by James Gray
It has been said that about one fourth of the Bible contains unfulfilled prophecy. That means there are a lot of events still coming, for God will not permit His Word to remain unfulfilled. The next major event is revealed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and is referred to by Bible students as the Rapture of the Church. Some object to the word rapture because the word does not appear in any reference of Scripture. That is true. But it is also true of the word Trinity, yet many use the word and believe the doctrine. Because the word does not appear in Scripture does not discredit the word, or the truth. The word “rapture” is derived from the Latin word “rapere.” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology tells us that the word means:
“…to seize,” “to snatch,” the word may denote an ecstasy of spirit such as the mystic aspires to enjoy, or it may refer to a removal from one place to another by forcible means. Here it is being considered only in the latter sense, as a phase of the prophetic revelation dealing with the future of the coming of the Lord for His church.” (p. 433).
Thus, the term “rapture” is applied to the doctrine of the “catching up” of believers. Paul uses the term in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 when he declares that we “who are alive and remain shall be caught up together” to meet our coming Saviour. The Greek word is the word Harpagesometha which comes from the verb Harpazo meaning to snatch or catch away. The word is found thirteen times in the New Testament and almost always implies a change of location of an object (Mt. 12:29) or a person (Acts 8:38, 2 Cor. 12:2-4). Everett Harrison says that “There can be no doubt that Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 requires a removal of the saints from earth at the time of the Lord’s return” (Charles Baker, Dictionary of Theology, p. 433).
THE PARTICIPANTS OF THE RAPTURE
As one studies 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, one finds four participants.
- The Lord Himself. The word “Himself” is in the emphatic posiion, meaning the “same” Jesus who died and was resurrected, will begin this great event.
- We see the Archangel. This is perhaps Michael (cf., Dan. 10:13, 21; 12:1, Jude 9; Rev. 12:7).
- Believers who have died before this event takes place. This is not a general resurrection of all the dead, but a particular one of believers only. This is clear by the terms “sleep in Jesus,” and “dead in Christ.” The Spirit of God places us into Christ upon the act of faith on Christ as our Savior.
- Believers who are alive at the time of this event. Twice Paul uses the phrase, “we who are alive and remain” (vss. 15,17).
The student should note, however, that while the passage gives us four participants, the emphasis is upon those who are alive and remain. The main purpose of this passage is to show the relationship between those who have died and those who are alive when this event takes place. They were not ignorant of the resurrection. “Paul writes then, not to teach the fact of resurrection, but, rather, the fact that at the Rapture, the living would not have an advantage over the dead in Christ” (Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 209).
THE PUZZLE OF THE RAPTURE
Why were the Thessalonians puzzled about this relationship? Because what Paul was teaching them about the Rapture was new. Until the time of Paul, Scripture gives no indication that believers would be “caught up to meet the Lord in the air,” nor that their bodies would be “changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). It was a revelation given to Paul for the Church (see Eph. 3:1-10), which was hidden in God. It was a “mystery” (1 Cor. 15:51). The Greek word is Musterion. Vine tells us of this word:
“In the New Testament, it denotes, not the mysterious (as with the English word), but that which being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by Divine revelation, and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God, and to those who are illumined by His Spirit. In the ordinary sense, a mystery implies knowledge withheld; its Scriptural significance is truth revealed.” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 3, p. 97).
The revealed Mystery is that, at the time of the Rapture, those who are alive and remain will be changed. The word is the Greek verb Allasso, meaning to make other than it is, to transform, change. What this change involves is indicated by the words “incorruption” and “immortality.” The word incorruption means unable to destroy, and immortality means deathless. In Colossians 3:4 Paul tells us, “When Christ, Who is our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory.” In Philippians 3:21 he says this change of our bodies will be “fashioned like His glorious body.” Nowhere else, except with Paul, do these truths become known. They were written distinctively to the Church, the Body of Christ.
