Will the Church Go through the Great Tribulation?
by E.W. Rogers (1893-1977)
Will the Church go through the Tribulation? This question is perennial: it is always cropping up, and the phrase is almost hackneyed. Only to the ears of those who have some knowledge of what ‘the Church’ really is, and what particular ‘Tribulation’ is alluded to, does the question convey its proper meaning. Amplified, it ought to be stated thus: Will the Church, which is the body of Christ, pass through the Great Tribulation? In thus framing the question, direction is given both as to the ‘church’ intended and the ‘tribulation’ which is in mind.
Many names could be cited of those who either give an affirmative or negative answer. Unhappily, the piety of some has been used to prove that they must be right. But we suggest that it is not well to cite the piety, as we judge, of any when seeking to ascertain the Scriptural teaching in this matter. If piety were the deciding factor it is shared by both sides of this controversy and would lead us nowhere. Accuracy and piety do not always work together.
We believe that much misunderstanding of God’s present ways and the peculiar nature of the dispensation in which we live springs from what we consider to be a misinterpretation of Daniel 9:24-27. It is important to note the RV of these verses. We must get a clear grasp of the meaning of this passage if we are accurately to answer the question before us.
The word translated ‘week’ means a period of seven, and the context must determine its scope. The word itself decides nothing: it may be a week of days or months or years. A comparative study of the Scriptures will, we suggest, show it to be a week of years, that is, a term of seven years. We have seen no other explanation which is satisfactory: all other attempted explanations of these heptads fail altogether to explain adequately the passage.
We will assume, therefore, that verse 24 speaks of a period of 490 years (that is, seventy times seven) or seventy periods of seven years each. A Bible year is made up of 360 days as will become plain by referring to Genesis 7:11, 7:24 and 8:4. It is important to observe this for reasons which will become apparent as we pursue the matter.
The words ‘Thy people’ and ‘thy city’ indicate the ethnological and geographical spheres affected by these weeks. They relate particularly to the Jews and to Jerusalem. They have, therefore, nothing to do with any other people, earthly or heavenly, except in so far as their events have repercussions on them. As with all Old Testament prophecy, these weeks centre around the Jews and Jerusalem. God’s earthly people, the Jews, and the city where He put His name, Jerusalem, are the centres around which all God’s earthly dealings revolve ever since the call of Abraham.
The marginal rendering purge away of the RV of v24 should be carefully noted. It describes the work of the Lord Jesus when He returns to earth to set up His Kingdom. It does not refer to His death but to His return to earth when He will ‘purge’ out of His Kingdom ‘iniquity’ and bring in ‘everlasting righteousness’ (cf. Matt. 13:41-43); when ‘righteousness and peace will kiss each other’ (Psa 85:10) and ‘the work of righteousness will be peace’ (Isa 32:17; 26:9). Isaiah 61:1-2 will then have been completely fulfilled but not till then. When the Lord Jesus read that great Messianic passage in the Nazareth synagogue “He closed the book” before He completed the sentence. The eyes of all present were fastened on Him. Well might they marvel at this altogether unusual action, for no Rabbi would ever read that passage. By stopping short and not reading “and the day of vengeance” He indicated that He was then inaugurating His work of grace though He would not yet put His hand to the work of judgment. Daniel 9:24, then, describes millennial conditions and not the present era of Divine grace. Confusion must result if this is not conceded.
Verses 25 and 26 indicate the commencement and nature of the sixty-nine weeks. Whatever may be difficult about them, it is surely plain that the sixty-nine weeks have long since run their course. “The people of the prince that shall come” refers to the Romans who, in AD 70, under Titus, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the sanctuary (Herod’s Temple) and thenceforward the characteristic of the age has been ‘war’ and desolation, the annals of the history of the world being witness.
Verse 27 takes us on to the end time. Since it speaks of the one remaining week, namely the seventieth, it follows that a ‘gap’ must have intervened between the sixty-ninth and seventieth. After the completion of the sixty-nine weeks (that is, after the expiry of 483 years from the date of the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem, historically recorded in Nehemiah 2), Messiah (the Lord Jesus Christ) was ‘cut off’ by His death outside the wall of Jerusalem, and ‘had nothing’ of that to which He was entitled. “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.” He was refused the throne and kingdom. But the remaining seventieth week has, we suggest, not yet come. There has been a parenthesis in the ways of God between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth week. The prophetic clock has stopped. God’s earthly people, Israel, commonly called the Jew, have been put on the siding as a train is shunted and left. Meanwhile, God is bringing through on the main line of His ways something new. That new thing is the Church, the body of Christ: ‘one new man’ (Eph 2:15).
God’s main-line dealings commenced with Abraham, from whom sprang His earthly people. These dealings were broken off temporarily when Israel crucified their Messiah. Israel, in God’s reckoning are now asleep in the dust of the earth (Dan 12:2) and are now dead. Like Sarah they are buried out of sight (Gen 21). Nationally, they are ‘Lo Ammi’ (not My people) and ‘Lo Ruhamah’ (have not obtained mercy) (Hosea 1:9). They are the dead and dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision (Eze 37). The staffs ‘Beauty’ and ‘Bands’ have been broken (Zech 11:7-11). In a word they have been put on the siding, having been taken off the main line, and God has temporarily given them up.
But “God has not cast away His people” altogether (Rom 11:2; Isa 26:19). They have only been temporarily cut off. They will later be re-grafted into the old stock (Rom 11:23): they will be brought back on the main line, and God’s earthly dealings with them, and with the world through them, will be resumed. But what is He doing in the meantime? He is bringing the Church through, as the line is cleared to admit of the passing of an express train. When the Church has been completed and has been raptured (that is, ‘caught away’ to heaven) the line will be clear for God to resume His dealings with the Jew.
The curtain has been dropped and will not be drawn up till God’s time has come to permit the actors to come on the stage. One actor we will now speak of.
The pronoun ‘he’ of verse 27 refers to the ‘coming prince’ of verse 26. The ‘covenant” is, we suggest, that of Isa 28:15 which the apostate Jewish nation will make with the Head of the revived Roman Empire as a safeguard against the aggressive designs of their Northern enemies. The ‘many* constitute the mass of the Jewish people – the majority – as distinct from the godly remnant which will be among them. For the first half of this last week heaven seems to be silent; everything seems to be favourable to the Jew. But ‘in the midst of the week’ (see Revelation 12 throughout) their religious liberty will be taken away and the ‘abomination that maketh desolate’ will be set up, that is, the Antichrist will put his image in the holy place of the rebuilt temple at Jerusalem. This will continue till the consummation spoken of in Isa 10:23 is determined when God’s wrath will be poured out. The desolator will be cast into the lake of fire. Whether the desolator is the Antichrist or the Assyrian is unimportant for the present discussion.
It is essential that the reader should carefully examine this for himself and get the times and parties clear in his mind. It is failure to understand these verses which accounts, in part, for the misunderstanding of the matter referred to in the question under discussion. Our desire is that our readers may be convinced by what the Scriptures say. A ‘gap’, we submit, of undefined length, therefore, occurs between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth ‘weeks’ and, although we are told in the Old Testament and the Apocalypse many things that occur in this last ‘week’, we have to look elsewhere to learn what is going on ‘in the gap’.
