The church and the saints are distinct groups of people that are referred to in scripture. However they are not always the same group. The Old Testament saints obviously existed before the church came into being, so they are not part of the church as we define it. This is a distinction that is created by the linear timeline here on earth. Right now we live in the church age. We are saved by looking back at the sacrifice that was made on the cross and believing in it and receiving Christ. The Old Testament saints were saved by looking forward to the promises of God, and by believing and seeking forgiveness. So we both have believed (and placed our trust) in the same thing; they having looked forward to it and the church now looking backward to it.
The saints on earth that are referred to in the book of Revelation cannot be part of the church either. Why? Because in Matthew 16:18 Jesus told Peter that He would build His church and that the gates of hell would not prevail upon it. But in Revelation 13:7 we are told that the antichrist will be given power to make war against the saints and conquer them. So those saints that are referred to in Revelation cannot be included in the group of people that Jesus was referring to as his church. Yet, they are still referred to as saints, so they are still saved.
Who is the church?
The church of Jesus Christ consists of all the saints who have ever lived, and are still alive up until the rapture, since the church was established in the book of Acts in the New Testament. Remember in Acts the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Many witnesses then chose to believe and the Lord added 3,000 members to the church that day. This was the beginning of the building of the church, and throughout the church age members have constantly been added every day.
We know that the church will be in heaven during the ceremony that is described in the 5th chapter of Revelation. This is the scene where nobody was found worthy to take the scroll out of God’s hand and break the seals, except Jesus himself. In this heavenly scene there are “twenty four elders” who represent the church. We know this because of the song that they sing in Revelation 5:9-10:
“ You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth.”
Reading those lyrics, it should become clear that only the church can be singing that song. They are the only ones who fit the identity of us. Angels cannot sing it. The specific group of 144,000 Jews who show up in Revelation 14:3-5 are a different group and have their own special song to sing.
Who are the tribulation saints?
The great multitude that shows up in heaven in Revelation 7:9-14 are specifically identified as the tribulation-period saints. They are therefore a different group than the church, who is already there. The tribulation saints are a specific group of saved people who are conquered by the antichrist, and therefore most of them probably die a martyr’s death.
Now this all might seem like semantics. After all, saved is saved and after the Millennium we all exist in paradise for eternity regardless of when we happened to get saved. But noticing how the saints are identified in different groupings does help us to see with more clarity how the pre-tribulation rapture fits into end-times chronology.
How do you become a saint?
A saint is any saved person. Whether or not there is a further exaltation for some saints beyond that is up to the Lord, and certainly not up to any of his created beings. The details of any such arrangements, if they exist, are not given to us in the Bible. I believe it is a futile (and possibly dangerous) exercise to engage in such speculation. Please read Isaiah 14:12-15 and see what caused Satan to fall before getting any big ideas about exaltation!
You become a saint by believing in (and surrendering yourself to) God and the offer of redemption He has made to us through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus. Here in the church age that means receiving Jesus as your Lord and Savior and making a sincere attempt to draw near to him.
After the church age, that is after the church is removed in the rapture, there will probably be a huge wakeup call to everyone who missed the rapture but is still salvageable. It will be time to pick your side. Because you were so stubborn (or lackadaisical) before, you will now be forced to pick what seems like the losing side (in the short run) in order to win salvation. It will of course ultimately be the winning side however. So make sure you do that if you are still here!