The Bible is very clear that the Lord Jesus Christ will come again. Concerning His Second Coming we find that the following events are prophesied in scripture:
- The rapture of the church ‘to meet the Lord in the air’. 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11.
- The Great Tribulation. Matthew 24.15-29, Revelation 6-19. Also many OT passages including Isaiah 24, Jeremiah 30, Daniel 7, 9.27, 12 Joel 2-3, Zechariah 12-14. Passages in Daniel and Revelation indicate that this is a 7 year period, divided into two halves.
- The coming of the Lord to the earth ‘with the saints’. Zechariah 14, Jude 14-15, Revelation 19.11-21. The revealing of Jesus Christ.
- The Millennial (1000 year) Reign of Christ / Messianic kingdom. Revelation 20 (Isaiah 2.1-4, 11-12, Zechariah 14).
- The eternal state. Revelation 21-2.
The word ‘rapture’ is taken from the Latin form of the Greek word ‘harpazo’ which Paul uses for the believing church being ‘caught up’ to meet the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17: ‘For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.’ This meeting ‘in the air’ takes place first before the Lord comes to the earth ‘with the saints’ to set up His Millennial Kingdom.
Concerning the timing of the rapture, there is disagreement amongst Christians over whether it happens before the tribulation (pre-tribulation), or after it (post tribulation) or in the middle of it (mid-tribulation).’ Whichever view we take there are two stages in the coming of the Lord: firstly the rapture, or the meeting ‘in the air’ and secondly the coming of the Lord to the earth (with the saints). If we take the pre-tribulation view, the rapture is separated from the coming of the Lord to the earth by 7 years (or more), if we take the post tribulation view the two aspects of His coming are simultaneous (i.e. the church is taken up and then comes straight back again with the Lord). With the mid-tribulation view the two parts of His coming are separated by 3½ years (or less according to the pre-wrath view which puts the rapture at around ¾ of the way through the tribulation).
It does make a difference to how we anticipate the Second Coming which of these views we take. If we take the pre-tribulation view we should be looking for the Lord to come at any time and be ready for His imminent return. If we take the post tribulation view, then He cannot come for the church until certain events prophesied in Matthew 24.15-31 and Revelation 6-19 have taken place. These events include the coming of the antichrist, or beast, as a world leader, the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments of Revelation 6, 8-9 and 16, the persecutions and the 666 Mark of the Beast system (Revelation 13), and Armageddon (Revelation 16.16). During this time the earth will experience famines, wars, pestilence and mass death with up to one half of the human race dying (Revelation 6.1-8, 8-9). In this case we should be preparing for the coming of the antichrist and the associated time of tribulation.
The main scripture which is used to argue for the post tribulation rapture is Matthew 24.29-31: ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.’ If Jesus is describing the rapture in verse 31 (i.e. the same event as 1 Thessalonians 4) then He is stating specifically that it will happen ‘after the tribulation of those days.’
In this case it cannot be imminent. The events described in Revelation for the tribulation period must take place first. Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 also mean that we must see the sun darkened and the moon not giving its light before the rapture of the church. This supernatural darkness is also prophesied in Old Testament passages describing the coming ‘Day of the Lord’ (Isaiah 13.9-10, Joel 3.14-16, Zephaniah 1.14-15).
This does raise a problem in our interpretation of Jesus’ words later in Matthew 24, when He told us to be ready for this event to happen, because its timing is unexpected: ‘Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ Matthew 24.42-44 (see also Matthew 24.36, 25.13). He told us in Matthew 24.36-44 and Luke 17.25-30 that when this event takes place, people will be carrying on their normal business, eating and drinking, buying and selling, building and planting, marrying and giving in marriage when ‘one will be taken and one will be left.’ The point of the ‘thief in the night’ image, which is also used in 1 Thessalonians 5.2, is that a thief comes unexpectedly, without prior warning.
At the end of the tribulation period, especially when the supernatural darkness comes on the earth, life will not be going on as normal. If you manage to survive to this point and see all these things happening, especially the supernatural darkness, I don’t think that you would be surprised if the next thing that happens is that the Lord Jesus appears! Revelation 6.12-15 tells us that when the sign of the darkness appears, even the unbelievers will say ‘to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of His wrath has come and who is able to stand?’