That one of two component parts of one verse may be historically fulfilled, possibly some thousands of years, before the other is clear from the fact that millenniums have intervened between the two bruisings of Gen. 3:15, two millenniums have intervened between the ‘acceptable year of the Lord’ and the ‘day of vengeance’ of Isa 61:1-2. The suggestion that a ‘gap’ too exists in the seventy weeks of Daniel 9:24, is no manoeuvre as some have asserted, to bolster up a particular theory. The passage is, we submit, quite incapable of a satisfactory explanation in any other way. There are many other passages of Scripture which can be rightly interpreted only by recognising such a ‘gap’ but it would unduly burden the reader and detract from our main theme were we to give and discuss further examples, such as Matthew 10:23; Luke 21:24-25.
The recognition of this ‘gap’ assists in the recognition of the distinction between the events which occur within it and those occurring outside of it and shows clearly the difference between Israel (God’s earthly people) and ‘the Church of God’ (God’s heavenly people). Their distinctive hopes must not be confused. It is the confusion of these things which, in our judgment, produces many strange interpretations of Scripture.
It is impossible seriously to affirm that the seventieth week followed without interruption immediately upon the sixty-ninth week, seeing that verse 27 was not fulfilled immediately after the death of the Messiah. Nor has it since been fulfilled. To affirm otherwise would necessitate nullifying all the promises made to Israel according to the flesh, and denying the faithfulness of God to the patriarchs as to ‘the land’. The whole tenor of Scripture contradicts such an idea. To spiritualize promises and prophecies instead of looking for their literal fulfilment leads to complete uncertainty and detracts from the authority of the Word of God.
Scripture nowhere, so far as we are aware, discloses the length of time of the ‘gap’, but we may, for several reasons, conclude that we are nearing its end. The state of the professing church, international conditions, the development of Palestine, the return of the Jews, are amongst those things which encourage this belief. Not that these are to be regarded as the fulfilment of any special prophecy. They are only premonitory indications of what, we believe, is shortly to come to pass.
Let us then consider what takes place within this gap. To do this fully would take us beyond our present enquiry, but we will deal with so much of the question as relates to the Church and the Tribulation. This will, we believe, throw into relief the distinctive calling and hope of the Church. There are various ‘mysteries’ in the New Testament. These mysteries are not things which puzzle the mind. They, indeed, far exceed any thought or imagination, and display God’s infinite wisdom, but they are truths hitherto kept secret but are now revealed by the Spirit to the ‘perfect’, that is, ‘the initiated’ (1 Cor 2:6). Those who are ‘perfect’, in this sense, are believers who, because they are indwelt by the Spirit of God and allow Him to have His way with them, have the capacity to understand Divine things.
Being ‘mysteries’ it is plain that we shall look in vain for them in the Old Testament Scriptures. They were not revealed at the time the Old Testament was written. But though a strict silence was maintained as to them (Eph 3:5; Col 1:26; Rom 16:25), the Old Testament Scriptures were so worded as to make room for the operation of these mysteries without disclosing them. Indeed, some historical parts of the Old Testament illustrate these New Testament mysteries but they could not be understood in that sense without the revelation given in the New.
Our present inquiry will not allow of our enumerating all these various mysteries but we will refer to three.
(a) The first is that which relates to the formation and growth of the Church which is the body of Christ. Of this Paul writes in Eph 3:5 and Col 1:26. He makes it quite clear that the doctrine of the Church, of which he writes, is an entirely new disclosure. The Church is altogether unique in its origin, character, composition, intercessions and hopes. It is not Israel, nor has it taken Israel’s place. Israel has its own promises and hopes which must never be confounded with those belonging to the Church. The imprecatory language in the Psalms, for instance, would be quite unsuitable for this age of grace in which the Church is being called out. Jerusalem, the temple, the sanctuary, the priest and all that pertained to Israel’s earthly worship is now disowned. “Neither in this mountain nor in
Jerusalem shall men worship the Father” (John 4:21). “We worship by the Spirit of God” (Phil 3:3).
We gather from the New Testament that the Church, the body of Christ, was formed on the day of Pentecost soon after the ascension of the Lord Jesus to heaven. His ascension was, indeed foretold (Psa 68:18), but the Old Testament Scriptures were silent regarding the Church and it is only mentioned incidentally in Matt. 16 and 18. Nothing is said in those two references as to its nature, composition or destiny. It was a secret hidden in God till revealed after the Lord’s ascension to His holy apostles and prophets and formally conveyed to the saints by Paul’s letters to the Ephesians (3:5) and Colossians (1:26). Paul is not alluding to Old Testament prophets in Rom. 16:25-26. The prophetic writings there mentioned are those of the new era introduced by Pentecost. God had hitherto ‘kept silence’ as regards the mystery, but now in writings which rank in authority with Old Testament prophetic Scriptures God has made this new thing known.
(b) The second mystery is that which relates to the temporary and partial blindness of the Jewish people with their concurrent setting aside by God, He in the meantime going out to the Gentiles in grace. Of this Paul writes in Rom 11:25. It is true that foreshadowings of this are to be found in the Old Testament but the manifestation of the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God in such a manner was a new disclosure. How He would co-ordinate Israel’s present blindness and unbelief with His present purposes and operations was not to be discovered anywhere in the Old Testament.
(c) The third mystery is that of the translation of the saints by the coming of the Lord to the air, where they will meet Him. Of this we read in 1 Cor 15:51 and 1 Thess 4:17 ff. This was a new disclosure given by a new ‘word of the Lord’ revealed to the Apostle of the Gentiles. It would take far too great a space to write fully on this theme. It must suffice to say that the ‘Rapture’, as it has come to be called, will take place before the commencement of Daniel’s seventieth week. An objection to this statement will be considered later. This ‘rapture’ will terminate the calling out of the Gentiles to form part of the body of Christ though it will not put an end to Gentile blessing. While, in these days of God’s grace to all, there are three parties recognised in Scripture, viz. the Jew, the Gentile and the Church of God (1 Cor 10:32), after the rapture there will be a reversion both to the conditions prevailing at the time when the Lord Jesus was here in flesh and to those conditions which prevailed before He came. That is to say, there will only be two parties recognised, Jew and Gentile. This involves that the “Church which is the body of Christ”, wherein there is neither Jew nor Gentile, will have been taken to meet the Lord.
The believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is a new creature: ‘if he were once a Gentile he is, in the sight of God, no longer such (1 Cor 12:2). If he were once a Jew, that position has been abandoned as having no spiritual value in God’s sight when he trusted His Son: such distinction no longer holds good in the Church (Gal 3:28; 5:6; 6:15). Since a believer is now no longer a Jew or Gentile his hopes have been transferred from earth to heaven. He no longer talks of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 1:3). He has a living hope. He is among the many sons whom God is bringing to glory.
