pre-trib, pre-wrath has a (shorter) interval of time during which the raptured and resurrected saints first go to heaven and have the Bema Seat judgment, while the world is experiencing the trumpet and bowl judgments.
The pre-wrath view also takes a similar approach to pre-trib, in its interpretation of the “unknown day” and the “thief in the night.” While recognizing (as with post-trib) that the rapture is not truly an “any moment” event and that certain things must happen first, yet pre-wrath switches to pre-trib in terms of the “thief in the night” reference, reasoning that since we can know when the 70th week starts and when the 3 1/2 months starts and could count the days until the end of them, the rapture couldn’t take us by surprise in a “thief in the night” way — and therefore the rapture must be at some unknown time during the 42 months. The standard post-tribulation view (as I understand so far) is that believers may not know the exact day/time when the 70th week starts; the 42 months (the midpoint) will probably be known to a fairly close time period. However, the texts that speak of the “thief in the night” and other similar references are talking about unbelievers being taken by surprise. Yet the context of these passages show that believers, those who believe and understand God’s word, will not be taken by surprise but will be prepared and eagerly anticipating Christ’s Coming while recognizing that it does mean experiencing persecution before that happens.
On the positive side, the pre-wrath view emphasizes the literal hermeneutic common to all futurist premillennialists, paying close attention to the details given us in the prophetic texts. They especially focus on the sequence of events in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21), trying to correlate the sequence with the seals in Revelation 6, and also try to account for the 1260 days (the 42 months of the Great Tribulation, the second half of Daniel’s 70th week) plus the later time periods mentioned by Daniel: the 1290 days and the 1335 days. According to pre-wrath, the rapture occurs in connection with the sixth seal, at some time near the end of the 42 months, and the trumpets and bowl judgments occur next, in sequence, and are the “Day of the Lord” wrath.
This view also puts forth another explanation of the two groups in Revelation 7. Whereas a common pre-trib idea is that the 144,000 are Jewish evangelists who go forth throughout the world during the Great Tribulation, proclaiming the gospel – and the next scene of the vast multitude is the result of their evangelistic work, those who come to faith during the Great Tribulation and are subsequently martyred and seen in heaven, pre-wrath says (correctly) that the 144,000 are sealed so as to give them divine protection from the judgments about to come upon the world. According to pre-wrath, the rapture occurs here, and the scene of the vast multitude in heaven, before the throne of God, is showing the resurrected and raptured saints. They especially connect the scene here back to the fifth seal, which showed the souls of the martyrs still waiting for God to take action, and that they are given white robes (but not yet wearing the robes); thus in Revelation 7, when they are wearing their robes, indicates that the rapture and resurrection has occurred and they have their resurrection bodies and thus now wearing the white robes. That may indeed be the correct interpretation of the vast multitude in Revelation 7, as the follow-up from the fifth seal; it certainly seems to make more sense (per the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic) than saying the 144,000 are evangelists and the second group their converts, when the emphasis in the text is on the 144,000 being sealed for their protection.
Where pre-wrath does not work, though, is in the details, including the placement of the rapture. As this blog article point outs, the pre-wrath view is inconsistent in its handling of the 42 months: Israel and the unsaved experience the full 42 months of the Great Tribulation, the time which starts with the antiChrist setting himself up in the temple (the Abomination of Desolation; what Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2) and the time of his rule and persecution; but the church believers are raptured out at some unknown point shortly before the end of that 3 1/2 years. Revelation 13:5-7 establishes that the beast is allowed to exercise authority for 42 months and to “make war on the saints and to conquer them” during that time. It clearly is all or nothing: either the saints (believers) are present OR absent from the 42 months period; but trying to end it before the 42 months for one group and not for the other is inconsistent.
I recently finished S. Lewis Johnson’s 1 Corinthians series, and his passing remarks in one of the last messages (early 1995) prompted my own further study, in reference to the “rapture of believers” (not “rapture of the church”).
I briefly looked at the issue of SLJ’s later rapture timing view in this previous post, but now for a closer look at the scriptural arguments for dispensational premillennialism: both pre-tribulational and post-tribulational rapture. In the following four messages (from two series), SLJ set forth the scriptural reasons given for both the post-trib and pre-trib rapture timing positions.
