Some Golden Daybreak
Dr. Gerald L. Stover of Lansdale, PA, is a full-time Bible teacher in fellowship with North-Ridge Bible Chapel at Sellersville, PA.
A Bible teacher on his way to Amsterdam made the acquaintance of a gentleman on shipboard who turned out to be — a man with a story. Years ago he fell in love with a beautiful young woman in Amsterdam, and they would have been married, but circumstances in her home made it understandably impossible for them to be married at that time. They agreed to postpone getting married until time changed matters. She urged him to go to America as they had originally planned to do, settle there, and when the time was right, she would cable him to come for her. Neither one knew that twenty-five years would pass before circumstances were agreeable to the marriage. Now he had a cable from his beloved, and you better believe it — he was on his way to Amsterdam.
The teacher said to himself, “I want to see that reunion at the dock!” He scanned the crowd hoping to get sight of the bride-to-be, and yes, it happened — he saw a woman carrying a fairly large picture in her hand. She would look at it, then scan the men as they disembarked, and finally, she thought she identified her lover, and she stood before him, and with one last glance at the picture, timidly touched his hand, and then hugged him tightly and kissed the one for whom she waited so long.
As I listened to my friend who related this incident, I thought, “God has given us His Word, and in that blessed Book one can see many portraits of the One whom his soul loveth, even the Lord Jesus Christ, and one day the Bridegroom will come for His blood-bought bride, even the Church, and in that fragment of time escort her safely home to heaven.” We await that moment, and while waiting, we scan the Word faithfully and envision that holy time of excellence when we see Him face to face!
According to Acts 17:1-9 Paul and his missionary party spent at least three sabbath days in Thessalonica teaching the Word of God. A number of people were saved and later constituted the nucleus of the assembly in Thessalonica and in each of the five chapters of Thessalonians he touched on the great subject of the Lord’s return. I have read and heard it said that the subject of prophecy makes for imbalance in a believer’s thinking. It can lead to fanaticism, it is said. Not so, if taught and studied in proper balance with the rest of the inspired Word!
Do the critics of teaching the prophetic Word realize that Paul included reference to the Lord’s return in each of the five chapters of his First Epistle to the Thessalonians? Taking a quick look at the whole of the epistle, one cannot help noting that Paul dealt with the Lord’s return and Christian service in 1 Thessalonians 1:9,10; the Lord’s return and soul-winning in 2:19, 20; the Lord’s return and spiritual graces in 3:12,13; the Lord’s return and sorrowing saints in 4:13-18; the Lord’s Return and sanctification in 5:23. And he had much to teach this young church concerning the future in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians.
Given its rightful place in study and ministry, the prophetic Scriptures can only bless, sanctify and fortify the minds of believers, young and old, as they study and look out upon the world scene today. Paul was not afraid that his letters would create fanaticism or extremism among his converts. Quite evidently, in his sanctified judgment he believed that such study would add to their spiritual completeness.
In each of Paul’s writings it is evident that there was purpose in his communication of truth. Whatever were the reasons for addressing the Thessalonian believers, it seems quite evident that Paul desired to address the doctrine of the rapture of the Church.
(1 Thess. 4:13a)
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren …” This is a simple and yet wonderful promise of instruction. Seven times this or similar reference is made in the New Testament (Rom. 1:13; 11:25; 1 Cor. 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 4:13 and 2 Pet. 3:8). Seven is the number of completion; this is the promise of the Holy Spirit’s complete instruction. What we need to know is found in the pages of the Word. There is no provision for extra-Biblical revelation from God. Therefore, what God has to teach us concerning the future, and in this case, the rapture, is to be found within the covers of the Book.
(1 Thess. 4:13b)
“…concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” The instruction has to do with the Christian dead (the figure of sleep is used in the New Testament of the death of Christians only). Evidently the Thessalonian believers had suffered the loss of loved ones in Christ. Their sorrow was so great and so evident that as one looked upon them in the hour of loss, it was difficult to distinguish them from the world and the manner in which it faced its losses. The child of God can smile through the tears. He can turn the occasion of grief into an opportunity to demonstrate the sufficiency and adequacy of Jesus Christ.
The problem at Thessalonica was, at least in part, one of facing the loss of loved ones triumphantly in Christ. Paul wrote to instruct them concerning the future of the Christian dead in view of the coming of the Lord. Thus even before the problem is set before us in this great chapter, there is promise of instruction.
The Rapture Announced
(1 Thess. 4:14)
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” “If” in this passage has the sense of since. The idea is: “Since we believe that Jesus died.” The two elements of the gospel message are to be found here (1 Cor. 15:3,4).The substitutionary and voluntary death of Christ, and the bodily resurrection from the dead — apart from these great truths there is no gospel for the world to believe.