The reader is urged carefully to study Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians. The first is written to furnish them with details concerning the believers’ true and distinctive hope. He uses the word ‘wrath’ three times, and explains that it is coming upon this earth. In ch 2:16 he tells them that the Jew will be the special object of it, as a recompense for their national guilt in putting to death their Messiah. In ch 5:9 he says that ‘God has not appointed us’ to it, that is to say, believers of the present era are not destined to experience it – not even a part of them, for obviously those who have fallen asleep cannot be in it. Why, then, should a mere part go through the Trouble whilst the greater part do not? In ch 1:10 (RV) Paul clearly affirms that Jesus is ‘our Deliverer’ from it. The saints were taught to wait patiently for Him. The Revised Version of this verse makes its meaning clearer where the present tense and not the past is used. Jesus is ‘our Deliverer’. It is His title. Later He will be Israel’s Deliverer too (Rom 11:26). The same participial noun is used there. The ‘wrath to come’ here mentioned is not the eternal judgment of Rev 20:13 but is the wrath that God is to pour out temporally and governmentally from heaven upon the world of the ungodly, of which we read so much in the prophecies of the Old Testament and in the Apocalypse of the New. We are to be delivered ‘from it’: not as some have said, ‘out of it’. It is true the preposition is ‘ek’, but let the reader attempt to translate this preposition by ‘out of’ in Acts 12:7 and 2 Tim 4:17 and see what results. Did the chains fall out of Peter’s hands, or was Paul taken out of the mouth of the lion? Here is a plain statement. The wrath will be on the Jews particularly, hence it is called the ‘day of Jacob’s trouble’. God, however, has ‘not appointed’ us to it: for Jesus is ‘our Deliverer’ from it. We believe, then, we shall not be here when this takes place.
This special wrath will characterise even the early stages of the ‘Day of the Lord’ which must be distinguished from other ‘days’ of Scripture. The ‘Day of the Lord’ is a period of unparalleled gloominess, sadness, judgment. The following Scriptures should be examined: Amos 5:18; Isa 2:12; Jer 46:10; Eze 13:5; 30:3. But it issues in the great and notable Day of the Lord (Joel 2:31; Acts 2:20) when He personally will come and summarily judge Satan and his two lieutenants. It is essential that we discriminate the ‘days’ of the New Testament. To regard the ‘Day of the Lord’ as the same as the ‘Day of Jesus Christ’ is bound to result in confusion. ‘The day’ alluded to in such passages as 1 Cor 1:8; 2 Cor 1:14; Phil. 2:16; Heb 10:25 and 2 Tim 1:12, 18 has to do with the believer, the realisation of his hope, and the testing of his work and character. It has nothing to do with punishment. But the day of the Lord has to do with the ungodly, with vengeance and judgment.
The Thessalonian saints had been disturbed by wrong teaching and by letters written, as if coming from Paul, telling them that their afflictions proved that they were actually in the Day of the Lord. Paul’s second letter to these saints was written to stablish their minds. He wrote, as he says, in the interests of, ‘on behalf of’ (2 Thess 2:1 RVM), the doctrine of the first letter, and to assure them that they could not be in that day of the Lord because (a) the great apostasy from the faith must occur before that day arrives; (b) the man of sin must first be revealed; and (c) neither of these things could take place whilst there was present on earth the Hinderer and the Hindrance. Much has been written as to who and what these are, but the present writer knows of no better suggestion than that it is the Holy Spirit in and with the Church. All other interpretations seem to be lacking in certain particulars but we cannot here stay to discuss them. Suffice it to say that to ‘hinder’ or to ‘hold down’ denotes an intelligent, purposeful action by someone. It can hardly mean an unwitting action or the mere effect of a system of things. It is the purposeful suppression of something by someone.
The reader is urged to ponder for himself these two Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians very closely. They will do far more to clear away any difficulties than anything else. Let us never listen to the suggestion that Paul is correcting his first letter by his second for that would be to deny its inspiration.
We have earlier spoken of the seventieth week or final period of seven years. Now the book of the Revelation frequently speaks of a period of ‘forty-two months’, ‘twelve hundred and sixty days’, ‘three and a half years’ and ‘a time, times and half a time’. It is hoped that the reader will himself refer to the following passages in which these phrases occur. They all appear to refer to the latter half of the final seventieth week. Unlike the many tribulations through which the redeemed are now called to pass in order to enter the Kingdom (Acts 14:22), tribulations which have already marked two millenniums, it is in that short period referred to that ‘the great Tribulation’ (Rev 7:14 RV), specially directed against the Jew, takes place. This period cannot be introduced until the Man of Sin has acquired his power from the kings of the earth for a term of seven years. This man of sin, as we have seen, cannot be manifested whilst the Hinderer and the Hindrance are here on earth. Therefore, this period and all that accompanies it cannot come until the ‘gathering together to Him’ of the saints of this era. This is, as we judge, the teaching of Scripture. Those who wish to find it plainly stated have only to read the passage which has before been under consideration, i.e. 1 Thess 1:10 in conjunction with 2 Thess 2:1 ff. The deductions which we have made can be tested by each for himself. We are only interested in the truth and desire to give a reason for the hope that is within us. Daniel 7:25 makes mention of this period. The prophet is speaking of the revived Roman empire with its ten kings, and its supreme overlord and his evil doings. This is the person who makes the covenant with the Jewish people, though he breaks faith with them in the midst of the week, or as the RV gives it, ‘for half of the week’. Rev 12:6 makes mention of twelve hundred and sixty days in which the persecuted godly of the nation of Israel will find a prepared place for their safety. Twelve hundred and sixty days is three and a half years of a Bible year of three hundred and sixty days. The same period is mentioned in Rev 12:14. Forty-two months (an equivalent period) is spoken of in 11:2 and the first Beast of chapter 13 continues his blasphemies for that same period also.
If the reader will carefully consider these passages he will observe that each and all have to do with the same period and with ‘the city’ and with ‘the people’ to whom we have made reference at the beginning of our discussion. They have nothing to do with the Church: they have to do with the Jew and with Palestine.
The Olivet Discourse of the Lord Jesus recorded in Matt 24:15-42 and Mark 13:14-27, refers to the same time. The ‘abomination of desolation’ is that image which the Man of Sin will, through the false prophet, have set up in the Holy place at Jerusalem as an object of worship. One has only to read that discourse to discover an altogether different atmosphere from that of Paul’s letters. It is not that Paul taught differently from the Lord Jesus but the same Lord, through His servant, gave him instruction complementary of the earlier teaching. That which He taught on the mount had to do with Israel, with earth, with Palestine, with ‘times and seasons’ and with amplifications of prophecies already given. But to Paul He communicated from heaven, by revelation other things which He had not before mentioned. In the upper room He spoke of some of these ‘mysteries’ in heavily veiled language, but even they were not written till long after Paul had both taught and written concerning the special ‘secrets’ given to him.
The Great Tribulation (or, as Rev 7:14 has it, ‘the tribulation, the great one’) is the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer 30:6-7). It was typified in Rachel’s grief at the time of her death, when Benjamin was born. This incident foreshadowed the bringing into the world of the Man of God’s right hand immediately consequent upon the birth-pangs of His earthly people (see Mark 13:8 RV). Matt 24:21 may be compared with Jer 30:7. In each passage we are told that the trouble is without precedent. It exceeds all that hitherto has taken place. Both passages refer to the same period and circumstances. How can we claim to be waiting for Christ with undivided heart or single eye if we must first expect such awful days? This would not be ‘the comfort of hope’ (1 Thess 4:18).
Surely, it is plain that our hope and that of Israel’s differ the one from the other. ‘We look for a Saviour from heaven’ (Phil 3:20) Whom we shall meet in the air; they will look for a Deliverer on earth Whose feet will stand on the Mount of Olives (Zech 14:4).
