Ask Steve: The Rapture

Rapture 3

 

Question: Steve, please defend the concept of the rapture biblically. When will it take place and why?

Answer: The rapture of the church is a subject of debate in evangelicalism. The three main views concerning the timing of the rapture are pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, and post-tribulation. Scripture contains passages that speak clearly on the concept of the future rapture, although the timing of the event is not quite as explicit or developed as one would hope. Although I am not as dogmatic concerning the rapture timing as I am with other eschatological subjects such as the millennium, I still believe in the merit of uncovering the truth about this matter, as with many other Bible subjects. I believe, through piecing together all the pieces of the puzzle in the New Testament, that the Bible teaches a pre-tribulation rapture. This means that the rapture of the church – or Jesus descending on the clouds to take His saints away to glorification – occurs before the 7-Year Tribulation. Jesus takes the dead and living saints at that time away to heaven before He unleashes His wrath and judgment upon the inhabitants of the earth for 7 years.

There a few good reasons to believe in the pre-tribulation rapture view. The first has to do with the purpose of the rapture. It is meant to reward the saints for their faith and give them rest from the labors. In contrast, the day of the Lord judgment that happens during the Tribulation period is meant to punish unbelievers on earth for their rejection of God in general and special revelation. We get a glimpse of this in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 when Paul describes the future event of the rapture in order to encourage and comfort the distraught saints. Paul begins by saying, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” From here, the Apostle explains the process of the rapture. Because they are “uninformed,”

Rapture 1Paul wants to enlighten them on an event that has never really been disclosed before. About 4 to 5 years later in A.D. 55, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:51 that this rapture event is a “mystery.” The Greek word for mystery (musterion) also appears in Ephesians 5:32 to describe the mystery of the church (which has never been disclosed in the OT) and of marriage (which has also never been explained in the OT). Likewise, the word musterion describes the mystery of the rapture. This implies that the concept of the rapture has never been revealed before, either in the OT or during Jesus’ three-year ministry on earth. If this is correct, then the rapture of the saints is not the same event described in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 25) or in the book of Revelation (Rev 20:4). To link the two events (which is essentially post-tribulation rapture) is to equate the Christ’s coming in the rapture as one and the same as Christ’s second coming to judge the world and set up His kingdom.

At times, these two events have striking similarities, and equating them as the same happening makes for a much simpler understanding of eschatological events. However, there are some problems with this view. The purpose and nature of the rapture differs significantly from that of the second coming of Christ. At the rapture, the saints go to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess 4:17), while saints return with the Lord at the second coming (Rev 19:4). The rapture is described as imminent (1 Thess 4:13-18: 1 Cor 15:50-58), while the second coming cannot happen until after the signs of the Great Tribulation take place (2 Thess 2:4; Matt 24:15-30). The rapture is associated with comfort and deliverance (1 Thess 4:13-18), while the second coming is associated with fear and judgment (Matt 24:40-41).

Some critics have contended that the word for meet (apantesin) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 supports the post-trib rapture view. The technical force of this word, as used in the secular Hellenistic vernacular, implies that an important visitor is formally met by a delegation of citizens and ceremonially escorted back into the city. On this basis, some scholars contend that Christians go out to meet Jesus and return with Him as he continues His descent to earth. However, the content does not indicate that Christians willingly advance on Christ to meet Him, but are snatched away by divine will, which removes this passage’s intention from its Hellenistic sense. Believers will meet the Lord in the air and continue onward to where He is (Jn 14:2-3), until the end of the Tribulation, when they will return with Christ.

The entire end-times presentation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 favors this case. The Thessalonian believers in A.D. 51 were in a state of fear, anxiety, and panic because they thought that they were in the Day of the Lord judgment because of the trials they were facing and persecution from enemies. The Thessalonians understood, most likely from both the OT and Jesus’ teachings, that the Day of the Lord is to be a specific time of intense persecution and horrific world events, which is what they thought was happening around them. This favors the futurist view of the book of Revelation. Paul’s point of revealing the rapture mystery in 4:13-18 was to show the Thessalonians (and the universal church) that believers will not be appointed to suffer the 7-Year Tribulation, but will be saved out of it. That is why Paul writes in 5:1-3, “Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.”

