THE TIME OF THE RAPTURE (1956)
BY E. J. STRANGE, B.A., CHARD, ENGLAND
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! Go ye out 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 ‘datefixers’. 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, Mark 13. 32. Even after His resurrection when questioned by the apostles as to the time of His restoring the kingdom to Israel, His reply was still that it was not for them to know the times and seasons, which the Father had put in His own power, see Acts 1. 7. This is sufficient as a refutation of all date-fixing.
Some are ‘Tribulationists’
This 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 comes, 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. The Lord promised tribulation 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 time in the world’s history that will be marked by a special out-pouring 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 confirmed 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 are 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 allconquering 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:
- This fearful period is spoken of as ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble’, Jer. 30. 7;
- 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;
- 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 Thessalonians 2. 2 RV, where the ‘Day of the Lord’ is spoken of. Some of the Thessalonians understood it had already come. The apostle corrects them 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 Philadelphian 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’. The whole epistle is aglow with the hope of the Lord’s return. This was the early 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 - who e’re 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 may come today!
J. Danson Smith
INTRODUCTION TO THE APOCALYPTIC LETTERS (1970)
REVELATION 2 and 3
BY E. W. ROGERS, OXFORD, ENGLAND
There are three ways in which these letters, recorded in Revelation 2 and 3, may be considered: (i) as written to seven actual churches existing in John’s day and representative of the general condition of that day; (ii) as having a message for God’s people throughout the whole Christian era, no matter where they are found; and (iii) as delineating the successive stages in the history of Christendom from apostolic times to the present day.
Some dissent as to (iii) because the churches of John’s time could never have understood the letters in that way and, indeed, were not intended to do so. But the remarkable agreement between this foreshadowing and the later history is too plain to be ignored. Moreover, such a foreshadowing in scripture is not new. Did the children of Israel understand the prophetic meaning of their sundry feasts recorded in Leviticus 23? Were they intended to do so? Yet looking back from our present day we can now understand their typical and prophetic significance. In this series we shall make reference to points in the letters which coincide with the later history. Plainly, John’s contemporaries knew nothing of this later history, but the passage of time sheds light on God’s word everywhere.
If, as we believe, chapters 2 and 3 recorded the ‘things which are’, Rev. 1. 19, it is reasonable to regard them as setting out the present age from its inception to its consummation – the whole era in all its facets. Much is lost if the interpretation of these letters is limited to the conditions of the times in which they were written. The conditions recorded in the seven letters may be traced throughout the two millenniums since Pentecost. Similarly, the general decline from pristine brightness to Christless profession may be traced historically throughout the age.
The seven letters have a general similar pattern. Each is written to the ‘angel’ of the church. Although the word ‘angel’ may be rendered ‘messenger’, it is not clear how a messenger from Patmos to the respective cities could be blamed for existing conditions. And it is the ‘angel’ who is blamed. These ‘angels’ are symbolized by ‘seven stars’ and stars are guides; for example, the ‘star in the east’ led to the Saviour. Jude, conversely, speaks of ‘wandering stars’. As the local church is symbolized by a lampstand denoting a plurality of persons, so we suggest that the ‘stars’ symbolize the ‘angels’ or a plurality of persons which constitute the responsible guiding element in the church. It would be contrary to the tenor of the New Testament to regard the ‘angel’ as the Minister or the Pastor. The scriptures recognize no such thing as one man entrusted with the care of a church; it is always a plurality who share that responsibility, see Acts 20. 28; Phil. 1. 1.
They are sent to ‘the church in’ such and such a place. This is so in every case (see the Revised Version). They were congregations of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, administratively independent of each other. Not one is given the task of rectifying another; each is directly responsible to the Author of the letter. It is not one lampstand with a multiplicity of branches, but seven distinct lampstands (not candlesticks which are self-consuming, but lampstands dependent on exterior material to be the source of light) not federated together. They are golden lampstands, that is, they are a divine testimony set in the midst of surrounding darkness.
The manner in which the Lord is described at the beginning of each letter is especially suitable to the state concerned; this we shall see as we proceed. ‘I know’ occurs in each letter, the verb being cognate with ‘I see’. In all but two there are complaints, the exceptions being the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. In each there is a promise to the ‘overcomer’.