We must always bear in mind that while ‘all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable’, it does not all relate to us. Most of Scripture, indeed, relates to Israel, and not to the Church at all, but it has all been written ‘for our learning’. We make a great mistake if we suppose all that is in the New Testament is about us. For example, Matt 24 has to do with the Jew and not the Church. But we read it because we are interested in what our Father intends to do in connection with others. The Lord calls us His friends and not servants, and to us, as such, He has disclosed what He will do (John 15:15). It would be no evidence of love if we were indifferent to that which interests Him.
Some Weaknesses Considered
Those who differ from the conclusions we have set forth have their interpretations which we would treat with respect even where we cannot follow them. Happily, no fundamental question is at stake and differences of judgment on such matters should in no way hinder Christian fellowship. Let us now consider what we believe are the weaknesses betrayed in the teaching under review:
(1) It fails to make an adequate distinction between God’s earthly people and His heavenly people: between Israel and the Church. It is not God’s plan to have two opposite orders of things going on concurrently. That would make His ways not only unequal but contradictory. The Church is like the great sheet of Peter’s vision which was let down from heaven and caught up to heaven (Acts 10:11-12). It is heavenly both in origin and destiny. The nation of Israel, although chosen by God in love (Deut 7:7), began with an earthly man – Abraham. The Church began with the heavenly Man – the Risen Lord. Abraham’s goal is that he looked for a heavenly city (Heb 11:10) and was also promised an earthly land (Gen 15:18). But the Church’s proper place is seated in the heavenlies with Christ (Eph 2:6). The realisation of Israel’s hope has been temporarily deferred till the Church’s hope is fulfilled.
(2) It fails to take into account the distinctive character of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, as compared with the different character of John’s Gospel, which is unrestricted in scope. John’s gospel was written in view of the Jews having already rejected their Messiah, a thing which the Synoptics record in detail (John 1:11). The teaching in the upper room was altogether different from that given on the Mount Olivet. In the upper room the Lord did not say a word about the future Great Tribulation. He forewarned His own, indeed, of possible tribulation and persecution during the period of His absence (John 16:), which has lasted now nearly 2,000 years, and gave them the sweet and present hope: “I come again and will receive you unto Myself that where I am”—not on earth, not where I will be but “where I am” – “ye may be also” (John 14:3). We are going to the Father’s house where there are many mansions. We are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, from heaven, Who will transform our bodies of humiliation and conform them unto the likeness of His own body of glory (Phil 3:20-21). How much we lose if we interpose the Great Tribulation between us and Him! It would diminish our sense of our “waiting for the adoption, to wit the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). ‘Maran Atha’ would tend to lose its force (1 Cor 16:22). Its stimulus would be lost on us. A teaching which tends to destroy the hope that the Lord and His apostles taught us to cherish must be wrong. Did Peter suppose the Lord was referring to anything but the possibility of His bodily return when He spoke the words of John, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” (John 21:23). He could not have been alluding to His death: it was manifestly a hope that John could cherish.
(3) It fails to distinguish the two stages in the future coming of the Lord, namely that for His saints and that with His saints. It is but one coming: yet in two parts. Just as at His incarnation He came first to Bethlehem and later to Jerusalem, so His second advent will be in two stages, first to the air and later to the earth. If we are to be manifested ‘with Him in glory’ (Col 3:2) it of necessity follows that we must first have gone to be with Him. If “God will bring us with Christ” to earth as 1 Thess 4:14 tells us, we must first have been taken to be with Him. Could words be plainer?
(4) It fails to take into account the period that succeeds the Rapture and precedes the coming to earth of the Son of Man. It is during this period that the Great Tribulation takes place. Many other things also have to occur in that space of time. Vast numbers will be saved: Israel will be back in their land: and much else. The Rapture occurs before the seventieth week commences: the Great Tribulation occurs in it.
(5) It fails to recognise the distinctive titles that are used of the Lord Jesus, in relation to each event. His coming to earth in judgment on His enemies and deliverance for His people is as ‘Son of Man’, but this title is not used of Him in relation to the believer’s peculiar hope, in the present dispensation. Of course, the title is used in other connections, such as John 6:53 but we are here only concerned with His return. Moreover, when He speaks of His coming to the air He does so in the first person, but when He speaks of His return to the earth it is in the third person.
(6) Further, it fails adequately to explain the ‘last day’ spoken of in such passages as John 6:39-40. The connection in which the Lord uses the words “last day” does not imply that believers will be raised simultaneously with unbelievers. That would contradict Rev 20:5. It is a term which includes both the resurrection of just and unjust (see not only above passages but also John 6:54; 11:24; and 12:48) though at least a thousand years elapses between the resurrection of the one and that of the other. Moreover, all believers of every dispensation will participate in the ‘first resurrection* though even that resurrection is in stages. Christ was the first one to be raised after its order: then the bodies of the saints which were raised and appeared in Jerusalem after His resurrection: then those who are raised at the rapture: then others who are martyred during subsequent days: then the two witnesses: and so on. The first resurrection, therefore, indicates the character of resurrection, and is completed by the time the Lord Jesus returns to earth.
Unless all these distinctions are kept in mind we suggest it seems impossible properly to understand the teaching whether of the Lord or of His apostle. We shall be confronted with contradictions. In one place the Lord Jesus told us “one shall be taken and the other left” (Matt 24:41) and a study of the context shows that this means the one will be taken away by judgment whereas the other will be left for blessing. But in the case of the Rapture it is the believer who will be taken away from the judgment to come and for blessing, whilst others will be left for judgment.
While we should not base doctrine on the Old Testament types or possible illustrations we are remarkably confirmed in our conclusions as to New Testament teaching when we find it illustrated in the Old.
Consider, for example, Enoch and his great-grandson, Noah. The former was taken away: ‘God took him’ – from the very judgment which he had so faithfully foretold. He was taken before it came, whereas Noah was preserved through it when it did arrive. They respectively set forth the saints of this era and the godly remnant of Israel yet to be found on earth. We shall be taken away from the wrath to come: they will be taken through it. Is this historical record a meaningless coincidence?
Consider again the case of Lot. This is a pertinent picture. The Lord distinctly states that He could not bring the fire on Sodom whilst Lot was there. He must first be removed. After he left the fire fell (Gen 19:22).
Or, again, consider Asenath and Joseph’s brethren. She is seated by his side as wife when he is in power and glory. It is after this – note after this – that his brethren with chastened spirit and guilty conscience come before him begging bread and owning their guilt. This is surely an illustration of what will be true in the future, the Church will be with Christ in His glory whilst Israel are being chastened on earth in the Tribulation, for their sin in murdering their Messiah. Joseph’s brethren thought they had been responsible for their brother’s actual death. They had no idea that he was alive.
And here we may remark that there can surely be no doubt that the Church is the bride of Christ and later will be the Lamb’s wife. John Baptist said “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: nevertheless the friend of the bridegroom standeth and rejoiceth. This, therefore my joy is fulfilled” (John 3:29). Belonging as John did to a dispensation before Pentecost he did not form part of the Church. He was but the one who stood as friend to the bridegroom. Can anyone read Ephesians 5:32 and doubt that the Church is the bride of Christ?
Yet one more illustration. Jehoiada showed the King’s son to certain privileged persons who were anxious for him to be acclaimed king (2 Chron 23). He did this before Joash came forth to the people and was openly acknowledged as king. They were favoured with a preview. How significant is this of that which will take place at the Rapture! To us will be given the preview of this world’s Rightful King before He takes His place on the throne at Jerusalem. We would emphasise that in citing these illustrations we are not building our case on them. Doctrine should be built upon categorical New Testament statements. But if the Old Testament histories illustrate such doctrines they tend to confirm us in the thought that the doctrines have been rightly stated.
