Watch and Be Ready For the Coming of the Lord

by Thomas W. Finley


Lesson Two: “Praying...to escape all these things” (Luke 21:34-36)

"Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Lk. 21:34-36)

This passage is one of only two passages which clearly and definitely speak of an “escape” from the great tribulation of the end-times. The other passage is Rev. 3:10. The great debate on the issue of rapture concerns whether, by virtue of its timing, a rapture provides an escape to the church from the tribulation period. In trying to answer any question on Biblical doctrine, the best approach is to give the greatest weight and most careful attention to those passages which are clear, not unclear, and which bear most directly on the topic being studied. These are the only two passages in Scripture which speak directly to the subject of escape from the tribulation of the end-times. Therefore, we must look at them carefully to see what we can learn.

This passage in Luke comes at the end of a long talk Jesus had given on the end-times. Verses 34-36 come after many details of the end-time period. It seems clear that “that day” in verse 34 refers to the time of calamity and judgment (described in many preceding verses) that suddenly falls upon the whole world. In verse 34 Jesus warns His disciples (20:45) that they must take steps so that they will not be caught in that day like a trap. In verse 36 He reiterates this need for preparation by admonishing them to stay alert and pray to be strengthened in order to escape the coming calamities. “All these things” clearly refers to the things of the end-time period, especially those things which will cause men great suffering, or tribulation. We must note that this “promise” of escape is conditional.

Conditions for escape

What are the conditions for the promise in verse 34 that the day will not come upon us as a trap? The “dissipation and drunkenness” are not simply literal, but picture the excessive enjoyment of the pleasures of this life, or self-indulgence. Self-indulgence would include many things besides just what we normally consider as “sins,” such as lying, drunkenness and sexual immorality. Beyond the clear moral imperatives of God’s word, believers must seek to know how to live their daily lives. For example, how much time, money and energy should be spent on recreation, entertainment, hobbies, family affairs, education, career pursuits, etc.? If a believer has the financial means to live beyond a basic lifestyle, what lifestyle should he choose? The believer must “be on guard,” or watch his life carefully, so that his heart is not overly occupied with either the pleasures of this life or the worries of this life. This is a large topic, but in spiritual exercise this means that a believer must be willing to deny himself, not allowing what naturally pleases him, in order to do only what God allows. This basic principle of self-denial is central to discipleship. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me’” (Matt. 16:24). When Jesus went to the cross He denied His choice in order to take God’s choice (the cross). "Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).

This world system is constantly appealing to the fallen flesh of man to indulge itself - to fulfill its desires without any constraint. But God tells us: “15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). To live in godly self-denial does not mean one must live in poverty, or follow some lifestyle of abstinence or asceticism. These ideas come from legalistic rules for supposed holy living. It does mean that the disciple is voluntarily choosing to put aside his will (agreeing to “die to self”) and live unto God, being very sensitive to what the Holy Spirit is indicating is pleasing to Him. Contrary to this godly practice is the believer who is not willing to put aside his choices (at least in certain areas of life) and thus indulges himself, being unwilling to yield to the Holy Spirit in all areas of life. There is no set rule or pattern for what constitutes over-indulgence in the pleasures of this life. Instead, the Holy Spirit is there to guide each one of us into a proper living in His sight. We must be those who learn how to be Spirit-controlled.[1]

Any believer who lets the pleasures of life or the worries of life occupy and control his heart will not grow in spiritual maturity and thus not be qualified to escape the coming trap of the day of great tribulation. See Luke 8:14 where the soil which produces thorns (similar to the preoccupied heart here) brings no fruit to maturity.

What are the conditions of verse 36 which are needed to “escape all these things” of great tribulation? The first requirement is that we be constantly alert to spiritual things, especially our own spiritual life and condition. True spiritual alertness may also give us a sensitivity to the movements of God in the world, the activities of Satan, conditions in the church and world developments in light of Biblical prophecy. Such alertness should prepare us and direct us to properly follow and serve God. In line with this we need to pray in order to be strengthened by God to fully follow Him in His will. In this way we will live a victorious Christian life and thus be qualified to escape “all these things.” The verb translated to “have strength” commonly means “to prevail” (see Matt. 16:18; Lk. 23:23). The King James Version uses the phrase “accounted worthy to escape,” instead of “have strength [prevail] to escape.” This difference is caused by differing ancient manuscripts on this verse. Although we do not know which manuscript is right, the overall point of the verse is the same: we must remain alert and pray in order to prevail and be qualified to escape. The second part of this promise in verse 36 is “to stand before the Son of Man.” This phrase may mean to be approved by Him at His coming (1 Jn. 2:28; Rom. 14:4; Jude 1:24). An alternative understanding could be that this “standing” before the Son of Man refers to the victorious raptured saint’s actual presence before the throne of God (Rev. 14:1, 3). To live in victory does not mean sinless perfection, but it means to have a growing consistency of holiness in our life where we live in union with Christ, not under the dominion of the fallen flesh (see 2 Pet. 1:5-11). In summary, a life of spiritual victory is the overall condition for escape in this passage in Luke.