So for future reference, here is a summary of SLJ’s presentations on this topic. Please note that the following is not intended to be an exhaustive consideration of the topic and is not intended to list every reason in favor of a view (by either proponents of the post-trib or pre-trib views) but only a look at the reasons set forth in these four lectures. Since SLJ in his messages presented the post-trib view first, I will take the same sequence in this post.
Arguments for a Post-Trib Rapture:
The Nature of the Tribulation: The Old Testament’s clear and specific references to the tribulation indicate that there will be believers upon the earth at that time. They (post-trib view) will acknowledge that there is no instance of the wrath of God afflicting the saints. In fact, there are indications that the saints are exempted from the wrath of God, during that period of time. But there is much evidence that the saints will suffer persecution and affliction during that period of time. So from the nature of the tribulation itself, they argue the nature of the tribulation does not demand that one be exempt from presence on the earth during that time.
Biblical Imminence: The 1st Century View (Not a ‘pre-trib’ any moment rapture)
Jesus’ Parables: He stated certain things were going to come to pass before He came again. He said, for example, ‘There was to be a sowing of the seed,’ and then He said at the end of the age, certain things would transpire. So, it’s obvious that the premises of His coming must be broad enough to include an interval. They cannot be any moment.
Acts 1:8-9: The first century apostles did not believe in a pre-trib “any moment” type of rapture. Acts 1:8-9 indicates a time period must occur, for the accomplishment of this evangelistic movement that will reach to the ends of the earth.
John 21:18: Related to Acts 1:8-9, Peter understood that he would live to become an old man and was told what would happen to him when he was old.
Specific New Testament passages and associated Old Testament references:
- 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 – Generally agreed, the rapture of the church takes place here. Yet in verse 54, the apostle cites texts from Isaiah 25 and Hosea 14, applying to the Lord’s Second Coming. Paul links these texts to what happens in verses 50-51.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: the term “to meet” and references to the same things that are associated with the Olivette Discourse: angels, clouds, trumpet, gathering of the people of God.
Therefore, by these rather numerous parallels, since it’s evident from the Olivette Discourse that Jesus is talking about the coming of our Lord to the earth, it would be natural to assume that the apostle, using the same language, would be speaking about the same event. And, furthermore, even the term “to meet” is a term that generally means to go out to meet someone and to come back to the same place from which you have come. And so that would suggest that the saints meet the Lord and come to the earth, rather than are with the Lord in heaven for the period of approximately seven years.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:7 – the rest that the saints will get from their trials, will occur at the time of Christ’s returning in judgment upon His enemies. Well, according to the view that the church is caught up before the tribulation begins, they should have been given rest long before then. But Paul links the rest with the revelation of our Lord.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 8 – the same term parousia (the appearance of His coming) is used in both verses, and verse 8 is clearly speaking of the Second Coming
The same term parousia that is found in verse 1, in behalf of the coming of our Lord is said in verse 8, to be the time of the Second Advent. So, again, that text would seem to suggest that the time of the coming and the time of the gathering together is the time when our Lord comes to the earth.
Argument from the Apocalypse
- Revelation 3:10: Post tribulationalists believe that both of those promises are promises, really, not of a complete separation from the threatening evil, but of God’s undertaking to preserve believers through those particular evils. In other words, post tribulationists say, ‘We will be upon the earth during the time of the judgments, perhaps, but God promises that we will be kept from the wrath of God poured out upon us which is going to be poured out upon others around us.’ So, it’s a promise of keeping through the judgments that are to fall upon the earth.
- 1 Corinthians 15: the rapture is the time of the resurrection of the body. It’s very plain that in chapter 20, verse 4 the first resurrection is post tribulational. Now if the first resurrection is post tribulational, and if the rapture occurs at the time of the resurrection of the body, then of course you must have a post tribulational rapture.
