carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,
What About the Rapture?
(Please read this article with an open Bible in front of you.)
I turn your attention first to this passage from Matthew 24 because later we will briefly study a section out of one of Paul’s letters and this passage has an important association with that one.
Now, in a study of Matthew ch. 24 you can readily see that the disciples were asking two questions of Jesus (“When will these things be?” and “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (vs. 3)), and that Jesus began by answering the second of those two questions first (vs. 4). The reason: clearly there is a priority to that issue. True, the fall of the temple will be of a more immediate shock and catastrophe to them personally, but as Jesus goes on to explain, even the fall of this great temple is just one of the many signs that must all take place before Jesus comes again.
Then, in vs. 15, Jesus addresses the disciples’ first question which is about the fall of that Temple. But as He does so, His answer does not seem as clear - that is, as though He were only addressing and describing that one single event. Rather, His words also fit a context of the overarching scheme of things. The fall of the Temple will be real and terrifying indeed, but even that is to be understood as merely a type of the real judgement yet to come. Therefore, Jesus’ words at this point overlap and combine what will come to pass in Jerusalem in 70 AD with what will occur on the last day.
Then, at the end of that description, Jesus says a word of comfort for all the elect, that is, the true church (vs. 22). The very fact that He gives us such comfort should answer for us any questions we might have as to whether or not the church will be exempt from tribulation. Jesus reassures the disciples that, for all they see and experience (and they will see and experience these things), they will endure and survive.
And then, beginning with vs. 23, He gives a warning to the church and the elect, that they should not to be deceived or tricked by some who will proclaim and teach that Jesus’ next coming would be a secret one – that is, that you might need help looking for or finding Him because otherwise you might miss it - and that you, therefore, need these other voices or teachers, teachers who claim they are gifted and qualified to tell you when and where He is. “Don’t listen to them”, Jesus says, but trust Him for His words here. For, as Jesus says in vs. 27, when it truly does happen His coming will be unmistakable.
1 Thess. 4:13-5:11
As we have been going through this study in Matthew 24, you might be asking yourself a question: “Why is it that, in the midst of one of Jesus’ most detailed descriptions and prophecies regarding the coming tribulation and last day – together with the comfort and instructions He gives to the church in preparation for it - that there is no mention at all of the “Rapture”?
If you are wondering that, you are asking a good question. Could it be that Jesus overlooked it here? The Rapture, we’re told by some, is that wonderful event, that significant “catching-up” of the church into heaven in order that the people of God might avoid the final tribulation and enjoy the presence of Jesus for seven years. And, we are told, this is taught plainly in Scripture and, lest we miss that fact, these things are repeatedly explained to us by those gifted for and studied in these things.
Could it be that Jesus just forgot to mention it here? And could it be, therefore, that if we are to have the true and complete picture of those last days, that we must, ourselves, remember what Jesus forgot - to insert and wedge it in to Matthew 24?
Or could we safely venture to conclude that Jesus has not forgotten this at all? Could it be that what has become so infamous and even rather standard fare in modern, popular Christian eschatology really has no basis or support in Scripture after all?
Now up to this point in our study I have chosen to avoid bringing up contrasting views so as not to spend a lot of time arguing those things back and forth, bogging us down any further in our progress. But this, I feel, is one issue that must be dealt with head on in order that we may indeed progress further. What about the rapture?
Now the popular concept of a pre-tribulation Rapture was completely unknown to the church of Christ for 1900 years. It was not until the advent of Dispensationalism a little over 100 years ago that the term “rapture”, and the idea of a two-stage process of Christ’s coming, was discussed, theorized and developed. And that idea of the Rapture is still very strongly with the church today. It is often accepted blindly as Bible truth by many Christians in much the same way as many people in the world today blindly accept evolution. Many Christian books have been written, many Christian videos have been made, all trying to depict, to imagine, to portray what this Rapture will be like.
Now the basic idea of the popular Rapture is this: at any time now, Jesus will come again - but only quietly, secretly, and only half-way to earth. That is because His mission at that time will be to raise the dead believers to life and transform the living faithful to immortality and take them all back with Him to heaven. Following that, we’re told, there will be seven years of tribulation during which a great number of things will happen, all of which do not concern us this morning. Then, after that seven years, Christ will return again, this time clearly, visibly and with heavenly fanfare to set up His millennial kingdom on earth and judge the wicked.
In other words, the term “rapture” is considered a technical term by which we are to understand that the return of Christ will take place in two stages: the first before the last great tribulation of Matthew 24 begins and the second after that time of distress is all over.
