Quick Study on the Rapture

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This week at my Life Group, we looked at the clearest teaching in the Bible regarding the rapture, and I’ve become even more convicted about one particular position. This post is intended to guide you through the same study we considered this week and to give an inside track on what I’m currently thinking about the matter.

What is the Rapture?

Before I talk about anything else, I should probably define what I mean by the rapture and why I want to talk about it now.

The Rapture refers to the event described in the Bible of Christ returning to earth and his followers being “caught up” to meet him in the air.

The major biblical controversy is twofold:

  1. Do the biblical statements on the rapture event indicate a literal and physical departure from the surface of the earth?
  2. When does the rapture event happen in relation to the rest of prophesied end-time events?

In the past hundred years or so, the most vocal portion of end-times theorists have proposed what is known as the doctrine of Pre-Tribulational Rapture. This position holds that the biblical depictions of the rapture condense two disparate events: the “catching up” of believers is one event, and the establishment of Christ’s kingdom is a second. The Pre-Trib perspective holds that in between these two events will be a time of “Tribulation” which will involve great spiritual persecution.

There are many other positions as well, but rather than examine all the possibilities, we will simply consider a few relevant biblical texts that cover the rapture event and see what the Bible says for itself. However, I’ll say one more word of introduction. Because the “rapture” has been identified differently from different scholars, I will limit the selection of verses here to those which directly address the moment when Jesus “catches up” his believers from the earth.

The Clear Teaching

John 14:3

  • Jesus promises to come back to get us and take us to be with him.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-17

  • [When Jesus returns] God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
  • Jesus comes down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet call of God.
  • The dead in Christ are raised to life.
  • They and the living believers will be caught up into the air to meet Jesus in the air.
  • Believers will be with the Lord from that moment on, forever.

1 Corinthians 15:20-28

  • Resurrection comes through Jesus to all men.
  • Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection; when he comes back, his followers will then be resurrected as well.
  • Then, the end will come, but not until Jesus has destroyed all competing authority, including the final destruction of death.

1 Corinthians 15:50-55

  • Some believers will be alive when Jesus returns.
  • Our physical bodies cannot enter heaven without being transformed.
  • Believers will be transformed and given imperishable bodies.
  • This transformation all happens “at the last trumpet.”

Matthew 24

  • Jesus is answering questions about “the sign of his coming” and of the “end of the age.”
  • He predicts false Christs, wars, famines, and earthquakes. They are the beginning of birth pains.
  • He predicts his followers will be “handed over” to be persecuted.
  • Those who stand firm to the end will be saved.
  • He predicts great distress, “unequaled from the beginning of the world until now–and never to be equaled again.”
  • He predicts those days will be shortened for the sake of the elect.
  • He predicts that the elect will also be protected from deception.
  • He predicts that his coming will be loud and obvious everywhere.
  • He predicts the darkening of the sun and moon.
  • He predicts his visible return in glory, a trumpet call, and the gathering of his elect.
  • He predicts that the gathering will be preceded by signs, but that the timing is unknown even to him.
  • His coming will be a surprise, and some will “be taken” while others will be left.
  • Additionally, Jesus uses temporal language to indicate a sequence of events: general distress, persecution, great distress, and cosmic events, ending with his arrival, the trumpet call and the gathering of his elect.

Revelation 19:11-20:6

  • Jesus comes from heaven with army in tow.
  • The beast and kings of the earth assemble and prepare for battle, but their loss is immediate.
  • The beast, his prophet, and Satan himself are imprisoned in the Abyss.
  • The “first resurrection” takes place raising up faithful followers of Christ to reign with him for 1000 years.
  • The rest of the dead will be resurrected (for judgment) after the 1000 years are ended.

Less Clear Passages

Revelation 4:1

Some have postulated that this verse is a metaphorical indication of a “secret” rapture of the church preceding the Tribulation. John hears a voice “like a trumpet” and then hears “Come up here.” He is caught up into a vision of the heavenly throne room, and from that moment until the chapter 22, the church is “conspicuously” absent from the events on the earth. The conclusion is that when John is caught up to heaven, it is symbolic of the church being caught up in the rapture. Support for this view comes mainly from the end of Matthew 24 when Jesus talked about the surprising nature of his return. However, there is no way to reconcile that with the fact that in Matthew 24, the surprising return comes after a great deal of distress and in Revelation 4:1, the distress has not happened yet. Further complicating this position is John’s own statement that when the “Come up” call is heard, he immediately is “in the spirit.” John has an ecstatic visionary experience that in no way indicates he was physically transported anywhere.