“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.” (Rev. 3:10)

The verse above from Revelation is a favorite verse of the pre-tribulation rapture school. They see this verse as a very strong promise “to the church” for escape from the coming great tribulation. Yes, it is a strong promise, but once again we must see it is conditional. Firstly, this promise was written to only one of the seven churches in Rev. 2 and 3, namely to the church in Philadelphia. That church was the sole fully overcoming church among the seven. All of the other churches had shortcomings, except for the church in Smyrna. However, the church in Smyrna had not yet been tested. In contrast, Philadelphia had already been tested and approved. The saints there had kept the Lord’s word and not denied His name (3:8). They already had gained a crown, signifying the reward of reigning with Christ in the next age (3:11). They only needed to hold fast to what they had already achieved in the Lord’s eyes (3:11). Are these conditions true of the whole church, all believers? Certainly not, as the other six churches show. These seven churches were not only actual assemblies in Asia, but they represent the kinds of congregations, including the various types of believers, that we encounter in the church age. The condition for escape is clear: “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing.” To keep the word of Christ’s perseverance means to be faithful to follow Him through every temptation, difficulty and circumstance, just as He obeyed God the Father. Again, this does not mean sinless perfection. When there are failures in the lives of such overcoming saints, however, their practice would be to immediately confess and forsake any known sin or act of worldly living. Such saints must indeed be raptured from the earth as they are kept not only from the effects of the tribulation, but even from the very hour (time period) of that world-wide trial.

Therefore, the promise for escape in Rev. 3:10, just as in Luke 21, is conditional, and the condition is to live an overcoming Christian life. In both passages we see that escape is possible, but escape is conditional. In contrast, the “pre-tribulation” school says that all believers who are alive when Christ comes shall escape, with no conditions whatsoever. According to that teaching, even believers who may be living in terrible sin will be raptured. The “post-tribulation” school says that no believers who are alive when Christ comes will escape living through the period of great tribulation. Considering the conditions attached to the two clearest verses directly relating to “escape,” I personally feel confident that the teaching of the two most popular schools on the subject of rapture (“pre-tribulation” and “post-tribulation”) cannot be correct. The truth seems to be that only part of the church will be raptured before the tribulation, the faithful and victorious part. This teaching on rapture is less known by believers, but it has been in existence for many years, and may be termed the “selective rapture” The remainder of the church is raptured later, as I will explain in this writing.

Early rapture is a reward

Some argue that rapture is a matter of grace, with no consideration of our works or actions. Therefore, to them, all believers must be treated equally by God in rapture. However, we must remember that although God gives us all eternal salvation by grace (Eph. 2:8-9) that is not the end of the story in His dealings with us. God also deals with believers according to the principle of “reward” (the different Greek words used mean “wages,” “recompense,” or “repayment” to the person, positive or negative, based upon their doings). In fact, when Jesus returns He will deal with all people on the principle of “recompense according to works” (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 22:12). Believers will be judged and recompensed at the Judgment Seat of Christ according to the principle of recompense, not grace (2 Cor. 5:10). Therefore, there is no necessity of applying the grace principle to a rapture, which does not deal with our eternal salvation.

The Scripture tells us that God delights to reward His people who follow Him in obedience. Hebrews 11 gives us a record of many who followed the Lord in faith at a cost, and the chapter speaks plainly of reward (Heb. 11:6, 26). This chapter tells us that God “is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (11:6). All positive rewards for God’s people do not necessarily follow the Judgment Seat of Christ. God rewarded Simeon and Anna with a special revelation and meeting of the new born Messiah due to their faithfulness (Lk. 2:25-38). God rewarded Enoch with being taken without seeing death, a type of rapture as a reward (Heb. 11:5). The “selective rapture” is a reward to those seeking saints who are following Christ fully when He suddenly comes at an unknown hour. This rapture is a reward that is promised by God (Lk. 21:36; Rev. 3:10). If a Christian reading this booklet is concerned that he or she has not followed the Lord fully and will miss this early rapture, please know that it is not too late to be prepared for that day. A believer can confess his wrongs, change his ways, and then begin to follow the Lord fully, looking eagerly for Jesus’ return. God is gracious and will forgive us where we have failed in the past. He is always willing to grant us a new start to be prepared for His return and for the Judgment Seat of Christ (see Ez. 18:20-32 on this principle).

