Chapter 9: Christ's Coming to the Air
by Jack Hay, Scotland
We frequently refer to the Lord’s coming to the air as ‘the Rapture’. Most readers are familiar with the word, but for some, clarification may be helpful. One definition of the word in a secular dictionary is "seizing and carrying away". That concept is enshrined in a Biblical explanation of the sequence of events at the return of the Lord Jesus; living believers together with their resurrected brethren will be "caught up … to meet the Lord in the air" 1Thess.4.17. The words "caught up" are the translation of a Greek word translated "pluck" in Jn.10.28 and it conveys the idea of being snatched away suddenly by force. The English word ‘rapture’ encapsulates that thought. Strictly speaking then, when we speak of the Rapture we are referring to believers being "caught up" and not to the Lord coming down, but for convenience we tend to call the whole event the Rapture.
Critics of those believers who are excited about the Rapture are quick to point out that it is not a Bible word. Neither is ‘Trinity’ nor ‘substitution’ but in each case the words adequately convey Biblical truths. Another objection is on the basis of modernity. The argument is that it is only in the last two hundred years that believers have given any credence to the doctrine of the Rapture, and so it is a novelty that does not deserve consideration! It is true that for many hundreds of years in "Christian" circles there was no focus on either the Rapture or the ultimate rule of Christ in this world. These glorious truths were lost in the mists of Romish error, but so too was the emancipating doctrine of justification by faith. There is no protest from the evangelical world about the wonderful rediscovery of that blessed truth. No one excludes it on the basis of it being an innovation! We should treat the doctrine of the Rapture on the same basis.
The return of the Lord Jesus will be in two distinct phases with at least seven years between them. A detailed argument of the chronology of future events is not appropriate here, but everything predicted revolves around four major events. First, there will be the Rapture’; then comes the seven-year period referred to already, the second half of which was described by the Lord as a time of "Great Tribulation" Matt.24.21. (Again, for convenience, we tend to call the whole seven-year period the Tribulation). "Immediately after the tribulation of those days" Matt.24.29, there will be His Appearing in Glory, His Revelation, the second phase of His return. That will result in His reign in this world for one thousand years, and because of its duration, we call that period the Millennium. So the schedule will be, The Rapture, The Tribulation, The Appearing in Glory and then The Millennium.
Some of the contrasts between the two phases of His coming are as follows:
- At the Rapture He will come to the air, 1Thess.4.17. At the Revelation (Manifestation) He will come to the earth, specifically, to the Mount of Olives, Zech.14.4.
- At The Rapture He will come for His saints, 1Thess.4.17. At The Revelation He will come with His saints, e.g. Col.3.4; Rev.19.14.
- At the Rapture the drama will be unannounced to the world, without visible harbinger or human herald. The possibility is that the event will pass without any noticeable disruption except the disappearance of believers, a point that will be made later in the chapter. At the Revelation events will be as public and obvious as a flash of lightning, with celestial phenomena paving the way, Matt.24.27-30.
- At the Rapture, the Lord will return personally to gather His Church; "the Lord Himself" 1Thess.4.16. At the Revelation, He will employ "His angels" to gather Israel from every point of the compass, Matt.24.31.
Obviously, there are other contrasts with regard to different judgments that will follow each phase of His coming, and differing conditions that will ensue on earth, but we will not elaborate on these.
THE PROMISE OF THE RAPTURE
A Revelation to Paul
The finer details of the Rapture were revealed to Paul, just as he was entrusted with the particulars of the Lord’s Supper and the facts of the gospel, 1Cor.11.23; 15.3. Thus he emphasised to the Thessalonians, "this we say unto you by the word of the Lord" 1Thess.4.15. There are no details of the Rapture in the Old Testament. There is no hint of it in the Lord’s great prophetic sermon that we describe as the Olivet Discourse, Matthew chapters 24,25. Thus Paul was unfolding something that was completely new, but he is at pains to stress that it was not the figment of his own imagination, or some novelty that was without Divine sanction. What he communicated to the Thessalonians was an insight into the second coming that he had received from the Lord Himself.