But more. To teach that the Church will go through this unequalled period of trouble of which the prophets spake and of which the Lord Jesus uttered such solemn words, is to rob the believer of his peculiar hope. Everywhere in the apostolic writings we find the writers encouraging in the saints the anticipation of the Lord’s return. Paul does so in almost all his letters. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of those who ‘look for Him’ (RV: ‘wait for Him’) (Heb 9:28). James says “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord” (5:7). Peter, in like manner, speaks of “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”, assuring the saints it was no ‘cunningly devised fable’ (2 Pet 1:16). They were not to be disturbed by mockers. John tells us “Having this hope set on Him” (1 John 3:3), we should keep ourselves pure, and we should see that “we are not ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28). He uses the word ‘if He shall appear’ not because His appearance is doubtful but because its time is uncertain. Jude exhorts those to whom he writes to “expect the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (v21). And the final book of our Bible in its closing chapter declares from the lips of the Lord Jesus Himself the thrice repeated “I come quickly” (Rev 22:7, 12, 20). It is true that in one or two epistles there is no reference to His future coming, in Galatians, because the full and satisfactory effects of His first coming had not been clearly grasped by them, and in Ephesians, because the saints are regarded there as already in the heavenlies with Christ. But wherever we are found on earth that is the hope set before us.
The theory that the Church must first go through the Great Tribulation tends to destroy this hope. It teaches us not to wait for God’s Son from heaven but for sorrow on earth: to measure things by time whereas the hope of the Lord’s return is without a time indicator whatsoever. Our hope may be realised at any moment independent altogether of events on earth or any signs attached thereto. “Times and seasons” (1 Thess 5:1) have to do with days yet to come. Concerning them, with the light of the Old Testament, we need no instruction. The Old Testament speaks much of them. But our distinctive hope and anticipation is lost if we get things confused. We must distinguish the dispensations.
If we clearly grasp that this present time is a great parenthesis in the ways of God – the dispensation of the Spirit, that period in which He is calling out from Jew and Gentile a people for His name and for heaven (Acts 15:14), and that its character is altogether unique and different from what has been or will yet be on earth, we shall be the better able to understand our true hope.
It is an important principle of New Testament interpretation not to restrict an Old Testament citation in the New Testament to the context of the Old.
The Holy Spirit often cites the Old Testament with a new and hitherto unrepealed and larger purpose in the New Testament. Many passages could be cited but one will suffice because there is a certain characteristic common to both purposes. 1 Cor 15:54 cites Isaiah 25:8. Now, confessedly, the Isaiah passage relates to Israel and their restoration on earth which, of course, takes place after the Rapture but the Corinthian passage relates to the Rapture. The Spirit of God gives the Old Testament passage a new meaning, which was latent there, but not apparent. He cites it to a new purpose. Paul does not say that this prophecy will be ‘fulfilled’ by the event: he simply says it will be a case in point, much as Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy in his Pentecostal address (Acts 2:16-28). This principle should be borne in mind all through this discussion. Because an Old Testament passage is cited in the New, it does not necessarily follow that the same event is in view in each case. But to deal with some more objections.
Our opposing friends call our attention to the fact that the doctrine of the exemption of the Church from the Great Tribulation is a novelty not much more than a century old. They say it originated either with Irving or Darby. But is this really so? The fact that it may not find a place in early Christian writings is no proof that it is not in Scripture. The doctrine of justification by faith was lost for centuries and revived in the days of Luther. Ought we to reject that because of its late revival? The true test of our teaching is this: Is it Scriptural? We believe that the New Testament clearly demonstrates that the early Christians were taught to wait for Christ; they were not taught to wait for the Tribulation.
The doctrine for which we contend does not emanate from a desire to escape persecution and suffering as has, unfortunately been asserted. Even if it did, the teaching of it could not secure that escape, however much it might have been desired. It is the loyal disciples who suffer tribulation in this era, and what cruelties have saints often been called upon to suffer at the hands of men! Indeed we are appointed to that (1 Thess 3:3); it is our lot. But we maintain that our teaching fosters a proper and intelligent anticipation on the part of believers which supports them in the trial. Can it be seriously affirmed that those who hold the doctrine that the Lord will come before the Great Tribulation takes place are cowards? Surely no one would lodge such a charge against the noble band of teachers of the last century who thus taught us. Neither can we give credit for special bravery to those who differ from us. The Lord reads the heart and we had better leave this particular matter there.
It may be that the use of the word ‘imminent’ in relation to the Coming is inappropriate. Perhaps it overstates the matter. It may be ‘imminent’ but the Scriptural word is ‘quickly’ which denotes not only swiftness but also ‘soon’ – no large lapse of time is to be expected before the event takes place.
Our friends call the doctrine for which this Book contends the ‘any moment theory’ as though the Lord were working without a programme and that He allows, things to happen fortuitously. Doubtless He has a plan, and there are “times and seasons which the Father hath set in His own authority” (Acts 1:7). But this does not affect the uncertainty (to us) of the exact time of the fulfilment of that plan. Doubtless the coming of the Lord to the air, where He will meet the redeemed, will be at the time appointed of the Father. This time may be to-day or it may not be for some years yet. The Lord alone knows. When we use the phrase “any moment” we mean, so far as we are concerned.
Similarly, ‘if the Lord tarry’ is misleading. “He that shall come, will come and will not tarry” (Heb 10:37). He will not be late. We must not say “My Lord delayeth His coming” (Matt 24:48). No, He will come at the right minute known alone to the Father. But the very absence of any time indicator is designed to keep us on the alert and in a state of expectancy.
No doubt the word meet is used three times in the New Testament. It conveys the notion of meeting a person who is on a journey, and returning together to the destination in view. The verb itself does not, however, preclude the idea that there may be a time spent at the place of meeting or elsewhere before the journey is resumed and the goal is reached. It would seem as if that took place when Paul’s friends ‘met’ him (Acts 28:15). It certainly was the case when Martha and Mary went out to ‘meet’ the Lord before they returned with Him so that He might raise Lazarus (John 11:30). The illustrative significance of this latter incident is important. It foreshadows the saints going to meet the Lord and returning with Him when He is about to restore to life the nation of Israel. Whether or not there is a stay en route must be gleaned from the general teaching of the New Testament. It cannot be determined by the verb itself. That the Scriptures teach that such a stay does occur and the purposes of that stay cannot, we submit, be seriously rebutted. It is after this meeting in the air that the Judgment seat and the Marriage supper of the Lamb take place and both are before the Lord’s coming to earth.
If all this be admitted no effective objection can be raised to the oft-repeated phrase ‘the coming for’ and ‘the coming with’ His saints. It is one coming to earth but in two stages, a descent to the air on His way to the earth. His first advent was to the earth and so, too, will be His second advent. There are only two advents.
It would seem that our friends confuse the Rapture with the ‘end of the age’. The ‘age’ is the whole period which was introduced by the Lord’s first advent to earth and it will terminate with His second advent to earth. The whole intervening period is but one age. The ‘Rapture’ occurs within that period but does not terminate it. We have sought to show earlier that the sixty-ninth week was completed by the time the death of Christ occurred: and that thereafter the new ‘age’ which had been brought in will run on for a period, the length of which has not been revealed. Its end will be marked by the seventieth week of Daniel’s well-known prophecy, and very soon after its completion the Son of Man will return to earth. The total length of this interim period we cannot tell. But it will confuse us if we assume that the rapture coincides with the “end of the age”. The two things occur at two different times separated by at least seven years, and it may be by a longer period.