Revelation 11:12

The two witnesses hear a loud voice and are caught up physically into heaven. They could be a symbolic representation of the rapture of the church. However, no one takes the two witnesses to be symbolic of the church in general, so it seems unlikely to treat their ascension as symbolic of the rapture.

Revelation 12:5

When the woman gives birth to a male child, we are told that the child is “snatched up to God” for his protection. Perhaps this is a symbolic rapture of the church away from the distress of the Tribulation. Supporting this is the fact that three and a half years of distress are predicted after this child is snatched away. The association of the church with the male child in this case is quite attractive, except for two problems. First, it would be quite unlikely for God to use the metaphor of a “male child” to refer to the church. Though “son” is used in the Old Testament to refer to the nation of Israel, the New Testament reserves the concept of a single male offspring for Jesus himself. In fact, just a few chapters after this, the church will be referred to as a bride. Secondly, Revelation 12:17 indicates that the there are “those who obey God’s commands and hold to the testimony of Jesus” still living on the earth as a target for Satanic persecution. Therefore, the snatching away of the male child cannot refer to the rapture of the church.

Conclusion

Pulling together a few things:

  • The account in Matthew 24 seems to line up pretty clearly with the account in Revelation 6-7 of seals 1-4 and 6 that earthly, cosmic, and spiritual distress come while believers are on earth and before the victorious return of Christ.
  • The account of 1 Thessalonians 4 seems to line up clearly with both Matthew 24 and Revelation 19-20 that the return of Christ will be boisterous, undeniable, victorious, and final. (Note also that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is possibly a reference to the same ancient practice that manifested itself at Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. When the victorious king comes to the city, the faithful rush out of the city to meet him on the way, and then remain with him to escort him back into the city. That understanding of 1 Thessalonians would put it in perfect harmony with both Matthew 24 and Revelation 19-20.)
  • Revelation 20:5 claims that the first resurrection occurs after Jesus defeats the kings of the earth and immediately before he establishes his millennial reign. However, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, the core rapture passage, is clearly a resurrection event. Therefore, the only way for Revelation 20:5 to be the “first resurrection” is if the two passages are speaking of the same event.
  • The text of 1 Corinthians 15 seems to coincide well with Revelation 19-20 that Jesus will return, claim his followers, and then take some time (1000 years?) to finally eradicate all evil before handing the kingdom finally over to his Father.

Therefore, drawing from the different passages that most directly describe the gathering of believers from the earth, one picture has become abundantly clear to me.

  • First, there will be distress on the earth greater than any before or after including political unrest, natural disasters, demonic activity, and the outpouring of God’s wrath.
  • Secondly, Christ begins to return, and the powers of the earth, motivated by Satan himself, will assemble in opposition to him, but his victory will be swift, accomplished by his angelic army in advance of his arrival.
  • When he arrives, his victory will be announced with trumpets, those dead in Christ will rise, those alive in Christ will be caught up to meet him in the air and escort him back to Earth as the rightful King where he will reign for 1000 years before one final battle.

Of course, there is room in this understanding for a secret rapture of the living saints to happen at any point in time God wishes. God raptured Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus himself, and he can do it again if he so chooses. Matthew 24:40 could be speaking of this kind of event. However, such an event would cause certain living Christians to precede those who have fallen asleep in Christ apparently contradicting Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 4:15. As such, a secret rapture without a resurrection seems unlikely. Additionally, any resurrection happening before the imprisonment of Satan in Revelation 20:1-3 would also seem to contradict its identification as “the first resurrection.”

Based on all this, I am confident in saying that the Bible clearly teaches a rapture of the church which coincides with the victorious return of Christ and the establishment of his millennial kingdom, though a secret rapture of living saints at any point in time is still within God’s prerogative should he choose.


The image used on this post was obtained from a blog post at lavrai.com. I am in no way endorsing that blog or its contents, although it seems to take the same perspective as that taken here.

4 comments

  1. Jenny F

    I have also just recently done a study on the rapture in preparation for a discipleship group I take at church. The conclusions I came to were similar to Jeff’s and fly in the face of the traditional rapture teaching that I was brought up on. To me the scriptures say that the rapture occurs when Christ returns and is part of the gathering of the elect from the four corners of the earth to meet Christ in the air, together with the saints from heaven. And it is to return, or to welcome him to earth to set up his visible kingdom here. I don’t see anywhere earthly saints being whisked away to heaven to avoid a tribulation period.

