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.
It is always an interesting thing to have my daily Bible reading take me through the book of Revelation. While I do not often make a big deal of eschatological views, views of how the end of the world will come, I could not help thinking about this verse in Revelation 3 as it does or does not relate to a popular system of beliefs. I will preface by reminding readers that, though Christians will disagree on these points, this is a topic for thoughtful and prayerful consideration, but certainly not for division. We are all still giving this our best biblical guess here.
Pretribulation proponents, those who believe that Jesus will secretly return to snatch his church out of the world before a period of intense suffering at the end of the age, often cite Revelation 3:10 as a verse which supports their point. They say that Philadelphia is a model of the faithful church which will be raptured out of the world, hence the promise from Jesus to keep them from the hour of testing that is to come upon the whole world. John MacArthur, in his Revelation commentary, writes, “Because the believers in Philadelphia had successfully passed so many tests, Jesus promised to spare them from the ultimate test. The sweeping nature of that promise extends far beyond the Philadelphia congregation to encompass all faithful churches throughout history. This verse promises that the church will be delivered from the Tribulation, thus supporting a pretribulation Rapture.”1
But MacArthur’s view is not the only one posited by respected commentaries. The highly technical New International Greek Testament Commentary, after examining the language of Revelation 3:10 in light of several other passages, declares, “Accordingly, the following interpretative rendering is best here: ‘I will keep you safe from the spiritual harm of the coming tribulation period.’” Further arguing from the seeming similarities in the letters to other churches in Revelation 2-3, , this commentary declares, “If our assessment is correct that the letters of Smyrna and Philadelphia possess literary and conceptual parallels, then 3:10 does not refer to physical but spiritual protection of believers from tribulation because those in Smyrna were promised spiritual protection even though some might die in the tribulation.”3
So, what do we do? Here we have two well-respected commentaries saying totally opposite things. In my own opinion, the letters written to the seven churches are clearly real letters intended by God to encourage, challenge, or speak to real churches of that time. Thus, readers cannot assume that the letter to Philadelphia is any less than an affirmation to that church that God would keep them safe during a time of future persecution when the whole world around them was going through trouble. Times like that would have occurred more than once in the life of that church during the time of the Roman Empire, and any of those times would have been sufficient for that church to know that Jesus had kept his promise.
But what about the view that this is a far-reaching promise to span the centuries and to be an encouragement to the church universal? This reading is less obvious given the present context. Since such a reading of symbolic meaning is less obvious, it is inherent on the interpreter to bear the burden of proof for his case. I see nothing in the arguments of Dr. MacArthur, or of any other commentators thus far, which convinces me that they have successfully born that burden. The context of these letters gives us no indication that they are intended by God to tell a church some two thousand years later that she will not have to go through the persecutions presented by antichrist. The text just does not stand up to that reading unless the interpreter brings a great deal more to the table than is initially there.
Let us ask this question of the letter to the church at Philadelphia: “Who is to benefit from this letter?” If all we have is the position that this is a symbolic promise that the church will be raptured before the tribulation, then the church at Philadelphia is not benefitted from that promise. However, if the letter is specifically for Philadelphia, are we benefitted? In my judgment, the most clear understanding of what God is doing here is encouraging the church at Philadelphia in her very real and very present persecutions. God will protect the Philadelphia church through a looming persecution. At the same time, we can be encouraged, knowing that the God who did protect the Philadelphia church, even when the world around her was going crazy, will keep us in his care regardless of what is happening around us.
Is it totally unheard of to have God allow his people to remain in a world and somehow protect his people from the kinds of supernatural judgments that he is pouring out on that world? Of course not. One need only read the book of Exodus to see that God has, in times past, allowed his people to suffer at the hands of evil men, poured out his judgments on those evil men, and somehow supernaturally protected his people from that judgment while not removing his people from the land where the judgments are taking place.
Similarly, the church at Philadelphia went through some hard times. They certainly would have been surrounded by great persecution and trouble. God’s keeping that church through that time did not include him taking them out of that world. For Christ to keep his promise to the church at Philadelphia would have involved his protection of them, but not his snatching them away from the world in which they lived.
Finally, is this an important issue? Yes, though probably not as important as some would make it. Eschatology is a tough topic, and there are far too many good arguments out there as to how we are to interpret these prophetic books. What is important is that we remember that God is faithful, that he always keeps his promises, and that he will do what is right. Is it possible that his church will go through great persecution either at the hands of antichrist or at the hands of other evil men? Of course that is possible; Jesus even promised it. God also wants us to learn that , no matter what happens around us, he is still our God and will still keep his people. He will not lose us, no matter how hard the world tries to destroy us. We can be encouraged that Jesus’ words are true when he promises to be with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And we can have that encouragement without reading extra symbolism into Jesus’ promises to the church at Philadelphia.
See also “A Rare Post on Eschatology”
1John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 124.
2G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 292.