It would, perhaps, be too much to build our contention on the Book of the Revelation, a book of symbols and, confessedly, difficult to interpret. But certainly if our view of this book is correct it tends to support our teaching. The letters to the seven churches depict prophetically the history of Christendom which began at Pentecost. The letters may be read in three ways: (a) as setting forth the concurrent historic state of the churches at the time when the letters were first written; (b) as depicting the moral state of all churches at all times throughout the Christian age; and (c) as giving a prophetic outline of the history of Christendom. In the letter to the Church of Philadelphia the word ‘hour’ (3:10) is used: this word in the Apocalypse is significant. It sometimes denotes a period of seven years for which the kings give their power to the beast. For about half an hour, we are told, there is silence in heaven, so that for about the first half of that last seven-year period heaven is silent. But to the Philadelphian saints the promise is given to be kept out of the whole hour. Let the reader compare Rev 17:12; 8:1 and 3:10 and see if these things are so. This particular Greek phrase (tereso ek tes) is found in John 17:15 where the Lord prayed that His people should be kept from (lit. out of) the evil, that is, He prayed that it should not touch them and that they might be separate from it. In Rev 3:10 He says that the hour of the trial which is about to come on the habitable earth will not touch them, they will be separated from it. The statement implies not only that the trial itself will not touch them, but that they will not even be on earth in the hour in which it occurs. Weymouth translates it: “I will keep you from that hour of trial”. Moffat, it is admitted, translates it “Keep thee safe through the hour” but those who read their Greek Testament will be able to judge if this is correct. Darby’s translation is “I will keep thee out of the hour”. The view for which we are pleading does not rest upon this interpretation of ch 3:10, but we believe it is confirmed by its phraseology and explains (a) the absence of all reference to the Church after Rev 3 until ch 22; (b) the presence of the Elders in heaven in chapter 4; and (c) the peculiarly Old Testament tone of chapters 6-19. All this certainly seems to support the view that the Church is removed out of the world and taken to heaven before the wrath of God is poured out. Some distinguish the Great Tribulation from the time of the indignation and wrath from God and say that the saints are removed after the Great Tribulation and before the ‘Wrath’, but this does not seem in accordance with Dan 11:36; 12:1; Isa 5:25; 10:6; Eze 5:4; 7:3; 20:33, 38; Zeph 2:1-3; Zech 13:9.
But let us quote our opponents’ own statements. I take them from Scripture truth about the Lord’s return by Robert Cameron, D.D., a book which has been written with clarity and Christian grace and courtesy.
“At the time of the harvest some change will have taken place in the true believers so that no possible mistake can be made: the tares can be taken out at that time, at the end, without any destruction of the wheat…that is, there will surely be a brief space (epeita) between the resurrection and the rapture. During this brief space of time the tares are gathered first and then Christ will be marvelled at in them that have believed” (2 Thess 1:10).
These words were written to prove that the Church will go through the Tribulation, but they reveal the impasse to which the writer has brought himself; the insertion of the word ‘surely’ apparently indicating that the writer was not too certain of his argument.
He refers to the time of the ‘harvest. He is alluding to Matt 13:30 and 39, because in his immediate context he quotes ch 13:43. Now we are plainly told by the Lord that the harvest is the ‘end of the age’. The Lord Jesus has been speaking about the ‘kingdom of the heavens’ which, as this very chapter makes clear, and as the writer of the quotation admits, comprises true and false, wheat and tares, good fish and bad. Now ‘those that are Christ’s’, ‘the Church which is His body,’ comprise only the true. Therefore, the ‘kingdom of the heavens’ cannot be a synonym for the ‘Church’. The Church is in the kingdom of the heavens but the kingdom extends beyond it; it comprises a sphere of profession and is made up of everything that in any way takes the name of Christ.
The word ‘harvest’ is never used of the rapture of the Church. The harvest is a time of judgment: cutting down: sorting out. The Rapture is not that: it is rather the redemption of the promise and the gathering home.
Our writer tells us that at the time of the harvest some change will have taken place in the true believers but there is no evidence whatever of this in Matt 13. He has to import the notion of a change from 1 Cor 15:51 and Phil 3:21. It is true that believers who are taken at the Rapture will instantaneously be changed but there is no mention of this in Matt 13. The wheat and the tares grow together: in the early stages of their growth the one could hardly be distinguished from the other. In later stages of development the difference became manifest. The wheat remained what it was and was judged according to what it was. No change occurred in it. Likewise with the tares. When the writer speaks of a change having taken place he deduces it from other Scriptures, and seems to overlook the plain teaching of the parable and its interpretation given by the Lord. The ‘righteous, shining forth as the sun in the Kingdom of the Father’, are those who have not been cut down under judgment. The others have, by judgment, been gathered out of the Kingdom and sent away to punishment. The righteous, like a sun-burnt field of corn, the glory of creation, remain on earth after the tares have all been rooted up, bundled and been burned.
It should be carefully observed that at the Rapture the saints are removed and the wicked are left. At the ‘end of the age’ the wicked are removed (Matt 13:41) and the saints are left. The saints of the second part are different from those of the first. The first are those included from Adam to the completion of the Church: the others are saints, called ‘the righteous’ that are gathered in after the Rapture and of whom we shall have more to say.
And this leads to the following remark. “The one shall be taken and the other left” (Matt 24:40-41) alludes to the time of Judgment after the Rapture, brought in by the advent to earth of the Son of Man. We are told that the word translated ‘taken’ (paralambano) means ‘taken to be alongside of Him’ but this is not translation: it is giving an alleged sense. This is, we submit, not the true sense. The word simply means to ‘take away’ and the reader is referred to Matt 27:27 and John 19:16 where the same verb occurs. It is a verb of frequent occurrence in the New Testament and consistently means to ‘take’. The context must, as it always should, determine its force in Matthew 24. The flood came and took away all the antedeluvians. The Son of Man will come and by His divisive judgment will ‘take away’ those who are not righteous. It is inaccurate to say that because paralambano occurs in Matt 24:40 and John 14:3 the same event is in view. It is a false principle of exegesis to assert that where the same verb is used the reference is to the same event. Nor should we build such a doctrine on the fact that aireo is used in
Matt 24:39 and paralambano in v40. What more suitable word could be used for being borne away by a flood of water than aireo?
Dr. Cameron affirms that a change must have taken place to avoid the possibility of mistake. But mistake is avoided not by an alleged change but by the manifestation in full growth of what each kind really is. In his book elsewhere he speaks of ‘Eisegesis’, and says that our explanation is not true exegesis, but surely he is guilty of this very thing in that he imports into the word epeita (‘afterwards’ or ‘then’), the thought of a ‘brief space’ of time. While the word itself admits of such a period it gives no hint whether the space is long or ‘brief; it merely denotes succession which may or may not be immediate. But when we turn to 1 Cor 15:51 ff, we see the alleged space between the resurrection and the Rapture to be ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye’ so that the time is not even ‘brief. Placing 1 Thess 4:17 and 1 Cor 15:51 ff side by side we conclude that, while sleeping believers will certainly have priority, the space of time, between their resurrection and change and the transformation of the living, is negligible – it is almost simultaneous for they go up together. To insert a period of time in 1 Thess 4:17 because of the word epeita (translated ‘then’) so as to admit of the gathering first of the tares, is contrary to the plain teaching of 1 Cor 15 which deals alone with sleeping and living believers. The corruptibility of the dead will be replaced by incorruptibility. The mortality of living will be substituted by immortality, each in the same moment. 1 Thess 4:13 ff has to do with the translation of the saints: 1 Cor 15:51 ff has to do with their transformation. Each occurs at the same moment of time. This is what is known as the Rapture.
