In Revelation 3:10, Jesus makes this promise to the church at Philadelphia: “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”
The meaning of the phrase “I also will keep you from the hour of testing” has engendered much discussion and debate about the timing of the rapture. With regard to Revelation 3:10, Bible interpreters fall into three main camps:
- The promise is limited to the church of Philadelphia and has no larger scope or application. This view is refuted by Jesus’s statement that His message is for all the churches (verse 13). Also, the scope of this passage is global, involving “the whole world.”
- Believers are assured they will be preserved through the time of tribulation.
- The passage promises that no believer will be present for any of the future tribulation.
Four key factors point to view three as the best interpretation.
The main debate over how to understand Revelation 3:10 revolves around whether the Greek words tereo ek (“keep from”) mean “protect from or through,” or “remove from.” A great deal of ink has been spilled over the meaning of the preposition ek in this verse. Pretribulationists argue that tereo ek supports the notion of evacuation from the earth before the tribulation. Posttribulationists argue that ek in this verse means “through”—that is, protection from the wrath while on earth during the tribulation. They state that the Lord will keep and preserve believers “from” or “through” the wrath of God, not “out of” the time of it.
The only other use of tereo ek in the New Testament is in John 17:15, which says, “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (emphasis added). The usage of this identical phrase in John 17:15 supports the meaning of ek in Revelation 3:10 as “to keep from completely” or “out from within.”1 God doesn’t keep His people through Satan—the evil one; He keeps us from him (1 John 5:18). “Since John 17:15 means ‘to keep outside’ of the evil one, then the parallel thought in Revelation 3:10 is to keep the church outside the hour of testing. Therefore, only a pretribulation rapture would fulfill the promise.”2
A simpler argument is that if the Lord had meant that believers would be kept “through” the tribulation, there are far better ways to have expressed this. Charles Ryrie says,
If, as postribs say, the promise is that the church will live through the Tribulation under divine protection and emerge at the end, then why was a different preposition not used which would convey that meaning? For instance, “in” (en) would mean the church would be kept (safely) in that time. Or why not “through” (dia) which would mean kept through the Tribulation? Why “from” (ek)? Because that means the church will be removed from the time, and that means a pretrib rapture.3
Getting straight to the point, the idea of keeping or removing believers from the tribulation “is the most natural and simplest translation of the word ek.”4
If, as postribulationists say, Revelation 3:10 is a promise of protection and preservation for believers through the tribulation, then how does one explain the massive casualty count of believers in Revelation 6–18?5 (see Revelation 7:13-14; 13:10, 15; 20:4). As Andy Woods says,
If this is a divine promise, then God does a poor job keeping it since Revelation also records the numerous martyrdoms of believers during the tribulation period…Thus, it is inaccurate to suggest that if the church is on the earth during the tribulation period, it will enjoy divine protection. If this were so, then the countless martyrdoms during this time period are inexplicable.6
It is true that Revelation 9:4 and 16:2 mention divine protection of believers on earth from the fifth trumpet and first bowl judgments, but these are the only two references to God sparing believers on earth during the tribulation. (These believers on earth are not part of the church, but people who received salvation in Christ after the rapture. We often call them “tribulation saints.”) With the exception of the judgments in Revelation 9:4 and 16:2, all the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments will be experienced by believers and unbelievers alike. Beginning in Revelation 6, divine wrath will be falling everywhere. There will be no place on earth to hide. The global scope of the wrath makes it difficult to see how preservation could be achieved by any means other than removal via the rapture.7
Finally, Jesus gave this promise in Revelation 3:10 to comfort the beleaguered church at Philadelphia. If believers will be present on earth during this time of global upheaval, persecution, and massive martyrdom, how comforting would Jesus’s words really be? Would they serve as any real source of consolation or encouragement?8
Jesus promised to keep His people not just from, or out of, the testing of the tribulation, but from the “hour” or time of testing. The church’s exemption is not just from the testing of the Great Tribulation, but from the very time of the testing, which indicates we will be spared from the time of tribulation itself. The assurance of protection from the time of the testing adds further support to the pretrib notion of removal out of the tribulation, not the posttrib idea of safeguarding or protection through it.
Christ promised to keep these church saints from the time period characterized by the testing Christ has in mind. If the Lord had meant that He would keep them from just the testing itself, He could have made that very clear by omitting the words “the hour” and simply saying, “I will keep you from the testing”…If people live within a time period, they are not separated from it…The only way to keep people from an entire time period is to prevent them from entering it.9
Jesus was clear: “I…will keep you from the hour of testing” (emphasis added). As Norman Geisler says, “One cannot be saved from an entire hour by being any part of it.”10 Stripping away all the details, and “the most natural reading of ‘kept from the hour’ is not to be present through it, but to be kept safe in a place away from where it occurs.”11
In Revelation 3:10, Jesus said the purpose of the coming global judgment is “to test those who dwell on the earth.” These “earth dwellers,” referred to for the first time in 3:10, are referred to ten more times in the book of Revelation. Throughout Revelation they are recognized as enemies of God, persecutors of God’s people, and objects of God’s wrath because of their hardened, incorrigible rebellion against the Lord. According to Jesus, one of the primary purposes of the future time of worldwide testing is to try these unbelieving earth dwellers. The purpose of this period is not to test or try believers, but the wicked. They’re the special objects of this judgment. Why would the church need to be present during this time of universal judgment specifically designed for the wicked earth dwellers? It makes no sense for Christians to be present during that time. And we won’t be. The Lord has promised He will spare the church from the tribulation.