A Hint of Something New
While the full revelation of the Rapture came from Paul, we have a hint of it from the Lord Himself and also a promise of His coming. In the events surrounding the death of Lazarus, the Saviour said this to Martha, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on Me, though he die, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth on Me shall never die" Jn.11.25,26, R.V. He refers to two groups of believers, those who die, and those who will never die. At the point in time at which He will return, the vast majority of believers who comprise the Church will have died, but a generation of Christians will still be alive on the planet, "living and believing" was how He described them, and they will "never die". He gave no elucidation of that, but with the unfolding of Bible revelation the explanation emerges. It will take place at the Rapture. The dead in Christ will be raised, and without dying, living saints will be changed in the split second before they are caught up with their resurrected brethren, 1Cor.15.51,52. The fact that the Lord Jesus is "the resurrection" caters for the one group; the fact that he is "the life" takes care of the other.
Again in John’s Gospel, on the eve of His crucifixion the Saviour made a promise to return: "I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also" Jn.14.2,3. He said that He would "go" and the context indicates that His destination was His "Father’s house". One purpose in Him going there would be to "prepare a place" for them and for us, anticipating that we would join Him there in due course. He is said to be our "forerunner", Heb.6.20, His presence there making that sphere of glory a suitable dwelling place for erstwhile sinners whose habitat was a polluted earth. The ascension of a resurrected Man, His glorification and enthronement there makes the place a fitting environment for those who bear His image, Rom.8.29. Some have wondered if His words, "I go to prepare … " are a reference to His work at the cross, but it seems from the context that the venue to which He was going to "prepare a place" was the location from which He would return, His Father’s house. Bible teachers have put it this way, in going to the cross He was doing a work to prepare the people for the place, but a resurrected, glorified Man prepares the place for the people.
Our reception to Himself and to that sphere of blessedness will take place when He "comes again". Where He is, there we will be, Jn.14.3. This was the great desire of His heart as expressed in His prayer: "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am; that they may behold My glory" Jn.17.24. Even now, departed saints are "with Christ" Phil.1.23, and "at home with the Lord" 2Cor.5.8, R.V. Their spirits have been "received" by Him, Acts 7.59, and thus the doctrine of "soul sleep" has no basis in the Word of God. "The body without the spirit is dead" Jms.2.26. The clear teaching of Scripture is that immediately on death the believer’s spirit is received by the Lord Jesus, so that one by one throughout the centuries, His people have had their "departure" 2Tim.4.6. If the situation is still the same as it was in the Old Testament era, angels escort these released spirits to the place of bliss, Lk.16.22.
However, John chapter 14 is not referring to the spirits of saints slipping away one by one to be received by Christ in glory. The Lord is speaking of something that will transpire when He comes again, something affecting the Church as an entity, v.3. There is the promise of the coming, the promise of us being received, the promise of us being located where He is with the added delight of us beholding His glory, Jn.17.24. The detail of how it would all work out was to be left to Paul’s ministry but the promise of it is embedded in the Gospel record, a promise from the Lord Himself, and these disciples were left with an impression of an occasion when "many sons" would be brought to glory, Heb.2.10, "conformed to the image of His Son", "justified" men now "glorified", Rom.8.29,30, and this to be experienced in redeemed bodies, v.23.
The promise of His coming is one hundred per cent reliable because of the integrity of the One Who made the promise. This is Immanuel, God with us, and God is the "God, that cannot lie" Titus 1.2. In the very context of the promise, the Lord Jesus declared Himself to be "the truth" Jn.14.6, and His transparency is stressed in His statement, "if it were not so, I would have told you" v.2. Last day sceptics might mock and say, "Where is the promise of His coming?" 2Pet.3.4. It can hardly be supposed that they fully understand the intricacies of predicted events, but in general terms they pour scorn on the notion that there could ever be any unexpected intervention from heaven as promised by the Lord. However, He is "not slack concerning His promise"; "longsuffering" accounts for what men judge to be failure to deliver on His promise, v.9. The promise will be fulfilled; every Bible prediction relating to His first coming has come to pass, inspiring confidence that those relating to the Rapture and subsequent events will also be brought to fruition. Before the sacred volume closes, three times over the Lord Jesus reiterates His promise, on the final occasion laying stress on the reliability of His pledge, "Surely I come quickly" Rev.22.20. Loyal hearts respond and say, "Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus".