  2. Friend of God

    The last couple of years I have been studying Revelation, the end times, and the rapture. I have read many books (Including the bible) on the subject. The conclusion I came to on the rapture was not very similar to Jeff’s. To me the scriptures say that the rapture occurs before the Tribulation.
    Here are a few points to show that in my opinion that the rapture is before the Tribulation:
    Matthew 25:13 Keep watch because you don’t know the day or hour of my return
    Matthew 24:36 No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
    Matthew 24:42 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
    These Bible verses have to mean that the Rapture is before the Tribulation because we already know that the Lord returns to Earth right after the Great Tribulation. Since we know that he is returning after the Great Tribulation it is not a surprise because we will “know the time”. The rapture before Tribulation will be a surprise to many.

    Also, what is one thing that would hurt the world economy and change the way of life in such a way that people would turn to the anti-christ who promises to help and says he has the answer to all the problems? The answer is the rapture. With that many people leaving the Earth at the same time there would definitely be a lot of disasters that would affect everyone’s way of life who were “Left Behind”.

    The tribulation period is compared to the times of Noah and Lot by Jesus in Luke 17:28. The two circumstances that the Noah and Lot situations have in common are the removal of the righteous and the judgment of the unbelievers. Just as God rescued the righteous before past judgments he will rescue us before the tribulation.

    At the end of the 7 year tribulation Christ will come down to Earth to defeat the Anti-Christ. In a post-tribulation rapture that means we would rise in the air to meet the Lord, then do a 180-degree U-turn and come back down to earth. Revelation 1:7 states that Christ will appear out of the clouds and come down to earth. Zechariah 14:4 says that His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives. If He’s already headed our way, why would we need to be caught up to meet Him?

    If the rapture were after Tribulation and Christ were to come back at that time and rapture all the saints and slay all the ungodly, who would be left to populate the earth during the millennium? Since nobody would be left to populate then the Church must be raptured before the tribulation, a vast number of souls are saved during this seven-year time frame, and those who make it through the tribulation go into the millennium and populate while the unsaved are cast into hell.

    Also, if the Antichrist came to power with the Church still here, I do not see how he could possibly operate. If the Church were to reside on Earth during the tribulation, I am sure she would give the Antichrist fits. In Revelation 11:3, the two witnesses alone give the Antichrist enough headaches. Millions of Christians who know their Bibles well would recognize the man of sin and pray fire down on his head. The post-trib view would have to plan on the Church just rolling over and playing dead the whole seven years.

    Of course you see by what I have laid out before you that I believe the rapture will come before Tribulation. These are just a few of the many points that lead me to believe that there will be a pre-trib rapture. But remember, when you believe (pre-trib, post trib, or no trib at all) the rapture takes place is not as important as knowing Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. Whether you believe in the rapture or not will not get you to heaven but Knowing Jesus as your Savior will.

  3. Jeff Post author

    @Friend of God

    Thanks for the well thought out comment here. You have adopted a position that is widely held in the Christian community, and I don’t think it’s profitable for me to attempt to debate you through this forum. That wasn’t the point of the original post anyway.

    Nevertheless, you said a few things in your comment that concern me somewhat, and I will briefly mention one concern and then use a couple of your statements to clarify a few of my own points on the matter.

    Before I do that, however, I want to thank you again for making me think. I find great joy in thinking deeply about what the Bible actually teaches vs. what I have been taught. That’s a nice segue into what I have to say next.

    My biggest concern is this quotation from you:

    I have read many books (Including the bible) on the subject.

    From this sentence, it seems that the Bible is not your primary source of information for teaching on the end times. It may be an important source for you, but you haven’t indicated its supremacy over other books. I caution you to prioritize your sources carefully.

    To illustrate, let me address this next comment of yours:

    …These Bible verses have to mean that the Rapture is before the Tribulation because we already know that the Lord returns to Earth right after the Great Tribulation. Since we know that he is returning after the Great Tribulation it is not a surprise because we will “know the time”. The rapture before Tribulation will be a surprise to many.

    Many share your conviction that because the rapture must be a surprise, it must come before the Tribulation because otherwise, we’d be able to mark the beginning of the Tribulation and therefore have a better idea of when the rapture event will take place. However, a careful reading of the actual words of Jesus reveals something else.

