When discussing the timing of the Rapture or the removal of the Church from the earth, it is important to understand the difference between the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ:
A.The Rapture: Christ will return in the atmosphere and will rapture or catch up to be with Him forever all those who believe in Him during the church age.
B. The Second Coming of Christ: After seven years of tribulation on the whole world, Christ will return to earth with His church, to set up and rule His Kingdom for 1000 years.
When will the Rapture occur in relation to the Second Coming? Many godly, serious students of the Bible have different views about the timing of the Rapture of the church. Some believe that the Rapture will happen either before (pretribulationism), at the middle (midtribulationism), or at the end of the 7 years of Tribulation (posttribulationism). The reason for differing views is because no single Bible verse says precisely when the Rapture will take place in relation to the Tribulation or the Second Coming in a way that would settle the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. However, this does not mean that the Bible does not teach a clear position on this matter, for I believe it does. Many important biblical doctrines are not derived from a single verse, but are the result of harmonizing many passages into systematic conclusions (e.g. the Trinity or the God-Man nature of Christ).
I believe that a systematic, literal interpretation of all New Testament passages relating to the Rapture will lead to the pretribulational viewpoint: that, at the Rapture, all living believers will be caught up into heaven at least seven years before Christ’s Second Coming. The biblical evidence points to the Rapture or removal of the Church taking place before the Tribulation period.
1. Jesus is the Original Teacher of the Pretribulation Rapture. In Matthew 24 Jesus answers His disciples’ questions in verse 3, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” He answers the second question (“And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”) first in Matt. 24:4-35. This is designated by the words “the sign” (to semeion) used only in verses 3 and 30. In Matthew 24:4-14, the Lord Jesus surveys the entire 7-year tribulation. Matthew 24:5-8 describe the first half of the tribulation period consisting of judgments depicting the 2nd, 3rd, and 4thseal judgments of Revelation 6:3-8 which take place in the first half of the 7-year tribulation. Matthew 24:9-14 then describes the second half of the 7-year tribulation period. The words “and then the end will come” (v. 14b) refer to the end of the 7-year tribulation period.
Then beginning in Matthew 24:15, Jesus returns to the midpoint of the Tribulation period to focus on more details during the last half of the 7-year tribulation period. The words “abomination of desolation” (v. 15a) are taken from Daniel 9:27. Jesus is telling His disciples that Daniel 9:27 is the key to understanding the prophetic events He is describing. The words “whoever reads, let him understand” (v. 15b) also substantiates this. The book of Daniel has many descriptions of Daniel’s wisdom and understanding (cf. Daniel 1:4; 2:21; 5:11, 14; 10:12, 14). Jesus is asking His disciples to gain prophetic wisdom and understanding from Daniel to accurately interpret His teaching here.
Christ then describes in detail the second half of the 7-year tribulation in Matthew 24:15-28. In verse 29 Jesus uses the phrase, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…” to introduce His description of His Second Coming described in Matthews 24:29-31. Christ explains in Matthew 24:32-35 how the events of the 7-year tribulation He just described (Matt. 24:5-31) are like the springtime budding of the fig tree. Just as the budding of the fig tree in the spring signals the nearness of summer, so the events that take place during the 70thweek of Daniel provide clear evidence of the nearness of Christ’s Second Coming. Throughout Matthew 24:5-31 there are many observable “signs” or “warnings” that signal Christ’s future return to earth. In Matthew 24:32-35 Jesus commands His disciples to “learn this parable from the fig tree” and “When you see all these things, know that it [His return to earth] is near.”
But when we come to Matthew 24:36, Jesus says, “But of that day and hour no one knows.” Now Jesus is talking about His coming without any preceding observable signs that signal His return. Jesus is talking about two different aspects of His Second Coming – one that involves observable signs (Matthew 24:4-31) and one that involves no observable signs (Matthew 24:36-44).
Matthew 24:36-44 provides clear evidence of the imminent, unpredictable coming of Christ and the accompanying pretribulational rapture:
a. The Greek phrase “But of” (peri de) that Jesus uses in 24:36 at the beginning of the sentence marks a new section of thought that looks back to the previous material to answer an unanswered question. Hence, Jesus answers the disciples’ first question (“When will these things be?”) in verse 3 about when the end-time events will begin. Christ reveals that the beginning of the day of the Lord and the accompanying rapture of the church cannot be known. Because of this major transitional marker (peri de), “the coming of the Son of Man” (24:37) is referring to a different phase of the Lord’s return (i.e. the pretribulational rapture).
