Published May 10, 2011

Paul's Epistle...
"He's Coming! – The Rapture"
(Part 2 of a series.)

Last week as we began this series we reviewed the very fundamental Christian belief that the Lord will return someday. We looked at the overwhelming evidence for this in Scripture. His coming is a sure thing!

Now, what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about the Lord's "Second Coming?"

Actually, this is sort of the "catch-all" term used to cover quite a series of end-time events, beginning with the Rapture and culminating in Christ's physical return to planet Earth.

Warren Wiersbe, in his 1979 book, "Be Ready," has perhaps one of the most concise summaries of the Second Coming that I've seen: "First, Jesus will come in the air for His church. (1st Thes. 4:13-18.) This will usher in a period of tribulation on the earth. (1st Thes. 5:1-3.) At the close of this period, He will return to the earth with His church (2nd Thes. 1:5-10 and Rev. 19:11-21), defeat His enemies, and then set up His kingdom (Rev. 20:1-6.)"

In this view, Christ first returns for His saints – whom He "snatches away" in the Rapture – and then later He returns to Earth with His saints to vanquish His enemies and rule Earth directly during the millennium as foretold by the prophets. In end-times parlance, that's called the "premillennial, pre-tribulation" view, and it's the prevailing view in evangelical circles today – although not precisely the only one, by far.

Why isn't the Bible more clear about these things? I don't know. But I do know – I do believe – that we have been told everything we need to know. Only the Holy Spirit can improve our understanding.

So if we accept the prevalent scenario, the next thing to happen directly related to the Second Coming is the Rapture.

The whole idea of a "Rapture" is one of the most commonly-ridiculed of all "end-time" concepts. One of the most basic complaints is that the term "rapture" doesn't even occur in the Bible. Fair enough. But I checked the KJV and the NIV and these terms don't appear either: "Trinity," "Millennium," "Ascension," or "end times." And I'm sure there are very many more common phrases we use which are not specifically used in our translations of the Bible. But in each case, the thought which these terms convey is clearly described – although in other words. We have simply assigned one-or-two-word terms to convey these concepts. That's the way language works.

So, where does the term "Rapture" come from?

In English, it is derived from the Latin word "rapio" – which, in turn, is a translation of the Greek word "harpazo." (I have seen spelling variants of these terms.) This word is found in 1st Thess. 4:17. For context, here are verses 16 and 17: "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever."

The term "caught up" is the one that's from that Greek term, "harpazo." It was apparently a common Greek term, because in the New Testament it is used 17 times in various ways. But its definition is interesting: "to seize, or carry off by force; to claim for one's self eagerly; to snatch out or away." By 1600 the word "rapture" had worked its way into the English language, meaning "the act of carrying off..."

Isn't that exactly what the Lord promises to do? He's snatching away, by a force (a power that only He has) believers, whom He will eagerly and lovingly claim for Himself. Not a bad description of the Rapture!

Some say the "Rapture" is a relatively recent invention. Using that precise English term, perhaps it is. But the concept is not new.   Critics like to say it was the result of a vision or dream by someone many centuries after Christ.  But, actually, the concept has been traced back to first and second century Christian teachings.  

Some ridicule the Rapture as "wishful thinking" or "escapist." There are elements of truth there, but I see those as positives, not negatives. We are to long for Christ's return when He will cause us to escape the worst of the tribulation that this world will face, "For God hath not appointed us to wrath..." (1 Thess. 5:9.)  But we have a problem if we become so focused on getting out of here that we lose sight of what these beliefs should mean to us today! (What I consider my most important "epistle" in this series, later, will deal with that.)

"But, Paul, nothing like this has ever happened before!" True enough, at least on such a scale. But just because we have absolutely no historic experience with such a thing doesn't mean God can't do it. God is able to do whatever He wants to do to accomplish His purposes, and He will do everything He's said He will do. We don't have to understand it to believe it. The people of Noah's time had no precedent for such a massive flood. In fact, some say they had never even experienced rain! But it happened. God changed things to accomplish His will. And, come to think of it, "as it was in the days of Noah," so it shall be it be just before the Lord returns. (See Luke 17:26.)

Now, why should we believe that the Rapture could happen at any time? Why should we hold to the long-held doctrine of "imminence?"

First, I believe it is, overall, the best interpretation of what Scripture teaches. There will be a Rapture – using that term broadly to say that the saints will be gathered to Christ. Scripture is clear on that. The only dispute among Christians is its timing related to other Second Coming events.

But if the Rapture weren't the first thing to happen, then we who are alive at the time would see the things happening described in Revelation and elsewhere. We could figure out when it started, count seven (or so) years into the future and know that this would be the time when the Lord would physically return. But we're told the Lord's return for His saints will be at a time when we "think not." Mark 13:33 (NIV), quoting Christ, says, "Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come." The familiar KJV puts it this way: "Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is."

So, by that reasoning, the Rapture must be the first thing to happen – without specific warning.

Second, I believe it's what you might call the "safest" approach. If you really believe that the Lord could come at any time it will (or should) motivate you to do what we all should be doing anyway – right here, right now, in anticipation of the Lord's return. (More about that later.)

Also, if you believe the Lord might return at any time, and you are ready for His return, even if Christians would wind up remaining through part of the tribulation (as some say), the world could bring on its worst and our faith would remain strong. As 2 Timothy 1:12 (KJV) says, "for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day."

(Millions of Christians today are going through tribulation, especially overseas. Many are even being killed for the cause of Christ. Although this isn't "the" tribulation, no one can say there isn't tribulation right now. But this has been the case for believers for 2,000 years. We are so insulated from it here in America that it doesn't seem to affect us. Right now, Chinese Christians are praying that the church in America would undergo increased persecution. That sounds like a strange prayer, but it's because they've seen how persecution in their homeland has caused the church there to grow and thrive and they want the same for us.)

Some critics point out that the Apostle Paul seemed to believe that the Lord would return in his lifetime, and they point to that as an error on Paul's part. I don't see that as an error at all. I see that as setting a precedent. I see that as a Holy Spirit-inspired principle that should be the mindset for Christians of all ages – until the Lord actually does return. The Lord obviously wants us to expect His return at any moment for a reason.

Writing to Titus, Paul called the promise of the Lord's return our "blessed hope." (Titus 2:13.) If we couldn't believe that it just might happen in our lifetime, it wouldn't be much of a blessed hope – for us, anyway.

And maybe that's one reason why so many people today seem so hopeless.

- Paul

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