The order is reversed at the coming of the Son of Man. At the Rapture the saints are gathered first to meet the Lord in the air. It is ‘our gathering together unto Him’. At the coming to earth of the Son of Man the tares are gathered first to be consigned to judgment. The many points of difference between them make it impossible for them to refer to the same event. The Rapture is first and is a preparatory step to the second. The gathering of the tares is later.
The writer further confuses Christ being “marvelled at in them that believe” (2 Thess 1:10) with our “being for ever with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17). The two are not only distinct thoughts but they occur at different times. The former has to do with the effect of the Lord’s glory in His people being manifested to others on earth; the latter has to do with the effect of the Lord’s presence in the air, on believers. The rest referred to in 2 Thess 1:7 is not the rest of heart and conscience which is the gift of God, but is that which is recompensed, like the ‘affliction’ of v7. Being a matter of recompense, the ‘affliction* and the ‘rest’ may or may not be synchronous. Instead of the crushing or constraint of affliction to be suffered by the ungodly, the godly will enjoy the relief which God Himself will enjoy when all His foes are subdued. Far from their being in the time of judgment when Paul was writing to them, he points out that it could not be, for when judgment is recompensed to the ungodly rest will be recompensed to the godly. We must not confuse personal and recompensed rest. The personal rest is, for some, entered into already, and for all saints will be entered on in fulness at the Rapture. The recompensed rest will be manifested at the advent to earth of the Son of Man. The two things are here put side by side in order that the saints might be intelligent in the plans of God and comforted by His purpose for them.
Parousia, Epiphany, Revelation
We are told that there is confusion as to the words ‘Parousia’, ‘Epiphany’ and ‘Revelation’ (or Apocalypse) in relation to the Lord Jesus. But is there?
Parousia is a word that denotes not merely the coming of an absent person, but his arrival and subsequent stay. It is frequently translated ‘coming’ but this is not its full meaning. Its meaning includes also ‘presence’ as will be seen by the text and margin of the Revised Version. The context of the passage must determine where that presence is: it may be in the air or on earth (see also Appendix to chapter II). All its occurrences in the NT are: Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39, 1 Cor 15:23, 16:17, 2 Cor 7:6, 7:7, 10:10, Phil 1:26, 2:12, 1 Thess 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23, 2 Thess 2:1, 8:9, Jas 5:7, 5:8, 2 Pet. 1. 16, 3:4, 3:12, 1 John 2:28.
Epiphany denotes a shining forth, and again the reader is urged to examine the various occurrences of this word in the New Testament. The occurrences are: 2 Thess 2:8, 1 Tim 6:14, 2 Tim 1:10, 4:1, 4:8, Titus 2:13, In 2 Thess 2:8 it is translated ‘brightness of His coming’ but might otherwise be read ‘shining forth of His presence’; that is, the presence of the Lord with His people in the air will shine forth to men on earth. In 1 Tim 6:14 Paul exhorts Timothy to “keep the commandment without spot until the Epiphany” because at that time will be manifested the rewards which have been given to His people (Timothy included) consequent upon the appraisal of the Judgment seat. No doubt he uses this word here also because of what he says in v15 as to showing who is the only Potentate, King of kings, etc. This will be shown at His Epiphany. Thus this word seems to relate to His shining forth on earth.
Apocalypse denotes an unveiling, a revelation. Here again, the context must determine to whom the unveiling is given. All the occurrences of this word (which are relevant to the subject in hand) are as follows: 1 Cor 1:7, 2 Thess 1:7, 1 Pet 1:7, 13:4, 13:13, Rev 1:1. The leading passage seems to be 2 Thess 1:7 which relates to His revelation to men on earth, and this determines the meaning of the other passages. Thus this word seems to relate to His presence on earth.
The Parousia, however, is not to be confined to His presence with the saints in the air. The Parousia includes the Epiphany and the Apocalypse. It commences with the Lord’s coming for His own to the air: it continues till and includes His presence with His own on earth. In a word, the Rapture is the commencement of the ‘Parousia’ in the air, and the Epiphany and Apocalypse are the commencement of the ‘Parousia’ of the Lord on earth. When the Lord comes to meet His people in the air He will be present with them after the time of His absence: that will begin His parousia. To them He will have been revealed and before their eyes He will shine forth, so that they will be granted a preview of the glories of their Lord. But the full ‘Epiphany’ and the full ‘Apocalypse’ of His earthly glory described in Rev 19:14 awaits His coming to earth.
1 Thess 3:13 speaks of His ‘Parousia’ in the air but Matt 24:3, 27, 37 and 39 speak of His parousia or presence on earth. So that the context of the passage in which any of these words occur must govern our understanding of them.
The writer of the book under review objects to our drawing a distinction between the ‘Sun of righteousness’, the ‘morning star’ and ‘the thief. But why? Plainly they are not the same, though each and all refer to the same Person.
‘The morning star’ certainly shines in the darkness: it is only seen by those who are awake in the night time. It is a most apt figure of our Lord Who will come for His own whilst the world is in their night of sleep. Believers should be awake in the night time. The morning star shines in the heavens, and the gaze of the believer should not be earthbound but upward. It appears before the rising of the sun.
The ‘Sun of righteousness’ has, of course, to do with earth. The sunrise is seen on the horizon of the earth. The sun rules by day and its heat and healing qualities are felt and known on earth. Of this Malachi speaks to God’s earthly people (Mal 4:2).
The ‘thief’ comes during the night unlooked for and unwanted, catching men asleep: breaking in upon and robbing them of their treasured things. This will be the effect of the coming to earth of the Son of Man. The Lord in His word never uses different symbols without a purpose to convey different facets of truth. We do not well to ignore them. To treat them all as referring to the same event and the same time and the same parties is to confuse what otherwise could be so plain. 1 Thess 5:3-4 is not a warning given to the saints against a possibility of the day of the Lord overtaking them as a thief: Paul rather shows them that because they are children of the day it will not do so. Nor does Rev 3:3 contradict this. It is to the professing Church that the warning of coming as a thief is given, not to the godly ‘rest’ of v4. This is a distinction of great moment. In Christendom there are the real and spurious. Our Lord will not come as a thief to the real. He will, however, come in that manner to the mere empty professor. We should examine ourselves.
By teaching that the Church will not go through the Tribulation, we do not make the teaching of our Lord incongruous with that of Paul, but we seek to distinguish things that differ. The synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – were written much earlier than that of John. This was a divine providence. For the former three deal with earth, with Israel, and do not disclose the teaching of Paul concerning the Rapture at all. John’s Gospel begins where the others end: it assumes Israel’s rejection of their Messiah (1:11). Both in ch 11:25 and 14:3 the Lord speaks of the Rapture. Though His words are not so plain as those which Paul wrote later, they are in full accord with the later revelation – 1 Thess 4:15 ff. The teaching of the Rapture was a secret revealed to Paul which he communicated to the saints. Though John wrote much later than Paul, his Gospel shows that the Lord’s prior, verbal and hitherto unrecorded teaching, agreed perfectly with what Paul clearly taught by revelation.