I want to briefly address this topic of the “Rapture” this morning by looking at the strongest Scriptural text supporting it – 1 Thessalonians 4 - and by observing only three of the well-known arguments against it. And I plead with you, if you have only been taught up to this time to only think in terms of such a Rapture, I hope that you will be patient and consider these points thoughtfully.
I. Paul is not speaking here of a first-stage rapture.
First, let’s consider the context. Paul here is comforting the Christians in Thessalonica. They have been looking for the Lord’s return already and in the meantime, some of those believers have died. And their question to Paul is this: what about the dead in Christ? Paul’s whole effort in his answer here is to let them know that the dead in Christ are not forgotten. On the contrary, their souls are already in glory. And when Jesus does come again He will, vs. 14, bring them with Him. Then, in vs. 15, he says the dead will not be treated less than the living but rather, in the process of His return, their being quickened to life will even be seen first.
In vs. 16, the coming of the Lord is described and it is an obvious, visible coming just as it is in Mt. 24:27ff. And what is the first thing to happen? The dead in Christ will rise. So you have the spirits of the dead coming with Christ, and, at the divine call, their bodies rise from the graves. It could very well seem to the living at that time as though these people who have died are both coming and going(!) until their reuniting of body and soul is complete. Then, vs. 17 – “after that” - the living are transformed. 1 Corinthians 15 states the same thing – the living are translated. Now both the living and the dead come together to meet Christ in the air, never again to be separated from the Lord. Read the passage. That is the rapture as the Bible teaches it.
But then what? This great crowd won’t just remain in the air. Where will they go? Is Jesus coming to earth or are the resurrected and the translated church going to heaven? The text doesn’t say! It just doesn’t say. The strongest text on the subject that we have in all Scripture and it doesn’t even say where they go! But wherever they go, someone has to turn around. You might think it so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated but I think it is an essential point to make first: the text does not say where the party ends up! How can anyone be dogmatic, insisting that, of course, it is Jesus who turns around and returns with the church back into heaven? On what basis is such a firm stand made?
But is there anything that would argue for the alternative – that it is the church that turns around and attends Christ as He continues his descent to the earth? There is a very significant clue in favor of this – we find it in the words: “to meet …”. Why is that important? This Greek phrase is used elsewhere in Scripture to describe similar occurrences, to describe how people go out to welcome and receive guests that are traveling from a distance to come to them. The host will go out of his door to greet their arrival. We find this to be the case in Acts 28:14ff. There Paul is traveling to Rome. The brothers in Rome hear of his coming and they travel out toward Paul in order to meet him! But once they are together what happens? The Romans turned around and traveled with Paul back toward Rome. Look also at Mt. 25:6 and the parable of the 10 virgins. There the virgins await for the bridegroom in the room made ready for the celebration. And when the bridegroom approaches, the virgins arise and go out to meet him. But then what? The united party turns around goes back in to the room for the celebration.
If the use of that Greek phrase in other places makes it clear and obvious who it is that does the greeting and who it is that does the turning, why can’t there be similar consideration for those who meet Christ in the air in 1 Thessalonians? But instead of taking this in its natural, shall we say, literal condition, we are told that the most critical item, that the saints return to heaven with Jesus for 7 years, is just to be presumed here. But that simply presumes too much. That is because such a thing is not what Paul is writing about. In fact, it never would have crossed his mind.
As Paul writes to the Thessalonian church, he is only concerned to speak to them about their hope for life and for union with Christ at His coming. And so it should be evident that as Paul describes in detail (for their comfort) what will happen - at what he refers to in vs. 15 as the coming of the Lord - that any idea of a pre-tribulation rapture cannot be in Paul’s mind here at all. Plainly Jesus is coming from heaven to earth and He is both coming with and for his saints.
II. There is nothing secretive or separate about his coming.
The Rapture, we’re told, is secretive. Most Dispensationalists argue and portray the Rapture as a coming of Jesus known only to Christians – that they alone hear His call and that they alone will respond. But for the rest of the world it will be like a thief in the night (5:2). They know nothing about this except that these others have suddenly disappeared. And that secrecy has its place, we’re told, because that first stage is only for the calling of believers while the second stage is reserved for Christ’s enemies. For only then will He meet out his justice and set up His kingdom.
But look again at this text. Vs. 16 – “the Lord himself will come down … with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God”. Now contrast that to Mt. 24:27: the coming of the Son of Man will be like lightning, the nations of the earth will mourn (vs. 30). He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call (vs. 31) and, down in vs. 43, His coming will be sudden, like a thief in the night. Surely these are parallel descriptions of not two but one event.
