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There are obviously those that make it through the tribulation

I have something I need to talk about. Hopefully, I can keep it short. This has more to do with a question I have been asked repeatedly. I try to answer the question, but, because of tradition, bad teaching, or a lack of desire to pursue the answers, the question keeps coming up.
The question goes something like this,
"There are obviously those that make it through the tribulation. Are they saved?"
I thought about it for a second and then I responded with, what does it mean to be saved? He answered back with,
“You know, saved!”
No, I don't know. However, if you are trying to say that these survivors, based merely on the merit of making it through to the end of the “tribulation”, are comparable to finding salvation in Christ, then the answer is NO. If you think of salvation in terms of pulling someone out of a fire, then, YES, I think they are. How do I equate making it through the hell of the tribulation years to getting pulled out of a fire? It's easy, they will both kill you.
So the essential question that needs definition is, what does salvation mean? But that is not what you are asking me is it. You already have this crazy notion of what things look like and want me to validate it. Well, that is not going to happen. I am going to try to get you to look at the truth, which I deem to be the word of God.
Sadly, even using the Word of God as the source of truth creates a problem. The problem is that the answers to your question are not neatly packaged in one place, so this forces both of us to do our homework, and, we have to have open minds about the answers we find. Lacking that, you are no better off than a rock.
Often, when I try to respond with an answer, most remove logic from the equation and dismiss scripture as the foundation of truth. Having attempted an answer I referred the person asking to Matthew 25. I did this because he opted to change biblical history by putting the great white throne judgment immediately before the 1000 year reign. He quickly opened the bible program on his cell phone and read Matthew's account back to me.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”.
An interesting representation of the throne.
An interesting representation of the throne.
"So there it is. He gathers the nations before him and judges them."
Yep, it says that. However, it does not tell you when that takes place. It does not explain that this throne is the same throne that we see in Revelation 20, and, there is nothing to indicate that these are souls that have died from at least Christ's resurrection forward; Neither does it make any clarification as to who they are or how they got there; Besides all that, and contrary to popular belief, not all are sent to an eternal punishment.
I want you to understand what I perceive the original question to be:
“ those that make it through the tribulation, are they saved?”
Because I told this person to look at Matthew 25, I want you to look there also.  Before you jump into Matthew 25 you need to understand that there is a context to what Jesus said.
  1. What we see in Matthew 25 is a continuation of a response that started in Matthew 24:1.
  2. The things that motivated the disciples question really began in Matthew 21 as they placed him upon the colt. Ask yourself why that would be significant.
  3. So what happened between them placing him on the colt, leading him into town in Matthew 21, and the end of Matthew 23 that would prompt them to say, when will these things happen and what will be the sign of your coming as the Messiah we anticipated (My version.)
In Matthew 21, at his direction, the disciples went and took the donkey and it's colt. This was finally it. Jesus was going to step up as the Messiah they anticipated for every king triumphantly rode into town like this, but that did not happen. After all the fanfare and adulation Jesus sees the money changers in the outer court of the temple (this was a weekly occurrence, but today it pushes him over the edge), so he makes a whip of cords and drives them out. This, of course, brought the wrath of the Chief priests and elders upon him, and he battled with them verbally for two days. We seem to forget that the disciples were right there; they had no place else to go (we assume).
Jesus finally says to the disciples, let's go to the mount. It was his favorite place to rest and recover when he was in Jerusalem, and it is only a short distance away from the temple.
The disciples, discouraged, disillusioned, fatigued by the intercourse are now grateful to get out of harms way. Trudging along behind him they try to lighten the mood by pointing out how great the temple was, and at this point, they were making comments about it's massive stones. Sadly, Jesus, the true temple, was standing right there and they did not yet realize it. I happen to think this understanding plays a role in how Jesus responds. Thus begins a rather long discourse and the answers to some very Jewish questions.
Matthew 25:31-46 is an aspect of Jesus response, and is to be taken in context. In the context timing is everything and the timing has everything to do with, when will you come back as the Messiah we were hoping for?
Matthew 25:31-46 ESV "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
While I did not quote the verse in rebuttal, there is no doubt that it says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations,”. If all you ever read was this, you could build a variety of themes around it, and be rather convincing.