We use the word "imminent" to describe the proximity of the return of the Lord Jesus in the sense that the Scriptures regard the event as impending or close at hand. There are no Bible prophecies that require fulfilment before the Lord comes to the air. That is why even as early as New Testament times, believers were living in the expectation that He could come at any time. Thus the Thessalonians were "wait[ing] for His Son from heaven" 1Thess.1.10. Paul said of himself and the Philippians, "we wait for a Saviour" Phil.3.20, R.V. These first century believers did not regard the coming as a distant prospect, something that was away out on the horizon. They lived with the knowledge that it could take place today.
This concept of imminence is enshrined in the Lord’s promise in the upper room: "If I go … I come again" Jn.14.3, R.V; "If I go … I am coming again", J.N.D. A present tense is employed, and the idea is, "I go, I come again", as if there is nothing between the two events. We know that around two thousand years have elapsed since the promise was made, but it must always be regarded as imminent. Paul sees it as ever drawing nearer, "nearer that when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand" Rom.13.11,12. The believer lives in an environment that is regarded as a night of dense moral and spiritual darkness, but we must regard it as almost over, with the dawn approaching.
- We wait to see the Morning Star appearing
- In glory bright;
- This blessed hope illumes, with beams most cheering,
- The hours of night.
- (Margaret L. Carson)
THE PROPHECY OF THE RAPTURE
Some readers may quibble about the linkage of the words "prophecy" and "Rapture", for it has been said often that the Rapture is not part of Bible prophecy. While precision in the things of God is crucial, we do sometimes find ourselves in dispute over semantics, and playing with words. There is no doubt that the truth of the Rapture never features in Old Testament prophecy and it is completely isolated from the bulk of prophecy which relates to the nation of Israel and not to the Church at all. However, in the strictest sense of a New Testament prophecy, it was just that, a prophecy. Paul was a New Testament prophet, and "mystery" doctrines were revealed to God’s "holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" Eph.3.5. As one of the "stewards of the mysteries of God" 1Cor.4.1, Paul had the responsibility to communicate these glorious truths to the saints, and this he did. The fact that the Thessalonians were characterised by a "patience of hope" even in their spiritual infancy is an indication that Paul as a New Testament prophet had taught them the truth of the Rapture from earliest days before it had become part of the inspired Scriptures, 1Thess.1.3. So this author has no problem about employing the word "prophecy" in connection with the Rapture. Even using the word in its loosest way as being something to take place in the future, it is a prophecy. However, if you feel uncomfortable about the section heading, substitute it in your mind with ...
THE PREDICTION OF THE RAPTURE:
... we are thinking about 1Thess.4.13-18.
As has been already stated, from day one the Thessalonians had been looking to the future; they had a "patience of hope", and they were "wait[ing] for His Son from heaven" 1Thess.1.3,10. Paul had ably schooled them in prophetic events, for he had no need to write to them about "the times and the seasons"; they knew "perfectly" about the day of the Lord and such matters, 1Thess.5.1,2. However, there was one piece of the jigsaw that was missing as far as their understanding of the future was concerned, and to dispel their ignorance he now enlightened them about "them which are asleep" 1Thess.4.13. It appears that they had concerns about their fellow-believers who had died. What was their status as far as the Rapture was concerned? Had they lost out in some way? Maybe there was even a sense of injustice, because the possibility is that some of them had been martyred; what about glory for them? Whatever the circumstances, it does appear that the uncertainty had created a perplexity that had dimmed their hope, for when Timothy arrived at Athens from Thessalonica, he brought to Paul "good tidings of [their] faith and charity" 1Thess.3.6, but no mention now of the hope that had been a huge factor in the early days of their Christian experience.
Them Which are Asleep
A range of metaphors is employed in Scripture to describe the believers who have died, and it would take us off course to explore them, but the idea of "sleep" is among them. As has been already noted, the illustration relates exclusively to the body and not to the soul. This can be seen even in the Old Testament. Without fully interpreting the verse, it is clear that the metaphor of sleep is linked with "the dust of the earth", that is, it relates to the body and not to the soul, Dan.12.2. The thought is that there is always an awakening out of sleep; the state of death is temporary; there will be resurrection "both of the just and unjust" Acts 24.15. The Lord said of Lazarus, "I go, that I might awake him out of sleep" Jn.11.11. One of these days the Lord Jesus will rise from the throne, and will say in effect to His Father, "I go that I might awake them out of sleep" and in an instant, at the Rapture, it will be an accomplished fact.