While many believers believe in a Rapture, there is great division on the place or time it will occur. Some believe it will occur before, some after, and a few believe during the Tribulation Period. (For a complete study of these different views, I recommend J. Dwight Pentecost’s book, Things to Come). The real question is: Does Scripture teach where or when the Rapture will occur? While some say there is no direct Scriptural evidence to the question, I disagree. Paul gives us the place of the Rapture here in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The context of the Rapture and end times does not stop at the chapter division, but continues into 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.
A careful study of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 reveals the following facts:
- The context deals with end-time events. This is clearly seen in the phrases “time and seasons,” and “the day of the Lord.” Note also that the text begins with the word “but” (DE in the Greek); this is a word of contrast. Paul is beginning a new subject, but not an unrelated one. The subject is clearly another end-time event: The Day of the Lord.
- We see the description of the Day of the Lord. It is described as a “thief in the night,” and “darkness” (vss. 2, 4-5). It is also a time of “destruction” and “travail.” That this refers to the Tribulation Period is confirmed by Scripture. Compare the great passages on the Tribulation in the Old Testament. There we read:
“Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He shall destroy the sinners out of it. For the stars of Heaven shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in its going forth, and the moon shall not cause its light to shine. And I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible” (Isa. 13:9-11).
“The great day of the Lord is near, it is near, and hasteneth greatly even the voice of the day of the Lord; the mighty man shall cry there bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Zeph. 1:14-15).
Also, see Zechariah 14:1-8, Joel 2:1-2, and 3:14-21. From this comparison, it should be clear that Paul is writing about the Tribulation Period: a time of darkness and wrath.
- Note the believers’ relationship to this time of darkness and wrath. There is a contrast between “you,” “us,” “we” (vss. 1-2, 4-6, 8-11) and “they” and “others” (vss. 3:6-7). There are two groups of people: those who are in or a part of this darkness, and those who are not. It is those to whom Paul is writing that are “not in darkness” (v. 4), “not of the night, nor of darkness” (v. 5), “not appointed us for wrath” (v. 9). The believer is appointed to salvation. Salvation to or from what? To be delivered from this darkness: the Day of the Lord. The word “salvation,” in this con- text, is used in a physical deliverance, not simply a spiritual, for the context demands it.
Paul is clearly showing that believers are not a part of that coming day of wrath and darkness. Why? Because they are raptured from it. This is the message of comfort (4:18; 5:10) Paul is giving.
Another passage which may indicate the place or time of the Rapture is 2 Thessalonians 2. Paul is writing to assure them that the Day of the Lord had not come, as some were teaching. In verse 3 he declares, “Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” In fact, he says that the Day of the Lord will not come until two things happen. One is that Antichrist be revealed and the other is the Apostasia. Two things the student should note: First, the Greek text has the article; thus the word, “the” should appear in the translation. Second, the word Apostasia means departure. Kenneth Wuest tells us:
“The A.V. offers an interpretation of the Greek word, ‘apostasia’ instead of translating it and allowing the Spirit- taught believer to interpret in context. The words are ‘a falling away’; the thought being of ‘a falling away from the true doctrine,’ which is a case of exegesis (reading into the text that which is not there). The word considered in its historical background and context should be translated, ‘departure’…the definite article occurring before the word makes it apply to a particular departure, one known to the writer and the recipients or the letter. It is the departure of the Church spoken of in 2:1. ‘Our gathering together unto Him,’ and previously described in detail to the Thessalonians in Paul’s first letter to them (4:13-18).” (Prophetic Light in the Present Darkness, p. 57).
There is no definite future event of apostasy recorded in Scripture, but there is a definite event of departure, that being the Rapture.
It is noteworthy that although most of the modern translations do not use the word “departure,” many of the older translations do, including the Geneva Bible, the Great Bible, and the Tyndale Bible.
Besides, these direct Scriptural indications of a pre-tribulation Rapture, there are other indications. Among them are:
1. The Doctrine of Imminence. This doctrine says Christ may return “at any moment.” Matthew 24, 25, 28 and 31 state there are events that must occur before the coming of Christ. Pentecost points this out, saying:
“Many signs were given to the nation Israel, which would precede the second advent, so that the nation might be living in expectancy when the time of His coming should draw nigh. Although Israel could not know the day or the hour when the Lord will come, yet they can know that their redemption draweth nigh through the fulfillment of these signs” (Things to Come. p. 202).