The doctrine of rapture is not a foundational doctrine of the faith, although it certainly has importance. Because it is not foundational, we must allow for differences in understanding among believers without dividing from them in fellowship. It should also be noted that there have been godly and spiritually useful believers in the universal church who have held to each of the differing rapture views. [2] Therefore, let us not divide from one another over this topic, but instead let each one be persuaded in his own mind on the matter and receive all believers warmly in spite of their views on the matter of rapture (Rom. 14:1-8). In deciding what is the truth regarding the subject of rapture we should be careful to be convinced solely by the Bible. It is often too easy to be persuaded of some doctrine because it is popular or is promoted by some popular teacher we respect. But, each of us should try to put aside any bias due to the popularity or the attractiveness of a doctrine. It is certainly easier to accept a rapture teaching that does not require anything of us than a teaching which requires us to be an overcoming Christian in order to be raptured out before the time of great tribulation.

Now, let us go on to see some other passages about rapture which will confirm the selective rapture theory.

The Principle of the Harvest:

In understanding the matter of rapture we must look at God’s principle for the grain harvest. This principle was shown in the Old Testament in Lev. 23:10-22. God told the Israelites that the first fruits (the early ripened grain) were to be offered to God. Later came the general harvest of the field, with some gleanings for the benefit of the poor and the stranger. Thus, the order and timing of the grain harvest was set: first the first fruits, later the general harvest and the gleanings. In the New Testament Jesus also mentioned the grain harvest:

“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows--how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’" (Mk. 4:26-29)

This parable in Mark follows the parable of the sower, where Jesus sows the word into men’s hearts. Thus, this parable speaks generally of a harvest of believers after they have matured – “when the crop permits [at the point of the matured grain], . . . put in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

In Matthew 13 Jesus spoke of the wheat crop. In Matt. 13:24-30 Jesus spoke the parable of the wheat and the tares. He said that the tares and the wheat should be allowed to grow together in the world unto the point of harvest (v. 30). In His explanation of this parable, Jesus told His disciples that the harvest comes at the end of the age (13:39). These two parables together indicate that the gathering of believers at the end of the age will be like the gathering of a grain harvest. The crop is reaped as it matures. In the principle of harvest there should be some first fruits which ripen early, then a general harvest, as well as gleanings, for grain that ripens later.

The harvests in Revelation 14

This picture of a harvest of believers is fulfilled in the book of Revelation, especially in chapter 14. Rev. 14 opens with 144,000 “first fruits” who are standing on the heavenly Mt. Zion in the presence of God and the Lamb (please read Rev. 14:1-5). In the book of Revelation many things are literal, but some things are symbolic (like the “lamb” pictured in Rev.5:6 and the “key” to the bottomless pit in Rev. 9:1). The 144,000 figure here is probably symbolic and, as a multiple of twelve, has an obvious connection to the church (the twelve apostles). This group represents the early ripened ones of the church who are raptured – “purchased from the earth” (v. 3). They are not literally virgins, as there is no “defilement” (v. 4) as respects sex in marriage. The virginity of the first fruits signifies their purity of devotion to Christ Himself (2 Cor. 11:2-3). Such overcomers in actuality may be men or women. These are ones “who follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (v. 4). This shows their complete obedience to Christ alone. And, they have utmost moral integrity – “no lie is found in their mouth: they are blameless” (v.5).

After the first fruits are harvested, we see the rest of the grain harvest happen in Rev. 14:14-16. Verse 15 tells us that this harvest happens when the remaining crop is ripe: “’Put in your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe.”

If we look carefully at Rev. 14 we will notice a clear sequence of events in six scenes [3]:

  1. The “first fruits” are on the heavenly Mt. Zion with the Lamb whom they have followed (vs. 1-5).
  2. An angel announces to the whole earth that the hour of God’s judgment has arrived (vs. 6-7).
  3. A second angel (sequential in Greek) announces the judgment upon Babylon (v. 8).
  4. A third (sequential) angel issues a warning about worshipping the beast (the Antichrist) and describes the persecution of the saints during the time of great tribulation (vs. 9-13).
  5. The Son of Man reaps His harvest of ripened grain from the earth (vs. 14-16).
  6. The clusters of grapes, men fully ripe for judgment, are gathered and thrown into the great winepress of God’s wrath (vs. 17-20).

