Our True Hope
It was late in the Church’s history that the true meaning of 1 Thessalonians 4: 13–18 was recovered—where the Lord is presented as descending out of heaven to take His own back to be with Him above. For centuries, the accepted idea was that death was the thing to be looked for, and the Scriptures which spoke of the coming of the Lord were ‘spiritualised’ into referring to the end of the believer’s life here. Death, however, is an enemy (see 1 Cor. 15: 26), not a hope, and while those believers who have died are “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23), the “coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 15) is presented in Scripture as a future hope of both living and dead. Through the mercy of God, many of the Lord’s people had their eyes opened to see that the proper Christian hope is to await God’s Son “from the heavens” (1 Thess. 1: 10), and that this hope has nothing to do with death, “for “we shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed, in an instant, in [the] twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15: 51, 52, my emphasis). Furthermore, this recovery was not merely theoretical but accompanied (at least for a generation) by profound practical effects in which “everyone that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3: 3). Why was this? Because these saints were not looking simply for an event, but a Person. Sadly, as in all things entrusted to the care of man, those bright days soon passed. Thus while adherence to the doctrine has persisted, the prospect of the Lord’s return has lost its power over souls. Instead of being “strangers and sojourners on the earth” (Heb. 11: 13), the Lord’s people have begun to live more like the world—that world which scoffs “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Pet. 3: 4). It is the writer’s prayer that both reader and writer may be stimulated afresh in their desire for the Lord to come.
The Hope and Prophecy
The hope of the Christian has suffered much from being viewed as simply a part of the prophetic word when in reality it is something quite distinct. Prophecy relates to earth and the things upon it, but the Christian’s hope is to be taken out of this scene altogether to be with Christ. It is, therefore, a heavenly hope. We have it set out in the Lord’s own words: “In my Father’s house there are many abodes; were it not so, I had told you: for I go to prepare you a place; and if I go and shall prepare you a place, I am coming again and shall receive you to myself, that where I am ye also may be” (John 14: 2–3). Thus He is coming back to take us away. Hence Paul speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him” (2 Thess. 2: 1, my emphasis). Some see their hope as being no more than that the deliverer will come out of Zion, and turn away ungodliness from His people (see Rom. 11: 26). However, Rom. 11: 26 relates to earth and the position of God’s earthly people upon it—the ungodliness is to be turned away, not from Christians, but “from Jacob”, and so “all Israel shall be saved” (my emphasis). It has nothing to do with heaven or the Church. This distinction is no mere technicality: the Christian’s sins have been dealt with and put away already, but if my hope is only an earthly one, then, to be consistent, I am still awaiting the moment when the deliverer will come to take away His people’s sins (see v27)! Now Israel will be born again, will be saved, will have a new covenant made with them, and will have their sins taken away, but all these things are true of the Christian now. He is ready for Christ now; Israel and the Gentiles are not. Their hope, however blessed, is confined to this earth, and the setting up of Christ’s kingdom here. By contrast, “our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour” (Phil. 3: 20). This is not to say that the Christian does not long for the public manifestation of His Lord on this earth, for we are to be those who “love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4: 8) and are “awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1: 7). However, our hope is not that “his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives” (Zech. 14: 4), but to be removed from this scene beforehand, “to meet the Lord in [the] air” (1 Thess. 4: 17). Israel will look to the heavens for their deliverance, and it is from the heavens that the Lord shall come, with the Church following Him “upon white horses, clad in white, pure, fine linen” (Rev. 19: 14)—for “the fine linen is the righteousnesses of the saints” (v8).
Signs of the Times
If we muddle up prophecy and the Christian’s hope, then it is inevitable that we shall be looking for the fulfilment of signs before the Lord can come. But what are these signs that it is said we must expect? We know, for example, that there must be a development of evil during the Church’s time on earth (and hence preceding its removal). Is it not remarkable then, that the last survivor of the apostolic company could write that the worst character of evil was there already, for “even now there have come many antichrists” whereby it was known to be “[the] last hour” (1 John 2: 18)? Again, look at the “mystery of lawlessness”. What does Paul say about it? It “already works” (2 Thess. 2: 7). Examine another prediction: “in [the] last days difficult times shall be there” (2 Tim. 3: 1). What does the Spirit of God say to enlarge upon the statement? That those days were a long way off? On the contrary, He describes to Timothy the kind of men who would characterise those days and then says “from these turn away” (v5). What more evils are there to come that were not there in apostolic days? None. The passing of time has made the character of the evil more plain, but the evils were there from the very first days of Christendom. Thus the expectation of such conditions cannot act as an obstacle to the Lord’s coming.
Take a more specific prophecy such as Paul’s statement that the “day of the Lord” will not take place until “the apostasy have first come, and the man of sin have been revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2: 2, 3). We shall get nowhere unless we understand that the ‘day of the Lord’ and the ‘coming of the Lord’ are not interchangeable terms. The ‘coming’ is the general expression. It means the Lord’s presence in contrast to His absence. ‘Coming’ is a reasonable translation because He must have come in order to be present, but it is His presence which is the literal force of the word. Furthermore, it is evident that the Lord might change His absence for His presence without manifesting Himself to the world (He did so on several occasions after His resurrection). However, Scripture not only speaks of the general truth of the presence of Christ as something to come, but also defines a particular part of that presence as a very public thing, which is variously described in Scripture as His ‘revelation’, His ‘appearing’ or, as here, ‘His day’. His ‘presence’ is the larger term and therefore leaves room for a secret coming before the ‘day’—that is, before He publicly manifests Himself. Furthermore, Christ’s appearing (and the events associated with that day, such as the revelation of the man of sin) have to do with the earth, but at the coming of the Lord for His saints, they shall “meet the Lord in [the] air” (1 Thess. 4: 17). Now the domain of prophecy is the earth not the air, and thus if the one is rightly associated with prophetic signs, then the other is independent of them. There is therefore nothing to stop the Lord coming at ‘any moment’, but His appearing will not be apart from the fulfilment of definite prophecy.
