Pray to escape the tribulation

I've included this study in the series on prayer because it involves prayer. And if, in the future, we feel we should pray this prayer, it could be one of the most important prayers we ever pray.

A warning from Jesus

'Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.' (Luk 21:34–36)

I'm sure the disciples thought that what the Lord had warned them about would take place in their lifetime, but it didn't. An event affecting everyone living on the face of the earth would have been recorded in history, and no such event has been recorded.

Jesus wasn't addressing the disciples who were listening to him, but those who would be alive when the event he was speaking about takes place.

The wrath of God

Earlier in the chapter he said:

'There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.' (Luk 21:25–27)

The Book of Revelation describes a series of catastrophes that will engulf the world prior to our Lord's return. They are God's judgements against sinners and are referred to as the wrath of God and of the Lamb (Rev 6:16–17).

V17 of that chapter speaks about the great 'day' of their wrath (singular), but the Greek word (hemera), as well as meaning a day of twenty-four hours, can also mean an indefinite period of time. I believe that is what it does mean in this instance, and the judgements we read about in the Book of Revelation may take place over many days, or even years.

That the Church will be present on earth when at least some of these judgements take place is apparent from what Jesus said in Luk 21:28:

'When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.'

Righteousness

So if the Church is going to be on earth when God's judgements against sinners begin, how will it escape them? The answer is by living righteously.

It will not be the first time God has judged the world for its sin. When he brought a flood upon sinful mankind, he protected Noah because of his righteousness (Gen 6:8–9). Similarly, when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he protected Lot, who was also living righteously (2Pe 2:6–8).

Indeed, when God told Abraham about what he was going to do to Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham reminded him that he will never punish the righteous with the wicked (Gen 18:22–25)—something he will not do because of his justice.

Walking with God

Jesus told his disciples not to be weighed down (burdened, under pressure) with dissipation (overindulgence in sensual pleasures), or with drunkenness (sin), or the problems of life, lest those judgements come upon them unexpectedly like a trap. If we are weighed down with such things, we won't be watching (v36), and we won't be prepared—which we must be.

The Church will need to stay close to the Lord at that time, listening to his voice and obeying his Spirit. Remember Lot's wife: it was God's will she escaped the judgement, but she didn't obey what the angel told her, and perished (Gen 19:15–17, 23–26). He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

By what means will we escape? We don't know. But both Noah and Lot escaped God's judgements while they were still on earth. Think about that. It is possible. They weren't taken from the earth.

The Church thinks (or hopes) it will be raptured to escape these things, but that is not what the Bible teaches. There will be a rapture, but not before the judgements begin, or before the Antichrist is revealed (2Th 2:1–4).

2Pe 2:4–9, after telling us that God protected both Noah and Lot from his judgements, says that God knows how to rescue godly men from trials, while continuing to punish the unrighteous. The emphasis there is on the word 'godly'.

God knows how to do it; let's leave the method to him. The plagues that fell on Egypt didn't fall on his own people, he protected them from them (Exo 8:22–23; 9:4; 11:4–7). And he'll protect us from his judgements—providing we are walking with him.

But if we are living like the world at that time, we'll perish with the world. God will never punish the righteous with the wicked. We must live godly lives; we must live righteous lives.

However, that wasn't what Jesus told his disciples to pray about. We shouldn't have to pray to escape the judgements God is going to bring on the ungodly: Christians should be living godly lives as a matter of course. So what was he referring to?

The wrath of Satan

In the last days the earth will not only experience the wrath of God against sinners, it will also experience the wrath of Satan against the Church. This is known as the great tribulation—Greek: trouble, distress, oppression (Rev 7:13–14)—and is described in Rev 13:5–10.

At that time the Church will be persecuted in every country on earth, by Satan, through the Antichrist, for a period of forty-two months. Some will be imprisoned and some will be put to death. It was this event that Jesus told his disciples to pray to escape from. We know that from three key words used in the passage.

Trap

'…and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.' (v34)

The Greek word used is pagis, which means snare or trap. It described a noose of hair that was used to trap birds and small animals in order to kill them. They would walk, unsuspectingly, into the trap and be caught.

In the New Testament it's used not only to describe the sudden judgements of God that will come upon Christians whose hearts are weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, but also the enticements to evil that Satan uses to ensnare believers (1Ti 3:7; 2Ti 2:25–26).

Escape

'…and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen…' (v36)

The Greek word used is ekpheugo. It means to flee from, to escape from, to evade capture. In 2Co 11:32–33 Paul described his escape from a trap that Satan had set to capture and kill him (Act 9:23–25):

In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through [ekpheugo: escaped from] their hands.

But by far the most significant use of the word is found in Mat 2:13:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape [pheugo: to flee, to escape] to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.'

Why was Jesus sent to Egypt to escape a threat to his life? Thirty years later he was about to be thrown off a cliff, but walked through the crowd because his time had not yet come (Luk 4:28–30).

