The Rapture (the timing)

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series rapture

The Timing of the Rapture

The timing of the rapture is an issue of great debate among students of eschatology.  And, in scripture there are very difficult texts which lend fuel to that debate.  The primary distinction between the pretribulational view of this work and other views is the degree to which one agrees to literally interpret scripture.  Views contrary to the pretribulational view at worst dismiss the literal interpretation of scripture and at best weaken it.  Numerous texts, when taken literally, indicate a church which is not present during the distress of the Great Tribulation.

Beginning with Luke 21, the first observation to be made is that the possibility exists for one to not be included in the Great Tribulation.   

Luke 21:34-36 (NIV)34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

“That day,” referred to in verse 34 is the distress of the Great Tribulation in the context of Jesus’ teaching.  He states of that day that “it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”  This is an iron clad statement, using several over-kill words.  Jesus’ point is clear: if you live on earth, the Great Tribulation will come upon you and affect you.  However, Jesus does not presume in his teaching that everyone learning from his teachings will be on earth at that time.

He encourages his students in verse 36 to “pray that you may be able to escape” all that will happen in that day.  While he had just noted that there could be no escape for anyone living on the earth in that day he also inspires them to pray to somehow be able to escape this coming day.  Clearly the possibility exists for someone to escape.  And, if these events will fall upon everyone living on earth, then the only way to escape is to not be on earth when that day arrives. 

Beyond the possibility of escaping the Great Tribulation comes the theology of Paul which indicates one of the purposes of this season.

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 (NIV)9 … They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

In this text Paul praises the church for having turned to God from idols and for their ability to “wait for his Son from heaven…who rescues us from the coming wrath.”  The two parts of this phrase complement each other nicely in a literal interpretive method.  The one whom is being waited on will rescue those who are waiting from a coming wrath.

Without reading the rest of the letter, one may wonder what this coming wrath refers to.  It certainly cannot be the wrath of God against man’s sin.  Jesus received that wrath via his substitutionary atonement on the cross.[1]  And, this letter is written to the church at Thessalonica, a group of believers in Christ who have experienced this salvation.  The coming wrath Paul must have been speaking of is the coming wrath of the Great Tribulation, which he further details later in the letter.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-10 (NIV)1 Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

As noted earlier, the “day of the Lord” always refers to the Great Tribulation in scripture; either generally, or specifically referencing the end of the Great Tribulation when Christ returns.  Here, Paul notes various instructions related to the day of the Lord:  that it will come when people are saying “peace and safety,” that it will come suddenly and that the church should be alert and expecting that day to come.  It is at this point that he once again refers to the wrath he spoke of earlier:

 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Clearly Paul states that God did not appoint “us” (the church) to suffer wrath.  Instead, the church is to “receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He further states that “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”  This phrase indicates that even those who are not watching and waiting, as he is encouraging them to do, will still be able to escape this wrath, which refutes the idea of a partial rapture popular with some. 

It is clear from Paul’s theology that God’s wrath is not something intended to be poured out upon those who are saved in Christ.  In Romans 1 Paul notes that God’s wrath is being poured out against the ungodly,[2] but clearly in 1 Thessalonians 5 he states that the church is not appointed to receive God’s wrath.

In Chapter 3, this work will detail how the display of God’s wrath is indeed a primary purpose of the great tribulation.  Some who believe mid or posttribulational views argue that “God never promised the church would not endure tribulation.”  This is quite true.  In fact, Jesus promised the church that it would endure tribulation.[3]  Tribulation is not synonymous with “the great tribulation.”  Tribulation is extreme difficulty, persecution and turmoil.  The great tribulation, however, is “the day of God’s wrath.”[4]  The great tribulation is unique among tribulations.  It is a tribulation not brought about because of man’s anger, but God’s.  It is the day of the Lord; God’s display of his wrath against those who refuse to repent and give him glory.  This characteristic of the great tribulation is not one for which the church is appointed to suffer.

Another example of God’s sparing the church from the great tribulation is found in the very book which depicts so well the timeline of the events of the great tribulation:

Revelation 3:10 (NIV)10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.

This text is taken from the letter to the church at Philadelphia.  It appears to be a conditional statement.  “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world….”  Some have taken this statement, and other statements which are similar, to indicate a partial rapture. 

The partial rapture theory teaches that only those who are prepared for the Lord’s return will be raptured.  Others will be left to endure the great tribulation.  While there are several statements around rapture doctrines which appear conditional, the idea of a partial rapture is inconsistent with biblical teachings.    Foremost, this theory divides the power of Christ’s substitutionary atonement into two categories: one which saves completely and one which saves partially.  Secondly, this theory creates a mystical line between the law and grace.  It creates a set of works which must be properly engaged in upon Christs rapture of the church.  As was noted in 1 Thessalonians 5:10, “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”  The rapture is a complete removal of the complete church. 

The question then remains as to the meaning of Christ’s statement to the church at Philadelphia, “since you have kept my commands…I will also keep you from the hour of trial.”  Perhaps this statement is best understood in the context of another statement in the text in verse 12, “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.”  Each of these seven letters have a similar structure and each has a “him who overcomes” statement.  And, each of the “him who overcomes” statements are statements that are true of the whole church.

To the church at Smyrna he writes “he who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”[5]  To the church at Saris he writes “He who overcomes…I will never blot out his name from the book of life….”[6]  And, to the church in Philadelphia, he who overcomes will be kept from the hour of trial.

Clearly these conditional statements are not conditional within the true church, or only part of the true church will receive salvation at all!  Rather, it appears these statements are dividing lines with which the “true” church is separated out from the congregation to which the letter was written.  As with congregations today, it appears that there were those in the churches of Asia hearing the letters read who were not truly following Christ.  To that end, “him who overcomes” is the true disciple of Christ within the congregation.

Unless, then, one wants to attempt to demonstrate scripturally that only a part of the true church will enter Heaven, one must concede that that which was written to the church of Philadelphia is true for the whole church as well.  The church will escape the hour of trial; the coming wrath Paul wrote of.

To that end, the rapture of the church must occur before the great tribulation, or the church cannot escape it.

The doctrine of pretribulationalism is simply that.  The church will be raptured before the advent of the great tribulation.  Nothing farther can be determined from scripture.  The rapture is imminent.  It could occur at any moment before the great tribulation begins.

[1] Romans 5:9; 8:1-4

[2] Romans 1:18-20

[3] John 15:21; 16:33, Luke 21:12

[4] Romans 2:5

[5] Revelation 2:11

[6] Revelation 3:5

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