Johan Malan, Mossel Bay (July 2015)
The biblical promise on the catching up (or rapture) of Christ’s earthly bride to her home in heaven is a subject which is currently being lively discussed among friends, in certain churches and particularly also on the Internet. In light of all the antichristian reforms in the world, the rapture is believed to be imminent. This divine intervention will bring about the formal end of the church dispensation (at least as far as evangelical churches are concerned), and that will be accompanied by various dramatic events. Paul describes them as follows:
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
Various questions with regard to deceased believers are answered in this scripture, as well as the way in which the entire group of deceased and those living, will be united with Christ and caught away to their heavenly home. In association with other scriptures, this description presents a clear image of the future expectation of Christians. The following aspects of the promise should be clearly understood and interpreted in the correct context with other prophecies:
Shortly before the moment of the glorification and catching up of Christ’s bride, He will descend from heaven in the company of the deceased saints. This statement sheds light on the fact that since the ascension of Christ Paradise has been in heaven, and that is where the deceased believers are right now. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 Paul says that he was caught up to the third heaven, and calls it Paradise. The first heaven refers to the atmosphere around the earth, which is the habitation of the birds of heaven; the second heaven is the starry heaven; while the third heaven is the highest heaven where God dwells.
The word paradise means lush garden or park and refers to a place where perfect peace prevails and where people can experience the presence of God. The Garden of Eden in which Adam and Eve walked with God, was also described as Paradise. In the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament), and also in the Vulgate (a Latin translation of the Bible) the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9 ff.) is described as Paradise. Because of the Fall, Adam and Eve became mortal and sinful people who were driven out of Paradise. Subsequently, humanity dwelled in a predominantly evil world which lies in the sway of the Evil One (Eph. 6:12; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19).
During the ages following upon the Fall, Paradise was established in the spirit world in the lower parts of the earth as a sanctuary for the spirits of deceased believers, while Hades (Heb. Sheol) was established as the abode for the unsaved dead. In Paradise, Old Testament believers were awaiting the coming of Christ, while the unsaved dead in Hades are awaiting the final judgement. In a certain sense, the two places may be described as the waiting-rooms for heaven and hell, respectively. Between them there is a great gulf which cannot be crossed (Luke 16:26).
When Jesus hanged on the cross, He said to the criminal who had just repented: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Directly after His death on the cross Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9). Here, He was in Paradise where He showed Himself to all the Old Testament believers who were waiting on His atoning death as the sacrificial Lamb of God. The blood of animals sacrificed during the Old Testament could not wash away sins, and were only shadowy types of Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the cross (Heb. 10:1-10). Only after the fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah (Heb. 11:39), all these believers could gain entrance to heaven, and could Paradise be transferred from a place in the lower parts of the earth to the third heaven, where Paul saw it.
When Jesus was in the lower parts of the earth between His crucifixion and resurrection, He was not only in Paradise but also in Hades. He did not descend to Hell (gehenna) but to Hades. Here He “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19; 2 Pet. 2:4). They were not called to repentance as the time for that was passed. The lost should know that when they rejected God and His word on earth, they actually rejected the Messiah who is the Word that became flesh (John 1:14). He will one day judge them from the great white throne (Acts 17:30-31).
Forty days after Christ’s resurrection from the dead He did not return to the lower parts of the earth but ascended to heaven where Paradise has subsequently been. Paul said he had “a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23). Yonder in heaven, in the company of all the deceased saints, Paul is still in the presence of the Lord. From here they will all descend to earth when the trumpet blows.
According to biblical promises, the deceased saints who presently have a conscious existence in their spirit and soul, will also be resurrected in glorified bodies. When Christ gathers His bridal congregation, the deceased ones will first descend to the places on earth where they died bodily as they will receive their new bodies there. At the very moment when that happens, living believers will be clothed with glorified bodies without passing through death. Christ “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). Paul describes this experience as follows:
“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53). The unsaved dead will not be raised on this occasion and will only be resurrected after the millennial reign of Christ, shortly before the final judgement (Rev. 20:5-6). Then, death and Hades will be cast into gehenna, which is the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).