The overcomer does not denote an especially pious kind of Christian but every genuine believer. It is a question of what is genuine. It is a mistake to suppose that everyone associated with the early or modern churches is real. The genuineness of one’s profession is proved by his continuance, see Col. 1. 23; Heb. 3. 6. A believer may, like Gad, be overcome, but he overcomes at last. It is not the reverses but the final victory that counts. Only two classes are found in Revelation 21. 7, 8; all are in one class or the other.
The promises remind us of Old Testament history. The first takes us back to Eden; the second to the affliction in Egypt; the third to the wilderness and its manna; the fourth to the victories of Joshua; the fifth to the days of the Babylonish captivity and the preserved Israelitish registers; the sixth to the time of the restored remnant and the rebuilding of the temple under Ezra; and lastly the seventh to the days of Malachi and its lukewarmness.
The word of Christ to the angel is the voice of the Spirit to the churches. What He says to one He says to all. It is ‘he that hath an ear’ and ‘to him that overcometh’. We must on no account miss their present lessons in a pre-occupation with their historic or prophetic character.
Historically, these letters denote seven moral conditions then existing and found at any time during the present age. Ephesus was a loveless church; Smyrna a persecuted one; Pergamos a worldly one; Thyatira a corrupt church; Sardis a reformed church; Philadelphia an evangelistic church and Laodicea a lukewarm church. We should inquire, what is the kind of church in which I am?
Prophetically, these letters set forth the main features of the history of Christendom. Ephesus relates to apostolic times; Smyrna to the subsequent period of severe persecution; Pergamos relates to the times of Constantine when the church was united with the state; Thyatira to the dark middle ages; Sardis speaks of the times of reformation when there was a failure to return to the fountain head of holy scripture; Philadelphia to the evangelistic period which followed; Laodicea, it is submitted, plainly depicts our own times when, as to Christendom, Christ is outside.
We have spoken of Christendom, which is to be distinguished from the church. The former relates to the sphere of Christian profession in which there are real and false; genuine and spurious. The true church embraces only those who are genuine. These letters envisage the presence of others who are far from what followers of Christ should be. As with the kingdom of the heavens, there are here wheat and chaff, wheat and tares, good fish and bad, treasure and leaven, pearl and bird-harbouring tree, wise and foolish virgins, faithful and wicked servants, sheep and goats. It is the sphere of religious profession and the Lord is seen walking in its midst, perceiving everything, judging all, rebuking, warning, promising.
The principles which should govern local church order and purity are not found here. Paul deals with these things in the Corinthian letters and the Pastoral Epistles. One cannot be excommunicated from Christendom, though one may be from a local church. On the other hand, every professor (true and false) is inescapably in Christendom.
Laodicea is warned that, unless it repents, the Lord is about to spue it out of His mouth. When the rapture takes place the empty Christless form will have been spued out, those who are the ‘overcomers’, the genuine believers, having been removed to heaven. It is instructive to note that the church is nowhere seen again in the book of Revelation until the latter part of chapter 19.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE FEASTS OF THE LORD (1967)
It is important to grasp the fundamental principle that the theme of the whole Bible is Christ. The great segments of holy writ - the histories, prophecies, counsels and types - all have Him in view. And among the typical ordinances of the Bible we find the Feasts of the Lord, or Jehovah, which bring before us in graphic symbolism the person and work of Christ. We are, no doubt, spiritually the poorer today for our neglect of this rich vein of truth designedly set in scripture as an aid to our apprehension of Christ and His work.
Definition and Designation
Before commencing a consideration of the Feasts it might be well to define the term. The word ‘feast’ in this context means a fixed time or an appointed season. It also embodies the idea of fellowship. By bearing this in mind we shall understand more readily and appreciate more fully this wonderful subject of ‘The Feasts of Jehovah’.
