The Pre-Tribulation Rapture
The next major event on God’s prophetic calendar is the Rapture of church-age believers.
The word “rapture” does not appear in the Bible, but it describes the catching away of the church-age saints at the end of the age.
There are two major passages that describe the Rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13 -- 5:11 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-58.
The Greek word translated “caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is used in Acts 8:39 of the Spirit of God snatching away Philip after the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 -- 5:11
1. The Rapture is an event in which the dead in Christ will be raised (1 Th. 4:14-16) and the living New Testament saints will be changed and glorified (1 Th. 4:17).
2. The dead in Christ are presently with Him in heaven (1 Th. 4:14). The dead in Christ do not “sleep in the grave” as some false teachers claim.
3. The Rapture is the believer’s hope and comfort (1 Th. 4:13, 18). This is what we are waiting for. We are not looking for the antichrist and the Great Tribulation. If the Rapture did not occur until the end of the Great Tribulation, it could not produce hope and comfort for the Christian.
4. The Rapture occurs before the Day of the Lord’s wrath (1 Th. 5:1-10).
a. The “Day of the Lord” is the time of Tribulation when God will judge the world for its sin and idolatry. In that “day,” God will be exalted and rebellious men will be humbled. See Isaiah 2:10-21.
b. Note the change in pronouns in this passage. In verse 3 the pronoun “they” is used, because the Day of the Lord will come upon the unsaved world. But in verses 4-5 the pronoun “ye” is used, referring to believers. That day will not overtake us.
c. The Rapture will occur as a thief in the night (1 Th. 5:2), but this is not how the Lord’s return in glory will occur. It will come with unmistakeable signs in the heavens and will be seen by all (Mat. 24:27-31). The Rapture pertains to the church, whereas Christ’s Second Coming pertains to Israel and the world.
d. The believer is to be watching for the Lord’s return at all times (1 Th. 5:6). We do not know when it will happen. It is imminent.
e. Believers are not appointed to go through the time of God’s wrath (1 Th. 5:9). Compare 1 Thessalonians 1:10. Believers have been subject to the wrath of men and devils throughout the church age, but we are not appointed to go through the wrath of God that will be poured out upon this wicked world. Compare Isaiah 2:9-21.
f. The place of protection during the days of apostasy before the Rapture is the Bible-believing church (1 Th. 5:12-14). Each believer needs to be a faithful member of a good church that is led by godly men who are sound in the New Testament faith. The leaders and the church members work together to accomplish God’s will on earth in preaching the gospel to every nation while they wait for the Lord’s return. The way to have peace in the churches is for the leaders to teach the Bible faithfully and for the members to show respect to the leaders and follow them. Church leaders should be honored and obeyed as long as they are following the Bible. Those who are unruly in the churches should be rebuked, because they hurt the Lord’s work.
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
1. The Rapture is a mystery that was not revealed in the Old Testament prophecies (1 Cor. 15:51). The Old Testament prophets taught about the bodily resurrection, but they did not teach that some would be glorified without dying. They prophesied about the resurrection of Jews at the end of the Tribulation (Dan. 12:1-2), but they did not see the Rapture of New Testament believers before the Tribulation.
2. The dead in Christ will be raised to incorruption and the believers who are living at that time will be changed from mortal to immortal (1 Cor. 15:52-53). “Incorruptible” means the resurrection body will be incapable of such things as pain and sickness. “Immortal” means incapable of dying.
3. The Rapture of church-age believers is a source of great encouragement and motivation to godly Christian service (1 Cor. 15:58). The Rapture is a very important doctrine. It helps to motivate the Lord’s people to stay awake spiritually and it helps to motivate the churches to stay busy in the work of preaching the gospel to lost souls before it is too late.
4. What about “the last trump”?
The trumpet that will sound at the Rapture of the church-age saints has nothing to do with the trumpets that will sound in Revelation as judgments on this world or the trumpets that sound in reference to Israel. The church is not a part of these other programs. Her “trump” is a different one. The church’s last trump is when she shall finally be congregated together to the Lord (1 Th. 4:17). Compare Numbers 10:7.
The Time of the Rapture
NOTE TO TEACHERS: The following section can be omitted if there is a shortage of time to teach this course. Or you might want to hit the highlights of the following study by way of review and amplification of what has already been taught on the Rapture.
