Belief in what is popularly called a “partial rapture” has gained currency among some Christians today. Their theory is that when the Lord Jesus descends into the air, He will call only some believers to meet Him, and the rest will be left behind on the earth to go through the terrors of the Great Tribulation. According to this theory, those who are caught up to meet the Lord in the air will be those who have been zealous and faithful, and have been watching for His return. On the one hand, this appeals to the proud and arrogant, who assume themselves to be a cut above the rest. On the other, it alarms the weak and the fearful, who are constantly looking at their own imperfections rather than at Christ. It is a theory designed and crafted by the arch-deceiver himself. God would not have us either arrogant or alarmed.
Picture, if you will, the Christians of Thessalonica gathered together for one of their weekly meetings. One of the brothers rises and announces that a letter has arrived from the apostle Paul. Immediately great interest manifests itself on the faces of all present. The letter is read out. First comes a loving greeting, and words which show how warm a place the Thessalonian saints have in the apostle’s heart. He reminds them how they had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens” (1 Thess. 1: 9, 10). One young man’s eyes gleam with pleasure. How well he remembers the day when he received the glad tidings, and committed himself to the Saviour for time and eternity. Now he is waiting for His return.
Let us suppose, however, that he is not quite certain as to what his Lord’s coming will mean for him. He has a tender conscience, and mourns over the many times he suffers defeat in his daily conflict with temptation and sin. Is it possible that, after all, he may not share in the joy of that day?
The reading of Paul’s letter continues. He speaks of the Thessalonian converts being the apostle’s “crown of boasting…..at his coming” (2: 19). ‘In any event’, thinks our young friend, ‘I am one of those.’ Then comes a thrilling moment. The reader comes to those striking words recorded for us in chapter four of the epistle: “For this we say to you in [the] word of [the] Lord…..” (v 15). Attention is strained to the utmost. Something of transcendent importance is to follow. What is it? “That we, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord, are in no way to anticipate those who have fallen asleep; for the Lord himself, with an assembling shout, with archangel’s voice and with trump of God, shall descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we…..” (v 15, 16). The young man can hardly contain himself. Oh, what will the letter say next? Will it be “We which are faithful” or “We which are watching”, or what? The reader proceeds, “we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in [the] clouds, to meet the Lord in [the] air; and thus we shall be always with [the] Lord” (v 17). A look of intense thankfulness comes over the face of our young friend. “We, the living”! Tears of gratitude come into his eyes. ‘Thank God’ he says to himself, ‘If I am dead when the Lord comes, I shall rise; if I am alive, I shall be caught up. Unworthy as I am and full of failure, I have the sure promise of the Word of the Lord.’
Of course, for some, the truth of this little story passes them by. They argue that the Thessalonian converts were bright and zealous, and it was for this reason that Paul could speak so unreservedly of their sharing in the rapture of the saints. Contrast the Corinthians. “Christ’s” they were (1 Cor. 3: 23), “washed…sanctified…justified” (6: 11), but they were also “carnal” (3: 3), indifferent to gross evil in their midst (see 5: 2), and quarrelsome (see 6: 6). They were turning their love-feast into an orgy of selfish eating and drinking, and many had come under the most extreme discipline of the Lord (see 11: 30). No one would suggest that these were faithful, watching Christians.
Now Paul writes to these very people about the coming of the Lord. He says that all who are in Christ, even though they have died, shall be made alive (see 15: 22). When? Christ was the first-fruits, but they that are His will share in the same glorious resurrection at His coming. It does not say “They that are watchful”, or “They that are faithful”, but “those that are the Christ’s” (v23, my emphasis). So, when the Saviour comes, not only the zealous and the watchful, but all who are his, even if they be like the Corinthians, will be raised.
What about those who are still alive when He comes? Read verse 51, and lay the emphasis of your voice on the second “all”: “We shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed, in an instant, in [the] twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (my emphasis). What! Even they whose ways are like the Corinthians? Yes indeed, for the question is not, “What kind of people are they?” but “Whose are they?” Are they Christ’s? If so, the Word of truth declares they “shall all be changed”.