b. The peri de (“But of”) of verse 36 is followed by the phrase “that day and hour.” In Matthew 24, only the phrase “those days” (plural) had been used (24:19, 22, 29). But in verse 36, Jesus changes to “that day” (singular). Why? Because He is transitioning to talk about the Old Testament day of the Lord which was considered an imminent event (Ezek. 30:3, 9; Joel 3:14, 18; Zeph. 1:7-15). The apostle Paul also uses “day” for the imminent day of the Lord in I Thessalonians 5:4. Both the pretribulational rapture and day of the Lord are illustrated by the thief in the night imagery which is an imminent event (cf. Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39-40; I Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10).
c. After Jesus looked of the events of Daniel’s 70th week as a whole (Matt. 24:4-35), He now talks about the beginning of that week (Matt 24:36-44) which will catch everyone by surprise. Jesus explains that the coming of “that day and hour” will be like “the days of Noah” in which people “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, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (24:38-39; cf. Luke 17:27-28 where a similar description of the days of Lot is given). The lifestyles described in the days of Noah and Lot have existed in every generation since the early days of human history. These lifestyles are ones of normalcy and indifference.
In Matthew 24:41-42, two men are working in a field and two women are grinding at the mill which also focuses on normal, unsuspecting lifestyles. Jesus’ point in Matthew 24:37-39 is that just as normal and unsuspecting lifestyles existed prior to the great worldwide judgment of the flood in Noah’s day, so too normal and unsuspecting lifestyles will exist prior to the sudden beginning of the day-of-the-Lord judgments which begin after the Rapture of the church. The people of Noah’s day “did not know” about the coming worldwide flood “until the flood came and took them all away” (24:39). Is it likely that the world will not know about the devastating judgments that have been inflicting it during the past 7-year tribulation (Matt. 24:5-31; cf. Rev. 6:6-17)? Not likely. It is much better to understand Jesus’ Noah illustration corresponding to the time of the sudden arrival of the day of the Lord and the pretribulation rapture.
d. The word “taken” in Matthew 24:40-41 refers to believers being taken in the rapture before the tribulation. While Jesus uses the word airo (“took…away”) in Matthew 24:37 to refer to unbelievers being taken in judgment by the Flood, He uses a different word for “taken” (paralambano) in Matthew 24:40-41. This word, paralambano, has the meaning of being “taken to or with [oneself].” It conveys the idea of personal accompaniment. In other words, believers will be taken to be with Christ forever at the rapture of the church. Two days after His teaching in Matthew 24, Jesus used the word paralambano in John 14:3 to describe the taking of believers in a pretribulational rapture – “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive [paralambano] you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). This understanding is substantiated further by the word for “left” (aphiemi) in Matthew 24:40-41 which has the idea of “abandon” when its object is a person (cf. Matt. 4:11, 22; 8:15; 13:36; 19:29; 22:22, 25; 26:56, etc.). God will never abandon believers (Heb. 13:5). Two days after Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24, He used aphiemi in John 14:18 when He said, “I will not leave [aphiemi] you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Rather than referring to unbelievers being taken to judgment and believers being abandoned by the Lord in Matthew 24:40-41, Christ is referring to believers being taken to be with Jesus forever at the rapture of the church and unbelievers being abandoned to face God’s wrath during the 7-year tribulation period. The judgments of the day of the Lord will come on unbelievers and they will not escape (I Thess. 5:3).
e. Jesus employs “the thief” imagery in Matthew 24:42-44 to encourage His disciples to “Watch” and “be ready” for His any-moment coming for them. This thief imagery is also used in several other prophetic passages dealing with the rapture and day of the Lord, most importantly I Thess. 5:2-4 and 2 Peter 3:10. A thief depends upon the element of surprise. He does not give any forewarning of his coming. Hence, the thief imagery used in Matthew 24:42-44 must refer to the pretribulational rapture of the church which has no observable signs prior to it (Matthew 24:36-44). But the Second Coming of Christ to earth at the end of the tribulation has many observable signs (Matthew 24:5-31).
f. The use of the word “Watch” (gregoreo) in Matthew 24:42-43 in connection with the thief imagery conveys the idea of imminency – it could happen at any moment. Gregoreo occurs several times in prophetic passages taught by Jesus (Matt. 24:42, 43; 25:13; Mark 13:34, 35, 37; Luke 12:37) and the apostles Paul ( I Thess. 5:6, 10) and John (Rev. 3:2, 3; 16:15). Eight of the twelve uses of gregoreo in prophecy take place with the thief imagery (Matt. 24:42-43; Luke 12:37-39; I Thess. 5:2-10; Rev. 3:2-3; Rev. 16:15). Even in non-prophetic passages, imminency is connected to the use of the verb “to watch” (cf. Matt. 26:45; Acts 20:31; I Pet. 5:8). It is most appropriate to understand Jesus’ command to “watch” or be “alert” (gregoreo) in connection with the thief imagery in Matthew 24:42-44, to refer to an imminent, pretribulational return of Christ prior to the tribulation period. Hence, we can be confident that the apostle Paul’s use of the verb “to watch’ in I Thessalonians 5:6 and 10 in the context of an imminent pretribulational rapture was derived from Jesus’ use of the same word in Matthew 24:42-44 where He stressed watchfulness in the context of His imminent pretribulational rapture.
