The Rapture of the Saints
The Thessalonians could never be accused of a lack of watchfulness with regards to the Lord’s return, for 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), and the apostle had happy memories of their “enduring constancy” (v3) in this hope. I wonder how it is with the reader? How many of us can really say we live as if “our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also 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)? We are not Israel, whose promises are bound up with this earth, but God’s heavenly people, who are waiting for Christ to come for us to take us to where He now is. Paul, in referring to the rapture, twice says “we, the living, who remain” (1 Thess. 4: 15, 17)—as if it would happen in his own lifetime. Is that our hope, or do we have more than we should invested in this scene? Is it not the case that while many of us appear doctrinally sound in relation to things to come, our hope is little more than an abstract idea whose moral effect on our lives leaves much to be desired? The writer feels his own spiritual lethargy in these things, and therefore invites the reader to join him in looking through some of the Scriptures that have been written to help us concerning “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1: 1). It is his prayer that all of us will be stimulated afresh so that the Lord’s coming for us will once again loom large in our hearts—for it is our hearts that need to be directed into the patience of the Christ (see 2 Thess. 3: 5).
To begin with, I want to look first at Enoch and Elijah, because while they are not exactly pictures of the Christian hope, there is still much to be gained from the consideration of their translation into heaven.
Enoch and Elijah, the Translated Prophets
Up until the point he begot Methuselah, there is no indication that Enoch was any different from those who went before him. Thus, he lived so many years and begot a son. After that event, however, something happened, for Enoch did not now merely live, but he “walked with God” (Gen. 5: 22, 24), and the fact is recorded twice for emphasis. When Enoch commenced walking with God, Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahaleel, and Jared were all still alive, but nothing is said of them having such close fellowship with Jehovah. What is our reaction to all this? Do we look on Enoch as a bit of an oddity? Do we think, deep down, that there is really no need to be quite as ‘fanatical’ as he was? I wonder how the Holy Spirit would describe our existence in this world? Are we just ‘living’ (as most of Seth’s line were) or are we ‘walking with God’? Searching question!
The reason the Bible tells us about Enoch’s walk with God is in order to explain the extraordinary event that set him apart from every other man in his world: “And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5: 24, my emphasis). Again, “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him; for before [his] translation he has the testimony that he had pleased God” (Heb. 11: 5, my emphasis). Now this word translated (metatithemi in Greek) simply means to put in another place and will recall our Lord’s well-known words in John 14: 2, 3. There is, however, this difference: Enoch was taken, but the Lord will come for us in order to take us.
Now it required no faith on the part of Enoch to believe that he would die. He was surrounded by death, and the genealogy of his line, before and after him, is characterised by the repetition of the words ‘and he died’. No, his faith was operational in another direction for “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death” (Heb. 11: 5). What else can it mean except that Enoch had been told by God what was going to happen, that he had believed Him, and that one day the thing that he had believed came to pass? (Interestingly, Elijah also knew that he was going to be translated—see 2 Kings 2: 9). Enoch had walked with God, He had been told by God that he had pleased Him, and one day, “he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5: 24). Similarly, the Christian’s hope is not the departure of his spirit in death to be with Christ (blessed as that is), but for “spirit, and soul, and body” (1 Thess. 5: 23)—the whole person—to be complete in the presence of the Lord. Men noticed Enoch’s sudden absence, and looked everywhere for him, but the search parties could not find him dead or alive (as also with Elijah in 2 Kings 2: 16-18). He did not “see death” (Heb. 11: 5)—there was no separation of his spirit and soul from his body. Of course, Enoch’s translation was a selective translation, for all the other antediluvians died, but you cannot argue from this that only faithful believers will be translated when the Lord comes and that the rest will have to pass through the judgment of this earth. Genesis itself demonstrates this to be a false parallel, for Noah “walked with God” (Gen. 6: 9) like Enoch but was left instead to pass through the flood.
Enoch was also a prophet (see Jude v 14, 15)—like the only other man in the OT taken up into heaven without dying, Elijah the Tishbite. We might also call Elijah the raptured prophet because it is the manner of his departure that seems to be emphasised: he was taken into heaven by a whirlwind (see 2 Kings 2: 11). Rapture means a catching up, a snatching away (hence the words “caught up” in 1 Thess. 4: 17). If translation refers to a change of place, then rapture describes how that change of place is achieved. Thus, Philip was “caught away” and then “found at Azotus” (Acts 8: 39, 40), the child of the woman in Rev. 12 was “caught up to God and to his throne” (v5), and Paul was caught up into paradise (see 2 Cor. 12: 2, 4)—although his translation was only temporary.