Arguments for a Pre-Trib Rapture:
Exemption from Wrath
He (pre-trib view) will generally say this, ‘If you will read the Book of Revelation, from chapter 4 through chapter 19, and see those great and massive worldwide judgments that will be poured out from heaven, in which, literally, millions of people will be destroyed, and hardly anyone could help from being affected in some way.’ He will say, ‘It’s inconceivable that a person could go through the tribulation and be kept from the wrath of God.’ And one must admit that it does seem a very difficult thing for a person to go through all of those judgments and not be touched by them.
Response: (post-trib view): God will deliver the saints from the wrath of God, but they’ll not be delivered from the persecution that will be part of that tribulational period. So the statement that we are not appointed unto wrath, in the one case, by the post-tribulationalists, mean they are not appointed to the wrath of God, but they are appointed to suffer because of their testimony and through persecution during that period of time.
The Term “Church” in the Book of Revelation
Well known by pre-tribulationalists, the term ‘church’ occurs very frequently in the first three chapters of Revelation. Then the word ‘church’ is not found in chapters 4 through 21, and then again in Revelation 22:16: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches.”
Robert Gundry’s reply to this argument: “It’s true, the term church is not found in the descriptions of the things that are happening on the earth. But for my friends, the church is not mentioned as being in heaven, either.” Dr. Johnson further notes here, those chapters are not intended to describe what’s happening in heaven. Those chapters are intended to describe what happens on earth.
Argument from Apocalypse – Rev. 3:10
In John 17, “to keep from an evil one” is an absolute or complete separation from a threatening evil, and the threatening evil incidentally is not the persecution of the world about them, but the threatening evil is apostasy as the text says. They should be kept from the evil one, So the text there means a complete separation from an impending or threatening evil, apostasy. In the Book of Revelation, it is not something spiritual, but something physical. And here, “to be kept from the hour of testing,” is the hour of testing that shall come upon the whole inhabited world or earth to try those that dwell upon the earth.
The Necessity of An Interval Between the Rapture and The Advent
If the millennium is to be peopled by some saints in nonglorified bodies, if the millennium is to be peopled by individuals who go into it not having been resurrected, that is not having been caught up at the Rapture and not having been raised from the dead and given a new body at that time, then one asks the question: where shall they come from if the Rapture and the Advent coincide? In other words, if all believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air and are given new bodies and our Lord comes right to the earth, and if the Scriptures do teach that there are people who enter the millennium in nonglorified bodies (reference Isaiah chapter 65:20, and even Revelation 7 through 10), then where do they come from?
S. Lewis Johnson briefly mentioned one post-trib answer, to where the nonglorified people of Israel come from in a post-trib scenario. From thinking about it more, I can now see the possibility of having Gentiles in nonglorified bodies in the post-trib scenario and how it could work, including the people groups in the Matthew 25 Sheep and Goats account.
Additional online sources:
- From Benjamin Wills Newton: The Second Advent of Our Lord Not Secret But in Manifested Glory (30 page tract)
- From Providence Baptist Ministries: The Post Tribulation Rapture, and Post-Tribulational Questions (Travis Bennett): Part 1 and Part 2
In an online group someone recently asked, what are the main differences between historic premillennialism and futurist premillennialism?
Of course variations exist even within the term “historic premillennialism,” but here I am defining historic premillennialism as that view of many post-Reformation premillennialists: a view sometimes referred to as “covenantal premillennialism,” the perspective of those teachers from the Calvinist Covenant Theology background, yet who appealed to literal hermeneutics especially regarding the future for Israel and a future literal 1000 year kingdom of God upon the earth. Names representing this view include 18th century preacher John Gill, plus 19th century preachers Horatius Bonar, J.C. Ryle, and Charles Spurgeon. It is also worth noting that the early church fathers were also “historic premillennial,” the original form, though not Covenantal — since Covenant Theology itself is a relatively recent development, from the 17th century. Following are several areas of difference between historic premillennialism and futurist premillennialism.
1) The theological covenants of Covenant Theology, or the biblical covenants of scripture? Historic premillennialism follows the theological covenants set forth in Covenant Theology, and is silent concerning the biblical covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic and New covenants). This comes out, for instance, in Spurgeon sermons talking about the covenant of grace, God’s grace to all the elect, or about the covenant made within the Triune Godhead. J.C. Ryle, too, though very strongly premillennial with future for Israel, also taught the full understanding of Covenant Theology regarding infant baptism.