g. The resemblance of Jesus’ teaching on the pretribulational rapture of the church (Matthew 24:36-44) and Paul’s (I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11) and Peter’s teachings (I Peter 3:20-21; 2 Peter 2:4-9; 3:3-13). There is a striking resemblance between one taken from the field and the mill in Matthew 24:40-41 and Paul’s teaching of believers taken in the rapture in I Thessalonians 1:10; 4:15-18; 5:9-10 and unbelievers being left behind for judgment in I Thessalonians 5:3. We also see a keen resemblance between Jesus’ use of the thief imagery (Matt. 24:42-44) and Paul’s use of it in I Thessalonians 5:2 (“For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night”). Also in I Thessalonians 5:1-3, the sudden arrival of the day of the Lord will be preceded by a time of “peace and safety.” This resembles Jesus’ description in Matthew 24:39 of “the days of Noah” when people “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.” Both Jesus and Paul describe the universal, surprise arrival of the day of the Lord and the rapture when people had normal, unsuspecting lifestyles. These similarities can best be explained by Paul drawing on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:36-44.
Likewise, it can also be observed that Peter draws on Jesus’ pretribulational rapture teaching in Matthew 24:36-44 when he uses the exact phrase “days of Noah” in I Peter 3:20. First Peter 3:20-21a read, “who [the spirits now in prison] formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism.” For Peter, the flood served as “an antitype” (antitypos) or foreshadowing of something. Noah’s deliverance is a picture (“antitype”) of the kind of baptism mentioned in verse 21. The water did not save Noah and his family but was rather an instrument of God’s judgment. The ark saved them. Just as the waters of God’s judgment fell upon the ark and not Noah, so God’s eternal judgment fell upon Christ and not us (3:18). Furthermore, just as Noah and his family escaped God’s watery judgment by being placed in the ark, likewise Christians escape God’s eternal judgment by being placed in Christ’s body, the Church, through Spirit baptism the moment they believe in Jesus (I Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-27). For Peter, Noah’s entrance into the ark is a type of the believer’s entrance into the universal church by means of Spirit baptism. Since the apostle Paul taught that the invisible church (all believers) is delivered by rapture before the tribulation (I Thess. 1:9-10; 4:13-18; 5:9-10; cf. Rev. 3:10), and in Peter’s illustration the ark represents the church (all believers placed in Christ’s body by means of Spirit baptism), then the deliverance of Noah and his family in the ark foreshadows the pretribulational rapture of the church and its deliverance from the future day of the Lord.
In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter indicates that he is fully aware of Paul’s letters, which would include Paul’s teaching on the day of the Lord and the rapture (I Thess. 4:13-5:11). Before his comments about Paul’s letters, Peter says “the day of the Lord will come as a thief” (2 Pet. 3:10). Peter had personally heard Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24, so he is undoubtedly drawing from Jesus’ teaching there as well as from Paul’s teaching in I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. Peter also mentions the flood in 3:6 after stating that false teachers will mock the promise of Christ’s return in 2 Peter 3:3-4a. The basis of their mocking is the observation that life will continue to unfold without any evidence of divine intervention (3:4b). This also resembles Jesus’ teachings about the days of Noah in Matthew 24:37-39 and Paul’s teaching that peace and safety will precede the sudden destructions of the day of the Lord in I Thessalonians 5:3. But Peter informs us that these false teachers have “willfully” forgotten the flood of Noah’s day (2 Peter 3:5-6). In 2 Peter 2:4-9, Peter connects the flood to the future judgment of the day of the Lord. The phrase in 2 Peter 2:9 concerning God’s rescue of “the godly out of temptations” (ek peirasmou) suggests the rapture of Revelation 3:10 where believers are kept “from [out of] the hour of trial [tribulation] (ek tes horas tou peirasmou) which shall come upon the whole world.” The peirasmou (“temptations/trials”) that Peter has in mind are not everyday, routine trials in 2 Peter 2:9. The trials described are the worldwide flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 2 Peter 2:4-9. The flood was a judgment of God on the entire world. It was a physical judgment, not an eternal judgment. This resembles the 7-year tribulation period and is described by the same term (peirasmou). Neither Noah or Lot went through the trial as did the ungodly. Noah was not in the flood. He did not experience a post-flood, mid-flood, or three-fourths flood rescue, but a pre-flood rescue. The deliverance of Noah and Lot can only represent the rapture of the church before the day of the Lord judgments during the 7-year tribulation period. In Peter’s mind, the judgment of the flood is connected with the time leading up to the imminent arrival of the day of the Lord. Since 2 Peter 2:9 and I Thessalonians 5:9 declare a deliverance from the day of the Lord by an imminent pretribulational rapture of the church, it is most likely that they both derived their teaching from the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:36-44.
