Is the Church Absent in Revelation?

A Lone LIghthouse
Proponents of the Pre-Tribulation “Rapture” claim the “Church” is not present during the events portrayed in Revelation after chapter 4. Thereafter, the book portrays the Great Tribulation during History’s final seven years, which culminates in the coming of Jesus to overthrow the Antichrist.
The main argument stems from the omission of the term “church” in chapters 4-18. Though followers of Jesus may be present, they do not constitute the “church”; it was instead removed from the planet via “rapture.”
As one proponent wrote, “In the entirety of Revelation 4-18, no mention of the church on earth is found. Instead, believers are referred to as believing Gentiles or believing Jews but never as the church. The total absence of any reference to the church is difficult to explain unless the pre-tribulationists are correct that the church is in heaven and not on the earth during this period” [John Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 279. Also, Timothy LaHaye and Ed Hinson, Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy (Eugene: Harvest House, 2004), p. 311; Hal Lindsey, Vanished Into Thin Air (Beverly Hills: Western Front, 1999), pp. 223-225; John Hagee, From Daniel to Doomsday (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1999), p. 99].
But if the Church can be identified in the Great Tribulation, the rationale for the Pre-Tribulation Rapture collapses. As John Walvoord wrote, the late president of Dallas Theological Seminary), “In prophetic passages concerning the Tribulation, both Israelites and Gentiles are described, and some of them have faith in Christ and form a godly remnant. If they are part of the church, then the church is in the Tribulation, and the whole question as to whether the church goes through the Tribulation becomes moot” (Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies, p. 282.).
This line of reasoning has several problems:
1.    It is based on the logical fallacy argumentum silento, an argument from silence. Because the term “church” is omitted, it is assumed absent.
2.   It ignores the several other terms in the New Testament applied to the Church, several of which occur in Revelation.
3.   It ignores the literary links between the seven messages of chapters 2-3 with the rest of the book.
4.   It does not take seriously the descriptions of followers of Jesus in chapters 4-20.
The Greek noun rendered “church” (ekklésia) is omitted in the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, and in the letters of 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John and Jude. Based on the logic of the Pre-Tribulation position, it can be assumed none of these documents are directly applicable or relevant to the “Church.” Yet many key Christian doctrines are touched on if not dealt with in detail in these ten documents.
The rationale of the Pre-Tribulation position ignores the several other terms the New Testament applies to the Church. This includes in the letters that omit “church,” for example, the terms “elect ones”, “peculiar people”, “heirs”, “believers”, “saints”, the “called ones”, and the “redeemed ones” (2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; Titus 3:8; 1 Peter 1:2; 1:18; 2:4; 2 Peter 1:8; 1 John 3:23; Jude 3).
Several other terms and metaphors are used to describe the Church in the New Testament, including “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:12, 12:27), “Temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16), “living stones,” “spiritual house,” “holy priesthood,” “elect race,” “royal priesthood,” “holy nation,” “people of God,” “pilgrims and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:5-10).
Different terms express different aspects of the one people of God; no single term can do justice to the Bible’s understanding of the saints. Each term and image expresses a specific aspect or character of God’s people. “Church” or ekkésia, for example, means “assembly” or “congregation.” It is derived from Old Testament passages that refer to the “congregation of Israel” and the “congregation of Yahweh” (Exodus 12:3-6, 12:47, 29:42, Leviticus 14:23).
Noteworthy is Paul’s description of the group in view in his epistle to Titus, a people God saved, “not from deeds done in righteousness, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).
The argument that a group of believers is not the Church simply because the term “church” is not applied to them is a difference without a distinction. It ignores the great variety of terms and images used by the Bible to portray the people redeemed by Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation is addressed to God’s “bond-servants” (doulos – 1:1-9, 2:20), the seven “churches” of Asia “loosed from sins by the blood” of Jesus, which he constituted a “kingdom of priests.” The seven “churches” are symbolized in the opening vision by seven “lampstands” (1:20, 2:1). The members of the seven “churches” are “fellow-participants” in the “tribulation (2:9-10), kingdom and endurance (2:2-3, 2:19, 3:10) in Jesus.” Rather than resist or escape from persecution, the churches are called to endure and faithfully bear witness. In this way, believers “overcome” to inherit the promises in the New Creation (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:21).
Similarly, those sealed by the Seal of God in Revelation 7:2-4 are identified as the “bond-servants of God.” Likewise, those slain by the Great Harlot are also identified as God’s bond-servants (19:2).
The innumerable company of the redeemed in Revelation 5:9-10 and 7:13-17 consists of men and women from every nation who have been purchased by and washed their robes white in the “blood of the Lamb.” They constitute a kingdom of priests that reign on the earth (5:10. cp. 20:6).
Just as the seven churches were called to “overcome” through faithful endurance, it is by emulating Christ’s endurance “even unto death” that believers gain the right to reign with him (3:21, 5:5-6 – “he who overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father in his throne”). Indeed, the “brethren” overcome Satan “because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and because they loved not their life even unto death” (12:11).