Futurist premillennialists emphasize the importance of the biblical covenants, especially the Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants, and all the promises in those covenants including the land promises.
2) The nature of the Church and Israel. Historic premillennialism does not see a distinction between Israel and the Church, but one general category: the people of God, the church. Like futurist premillennialists, they do follow a generally literal hermeneutic in interpreting the OT prophecies as being about Israel, including Israel’s future regathering and their being returned to their land in connection with the Second Coming events and the future Millennial Kingdom — in great contrast to amillennial spiritualizing the Old Testament prophecies as being about the church age. John MacArthur’s six-part series, “Why Every Calvinist is a Premillennialist,” addresses this aspect of historic premillennialism, the future for Israel. Barry Horner’s emphasis in Future Israel also fits in here. (Both MacArthur and Barry Horner, though, do teach the biblical covenants, point 1 above.) Historic premillennialist preachers will sometimes talk about “the Jewish church” or refer to examples from the Old Testament while talking about the church. As another example of literal interpretation but without the distinction between Israel and the Church, Spurgeon pictured Ezekiel’s temple as some type of church/worship structure that would exist during the Millennial Kingdom.
Futurist premillennialism sees a greater distinction between the Church and Israel, that the Church began in Acts 2. Several other teachings flow out of this difference. Ezekiel’s temple will be a structure specifically for the people of Israel. The Day of the Lord/Great Tribulation/Jacob’s trouble is something specifically for Daniel’s people — Daniel’s 70th week. The millennial kingdom includes Israel’s prominence: the people of Israel’s role in going out and being a blessing to the world, as pictured in the Old Testament prophecies about people from the Gentile nations coming to Jerusalem with their gifts and offerings.
3) Are the events of Revelation future, or past/present? Historic premillennialism generally sees the events in Rev. 6-18 as unfolding throughout history in a general way — such as identifying “Babylon” as the Catholic Church and applying the texts symbolically to events happening during this the church age. Also note, the term “futurist” can apply to any millennial view, as described in this previous article.
Futurist premillennialism sees these events as future, taking place during the last seven years (Daniel’s 70th week) before Christ returns.
4) The purpose for the millennial kingdom: both historic and futurist premillenialism recognize one of the purposes for the millennial kingdom, as the final test of man. With all conditions perfect, even Christ ruling on the earth, man still rebels at the end, showing man’s complete inability — and all the more glory to God. Futurist premillennialism recognizes the above purpose for the millennial kingdom, but goes beyond it to add another purpose: the biblical covenant promises yet to be fulfilled to Israel.
Futurist Premillennialism recognizes the above purpose for the millennial kingdom, but goes beyond it to add another purpose: the biblical covenant promises yet to be fulfilled to Israel. Reference FP’s distinction in point 2 above: Israel’s prominence in the future kingdom of God upon the earth.
5) Historic premillennialism has a post-trib rapture timing, and generally very little, if any, said about the rapture or the Great Tribulation events (reference point 2 above). Within Futurist Premillennialism, the pre-trib rapture is not the most important feature (and not an essential), but is part of the overall teaching and sequence of future events.
A recent online discussion with a partial preterist (and a polite, respectful individual) brought out something rather interesting (though really not surprising): the preterist’s tendency to zoom in on one particular passage as being the “key” to what proves a doctrine, rather than a systematic, holistic approach that examines the many passages and puts all the pieces together. In this case, the passage was a popular one for preterists: Matthew 24, with emphasis on verses 5-7 and their time reference meaning as signs and what “this generation” means. Basically, this person was focused on the “signs” described there – nations rising up against each other, wars and rumors of war, and earthquakes — and whether or not these “signs” are included in the group of “this generation” referred to in Matt. 24:34. Coming from this rather narrow textual perspective, he classified three variations of pre-trib belief, reasoning that none of those views made sense:
i) The pre- tribs such as Hagee (who say we are the last generation), although brave enough to stand on their convictions – are in danger of time running out on them – as I intimate in my original statement. ii) Pre tribs such as Walvoord (think these are general characteristics leading up to the end) seem to be stuck with signs carrying on over 2000 years that v34 says this generation will by no means pass. And, iii) Pretribs such as Ice (and yourself?) if, as he says, they are part of the tribulation 7 year period, are stuck with a verse that if that is the case, would be self-evident. In that, of course this generation will by no means pass away – the events are only over 7 years.