After the first resurrection has taken place and all the believers received glorified bodies, they will be gathered around the heavenly Bridegroom as a united group. Subsequently, they will share in His glory and never again be separated from Him.
The catching up of the true church occurs in two phases – first, from the earth to Christ somewhere in the air, and then further up towards heaven. Without a catching up, or rapture, there is no way of getting to heaven. And yet, there are many believers who dispute or even deny this concept. The catching up (harpazo in Greek) is in fact a very common concept in the New Testament, which is often used in different contexts. Harpazo means to be transferred swiftly and purposefully from one place to another. The following are examples of the use of this term:
· Paul says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know … such a one was caught up to the third heaven … he was caught up into Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Fourteen years previously Paul was caught up to the third heaven, and he also calls this place Paradise.
· “Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more. … But Philip was found in Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities” (Acts 8:39). The Spirit of the Lord suddenly caught him away to another destination.
· “And [the woman] bore a male child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her child was caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev. 12:5). The woman refers to the people of Israel, the male child born from this nation depicts Jesus as Messiah/King, and His catching up to heaven describes His ascension. He was caught up from the earth to God and His throne.
The rapture of the church is a supernatural intervention by God which defies any scientific explanation. Nothing is impossible to the Lord and we cannot, with our limited knowledge and restricted abilities, try to decide what God can do and what not.
In the light of the circumstances which will prevail on earth, the rapture will offer Christians an escape from threatening judgements. As the moment of the rapture nears, it will be a dark time of massive spiritual deception. Evangelical Christians will be criticised as unchristian, unloving and judgemental, and be despised. They will be regarded as prophets of doom because they proclaim the imminent judgements of God which will be poured out upon the world during the great tribulation. They will also be regarded as disloyal to the Christian cause because of their unwillingness to join the ecumenical movement and accept the unitary reforms of the New World Order. As the time for the revelation of the Antichrist approaches, true Christians will be subjected to immense pressure, intimidation and threats. However, they should take courage in the light of the promise that the truly born-again children of God will escape the coming tribulation period: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36; according to Rev. 3:10, we will be kept from the hour of tribulation).
Apart from taking the bride away to enjoy the glory of heaven, the rapture also constitutes a dramatic rescue operation in which true believers will be removed from the scene of imminent divine judgement. The word escape (Greek ekpheugo) definitely means to remain outside the disaster area of divine judgements. This is indeed a very positive and constructive message, and that is why Paul says: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
Although the rapture is a unique occurrence, there are examples in the Bible of times when God poured out His wrath, but provided an escape route for true believers since they were not the objects of His wrath. In the days of Noah, God announced His judgements upon a wicked and depraved generation (Gen. 6:5-14). Shortly before the outpouring of God’s judgements eight believers escaped the disaster area by entering the ark. God Himself closed the door behind them before He judged the wicked who despised God’s way of escape (Gen. 7:16-23).
In the time of Lot another rescue operation took place. The night before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot and his family received an urgent command to depart from the area marked out for judgement. The angels urged Lot to leave Sodom and helped him and his family to do so before they destroyed it. Shortly after their departure, fire and brimstone rained down on the ungodly (Gen. 19:13-25). The Lord Jesus says that there is a clear correlation between these historical events and God’s end-time dealing with believers and unbelievers; therefore He says: “Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed” (Luke 17:30).
The same sequence of events will again be repeated in the end-time: Firstly, there is the call to repentance as well as prophetic warnings about the impending judgements upon the unrepentant. Secondly, there is the removal of believers to a place of safety before the wicked are judged. Thirdly, there is the outpouring of divine wrath upon all who despised God’s offer of grace and salvation. We are now on the threshold of the second phase, when the trumpet will sound for the rapture of the church.