    Jesus never said his return would be a complete surprise but that his return was “unknown” and therefore could not be expected (Matthew 24:42-44).

    Expectation is different from anticipation, however, and we are told by Jesus himself that though the day and hour were known only by the Father (Matthew 24:36), there will be signs preceding his return. He even goes so far as to use specific time language (“Immediately after…” “At that time…”) to talk about his return to gather his elect (Matthew 24:29-31). If Matthew 24 is talking about the rapture at all we must understand the unexpected character of his return to line up also with the “signs” of his coming.

    We can’t expect Jesus to return at a specific moment, but we are encouraged to recognize the signs which precede it (Matthew 24:33).

    Finally, on this point, many people who focus on the “surprise” of the ending verses of Matthew 24 tend to ignore the “immediately after the distress of those days” which immediately precedes them. If Matthew 24:42 is talking about the rapture, then so is Matthew 24:30-31).

    The Rapture-Disaster Theory

    Also, what is one thing that would hurt the world economy and change the way of life in such a way that people would turn to the anti-christ who promises to help and says he has the answer to all the problems? The answer is the rapture.

    You are right. A global rapture would hurt the world economy dramatically. However, an asteroid impact would also hurt the world economy. A global pandemic would hurt the world economy. Any of the seven seals or trumpets in Revelation would hurt the world economy. Just because this kind of “rapture-disaster” is one explanation for the rise of the beast does not make it the best explanation especially when the Bible itself never refers to the rapture as a global disaster.

    It’s a great theory, and it makes for a great story, but there is no biblical reason for that hypothesis. Both the seals and trumpets of Revelation and the tragedies of Matthew 24 are sufficient to provide an economic and political environment for “the beast” to come to world power.

    The Great U-Turn

    At the end of the 7 year tribulation Christ will come down to Earth to defeat the Anti-Christ. In a post-tribulation rapture that means we would rise in the air to meet the Lord, then do a 180-degree U-turn and come back down to earth.

    First of all, revelation never speaks of a 7 year tribulation. The time frame of 7 years comes either from connecting the travails of Revelation to Daniel’s “Seventieth Week” (Daniel 9:24-27) to the tribulation (a reasonable though not requisite connection) or assuming that somehow two of the four references to 3.5 years in Revelation should be taken sequentially.

    Regarding the U-turn, however, you are correct. A post-tribulation rapture means exactly that. However, this isn’t surprising because we have three biblical reasons to believe that a U-turn is actually what will happen.

    First, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the Greek word translated “meet him” is the same word used to refer to what happened when a victorious king would return home from battle. The people of the city would rush out to “meet him” only to turn around and escort him into the city.

    Secondly, this same image happens in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son when the father, overjoyed at the sight of his son, runs down the road to “meet him” on the way only to turn around and escort him home.

    Finally, this same event is foreshadowed in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when the people from the city come out to meet him only to turn around and escort him with songs and praise back into the city.

    It’s entirely possible that the rapture refers to a moment of intense joy when Christians, seeing the return of Christ receive new bodies (1 John 3:2), and then unhindered by the pedantic bonds of gravity race up to meet him before he fully arrives so that we may be with him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17), following him wherever he goes, even if that means returning to earth. In this scenario the rapture is not the whisking away of believers but the joyous greeting of a coming king, and it fully lines up with all the clear teaching of the Bible.

    The Thousand Years

    who would be left to populate the earth during the millennium?

    The actual biblical teaching on the Thousand Years is sparse. In fact, we are not told that there will be any “populating” going on. We are actually given terribly few details about that time. Immediately upon the return of Christ, the Beast and his prophet will be cast into the lake of fire, the dragon (Satan) will be locked in the Abyss, and the rest of their army is killed (Revelation 19:11-21). Whether that army includes all who have received the mark or not is unclear. Additionally, Revelation is unclear about whether any who refuse the mark and remain faithful to Jesus will survive the persecution of the Beast.

    Therefore, the population of humans present on earth at the start of the Thousand Years (if any) is an insignificant detail about which we can make no biblical conclusions. And much to our chagrin, the nature of life on earth during the Thousand Years is completely undisclosed. The only details we are offered about that time are that Satan is imprisoned, Jesus reigns as king, and those who were faithful to Jesus are raised to life to serve God as priests and to reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-6).

    Oh, and there’s one final detail we are given. At the outset of the Thousand Years, we see the event called “the first resurrection.” Therefore, we must conclude that the “rapture” event of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which speaks of the dead in Christ being raised, must not happen before this “first resurrection.”

