What Every Christian
Should Know About The Rapture
DT. Gerald L. Stover of Lansdale, PA, is a full-time Bible teacher in fellowship at North-Ridge Bible Chapel at Sellersville, PA.
Tom Seton and his wife Miriam had been Christians for less than one year, and yet, theirs was an unusual desire to know the Word of God. Jim and Becky Hatten had invited them to a special meeting where they heard the gospel, and they were saved. Shortly thereafter Tom and Miriam joined in a Bible study at the Seton’s once a week. As a guide they used the textbook of a fine Bible correspondence course distributed by a well-known Bible Institute.
Young Christians sometimes have their problems, and the Setons were no exception. And what a problem they had! To make it even worse, it was in large measure created by an evening pastoral call from the minister of the church which the Setons continued to attend after their decision for Christ.
Joyfully they shared with their pastor the fact that they were studying the Word, and showed him their small guidebook. Thumbing through the booklet for a few minutes, the pastor tossed it on the coffee table, and said, “I can’t help but notice that several of these lessons have to do with prophecy. I have always felt that while prophecy may be all right for older Christians, I somehow feel that such study can prove to be problematic for young believers. I have come to the conclusion that it can produce fanatacism, extremism of one kind or another. I would suggest that you wait a bit before going further with these studies. I am sure that you would not want anything to interfere with your growth as Christians. Think it over, both of you—please.”
And this marked the beginning of the Seton’s problem.
For days the Setons wrestled with the words of their pastor. The pastor was obviously concerned for them, and after all he was their pastor; his words were not to be taken lightly, they thought. But—something was wrong about all this, and they decided to talk it over with the Hattens. And they were glad they did!
Jim, who really knew the Word of God, turned the Setons to Acts 17:1-9, and from this passage they learned that Paul and his missionary party came to Thessalonica, and ministered there for three sabbath days or about two weeks. A number of people were converted to Jesus Christ, and these became the nucleus of the local assembly at Thessalonica.
The amazing thing was this—when Paul wrote this young church two letters he had a great deal to say about prophecy. Five times Paul related the Lord’s return to other truths. The Setons were to learn that in our English Bibles, each of the five chapters closes with a reference to that wonderful event. Once Jim knew what the problem was, he set himself to the task of preparing a little outline of First Thessalonians, and in the course of his preparation, he resolved to demonstrate the importance of the Lord’s return to the content of the epistle before them. It was a simple little outline and it was structured something like this: (1) The Lord’s return and Christian service (1 Thess. 1:9,10); (2) The Lord’s return and soul-winning (1 Thess. 2:19,20); (3) The Lord’s return and spiritual graces (1 Thess. 3:12,13); (4) The Lord’s return and sorrowing saints (1 Thess. 4:13-18); (5) The Lord’s return and sanctification (1 Thess. 5:23).
Then as they read on into Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, they were delighted to read: “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” (2:5). In the epistles Paul had discussed such truths as the rapture, the rewards of believers, the resurrection of the dead, the glorification of the body, the man of sin or Antichrist, and the Day of the Lord. All this was prophecy, and written to young Christians! This was absolutely amazing to them as young believers.
The fallacy of the argument that disturbed the Setons began to dawn. They saw that God taught young believers the things of the future, and this with the purpose of adding to their spiritual stature. Paul was not fearful of creating fanaticism or extremism among the converts; all this was but part of the whole counsel of God. What a relief, and with due appreciation for the concern of their pastor, they nevertheless continued in the study of those things that made for spiritual strength and hope.
In their study of 1 Thessalonians 4, for example, it was pointed out to them that in 4:13a God makes a promise. “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 references are made in the New Testament (Romans 1:13; 11:25; 1 Cor. 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 4:13 and 2 Peter 3:8). Seven is the number of completion in the Bible, and this is the promise of the Holy Spirit to give complete instruction. There is no extra-Biblical revelation of truth to man.
It would seem that the Thessalonians were facing a problem. The problem and its instruction had 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 faces its losses. The child of God can smile through tears. He can turn the occassion 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
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him” (verse 14). The “if” in this passage has the sense of since. The idea is: “Since we believe that Jesus died…” The two great elements of the gospel message are to be found here (1 Cor. 15:3,4). The voluntary and substitutionary death of Christ, and His 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; Titus 3:5).
Again the word “sleep” is used of the death of the believer, and associated with the word in this passage is 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 when He returns.
The Rapture Amplified
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 …” (verse 15). To be alive is of course to be living in the body. To remain (Greek, perileipomenoi) is to be left behind, or 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 and 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” (verse 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 Deity, and it is impregnated with the omnipotence of God. This is the voice that spoke the universe into being (Psalm 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 (Numbers 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 in Christ shall rise first.”
In the mechanics of rapture, the Christian dead are raised first. This has to do with all the Christian dead, such being described as being “in Christ.” This is a Pauline expression 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 company of Christians. God does not teach that the rapture of believers is dependent upon spiritual attainment; participation in this glorious event is based on His atonement (Romans 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” (verse 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, meaning 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 Christ will demonstrate His power and take the Church away by force, and this under His loving protection.
The whole of God’s redeemed family will be reunited in Heaven. This is not 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 the “clouds”) of believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. This is described as meeting the Lord face to face (Greek, apantesin). 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 language is rendered bankrupt as one tries to describe what that moment will mean. The experiences of life are all passed, the body 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 this points us to the fact that our Lord descends into our own atmosphere. The same word is used in Ephesians 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 bride of our Lord because the heavenly Bridegroom will come for His own, and 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 Christian. This experience should be our daily expectation.