Question from a Site Viewer
Hi Tim, thanks for your article about the rapture. That’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve always been taught from the perspective that Jesus will take the church away before the tribulation, and I can see from Scripture many reasons for thinking that. Besides what you mentioned, it seems also that since God brought Noah and his family and Lot and his family out before he sent judgement on their societies, He does not intend His church to undergo the judgement He intends for the world.
But in my own reading of Scripture, I’ve always been unclear about some Scriptures that seem to point the other way. Daniel 7:8-13, Matthew 24:15-31 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 all seem to indicate that Jesus will gather His elect after the tribulation. I’ve heard people say that Jesus will come back and rapture us first, but not actually touch the earth, and then after the tribulation He will come back and set foot on the Mount of Olives. What do you think these passages mean in this regard?
Thanks much for the question. Accepting the concept of the rapture does not mean that one must deny the ultimate return of Christ to reign on the earth, or the gathering of His saints that occurs at that time. The splitting of the second coming of Christ into His coming for His church and His coming to rule encounters the same obstacles as the saints of old faced in trying to put the Messiah’s sufferings and glory into one return. We who are fortunate enough to live after Jesus understand that God had two comings always in mind. And today, like then, there are many who will insist that there is only a single coming and our gathering to Christ at that time. Those who believe, like I do, that there will be a coming for the church and a coming at the end of the age are often misunderstood to teach that there will not be a gathering of saints at the end of the age. Such is not what we believe, nor is it consistent with Scripture.
Although the Daniel passage does not speak of the gathering of the saints, Christ in Matthew 24:29-31 picks up that Daniel passage and applies it to the return of Christ and the gathering of the saints. The question raised by the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 is the identity of those saints. Some will insist that they are the church, the mystery of God that Paul speaks about in Ephesians and Romans, and that Christ reveals to Peter in Matthew 16. I think that they are the survivors of the Tribulation who follow Christ. I believe that the church is taken out of this world before the Tribulation begins.
I have explained in other places, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, the passages that have driven me to conclude that there will be a pre-Tribulation rapture of the church. The Olivet Discourse itself I think supports the two returns of Christ.
The Olivet discourse begins with the disciples asking for the sign of Christ’s coming and the end of the age. This is the subject Jesus is addressing. And in His address, Jesus gives numerous signs of His coming, even telling us that it will be after the abomination of desolation and after the “great tribulation;” further letting us know that it will be immediately after the great tribulation. Then Jesus says that we will not know when the Lord is coming and that therefore we must watch and always be ready, for Christ is coming at an hour we will not expect.
How is it possible that there will be this increasing intensity and litany of signs of His coming, including the sky being darkened in preparation of His return, and we will not know He is coming? It is possible to theorize that we are simply blind. But that theory does not satisfy me. Even the unsaved know how to read the signs of that day. In Revelation 6:15-17, they recognize that the day of His wrath has come. I do not know how anyone can miss those signs.
Others will argue that we can know the general time of His coming, we simply cannot know the hour or day. But to those who say this, I would simply ask the following. If the church always understood that we can understand the general time, then how is it that James, Paul, Peter, and John were all so far off? James tells us that the coming of the Lord was at hand (James 5:8). Paul tells us that it is time to awake because the night is far spent and the day is at hand (Romans 13:11-12). Peter tells us that the end of all things is at hand (1 Peter 4:7). John tells us to abide in Him that we will not be ashamed at His coming (1 John 2:28). I think an argument that we can know the general time of His return means we can know what the apostles did not. I am reluctant to accept such a proposition.
I think the better way to reconcile the passages is to see two comings; one openly, with a series of advance warnings and signs culminating in His dramatic return; and one secretly, as a thief, in which He comes for His church. I note that the thief imagery is picked up in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, and there it is applied to the Day of the Lord. If the Day of the Lord, seen in the Old Testament and the New as the time of God’s judgment on the earth, comes as a thief, and God’s coming for the disciples is as a thief, then it is not a far stretch to see these two events as happening at the same time. The sudden and unexpected return of Christ for His disciples becomes the opening of the day of the Lord, the time of judgment on the world. From that time of judgment and intense tribulation, everyone will know that Jesus is returning, this time with His saints and to gather the great multitude who have believed on Him during that time of judgment.
I find this reading fully supported by what Jesus says in the midst of the portion dealing with the surprise coming. Jesus likens those days to the days of Noah. One person knew of the coming flood and watched and prepared. God came first for that person. We find in Genesis 7:1, that after Noah built the ark, God entered the ark and invited Noah in. The word “come” signifies that God was in the ark speaking. At the invitation of God, Noah entered the ark and God shut the door (Genesis 7:16)(an interesting analogy to the 10 virgins who also get in before the door is shut in Matthew 25:1-13, a parable linked to watchfulness for His coming). Noah was sheltered in the ark by God, being invited into God’s presence. Only then did the flood begin, signifying the judgment on the earth. The world outside was oblivious until the flood came. But Noah was not, having already been invited into the ark. In the analogy of the story, we are to be like Noah, ready for the call to enter the ark. Because after that call, the destruction comes. And, after the destruction, we know from Matthew 24:29-31, the Son of Man comes, and gathers those of His elect who are on the earth.
Accordingly, as I read Matthew 24 and 25:1-13, there is a return of Christ at the end of the great tribulation that will be known to all, forecasted by signs and events that point directly to the time of His return. But there also is a return that is secret even to the Son of Man (Mark 13:32), that will usher in the time of God’s great judgment on the earth. It is this first return that we are to be awaiting.
I find it interesting throughout the New Testament that not once when the writers of the epistles speak of Christ’s return do they add “brace yourself for the coming tribulation period and God’s wrath.” The opposite is true; Christ’s return is always viewed as our great escape to Him, and the deliverance from that wrath. Further, if one goes to the Luke account of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus tells us to
. . . watch therefore and pray always that we may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass and to stand before the Son of Man. . .
