The six articles in the following series were written by special request, and we trust that this fresh exposition of future events, embracing the hope of the believer, together with future scenes of judgment and blessing both in heaven and on earth, will prove instructive and edifying to our readers.
In dealing with prophetic matters two dangers should be avoided: (i) that of thoughtlessly following well-known teachers, and (ii) that of being altogether silent on the subject.
Teachers at the best are but fallible men and., no matter who, his teaching should be subjected to the acid test of “what saith the Scripture?”. On the other hand, it would be strange if anyone of the Lord’s people were heedless of what the Scripture says touching their most precious hope and things which are to follow. Whatever relates to the future glory of our One common Saviour should be of paramount concern to those eternally indebted to Him.
In order rightly to understand “our hope”, it is essential to appreciate that “the church, which is his body”, Eph. 1. 22-23, has a unique place in the ways of God. It began on the day of Pentecost, when we were “all baptized” in the One Spirit “into one body”, 1 Cor. 12. 13 R.V., and will be consummated when Christ presents it to Himself “a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing”, Eph. 5. 27
It must not be confused with either (i) the kingdom of God, (ii) the family of God, (iii) the line of the faithful, or (iv) the olive tree testimony, all of which had their beginning long before the church, the body of Christ, came into existence, and all of which will continue for some time – maybe a long time – after the removal of the church at the rapture. The body of Christ should not be equated to any of these. Matthew 8. 11 shows that the kingdom is a comprehensive thing extending over all ages. 1 John 3. 12 shows that the family embraced Abel of long ago, and Abel also heads the list of the “faithful” in Hebrews 11, while the root of the olive tree clearly goes back to Abraham, Rom. 11.
But the church, the body of Christ, was a “new” thing altogether – new in kind, Eph. 2. 15. To change the metaphor, Christ Jesus is the chief corner stone of this spiritual temple, of which the apostles and prophets of N.T. times are foundation members, Eph. 2. 20. John the Baptist clearly repudiated the idea that he was the “bride”; rather, he was “the friend of the bridegroom”, John 3. 29. It follows, therefore, that if he were not part of the bride, then none of his predecessors could have been. In fact, the church was a “secret” (or a “mystery”) not disclosed to any of the O.T. prophets, Eph. 3. 5; Col. 1.26, so it is not found historically or prophetically in the O.T. Indeed, in His day the Lord Jesus spoke of it as future, saying “upon this rock I will build my church”, Matt. 16. 18., the words “will” and “my” being very significant. It commenced, as we have said, on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. That event was not repeatable; the church was born then, whence it grew and developed “unto a perfect man”, Eph. 4.13. The presence of the Spirit of God on earth was essential for the existence of the church, but this could not be until there was the corresponding presence of the risen and glorified Man, Jesus Christ, in heaven. Granted the one, the other necessarily follows; see John 7. 39.
The doctrine of the body of Christ is peculiar to the apostle Paul; no other Bible writer mentions it. Paul learnt it on the Damascus road when he was told that his persecution of the saints was the persecution of Christ; the Head in heaven felt what was done to His members on earth, Acts 9. 5. It existed before Saul of Tarsus was converted, but it was not formally disclosed to the saints until “the mystery” had been entrusted to him, Eph. 3. 4, 8.
It must not be imagined, however, that the church was an after-thought with God, that His former ways with man having failed, He tried something else. Rather, the Church was the first thing in the mind of God, having been purposed “before the foundation of the world”, Eph. 1. 3-14. Since it was chosen before the foundation of the world, “times and seasons” have nothing to do with it; its blessings are neither temporal nor earthly, they are eternal and “in the heavenlies”.
Belonging as the church does to heaven, it is no marvel that Paul discloses another secret, or “mystery”, namely that of the rapture; see 1 Cor. 15. 51ff and 1 Thess. 4. 13ff. We need not demur at this word rapture: it certainly expresses what is taught in Scripture, provided that we use the word in the sense (given by the Oxford English dictionary) of a transportation from one place to another. The reader should examine all the occurrences of the Greek word harpazo1 in the N.T. and he will be left in no doubt as to its significance and the justification of the employment of this one word rapture to avoid circumlocution.
The well-known prophecy of Daniel 9 indisputably implies to our mind that there is a long, undefined gap between the 69th week and the 70th. Hippolytus, a bishop of Portus near Rome, one of the most learned of the early fathers at the beginning of the third century, taught this, so the notion is not of late origin. What, then, takes place in the gap? The answer is found in Paul’s various “mysteries”, namely (i) the mystery of the calling out of the church, (ii) the mystery of the partial and temporary blindness of Israel, Rom. 11. 25, and (iii) the mystery of the rapture. Consequent upon Israel’s putting to death their Messiah, the nation has been temporarily set on one side. As a train is put into a siding to allow an express train to pass through, after which the train resumes its journey on the line, so Israel has been set aside due to their guilt at Calvary, and the Church is now being brought through. When the Church is raptured, Israel will again be taken up by God and His dealings on earth will be resumed with the nation. O.T. histories and ritual all tend to confirm this.
Before the Lord Jesus left “his own”, John 13. 1, to return to heaven, He assured His followers that He would come again, 14. 3. At times it seems as if He were speaking of His return to earth (as in Matthew 24) and at other times of His return to take them to the Father’s house. One thing is clear, that He promised to return visibly and bodily. Acts 1. 11 asserts that “this Jesus which was received up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven”, R.V. His promised return cannot be interpreted as a “spiritual” return to be fulfilled when the Holy Spirit was sent from heaven. Neither can it allude to death as John 21. 23 makes clear. Zechariah 14. 4. assures us that “his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives”.