Paul urges the believers in Thessalonica to ready themselves in salvation so they will not be left behind for the Day of the Lord judgment. Those who are saved and filled with the Holy Spirit will not have to worry about the Day of the Lord coming upon them suddenly. That is why Paul goes on to say, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief.” Because once the rapture happens, then the Day of the Lord starts immediately. The rapture is meant to comfort and give hope to the saints who feared for the fate of their deceased Christian relatives and the troubles that were coming upon them. Paul says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…Therefore, encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.”

Rapture 2There are other clues in the Bible that teach us that the rapture occurs before the time of the 7-Year Tribulation. In Revelation 6-19, God describes the events that must “soon take place” (Rev 1:1; 22:6) in the world. Nowhere during John’s writings do we see any mention of the church on earth. However, we constantly see references to Israel, that is, ethnic Israel that is made up of the 12 tribes of Jacob, as the entity that is suffering on earth during the time, but also redeemed at the very end. This is obviously ethnic Israel (and not the current church), not only because of the text identifies it as such (Rev 12:1), but because other passages of the Bible speak about Israel’s ultimate redemption during the last days (Deut 30:1-10; Isaiah 59:20-21; Ezek 37:1-14; Zech 12:10; Rom 11:26). Since the book of Revelation does speak specifically about the end times, it makes perfect sense that this passage speaks about God’s sovereign plan of redeeming Israel, and judging its enemies, as ancient prophecy predicted.

The early portion of Revelation also speaks about the possible timing of the rapture. The book of Revelation addresses seven particular churches, yet these churches are representative of the type of churches that would exist throughout history until the time of Jesus’ second advent. The Philadelphian church is the exemplary type of church with minimal flaws. The reward for their saving faith, and the fruits of it, is that they will be delivered out of a particular time of “testing” that is coming upon the world. Revelation 3:10 states, “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that house which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” Critics contend that this merely means that Jesus will preserve His church from major harm and distress on earth while the Tribulation is happening all around them. But if one examines the pattern of Jesus’ exhortation to the 7 churches of Asia Minor, the reward for those who “overcome” and remain faithful to the end always speaks of consummated salvation and the benefits that come along with it. Believers will eat of the tree of life (2:7), escape the second death (2:11), be given a white stone (2:17), and will be given authority over the nations (2:26). These rewards all speak of believers who have received their glorified bodies and have entered the eternal state. Likewise, the message to the Philadelphia church regarding being kept from “the hour of testing” most likely has salvific implications as well. This means that believers will be rescued out of the Tribulation and enter the eternal state via the rapture.

We know this period of testing to be 7 years most notably from Daniel 9:27. It says, “And he [Antichrist] will make a firm covenant with the many [people of Israel] for one week [7 years], but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.” This is a picture of an event that happens in the Great Tribulation (Matt 24:15; Rev 13:6, 15), once again a time devoid of any mention of the church, but a time in which God finishes His salvation plan with Israel.

The pre-trib rapture edifies us in many ways. It teaches us to be on guard with our holy living, defense of the gospel, and evangelism mission, because Christ’s return for the church could happen at any moment. Christians should take this seriously because they do not want to be ashamed at His coming, after which He will judge Christians in heaven at the Bema Seat for they did with their time and resources on earth (2 Cor 5:10). The pre-trib rapture also gives tremendous hope and relief to Christians. Although the final living generation will no doubt be the recipient of much oppression and persecution from the secular world, Christ promises that they will not endure the worst part of it (in the 7-Tribulation) but will be delivered out of it, since those who are saved have no reason to be destined for God’s wrath, but only His deliverance.

 

Recommended Resource: Understanding End Times Prophecy by Paul Benware