2. The distinction between Israel and the Church.God’s single program for history includes two peoples, Israel and the Church. While the basis of salvation (God’s grace) is always the same for Jew and Gentile, God’s prophetic program has two distinct aspects. Presently, God’s plan for Israel is on hold until He completes His current purpose with the Church and Raptures His Bride to heaven (Rom. 11; Eph. 5). Only pretribulationism provides a purpose for the rapture. That purpose is to remove the Church via the Rapture so God can complete His unfinished business with Israel during the seven-year Tribulation period. The seventieth week (Tribulation period) set forth in Daniel 9:24-27, is God’s dealings primarily with Israel (“your people and your holy city”) and therefore cannot be a reference to the church. Since the church had no part in the first 69 weeks of years (because it did not exist until after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension at Pentecost, Acts 2), which were related to God’s program for Israel, it will have no part in the 70thweek, which again is God’s program specifically related to Israel. The Bible clearly states that this 70thweek is to test earth dwellers (Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6; 17:8) and to prepare Israel for her King (Deut. 4:23-31; Zech. 12:1-13:1, 7-9; Mal. 4:5-6). Because the church is not in view during the tribulation period, its removal must occur prior to the tribulation. Therefore, if one does not distinguish between passages which God intends for Israel from those intended for the church, there results an improper confusion of the two programs.
3. The Contrast between the Rapture and the Second Coming demands a pretribulation Rapture.
a. The Rapture is imminent – it could happen at any moment (Matthew 24:36-51; I Corinthians 15:51-52; I Thess. 4:13-5:11), whereas the Second Coming is preceded by numerous signs (outpouring of Spirit, prophesy, dreams, visions, blood, fire, columns of smoke, warfare, darkening of sun and moon, unprecedented suffering, etc.; Matt. 24:4-35; Joel 2:28-32; Rev. 6-18).
b. The Rapture removes believers (Matthew 24:40-41; I Thess. 4:13-18) whereas in the Second Coming, Christ returns with His church (Rev. 19:8, 14).
c. The Rapture results in the removal of the church and the start of the Tribulation (I Thess. 4:13-5:11), whereas the Second Coming results in the start of the 1000-year rule of Christ on earth (Rev. 19:11-20:6).
d. The Rapture brings a message of hope and comfort (I Thess. 4:13-18), whereas the Second Coming brings a message of judgment (2 Thess. 1:3-9; Rev. 19:11-20).
e. The Rapture of the church was previously unknown (“mystery,” I Cor. 15:51-58) to the Old Testament writers, whereas the Second Coming is predicted in both Old & New Testaments (Joel 2:28-32; Zech. 14; Matt. 24:4-30; Mark 13:24-26).
f. At the Rapture, the Lord takes believers from earth to heaven “to the Father’s house”(John 14:3); at the Second Coming believers return from heaven to the earth (Matt. 24:30).
g. At the Rapture, Christians are judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ (I Cor. 3:11-15; 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 4:4), but at the Second Coming, Gentile nations are judged (Matt. 25:31-46).
h. The Rapture is before the day of wrath (I Thess. 4:13-5:11), but the Second Coming concludes the day of wrath (Rev. 11:15-18; 19:11-20).
4. A time interval is needed between the Rapture and the Second Coming. An interval or gap of time is needed between the Rapture and the Second Coming in order to facilitate many events predicted in the Bible in a timely manner. Numerous items in the New Testament can be harmonized by a pre-trib time gap of at least seven years, while other views, especially posttribulationists, are forced to postulate scenarios that would not realistically allow for a normal passage of time. The following events are best harmonized with an interval of time as put forth by pretribulationism:
a. The Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) will take a significant passage of time to evaluate believers prior to returning to earth for the Millennial Kingdom. The pre-trib gap of seven years nicely accounts for such a requirement.
b. Since Revelation 19:7-10 pictures the church as a bride who has been made ready for marriage (illustrated as “fine linen,” which represents “the righteous acts of the saints”) to her groom (Christ); and the bride has already been clothed in preparation for her return at the Second Coming accompanying Christ to the earth (Rev. 19:11-18), it follows that the church would already have to be complete and in heaven (because of the pre-trib rapture) in order to have been prepared in the way that Revelation 19 describes. This requires an interval of time which pretribulationism handles well.
c. Believers who come to faith in Christ during the Tribulation are not translated at Christ’s Second Coming, but carry on ordinary occupations such as farming and building houses, and they will bear children (Isa. 65:20-25). This would be impossible if all saints were translated at the Second Coming to the earth, as posttribulationists teach. Because pretribulationists have at least a seven-year interval between the removal of the church at the rapture and the return of Christ to the earth, this is not a problem because millions of people will be saved during the interval and thus be available to populate the millennium in their natural bodies in order to fulfill Scripture.
d. It would be impossible for the judgment of the Gentiles to take place after the Second Coming (Matt. 25:31-46) if the rapture and second coming are not separated by a gap of time. How would both saved and unsaved, still in their natural bodies, be separated in judgment, if all living believers are translated at the Second Coming? This would be impossible if the translation takes place at the second coming, but it is solved through a pretribulational gap.
