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A Note on τηρήσω ἐκ in Revelation 3:10

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The text of Rev 3:10 reads: ὅτι ἐτήρησας τὸν λόγον τῆς ὑπομονῆς μου, κἀγώ σε τηρήσω ἐκ τῆς ὥρας τοῦ πειρασμοῦ τῆς μελλούσης ἔρχεσθαι ἐπὶ τῆς οἰκουμένης ὅλης πειράσαι τοὺς κατοικοῦντας ἐπὶ τῆς γῆ" (“Because you have kept the word of my perseverance, I also shall keep you from the hour of testing which is about to come upon the whole inhabited world to test those who dwell upon the earth”).  “Probably the most debated verse in the whole discussion about the time of the Church’s rapture is Revelation 3:10,” writes Robert Gundry in The Church and the Tribulation (p. 54). He, as well as many other posttribulationists, agrees that the verse is speaking about the promise of the rapture given to true believers (pp. 54-61; note also Rev 3:13 which applies this specific promise to the Philadelphian Christians to the “churches”).

The key issue in the debate between pretribulationists and posttribulationists is the temporal force of τηρήσω ἐκ (“I will keep [you] out of”).  Gundry believes that this refers to a posttribulational emergence of the saints: “As it is, ἐκ lays all the emphasis on emergence, in this verse on the final, victorious outcome of the keeping-guarding” (ibid., p. 57).  He bases his argument of a posttribulational rapture here squarely on grammar, stating, among other reasons: (1) “Essentially, ἐκ, a preposition of motion concerning thought or physical direction, means out from within” (ibid., p. 55); and (2) “the preposition ἐκ appears in John’s writings approximately 336 times, far more often than in the writings of any other NT author. There is not a single instance where the primary thought of emergence, or origin, cannot fit, indeed, does not best fit the thought of the context [italics mine]” (ibid., p. 57).

Such argumentation, however, though impressive at first glance, is in reality both too simplistic and a case of grammatical “tunnel vision.”

First, it is too simplistic in that Gundry argues that in John’s writings the primary thought of emergence or origin best fits every instance of ἐκ.  John Beverage, in his master’s thesis (“The Preposition ᾿Εκ in Johannine Literature,” Th.M. thesis, Dallas Seminary, 1953) has demonstrated that such is not the case.  (Although it will certainly be granted that ἐκ normally has the force of origin or emergence, to suggest that this is the foremost idea in every Johannine instance is an overstatement.  Note, for example, John 9:24; Rev 2:10; 3:9. Beverage breaks down the Johannine usage of ἐκ as follows: [1] to denote place or position, [2] to denote separation, [3] to denote origin, [4] to denote material or mass from which something is made or derived, [5] to denote cause, occasion, or instrument, [6] to denote the partitive use, and [7] to denote time.)  (Note: It should be pointed out, however, that although Gundry is too simplistic in this first argument, even if he were entirely correct, the argument is quite beside the point and, in fact, irrelevant to the interpretation of Rev 3:10, as a critique of Gundry’s second argument will seek to demonstrate.) 

Second, it is a case of semantic myopia in that by focusing only on the usage of ἐκ, Gundry has overlooked the combined force of the whole construction.  He claims that ἐκ is essentially “a preposition of motion” (p. 55).  Although this is generally true, if ἐκ is related to a noun or is governed by a non-motion verb (such as τηρέω), it will not necessarily imply motion. (By way of analogy, this can be seen with εἰς—the directional opposite of ἐκ. εἰς generally has the meaning of movement into from without. However, when it is used with a static verb, such as τηρέω, κάθημαι, εἰμι, etc., the idea of motion is negated by the static nature of the verb [cf. for example, τηρέω εἰς in Acts 25:4; κάθημαι εἰς in Mark 13:3; and εἰμι εἰς in John 1:18].)1  The fact, then, that τηρέω, rather than a motion verb such as σῴζω, is used with ἐκ in Rev 3:10 argues against Gundry’s position on this text.2 By way of illustration, our idiom “Keep out of the reach of children” has exactly the same force to it as does the Greek τηρέω ἐκ.  Yet, when such instructions are printed on a bottle of medicine, a parent recognizes that he or she is not to let the medicine get into the reach of children.  That is, the parent is to keep it in a position that is out of their reach.  If the medicine bottle had said, “Take out of the reach of children” the implication would be entirely different (viz., it would presume that the bottle was already within the reach of children).

In summary, the posttribulational position in Rev 3:10, as articulated by Gundry, seems unlikely because (1) it assumes a simplistic (and etymological) force for the preposition ἐκ, and (2) it does not take into account the force of the total construction of verb + preposition. In order for John to have taught a posttribulational rapture in this verse, he would have had to change one of two elements: (1) either the verb (from a static verb to a verb of motion such σῴζω or λαμβάνω) or, (2) the preposition (from ἐκ to διά [+ the genitive] or ἐν).3


Does this therefore demonstrate a pretribulational rapture beyond any doubt? Of course not. For one thing, John 17:15 (the only precise grammatico-lexical parallel to Rev 3:10) needs to be wrestled with (something that has been done in the literature well enough). And the fact that there are no other exact parallels in biblical Greek makes for less than an iron-clad argument. For another, whether ‘the hour of tribulation’ refers to the actual time of the tribulation (though probable) needs to be established beyond all doubt. Further, we have not really addressed much contextually (including the parallel with ‘because you have kept the word’). Nevertheless, the basic point of this brief essay is to show that the overly facile attempt at solving this conundrum on the basis of grammar is inadequate. In the least, the grammatical argument is not on the side of posttribulationism, in spite of Gundry’s certitude.

1Cf. also Wallace, Exegetical Syntax, “Introduction to Prepositions: Motion, State, Prepositions, and Verbs” wherein it is noted that “Stative verbs override the transitive force of prepositions. Almost always, when a stative verb is used with a transitive preposition, the preposition’s natural force is neutralized; all that remains is a stative idea.”

2Even if a verb of motion had been used, one could not positively say that ἐκ meant emergence out from within. Second Corinthians 1:10, for example, has ῥύομαι ἐκ, referring to God’s deliverance of Paul from death!

3To his credit, Gundry wrestles with the data. This cannot be said of all. For example, R. C. H. Trench, in his masterful though dated Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches (sixth edition, 1897; reprint, Klock & Klock, 1978) commits an egregious grammatical blunder when he says that the promise is “to be kept in temptation, not to be exempted from temptation (τηρεῖν ἐκ not being here = τηρεῖν ἀπό...)” (p. 190). This comment is followed by the citation of three or four verses that only support the theological point Trench makes, not the grammatical. The ironic thing to notice here is that Trench denies that τηρεῖν ἐκ is the equivalent of τηρεῖν ἀπό, presumably because of syntactical refinements in the Koine (though offering no basis for this assertion), while tacitly embracing the notion that τηρεῖν ἐκ = τηρεῖν ἐν, when in fact, these two prepositions are semantic opposites!

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology