Of the many events that occurred on the night in which our Saviour partook of His final Passover, there were two that occurred within the space of an hour or so. The first was a promise Jesus made to His disciples and the second was a prayer He made to His Father. The promise was made in an upper room somewhere within Jerusalem, whilst the prayer was made just prior to Jesus crossing over the brook Cedron and entering into the Garden of Gethsemane.
Although two millennia have elapsed since that memorable night, these two events remain unfulfilled, and the Bible does not specify how long it will be before they are. However, both will be accomplished simultaneously, for the answered prayer will be the direct consequence of the fulfilled promise. The promise that Jesus made was, ‘I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also’, John 14. 3. The prayer that He made is also recorded by John, ‘Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am’, 17. 24.
These two issues will dovetail when the Lord descends from heaven with a shout to rendezvous with the church ‘in the air’, 1 Thess. 4. 17. This meeting is often referred to as the ‘rapture of the church’, the word rapture being the English translation of the Latin for the phrase ‘caught up’ in the above verse.
Whilst the rapture may be seen illustratively in the Old Testament, when Enoch was translated to heaven, it is exclusively a New Testament revelation. None of the patriarchs, priests, or prophets had any inkling of the rapture; in fact, they knew nothing about the church at all. Within the New Testament, the truth concerning the rapture is primarily set out by just two writers, John and Paul.
As we examine their writings, it becomes evident that their presentation of this event is very different from each other. John’s principal objective is to focus on the promises made by Jesus concerning His coming, whereas Paul’s particular focus is on the procedure of the event. In chapter 14 of his Gospel and in Revelation chapter 22, John presents the promises Jesus made to come again and that His coming would be soon. It is left to the Apostle Paul to convey to us the finer detail of the events linked to the Lord’s coming, which he does in his letters to the Corinthians, the Philippians and the church in Thessalonica.
As we peruse the scriptures, we discover that the events surrounding the rapture, when our Lord comes to the air, and the events relating to the revelation of Christ as King, when He comes to earth, have very little in common. They are so distinct that we can say that the second coming of Christ will be in two stages.
There are several places in the New Testament that deal with these two stages, but a study of Matthew chapters 24 and 25, which deal with the revelation of the Son of Man to earth, and 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, which treats of His coming to the air as Saviour at the rapture, highlights many contrasts and no comparisons. Space does not enable us to record the details so I leave the reader to pursue this if so inclined.
In addition to these contrasts, if we bring in other passages, such as Zechariah chapter 14, we can summarize these two stages of the Lord’s Second Advent as follows: the rapture of the church, and the revelation of Christ as King, take place at two different periods, in two different places, for two different purposes. They are neither simultaneous nor synonymous but are distinct and should not be confused.
There are two words in the English language that are similar but not identical; they are the words ‘imminent’ and ‘immediate’. Something that is ‘immediate’ is going to happen without delay. Something ‘imminent’ may not take place straight away but it overhangs and thus can happen at any time. In the main, the rapture is presented in the New Testament as something that is imminent. There is nothing that requires prior fulfilment; the Lord’s coming for His church is approaching and can happen at any time, but we don’t know when.
There are several key passages in the New Testament that focus on the rapture, of which we shall consider just two, John chapter 14 and 1 Corinthians chapter 15. It is interesting to compare and contrast these with Paul’s teaching on the same subject in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. In summary, we learn in Corinthians that the saints are still on the earth; there is no reference to being ‘caught up’. In Thessalonians, the saints are meeting the Lord in the air, and, in John 14, they are taken to the Father’s house.
In Thessalonians, the focus is on the dead not missing out; in Corinthians, it is on the living not missing out, and in John it is on the Lord not missing out, for, He says, He would ‘receive you unto myself’. In Corinthians, we read of resurrection; in Thessalonians, of the rapture, and in John, of our reception to the Father’s house.
In the upper room, the Lord says to the disciples, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also’, vv. 2, 3. These words were given in response to a question Peter had asked at the end of chapter 13, ‘Lord, why cannot I follow thee now?’ In reply, Jesus refers to His Father’s house having many abiding places, but what came as a shock to the disciples is that Jesus informs them that although it is His Father’s house, there is a place there for them, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’.
The disciples were looking for a kingdom on earth; they anticipated a place in that earthly kingdom and did not know that they were destined for heaven. This is a new revelation. When the Lord said, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’, He is not referring to the cross, for Calvary prepared the people, not the place. He prepared the place by entering into heaven in a body, as the forerunner of those who would likewise enter heaven in a body.
This chapter deals with the resurrection of the body, and Paul concludes his subject by highlighting two matters relating to the change that will occur in the believer’s body at the ‘last trump’. He informs us, in verse 49, that the change is a certainty, and, in verses 51 to 54, that the change is a necessity. This change is a necessity because currently we have bodies that are suited to a temporary life on earth. What we require at the Lord’s coming will be bodies suited to a permanent life in God’s presence.
In verse 51, the apostle states, ‘Behold, I shew you a mystery’, indicating that what was about to follow would be a new revelation. In verses 42 to 44, the apostle states that the resurrected body of a believer who had died would be different in character and quality to the body that was buried. In verses 51 to 53, he is teaching that living believers would experience a physical change resulting in them having the same kind of body as the resurrected saints even though they had not died. This was the mystery, this was something hitherto not revealed.
Before we look at the change to living believers, let’s consider what is said about those who have died. It says, ‘and the dead shall be raised incorruptible’. On three occasions while the Lord was here, He raised the dead, but the day is coming when He will once more raise the dead, but on a scale that we cannot imagine. We need to appreciate that the body that is raised is the same one that died. If it were a different body, then it wouldn’t be a resurrection. However, it will be different in character to what was buried. The resurrected body of those who have died will be incorruptible; they will be raised never to die again.
The change that takes place for those who will never die will occur at the ‘last trump’. This is the same trumpet that Paul calls the ‘trumpet of God’ in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4; therefore, the change takes place when the Lord descends from heaven to meet His people in the air at the rapture.
How glad we ought to be that we are going to be changed! Imagine living forever in a body passing through a perpetual state of decay and constant decline. Thankfully, that will not happen, for we shall all be changed. The speed in which this change occurs is presented in a twofold way, ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye’. The word translated ‘moment’ is that from which we get our word ‘atom’. To the ancients it indicated time that is too brief to be divided. The speed of the change that will take place in the bodies of the Lord’s people will be so rapid that it can’t be measured. Imagine shutting your eyes momentarily and then opening them again as quickly as possible. By the time they opened it will be over, the change will have happened.
There are two reasons why the bodies of living saints need to be changed. First, these bodies of ours are corruptible, and second, they are mortal. A corruptible body is one that is susceptible to disease and weakness; a mortal body is one that succumbs to death. What a glorious prospect – there will be a generation of Christians who will never die but will experience a change that results in their bodies being impervious to disease, degeneration or death!
The day cannot be far hence when death will be swallowed up in victory, to which we can all affirm, ‘Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’!