This leaves us with the question, ‘Does Jesus contradict Himself in Matthew 24?’ One explanation of this is that the chapter contains the answer to two different questions put to Him by the disciples ‘What will be the sign of your coming (question 1) and of the end of the age (question 2)?’ Matthew 24.3. He gives the sign of the end of the age first, describing the great tribulation and His second coming to the earth in verses 15-31. At the end of the tribulation he will gather the elect (the saved survivors of the tribulation) for the judgment described in Matthew 25.31-45. He will also gather the ‘unelect’ (the goats of Matthew 25) who will be cast off the earth into hell (Matthew 25.41). The sheep (saved survivors of the tribulation) will enter into the kingdom and repopulate the earth during the Millennial kingdom.
He then changes the subject to describe the sign of your coming (the rapture) from verse 36 onwards: ‘But of that day no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only’. The word used for ‘but’, in Greek ‘peri de’, is often used in scripture to indicate a change in subject. The following verses answer the first part of the disciples’ question, ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ He tells them that He will come unexpectedly, as a thief, at a time when life is going on as normal and ‘one shall be taken and the other left.’ In the light of this we should be ready for His coming at any time.
This means that the event of Matthew 24.31: ‘And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’, is a separate event from the rapture of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4-5. Matthew 24.31 does happen after the tribulation, whereas 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 happens before it.
Not subject to wrath.
Another indication of the pre-tribulation rapture is the issue of being saved from wrath. In 1 Thessalonians 1.10 Paul speaks to the church about ‘how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.’ Later in his epistle he writes: ‘For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.’
The Lord Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin on the cross. Those who accept him are no longer under the wrath of God but saved by His grace (Ephesians 2). The tribulation period is the outpouring of God’s wrath on sinful humanity (Revelation 6.17, 14.10 and 19, 15.1 and 7 and 16.1). Therefore God removes the redeemed church before His wrath is poured out in the great tribulation.
The Lord compares the days of His coming to the days of Noah and of Lot (Luke 17.26-37). In the account of the Flood and the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 6-9, 19) we find that the Lord removed Noah and his family and Lot and his family to a place of safety before judgement fell. So the Lord will remove those He has justified by His grace to a place of safety before the judgement of the tribulation falls. This is why the Lord says to the faithful church: ‘Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.’ Revelation 3.10.
The implication of end time prophecy is that by the time of the end, most of the professing church will be unfaithful and neglecting to look for the coming of the Lord. This is the case today and is the reason why the Lord says: ‘But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ Luke 21.34-37. We are counted worthy by our repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour.
Following the rapture those taken will ‘always be with the Lord’, in other words wherever He is, they will be. According to the pre-tribulation teaching, they will be taken to heaven where they will receive a new immortal and imperishable body (1 Corinthians 15.50-58). They will pass before the judgment seat of Christ for rewards of ‘deeds done in the body’ (2 Corinthians 5.10). They will attend the glorious ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19.6-9) and then return with Christ in glorified bodies at His second coming to earth (Revelation 19.11-16).
In Revelation 19.14 we read of ‘the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses.’ This refers to the glorified saints and the angelic armies who accompany the Lord Jesus at His return to earth. Note verse 8 which connects this verse to the saints gathered at the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’: ‘And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.’ 1 Thessalonians 4.17 tells us that following the rapture, we will ‘always be with the Lord.’ Therefore we must remain with the Lord in glorified bodies during His Millennial reign on earth, after His second coming.
What about the tribulation saints?
One of the objections to the pre tribulation rapture is the question, ‘If the church has been taken out of the earth before the great tribulation, who will the antichrist have left to persecute?’ Both Daniel and Revelation show that there will be ‘saints’ who will be persecuted by the beast during the great tribulation (Daniel 7, Revelation 6.9-11, 7, 13, 20.4-6).
On this subject it is significant that the word ‘church’ is used several times in Revelation 1-3, describing the ‘things that are’ (Revelation 1.19) – i.e. the present experience of the church from the point of view of John as the writer of the book. In Revelation 4.1 John is caught up to heaven (an experience which parallels the rapture of the church) and is shown ‘the things which must take place after this’. The phrase ‘after this’ is used in Revelation 1.9, 4.1 and ‘after these things’ is used in Revelation 7.1. In all cases it appears to be describing events after the rapture of the church.
Revelation 7 tells us that there will be ‘saints’ (saved believers in the Lord Jesus) during the tribulation, but they are never referred to as the church. If we take the verses which refer to the tribulation saints together, there appears to be a difference between them and the church age saints of the present time.
