The Lord Jesus Christ is coming soon. 2000 years ago the New Testament writers told us that we are living in the last time and how much more is that true now. Bible prophecy related to the second advent of our Lord is neglected or avoided by many Christians today. This is partly due to the sensationalism that has often surrounded the topic but this should not deter us from understanding Biblical truth. It is part of Biblical teaching and therefore should be explored like any other subject. Prophecy also has great spiritual and practical value. First, it helps us to endure hardship and tribulation. We see beyond this temporary life into eternity. Second, it motivates us to live righteous and pure lives before God. A child who knows that his parents could walk back into the room at any moment is going to behave himself. Third, prophecy gives us hope for the future. In these dark days when we are surrounded by war, famine, terrorism, mobs, lawlessness, extreme weather and many other dangers it is comforting to remember that this world is only temporary.
I have always taken comfort in the hope of the Lord’s return. This event is known as the Rapture where the Lord comes in the clouds and takes his believing people home to Heaven. The word rapture comes from the Latin word for “caught away” and it has come to mean joyful in modern English. As this “catching away” is going to be a joyful event it is a very suitable term. This belief is derived from a number of New Testament passages.
Looking, Waiting and Expecting
Christians have various views on the sequence of events leading up to the Return of our Lord Jesus Christ but most agree that he will return and that he will return at any moment. This is so plainly taught in the New Testament.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10)
For he grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
We should be “waiting for” and “looking for” the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. To be waiting and looking means that we are eagerly expecting it at any moment and being ready for him to come. When you are looking for something you focus on that and disregard other things. If you are waiting for someone to arrive at any moment you prepare yourself and prepare your house. This means work! You do not want the guest to arrive and see your dirty dishes or have no food to give them. The thought of the Lord arriving means that when he comes, he sees your purity of heart and deeds. You do not want to be ashamed before him (1 John 2:28). The Lord’s glorious is called a “blessed hope” which means that it is both joyful and certain. When we are down about the state of our lives especially in these times, lift up your heads . Remember that you have a firm and steadfast hope and the troubles of today will soon pass.
Transport and Transformation
One aspects of the Lord’s coming a promise to take believers home to Heaven:
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. 3 If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.John 14:1-6
When the Lord left this earth he went back to “The Father’s house” to prepare a place for us. He promised that he will return in person and receive us to himself. Normally kings would send servants to greet guests while he stays remotely in his palace but not King Jesus. He comes to get us personally and that shows how humble he is and how privileged we are. The purpose of this is not be with us and stay where we are but to receive (take) us to be where he is.
This is not all. At this coming our bodies will be transformed and glorified:
50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15)
Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. (Philippians 3).
The word mystery means a secret which until now was hidden. The doctrine of resurrection was never hidden as it was taught in the Old Testament. But the translation without death for all believers was never foretold in the Old Testament or even in the gospels. It was later revealed to the Apostle Paul and expounded in his letters. Believers who are still alive at his coming will be transformed (that is, their mortal bodies will be changed into glorious bodies). Here again we find the idea of waiting for our Lord. He is coming from Heaven where our citizenship is. Two historical preachers informs us that
The Greek word [for citizenship] is of a very extensive meaning: our citizenship, our thoughts, our affections, are already in heaven.John Wesley, Commentary on Philippians 3
Observe, Good Christians, even while they are here on earth, have their conversation in heaven. Their citizenship is there, politeuma. As if he had said, We stand related the that world, and are citizens of the New Jerusalem. This world is not our home, but that is. There our greatest privileges and concerns lie. And, because our citizenship is there, our conversation is there being related to that world, we keep up a correspondence with it. The life of a Christian is in heaven, where his head is, and his home is, and where he hopes to be shortly he sets his affections upon things above and where his heart is there will his conversation be. The apostle had pressed them to follow him and other ministers of Christ: “Why,” might they say, “you are a company of poor, despised, persecuted people, who make no figure, and pretend to no advantages in the world who will follow you?” “Nay,” says he, “but our conversation is in heaven. We have a near relation and a great pretension to the other world, and are not so mean and despicable as we are represented.” It is good having fellowship with those who have fellowship with Christ, and conversation with those whose conversation is in heaven.Matthew Henry, Commentary on Philippians 3
We do not belong on this earth and we are only here temporarily. Our departure from is imminent and our lifestyle should reflect that.
This coming of the Lord is described extensively in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4:
13 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. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.1 Thessalonians 4
This has many parallels to 1 Corinthians 15. The Lord’s coming will happen with the sound of the trumpet (shofar or ram’s horn) and the voice of the archangel. Those believers who have died before his coming will rise and those living will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. This happened to Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament and it will happen to all believers one day. If this happens in our lifetime we are the most blessed. The purpose of this coming is that “we shall always be with the Lord” where he is (in Heaven) – not that he will always be with us where we are (on earth).