    The (im)Potent Church

    Also, if the Antichrist came to power with the Church still here, I do not see how he could possibly operate. If the Church were to reside on Earth during the tribulation, I am sure she would give the Antichrist fits. … The post-trib view would have to plan on the Church just rolling over and playing dead the whole seven years.

    Sadly, these words are only spoken from the perspective of North American Christianity. The truth is that globally speaking, the political influence of the true church has always been nearly nonexistent. There have been times in history when the institutional church has had great influence over politics, but those individuals who make up the true church have had largely little to do with the political world. It is only in the context of American Democracy that we have seen individual, godly Christians gain political influence of any real significance. On the other hand, we have seen repeated examples even in modern times of political forces placing the church under great persecution. I would not say the church in China is just rolling over and playing dead, though it is being severely persecuted even today.

    What’s Really Important?

    when you believe (pre-trib, post trib, or no trib at all) the rapture takes place is not as important as knowing Jesus Christ as your personal Savior

    Amen!

  4. Elizabeth Johnston

    I have been studying end-times and the doctrine of the rapture. I suppose my take on things does not fit into any neat category. But I surely cannot accept the pre-trib viewpoint. The weight of scripture does not support it. Proponents of the PTR love to quote Revelation 3:10

    Because you have kept the word of My endurance, I also will keep you from the hour of trial, which will come upon all who dwell on the earth, to
    try those who dwell upon the earth.

    However, they skip over the first phrase and read only, “I will keep you from the hour of trial…”

    It seems so reminiscent of how the Jews saw only the Messianic prophecies that promised the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth while overlooking the passages of the suffering Servant.

    Jesus is returning for a holy church.

    Matthew 24:42-44 Therefore watch; for you do not know what hour your Lord comes. But know this that if the steward of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched and would not have allowed his house to be dug through. Therefore you also be ready, for in that hour you think not, the Son of Man comes.

    Matthew 25:8 – 10 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go you rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with Him to the marriage: and the door was shut

    Matthew 25:13 Therefore watch, for you do not know either the day or the hour in which the Son of Man comes.

    Mark 13:33-37 Be careful! Watch out! For you don’t know when the time will come. “It’s like a man who went on a trip. As he left home, he put his servants in charge, each with his own work, and he ordered the doorkeeper to be alert. So keep on watching, because you don’t know when the master of the house is coming-whether in the evening, at three o’clock in the morning, or at dawn. Otherwise, he may come suddenly and find you asleep. I’m telling you what I’m telling everyone: Be alert!”

    Luke 12:36 – 40 And you yourselves be like men who wait for their lord, whenever he shall return from the wedding, so that when he comes and knocks, they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the lord will find watching when he comes… And if he comes in the second watch, or comes in the third watch, and find it so, blessed are those servants. ..Therefore be ready also, for the Son of Man comes at an hour when you think not.

    Luke 12:41-46 Then Peter said unto Him, Lord, do You speak this parable to us, or to all? And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he comes shall find so doing. Truly I say to you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath. But if that servant says in his heart, my lord delays his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looks not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.

    Luke 21:34 -35And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth.

    Luke 21:36 Watch therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

    I Thessalonians 5:2-6 For you yourselves know accurately that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety! Then sudden destruction comes on them, as travail upon a woman with child. And they shall not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness, that the Day should overtake you like a thief. You are all the sons of light and the sons of the day. We are not of the night, or of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us watch and be sober.

    Titus 2:11 – 13 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

    Hebrews 9:28 So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. And He will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to bring salvation to those who eagerly wait for Him.

    Hebrews 10:25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching.

    I Peter 4:7 But the end of all things is at hand: therefore be sober, and watch unto prayer

    II Peter 3:10-14 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a rushing noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat. And the earth and the works in it will be burned up. Then, all these things being about to be dissolved, what sort ought you to be in holy behavior and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the Day of God, on account of which the heavens, being on fire, will melt away, and the elements will melt, burning with heat? But according to His promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking for these things, be diligent, spotless, and without blemish, to be found by Him in peace.

    I John 2:28 And now, little children, abide in Him; that, when He shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.

    I John 3:2-3 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as He is pure.

    I fear for the vast majority of Christians. They are utterly convinced that there will be a pre-trib rapture regardless of the level of consecration of any particular Christian. Walking in a back-slidden life style doesn’t matter to them; they believe they will all be whisked away.

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