The way I am viewing it right now therefore, unless you show me I am misunderstanding the issues somewhere, that camp i) are in danger of running out of time. Camp ii) seem to have a problem of a generation running over 2000 years. And camp iii) not only have the problem of, a generation being spoken of as by no mean passing away over a period of 7 years, but also bringing in the idea that the signs we are now seeing are in fact not those signs at all – but that when those signs come we will know – this seems to bring in an ambiguity of some proportions. I hear something being said like, ‘they are not the signs, but they are like the signs, but we will know when the signs come that THEY are THE signs. And the young convert says, ‘how will we know? what will be the difference’ if it is just the intensity, then why aren’t these signs, THE signs?’
At this point in the dialogue, having answered his original questions, the real underlying issue became apparent: unlike partial preterism, the pre-trib view takes a holistic approach to scripture and does not hinge on or emphasize only one passage, Matthew 24, and “this generation” as the one (and only) thing to understand. The Old Testament — especially passages in Deuteronomy plus the major and minor prophets – is replete with passages that speak of the time of Jacob’s trouble / the Day of the Lord / Daniel’s 70th week, that time which shortly precedes Christ’s Return, when the Jews will believe in Him and He will bring in the Kingdom. The Matthew 24 passage is simply one part out of many scriptures addressing the Day of the Lord, the Great Tribulation, Daniel’s 70th week. Thus, the young convert studying premillennialism and the pre-trib rapture is not going to get too focused on only one passage, Matthew 24, but will take a holistic approach, what all of God’s word has to say regarding the Day of the Lord.
Given that, a better way to explain premillennial eschatology is that Matthew 24:5-7 is one of several passages that describe the characteristics of the future Day of the Lord aka the Great Tribulation, the time of Jacob’s trouble. As with other prophetic passages, we also see a “both … and” aspect: future fulfillment plus a general application now. In the case of Matthew 24:5-7, we have both the present day application in the general sense of wars, rumors of wars, false teachers in this age, earthquakes – and actual future fulfillment during the Great Tribulation. We also understand that these are simply signs, and, as S. Lewis Johnson pointed out (in this exposition in his Matthew series):
the reason that there are disturbances in the natural world is because this is God’s way of showing us that there is disturbance in the spiritual and moral world, so that these signs reflect heaven’s view of the rebellion of men against God. So we shall expect to see greater and greater natural disturbances as the age continues, to reach their climax in that future day just preceding the Lord’s Second Advent.
Premillennial teachers, likewise, teach from the systematic approach, beginning with the basic concepts such as the meaning of the “Day of the Lord” and the biblical covenants. I note that S. Lewis Johnson’s 37 part eschatology series never once taught a full message specifically on Matthew 24. (Other teachers likewise approach eschatology in a systematic manner.) A few times he mentioned verses from it, along with parallel passages elsewhere which also speak of the future Great Tribulation. The following, from message 28 “Tribulation, General View,” is especially helpful as it relates to the Great Tribulation and Matthew 24:
The four outstanding things that characterize this last week of Daniel’s prophecy or the time of the tribulation period.
1) An ecclesiastical thing or an ecclesiastical fact, the rise of the beast. – reference passages in Daniel and Revelation
2) Political features: There will be the rise of national disturbances. Kingdom against kingdom. World government will be the aim of the great kingdoms of the earth. And that period of time shall be characterized as a period of national disturbance.
3) The rise of natural disturbances. For example, in Matthew chapter 24 in verse 7 when the Lord Jesus speaks of this period of time, He says nations shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in various places. There shall rise up natural disturbances which are beyond the ordinary.
4) A great period of spiritual salvation through the preaching of the evangelists of that period. – reference Revelation 7.