An added dimension is given to the metaphor in 1Thess.4.14 where Paul speaks of "them also which sleep in [or ‘through’ dia] Jesus". Sleeping through Jesus possibly carries the idea of them falling asleep through the activity of Jesus. Bible teachers have illustrated it by speaking of an agitated, fractious infant being lulled to sleep by the gentle mother. In the same way, the Lord Jesus looks down and sees a dear one in the fever of life, and personally superintends their falling asleep.
- Fallen asleep,
- Lying at rest,
- Tranquil and deep,
- Safe on His breast!
- Life’s journey o’er,
- Heaven’s portal passed,
- Pilgrim no more,
- Safe home at last!
- Safe home at last!
- (I.Y. Ewan)
The Thessalonians lived in a pagan culture that had no concept of resurrection, and so they had "no hope". At Athens when Paul preached about "Jesus, and the resurrection" they dubbed him a "babbler" Acts 17.18. When he raised the topic again in the sophisticated surroundings of the Areopagus there was an immediate chorus of derision; "some mocked" v.32. Maybe they believed in immortality in some vague way, but resurrection was not part of their vocabulary, and hence they had "no hope". However, the Christian gospel had penetrated these dark regions of hopelessness, bringing with it relief from the sense of desolation that inevitably accompanies the loss of a close loved one. True, the believers would sorrow, just as Paul would have experienced "sorrow upon sorrow" had Epaphroditus died, Phil.2.27, but the facts that Paul was about to reveal to these Thessalonians would relieve them of that debilitating sorrow that torments the mind and enfeebles the body. They would not now sorrow like the desperate, despairing, depressed neighbours around them; Christ is coming and hence resurrection and reunion.
Jesus Died and Rose Again
Paul here indicates that the hope of resurrection is firmly rooted in the fact that "Jesus died and rose again" v.14. "We believe" that. These are major tenets of Christian belief, so the apostle’s logic is this, "If your faith has embraced these fundamental facts of the gospel, you will have no problem with this next statement; ‘even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him’". The words "even so" and "also" link the believer’s experience with that of Jesus. He died, and no metaphor is employed to soften the horrors of His experience of death, but then He rose from the dead, and just as He was brought from death and the grave in triumph, so God will bring "with Him" the saints who have fallen asleep. Elsewhere it is expressed thus, "Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at His coming" 1Cor.15.23. It must have greatly relieved the Thessalonians to learn that just as surely as their Lord had been raised in the past, so their departed fellow-believers would be raised in the future.
We have already drawn attention to the fact that all that is being unfolded here is "by the word of the Lord" v.15. It is not a flight of fancy on the part of the apostle despite it being unique in the whole canon of Scripture. To further lighten the spirits of the Thessalonians, he now assures them that their departed friends had not been disadvantaged in any way because they had not survived till the Rapture. Living saints "shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep" v.15, R.V. Elsewhere Paul clearly indicated that his personal preference was to be "clothed upon" with his "house which is from heaven" rather than being "found naked" 2Cor.5.1-4. In other words, he favoured the thought of having a changed body at the Rapture rather than dying and existing in spirit form pending the Rapture, but having said that, he was not in any way averse to being "at home with the Lord" v.8 (R.V.). Writing to the Philippians he described that state as being "gain" and "far better", Phil.1.21,23, but his first choice would have been to live till the Rapture. He now explains that really there would be no material benefit in that. Living saints will not have precedence over those who have died, as he goes on to show in his detailed stage-by-stage account of what will transpire when the Lord comes to the air.
