In the early days of the last century the Spirit of God revived the hope of the Lord’s coming, and as a result of the study of the Word much light was thrown on this glorious hope. There is, alas, a strong tendency at the present time to discredit or weaken the truth that was recovered at that time and which has been a source of joy and comfort to so many. Lack of faith and fear of controversy have pushed this great truth into the background, and it is either ignored or the bare fact that the Lord will come again is deemed sufficient.
There can be no doubt that in apostolic times Christians were eagerly awaiting the Lord’s return. Paul writing to the Thessalonians speaks of how they turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven … Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come, 1. 10.
It is most unfortunate that in the three great creeds, which have been recited continually in the churches since the early centuries, the references to the Lord’s return are inadequate and misleading. The so-called Apostles’ Creed (which has no apostolic authority) and the Nicene Creed both speak of Christ’s coming to judge the quick (living) and the dead. Thus they present the Lord’s coming as a matter of judgment and make no distinction between believer and unbeliever. The Athanasian Creed employs the same formula and adds the unscriptural statement, “At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works, and they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire”. This flatly contradicts the Lord’s own words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death unto life”, John 5. 24 R.S.V. The Lord says further, v. 28, “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment”. The Lord distinguishes the resurrection of life from the resurrection of judgment. Now Revelation puts the same truth another way. In chapter 20. 5-6, we read of the first resurrection, clearly the resurrection of life. But the rest of the dead did not rise till the thousand years were ended when the resurrection of judgment takes place, as clearly stated in verse 11, which is after the thousand years. Thus, for the greater part of church history the truth of the Lord’s coming was obscured and even perverted. While the Scripture presents the Lord’s coming as a blessed hope, something to be looked forward to with joy, the creeds present it as the solemn advent of the Judge. Fear rather than joyful expectation is thus connected with the Lord’s coming, whilst the assurance of salvation by faith is completely denied by the Athanasian Creed which tells only of one judgment for believers and unbelievers alike.
In the early part of the 18th century the hope of the Lord’s coming was revived in many hearts. In the early 19th century a still brighter light shone upon this hope. Men searched the Scriptures and as a result it became clear that the Lord was coming first for His saints and then with them. Not that there were to be two comings, but two phases of His coming. In Colossians 3. 4, Paul writes: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory”. In 1 Thessalonians 4. 14, we read: “them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him”. And in Revelation 19, the Church, united to Christ in marriage, vv. 6-8, rides forth with Him in His victorious advent as King of kings and Lord of lords, vv. 14-16.
Clearly if the Lord’s people are to be with Him when He comes publicly in glory as these Scriptures foretell, they must have joined Him prior to His public advent.
Now this is exactly what we are told in 1 Thessalonians 4. 15-18: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coining of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words”, R.S.V. This event has been called the rapture because of the word “caught up” in verse 17. The word in the Greek might well be translated “snatched away”. (Rapture is from the Latin and conveys the same idea). The expression “to meet the Lord in the air” would be more exactly rendered by the words “for the meeting” of the Lord in the air. The word was used in New Testament times for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary. It occurs (in some manuscripts) in the call to the virgins to go forth to meet the bridegroom. The words used, then, suggest that the Lord’s people will at that time be snatched away suddenly from earth for the purpose of meeting Him in the air. This shows us quite clearly how we come to be with the Lord when He comes publicly to the earth. Note the meeting is in the air. At the Lord’s public appearing when every eye will see Him, His feet actually touch the Mount of Olives, see Zech. 14. 4.
Now this wonderful event is described in 1 Corinthians 15. 51-53 in another way. There the apostle writes: “Behold, I shew 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 trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”. Here the emphasis is on the resurrection of believers and the character of the change from mortal to immortal bodies, from physical to spiritual bodies. The catching away is not mentioned but clearly it is the same event as in 1 Thessalonians 4. 18. When it takes place, both the dead and living believers will receive bodies like the Lord’s, as it says in Philippians 3. 20-21: “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself”, r.s.v. To this we may add 1 John 3. 2: “we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”. We have no reason to suppose that the resurrection and rapture of believers will be seen by the world any more than the Lord’s resurrection appearances were seen by any but the disciples.
This event is therefore justifiably described as the secret rapture which precedes the actual public appearing of Christ when every eye shall see Him, Rev. 1. 7.
Finally the Lord Himself referred to this event in the discourse at the last supper (or after it) recorded in John 14. 3 saying, “I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also”. Here the promise is intensely personal and fits in perfectly with the other Scriptures considered. It cannot refer to the public appearing for then He comes, as we have seen, not for His own (whom He will already have taken to Himself) but with them.
In the light of the foregoing passages of Scripture we confidently affirm the truth of the secret rapture prior to Christ’s public appearing. In the next paper we shall deal with the public aspect of His coming.