5. The imminency of Christ’s return for His Church.The New Testament speaks of our Lord’s return as imminent, meaning that it could happen at any moment. Other events mayoccur before an imminent event, but nothing else must take place before it happens. Imminency passages instruct believers to look, watch, and waitfor His coming (Matt. 24:42-44;1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thes. 1:10; Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:28; 1 Peter1:13; Jude 1:21). If either the appearance of the Antichrist, the Abomination of Desolation, or the unfolding of the Tribulation must occur before the Rapture, then a command to watch for Christ’s coming would not be relevant. Only pretribulationism teaches a truly imminent Rapture since it is the only view not requiring anything to happen before the Rapture.
6. The Nature of the Tribulation. The Bible teaches that the Tribulation (i.e. the seven-year, 70th week of Daniel 9:24-27) is a time of preparation for Israel’s restoration and regeneration (Deut. 4:29-30; Jer. 30:4-11; Ezek. 20:22-44; 22:13-22). Revelation 3:10 notes that the Tribulation will not be for the church but for “those who dwell upon the earth”(Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10 [twice]; 13:8, 12, 14 [twice]; 17:2, 8), as a time upon them for their rejection of Christ and His salvation. While the church will experience tribulation in general during this present age (John16:33), she is never mentioned as participating in Israel’s time of trouble, which includes the Great Tribulation, the Day of the Lord, and the Wrath of God. Pretribulationalism gives the best answer to the biblical explanation of the fact that the church is never mentioned in passages that speak about tribulational events, while Israel is mentioned consistently throughout these passages.
7. The Nature of the Church. Only pretribulationalism is able to give full biblical meaning to the New Testament teaching that the church differs significantly from Israel. The church is said to be a mystery (Eph. 3:1-13) by which Jews and Gentiles are now united into one body in Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). This explains why the church’s translation to heaven is never mentioned in any Old Testament passage that deals with the Second Coming after the Tribulation, and why the church is promised deliverance from the time of God’s wrath during the Tribulation (1 Thes. 1:9-10; 5:9; Rev.3:10). The church alone has the promise that all believers will be taken to the Father’s house in heaven (John 14:1-3) at the Rapture, and not to the earth as other views would demand.
8. The Work of the Holy Spirit. Second Thessalonians 2:1-12 discusses a man of lawlessness being held back until a later time. Interpreting the restrainer of evil (2:6) as the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit at work through the body of Christ during this current age, supports the pretribulational interpretation. Since “the lawless one” (the beast or Antichrist) cannot be revealed until the Restrainer (the Holy Spirit) is taken away (2:7-8), the Tribulation cannot occur until the church is removed.
9. The Nature of God.God is a merciful God who withholds the judgment that His people deserve (Ps. 103:8-17). His merciful character is seen delivering His own people out before He sends judgment as illustrated in the lives of Enoch (Gen. 5:22-24; Heb. 11:5), Noah (Gen. 6-9), and Lot (Gen. 19). Pretribulationalism best reflects God’s merciful character by teaching that His church is removed from the earth before the outpouring of His wrath on the world during the Tribulation (I Thess. 4:13-5:11).
10. The expositional teaching of I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. The apostle Paul provides a rough outline of the book of I Thessalonians in 1:9b-10: The phrase “How you turned to God from idols”(1:9b) points to the Thessalonians past conversion which is explained in chapters 2:1-3:13. The phrase “to serve the living and true God”(1:9c) is explained in 4:1-12. In this section Paul talks about the lifestyle these believers must pursue in the present in order to please the Lord – “abstain from immorality,” “love one another,” and proper behavior toward outsiders. The phrase “and to wait for His Son from heaven whom He raised from the dead”(1:10a) is addressed in 4:13-18 where Paul talks about the rapture of the church to comfort these believers who had experienced the loss of fellow believers through death. The phrase “even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come”(1:10b) is then explained in 5:1-11.