Among those who believe in a literal Rapture of church-age saints, there are three positions regarding its timing in relation to the Tribulation. The three views are as follows:
1. Pre-tribulational -- church-age saints will be raptured before the Tribulation
2. Mid-tribulational (also called Pre-wrath) -- church-age saints will go through the first half of the Tribulation
3. Post-tribulational -- church-age saints will go through the entire Tribulation period
For the following reasons we are convinced the Bible teaches a Pre-tribulational Rapture. In this study, we are using the term “church” in a general, institutional sense. We have already looked at most of these reasons in the previous sections, but we want to gather all of the points together in one place and elucidate more on some of them:
1. Church-age believers are promised salvation from wrath (1 Th. 1:9-10; 5:1-9; Rom. 5:9; Rev. 3:10).
The Great Tribulation is expressly called the day of God’s wrath. Today the Lord is withholding His anger; He is offering men salvation through the preaching of the gospel, but the day approaches when He will take the seat of judgment. Then “the day of his wrath” will be upon all the world (Psa. 110:5; Isa. 13:6-13; Rev. 6:16-17). It is true that in every century, Bible-believing churches have been subjected to persecution, but this is different from the Great Tribulation. The persecutions of the saints are caused by the wrath of wicked men and the devil, whereas the seven-year Tribulation is a period especially pertaining to God’s wrath (Rev. 6:16-17; 14:10). Some believe that the church will not be saved out of the time of wrath, but will be saved through it. This cannot be true, since the Bible clearly reveals that those who are on earth during the Great Tribulation will not be delivered from wrath but will be overcome (Rev. 13:7). The Scriptures that promise church-age believers deliverance from wrath must refer to salvation out from the very presence of the wrath. Concerning the Great Tribulation, we are told that “as a snare shall it come on ALL them that dwell on the face of the whole earth” (Lk. 21:35). Church-age believers must either be physically removed from the earth, or they will be involved in the day of wrath. God promises removal. “... I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (Rev. 3:10). This verse does not say that God will keep the church age saints through the temptation but from it.
2. The Holy Spirit will be removed before the Tribulation (2 Th. 2:1-8).
In other passages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit is said to be the restrainer of sin (Gen. 6:3; Isa. 59:19). The Holy Spirit came into the world in His present dispensation at Pentecost (Acts 2), when He came to empower the church for the Great Commission (Acts 1:8). He will remove the church-age believers before the time of God’s great wrath. This does not mean the Holy Spirit will not be present in the world at that time. The Holy Spirit is God and is omnipresent. It means that He will not be present in the same sense that He is in this age.
3. Church-age believers are promised mansions in heaven (John 14:1-3).
When the Lord Jesus returns to earth at the end of the Tribulation, He sets up His Messianic kingdom. If the Rapture occurred at the end of the Tribulation, the promise to church-age believers pertaining to heaven would not be fulfilled. Church-age believers are a heavenly people with a heavenly hope (Eph. 1; Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:1-3). Some dispensationalists teach that the church-age saints will live in heaven during the millennium. I believe they will live both in heaven and in earth. Jesus promised the apostles, who are the founders of the churches, that they would reign with Him over Israel (Mat. 19:28).
4. The Rapture of church-age saints is imminent (it could happen any time) whereas the Second Coming is said to be preceded by specific signs.
Christ taught that the Rapture is imminent (Matthew 24:42, 44; 25:13; Mark 13:33). Paul taught it (Phil. 4:5; Titus 2:12-13). James taught it (Jam. 5:8-9). And Peter taught it (1 Pet. 4:7). The early Christians were living in constant expectation of Christ’s return (1 Th. 1:9-10). The apostle Paul instructed the church at Thessalonica that they did not need to heed signs and times, because the New Testament believer has been promised redemption from the “day of darkness” that shall overcome the whole world (1 Th. 5:1-9). The church is not waiting for the antichrist, but for Christ Himself.
5. The church is a mystery that is not revealed in the Old Testament (Eph. 3:1-11).
The New Testament church has no part in the chronology of events foretold by the Old Testament prophets. They clearly foretold the first coming of Christ, His miraculous birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The same prophets described Christ’s Second Coming in glory, preceded by a time of unprecedented worldwide tribulation and followed by the establishment of the glorious Messianic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. But these prophets did not see the church age--“which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5).
