The Time of the Rapture
E. J. Strange, Bridgwater
We have in past papers sketched in outline the prophetic vision of the Old Testament and seen its fulfilment in Christ. We have heard and believed the words of our Lord, saying, " I will come again." It will now be our task to consider the details of that Coming, and the tremendous events associated with His return. An important question for us to consider in this paper is, ' May we expect His return soon ?'
No unbiased reader of the New Testament and the history of the early church will deny that, in the midst of persecutions and untold trouble, the Christians triumphed in the knowledge of the ultimate overthrow of evil and that they thought the return of the Lord was imminent. When general persecution ended and the purity of early faith became sullied, when the church joined hands with a world that had crucified her Lord, this joyous hope faded and a steady deterioration set in, leading to the corruption of a worldly-minded and wealthy organization under the headship of the mediaeval papacy. ' Heretical' views were rigorously suppressed and their exponents persecuted. The Protestant Reformation shattered the ' unity ' of the mediaeval church but did little to restore to Christians the ' blessed hope.' The 19th century, however, showed a real revival of interest and it seemed as if the ' midnight cry' had been heard, " Behold, the Bridegroom cometh I Go ye forth to meet Him " (Matt, 25. 6).
May we expect the Lord at any moment ? There have been three distinct schools of thought among those who believe in the personal return of the Lord Jesus.
The first of these may be dismissed fairly quickly. We may term them ' date-fixers.' There have been curious occasions when men have claimed to have learnt, either by calculation or by revelation, the exact time of Christ's return. They have secured a small following of men and women who have committed extravagances and abandoned all earthly ties It has taken Time alone to expose their folly. There was one most important point on which our Lord Himself spoke with marked and solemn uncertainty. The time of His own coming was hidden from all created beings— nay, in the mystery of His mediatorial office, it was unknown to the Son Himself (Mk. 13, 32). Even after His resurrection when questioned by the Apostles as to the time of His restoring the kingdom to Israel, His reply is still that " it is not for them to know the times and seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power" (Acts I, 7). This is sufficient as a refutation of all date-fixing.
Tribulationists.' The second school of thought requires much more serious attention. These are the Christians (many we know and love) who believe that certain events must happen before Christ conies, their distinctive belief being that the Church must pass through ' the Great Tribulation." We must first of all recognize that tribulation is the portion of the Church on earth ; never has there been a time when she has not been exposed to its fires. For the first two centuries of her history she was most bitterly persecuted, but they were the days of her purity. Tribulation was promised by the Lord, when He said, " In the world ye shall have tribulation : but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world " (John 16. 33). The Bible, however, speaks of a definite lime in the world's history which will be marked by a special outpouring of divine displeasure. Isaiah and Daniel speak of the " indignation " ; Daniel speaks of a " time of trouble " ; Joel of a " day of clouds and of thick darkness." These prophecies are con-finned by the Lord when He says, " For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be " (Matt. 24. 21). The events of this fearful time are told in symbolic language in the Revelation when the Lamb, having taken the book, breaks the seals. Seven trumpets arc sounded and seven bowls are poured out. Disaster upon disaster overtakes an unbelieving; and blasphemous world until the Lord Himself appears, not now as the Lamb, but as the mighty and all-conquering King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
On a future occasion, if the Lord will, we shall think of the Great Tribulation more fully, but it may be as well at this point to note the distinction (made by Mr. F. F. Bruce recently in answer to a certain question) between What is done by the world to God's saints, and What is done to the world by God. The time of the Great Tribulation is distinguished by the latter, and we ask the question, ' Will the Church go through this fearful period on earth ?'
Let the reader ponder on these important features :—
(1) This fearful period is spoken of as " the time of Jacob's trouble " (Jer. 30. 7).
(2) Its characteristics are to do with the purging of the earth in preparation for the reign of the Messiah. The believer's position is in the ' heavenly places ' where Christ is; there is his home, his hope, and, we trust, his heart.
(3) If the Great Tribulation is distinctively " the indignation " when the vials of God's wrath are poured upon the earth, the Day of Grace must have ended. The Church then could have no message or place upon the earth. Her message to the world is the Gospel of the Grace of God. By the Spirit of God she cries, " Whosoever will, let him come." In the Great Tribulation the angel cries with a loud voice, " Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth."
The ' Tribulationist ' may draw attention to 2 Thess. 2. 2 (K.V.) where the " day of the Lord " is spoken of. Some of the Thessalonians understood it had already come. The Apostle corrects by stating that that day will not come until there had first been ' apostasy.' Did this indicate that the believer had to await events before the Lord's return ? Note that the Apostle speaks of the " Day of the Lord," not of the ' Rapture ' of the saints. It may also be pertinent to ask, ' Is apostasy, or will apostasy be a new thing ?' Whatever prophetical significance Laodicea may have, let us never forget that this was the actual condition of a church in the time of the Apostle John, and Laodicean conditions have persisted in different parts of the earth throughout the Christian era, just as Philadelphia!! conditions have been in evidence. Many commentators have regarded the Romish Church as the nadir of apostasy, and indeed it would be hard to find a greater travesty of the true Church of Christ than the corrupt and wicked mediaeval church ruled in the 15th century by a papacy whose name is a byword for utter wickedness.
From the foregoing it will be clearly understood that the writer belongs to the third school, i.e. those who believe that the Lord may come at any time. The first New Testament book to be written was 1 Thessalonians. The apostle speaks of the Christian " waiting for God's Son from heaven." He also says, " We which are alive and remain shall be caught up . . .", while the whole Epistle is aglow with the hope of the Lord's return. This was the Church's passionate longing, and for this she prayed in the words of John, " Amen ; even so, come, Lord Jesus." In speaking of the early church, Dr. Campbell Morgan wrote, " These early disciples were certainly looking for the return of Christ, as the disciples of today ought to be, and if they are not—to quote Dr. Denney— ' the bloom is brushed from their Christian experience,' but we have no right to say that these early disciples expected Him within a generation. They expected Him all the time, and that was, and is, the true attitude." Is ' the bloom brushed from our experience,' or are we in a state of expectancy ?
We look for the Saviour—
" Not for the Antichrist—whoe'er he be—
Look we with anxious hearts or minds to see;
One clear injunction has to us been given,
To look for Christ, the blessed Lord from heaven.
Thus not for betterment of realm or state,
But for the coming of the Lord we wait:
Glad, blessed hope, light on life's darkest way,
Perhaps, perhaps the Lord will come today!"
(j. Damon Smith)
As the glory which awaits the believer is all to be enjoyed in the presence of God, it behoves him while here to seek enjoyment in nothing upon which the smile of God cannot rest. (Anon)