It is clearly shown in the Bible that there are two stages of Christ’s coming, i.e. His secret coming for His saints and His public coming with His saints. In the first instance He comes like a thief in the night for those who are ready: “Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments” (Rev. 16:15). In the second case He comes in the sight of all people to judge His enemies and to rule as King: “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him” (Rev. 1:7). However, we are preparing to be ready for His secret coming when we will meet Him somewhere in the air. On this occasion He will not set foot on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4-5) to be seen by every eye. The seven years of tribulation and divine judgements will elapse between the two stages of His coming.
Christ’s appearing to His bridal congregation is described in the Bible after the analogy of traditional Jewish marriage customs. After the Jewish bridegroom had concluded a marriage contract with his future bride and paid the full bride-price for her, he returned to his father’s house for a long time to prepare a house for them. At the end of the year of seclusion the Jewish bridegroom fetched his bride to come and stay with him. He usually came at night, between 6 pm. and midnight, because it was a secret meeting between him and her. She and her bridesmaids went out on the road to meet him, and also took their lamps along. After meeting them, the bridegroom immediately turned around to his father’s house, and didn’t show himself to the rest of her family members at this time.
The Lord Jesus also acts accordingly. During His first coming He offered salvation to all people and also paid with His blood to redeem them from the power of sin. When He returns again at the end of the church dispensation He will meet his bride outside planet Earth in the air and on this occasion He will definitely not reveal Himself to the rest of the world. During His first coming He promised His disciples that He would come again for them after He has prepared a place for them in heaven: “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). When the trumpet sounds, He will come for His bride and catch her away from planet Earth – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
It is obvious that when the rapture occurs, it will be a great blessing to those who are ready but a tremendous shock to those who remain behind. Among those who remain behind will also be many church members who were under the impression that they had been ready, but due to their own negligence they did not comply with the spiritual demands to be among the bride of the Lamb. It is not sufficient to be baptised and confirmed as a church member, since the possibility exists that you may only have a mental knowledge of Christianity by merely confessing the Lord with your lips and not with your heart (cf. Matt. 15:8-9). A confession of that nature gives rise to a dead form of godliness in which people’s hearts are untouched by the gospel – they only have an outward form of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5). The Lord Jesus demands changed, born again hearts among His followers (John 3:3), as well as a complete surrender to holiness, which will ensure that they do not walk by the flesh but by the Spirit (Rom. 8:1; Gal. 5:16).
In the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) it is obvious that half of the “believers” who went out to meet the Bridegroom, did not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The oil is a well-known symbol of the Holy Spirit. A lack of oil is indicative of the fact that certain church members rely more on their own capabilities than on the Holy Spirit to please God. However, this form of self-justification gives rise to fleshliness and spiritual deadness.
In Revelation 3 there is an example of a formalistic church in which large numbers of the members are spiritually dead. There are only a few born again and Spirit-filled members whose lives are right with the Lord, and only they will be taken away when the Lord comes like a thief in the night: “These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God [the fullness of the Holy Spirit] … I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. … Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Rev. 3:1-5).
If we wish to be ready for the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom we must prevail against sin and worldliness, also against a form of godliness, pretence and spiritual deadness. Is your relationship with the Lord Jesus right? If so, you can look forward to His coming with joy. All people on earth have a fixed appointment to appear before Him and bow their knees at His name (Phil. 2:10-11). You will either appear before Him as your Saviour and Bridegroom with joy after the rapture, or you will appear before Him after the second resurrection with much fear and trembling when He will judge all the sinners who neglected so great a salvation. A right decision on our relationship with Jesus Christ leads to eternal life, but a wrong decision (or no decision) leads to eternal death.
Reasons for the rapture: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Rapturereasons.htm
Great falling away after the departure of the church: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Departure.htm
The Pretribulation Rapture and a Perspective on Trumpets: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Pretribrapture1.htm
The rapture of the church: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Cooper.htm
Israel and the Church in Prophecy: A Biblical Discourse on the Pretribulation Rapture: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Pretribrapture.htm
The promise of the rapture in Thessalonians: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Thessal.htm
Key to the understanding of Revelation: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Glorified.htm