Peter and Paul
We are not, however, quite done with objections, for it is often alleged that the expectation of the any–moment return of Christ without signs is refuted by the fact that the Lord told Peter the manner of his death and that he would grow old (see John 21: 18, 19), and by Paul declaring that the time of his release was at hand (see 2 Tim. 4: 6). In truth, such objections refute themselves. It is an extraordinary thing for a man to be informed by special revelation that he must die at some point—for people have usually made up their minds that death is a certainty. How comes it then that a servant of God who was carrying his life in his hand needed to have an intimation that his death was near, or have a revelation on the manner of his death? Because at that time the children of God expected not death, but Christ to come. Observe too, that the Spirit of God never speaks of Peter’s death in the Word until he was just on the point of departure. It is then that Peter says the Lord had told him that he must put off his “tabernacle” (2 Pet. 1: 14). The Church’s hope could not therefore be affected by this revelation, for the mention was made only as he was leaving the earth. Similarly, the gospel of John did not appear until long after Peter was dead and nor is there any evidence that the disciples understood the Lord’s words at the time—they were certainly confused as to other things the Lord said (see John 21: 23). As for the apostle Paul, he was not even aware that he was going to die when he wrote his epistle to the Philippians—or rather, he was sure he was to live a little longer (see Phil. 1: 25). It was only when he was on the point of being offered up, that he declared his departure was at hand (see 2 Tim. 4: 6). Thus instead of undermining the doctrine of the any–moment return of Christ, these two cases are evidence in the opposite direction.
A Secret Rapture
How could the Holy Spirit have written such words, “we, the living who remain” (1 Thess. 4: 17) if the coming of the Lord was a long way off? Are we not to gather from the phrase that, as knowing the future perfectly well, His blessed aim was to settle the believer in the habitual expectation of the coming of Christ at any moment? If we are looking for events to happen first, then we are not looking for the Saviour. Certainly, as believers we are to be those who “love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4: 8), and that appearing will be preceded by signs (see Matt. 24: 15 etc.), but there is nothing that needs to come first before the Lord comes to take His own. When He comes publicly and manifests Himself to the world, we shall already be out of this scene of prophetic events, the proof of which is that we will be manifested with Him. Is this just speculative or imaginative theology? Far from it: “when the Christ is manifested who [is] our life, then shall ye also be manifested with him in glory” (Col. 3: 4). This means, not that we remain on the earth until He appears to all and that we are only caught up then, but that when He makes Himself visible from the heavens to the earth, we, too, shall be seen along with Him. We must, therefore, have been caught up to Him before. This is in complete agreement with 1 Thess. 4: 14: “so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus” (my emphasis). Again, when the apostle says that the Lord shall descend from heaven “with an assembling shout” (v16), notice the Greek word he uses. Kέλευσμα is a term implying the relationship that exists between the Lord and His own followers, like that of soldiers summoned by their general. If nothing more were meant than the loud expression of His voice for all the world to hear as well as His own people, then this peculiar word would not be necessary. Those who continue to insist that because the Lord shouts then all must hear only expose their own ignorance of Scripture (see John 12: 28, 29; Acts 22: 9).
The Rapture not in the Gospels
Another objection that might be brought forward is in relation to Matthew 24, the subject of which is clearly “the sign of thy coming and [the] completion of the age” (v3). We are then presented with verse 40, which is clearly entrenched in this context of signs, and told that it refers to the rapture of the Church: “Then two shall be in the field, one is taken and one is left”. Now the immediate context is the parallel the Lord makes between the event He describes and the days of Noah. There persons were taken, not for blessing, but for judgment (see v39). The wider context of verse 40 is the answer to the disciple’s question “Tell us, when shall these things be?” (v3). Thus in verse 30 we read of “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. This is the appearing not the rapture. The same phraseology is used in connection with verse 40: “thus also shall be the coming of the Son of man” (v39). The parallel passage in Luke 17 is similar: “there shall be two [men] upon one bed; one shall be seized and the other shall be let go (v34). It is ridiculous to talk about being seized for blessing and let go for judgment! In the context of the “completion of the age” (Matt. 24: 3), persons are always taken for judgment while those left behind enter into the blessing of the kingdom (see Matt. 13: 41, 49).
As a point of fact, Matthew 24 has nothing to do with the rapture because it had not then been revealed! Paul says “Behold, I tell you a mystery: 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; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15: 51. 52). Paul calls it a mystery or secret. It was not revealed by the Lord in the Gospels, but through Paul. Thus in 1 Thess. 4 the apostle introduces the doctrine by saying “this we say to you in [the] word of [the] Lord …” (v15).
Our hope of meeting the Lord in the air does not wait for anything. As to death, the apostles speak of it as that through which the saints have already in some sense passed (see Col. 3: 3), but never present it as the hope of the saint. They certainly anticipate corruptions within the Church, but they also reveal that the evils of the last days had even then already appeared. Nowhere do the apostles promise revival in the Church or offer it as a hope of the saints. As to political changes in the world they never instruct us about them—indeed, if in any sense Paul makes us acquainted with politics it is with the politics of the world to come (see 1 Cor. 15: 24–26). What we are told is “yet a very little while he that comes will come, and will not delay” (Heb. 10: 37). Thus, as the apostle says elsewhere, “So encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4: 18). “Amen; come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22: 20).