Like Enoch, Elijah was also a prophet living in a day of apostasy. Both men were men of God, holy and devoted, and yet, like all of Adam’s race, they had “sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3: 23). How then could they be righteously taken up into heaven without dying, seeing as “the wages of sin [is] death” (Rom. 6: 23) and “it is the portion of men once to die” (Heb. 9: 27)? God passed by these two prophet’s sins, not in the sense of ‘letting them off the hook’, but on account of divine foreknowledge concerning “the redemption which [is] in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth a mercy-seat, through faith in his blood, for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God” (Rom. 3: 24-25). Not only that, but the Lord Jesus has now, by His resurrection, “annulled death” (2 Tim. 1: 10)—and the Lord anticipates this in His earthly ministry:
Hints in the Lord’s Ministry on Earth
In John 14 the Lord comforts the troubled hearts of His disciples by speaking to them of how He was going to bring them into His Father’s house: “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” (vs. 2, 3). Of all the Gospels, John’s is the last written (certainly long after the Thessalonian epistles) and seeing as it uniquely presents the Lord as rejected by Israel from the start of His ministry (see John 1: 11), it anticipates Christianity. Thus, in John 11: 25, 26, the Lord proclaims that “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live; and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die”. Where there is faith in Christ, the power of death is broken. If any that believe on him should die, then when the Lord comes for His own, these will be raised from among the dead, hence: “though he have died, shall live” (v25). If any that believe on him are living when the Lord descends from heaven into the air, then they will never pass through death at all, and so: “every one who lives and believes on me shall never die” (v26).
Of course, we can hardly leave the subject of what is said in the Gospels without looking at Matt. 24: 40-42, as many apply this to the rapture of the saints: “Then two shall be in the field, one is taken and one is left; two [women] grinding at the mill, one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for ye know not in what hour your Lord comes”. Interpreting this as referring to the rapture is, however, a mistake. The context is the “coming of the Son of man” (v39)—the public appearing of Christ to take up His rights in this world, when He comes “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v30)—and the setting is one of judgment (hence the reference to “the days of Noe” in v37). It is quite true that the Lord will “gather together his elect from the four winds” (v31), but there is no reason to connect the elect in that verse with the individual taken in v37. Observe the parallel drawn with the days of Noah: “For as they were in the days which were before the flood … till the flood came and took all away; thus also shall be the coming of the Son of man” (vs. 38, 39). Now those taken away in Noah’s day were taken away in judgment, and it would be incongruous if the ones taken from the field and the mill were not also taken in judgment. In the equivalent passage in Luke 17: 34-37, one is “seized” and the other “let go”, and “let go” implies that those individuals did not fall within the purpose of the action, which, as v37 shows, is judgment. Furthermore, there is never a hint that the Lord will interact at all with unbelievers when His people are caught up to meet Him in the air. The rapture is a private thing, or as some prefer:
A Secret Rapture
To be clear, the rapture is a secret in two ways, for not only will the actual event be secret when it happens, but the truth about it is also described by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 as a mystery or secret revealed only to the initiated. The concept of the resurrection of the dead was known to the Jew (see, for example, John 11: 24), although a resurrection from among the dead was new to them. What is spoken of by Paul in 1 Cor. 15: 51 is a step further: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed”. For the Christian, therefore, death is not inevitable, but change is. Whether I die, or whether I am alive when the Lord returns, I shall be changed. This change does not refer to my soul or my spirit, but to my body. It will either be raised changed, or it will be changed at the moment of translation. Hence, “we know that if our earthly tabernacle house be destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this we groan, ardently desiring to have put on our house which [is] from heaven” (2 Cor. 5: 1, 2).
The rapture itself will be secret, for the promised change will be instantaneous, “in an instant, in [the] twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15: 52) and there will be nothing for the world to witness. Now this word “instant” (Greek: atomos) occurs only here in the NT, and its meaning is not difficult to discern—it refers to the smallest particle of time, as does “[the] twinkling of an eye”. Strictly speaking this rapidity of action refers to the change rather than the catching up, but essentially the two things are synonymous, for the change occurs at the “last trumpet” (v52). The last trumpet is not the last trumpet that shall ever sound, but the last in a series—the reference is to Roman military procedure in which there were three trumpets, the first being the call to pack up, the second being to get in line, and the last being the signal to move off. Thus, the changing and the catching up are as good as indistinguishable, and since men cannot see what happens in an atom of time, it follows that the rapture is secret.