A standard ‘proof-text’ of the Partial Rapture theory is that since it is “to those that look for him” (Heb. 9: 28) that Christ will appear for salvation, it follows that only those who are zealously watching for Him will be translated at the rapture. This is an example of reading into Scripture what is not there. There are no grounds whatsoever for saying that here we have one class of Christians distinguished from another. Indeed, to those that do not look for Him, He shall appear, not for salvation, but for judgment (see Matt. 24: 30 - 51; 1 Thess. 5: 3. That is not the prospect of any believer, zealous or otherwise, for “he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment” (John 5: 24). It is Christ rejecters who have “a certain fearful expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10: 27).
The imagery used in Hebrews 9: 24–28, is taken from the Great Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. There we read of Aaron the High Priest going into the sanctuary to make atonement for himself and the people, and his coming out from the sanctuary afterwards (see v 17; compare also Luke 1: 9, 10, 21). In the equivalent passage in Hebrews 9, we have Christ, who having “been manifested for [the] putting away of sin by his sacrifice” (v 26), has entered, not “into holy places made with hand, figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us” (v 24). He has gone in. If we drop down a few verses, we see His coming out: “thus the Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear to those that look for him the second time without sin for salvation” (v 28). The purpose of the Great Day of Atonement was “to make atonement for the children of Israel [to cleanse them] from all their sins once a year” (Lev. 16: 34). Those that did not look for Aaron coming out of the sanctuary had no interest in seeing him go in either––they had rejected God’s provision of an atonement. In the same way, those that do not look for Christ to “appear…..the second time without sin for salvation” (Heb. 9: 28), have no interest in His first manifestation “for [the] putting away of sin” (v 26), and the entrance “into heaven itself” that followed, “to appear before the face of God” (v 24) for his saints. Those that look are believers; those that do not look are not. How could it be otherwise, when His appearance is “for salvation”?
How is our salvation linked to the Lord’s appearing? Of course, thank God, we are saved from the moment we believe the Gospel, but it is equally true, in another aspect, that salvation also lies in the future. Thus the apostle can say “for now [is] our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Rom. 13: 11) - it has not come yet. This will take place when the Saviour comes, when we shall be saved from all possibility of ever sinning again, from every trace of the first Adam’s likeness, from all liability to disease, decay and death, and from out of this world altogether. Wonderful prospect! Thus Paul reminds us that as Christians we “await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory” (Phil. 3: 20, 21). Note that we are not instructed to await the Lord Jesus as Saviour, but that we are doing it. It is the normal sequel to conversion. Our salvation is not yet complete, and so for its completion we look. Thus the Thessalonians had not only “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1: 9), but also to “await His Son from the heavens” (v10). To “await” in this sense does not necessarily mean to expect with gladness, or to be alert with anticipation. The words rather have the force of knowing that a certain event lies ahead.
Finally, it is sometimes argued, that since the Coming of the Lord is spoken of as a “hope”, uncertainty is implied as to whether we shall share in the Translation or not. But hope may be certain as well as uncertain, and in Scripture the word is often used merely to indicate what is future, and not to suggest uncertainty. “Hope does not make ashamed” (Rom. 5: 5), and “if what we see not we hope, we expect in patience” (8: 25). When we believe in Christ, many things immediately become ours. We do not, however, receive all that we shall eventually possess. God has predestinated us “[to be] conformed to the image of his Son” (v 29), but we are not there yet, and therefore, we “have been saved in hope” (v 24) - that is, saved with something further to follow in due course.
Now in order to bring about holiness of life, the hope has no need to be turned into a threat. Some seem to imagine that we need to be urged on to zeal and watchfulness by a threat of being left behind at the Translation, unless we come up to the mark. Scripture, however, declares, not that “every one that remembers this threat purifies himself”, but “every one that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3: 3). Saved by grace, we continue “awaiting the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2: 13).
May the nervous and timid be encouraged by this word, and may the arrogant and proud be humbled. Above all, may all of us dispel from our minds any notion of a partial rapture, and instead “building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, awaiting the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 20, 21).