Between the first and second coming, there is a time gap that was not seen by the Old Testament prophets. This gap is the church age. The prophets did not see that Israel would be set aside temporarily while God called out from among all nations a special body of people. After He has accomplished this purpose and the fullness of the Gentiles is come in, God will restart Israel’s prophetic clock with the last seven years of Daniel’s 70th Week and will fulfill all Old Testament prophecies in relation to His ancient chosen nation. “... blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25).
The Great Tribulation pertains to God’s dealing with Israel and the Gentile nations, not to the church. This present mystery period will end with the removal of church-age believers from the earth; and the Lord will then pour out His judgments on the Gentile nations and fulfill His covenants with Israel. The Great Tribulation is called “the time of the heathen” (Ezek. 30:3), referring to the Gentile nations, and “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7), referring to Israel.
6. The book of Revelation shows that the church is not on earth during the Tribulation.
a. The church is not seen on earth in chapters 4-18.
b. The witness for God in the earth during the Tribulation is Israel, not the church (Rev. 7).
c. The prayers of the saints in Revelation 8 are prayers for judgment. Only Israel prayed such prayers. The church-age saints are instructed to pray for her enemies, not against them (Lk. 9:51-56). The imprecatory prayers of Revelation are those of the Psalms and are based on God’s promise to Abraham to curse those that cursed Israel (Gen. 12:1-3).
d. The scorpion-like creatures of Revelation 9 are given freedom to hurt all earth-dwellers except those Jews who were sealed by the angel of Revelation 7; if church-age believers were on earth, they would be subject to this horrible judgment.
e. Revelation 10 identifies the events of Revelation 4-18 with those foretold by Old Testament prophets--the days of the Great Tribulation, the “Day of the Lord.” The church age was never in the view of these Old Testament prophecies; it was a mystery not yet revealed. The church has a different purpose and program than national Israel. It is Israel that is in view in Old Testament prophecy and in Revelation 4-18.
f. The ministry of the two witnesses of Revelation 11 identifies them with national Israel and with Old Testament prophecies of the “Day of the Lord.” The two witnesses minister from Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. The churches have no such capital, her hope being heavenly, not earthly (Col. 3:1-4; Phil. 3:17-21). The two witnesses are clothed in sackcloth, which speaks of Israel. The sackcloth signifies repentance from sin and sorrow because of some calamity (1 Ki. 21:27; 2 Ki. 19:1; Est. 4:1; Isa. 15:3; Jer. 4:8). Nowhere are the churches seen in sackcloth. The churches are told, rather, to “rejoice in the Lord alway” (Phil. 4:4). The church-age believer’s judgment is forever past, and he is to keep his mind centered in the heavenlies where, positionally, he is already seated, eternally victorious with Christ (Eph. 2:5-10). Revelation 11:4 identifies the two witnesses with the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah 4:3, 11, 14. This is a prophecy about Israel, not the church. Further, the two witnesses call down judgment upon their enemies in Revelation 10:5-6. Jesus rebuked his disciples for desiring to do just this and instructed the church-age believer to pray for the well-being of his enemies, not for their destruction (Lk. 9:54-56; Rom. 12:14, 17-21).
g. The devil persecutes Israel, not the church, during the Tribulation (Rev. 12). There can be no doubt that the woman in this chapter signifies Israel. Verse 5 shows the woman bringing forth Christ; it is obvious that Jesus was brought forth by Israel, not by the churches (Isa. 9:6-7; Rom. 9:5). Also, the symbols of Revelation 12:1-2 recall familiar Old Testament typology of Israel. She is referred to as a woman (Isa. 54:5-7). The sun and moon and the 12 stars of verse 2 remind us of Joseph’s dream regarding Israel (Gen. 37:9). The words of Revelation 12:2 are almost an exact quote from Micah 5:3, again speaking of Israel’s delivery of the Messiah. These symbols are not used in the New Testament of the churches.