The Different Phases of The Second Advent
In the rapture passages above there is no mention of the Lord coming all the way down to earth to pour out judgement. There are many other Bible passages that teach that Christ will come down with the armies of Heaven to judge the wicked and those who have not obeyed the gospel. The prophet Zechariah predicted that his feet will touch the mount of Olives and Joel predicted that the place of judgment at his return would be the valley of Jehoshaphat. Many Christians assume that these events are one and the same. But this assumption is just that – an assumption. What if they were two separate phases to his second coming? If he is taking us up to Heaven then how can he come all the way down to earth at the same time? If these are two separate phases to the Lord’s return (with an interval of time between them) it would resolve the difficulty.
Why is this important? Some Christians have said to me “Christ is not coming back today because the signs have not happened!” But the rapture (the first phase) has no preceding signs but the second phase of his return (when he comes to judge the wicked and set up his kingdom) is preceded by signs. Confusing these events destroys the motivation to be ready because it is no longer imminent. If your guest is arriving at any moment you will not slumber however if you know he is not arriving for a week you may procrastinate your preparations until the day before you know he is going to arrive. The belief that the Lord can come at any moment is incredibly motivational so to deny this (or undermine it) destroys that motivation.
Can this view be supported? These two phases of the second advent has been recognised by many believers down the centuries (although they came to different eschatological conclusions). While the Bible is our authority the words of godly preachers and teachers is valuable. I am going to quote some historical commentaries on 1 Thessalonians 4 regarding the catching away into the clouds.
Irenaeus: One of the early Christians, Irenaeus, taught that:
And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, “There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.” For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter XXIX. Source: Early Christian Writings
Many others from the early church believed that the church was going to be caught up in the clouds. I am not sure whether Iranaeus believed that the rapture was a separate event to the judgement coming but he believed that the church would be “caught up.”
Ephraim The Syrian: Fourth century church Father Ephraim the Syrian preached as sermon on the end of the world:
We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled (consummated), and there is not other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of the Roman kingdom. Why therefore are we occupied with worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world? Believe you me, dearest brother, because the coming (advent) of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it is the very last time. Or do you not believe unless you see with your eyes? See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares: “Woe to those who desire to see the day of the Lord!” For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins. And so, brothers most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of the world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their hands, awaiting the empire of the Lord. And we think that the earth exists with blind infidelity, arriving at its downfall early. Commotions are brought forth, wars of diverse peoples and battles and incursions of the barbarians threaten, and our regions shall be desolated, and we neither become very much afraid of the report nor of the appearance, in order that we may at least do penance; because they hurl fear at us, and we do not wish to be changed, although we at least stand in need of penance for our actions!On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World. https://www.pre-trib.org/articles/all-articles/message/on-the-last-times-the-antichrist-and-the-end-of-the-world-english/read
Ephraim believed that the elect of God were going to be gathered to together before the tribulation period of the end time. The sermon goes on to talk about the rise and doom of the man of sin.
Matthew Henry: Going forward many centuries to the Puritans, Matthew Henry spoke different phases of the Lord’s return:
At, or immediately before, this rapture into the clouds, those who are alive will undergo a mighty change, which will be equivalent to dying. This change is so mysterious that we cannot comprehend it: we know little or nothing of it, 1 Co. 15:51 . Only, in the general, this mortal must put on immortality, and these bodies will be made fit to inherit the kingdom of God, which flesh and blood in its present state are not capable of. This change will be in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (1 Co. 15:52 ), in the very instant, or not long after the raising up of those that sleep in Jesus. And those who are raised, and thus changed, shall meet together in the clouds, and there meet with their Lord, to congratulate him on his coming, to receive the crown of glory he will then bestow upon them, and to be assessors with him in judgment, approving and applauding the sentence he will then pass upon the prince of the power of the air, and all the wicked, who shall be doomed to destruction with the devil and his angels.Matthew Henry, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4
Henry taught the coming of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians was “a rapture into the clouds” and, in his view, this would be followed by the judgement and destruction of the wicked. Matthew Henry did not appear to believe in a time interval between these events however he did see a rapture in this passage.
John Gill: The pastor of the London Metropolitan Tabernacle, John Gill (1697-1791) also taught there would be a rapture phase to the Lord’s return in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:
suddenly, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and with force and power; by the power of Christ, and by the ministry and means of the holy angels; and to which rapture will contribute, the agility which the bodies both of the raised and changed saints will have: and this rapture of the living saints will be…
here Christ will stop, and will be visible to all, and as easily discerned by all, good and bad, as the body of the sun at noonday; as yet he will not not descend on earth, because it is not fit to receive him; but when that and its works are burnt up, and it is purged and purified by fire, and become a new earth, he will descend upon it, and dwell with his saints in it: and this suggests another reason why he will stay in the air, and his saints shall meet him there, and whom he will take up with him into the third heaven, till the general conflagration and burning of the world is over, and to preserve them from itCommentary on 1 Thessalonians 4
Gill believed that the Lord would “not descend on earth” but that he would “stay in the air” and take believers to the third heaven “till the burning of the world is over to preserve them from it”. Whilst Henry did not seem to indicate a time interval between the rapture and burning of the world, Gill believed that believers will be taken out for this time. He did not believe in the doctrine of the rapture before the entire tribulation period but he laid the groundwork for it.