The Lord Himself
It was noted in a previous paragraph that when Israel is gathered "from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other", that task will be delegated to "His angels" Matt.24.31. As far as His Bride is concerned, He will come personally to claim her; for the very first time, every believer of this Christian era will be in the same place at the same time, His complement, now visibly "the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" Eph.1.23. He will "descend". He had descended before, "into the lower parts of the earth", a phrase that denotes the depths of His down-stooping; it involved Him going right to death and down into the grave, Eph.4.9. This time the terminus of His descent will be "the air", but the starting point will be the highest pinnacle of glory, "far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named" Eph.1.21. If He makes any movement it will have to be downward for He can go no higher, and bless God, He "will descend from heaven" 1Thess.4.16.
Scripture is silent about who will hear the "shout" to which v.16 refers, but His coming will be attended by "a shout". When speaking of the "voice of the Son of God" that presently imparts spiritual life, Jn.5.25, the Lord Jesus went on to indicate that "the hour is coming [future], in the which all that are in the graves [physically dead] shall hear His voice, and shall come forth" vv.28,29. Perhaps the "shout" is the signal that will metaphorically awaken the sleeping saints.
Scholars tell us that the phrase "the voice of the archangel" is literally "archangelic voice", that is, the voice of Christ, but characteristically archangelic, illustrative of supreme authority. Be that as it may, it is interesting that Michael who is the only angel to be designated "the archangel" Jude v.9, is constantly seen as being in conflict in the spirit world. In fact, one of his disputes with the devil was about a body, the body of Moses, and the bodies of saints are among the big issues in our passage. However, the supreme authority of the Divine over the devilish will be demonstrated in that the saints will be marshalled and meet in "the air", the sphere that is seen presently as Satan’s domain; he is "the prince of the power of the air" Eph.2.2. As if to show the Lord’s absolute disdain for any satanic attempt to thwart His purpose, the authoritative voice will signal Divine intentions, and He will rendezvous with His people in the air.
"The trump of God" must not be confused with Israel’s annual festival of the "memorial of blowing of trumpets" Lev.23.24. Within the framework of the seven feasts of the Lord, the prophetic significance of that feast has more to do with the gathering of Israel which will take place "with a great sound of a trumpet" Matt.24.31. Again, this "trump of God" cannot be aligned with the trumpet judgments of chapters 8 to 11 of the Book of Revelation. These trumpet blasts will introduce phase after phase of God’s wrath on earth-dwellers living in defiance of God in Tribulation days.
There were two silver trumpets in the camp of Israel during their wilderness journeys, Num.10.1-10. Their function was twofold, first, to assemble the people, vv.1-4, and second to signal their forward march, vv.5-8. This "trump of God" fulfils both of these functions. It summons the saints from earth to assemble in the air, and signals their further departure to the Father’s house. It is described elsewhere as "the last trump" 1Cor.15.52. Many reputable Bible teachers have made the point that when Paul was writing, everyone in the ancient world was familiar with the routine of the Roman army camp. A trumpet sounded to indicate, "Strike camp". Another was blown to instruct the troops to line-up. A third and last blast gave the command to start the march. "The last trump" will be the signal for saints to abandon planet earth and "march" away to a celestial sphere.
The Dead in Christ
From an experiential standpoint, no one has always been "in Christ". There is a point in life when some are no longer "in Adam", but are now "in Christ"; that time point is the conversion experience; it can be dated, as indicated by Paul when he spoke of two men "who were in Christ before me", Rom.16.7. Death does not sever that union with Christ, for Paul now describes believers who have died as "the dead in Christ". They shall rise "first". It is true that believers will rise before unbelievers; in fact at least 1007 years will separate the "resurrection of life" and "the resurrection of damnation" Jn. 5.29, but that is not the point of this passage. The word "first" relates to the fact that the "dead in Christ" will be raised before the living saints will be "caught up". It is all part of Paul’s assertion that those sleeping saints have not been disadvantaged as a result of their decease.
We Which are Alive and Remain
Paul indicates that there is coming a day when believers will "live together with Him" 1Thess.5.10. Before we can "live together" we will have to be "caught up together" 4.17. Resurrected Christians and those "which are alive and remain" will together be "caught up", the verb upon which we have based our description of the event and have called it the Rapture. Divine force, irresistible power, supernatural energy will pluck believers from the face of the earth. Neither the force of gravity nor the power of the devil will impede; it will be a case of one moment here, and the next there. Satan may have "hindered" Paul in his attempts to return to Thessalonica, 1Thess.2.18, but he will be powerless to interfere at the Rapture. The emphasis here is on our removal; elsewhere, the stress is on the change that is necessary to make resurrected bodies and mortal bodies suitable for a celestial environment, 1Corinthians chapter 15.