Let’s look now at I. The Rapture of the Church (4:13-18). The word rapture means “to seize” suddenly or “to snatch” suddenly and the Latin translation of this verb is the word “raptus,” from which we get the word “rapture.” The Rapture will be a time when all believers are suddenly caught up into glory and experience joy unspeakable! In 4:13 Paul writes, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” The phrase “fallen asleep” refers to those believers who had died. “The early Christians adopted a very wonderful word for the burying places of their loved ones—the Greek word koimeterion, which means, “a rest house for strangers, a sleeping place.” It is the same word from which we get our English word cemetery. The same word was used in that day for inns, or what we would call a hotel or motel. They are the places where you spend the night to sleep. You expect to get up the next day and continue your journey. This is the picture of the place where you bury your believing loved ones…The body of the believer has just been put into a “motel” until the resurrection. One day the Lord is coming, and that body is going to be raised up.” (J. Vernon McGee, p. 78). The main truth here is that just as physically we sleep and expect to awake, so as Christians, when we die, we can be assured that one day we will be awakened by the return of the Lord.
God does not want Christians to be uninformed about the rapture. Why? Because He doesn’t want us to face life with no hope when a loved one dies. Some churches do not teach Bible prophecy. Hence, some believers do not know about the rapture. Can you imagine the surprise of believers who don’t know about the rapture and they start to rise above the earth? Quite a shock! Let’s look at the order of events:
A. The Return of Christ in the air with Christians who have died – “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (4:14): The Rapture of the church is just as certain as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we think prophecy isn’t as sure as history. Verse 14 tells us that both are true. At one point in time the death and resurrection of Christ was prophecy. Now it’s history. We can believe the rapture with equal certainty. In particular, we can believe that Christians who have died will return with Christ in the air. What happens when a Christian dies? His spirit goes immediately to heaven. 2 Corinthians 5:8 says: “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The body “sleeps” in the grave, but the spirit is in heaven with Christ. Philippians 1:23 says: “For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” When we depart from this life, we are with Christ. When the rapture occurs, Christ will return in the air with believers who have died. Why?
B. The Resurrection of the bodies of Christians who have died – “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 by no means precede those who are asleep.” (4:15). Paul introduces this verse with a statement of divine authority; he is saying it “by the word of the Lord.” This expression may suggest at least two things. First of all, it suggests that Paul derived this teaching from Jesus Christ Himself. It is mostly likely a reference to Jesus’ pretribulational rapture teaching in Matthew 24:36-44. Secondly, this statement is not to be taken lightly. In I Corinthians, Paul refers to the Rapture as a “mystery.” The biblical definition of a “mystery” is “a truth that has not been revealed before.” You won’t find the Rapture teaching in the Old Testament. It was not revealed before the New Testament.
Paul tells these people that not only will those who have died in Christ be present at the return of the Lord, but they will actually have a place of prominence. Believers who are alive will “by no means precede those who” have died. This is a very emphatic statement. It says we will by no means go before them. Paul is very careful to make this point.
Notice that Paul included himself in these verses – “we who are alive and remain…” He expected to be “alive” when Jesus returned. He believed the Rapture could take place at any time. Christ will resurrect the bodies of these believers who’ve died so that their spirits, which are now with Christ, can re-enter that body permanently in resurrection. The Bible teaches the sleep of the body, not the sleep of the spirit.
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (4:16). In the Rapture, it is the Lord Himself that is coming. This is in keeping with the words of the two angels who spoke to the disciples at the time of Jesus’ Ascension. Acts 1:11 says, “…Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” If Jesus was to descend in the same manner in which he ascended, then we would certainly expect His Second Coming to be personal and physical. It is not the Holy Spirit who is coming or even one of God’s angels…it is the Lord Himself! The details of this passage are complete. We are even given the sounds that will be heard at this great event. There are not three sounds, but only one sound that is described in three different ways. There will be a sound which is like a shout, which is also like the voice of an archangel and also like the sound of a trumpet, and the sound will only be heard by those who have placed their trust in Christ – “The dead in Christ will rise first.”
C. The Rapture of living Christians – “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up…” (4:17a). The words “caught up” are from the Greek word harpazo. One of the meanings of the word harpazo is “to snatch out or away speedily.” This emphasizes the sudden nature of the Rapture. Paul describes it like this in his letter to the Corinthians. First Corinthians 15:52 says, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”In a split-second, the Lord will call all believers to Himself to share in His glory–not one will remain behind. It is hard to imagine what that will be like. Listen to what one author wrote:
“…Millions of people from all parts of the earth feel a tingling sensation pulsating throughout their bodies. They are all suddenly energized. Those with physical deformities are healed. The blind suddenly see. Wrinkles disappear on the elderly as their youth is restored. As these people marvel at their physical transformation, they are lifted skyward. Those in buildings pass right through ceilings and roofs without pain or damage. Their flesh and bones seem to dematerialize, defying all known laws of physics and biology. As they travel heavenward, some of them see and greet those who have risen from their graves. After a brief mystical union…they all vanish from sight.” [Bible Prophecy 101, p. 123.]
Scattered throughout the Bible are some pictures of people who had experiences similar to the Rapture:
Enoch -“By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, ‘and was not found, because God had taken him’; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5).