Morgan Edwards: Here was another scholar that two separate phases of the Lord’s return – this time separated by about three and a half years. In an essay at Bristol Baptist College in 1744 (another commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4) he wrote:
The distance between the first and second resurrection will be somewhat more than a thousand years.
I say, somewhat more; because the dead saints will be raised, and the living changed at Christ’s “appearing in the air” (1 Thes. iv, 17); and this will be about three years and a half before the millennium as we shall see hereafter: but will he and they abide in the air all that time? No: they will ascend to paradise, or to some one of those many “mansions in the father’s house of God” (John xiv: 2), and to disappear during the foresaid period of time [3 and a half years before the return of Christ to destroy the Antichrist]. The design of this retreat and disappearing will be to judge the risen and changed saints; for “now the time is come that judgment must begin,” and that will be at the house of God” (1 Pet. iv. 17)Two Academical Exercises on Subjects Bearing the Following Titles: Millennium, Last-Novelties.
Morgan Edwards rightly saw that in this coming, Christ would appear in the air and then ascend into heaven with his people to take them home. As far as the earth is concerned, Christians have disappeared for a period of time. In Edwards’ view, they have disappeared for three and a half years before Christ’s return to set up his kingdom. With this progression between Henry, Gill and Edwards, the groundwork was set for the modern pretribulation rapture theory (the belief that the rapture would occur at least seven years before Christ’s return to set up his kingdom and before the reign of Antichrist).
John Nelson Darby: It was John Nelson Darby (1800-1881) who systematised the doctrine of the rapture which is now mainstream in many Christian circles today. In his Synopsis on 1 Thessalonians 4 he preached:
In this part of the passage, where he explains the details of our ascension to the Lord in the air nothing is said of His coming down to the earth; it is our going up (as He went up) to be with Him. Neither, as far as concerns us, does the apostle go farther than our gathering together to be for ever with Him. Nothing is said either of judgment or of manifestation; but only the fact of our heavenly association with Him in that we leave the earth precisely as He left it. This is very precious. There is this difference: He went up in His own full right, He ascended; as to us, His voice calls the dead, and they come forth from the grave, and, the living being changed, all are caught up together. It is a solemn act of God’s power, which seals the Christians’ life and the work of God, and brings the former into the glory of Christ as His heavenly companions. Glorious privilege! Precious grace! To lose sight of it destroys the proper character of our joy and of our hope.
Other consequences follow, which are the result of His manifestation; but that is our portion, our hope. We leave the earth as He did, we shall for ever be with Him.
It is with these words that we are to comfort our selves if believers die fall asleep in Jesus. They shall return with Him when He shall be manifested; but, as regards their own portion, they will go away as He went, whether raised from the dead or transformed, to be for ever with the Lord.
Darby observed that in this rapture, we will leave the earth as the Lord did and nothing is said of judgement in this passage. He noted that we shall return with him when he comes in judgement. Like Edwards, Darby believed that Christians will disappear from the earth for a period of time before they come back to earth with Christ in judgement. However Darby taught (in other works) that the rapture would be at least seven years before the return.
A Question of When
Henry, Gill, Edwards, Darby were just four of many preachers that taught that this rapture is just one phase to what we refer to as “the second coming”. The final phase is when Christ comes to destroy the wicked, to set up his kingdom and to separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 24 and 25). Men of God do not always agree with each other on the timing of the rapture or the length of time between the rapture and final return. On this Scripture is not explicit so they all interpreted what they read, studied other Biblical data and arrived at their own conclusions. Christians today also disagree on this issue and we must likewise study and come to our own conclusions. After many hours of study of the Scriptures I personally agree with Darby in that the rapture will happen before the seven year tribulation period. However many of my friends do not agree with me on this and their studies have brought them to different conclusions. There is scope for discussion and disagreement on this topic. Certain doctrines that are essential and non-negotiable (such as the virgin birth, the deity of Christ and the humanity of Christ) and there are some that are open to discussion. The timing of the rapture is in the latter category and there are faithful believers in all schools of thought here. What we can agree on is that the Lord will come to take his believers out of the world and that we must endure suffering until he does. We don’t know when the rapture will occur and therefore we are not promised an easy earthly life free of suffering. Christians across the world are suffering today more than they ever were in previous 1500 years. The thought of the return of the Lord is our our hope and our encouragement. Charles Wesley sang about it in a famous hymn:
Rejoice in glorious hope!
Our Lord and judge shall come
And take His servants up
To their eternal home:
Lift up your heart,
Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!