However, Paul never talks about watching for certain events, but rather watch for the Lord Himself to appear (Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 1:10; 1 Tim. 6:14; Titus 1:13). To the Church, The Body of Christ, no such sign was ever given.
- The Church as a Mystery. Again, Pentecost writes:
“It was no mystery that God was going to provide salvation for the Gentiles, nor that Gentiles would be blessed in salvation. The fact that God was going to form Jews and Gentiles alike into one body was never revealed in the Old Testament and forms the Mystery of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 3:1-7 and Colossians 1:16-10. This whole Mystery program was not revealed until after the rejection of Christ by Israel…it was after the final rejection by Israel that God called out Paul to be the Apostle of the Gentiles through whom this Mystery of the nature of the Church is revealed. The Church is manifestly an interruption of God’s program for Israel which was not brought into being until Israel’s rejection of the offer of the Kingdom. It must logically follow that this Mystery program must itself be brought to a conclusion before God can resume His dealing with the nation Israel…the Mystery program, which was so distinct in its inception, will certainly be separate at its conclusion. This program must be concluded before God resumes and culminates His program for Israel” (Things to Come, p. 201).”
Remember, the Tribulation Period is Jewish in nature. It centers around the land of Palestine and the city of Jerusalem. It is referred to in the Old Testament as the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7). How can God carry out such a thing, when in the Church there is no difference between Jew and Gentile? We must return to that distinction, and it will be done when the Church is “caught up” and God resumes His Kingdom program.
THE PURPOSE OF THE RAPTURE
- To gather together all members of the Body of Christ, His Church, to take them to Heaven. The Epistles make it clear that the Church has a heavenly calling (Phil. 1:20). Positionally we are there now (Eph. 1:3,6). We are a part of God’s heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18); that is our hope. Our purpose in the heavenlies will be to make known God’s wisdom to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). In light of this, C.F. Baker’s comments are both interesting and noteworthy. He writes:
“In our study of the heavenly Sanctuary, we saw how there was a heavenly counterpart of principalities and powers to the earthly kings and princes. Satan and his hosts at the present time occupy this heavenly sphere and it is there that believers have their warfare (Eph. 6:12). After the Body of Christ is raptured to Heaven, war breaks out in Heaven and Satan and his angels are cast out (Rev. 12:7-21). Although it is not specifically stated, it would appear that the Body of Christ will be given that position, once held by angels, of ruling with Christ in the heavenly sphere. Paul states that we are to judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3), and that we will reign with Christ” (2 Tim. 2:12).”
- To judge and reward the Church (2 Cor. 5:10).
- To remove the Restrainer from the earth (2 Thess. 2:7). The restrainer is the Holy Spirit. He has always been exerting His restraining influence (Gen. 6:3). He indwells believers and restrains the work of evil. At the Rapture, this restraining power is taken out of the way. As Walvoord reminds us:
“ If the Spirit of God indwells the Church and the Church is taken out of the world, then the Spirit of God will also be taken out of the world. This does not mean that the Spirit will not continue working in the world in some way…The very removal of both the Church and the Spirit from the world will release the world to sin as it never has before. The presence of believers in the world exerts a great influence upon the wicked world. Christians who have stood for civic righteousness and law and order will no longer be in evidence. For the time being at least, there will be no one except unsaved people to run government. The net result will be that evil will be manifested beyond anything known in the history of man. The ‘mystery of iniquity’ is, of course, already working, as mentioned in verse 7, but the Holy Spirit is now restraining until He is taken away at the translation of the Church. When this occurs, it is revealed in verse 8 that ‘then shall that wicked one be revealed whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming’” (The Thessalonians Epistles, pp. 125-126).
Oh, how we as believers should be “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).