August 24, 2020

I was a new church planter, green as a bag of spinach.

                   Our co-worker had just changed his position on the rapture of the Church. At the same time I had started to teach First and Second Thessalonians in the adult Sunday School class—two epistles in which Paul discusses this event in detail. My colleague, who was the pastor of this new assembly, was in the class. Was I to sneak around the issue in order to maintain the peace, or confidently proclaim Paul’s compelling argument and risk splitting a new church? My ordination vow to “preach the truth no matter what” hung over me like a dark cloud.

                   Part of my fear was that I might be missing something myself as I explored Paul’s letter to those discouraged Thessalonian believers. Could I be reading between the lines? Had the pre-tribulationists committed some hermeneutical felony? Would my friend stand up one morning in class and, with one shot, blow me out of the water? Iwas shaken.


Then good old Abraham came to my rescue. It was January and I had just begun to read through the Scriptures again. One snowy morning as I was reading Genesis 18, the implications of Abraham’s intercessory prayer for Lot hit me like a train. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked . . . Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:23b, 25,). 

                 “Could it be true, Lord,” I prayed, “that You laid the foundation for my Blessed Hope in Sodom?” I was fascinated and decided to explore Abraham’s intercession for Lot and his bold statement about God’s sense of justice. Was it based on fact, or was it the patriarch’s clever attempt to dupe God into sparing his nephew?

                   My answer about Abraham’s attitude came quickly. In verse 27 he prayed, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the LORD, I who am but dust and ashes.” Abraham’s fear of Jehovah God was intact—a great help when one begins to make assertions about his character. Why, then, did he test God’s patience by narrowing his margin of mercy in the last half of the chapter? I realize now that he was trying to confirm in practical terms what he knew in his heart of hearts to be true—which is exactly what I was doing. 


I noticed two striking principles in Abraham’s words in verse 25. First, he said, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked.” Anything but a pre-ribulation rapture, then, would force God to act contrary to his character—a first for him. 

                 Second, he prayed, “. . . so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you!” God is working through human history to eliminate sin from his creation (Heb. 9:26). The entire agenda of redemption reflects his desire to separate the righteous from the wicked once and for all. And this is true not only in heaven. He commands his people to be distinct from the world (2 Cor. 6:17), to be conspicuous in their devotion to him. I asked myself, Why would God go to such lengths to enable the wicked to become righteous and then treat them as if they were still wicked?  

                 He wouldn’t. 

                 Not long after Abraham prayed this prayer, God confirmed by the sparing of Lot and his family that Abraham’s assessment of his character was accurate. And this was just a case in point. Time and again this principle is illustrated in the history of God’s people. God rescued Noah and his family from the Flood. Sin was so widespread he considered only eight people righteous, and of those eight only Noah is describes as finding “favor in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen. 6:8). Yet he and his household were spared. 

                 God’s angel of death passed over those who followed his instructions regarding escape from Egypt. Exodus12:38 tells us that even some Egyptians were spared in this manner.  

                 Later in Exodus we read how he permitted the sons of Levi, including Aaron, to come over to his side before ordering the execution of over 3,000 Jews whom Moses had discovered dancing frenzied and naked before Aaron’s golden calf (Ex. 32:25-35). 

                 When Korah rebelled in Numbers16, the Lord separated him and his company from the congregation at large so they could be judged. The desperate plea of Moses and Aaron in verse 22 is reminiscent of Abraham’s prayer for Lot: “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with the whole congregation?” The psalms attributed to the sons of Korah many enturies later attest to God's act of mercy. 

                 Much later, God permitted Joshua and Caleb to enter Canaan as the only two representatives of the enslaved generation of Hebrews. They alone had displayed the trust andobedience God expected of his people. 

                 Before the destruction of Jericho, the Hebrew spies promised Rahab the prostitute that she and her family would be saved if she hung a scarlet rope from the window of her house on the city wall. Her rudimentary faith in the God of Israel prompted her to obey, and Joshua 6:22-26 tell us how she and her household were rescued from her home before the city fell. 

                 Even when the nation as a whole rebelled and had to be chastened, God spared a remnant of godly Jews in Judah who would restore his people to fellowship with him. Some of these (Esther, Nehemiah, and Daniel), though in captivity, became heads of state or key figures in the history of the ancient world. God used them for the express purpose of preserving his people so Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, could come and deliver us from our sin. 

                 God is never capricious in judgment. He promised blessing to the righteous and damnation to the wicked (Lev. 26), and his punitive acts were always consistent with his word to Israel. Nowhere in the Bible have I come across a place where God pronounced the same judgment on the righteous and the wicked. It is simply not his natureto do so. 


In my mind, I tried out some of the objections to this line of thinking: What about the many believers who will be martyred during the tribulation? For that matter, what about all the thousands of Christians today and throughout history who have been slaughtered for their faith? Shouldn’t God have spared them? 

                 Martyrdom is not a judgment of God, bur rather an injustice perpetrated by his enemies. God honours and rewards those who die for his sake (Matt. 10:39; Rev. 2:10). Paul instructs the Philippians to have the same perspective as Christ, who was “obedient to thepoint of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8b). This is not deciding to be obedient until I die; it is being willing to die for being obedient. Furthermore, God will preserve a remnant of Jews at the close of the tribulation who will follow Christ and escape death so they can populate the earthly kingdom of the Son of David. We read about these noble believers in Revelation 14.  

                 Then what about the judgment on Gentiles during the tribulation? If this is the “time of Jacob’s trouble,” is God fair in punishing non-Jews? The judgment will be worldwide, and God will allow unbelieving Israel to suffer the punishment of the unbelieving. Believers will either be martyred or ushered into the millennial kingdom. This is consistent with God’s nature and the principle we find in Genesis 18. 

                 As I finished teaching Paul’s Thessalonian epistles to my class that winter, I was confronted with some of the clearest logic in the New Testament. It seemed to me a child could have understood the implications of Paul’s teaching. Even the respected contemporary post-tribulational scholars I read did not interpret Paul consistently. If one accepts the normal use of language, one has to impose a theological presupposition on the text to reach any other conclusion than the one Abraham reached thousands of years before. The Old Testament does not need the NewTestament to confirm theological facts it has already established. 

                 Paul’s writings do not stand alone. The distinction between Israel and the Church, which is required for a clear understanding of Matthew 24 and 25, is an important component of the biblical position on the timing of the rapture. So is the understated description of the tribulation as “a time of distress for “ Israel (Jer. 30:7), indicating its nature as a lesson for and judgment upon God's Chosen People. All these things gave me encouragement and confidence during those troubling months early in my ministry. Now, over forty years later, I live in a world where it seems the stage is being set for the Lord’s return. My greatest comfort and assurance come from the knowledge that I serve a just, righteous, unchangeable God. My escape from the “wrath to come” (I Thess. 1:10 cf. 5:9) is firmly based in the mercy he has always shown to those who believe. 

                 Thanks, Abraham.

This article first appeared in an edition of CONFIDENT LIVING (a magazine published by Back to the Bible) in the early 1980's.

IMAGE: Jan Victors (the Rembrandt studio, 1640's) Abraham and the Angels. The Hermitage Museum.

Rob Heijermans

Rob Heijermans (rhymes with “fireman’s”) is a church planter and Bible teacher who has served with Biblical Ministries Worldwide since 1979. He is a 1977 graaduate (B.S. in Bible) of Lancaster Bible College. His travels have taken him to forty countries on four continents, including detailed research for this book in Israel. He has three married children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife, Madeleine, live in Ontario, Canada.

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