God protected his Son supernaturally at that time; why didn't he do the same when he was a child? And why send him to Egypt? There was a reason for that. Egypt, in the Old Testament, symbolized the world, whose people are prisoners of sin (Gal 3:22).

God brought his people out of Egypt—out of their captivity and slavery to sin—so they could become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:17–18). He then told them not to go back there because of what it symbolized (Deu 17:16).

So why did he send Jesus to Egypt? Specifically because of what it symbolized. God was showing that he will protect us from satanic attacks to our lives while we are still in this world—we'll be able to escape from them—he won't take us out of the world to do it. He sent his Son to Egypt to demonstrate that.

God didn't rapture Jesus to protect him from Herod, who was a type of the Antichrist: he protected him while he was still in the world. The Church will go through the tribulation—all forty-two months of it—before the Lord returns. But we'll be able to escape from it—if we pray.

Stand

'…and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.' (v36)

The Greek word used is histemi. In the New Testament it means not only to stand in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense, ie to stand firm in the faith. And that was what Jesus meant in this verse.

Satan, our enemy, wants us to abandon our faith, or to renounce our faith, because both bring spiritual death. He tries to do that by luring us back into sin (2Co 11:3; 2Pe 2:20–22), by bringing trouble into our lives (Job 1:6–2:10), or through persecution (Mar 4:16–17). But we are told to resist him, standing firm in the faith (1Pe 5:8–9).

The tribulation

Christians have been persecuted since the time of Christ. Stephen was the first martyr (Act 7:54–60) and it's continued, sporadically, ever since.

But the Bible speaks of a 'great' tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will take place in the last days. This will be the biggest and most widespread persecution the Church has ever seen. It will affect every Christian, in every nation (Rev 13:7; Luk 21:34–35), and will culminate in the return of Jesus to rescue those who are still alive (1Th 4:15–18).

Jesus said that in those days (the days of tribulation), because of the increase in wickedness (against the Church), the love of most (within the Church) will grow cold (Mat 24:12).

At that time many (Greek: a great or large number) will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other (Mat 24:10), even to the extent that children will betray their parents to death, and fathers their children (Mar 13:12).

Have you ever wondered why Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples? He didn't need to be identified by anyone. He'd been teaching openly in the temple courts; the authorities knew who he was and could have arrested him there (Luk 22:52–53). But it had to happen that way.

And why was he betrayed with a kiss (Mat 26:48–49)? Judas could have just put his hand on his shoulder or pointed to him and said, 'This is the man.'

Jesus was betrayed by a kiss, because a kiss is a sign of fellowship (Rom 16:16). And, during the tribulation, Christians will betray each other to death. Can you imagine those you used to fellowship with handing you over to the authorities and saying, 'This man is a Christian.' or 'This woman is a Christian.'?

Jesus said it will happen—he has seen the end from the beginning; he knows what is going to happen—and if it happens to us, don't forget that it happened to our Lord first. But if we stand firm in our faith to the end, we'll be saved (Mar 13:13).

This event will purify the Church; it will sort the wheat out from the chaff. Jesus is going to return for a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or blemish (Eph 5:27) and, after forty-two months of intense persecution, only those with a pure faith will remain.

Sifted as wheat

John the Baptist spoke of Jesus coming with a winnowing fork in his hand to gather the wheat into his barn and to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mat 3:12). Winnowing is an action that separates wheat from chaff. Jesus didn't winnow his Church the first time he came to earth; it's something that's done at harvest and will precede his return.

Jesus said that Satan had asked to sift the disciples as wheat (Luk 22:31—the Greek word translated 'you' in that verse is plural). Sifting also separates and leaves a pure product.

But Jesus had prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail (Luk 22:32). And, even though it failed initially (Luk 22:54–62), it remained strong to the end—Peter was crucified for Christ (Joh 21:18–19). Satan has obviously asked to sift the Church as well, and has been given permission to do so. That sifting will take place during the tribulation.

Jesus prayed that Peter's faith would not fail, and I'm sure he's prayed the same for us, because he always lives to intercede for us (Heb 7:23–25). But we must also pray, because he's told us to.

Watch and pray

We are to pray, not only to escape from physical death at that time—as Paul escaped from King Aretas, and Jesus from Herod—but also to escape from the spiritual death that would result from us renouncing our faith.

And now, dear children, continue in him [continue in your faith in him], so that when he appears [when he comes to gather his elect from the four corners of the earth—the rapture] we may be confident and unashamed before him [we will still be standing in our faith] at his coming. (1Jo 2:28)

We should always be on the watch and, when we see that day approaching, we should pray that we may be able to escape all that is about to happen and that we'll continue to stand in faith before the Son of Man.

Watch for the judgements of God to start appearing on the earth: increasing numbers killed by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, fires, famines, pestilences and natural disasters of many kinds, both on a local and national scale.

They are the beginning of birth pains (Mat 24:7–8) and are signs that the day of our Lord is approaching. In fact they may already have begun!

Michael Graham
December 2011

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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