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UNDERSTANDING: The Rapture

What does the expression mean?

 

“Are you looking forward to the Rapture?”

 

Just suppose an interviewer raised that question with a hundred truly born-again believers selected at random. It is more than likely that three different responses would emerge. There will be those who reply, “What Rapture? I don’t know what you are talking about. I’ve never heard it mentioned in my church.” Others may say, “The Rapture? Oh, you’re not one of those freakish people who believe that, are you?” Then there will be those who respond, “Yes I’m looking forward to it, and many signs make me feel it can’t be very far off.”

 

What is meant when people speak of the Rapture – and why can it be such a contentious subject? In this article we are going to see what the expression means and attempt to discover why such differing responses may be heard when a question like the one above is raised.

 

First, it must be stated that the expression “the Rapture” is not found in the Bible – though its meaning is certainly there. It is an expression that is closely connected with the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Paul writes of those who are “alive and remain” being “caught up together with them [i.e. the believing dead who have been raised] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.” Notice the expression caught up together which Paul uses in this verse. Without being too technical, the Greek word used by Paul was translated into Latin and from thence into the English language as rapture. It means the sudden snatching away of believers from an evil world to meet the Lord in the air.

 

A PROMISE GIVEN

To any careful reader of the New Testament it will be obvious that before the Lord Jesus Christ left the earth He promised to return. In John 14:3 He spoke of going from His disciples to prepare a place for them and of coming again to receive them unto Himself. No date was specified in the promise – simply that He would “come again” for them. The following words “that where I am, there ye may be also” make it clear that the Lord Jesus was not speaking of reappearing to the disciples after His resurrection. The promise is clearly connected with the “Father’s house” (v.2) and concerns bringing His disciples there.

 

Not long after making the promise, the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven before the wondering gaze of His disciples. As He disappeared from view an angel appeared with the message, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). He would return: a clear promise remained in the minds of those first disciples.

 

From the beginning of the Church Age (Pentecost) the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ has been an important doctrine and a vital hope. The Apostle Paul spent a short time in Thessalonica preaching the gospel and establishing a church there and made known to the new believers that their Saviour would return “from heaven” (1 Thess.1:10). The closing words of the Bible also confirm the promise made by the Lord that He will come again – to which His people respond, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev.22:20).

 

Why, then, does the question raised at the beginning of this article produce such different responses from born-again believers? It is not too difficult to draw a conclusion. In some churches the return of the Lord Jesus is rarely mentioned – and certainly never taught in detail. Others know and believe that the Lord will come again but have a different understanding of how it will all take place.

 

IN TWO PARTS

One thing that many overlook is that there are two different aspects to the second coming of Christ. The same, by the way, was true of His first coming. Prophecies in the Old Testament anticipated the Messiah “coming” to Bethlehem and also to Jerusalem. How could both be true? With hindsight we can understand perfectly that His birth was in Bethlehem and was very much a “private” affair witnessed by very few, while His entry into Jerusalem on a colt years later was a very “public” event before an enthusiastic crowd. In His second coming, something parallel can be traced. The New Testament speaks of the return of Christ being unexpected (which is why the Lord taught the need to watch) and yet “every eye shall see Him” (Rev.1:7) – without any mention of having to watch. How can such apparent contradictions be explained? Put simply, there will be two parts to the return of Christ. First He will come to the air, and then He will come to earth. His coming in the air will be “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor.15:52) while His coming to earth will be in a display of power and great glory (Mt.24:30). Clearly this cannot all take place at the same moment. The only way to harmonize these and many other Scriptures is to realize that the Lord will come into the air for His own and then will return from heaven with His own. Both things cannot take place at exactly the same moment.

 

THE RAPTURE SCRIPTURE

The main passage of Scripture dealing with the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. To comfort these recent converts who were distressed because of the death of believing loved-ones, Paul pointed them to the coming of the Lord.

“The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (v.16-17).

At the moment Christ comes, the Church Age will end. The events described here will take place in a split second, as we learn from 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. In this passage we are told that not all shall “sleep” (i.e. die) but all believers shall “be changed” instantaneously. It is important to notice that this was “a mystery” – something that had not been revealed before in Scripture (1 Cor.15:51). We must therefore not expect to read about this in the Old Testament – although there were two men of God who fulfilled this in figure: Enoch and Elijah were both taken up into the Lord’s presence without experiencing death (Gen.5:24; 2 Kings 2:11).

This event could happen at any moment. Certain conditions do not need to be fulfilled first. The Lord Jesus made it clear that it is vital to be ready because we do not know when He will return (Mk.13:35-37).

 

 

WHY THE DISAGREEMENT?

Perhaps at this point we should ask why some folk pour scorn upon the idea of the Rapture. Do they not believe in the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ? Yes, they do, but they lump everything together. Some picture the Lord coming from heaven into the air, catching up His redeemed people and then returning at once with them to the earth. Of course, this could be concluded from Scripture, but it fails to bring one significant matter into consideration: Israel. God has not finished with that nation. Although He is not dealing directly with them at this particular time, many Old Testament prophecies await fulfilment. In Daniel 9:24-27 we read of a very specific period of seventy “sevens” relating to Israel. The last of those “sevens” has not yet been fulfilled – an extremely significant seven-year period time that is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. Piecing it all together we can see that a time of terrible suffering awaits that nation, but it will be curtailed by the return of their Messiah whom they shall see (Zech.12:9-10) when “His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives” (Zech.14:4). There is no good reason to “spiritualize” such verses and deprive them of their literal meaning.

 

The Church Age is a period of time when God is calling from this world a heavenly people described as “the bride of Christ”. Failing to distinguish between this heavenly people and the earthly people of Israel leads to confusion. Israel and the Church are separate entities. When the Church is complete and all who are going to make up the number of the redeemed have been gathered in, the Lord Jesus will come to receive His people whom He will take to their heavenly home. Believers will then stand before the judgment seat of Christ that their lives of service may be evaluated before sharing the joy of the marriage supper of the Lamb (2 Cor.5:10; Rev.19:6-9).

 

Many today simply fail to discern these differences because their theological training has taught them to think in a certain way. The views of Augustine of Hippo prevail in many institutions of learning, and consequently a literal interpretation of prophecy is rejected. Knowing only too well that people with quirky ideas exist, these folk reject whatever appears to contradict with Augustine, making the assumption that he interpreted every aspect of Scripture correctly. This accounts for the scorn that is often poured upon those who teach “the Rapture” and distinguish between the Lord’s coming in the air followed by His coming to earth. Believers who sit under the teaching of men trained in theological college therefore usually hear nothing about the Rapture.

 

 

A PRACTICAL TRUTH

Christ is coming again! His people are heaven-bound. If the Lord Jesus may return at any time, we must be ready. Events in the Middle East and in Europe point to the imminent fulfilment of prophecies – but that is another vast subject beyond the scope of this article. A discussion of the Rapture should not become a heated debate, but neither should it be simply an academic exercise. Although “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim.2:15) is vital, the knowledge that Christ is coming at any moment should make us want to live holy lives, so that we will not be ashamed when He shall appear (1 Jn.3:2-3).