We discover when reading the scriptures that these holy occasions are referred to in three ways. The change of emphasis is indicated by the prepositions. They are called the ‘Feasts of Jehovah’, telling us that the Lord is the Author of those fixed seasons. They are therefore divine appointments. Then they are termed the ‘Feasts to Jehovah’, implying that Jehovah is Himself a recipient from these special occasions marked out in Israel’s calendar. Thirdly, we find them referred to as the ‘Feasts before Jehovah’, that is, the gatherings took place in His presence, and thus His people became beneficiaries as a result of the experience. So in the Feasts, God desired to assemble His people at certain times throughout the year, fixed by Himself; in order that while dwelling among them He might have special seasons of fellowship with them.
Design and Dispensation
The Feasts, or appointed seasons, trace out for us the ways of God with man and indicate the ultimate goal to which those ways lead, the goal being God’s own rest - eternal rest. In view of this, the Feasts have been termed God’s Calendar, for they form a schedule of God’s ways in relation to man down through the ages of time. As we look at God’s Calendar today, some of the appointments, in their typical application, lie in the past and are now a matter of history. The Feasts are therefore commemorative. There are, however, some appointments which still await fulfilment and are prophetic in nature. Thus the Feasts of Jehovah are also anticipative, for they project our thoughts onwards to the still unfulfilled events of the future. In the course of these articles we shall be considering the Feasts mainly as they are presented in Leviticus 23. But the divine appointments are not peculiar to the book of Leviticus. They are spoken of also, but with a different bearing, in Exodus 23 and 24 in Numbers 28 and 29, and in Deuteronomy 16. In Leviticus only are they presented with a dispensational character.
It is significant to note that when the Feasts are referred to in the Gospels they are no longer designated the Feasts of the Lord but the Feasts of the Jews, as in John 2. 13; 5. 1; 7. 2. Israel had by then turned her back upon Jehovah and in practice those divinely appointed seasons had deteriorated into empty formalities devoid of the presence of God - hollow shells lacking in substance and reality. Is there not a grave danger that the divine appointments of the Christian era may likewise degenerate into little more than mere formalities in our day? Are, for instance, the Lord’s Supper and the gatherings for collective prayer - both divine appointments - as real and vivid to our souls as they used to be?
Distinction and Duration
Now, in Leviticus 23 we have a series of seven annual Feasts or fixed times, which together represent God’s programme in time in connection with His creature man. Mention is made in this chapter a number of times of the Sabbath, but this weekly institution is carefully distinguished from the annual Feasts. Another fact which is apparent from the reading of the chapter is that the seven appointed seasons are divided into two groups. There are the spring Feasts and the autumn Feasts. The spring Feasts find their parallel in Christianity, while the autumn Feasts have their application particularly to Israel, since they have to do with Israel’s regathering. A further feature worthy of mention is that some of the Feasts were of one day’s duration while others extended to seven and eight days. The one day Feasts may signify great definitive acts of God occurring once only in history, and being absolutely complete in themselves, such as the Passover, the Feast of First Fruits, Pentecost; whereas the seven and eight days Feasts – Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles, respectively, portray the far-reaching and continuing effects of these unique enactments of God. These features will no doubt be seen with greater clarity when we examine the various Feasts in detail.
Division and Direction
Then the numerology here, as everywhere in scripture, is expressive. The seven Feasts arranged as in Leviticus 23 imply a complete and meaningful cycle of events, for seven is the number of completeness. As we have stated already, they mark out the whole programme of God’s ways through time’s ages. In the first group, the spring Feasts, there are four: the Passover; Unleavened Bread; First Fruits; and Pentecost. Three Feasts comprise the second group of autumn Feasts: Trumpets; Atonement; and Tabernacles. In the Feast of Tabernacles mention of the eighth day affords us just a glimpse into the timeless state and the rest of God, the numeral eight here signifying an entirely new beginning, which in this case will never know an ending. There is a break in the sequence which occurs between the spring and autumn Feasts. Verse 22 of our chapter marks an interlude and forms a bridge between the two groups of Feasts. This verse may contain a typical hint of the tribulation period that will follow the translation of the saints at the coming of Christ to the aerial heavens. When the harvest had once been reaped no gleaning was to be permitted. May not this denote the solemn truth, affirmed in the New Testament, as in 2 Thessalonians 2, that during the period of the tribulation there will be no further opportunity of salvation for those who have rejected the gospel of the grace of God?