Until Paul expounded his special teaching, given him by revelation of the Lord, the disciples appear to have expected nothing but the return of the Lord Jesus to earth. They were waiting for Him. But Paul taught them that, when the Lord returns to earth, believers of the present calling will be “manifested in glory” with Him, Col. 3. 4 R.V.; that God will bring them “with him”, 1 Thess. 4. 14. It is plain, therefore, that if they are to come with Him they must first have gone to be with Him, not all necessarily by death, but those that are living by the rapture. Both the dead in Christ and we that are alive are to be given glorified bodies at the time of the rapture.
It is evident that Paul himself anticipated that the Lord Jesus might come in his lifetime, as shown by the words “we which are alive and remain”, 1 Thess. 4. 17. He identifies himself with the saints living then, but elsewhere he links himself with sleeping believers, 2 Cor. 4. 14. Paul was ready either for the rapture, or for death, or for further service on earth. In like terms he exhorted the saints. The suggestion that Paul had made a mistake, and in his second letter to the Thessalonians wrote correcting the misunderstanding that had been created by his first letter, is to undermine the inerrancy and inspiration of Holy Scripture. The idea cannot be entertained for a moment.
Nowhere does Paul instruct the saints as to what they should do in preparation for death, nor indeed for any future troublous earthly times. He always encouraged them to wait for Christ -“till he come” are his words, 1 Cor. 11.26. This is our distinctive hope. When He comes, sleeping saints will be raised and changed into their glorified bodies; living ones will be changed likewise, and together they will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and He will then redeem His promise and take them to the Father’s house. His prayer will then have been answered, “that, where I am they also may be with me”, John 17. 24 R.V.
All this is in perfect harmony with the Lord’s words to Martha, “he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die”, John 11. 25, 26 R.V. But this was not put on record until long after Paul had passed away. Whether Paul knew of this word of the Lord is not clear. Certainly what he wrote to the Thessalonians was “by the word of the Lord”, and was not the product of Paul’s wishful thinking. Who, indeed could have imagined such a thing?
The word “coming”, 1 Thess. 4. 15, is the translation of the Greek word parousia, a technical word for the return of a person after a period of absence, involving his coming, arrival and resultant stay. The word occurs elsewhere in the N.T., and the reader should consult a concordance and trace it throughout. Sometimes it relates to an event not connected with the Lord at all; sometimes it is used of His return to earth (see e.g., Matt. 24. 37, 39) and sometimes (as in 1 Thess. 4) it refers to His return to the air. The context of each passage will decide.
Our hope must not be confused with that of Israel. They expect “the Sun of righteousness”, Mal. 4. 2; they look for Him to come to the mount of Olives, Zech. 14. 4. Their horizon is the earth, but our hope is to meet the Lord in the air and to be taken to the Father’s house. He will come and receive us; He will descend and we shall ascend and meet Him in the air. The word meet need cause no difficulty. Obviously in current usages sometimes two people meet and then part, or they meet and continue on in the direction of either one or the other. The word itself does not imply that the Lord will come to the air, and then continue His journey to earth.
Our hope, 1 Thess. 2.19, is altogether without indication of date or attendant signs. In Matthew 24 the Lord gave indications of what would happen prior to His return, but these are absent in John 14. 1-3. He did not say when, but left them in a state of constant expectation, though He assured them that, during the time of His absence, they would be hated by the same world that had hated Him, John 16. 1-3.
Paul’s teaching follows this same line. No reader of his letters, either then or now, could conclude that Paul told the saints that Christ would not and could not come yet, or that some centuries must ensue before He returned. Let the reader carefully ponder Romans 5. 9; 8. 23; 1 Corinthians 1. 7; 11. 26; 15. 51-57; 2 Corinthians 5. 2; Galatians 5. 5; Philippians 3. 20; Colossians 3. 4; 1 Thessalonians 4. 13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 Timothy 6. 14; 2 Timothy 4. 8; Titus 2. 13, and he will see that Paul regarded it as an ever-present hope. Acts 20. 29 does not appear to relate to Paul’s death but his “departure” from the Ephesians. Even Peter, who had heard the Lord foretell his (i.e., Peter’s) “decease” (actually, his exodus), exhorted the saints to take heed to the prophetic word, not till they died, but “until the day dawn”, 2 Pet. 1.19.
It is, of course, possible to wait for a person or an event which one knows cannot occur until after certain other things have transpired, but Paul shows in 2 Thessalonians 2 that before the apostasy and the manifestation of the man of sin, the parousia of the Lord and our gathering together to Him must take place. The whole section should be studied carefully in the Revised Version, the marginal readings being noted particularly.
Have we lost this hope? Has the delay, which is only apparent and not real, caused us to feel some disappointment? Or do earthly things have too great a hold on our affections? Or have we resigned ourselves to the inevitable trouble that must result from the present chaotic conditions? Have we forgotten that “we shall be saved from (the) wrath through him”, Rom. 5. 9, that Jesus is our deliverer from the coming wrath, 1 Thess. 1. 10, and that “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ”, 1 Thess. 5. 9? We should allow nothing to dim this glorious prospect. May He grant that “if he shall be manifested, we may have boldness, and not be ashamed before him at his coming (parousia)”, 1 John 2. 28 R.V.
To be followed by “Events in heaven with the saints”.
1 The word is variously translated: (i) “(to) take by force”. Matt. 11. 12; John 6. 15; Acts 23. 10, (ii) “catcheth (away)”, Matt. 13. 19; John 10. 12, (iii) “caught away”, Acts 8. 39, (iv) “(shall be, or was) caught up”, 2 Cor. 12. 2, 4; 1 Thess. 4. 17; Rev. 12. 5, (v) “(to) pluck”, John 10. 28, 29, (vi) “pulling”, Jude 23.