Other Scriptures support the idea that our catching-up is private and not discerned by the world. Earlier in 1 Cor. 15, Paul refers to the feast of first-fruits of Leviticus 23: 9-14: “But now Christ is raised from among [the] dead, first–fruits of those fallen asleep … But each in his own rank: [the] first–fruits, Christ; then those that are the Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15: 20, 23). What does this expression first–fruits mean? An Israelite would say that if the subsequent main harvest was the barley harvest, then the first–fruits offered would be a sheaf of barley. Thus, the first fruits are of the same kind as the following harvest, the only difference between one of quantity. Now if Christ is the first–fruits of resurrection from among the dead, then there must be an identity between His resurrection from among the dead, and the resurrection of His saints from among the dead at His coming. What marked the Lord’s resurrection? Let Peter speak: “This [man] God raised up the third day and gave him to be openly seen, not of all the people, but of witnesses who were chosen before of God, us who have eaten and drunk with him after he arose from among [the] dead” (Acts 10: 40, 41). Christ in resurrection was not seen publicly—only by those who were His own. The last the world saw of Christ was on the cross. Two of His own even took Him to the grave. There is no record that any unbeliever ever saw Christ in resurrection, and no man, believer, or unbeliever, actually saw him rise. In a word, the event was secret. If that was the nature of His resurrection, then the resurrection from among the dead at His coming will be just as secret. Yes, this is resurrection from among the dead rather than the rapture of the living saints, but since both living and dead will be “caught up together” (1 Thess. 4: 17), it is all one, secret event.
So why are we to be caught up? It is true that we are caught up “to meet the Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 17), but in so doing the Lord also takes his heavenly people away ahead of the judgment of God upon this earth. Let us now therefore consider our:
Deliverance from Wrath
The Thessalonian saints were commended for the way they had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens, whom he raised from among the dead, Jesus, our deliverer from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1: 9, 10, my emphasis). Note that the word “deliverer” (rhuomai in Greek) means not just rescue or save, but to draw or snatch to oneself (see, for example, Matt. 27: 43). Now while 1 Thess. 1: 10 does not exclude a wider scope of wrath, it particularly has in view the judgments of God upon the earth in the Great Tribulation (as in Matt. 3: 7 and Rev. 6: 17), for the Lord will physically draw the Church to Himself ahead of those awful events. Why? “Because God has not set us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5: 9). There is to be no selective rapture because salvation from the wrath to come is presented as independent of our state, for it is “whether we may be watching or sleep” (v10)—where the word sleep is katheudo, which, in the context of the chapter means spiritual lethargy. He “has died for us”, in order that we could “live together with him” (v10). It is all His own action.
Now in the first epistle, the Thessalonian saints were concerned about what would happen to those of their number who had “fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4: 13—and here the word asleep is koimao which, in the context, means the sleep of death). In response, the apostle reassures them that “if we believe that Jesus has died and has risen again, so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus” (v14, my emphasis). Thus, these saints who had died before the rapture are not left out of the appearing, for it is evident that God cannot bring them with Christ unless they have first been gathered to Christ! It is important to be clear here. We are to “love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4: 8), but this is not the same as awaiting God’s Son “from the heavens” (1 Thess. 1: 10). The former is the public manifestation of Christ to this earth (see Matt. 24: 30), but the latter is a prior event that is unseen by the world. When He appears again to this world, it is “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess. 3: 13, my emphasis)—and if we come with him, then it is evident that we must have been gathered to Him beforehand. In 1 Thess. 4: 15-17, Paul explains in detail how this will be brought about: “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, 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”. The Lord descends from heaven, and we will go up to meet Him “in the air”, but there is nothing here about coming to earth, let alone His feet standing “in that day upon the mount of Olives” (Zech. 14: 4). No, for this is the gathering to Him, rather than the appearing, when we shall “be manifested with him in glory” (Col. 3: 4), at the “revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven … taking vengeance on those who know not God, and those who do not obey the glad tidings” (2 Thess. 1: 7, 8). This revelation is connected with times and seasons, but the rapture is not:
The Rapture not connected to Times and Seasons
Now when the apostle speaks of the rapture in 1 Thess. 4: 15-18, there is no mention of times and seasons. Why? Times and seasons refer particularly to the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth (see Acts 1: 6, 7), and this will be preceded by events, but the rapture is unconnected to happenings on this earth and can therefore be expected at any moment. Paul begins the next chapter of 1 Thessalonians, however, with a “but” (indicating a new subject) and he now does mention times and seasons because he is speaking about an event that distinctly relates to the earth: “but concerning the times and seasons, brethren, ye have no need that ye should be written to, for ye know perfectly well yourselves, that the day of [the] Lord so comes as a thief by night” (1 Thess. 5: 1, 2). The new subject is the day of the Lord, but at the time he saw no reason to go into details about the times and seasons relating to it.
