All Christians believe that the church will be “caught up” or raptured together to meet the Lord in the air at his coming (1 Thess 4:17). What is debated is whether or not this event is a description of the second coming of Christ or if it takes place several years before the second coming. Revelation 3:10 is often used to argue for a pretribulational rapture because, it is argued, Christ has promised to keep the church “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” which is a seven-year period of tribulation. What clearer evidence could be brought forth to argue that the church will be taken out of the world before this period of suffering? Why would God allow Christians to experience suffering and tribulation designed to punish unbelievers?
But a brief examination of the historical context behind Christ’s address to the church at Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-13 demonstrates that this argument is taking the verse completely out of context. Who is Jesus talking to in these verses? Is he talking to the church which exists at the time of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 or the one that existed in the first century in the city of Philadelphia in modern-day Turkey? If Revelation 3:10 is a reference to the rapture of the church, was the Philadelphian church living in the first century raptured into heaven before a seven-year tribulation period culminating with the second coming of Christ? Are there two raptures of the church, one in the first century and one in the future? If 1 Thessalonians 4:17 was fulfilled in the first century, why do we still look forward to it? If the Philadelphian church was not raptured into heaven, then was Jesus lying when he told them they would be kept from that hour? Why would Jesus’ words not apply to the Philadelphian church of the first century but apply to the universal church in the future? The dispensational interpretation of this verse removes it from its context and reads into it a foreign meaning to justify a system of eschatology unknown in the pages of the Bible. This interpretation takes a specific promise to a unique group of Christians and universalizes it and projects it into the future. I have written about this subject before in my theses on eschatology.
If Revelation 3:10 is not a reference to the rapture, then what is it referring to? The closest parallel to it in the Bible is John 17:15 when Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” The phrase “keep them from” is nearly identical in the Greek text except that Revelation 3:10 is “keep you from.” This is a prayer for protection in the midst of suffering, not a prayer for the removal of all suffering. “Take them out of the world” is an apt summary of the pretribulational understanding of the rapture where the church is taken out of the world before suffering tribulation. Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:10 are simply a repetition of his previous prayer in John 17:15. We are kept from Satan, not by being taken out of the world, but by being guarded from his attacks so that his temptations do not destroy us. The Philadelphian church was kept from that hour of testing, not by being taken out of the world, but by being protected by God through it the same way we are protected from Satan. To “keep you from” the trials coming upon the whole world is not a promise of removal when they come, but the granting of strength to persevere in the midst of them. Jesus kept them from that hour in the same sense that he keeps his church from the evil one. “The hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” is something that took place in the first century when the Philadelphian church still existed. If this is something that is still future, then Jesus would be a false prophet because he predicted events in the life of the Philadelphian church that never transpired.
The common dispensationalist response to these arguments is that the Philadelphian church was protected from the seven-year tribulation because they died before it began. In other words, Jesus was not wrong to say they would be protected from that hour because they never experienced it in the first place! But in that case, these words would not only be true of the Philadelphian church, but for every church that has ever lived on the face of the earth up until now. Can you imagine Jesus saying these same words to the church in Laodecia? “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” Or the church at Ephesus: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” The promise to be kept from that hour is a reward for the faithful endurance of the Philadelphian church. Because they have been faithful to Christ, he will be faithful to them. That is not “legalism,” but the explicit reason Christ gives for why they are protected from that hour: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance.” Not all churches keep Christ’s word about patient endurance. The church at Laodecia certainly did not.
Another argument against the view that this promise of Christ’s faithfulness was intended for the Philadelphian church in the first century is that “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” is directed toward unbelievers, not believers. How is the persecution of Christians living in first century Philadelphia a testing of unbelievers? But this objection ignores the truth that the persecution of Christians is one of the means God uses to test unbelievers to see how they respond to the suffering of Christ’s brothers. Their inaction makes them more accountable on the day of judgment. As Jesus says in Matthew 25:41-46: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'”
Other parallel texts that promise God’s faithfulness to his people in the midst of suffering also shed light on the meaning of this verse. God promises in Isaiah 43:2 to always be with his people in their suffering: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” The words of 2 Peter 2:9, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” is not a promise of immediate deliverance out of every hard situation, but the knowledge that no trial for the Christian can eternally keep him from God’s presence and love. Christians are protected from apostasy in persecution by the power of the Holy Spirit. Suffering and persecution are normal parts of the Christian life: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). The church is experiencing tribulation now: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev 1:9). Christians are partakers in “the tribulation” now. Tribulation is not something for only Christians in the future, but something we must go through if we are genuine Christians (Acts 14:22; 2 Tim 3:12). The persecuted church is praying that we might experience the same sufferings they do so that our faith might be strengthened. For more on the rapture of the church, see Sam Waldron’s book The End Times Made Simple.