Immediately on the heels of reassuring believers that He would remove them from the future time of worldwide testing, Jesus promised them, “I am coming quickly” (Revelation 3:11). The placement of this statement immediately after the promise of deliverance from the time of testing indicates that the coming of Jesus is the means God will use to bring about the church’s removal. This sequence strongly implies that the deliverance of Christians from the hour of testing will occur in conjunction with Christ’s coming.12 This promise of Jesus, then, is consistent with the pretrib rapture view.
Taking into account all the parts of Revelation 3:10-11, we see that Jesus will protect His church from the time of worldwide testing by His coming for them at the rapture. Paul Benware summarizes it this way:
“The promise is to keep the church from the time period of testing, which necessitates actual removal from the time period itself and not preservation through it. The means of the removal from the universal time period of testing is the Rapture prior to the beginning of the Tribulation.”13
Whatever view one takes of Revelation 3:10, it must harmonize well with the rest of the book of Revelation. It’s never proper to wrench a text out of its larger context. The pretrib rapture view of Revelation 3:10 meets this criterion of contextual consistency. The word “church” (Greek, ekklesia) is found 20 times in Revelation. It’s used 19 times in chapters 1–3, then the word doesn’t appear again until Revelation 22:16. After Revelation 3, the next time we meet the bride of Christ, she’s in heaven with Jesus, preparing to return with Him to earth (Revelation 19:7-8). The absence of the church on earth from Revelation 4 to Revelation 18 is consistent with the pretrib view of Revelation 3:10.
Theologian Charles Ryrie provides a helpful illustration of the timing of the rapture in relation to the testing mentioned in Revelation 3:10:
As a teacher I frequently give exams. Let’s suppose that I announce an exam will occur on such and such a day at the regular class time. Then suppose I say, “I want to make a promise to students whose grade average for the semester so far is A. The promise is: I will keep you from the exam.”
Now I could keep my promise to those A students this way: I would tell them to come to the exam, pass out the exam to everyone, and give the A students a sheet containing the answers. They would take the exam and yet in reality be kept from the exam. They would live through the time but not suffer the trial. This is posttribulationism: protection while enduring.
But if I said to the class, “I am giving an exam next week. I want to make a promise to all the A students. I will keep you from the hour of the exam.” They would understand clearly that to be kept from the hour of the test exempts them from being present during that hour. This is pretribulationism, and this is the meaning of the promise of Revelation 3:10. And the promise came from the risen Savior who Himself is the deliverer of the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).14
The Assurance of Exemption
Both the apostle Paul and Jesus promised Christians exemption from the time period during which God would pour out His wrath on the earth. The best way to explain these assurances in their respective scriptural contexts is to hold to the view that believers will be removed from the earth before the outbreak of the global conflagration.
Excerpted from Ed Hindson and Mark Hitchcocks book, Can We Still Believe in the Rapture? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2017).
- Paul Feinberg provides an excellent, thorough discussion of the usage of ek in the Septuagint and the New Testament and tereo ek in John 17:15 in Paul D. Feinberg, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 63-71.
- Richard Mayhue, Christ’s Prophetic Plan, gen. eds. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 96.
- Charles C. Ryrie, Come Quickly, Lord Jesus (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996), 136. Thomas makes the same argument that any of these other prepositions would have made the meaning more obvious. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 286.
- Daniel Green, “Revelation,” in The Moody Bible Commentary, gen. eds. Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 2006.
- Believers on earth during the tribulation in Revelation 6–18 are not the church, but those who come to faith in Jesus after the rapture. These believers, often called tribulation saints, aren’t promised exemption from God’s eschatological wrath as is the church.
- Andrew M. Woods, “John and the Rapture: Revelation 2-3,” in Evidence for the Rapture, gen. ed. John F. Hart (Chicago: Moody, 2015), 198.
- Feinberg, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational?, 70.
- Andrew M. Woods, “John and the Rapture: Revelation 2–3,” 199.
- Showers, Maranatha: Our Lord, Come!, 211-12.
- Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2004), 654.
- Thomas, Revelation 1–7, 288.
- Thomas, Revelation 1–7, 290.
- Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 175.
- Ryrie, Come Quickly, Lord Jesus, 137-38.