Escape is possible, as Zephaniah 2:3; Isaiah 26:20; John 14:1-3; Revelation 3:10, and other passages seem to state. I believe, as Noah entered into the ark, so will we, before the flood comes. I believe this is the best interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. Other interpretations I think do not well reconcile the tension in the text.
You also ask about 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3. This entire chapter is a most interesting passage. I think the passage makes little sense if the Thessalonians did not believe in an escaping. Paul is addressing a concern that the day of the Lord was already present (verse 2). As F.F. Bruce says in his commentary on this passage:
It cannot be seriously disputed that “is present” is the natural sense of [original Greek word].
1 & 2 Thessalonians in the Word Biblical Commentary, page 165
F.F. Bruce also notes that the form of the verb used here is consistently translated “present;” (Romans 8:38 and 1 Corinthians 3:22 – “things present,” 1 Corinthians 7:26 – “present distress,” Galatians 1:4 – “present evil age,” and Hebrews 9:9 – “present time”).
But why would the Thessalonians be so troubled by the presence of the day of the Lord if they believed that they had to go through that day before they could be with Christ? It seems to me that the desire to be with Christ, which is the foundation of Paul’s writings and his instruction to the church, and the blessed hope of the believer, should have made them excited to be in the day of the Lord. That would simply mean that Christ was at hand and they would have had a great hope of imminent release from their distress. I have no answer for their concern if they believed in a gathering to Christ at the end of the day of the Lord.
Some would say that they were distressed because of the suffering they would have to endure during the day of the Lord. But, they most likely were already under intense suffering (1 Thessalonians 3), and if they thought this was the day of the Lord, then at least they would have the hope of Christ’s coming and His deliverance from that suffering. If it was not the day of the Lord and they believed in a gathering to Christ at the end of the day of the Lord, then that should have been a greater concern than being in the day of the Lord. There would have been no hope of Christ returning to relieve the suffering.
To me, the passage only makes since if they thought that their gathering to Christ should have taken place before the day of the Lord, and that they had missed it. I see this as the thrust of the passage. They felt that they had missed the gathering to Christ.
I see Paul answering their concern by pointing out the obvious. They were not in the day of the Lord. They could not be in the day of the Lord because the apostasy had not yet occurred and the man of lawlessness had not been revealed. It is possible to argue that the word “apostasia” may be seen as a reference to the catching away in 1 Thessalonians 4. However, the usage of this word elsewhere in Scripture, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use during the time of Christ, uniformly means a departure from the faith (Acts 21:21; Joshua 22:22; 1 Kings 21:13 where it appears in some copies of the Septuagint; 2 Chronicles 29:19; 33:19; Jeremiah 2:19; and 1 Maccabees 2:15). I think the apostasy should be seen as the departure from the faith.
There is also a question about the restrainer who must be taken away first before the man of lawlessness is revealed. Some have seen this as the Roman government (a prevalent view in the early church), and others as the Spirit of God, and others as God’s general hand of restraint through government and the church. I leave this issue unresolved at present as it does not affect the force of Paul’s argument, at least not much.
Once the lawless one is revealed, I think we cannot help but notice the removal of the first and second persons in the use of the pronouns. The “I,” “we,” “us,” and “you” in verses 1-5 are gone, until we come to verse 13. In verse 10, the lawless one works with all unrighteous deception among “those” who perish, because “they” did not receive the love of the truth that “they” might be saved. In verse 11, God sends “them” a strong delusion, that “they” may believe the lie. In verse 12, this is so “they” might be condemned. There is not a word about believers being present during this time. The focus is what will happen to the unrighteous. Paul does not even hint that the Thessalonians will be present during this time.
This point is only heightened by the opening of verse 13. Using a mild contrasting particle, Paul turns the focus to giving thanks to God for the Thessalonians because God has chosen “you” for salvation. One should not separate this word “salvation” from the context of 2:1-3. I do not think that either Paul or the Thessalonians who read this epistle thought that the salvation was unlinked from their gathering to Christ. Lest we have any doubt, in the very next verse Paul directly links the salvation to “the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The abrupt change from the condition during the Tribulation to the present condition and hope of the Thessalonians is not something that can be ignored. There is not a word about them enduring the man of lawlessness or the day of the Lord. There is only thanks that they are chosen for salvation having been set apart by the Spirit and having believed in the truth.
So, I see the answer to the concern and comfort as this. Paul is saying not to be worried. The gathering to Christ had not happened yet. Although someone apparently had told them in a letter purportedly from Paul that the Day of the Lord was present, it was not.
Some might ask why Paul did not simply reassure them that they would not go through the day of the Lord as he had done in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10. I suspect the reason is that they understood that the catching away of the saints could escape the notice of others, and for Paul to assure them that it had not happened would have been countered by those who were spreading the false teaching. Paul, therefore, points out the obvious matters that he had taught them already, matters they could immediately verify. Paul tells them that they can look around and see that the apostasy had not yet happened and the man of lawlessness was not on the scene. Therefore, they were not in the day of the Lord.
I do not find in any of these passages a compelling argument against the Rapture. I see from the Matthew passage two comings, an open and well orchestrated coming and a secret (thief) and unexpected coming. I see from the 2 Thessalonians passage a distress because they thought they had missed the rapture and were now in the day of the Lord. Their reaction to a belief that they were in the day of the Lord shows me that the blessed hope is not the return of Christ at the end of the day of the Lord, but rather the appearance of Christ to save us from the day of the Lord. Those who think otherwise can never understand the anguish of the Thessalonians or the reason why Paul’s answer brought comfort.
Thanks again for the question.