The Attack on the Pre-Tribulational Rapture
The doctrine of the pre-tribulational Rapture is under severe attack today. Consider some examples from the emerging church:
Brian McLaren, a prominent leader in the emerging church, calls the imminent return of Christ the “eschatology of abandonment” (interview with Planet Preterist, Jan. 30, 2005). This is because he believes that Christians should build the kingdom of God on earth today instead of waiting until Christ returns, so he claims that those who believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture are abandoning their duty to save the earth from global warming and to solve the problems of hunger, disease, war, etc.
Jonny Baker of Grace in London, England, rejects dispensationalism as “escapology theology” and “advocates that Christians need to invest themselves in the current culture, not live on hold until time runs out” (Emerging Churches, pp. 78, 79).
N.T. Wright, who has a great influence on the emerging church, warns that the doctrine of an imminent rapture is dangerous because it interferes with kingdom building and environmental activities. “If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven” (“Christians Wrong about Heaven, Says Bishop,” Time, Feb. 7, 2008).
Tony Campolo says: “I think that we need to challenge the government to do the work of the Kingdom of God, to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. That whole sense of the rapture, which may occur at any moment, is used as a device to oppose engagement with the principalities, the powers, the political and economic structures of our age” (“Opposition to women preachers evidence of demonic influence,” Baptist Press, June 27, 2003).
Mark Driscoll refers to the pre-tribulational Rapture as “pessimistic dispensationalism” (Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, p. 146). He has said that “eschatology-minded Christians” are not welcome in his church.
The Importance of the Pre-Tribulational Rapture
The doctrine of the pre-tribulational Rapture is not a minor one. As we have seen, Jesus, Paul, James, and Peter taught that the return of Christ was imminent and was to be expected at any time (Mat. 24:44; Phil. 4:5; Jam. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:7). The early Christians lived in expectation of Christ’s return and the literal fulfillment of the prophecies (1 Th. 1:9-10).
The doctrine of a pre-tribulational Rapture is a great motivator for purifying one’s personal Christian life.
1. It encourages the believer in trials and persecutions. “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18).
2. It keeps the church’s focus on the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18-20; Mk 16:15; Lk. 24:44-48; Acts 1:8). It teaches us that preaching the gospel, winning people to Christ, and establishing churches as the pillar and ground of the truth is the most urgent matter. D.L. Moody had it right when he said: “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”
3. It motivates us to be busy in the Lord’s work (1 Cor. 15:58).
4. It motivates us to live obedient lives (1 Jn. 3:1-3; 1 Th. 5:4-7).
5. It motivates us to separate from evil (Tit. 2:13-14).
6. It keeps believers on the outlook for heresy and apostasy (2 Timothy 4:3-4; 1 John 2:24-28).
What about the pre-wrath position that says believers will not be raptured until part way through the Tribulation?
The “pre-wrath” doctrine says that the Rapture occurs mid-way between Daniel’s 70th Week. It is based on the view that the “church” is to be kept from God’s wrath and the wrath is limited to the last half of the seven-year tribulation period, beginning when the antichrist sets himself up in the Jewish temple as God.
I believe this position is wrong for three reasons, chiefly.
1. The first reason I believe this position is wrong is the Bible’s teaching about the imminency of His coming (Mat. 24:44; 44; 25:13; Mark 13:33; Phil. 4:5; Jam. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:7).). If the believer is not taken away until part way through the Tribulation, he would know the time of the Rapture precisely, almost to the day, because he would see the events unfold during the first half of Daniel’s 70th week.
2. We do not accept the teaching that only the last seven judgments are the wrath of God (Rev. 15:1; 16:1). The wrath of God is mentioned in Revelation 6:16-17, at the beginning of the Tribulation. The fact is that the entire Tribulation is the wrath of God, each part growing in intensity. The seal judgments affect a fourth of the world (Rev. 6:8). The trumpet judgments affect a third of the earth (Rev. 8:7-11; 9:15). The vial judgments affect the entire world (Rev. 16:2, 3, 4, 8, 10, 14, 20).
3. The entire period of Daniel’s 70th Week pertains to Israel and not to the church. As we have seen, the church is not seen on earth after Revelation 3. Everything described on earth in Revelation 6-18 pertain to the Gentile nations and Israel. The “pre-wrath” position does not make a proper and consistent distinction between Israel and the church.
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