The perseverance in trials and persecution to which the Seven Churches of Asia are called is epitomized by the faithful endurance of the followers of the Lamb in Revelation 4-18. The call repeated to each of the Seven Churches is to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” In Revelation 14:12-13, resistance to the Beast and faithful witness is defined as the “perseverance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” The same Spirit that speaks to the Seven Churches declares “the dead who die in the Lord” blessed.
The book of Revelation in its entirety is the Prophecy meant for God’s “servants.” It concerns “things that must soon come to pass” (1:1-8). It is addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia, a revelation from Jesus who is the “Faithful Witness, firstborn of the dead, and who loosed us from our sins by his blood” (1:5). By faithful witness is meant Christ’s self-sacrificial death (1:18, 2:8, 5:5-6). The churches are called to be faithful witnesses in the same way (2:13, 3:21, 12:11).
Relevant is how John identifies himself as a “fellow-participant in the Tribulation and Kingdom and perseverance in Jesus” (1:9). In the Greek sentence, there is one definite article or “the” that marks all three nouns; all are aspects of the same experience. There is no kingdom rule without tribulation and perseverance. At the time John wrote this he was in exile on the Island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
The seven messages that follow in chapters 2-3 exhort the churches to “overcome” because of what is about to occur. They do not do so by flight or escape, but by eschewing false teachers, refusal to compromise with idolatry, faithful testimony, and perseverance through persecution, even unto death.
The church at Smyrna (2:8-11) already suffered “tribulation” and now finds itself “destitution.” Nevertheless, in Christ’s eyes, this congregation is truly “rich” for having faithfully endured slander and persecution. Rather than escape, this church is promised further “tribulation for ten days,” therefore its members must become “faithful until death.” It is precisely in this way that they “overcome,” inherit the “crown of life” and avoid the Second Death. From start to finish the theme of Revelation is not escaping but endurance.
In chapter 5, John sees the One Sitting on the Throne holding a sealed scroll in his right hand. No one in heaven, on the earth or under it can be found who is worthy to unseal and open the Scroll. This causes John to weep profusely (5:1-4). Suddenly one of the elders tells John to weep not because the “Lion the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome to open the scroll and its seals.”
This messianic figure is none other than Jesus symbolized by a freshly slain sacrificial Lamb (5:5-6). Jesus has “overcome” and earned the right to execute the contents of the scroll, but he has done so through his sacrificial death, not escape or violence. Martyrdom is the key to victory, not “rapture” or military conquest.
The Lamb is declared “worthy” to take and open the scroll precisely because “by your blood, you redeemed men and women from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, and made them a kingdom of priests, and they are reigning on the earth” (5:7-10). John previously described the Seven Churches as also loosed from sins by the blood of Jesus and thereby constituted a kingdom of priests (1:5-6).
The company now described is not any specific nation or ethnic group, but men and women from every nation and tribe. What characterizes and sets them apart is not ethnicity but redemption by Christ’s death.
In the opening of the Fifth Seal, John sees “under the altar the souls of the ones slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (6:9-11).
In Revelation 7:1-4, John sees an angel seal the “bond-servants of God” (doulos) on the forehead with the seal of the Living God. In 7:9-17 he sees an innumerable multitude from “every nation, tribe, people, and tongue,” men and women who “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This vast company is seen “coming out of the Great Tribulation.” In Revelation tribulation or thlipsis (θλιψις) is something followers of Jesus endure (1:9, 2:8-10, 2:22, 7:14). This group is described with some of the same terminology already used in preceding chapters.
The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:3-13 are interpreted as two lampstands. Previously lampstands represented churches. If Revelation’s symbolism is consistent then the Two Witnesses also represent churches. This is confirmed in verse 7 where the “beast that ascends out of the Abyss shall make war with them, and overcome them, and kill them.” This is a verbal allusion to Daniel 7:21 when the little horn “made war with the saints and overcame them.”
Following Satan’s expulsion from Heaven, a loud voice declares that the “brethren” overcame him “by the blood of the Lamb, by their word of testimony, and because they loved not their life even unto death” (12:9-11).
Perseverance and martyrdom accounted for their victory, not “rapture” or escape. If they have been redeemed by the Lamb’s blood, how can these "brethren" not be part of the church?
Enraged and cast to the earth Satan “departed to make war with the rest of her seed,” another allusion to Daniel 2:21. This “seed” is identified as them “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (12:17), that is, followers of the Lamb.
The Dragon next prosecutes his “war against the Woman’s seed” through his earthly agent, the Beast (13:1-10). It is “given” to the Beast to “make war with the saints, and to overcome them” (13:7). By “overcome” the text means to kill. This is confirmed by the description of verse 10: “if anyone is for captivity, to captivity he goes. If anyone is to be slain by the sword, by the sword he is slain.” Faithfully enduring persecution is how the “saints” overcome the Beast: Once again this passage alludes to Daniel 7:21.
