37) Kept from the Hour of Trial (Revelation 3:10-11)
If you’ve ever wondered whether it mattered much to Jesus that you’ve kept the faith and maintained your commitment to him, this promise to the church of Philadelphia should put your fears to rest.
Sadly, today, more attention is given to sensational claims of supernatural exploits than to the routine faithfulness of the average Christian. Simple virtues like integrity, endurance in the face of pain and disappointment, persistence in one’s struggle with sin, and love for the brethren aren’t the sort that get written up on the Drudge Report or fill the editorial page of the New York Times.
But I can assure you that they are of paramount importance to our Lord. Such resolute commitment to stay the course, spiritually speaking, may not get your name in the church bulletin or result in an invitation to appear on the 700 Club, but it matters pre-eminently to Jesus! The world may mock you for it, laugh, and consider you a fool to sacrifice so much of a monetary and personal nature simply for the sake of retaining your public and private commitment to Jesus, but this is no small matter.
If you doubt what I’m saying, look closely at our Lord’s words in Revelation 3:10-11. “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance,” said Jesus to the church in Philadelphia, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (3:10-11; emphasis mine).
Patient endurance (ESV) is no small feat, especially given our proclivity for impatience, self-preservation, and our desire for personal peace and comfort. Add to this the longing to be liked and the love of money, and you can begin to grasp the significance of our Lord’s promise to the faithful.
Now that I’ve made what I believe is the most important point in this passage, let me turn to the theological controversies that swirl around it.
As you probably know, people often appeal to this text in support of the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. Personally, I don’t believe Jesus (or John) had any such thing in mind. A few observations should make this clear.
First, the notion that any Christian is assured of special protection from trials, tribulations, and persecution is unbiblical. We’ve seen repeatedly in these seven letters that suffering for the sake of Christ and the gospel is something all believers must embrace (see Rev. 2:2-3; 2:9-10; 2:13; 3:8-10). According to Paul, it is “through many tribulations (thlipsis; the same word used in Rev. 1:9; 7:14) we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Jesus declared that “in the world you will have tribulation (thlipsis)” (John 16:33). Again, we are to “rejoice in our sufferings (thlipsis)” (Romans 5:3; see also John 15:19-20; Acts 5:40-41; 1 Cor. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 11:24-25; 2 Timothy 3:12).
Second, the trial or tribulation that is coming is designed for the judgment of unbelievers, not Christians. “Those who dwell on the earth” (v. 9) or “earth-dwellers” is a stock phrase in Revelation that always refers to pagan persecutors of the church (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8,12,14; 14:6; 17:2,8). They are the ones who suffer the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments of Revelation which characterize the entire church age, from the first coming of Christ to his second.
Third, the promise, then, is for spiritual protection in the midst of physical tribulation. Jesus is assuring his people that he will provide sufficient sustenance to preserve them in their faith, no matter what they face. The promise here is similar to what we find in Revelation 7:1-3,13-14 where the people of God are “sealed” lest they suffer spiritual harm from “the great tribulation (thlipsis)” (v. 14; cf. also Rev. 11:1-2; 12:6,14-17). Clearly, believers endure and emerge from tribulation spiritually secure. As Beale notes, “they are not preserved from trial by removal from it, but their faith is preserved through trial because they have been sealed by God” (292).
Fourth, pre-tribulationists have typically insisted that the only way God’s people can be spiritually protected from the outpouring of divine wrath is by being physically removed from the earth. But this is clearly not the case, as John 17:15 makes clear (as also does the presence of the Israelites in Egypt during the time of the ten plagues). In this passage we find the only other place in the NT where the precise phrase “kept from” (tereo ek) is used. There Jesus prays to the Father: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
It’s important to note in this text that “keep from” is actually contrasted with the notion of physical removal. Jesus prays not that the Father “take them out of the world” (i.e., physically remove them), but that the Father “keep them from” Satan’s effort to destroy their spiritual life. Thus, when we turn to Revelation 3:10 we see that it is from the wrath of God poured out on “earth-dwellers” (unbelievers) that he promises to “keep” them. In the face of certain opposition and oppression from Satan, the Beast, and unbelievers, this is a glorious promise indeed.
Fifth, we must never forget that it is precisely in remaining faithful unto death that our greatest victory is achieved (not in being “raptured” to safety; cf. Rev. 2:10). Believers conquer Satan and the Beast “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
But what, precisely, is “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world,” and when will it occur?
Of one thing I’m certain: the promise of protection must be of practical benefit and reassurance for the people of the church in Philadelphia in the first century. Thus, contrary to what is argued by Dispensationalists, this “hour of trial” can’t be restricted to (although it may be inclusive of) a time of tribulation at the end of the present age.
If you are inclined to insist on a strictly futurist interpretation of the “hour of trial”, ask yourself whether it seems odd (dare I say, impossible) that Jesus would promise one church in Asia Minor in the first century that they were to be protected from an event that not one single individual in that church would ever see, indeed, an event that allegedly would not transpire for at least another 1,900 years! How could this “hour of trial” be an event centuries after the Philadelphian Christians lived, especially since their protection from it is the very specific reward to them of their very specific, and historically identifiable, resistance to persecution and steadfast faithfulness in proclaiming the word of God? They are promised protection because they “kept the word” of Christ’s perseverance.
I’m persuaded that Jesus is referring to that “tribulation” (thlipsis) which has already begun for Christians (including the Philadelphians) and will continue throughout the present age. In writing to the churches, John identifies himself as their “brother and partner in the tribulation [thlipsis] and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). In other words, “the hour of trial” is likely a reference to the entire, inter-advent church age, during which there will always be suffering and tribulation for those who stand firm in their witness for Christ.
This isn’t to deny that there will emerge an especially intensified and horrific period of tribulation in connection with the return of Christ at the end of history (regardless of how long you conceive it to be). But Jesus must have in mind an experience that was impending or already present for the Philadelphian believers in the first century and for all believers in subsequent centuries of the church’s existence.
Jesus concludes with both a word of assurance and an exhortation: “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Rev. 3:11). Is this “coming” the Second Advent at the close of history or a first-century disciplinary visitation? Possibly the former, but assuredly not the latter. After all, given the obedience of the Philadelphian church, there was no need for a “coming” of Jesus to judge or chastise (as was the case with Ephesus in 2:5, Pergamum in 2:16, and Sardis in 3:3).
However, there may be another option. Beale suggests that “the ‘coming’ referred to in this verse is the increased presence of Christ that will protect these believers when they pass through tribulation, as has just been mentioned in v. 10” (293). In other words, this may be a spiritual coming to provide comfort and the power to persevere, a drawing near to their hearts to energize them in their commitment. His “coming” or approach to them is not spatial, but spiritual and sanctifying, in which he intensifies his sustaining influence in their souls. If he can “come” to the churches at Ephesus, Pergamum, and Sardis to discipline, he can certainly “come” to the church at Philadelphia to strengthen and bless.
“Hold fast,” is the exhortation, lest the reward for faithful and fruitful obedience be taken from them. Those who have until now held fast and patiently endured must continue to persevere. Here again we see the beautiful and altogether harmonious interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. As I said in a previous meditation, we must persevere in our commitment to him, and we shall persevere because of his commitment to us. Even so, “come” Lord Jesus and preserve us “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).