Titus 2 came up in my recent Bible readings, and in a brief online discussion concerning what the Blessed Hope is. Titus 2:13 is the key verse in reference to the “Blessed Hope”: waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Often, though, online websites or audio series, particularly those that emphasize the pre-trib rapture, lose the focus: declaring that the blessed hope is the pre-trib rapture event itself, or things particularly associated with the rapture event. Examples include this audio series (part A of the second series), and this article, which says: “Titus chapter 2 is an amazing chapter because it tells us that the rapture of the church is our ‘blessed hope’, in which we are to do the following while we wait on His return.” That article goes on to focus on what we are to do while waiting for His return, and that “the Blessed Hope is a means by which God uses it to prepare us and purify us as we wait. It is not simply a ‘get out of jail free card’, it is a refining tool of the Lord to make us ready on a daily basis. After all, death is a reality for over 250,000 people a day every day around the world, with lots of them being bible believing Christians.”
Yet such a view, with emphasis on the pre-trib rapture, misses the overall emphasis and what Titus 2:13, the Blessed Hope, is about: Christ Himself, and His appearing. Teaching about the rapture and its timing is fine enough in its place, including discussion of the various scripture references to the rapture and indirect scriptural evidences for a pre-tribulational rapture. Far too often, though, careless ideas creep into our doctrine, as with such statements about “the rapture of the church is our ‘blessed hope’” in which the focus is on us rather than on Christ Himself and His return. Then too, the posts at rapture forums often focus on the great desire to escape from this life, to be raptured away – again a self-focused view. Certainly our motives in this life will always be mixed at best, and even when we first come to Christ the primary reasons are indeed selfish. Yet as Spurgeon often said, too often people have selfish motives for desiring Christ’s return in their lifetime: to escape their present circumstances, and/or to avoid the experience of physical death. Let us instead keep our eyes on our Lord, truly desiring Him above all else, whatever our circumstances: Philippians 1:21, For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Another consideration is that the vast majority of believers meet the Lord at death. Only a relatively few will actually be living at the time and caught up, to meet up with those who have been resurrected (1 Thess. 4:17). From that perspective, the blessed hope for those who die before Christ’s return, is to meet Him at death. The full, final perspective, of course, includes all the events at the Second Coming, especially the bodily resurrection: those already physically dead as well as those of us still living, all awaiting our glorified bodies.
In closing, some great observations from Spurgeon, in this message:
What is that “blessed hope”? Why, first, that when He comes we shall rise from the dead, if we have fallen asleep, and that if we are alive and remain, we shall be changed at His appearing! Our hope is that we shall be approved of Him and shall hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Also from Spurgeon, sermon #2509:
what is the blessed hope of the children of God—they are looking for the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ from Heaven! As they look back by faith, they see their Lord upon the Cross and then they see Him in the tomb—and then they behold Him risen from the grave. The last glimpse they catch of Him is as a cloud receives Him out of their sight. He has gone into Glory, but Believers have not forgotten those angelic words to the disciples, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into Heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into Heaven.” So we expect Him to come. And when He comes, then is to be the time of our highest joy! Even though we are now called the sons of God, “it does not yet appear what we shall be.” Our glory, our full bliss, is as yet concealed, “but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like He, for we shall see Him as He is.” So, Brothers and Sisters, our hope is that when Christ shall come, we shall be perfected—that then we shall be rid of every sin and shall become holy even as He is holy, pure even as He is pure!
From various online discussions with other believers, it soon becomes apparent that labels are often used to describe the various beliefs of particular teachers. In a general way these definitions are helpful, in the larger differences such as between “cessationism” and “continuationism,” as well as in the overall categories of millennialism and the past-present-future continuum approach to the book of Revelation.
Through this approach, though, some have a tendency to get carried away and take the labels and categories too far. On the one hand, are those who habitually change their views on important doctrines, one week a Dispensational premillennial, next week a Postmillennial Preterist.