That the “saints” in 13:7-10 are followers of Jesus is proved by the declaration of 14:12-13: “HERE is the perseverance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” Those who “die in the Lord from henceforth” are declared “blessed!” This group is identical to the “seed of the Woman,” those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).
The group of 144,000 males in Revelation 14:1-5 receive the Lamb’s name and his Father’s name written upon their foreheads, just as Jesus promised to over-coming Christians in Philadelphia (“I will write upon them the name of my God” - 3:12).
In contrast to them who render homage to the Beast, the 144,000 “sing a new song” before the Heavenly Throne; they have been “redeemed from the earth.” This parallels Revelation 5:8-11 where the Four Living Creatures and twenty-four Elders “sang a new song” that declared the Lamb “worthy,” because he “redeemed unto God by his blood men from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.”
Likewise, in 7:9-17, John saw an innumerable multitude of men and women from “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” standing before the Heavenly Throne, having washed their robes and made them white by the blood of the Lamb.” The same redemptive reality is in view in each passage but from different perspectives.
The 144,000 “males” have not been defiled with women and they “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” In their “mouth is no lie for they are spotless.” Similarly, in Sardis Christ found a “few names that defiled not their garments: and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (3:14). The innumerable multitude also was assembled before the Throne because its members had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14-15). In each preceding case, the common factor is redemption by the blood of the Lamb.
Just before the outpouring of the seven last plagues, John sees victorious saints who “overcame from the Beast” (15:2). Followers of the Lamb overcome, not by escape from persecution but by the refusal to take the mark of the Beast. Each saint standing on the Sea of Glass has a harp. Just as the Living Creatures, Elders and the 144,000 “sang a new song,” so this group “sings the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.” The verbal and conceptual parallels are deliberate; the same group is in view in each case.
In Revelation 17:1-6, John sees Babylon “drunk with the blood of the saints and the witnesses of Jesus.” Previously “saints” were identified as those who have “the faith” and the testimony of Jesus (12:17, 14:12), and as those who endure and persevere through the “wars” of the Beast (13:7-10). In view of Revelation 17:1-6 it is not a separate group of saints, but the same assembly of faithful witnesses.
The Greek noun rendered “witnesses” in 17:6 is martus, the same word applied to Christ the faithful witness, and to Antipas who was “slain where Satan dwells” (2:13). Jesus is the “faithful and true witness” (3:14), the Two Witnesses were killed because of their prophetic word (11:4-7), the souls under the altar “were slain for their testimony” (6:9), the “brethren” overcame the Dragon by the “word of their testimony” (12:11), and the “seed of the Woman” persecuted by the Dragon is made up of them who have the “testimony of Jesus” (12:17).
The final victory over the Beast and Babylon is anticipated in Revelation 17:14 in the proclamation: “These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings.” But the Lamb is not alone in this victory, for “they who are with him are called and elect and faithful.”
The term “faithful” or pistos is prominent in the messages to the Seven Churches. Smyrna is exhorted to “be faithful (pistos) until death” (2:10). Antipas is Christ’s “faithful one” (pistos), because of his martyrdom (2:13). Thus the “faithful” from the Seven Churches will participate in Christ’s final victory over his enemies.
The downfall of Babylon is announced in chapter 18. But before her actual downfall, God’s “people” (laos) must come out of her,” lest they partake of her sins and of her judgment (18:3-4). A voice calls “saints,” “apostles” and “prophets” to rejoice over Babylon’s fall (18:20-24). In her “the blood of prophets and saints was found.” “Saints” consistently refers to followers of Jesus with no reference to their ethnicity or nationality (5:8, 8:3-4, 11:18, 13:7-10, 14:12, 16:6, 17:6). So also the term “bond-servant” (19:1-2, 19:5, 1:1, 2:20, 7:3, 10:7, 11:18).
Revelation’s epilogue reiterates key themes from the book. Chapters 4-18 is not a section separated from the first three chapters; it is not about an entirely different set of subjects. Instead, it is an integral part of the whole.
In this “prophecy,” singular, God’s angel has “shown his servants the things that must soon come to pass” (see 1:1). The man or woman who “keeps the words of the prophecy of this scroll” is blessed. John again describes himself as a “fellow-servant” of his brethren, the prophets; the ones who keep the words of this scroll” (22:8-9). The angel was sent by Jesus “to bear witness of these things for the Churches” (22:16-20).
This confirms that the entire revelation was intended for the Churches of Asia; the Church does not fall out of the picture after chapter 3.
The book of Revelation is a message and exhortation for and about the Church, the people of God made up of men and women from every nation and ethnic group; believers who have been redeemed by Christ’s death.
It is for men and women who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, including even unto martyr’s death. The whole idea of escape from tribulation and persecution is contrary to the fundamental theme of the book.