This sequence clearly presents the rapture of the overcoming saints (the first fruits) prior to the hour of judgment falling upon the earth, including the time of the beast’s reign and great tribulation. [4] It also pictures the remaining saints going through the tribulation, to be raptured afterwards as mature grain. It is certainly a spiritual principle that God’s children often need great trials in their lives to help them be serious about following God and maturing in their faith. The majority of believers are simply not motivated enough to follow God in a truly seeking fashion, willing to obey Him at any cost. However, when believers of this type realize that they have missed an early rapture and then face the great trial of living on the earth during the time of the Antichrist, they will become very serious and begin to mature.

The rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4

Now we must see how the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, which describes a “rapture” or “catching away” of the saints, fits into this sequence. Here is the passage:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18)

This portion was written by Paul to the believers in Thessalonica because they apparently had some concern that those who had died might not participate in the glory of Christ’s second coming. Paul assures them that those who have died in Jesus will come back with Christ when He returns. Both “the dead in Christ” and “those who are alive who remain” will be caught up in the clouds to meet Jesus in the air. As it seems that this rapture includes all believers, when does it take place? It would not be the early “first fruits” rapture, as that rapture takes only a portion of the living believers from the earth. This passage speaks of the general harvest when most of the grain is finally ripe. At the time of the general harvest we see the Son of Man sitting on a cloud (Rev. 14:14), and in this passage we see the believers caught up to the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. This passage also speaks of a trumpet and the archangel. In Matt. 24:30-31 we also see a gathering of the elect, which happens “after the tribulation of those days” (Matt. 24:29):

“But immediately after the tribulation of those days...And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. "And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” (Matt. 24:29-31)

This rapture, or gathering, of the saints at this point in time would be all of the remaining saints, those still on the earth (or dead in Christ), after the first fruits rapture. The idea of some believers remaining on the earth after the first fruit rapture may be indicated by the unusual phrase “who remain,” or “who are left” to further describe those alive at the time of this final gathering. This phrase is used twice and seems redundant, unless the Holy Spirit is including it specifically for clarity. Two versions (American Standard Version and English Standard Version) translate the word as “left” instead of “remain.” In other words, this phrasing may well mean that those who are alive at that time are those who have been left behind on the earth following an earlier rapture.

“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thess. 4:15, ESV)

“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:17, ESV)

Would there also be gleanings? This passage in 1 Thess. 4 seems to indicate that this gathering includes all living believers (and this may include gleanings), but some gleanings may be indicated by Rev. 16:15, seemingly at a point in time later than the general harvest in Rev. 14:14-16.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] For more help on this topic of discipleship, please see the author’s lesson series entitled, “The Victorious Christian Life”.

[2] Since many readers will have never heard of the selective rapture view, they may wish to know the names of some who have held this teaching. Some names are: Hudson Taylor (The China Inland Mission, 19th century), G. Campbell Morgan (British Congregational minister, 19th/20th centuries), A. B. Simpson (19th/20th centuries; Christian and Missionary Alliance), Robert Govett (British expositor, 19th century), G. H. Lang (British teacher, 20th century), Evan Roberts (of the 1904 Welsh revival), D. M. Panton (20th century British teacher; editor of the “Dawn” magazine), George N. H. Peters (19th century American Lutheran pastor; author of “The Theocratic Kingdom”), T. Austin-Sparks (20th century British teacher), and Watchman Nee (with the “Little Flock” movement in China, 20th century).

[3] Grateful acknowledgment is given to G. H. Lang for pointing out this most telling sequence of six scenes in his book on rapture entitled, “Firstfruits and Harvest.”

[4] This early harvesting of first fruits should include a resurrection of the overcoming dead saints, as well as the living. The dead are raised “each in his own order [or “company”]; Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His Coming” (1 Cor. 15:23). A literal rendering of this last clause is: “afterward the ones of Christ in the presence of Him.” In the feasts of the Lord in Lev. 23 there was first a single sheaf of first fruits waved before the Lord, representing Christ’s resurrection (Lev. 23:9-11). Then, fifty days later two loaves were waved, which were still part of the “first fruits,” which were gathered before the general harvest (Lev. 23:15-17). Christ’s coming is His parousia (presence) consisting of a period of time when He is near the earth in the clouds after leaving His place with the Father. During this prolonged period there will be various raptures and the Judgment Seat of Christ.