We must continually remember the abiding principle, to understand the biblical doctrines underlying what we say we believe, and read the Bible as primary, rather than try to analyze and categorize every known and lesser-known Bible teacher. When someone asks the question, “what type of dispensationalist is John MacArthur?” the real answer is that he shuns labels precisely because of the confusion and misperceptions that they can cause; and if the person really wants to know what MacArthur believes, the way to find that out is by listening to or reading his sermons, to see how he interprets various texts of scripture.
Sometimes the labels and categories go into even further details: NCT premillennial, covenantal premillennial, historic premillennial, classic dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, etc.
I am among those who use the terms dispenationalist, and Calvinist-Dispensational. In my recent post “The Five Points of Dispensationalism,” a few others agreed with the final list of five distinctives of dispensationalism:
1. Distinction between Israel and the Church. The church is not Israel, it is not the continuation of Israel, and it has not replaced Israel.
2. Israel’s Future. Israel has a future as a nation in the plan of God in which the Lord will fulfill the covenant promises He made to her in the Old Testament.
3. Emphasis on the Biblical covenants set forth in scripture, and especially on the unconditional, unilateral Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants. These take precedence over the theological covenants of Covenant Theology.
4. Literal future kingdom of God upon the earth, which will last for a literal 1000 years, in which Christ reigns from Jerusalem, and Israel has a place of prominence among the nations.
5. Literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic. The Old Testament stands on its own and is not “reinterpreted” to have additional meanings. Bible texts can have multiple applications, but have (one) singular meaning.
Labeling of different beliefs can also be taken too far, in restricting the meanings to only “the select few” who hold to a more restricted meaning instead of an overall meaning such as this. Recently, for instance, I have come across those who limit dispensationalism to only the classic kind, noting the exception of PD; anyone outside of the traditional “classic dispensationalism” cannot be called a dispensationalist. Thus, these individuals concluded that S. Lewis Johnson (in a sentence also listing A.W. Pink and Waltke) rejected dispensationalism due to the tension with 5-Point Calvinist / Reformed theology. Further discussion noted that of course SLJ did not abandon dispensationalism in the manner of Pink or Waltke, two individuals who completely left and switched to amillennial CT. Yes, SLJ would be in the group that “the other side” would still call dispensationalism. Yet they still were very reluctant to admit that SLJ was, in the overall definition, dispensationalist. They especially noted SLJ’s apparent later abandonment of the pre-trib rapture as well as the characteristics of classic dispensationalism in favor of “one people of God” and all believers inheriting all the Abrahamic promises including the land promises (the grafting-in in the Romans 11 olive tree). Then attempts followed to say how SLJ was NOT dispensationalist, how he was more like “NCT Premillennial” or like “PD” (Progressive Dispensationalism), even to say that surely we cannot include SLJ as a dispensationalist, since that would mean widening the definition so greatly as to include covenantal premillennialists like Spurgeon and Ryle.
However, we need to remember that S. Lewis Johnson focused on the biblical covenants (not the theological covenants of CT, the case of Spurgeon and Ryle). Furthermore, he did not see the church or this age in any way “spiritually fulfilling” the Kingdom, or that Christ is now seated and reigning on David’s throne (distinctives of NCT-Premill and PD). That point was finally understood, with the conclusion that indeed SLJ defies the standard doctrinal labels; yet still they preferred to say that SLJ left dispensationalism and in later years was not dispensational.
In the comments follow-up from the “Five Points of Dispensationalism” post, a few others also preferred removing the pre-trib rapture as one of the “five points,” and yet they were comfortable with calling the final five points “dispensationalism.” S. Lewis Johnson certainly fit those points, even in his later years. Matt Weymeyer similarly defines himself as a dispensationalist, as do many others I know on the “Calvinist Dispensationalists” group.
The conclusion of all these discussions is that at any rate I’m in good company with many others who understand dispensationalism in the overall sense (the five points cited above) and who are comfortable with the terms “dispensationalist” and “Calvinist Dispensationalist.” We all need to avoid such extremes as narrowing definitions too much, to restrict doctrinal terms to only a select few who agree exactly with our own particular notions. In reality, as I continue to learn from the views of different believers, we all have slightly different views on particular biblical texts and particular issues in Christian life and practice. No two Bible teachers, however similar, are always going to interpret the same passage in exactly the same way.