Now what Paul introduced in the first epistle to the Thessalonians was for their encouragement (see 1 Thess. 4: 18), but when we come to the second epistle, something had gone wrong. In the first epistle he speaks of their faith, love and hope (see 1 Thess. 1: 3), but the introduction to the second epistle speaks only of faith and love (see 2 Thess. 1: 3). It seems that the Thessalonians had come, through false teaching, to interpret their present “persecutions and tribulations” (v4) as “that the day of the Lord is present” (2 Thess. 2: 2) or had arrived. In response, the apostle details times and seasons showing why their understanding was defective, “because [it will not be] unless the apostasy have first come, and the man of sin have been revealed” (v3). The day of the Lord is an expression introduced in the OT prophets and describes the time of God’s anger or wrath (see Ezek. 7: 19; Zeph. 1: 18) when He will arise in righteous fury to terrify the earth (see Is. 2: 12–21). Examination of the Scriptures that contain the expression show that it is not exactly the “revelation of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1: 7), although it includes that event. It is also not God acting providentially or through men but is His direct intervention when He executes His vengeance in regard to Israel (see Is. 34: 8) and all nations (see Obad. v15). Now some translations give “the day of Christ” and not “the day of the Lord” in 2 Thess. 2: 2 on the grounds that Greek manuscripts exist which support the former. How can the believer who does not know Greek decide which translation is best? He uses his knowledge of how these expressions are used elsewhere in the Scriptures. The expression the day of Christ is a NT expression which is found in a slightly different form as “Christ’s day” in Phil. 1: 10 and Phil. 2: 16. The thought of wrath is totally absent from it because it refers to the millennial reign of Christ. Clearly the Thessalonians did not think that the day of Christ had come when instead of a reign of peace they had persecution and trouble!
However, even before speaking of the times and seasons that relate to the day of the Lord, Paul begs the saints “by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind” (2 Thess. 2: 1,2). Unfortunately, the force of these words is again masked by faulty translation in many Bibles. Thus, the AV adds a second by as in: “Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him” (2 Thess. 2: 1, my emphasis). This makes the “coming” and the “gathering together” two separate events, but there is no second “by” in the Greek. There is instead a closeness between the “coming” and the “gathering together” (the word and between them could be translated even), for this is the Lord’s coming for us at which we are gathered to Him. Other translations replace “by the coming” with “concerning the coming” as in “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2: 1, 2; ESV). However, this makes the coming of the Lord and our gathering to Him in v1 the subject of what follows in vs. 2-12, which is Paul talking about the day of the Lord and the associated times and seasons. How can this be when the coming of the Lord and our gathering to Him (one event) are not about this earth, while the day of the Lord clearly is? Translate as “Now we beg you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him … as that the day of the Lord is present” (2 Thess. 2: 1, 2) and all is clear, for the coming and our gathering to Christ is then made a lever on the hearts of the Thessalonians.
Again, if we translate v1 as “concerning the coming” (where coming is parousia or presence) then what are we to make of the parousia mentioned in v8? Paul explains that the day of the Lord cannot happen until the man of sin is revealed (see v3), and that his career will be terminated by the parouisia of the Lord (see v8). How would the worries of the Thessalonians about being already in the day of the Lord be alleviated by this, for if there is no parouisia until the day of the Lord has begun, then going through the day of the Lord ought to be an expectation. But how would the hearts of the saints be encouraged (see v17) by Paul effectively telling them that if they felt their tribulation was bad now, then they should expect it to get much worse when the man of sin arrived? None of these problems arise if we accept that v1 is the coming of the Lord for us and is to be distinguished from the subject matter that follows (including v8, which is the Lord’s coming to the earth in judgment, “the appearing of his coming”—my emphasis). Yes, God’s people Israel will pass through the time of “Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30: 7) on this earth, but the rapture is a NT mystery not revealed to Israel, and never presented as their hope. The nation will be looking instead for the fulfilment of the prophecies that speak of Christ coming to this earth to save them in the hour of their extremity.
ConclusionThe OT draws to a close with these words: “behold, the day cometh, burning as a furnace; and all the proud and all that work wickedness shall be stubble … And unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings … And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I prepare” (Mal. 4: 1-3). This is Israel’s hope, and that which has sustained her faithful all through the long dark centuries of her scattering and tribulation. The last book of the NT speaks of many of the awful judgments that will fall upon this earth until Israel is restored as the centre of the nations, but it ends on a somewhat different note to Malachi, as befitting the fact it was written, in the first place, to Christians. Thus, we read that: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify these things to you in the assemblies. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright [and] morning star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that hears say, Come. And let him that is athirst come; he that will, let him take [the] water of life freely … He that testifies these things says, Yea, I come quickly. Amen; come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22: 16, 17, 20). This ought to affect us! The sun of righteousness is when Jehovah will arise to terrify the earth, ushering in the reign of the King of kings, but the morning star precedes the sunrise and speaks of the Lord’s coming for His own ahead of His public manifestation. I wonder how brightly that hope is shining for the reader? The apostle Peter writes about the same hope arising within us, not in our heads but in our hearts: “until [the] day dawn and [the] morning star arise in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1: 19). Oh, dear fellow-believer, may it increasingly be so! Amen; come, Lord Jesus!