It has been said often that the Rapture does not feature in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. That is true in the sense that the idea of catching up is not divulged there, but the details contained in the latter part of the chapter will undoubtedly take place at the Rapture. Paul had been arguing the case for belief in resurrection to counter false assertions at Corinth; some were saying, "no resurrection of the dead" v.12. Of course, the doctrine of resurrection was not new; it was embedded in the depths of the Old Testament as indicated by the familiar words of Job; "in my flesh shall I see God" Job 19.26. However, Paul was now unveiling a mystery doctrine, 1Cor.15.51, and we could call it the mystery of the change. This really was new: "We shall all be changed", for "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" v.50. God will provide a body that is suitable for the new environment, vv.35-49. The change will take place at "the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound". It will transpire in an atom of time, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye". In that millisecond "the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" v.52.
The nature of the change was further explained when Paul wrote to the Philippians. The looked-for Saviour "shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of His glory" Phil.3.21, R.V. Presently our bodies are bodies of humiliation in the sense that they are corruptible and mortal. They are subject to disease; they deteriorate with age; they may die. However, when the Saviour descends to the air there will be an instantaneous change, and these frail, pain-racked, wearied bodies will experience an instant metamorphosis that will leave them resembling His glorious body; we shall "bear the image of the heavenly" 1Cor.15.49.
John indicates that we shall also bear moral resemblance to Him Who is "pure" and in Whom is no sin; "we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is" 1Jn.3.2, and more comprehensively described in vv.3-5. So in every respect, physically and morally we shall "be conformed to the image of His Son", Rom.8.29. How thrilling to be caught up in God’s great, eternal purpose!
Oftentimes in Scripture a cloud is an outward display of Divine glory, but here there is nothing to suggest that "the clouds" are anything other than the literal water clouds that hang in close proximity to the planet. They seem to be virtually synonymous with "the air", the venue where we shall "meet the Lord". We can continue to sing, "The cloudless day is nearing When Thou, O Lord, wilt come", as long as we remember that the "cloudless day" is metaphorical! His coming will signal that the last storm has been braved and the last deluge of trouble has been exhausted, but saints will be "caught up together … in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air". The ascending saints will encounter the descending Saviour when they have scarcely made their exit from the planet; "to meet the Lord".
Presently, we are among the people to whom Peter referred, in that we love Someone Whom we have never seen, 1Pet.1.8. That will all change when we "meet the Lord". It is illustrated in Rebekah’s first encounter with Isaac, Gen.24.62-67. Not one verse is devoted to her journey across inhospitable terrain from Haran to the south of Canaan. In v.61 she leaves home and right away we are told of her first sighting of Isaac, a beautiful picture of that moment when we shall gaze for the first time on the One Who purchased us with His precious blood. Paul Gerhardt captured the thought in the sentiments of his beautiful hymn "Midst the darkness, storm and sorrow":
- Who is this Who comes to meet me
- On the desert way,
- As the Morning Star foretelling
- God’s unclouded day?
- He it is Who came to win me,
- On the cross of shame;
- In His glory well I know Him,
- Evermore the same.
That encounter will result in the Lord’s people enjoying His eternal companionship; "so shall we ever be with the Lord" v.17. Where He is, there we will be in unbroken fellowship; no wonder the paragraph ends, "Wherefore comfort one another with these words" v.18. Their fears and uncertainties are dissipated by thoughts of resurrection, rapture and reunion. The Lord’s descent to the air will trigger these momentous happy events. True, every believer will be entranced at the first sight of his Saviour, but these other factors add to their delight. In light of that, they need not now sorrow, "even as others which have no hope"; "Maran-atha", our Lord cometh, 1Cor.16.22. We hear Him say, "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away" S of S.2.10.