Here is one of the aspects of this verse that give people trouble: Before him will be gathered all the nations,” 
Do you understand that there are only three people groups (as far as God is concerned) in the bible narrative? They are:
  • The Jews – Israel
  • The nations – Also called the gentiles. This is literally anyone outside of Christ – those who refuse to follow him.
  • And, the church. The church is the followers of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is not a gentile god, He is God and he is Jewish. Those of us who have accepted that he paid a price for us have been adopted in; we Gentile believers were at that point grafted into the root stock – Israel. Paul explained that having accepted him, he accepted us and made us be in Him.
So, God calls all those outside of a relationship with Jesus the nations.
Note: in the Revelation all that happens there is a revealing of Jesus, and therefore, substantiates that Jesus is God.
I told the person asking me the question, that Revelation 20 is the same story as we see in Matthew 25. There will be some obvious differences, but I will attempt to explain.
Revelation 20:1-3 ESV Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. (2) And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, (3) and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
When does this take place? After the tribulations of the seven years (it may not be a precise seven-year period.) Read Revelation 19: 17-21. There you will see Jesus coming back with a mighty army and all those who choose to fight against God will be slain. In Ezekiel, we find that the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and the martyred reign with Christ during the thousand years. Are they holding judgment over the nations as we see in Matthew's account? No. With Satan bound for a thousand years, any evil done is purely the creation of man's desire, and that will continue to happen. I believe that they will keep rein over that kind of nonsense. Keep in mind, all oppression shall cease.
Revelation 20:4 ESV Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also, I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
Since we already saw these in heaven (Revelation 6:9) why are they identified here as having come back to life? The assumption, and I think it is a pretty good one, is that the souls are reunited with the body. Consider that after his death Jesus cooked some fish for the boys and ate with them. So that same body that can eat fish and apparently enjoy it can still walk through walls.
So let's address the major point of contention. The argument started with the idea that at the beginning of the millennial reign is where Jesus sets up the great white throne, judges all survivors, and sends them all off to hell.
Is that what we see here in Revelation 20:4? No, instead of one throne there are many, and instead of one person, as in Jesus, all the martyred take part in the judgment.
  • Instead of one throne, there are many.
  • Instead of Jesus doing the judging, the martyred take part.
You will not see the multiple thrones or the martyred judging with Jesus in Matthew's account, and, if you only look for the final judgment, you will not find these extra thrones or the martyred in Revelation 20:11-15 either. You have to piece the puzzle together in it's context.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15 ESV)
Here are a few more points to consider as you contrast and attempt to grasp the context of the final judgment and where it is placed in time.
  • In Matthew, we find a glorious throne (a place of dignity and glory) instead of the great one (indicating it's size or prominence) we see in Revelation 20. 
  • Matthew 25:32 "Before him will be gathered all the nations." Now look at how John describes those standing before him in Revelation 20, "and I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened". In both instances, no one is left out.
  • In Revelation 20 the crowd is separated according to their deeds found in the books. Matthew 25 shows the Son of Man separating them into sheep and goats. We must assume that the sheep are those whose names are found in the books.
This recurrent event is very intentional and meant to register quickly in the mind of the Jewish reader/hearer. Why? Because repetition is the accepted pattern for prophecy to the Jews, and this book we call the bible is a very Jewish book.
In Revelation 20:12 we see books opened, and the book of life.
Revelation 20:12 ESV And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
Catch the distinction here. In Revelation 20, the dead are judged out the books based upon what was written in them, according to what they had done. However, in Matthew's account, there is no mention of any books. Question: Does a difference in the stories make them invalid when we try to use them to corroborate these events? Not at all. Revelation always seems to be read from the viewpoint of an angry God, while Matthew is portrayed as the gentle shepherd.
Is there a comparable result? Yes.
Revelation 20:15 ESV And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
While in Matthew's account we find:
Matthew 25:41 ESV  "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Jesus, the shepherd, explains to them how they did no good works and what that looked like. What amazes me is the simplicity involved in these works. It all boils down to this, step outside of your selfishness and show some kindness. 
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
(Matthew 25:35-36 ESV)
Perhaps all of this will be easier to understand if we can see it in a timeline format. Note: This is only attempting to show a short window of time from the moment Jesus physically returns to the earth, and the beginning of the 1000 year reign.
Timeline as we enter the 1000 year reign.
Timeline as we enter the 1000 year reign.

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