Faith in the gospel of Christ equals hope. This spiritual equation has been proven in the experience of every believer. Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (John 5:24; Eph. 2:8, 9; Tit. 3:5).
Again the word “sleep” is used of the death of the believer, and associated with the word in this passage in the phrase “in Jesus.” Literally it reads: “even so them also which sleep through Jesus…” Death has been transformed into sleep by or through Jesus Christ for the Christian. It has lost its terror for the believer (Hebrews 2:10-15).
The coming of the Lord is announced in verse 14 in the words “will God bring with him.” The Thessalonians seemed to need assurance concerning the future of those who were the departed Christian dead. In reply the coming of the Lord is underscored, and it is said that all who have died in Christ will accompany Him as He returns.
The Rapture Amplified
(1 Thess. 4:15-18)
The truth of His return referred to in verse 14 is amplified, and the mechanics of the rapture are referred to in verses 15-17.
“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (verse 15).
Paul speaks with divine authority. This is not Paul’s philosophy of the future. It is not a statement of the apostle’s ideas on immortality. Paul does not add one more opinion to the opinions of his and our day. Nothing can meet the need of human hearts like the Word of God!
There will be a generation of believers alive when Jesus Christ returns for His church: “that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord…” (v. 15). To be alive is of course to be living in the body. To remain (Greek, perileipomenoi) is to be left behind, or to be left over. It refers to those who have escaped death.
Some have died and have gone on to be with the Lord, the living being left behind. All living are left over in the sense that death has not touched them.
And when Jesus Christ returns, the living generation of Christians will not go in advance of, or precede (the word prevent is archaic), the dead in Christ, in full possession of their glorified bodies, into the presence of the Lord. All of His Church will be translated to glory at one time.
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (v. 16).
The shout (Greek, keleusmati) is a cry of command, a military shout, a summons. Compare with the voice of our Lord in John 5:28; 11:43. This is the voice of God that spoke the universe into being (Psa. 33); it is the voice that raises the dead, transforms the living, and pronounces judgment.
The voice is archangelic in character. The trumpet was an instrument used in the Old Testament (Num. 10:1-10), and represented authority, divine authority. All of this serves to point up the fact that our Lord speaks with the authority of God. What are the results of His command? “… the dead shall rise first.”
In the mechanics of the rapture, the Christian dead are raised first. This has to do with all the Christian dead, with all who are “in Christ.” This is an expression which is Pauline in character and points us to the peculiar and wonderful relationship between the believer and the Lord Jesus. Paul does not teach that this is a rapture of the spiritually victorious. God does not teach a rapture which is based upon spiritual attainment; participation in this glorious event is based on His atonement (Rom. 8:28-30).
“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” (v. 17).
With the dead in Christ raised and glorified, the living believers are caught up together with them in an atom of time to meet the Lord in the air. The word “rapture” comes from the Latin rapere, to snatch away violently. Its Greek counterpart is harpadzo, meaning to seize by force. It is possible that the devil would endeavor to prevent this event from taking place. The Lord Jesus will demonstrate His power and take the Church away by force.
The whole of God’s redeemed family will be reunited in Heaven. This is not to say that Heaven is a glorified earth existence, nor is it to say that earthly relationships continue as such. The resurrection body evidently retains its personal identity, and that believers will recognize each other seems to be a certainty.
At the shout of the Lord, masses (the definite article does not appear with “clouds”) of believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. A pastor’s wife was selected to be one of a committee of welcome to Princess Alice from England. The women were positively thrilled at the prospect of meeting a real, live princess. One said, “Just think I met a real princess face to face.”
To meet the Lord (Greek, apantesin) is to meet Him face to face. It is a word used of a newly arrived dignitary, a welcome extended to a great person. Every Christian will meet the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. Human tongue or pen is rendered bankrupt as one tries to describe what that moment will mean. The experiences of life are all passed, the body of humiliation will have been exchanged for a body like unto His body of glory (1 John 3:2), and robed in His likeness, every believer will meet Him face to face.
The meeting will be in the air (Greek, aer) and points us to the fact that our Lord descends into our own atmosphere. The same word is used in Epl. 2:2; Acts 22,23). One can hardly measure Satan’s power, and his hatred for the church of God, the bride of Christ. However, his power poses no threat to the body of Christ, because the heavenly Bridegroom will come for His own, and will joyfully escort her safely home on the arm of divine omnipotence.
“Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (verse 18) is the parting admonition of Paul. That glad day can become the strength, motivation and hope of every believer.