Elijah – “Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11).
The Apostle Paul – “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know. God knows —such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). (Paul uses the word for “rapture” here – harpazo.). Paul expected the rapture of the church in his lifetime – at any moment now and so should we. At that moment, we’ll receive a new resurrection body according to I Corinthians 15:51-53.
D. The Reunion of both living and dead believers with the Lord in the air– “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:17). Will living believers have to wait to see their loved ones who’ve died? No. Those who had died, will be resurrected just a moment before. Why are the dead raised first? Since their bodies are buried in the ground, they have a little farther to go. So, when they’re resurrected, we join them in the clouds, and together, we meet the Lord in the air. The “clouds” in view here are the same type of clouds that the apostles witnessed when they watched Jesus ascend into heaven (Acts 1:9). The reference to “air” (aera) and “in the clouds” clearly refers to the atmosphere that surrounds the earth (cf. Revelation 9:2; 16:17). Nothing is said about returning to earth. No mention of the judgment of the earth. Nothing is said to happen before the rapture. Not one passage tells us to look for something to happen before this event. Why? Because it is the next event on God’s prophetic calendar. Why is the timing of the rapture so important? Because the Rapture of the church provides comfort for believers who have lost loved ones.
E. The Reassurance from this truth – “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18). We will be reunited one day. If the rapture is after the Tribulation or in the middle of the Tribulation period of intense and unusual suffering, there would be little comfort and encouragement. The prospect of Christ coming at any moment is a much greater comfort.
In 5:1-11, Paul gives instruction to those who are living – II. The RESCUE of the Church from God’s Wrath (5:1-11).The phrase “Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:10b) is now explained in these verses. “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night”(5:1-2). The Day of the Lord is not the rapture. The Rapture (4:13-18) precedes the Day of the Lord (5:1-11). Compare 4:13 with 5:1-2. Paul didn’t need to write to them about future events because they already knew about the Day of the Lord.
That Paul is talking about the wrath of God in the Tribulation is supported by the following:
- The terms “times…seasons” (1) were used by the Lord Jesus in Ac. 1:7 when He refused to declare whether the time had come for restoring the kingdom to Israel.
- “Day of the Lord” refers to a period of judgments and blessings from the start of the Tribulation until the New Heavens and Earth (2 Pet. 3:10-13).
- “Labor pains” (5:3) refer to the beginning of Tribulation period in Matthew 24:8. The Day of the Lord will come as a surprise to non-Christians (5:2b). Notice “They” and “them” in 5:3 in contrast to “we” and “you” in 4:15-16. Paul did not include himself or his readers with those who would see the Day of the Lord. Why? Because believers won’t be there to see it. They will already be gone in the rapture (4:13-18).
A. The Ruin of non-Christians at the coming wrath of the Tribulation – “1But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. 2For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. 3For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (5:1-3). Paul compares the coming of the Tribulation wrath to “labor pains” which come “upon a pregnant woman.” The world has been pregnant for the last 2,000 years now, and when the labor begins, it will not last 12 hours or 24 hours, but 7 years. The Day of the Lord will come as a surprise to non-Christians (5:2b). Notice “they” and “them” in 5:3 in contrast to “we” and “you” in 4:15-16. Paul did not include himself or his Christian readers with those who would see the Day of the Lord. Why? Because believers won’t be there to see it. They will already be gone in the Rapture (4:13-18). So, verse 3 is referring to non-Christians who will be left behind.
Prior to the beginning of the Tribulation period there will be a sense of “peace and safety” among unbelievers because of the apathy to the promised coming of Christ (2 Pet. 3:3-10; cf. Matthew 24:37-39). This sense of “peace and safety” will also come through the united efforts of the nations. For years now, especially in Europe, there has been a push toward world peace. But this sense of “peace and safety” will be ruined through the outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth in the Day of the Lord. The unsaved world will not escape the calamities of the Tribulation period.
B. The Rescue of Christians from this coming Wrath – “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (5:4). The word “you” is emphatic in the original language. It is contrasting the destiny of Christians with that of non-Christians. The Day (as a thief) cannot overtake believers. Why? Because…
1. They’ve been taught about the Day of the Lord (5:1-2).
2. They have a new nature and will not be part of that Day – “You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness” (5:5). The coming of the Day of the Lord is a day of darkness or judgment, a night time kind of day. By virtue of our new nature and position as children of light, we can have no part in such a day. Why? “9For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,10 who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him”(5:9-10). Whether a believer is spiritually watchful or not, they will escape the wrath of the Day of the Lord to “live together with” Jesus (5:10).