PICTURES OF THE RAPTURE
While various Bible stories provide faint illustrations of the Rapture and its attendant events, there are two major pictures: the first in the book of Genesis and the other in the book of Revelation, ch.4.1. The story of Enoch is the first of these portrayals of the Rapture. Genesis chapter 5 gives credence to Paul’s assertion that "death reigned from Adam to Moses", Rom.5.14. With one exception, each short biography in Genesis chapter 5 concludes with the statement, "and he died". The exception is Enoch of whom it was said, "he was not; for God took him" v.24. The writer to the Hebrews describes his experience as "his translation" 11.5. He went to heaven without dying, "translated that he should not see death".
This is not the place for a character study of Enoch, but one or two comments about his history may be in keeping with the overall theme of the Lord’s coming. Adam was the first man to die of natural causes, and before his son Seth died, Enoch had been taken to heaven without dying. At the dawn of history God was showing that it is possible for people to go to heaven without dying. Enoch seems to be the prototype of those who will be changed and caught up at the Rapture, a generation of believers who, like Enoch, will not die.
A Fruitless Search
It is said of Enoch that he "was not found" Heb.11.5. The inference is that people searched for him, and their investigations proved fruitless. Buildings would have been examined, fields scoured, woodland combed, and all to no avail. Perhaps it foreshadows the perplexity that will fill the minds of the people after the mass evacuation of believers at the Rapture. The sudden disappearance of family members will prompt a frantic search. The believer’s failure to arrive at the office or factory without phoning in will annoy their colleagues, and then puzzle and alarm them. The sight of undrawn curtains will occasion a break-in on the part of anxious neighbours. However, every investigation, every search, every inquiry will end in a cul-de-sac. They will not be found; the Lord will have taken them.
Inevitably, when the sudden disappearance of millions of people is contemplated, the practicalities are raised: driverless cars; pilotless aircraft; parentless children; overturned gravestones? The list of questions goes on. Will there be chaos, or will the event pass in an orderly fashion? Scripture is silent, but on balance, the fact that "God is not the author of confusion" and that He encourages things to "be done decently and in order" 1Cor.14.33,40, would lead us to suppose that in His own sovereign way He will orchestrate the event so as to obviate disorder.
If you care to see in the flood an illustration of the Great Tribulation, it is significant that Enoch was translated before the flood came. In the other picture that we will note, John was caught up through the door in heaven, before the Lamb commenced to break the seals to initiate the judgments of the Tribulation period. The pictures do not prove the fact of a pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church, but they are consistent with the doctrine, so perhaps this is an appropriate point at which to address the question: Will the Rapture Precede the Tribulation? Is it conceivable that believers of this church age will experience the horrors of the Great Tribulation or will they be removed before that "great and the terrible day" dawns, Joel 2.31? In Scripture there are various pointers to the fact that members of the body of Christ will be in heaven before the storm of wrath breaks.
It has already been noted that first century believers were taught that His coming is imminent, that is, it could happen at any moment, it will be unannounced; no signs will herald it. Listen in to some of their distinguished teachers, and while all the Scriptures quoted may not be seen by every reader as referring to the Rapture, the thrust of the passages indicate that we can anticipate unexpected intervention to bring this age to a close. Paul states, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand" Rom.13.12, Peter, "But the end of all things is at hand" 1Pet.4.7; James, "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh" Jms.5.8; John, "Little children, it is the last time" 1Jn.2.18 and Jude, "looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" Jude v.21. The writer of Hebrews affirmed, "For yet a little while, and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry" Heb.10.37.
Add to that list the promise of the Lord Jesus referred to earlier, "Surely I come quickly" Rev.22.20. That final promise of the Bible agrees with the promise He made in the upper room, where as noted previously, the verb tenses indicate this, "I go…I come again", as if there was nothing to intervene between His departure and His return, Jn.14.3, R.V. While there are constant warnings to believers to expect tribulation from men, nowhere does the New Testament instruct them to expect the dreadful age of Divine wrath to intervene before the Rapture.