And further, Paul teaches in 2 Thess. 1:5ff that there will be no gap between the coming of Jesus for his church and the coming of Jesus to judge the world. God will repay with tribulation those who trouble the Christians and give the Christians who are troubled rest when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rest and vengeance will take place at the same time. So Paul, himself, makes plain that the coming of Jesus will be neither secret nor divided. Rather, the coming of the Lord will be final.
That only leaves one passage left that has been used, or I should think, abused - as if it virtually described the “Rapture” in progress – Mt. 24:40-41: “Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.” Could there possibly be another interpretation of this passage than the one we have always been told?
Once again, let us look at the context. Starting early in the chapter are Jesus’ clues and descriptions as to how His once-for-all coming will be. Picking up those descriptions with vs. 29 we notice the mysterious heavenly activities, the Son of Man appears, all will see and all those not welcoming His coming will mourn. And at the sound of that same trumpet, He will send his angels who will gather His elect. The singularity of these actions is not in doubt.
Then, in vs. 37, Jesus describes another of those Old Testament types which illustrate for us in a former, merely physical fashion, what the judgement of God will be like: “But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, … ”.
Did you get that? Not only the pattern but the language? Those who entered the ark were separated by the flood from those outside the ark. And at the coming of the waters – waters which simultaneously delivered Noah and his family and destroyed everyone else in judgement – everyone not in the ark were “taken away”. Noah and his family were left, the others were taken. That’s the pattern Christ sets for our understanding. He then repeats it for us again so that we don’t miss the point: “so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (vs. 39).
Then, He goes on to describe how that day will look without the floodwaters to do the separating of elect from nonelect. “Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left” (vs. 40). Which one is which? According to the pattern Jesus has just taught us, the one taken is taken in judgement. It is the one left that stands delivered. “Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left” (vs. 41). Which one is which? According to the pattern Jesus has taught us, the one taken is taken in judgement. It is the one left that stands delivered.
But even if you simply cannot tolerate such a reversal of notions - if the movies and the novels have simply convinced you and you can’t be persuaded – then that little point of understanding Jesus’ illustration doesn’t matter anyway. The over-arching pattern is set and that cannot be denied. Deliverance and judgement come together, as with the floodwaters which both lifted Noah and drowned the wicked. The context demands that you see that. The only way to read a two-stage rapture into these very often quoted verses is to deny, to refuse, to ignore Jesus’ own words on the subject.
III. Christians don’t really need a rapture.
So, if the Scripture plainly speaks in a way that denies such a thing as a two-stage coming of Christ and a secretive Rapture, where did the idea for such a Rapture really come from? Well, it comes from the fact that the book of Revelation talks colorfully about the judgement and the wrath of God being poured out horribly onto the earth. But since believers are delivered from that wrath by their union with Jesus Christ, then surely, we’re told, they will not have to endure such pain and anguish. Therefore, the idea of a Rapture provides us with a physical way of escape before that horrible time begins. We naturally like the sound of that. It seems safe, comforting, exciting, mysterious, even humorous. But it is because of these emotional things that such an idea has become popular today, not because the Bible teaches any such thing.
This has even become such an important point for Dispensationalists that some would be willing to conclude that if I don’t believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture then I must not really believe the Bible, that I’m probably not even a Christian, that I don’t believe in the coming wrath of God.
But I do, most certainly, believe in the coming wrath of God. And I also, just as certainly, believe in the God of that wrath. If the Lord has even shortened the days for the sake of the elect (by the way, what is the need for that with a “Rapture” anyway?) will He not fail to protect them on that great and horrible day? Is His arm too short to defend and protect you, Christian?
We’ve been studying the story of the Exodus on Lord’s Day evenings and we’ll soon be getting into the episodes of the plagues where, time after time, God afflicted all of Egypt with all manner of suffering. But during that time, he protected the Israelites and kept them safe. Even during the plague of darkness which covered all of Egypt with a veil as black as night, Israel had light. There, in the Old Testament, are so many types and foreshadowings of the events that are yet to come. These not only give us insight into what the power and justice of God is like but also they are given as examples (1 Cor. 10:6) of how the hand of God will provide for his own the shelter and protection we need.
You don’t need to invent anything to be assured of that. But you do need to believe in the gospel and you do need to live your life trusting in Christ. The one who calls you will preserve you through the storm. But you must build your house on the Rock. And in the meantime, that same grace and protection of God is also promised to us here and now through the other kind of wrath we are warned about in Scripture – the wrath of man.
Against that day, the word of Moses stands for us as well: when Moses and the Israelites faced the Egyptian army with their backs to the Red Sea, their deliverance and the Egyptians judgment occurred at one dramatic moment. But before going through it, Moses only gave them one instruction:
not be afraid.
Text taken from Studies in the Book of Matthew, by Pastor David G. Barker, 1999.
|David G. Barker