Revelation 6.9-11 tells us that those slain for their faith during the tribulation are held ‘under the altar’ awaiting the Lord to ‘judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth.’ The Lord tells them to ‘rest a little while’ until the number of their fellow servants will be killed as they are. This ‘little while’ is the short period until the end of the tribulation and the return of Christ to the earth.
Revelation 7 tells us first about the 144,000 who are sealed by the Lord at the very beginning of the tribulation, before the judgements come on the earth (Revelation 7.1-3). They are made up of the tribes of Israel and are Jews, supernaturally converted to the Lord Jesus as Paul was and then sealed (protected) by the Lord. The chapter goes on to describe a great multitude who are made up of all nations who are specifically said to have ‘come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ (Revelation 7.14). Both of these groups, Jews and Gentiles, appear to find salvation in the tribulation period, not before it. It is not stated specifically that the 144,000 saved Jews bring the great multitude of Gentiles to Christ, but that is the implication of the text.
It could also be that the rapture itself is a trigger to cause many to turn to Christ. It will be a worldwide event, which will have a huge impact on all nations. It appears that the global communications system will still be working at least at the beginning of the tribulation period, so the explanation for what has happened could be available to people all over the world.
Paul implies a connection between the Man of Sin (beast or antichrist) arising to power, and the rapture of the church when he writes: ‘He who restrains is taken out of the way’ (2 Thessalonians 2.7). He goes on to tell us: ‘The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan with all power, signs and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion that they should believe the lie, that they all might be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.’ 2 Thessalonians 2.9-12. Revelation 13.6 says of the beast, he ‘opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven.’ Perhaps a part of the lie and the strong delusion he brings is an alternative explanation of what happened at the rapture, denying the Lord Jesus as the one who has taken the believers and blaspheming ‘those who dwell in heaven.’ This could mean that he condemns those taken in the rapture as evil ones removed to make way for his new age programme.
Revelation 13.7-9 tells us: ‘It was granted to him (the beast / antichrist) to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. If anyone has an ear, let him hear. He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.’ This strong persecution begins at the mid point of the tribulation (i.e. after 3 ½ years). During it many / most of those who come to believe in Jesus are killed. Incidentally this creates a problem for the mid tribulation rapture view, because if the rapture does happen at this point, there really would be no ‘saints’ for the antichrist to persecute
Revelation 20.4 tells us that those who have died for their faith during the tribulation period will be resurrected after the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. ‘And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.’ Revelation 20.4
If we put all this together, there is a difference between those who are saved at the present time and the tribulation saints. Those saved throughout the church age will be gathered together at the rapture of the church before the tribulation begins. They will return with Christ at his second coming to the earth. The tribulation saints will be saved after the tribulation has begun. They will not be believers at the time of the rapture, so they will miss out on this. Those who are killed during the tribulation are held ‘under the altar’ after their death, awaiting resurrection which will take place after the return of Christ to the earth. Because they have believed in the Lord Jesus during the tribulation, they will have the right to reign with Him in His Millennial reign described in Revelation 20, being resurrected after His return to the earth.
Daniel 12 also describes how the Old Testament saints will be resurrected and take part in the reign of Messiah. This raises another interesting question on this subject, concerning the place of Israel in end time prophecy and the interval between the first and second coming of the Messiah implicit in Daniel 9.24-7 (the 70 weeks of years prophecy) and a number of other passages in the Hebrew Prophets, Hosea in particular. The church age fits into this interval and explains the time gap between the 69 week and the 70 week of Daniel’s prophecy. It also points to a pre-tribulation rapture of the church as I will explain in our next edition.
Whatever the future holds for any of us, our Lord Jesus has said, ‘Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble’ (Matthew 6: 34).
If post tribulation view is correct we should be looking for the antichrist to come and preparing for life and death in the great tribulation. The pre-tribulation view does not deny the likelihood of persecution for the church in the last days (see following article). However it does give us the hope of the glorious event of the Lord Jesus coming for his church. It encourages us to look ‘for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, 'who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.’ Titus 2.11-14. (See also Philippians 3.20-21, 4.5, 1 Timothy 6:14, James 5:8). This is an encouragement to prepare ourselves by purifying ourselves in expectation of Jesus coming at any time (1 John 3.2): ‘Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.’ 1 John 3.2-3.
Jesus said, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:20). As we see signs of His soon coming we should ‘look up and lift up our heads because our redemption draws near.’ Luke 21.28.
Maranatha – may our Lord come soon!