C. The Response of Christians to this truth (5:6-8, 11). The certainty of our escape from the coming wrath should motivate us to live godly lives – “6Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober.7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night.” (5:6-7). “The Lord is coming unexpectedly, don’t be caught living like non-Christians,” Paul is saying. As Christians, we are to stay spiritually awake, living in anticipation of Christ’s return for us at any moment – and definitely not worried about being caught in the Day of the Lord. How do we stay spiritually awake and alert to the Lord’s coming? “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation” (5:8).The “breastplate” protects vital organs (heart, lungs). This breastplate is composed of faith and love – faith that Christ is coming back any time and love for one another will protect us from spiritual heart damage. “Helmets” protect our head. This “helmet” is made of hope which guards us from attacks on our thinking. This hope focuses on being delivered from the coming wrath. Wear this helmet constantly and you will be ready for His return.
What relevance does this teaching have for the church? “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing” (5:11).Christians are to encourage one another with this message of comfort and hope. The extent to which Christians misunderstand or are misinformed about the Rapture, will be the extent to which they are robbed of these blessings the Lord intended for them.
11. The Chronology of the book of Revelation. Revelation 1:19 gives a summary of the book’s chronology: “things which you have seen (chapter 1)…things which are (chapters 2-3)…things which will take place after this (chapters 4-22).” Chapters 1-3 present the development of the church in this present age. Chapters 4-5 present the church, represented by the 24 elders, raptured and rewarded in heaven.
A closer look at Revelation 4 shows that John now records “the things which will take place after this” (1:19c) concerning future events after the Rapture of the Church (Chapters 4-22). “After these things [the vision John received of Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in 2:1-3:22], Christ invited John to “come up” to heaven where Jesus would show him future events “which must take place”during Daniel’s 70th week of years (Dan. 9:27) which is the 7-year Tribulation period (4:1; cf. 4:1-11:19). “Immediately” John was transported by “the Spirit” to heaven where He saw “a throne” and “One [Father God] sat on the throne” which “was like a jasper [clear as crystal signifying God’s purity] and a sardius stone [red-colored signifying His righteous anger toward sin]… and there was a rainbow [signifying God’s faithfulness] around the throne, in appearance like an emerald [various shades of green signifying God’s grace and blessing]” (4:3). “Around the throne [of God]” were “twenty-four elders [representing faithful believers from the Church Age since “elders” are leaders of the local church – Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5] wearing “white robes and…crowns of gold” [rewards received at the Judgment Seat of Christ for faithful living, cf. 2:25-27; 3:4-5, 21] while seated on “thrones” [indicating rulership with Christ in His coming Kingdom – 4:4; cf. 2 Tim. 2:12]. The fact that these elders are already wearing crowns indicates they have already appeared before the Judgment Seat of Christ to receive their rewards (cf. I Cor. 3:8-15; 9:24-27; 2 Cor. 5:10) which means the vision John describes in heaven takes place after the Rapture of the Church.
This is supported further by the absence of the word “church” and any references to Christians in Chapters 6-18, which describe the outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth. The reason the church is not mentioned in Rev. 6-18 is because it has already been removed by the Lord Jesus Christ to deliver her from “the wrath to come” (I Thess. 1:10; 4:13-18). The church, represented by the “twenty-four elders [19:4; faithful believers from the Church Age since “elders” are leaders of the local church – Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5] and the phrase “His wife” (19:4, 7; cf. 3:20; 21:2, 9:22:17; 2 Cor. 11:2), is described as being with Jesus in Heaven prepared to return with Jesus to earth.
The eternal reign of Jesus Christ is about to replace the rule of sinful man on earth. Christ will return to earth with “the armies of heaven” consisting of Christians and angels “following Him on white horses” (19:8; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). Chapters 6-11 present the events of the entire 70th week of years (Tribulation), concluding with the return of Christ to the earth to reign (11:15-18). Hence the seals are the judgments of the first 3 ½ years and the trumpets the judgments of the last 3 ½ years. According to Revelation 10:11, chapters 12-19 survey the 70thweek of years (Tribulation) a second time with a view to revealing the specific characters on the stage of the drama. This chronology makes a midtribulation rapture impossible because the “so-called” midtribulation rapture of Revelation 11:15-18 is actually the Second Coming of Christ to earth at the end of the Tribulation. Chapters 20-22 describe the 1000-year reign of Christ on earth, the Great White Throne Judgment of unbelievers, and the new heavens and new earth. Thus, the chronology of the book of Revelation provides more evidence for the pretribulation Rapture.
1. All Christians will suffer tribulation (John 16:33), but they will be kept from the severe Tribulation and wrath unlike any other in history (Matthew 24:21).
2. This issue is not minor or unimportant, because each major passage on the Rapture emphasizes that this teaching about the future should be a constant source of encouragement, comfort, and motivation to godly living. To the extent believers misunderstand or are misinformed about the Rapture (Matt. 24:45-51), they will be robbed of these blessings meant for them by God.