The Wrath to Come
Jesus is said to be the One Who "delivered us from the wrath to come" 1Thess.1.10; God hath not appointed us to wrath" 5.9. In Scripture, the word "wrath" is generally, though not exclusively, connected with Divine judgment on the earth rather than eternal punishment, and it is a concept that is clearly linked to Tribulation days. "Vials of the wrath of God" will be poured out "upon the earth" Rev.16.1. The Great Tribulation is incorporated in a period of time called "the day of the Lord"; that day will be "a day of wrath" Zeph.1.15. We are promised that we will be preserved from that era of Divine wrath. When it is pending, we will need Someone to save us from it, and so "we wait for a Saviour" Phil.3.20, R.V., Whose timely intervention will rapture us before the storm breaks. An alleged letter from Paul had led the Thessalonians to believe that their present woes were an indication that they were in the day of the Lord, 2Thess.2.2. In this chapter Paul addressed that misunderstanding. He urged them to discount any thought of being in the Tribulation, and the basis of his appeal was this: "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and … our gathering together unto Him" v.1. In other words, they could not possibly be in the day of the Lord, for by the time it dawns, Christ will have come and we will have been snatched from this scene. He provided further markers that proved that they were by no means experiencing tribulation wrath, including the fact that the man of sin had still to be manifested.
Kept From the Hour
The Lord Jesus promised the assembly at Philadelphia that He would keep them "from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world", a reference to the Tribulation, Rev.3.10. We extend the promise to every believer, for in the context, the Spirit was speaking to the churches. In Jer.30.7, the Tribulation is described as "the time of Jacob’s trouble", Jacob being synonymous with Israel. There, the promise is, "he shall be saved out of it". To be saved out of it, Israel will first of all have to be in it, but the terminology of Rev.3.10 is different: kept from the hour. Believers of this age will be preserved from entering the Tribulation altogether. It is significant that after many allusions to the Church in the early chapters of Revelation, there is no reference to it in the central section of the book that deals with the Tribulation period. The Church reappears in chapter 19 as the Lamb’s wife, and emerges from heaven with Him. How will the Church get to heaven in order to appear from it? By means of the Rapture; this demands that the Rapture precedes the Great Tribulation. The pictures referred to earlier are in agreement with the doctrine. Enoch was raptured before the flood came. John was in heaven before even the first phase of tribulation wrath.
The truth of the Rapture is a great source of comfort for the believer, 1Thess.4.18. Hope would be destroyed if we had to face the terrors of the Great Tribulation before meeting our beloved Lord.
A Door in Heaven
As already stated, the second major picture of the Rapture is John’s experience, when "a door was opened in heaven", and the summons was given to him, "Come up hither" Rev.4.1. Instantaneously he was transported into that celestial sphere, and the first thing to meet his gaze was "a throne", a throne that was "set", indicative of the stability of that throne, the unchanging character and unassailable authority of the Divine administration that was centred in that throne.
As John continued to observe, The Lamb took a seven-sealed scroll, and by breaking the seals one by one, initiated a series of events that would culminate in "The kingdoms of this world (becoming) the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ" Rev.11.15. These events are the horrors of the Tribulation period, and again we stress that John was in heaven before that whole process was set in motion; the picture is in keeping with the truth of a pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church.
In summary, we anticipate the imminent return of the Lord Jesus in fulfilment of His promise. His descent to the air will instigate the resurrection of believers who have died, and together with living believers whose bodies will be changed, they will be raptured to meet Him in the air; from there they will be escorted into the Father’s house. At an undefined point thereafter the seven-year Tribulation period will commence, activated by a treaty that the Beast will make with the ruling classes in Israel, Dan.9.27. That period will peak with the massed armies of the world marshalled in Israel with a view to crushing it forever. When all seems lost, the Lord Jesus will appear "with power and great glory", Matt.24.30. "The beast and the kings of the earth" will be so presumptuous as to think that they can "make war" with this Conqueror from heaven, Rev.19.19. He will vanquish them with the sword "which proceeded out of His mouth", v.21; in other words, a word from Him will be sufficient to instantaneously and comprehensively annihilate the massive fighting force. Thereafter, He will usher in His administration of peace and prosperity for 1000 years. The whole vista of prophetic events is fascinating, but for us, our main focus is the fact that the event that will trigger it all, could take place today.
- I am waiting for the coming
- Of the Lord Who died for me;
- O His words have thrilled my spirit,
- "I will come again for thee".
- I can almost hear His footfall
- On the threshold of the door,
- And my heart, my heart is longing
- To be with Him evermore.
- (S. Trevor Francis)