Because the Lord Jesus gave the Olivet discourse after He left the temple, and the discourse of Luke 21 (it is alleged) in the temple court, and the discourse of John 14-16 in the upper room, each to His disciples, it does not follow that they all are precisely alike. While there are certainly points of similarity there are more points of difference. No doubt, there are features common to the discourses as there are things common to both believers now and to the godly Jews hereafter – the future remnant – just as there are basic principles true of all dispensations and all men. We need not be surprised that there is a certain similarity in these discourses but the differences ought to be given due weight and consideration.
The writer of the book under review will not admit it, but we believe that the disciples addressed in Matthew 24 did hold a dual position. They were actually a godly remnant who had received in faith their Messiah while the nation of Israel were hostile both to the Lord and His apostles. Such a remnant will exist later in the midst of that nation when it has become thoroughly apostate. But these same disciples were also actually the nucleus of the Church which was about to be built. It was not then in building, but was spoken of as future. “I will build My Church” (Matt 16:18) the Lord Jesus said, and He said that Peter would be incorporated into that building. So that Peter stood at one and the same time both as one of Israel’s godly remnant and a member-to-be of the Church. Sometimes the Lord Jesus spoke to them as representing the remnant, as in Matt 24, while at other times He spoke to them in view of their future Church position. Often His remarks were such as to cover both positions and related to things in common to the godly at all times. The Lord Jesus did not make a full disclosure of the Church and its body-like character, but in the teaching of the same Lord through Paul we may re-read the upper room discourse of John 14-16 and see how both are in fullest accord.
For example, when the Lord addresses them as the Jewish remnant He owns the Sabbath day as a divine institution, whereas in the Christian era believers meet together on the first day of the week. It is not without significance that this day is mentioned twice in John 20. Again, persecution is a characteristic of all ages. The godly of any dispensation experience it. It is, therefore, mentioned in both the synoptics and John’s Gospel. But in the synoptics the ‘Son of Man’ is spoken of as coming back to earth while in John 14:3 the Lord’s future coming is spoken of in an altogether different way. “I will,” says He, “receive you unto Myself that where I am there ye may be also”. Here their hopes are diverted from earth to heaven. They are taught to look for Him to come and for them to go: I will come and ‘receive you’, not I will come to you, but there is a two-fold movement: one on His part and another on the part of the disciples.
Our writer seems to suppose Paul’s words: “this we say unto you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15) revert to this passage, but we have no evidence that Paul knew of it. In any case, John 14:3 conveys no instruction concerning the details of 1 Thess 4:15-17. The phrase evidently means that Paul claimed divine authority for this new item of truth which he was, for the first time, communicating to the Thessalonian believers. Yet each of these two passages accords with the other.
The Lord Jesus, in Luke 21:22, speaks of the ‘days of vengeance’ which, as we are rightly told, relate to the times of Titus (AD 70) when he razed Jerusalem: wrath had then and there come upon them (1 Thess 2:16) but in its fulness it is still impending. Thus, those ‘days of vengeance’ were concurrent then with the ‘acceptable year of the Lord’. Stephen’s message to Israel gave room for repentance, but when the acceptable year closes, there is no indication that there must be a further time for repentance. As we have before remarked, before the Church came into being on the day of Pentecost there was a two-fold distinction between Jew and Gentile. From that time onward there has been a three-fold distinction between the Jew, the Gentile and the Church of God. When the saints have been taken at the Rapture there will be a reversion to the former condition of things, namely only Jew and Gentile. Yet at the beginning of the Christian era the Gospel was ‘to the Jew first’, for though God knew the ultimate issue, His longsuffering still bore with them despite the crime of Calvary. This is another case of an overlap in the dispensation that has now closed and that which is now present. But this overlap is due to grace being offered to all. Is it likely that there will be a similar overlap when grace has been rejected} We see no evidence for such in Scripture.
It has been asked, if the Church has gone and if the Spirit of God has been withdrawn from earth at the Rapture, how long will it be before God will have on earth any human testimony? If, as seems to be the case, the ‘hinderer’ (cf. 2 Thess 2:7) is the Holy Spirit, He will no longer be abiding with and in the people of God on earth, but this is not to say that He will not resume His ministry as in Old Testament times. Now He resides in the Church. This is the distinctive feature of the present dispensation. Then, however, He will act from heaven. But the workings of His grace in every age are like the wind – altogether unaccountable – and we may leave the answer to this question, as to many others, to the Lord. It is, however, not difficult to imagine that the Rapture would have an immediate effect upon the consciences of many. There are millions even in so-called Christian lands, who have not deliberately rejected the Gospel, and though Christendom itself will be given over to judgment and unbelief, there will, as Revelation 7 clearly shows, be an extensive work of God among men. But this would not apply to those who are spoken of in 2 Thess 1:8, 2:10-12. If the Gospel is wittingly and wilfully rejected, there will be no second chance after the Lord has taken away His own.
But our friends have further real difficulties and we ought to face them.
They cite Paul. They ask how could he write as he did in such letters as those to Timothy. In the second epistle, chapter 4:6, he speaks of his ‘departure’ and earlier of the ‘last days’ (2 Tim 3:1). Also, he, in the first letter, spoke of ‘latter times’ (1 Tim 4:1). How could he, they ask, speak to the Ephesian elders of times ‘after his departure’ (Acts 20:29) and to the Philippians of his release and future plans, if he taught as we assert he did. The answer to these enquiries we believe to be this: Paul stood in a state of readiness for any one of three things: (a) The Lord might come or (b) He might die or (c) He might not yet come nor might Paul yet die and so he would continue his work. It was his certainty of His coming that led him to write as he did, while it was the uncertainty of its time and events that caused him to write in other strains.
We are asked how could the Spirit have given His commission to Paul to preach the Gospel if the Lord might come ‘at any moment’, and how could Paul make plans for a long itinerary in missionary work (Romans 15)? All, however, was subject to the Lord’s will and contingent for fulfilment on his being left here in life. How, they ask, could Peter make an offer to the nation of Israel for them to repent promising them the return of Christ if they did so (Acts 3:19)? All such offers were perfectly bona fide despite the fact that God, in His inscrutable wisdom, knew what the result would be and had made provision for further development in view thereof. Scripture is so wisely worded as to inculcate the hope of the Lord’s return, while yet, at the same time, to stimulate energy in His work. God so frames His word as to admit of the working out of all His plans. We are told to ‘Occupy till I come’ (Luke 19:13): there is to be both occupation and anticipation and each must have its place.
And this leads us to remark as to Matt 24:14: we are told that the Gospel has not been preached yet to all the world. But the word ‘this’ should be noted. It refers to the good news of v13 – “he that endureth to the end shall be saved”. It has to do with the Gospel of the Kingdom and with all the earthly blessings it proclaims. And the word ‘oikonomenos’ should be observed, which is more limited than ‘kosmos’. These remarks are not made with the view of damping any ardour in the spread of the Gospel of God’s grace to sinners now: but in the interests, merely, of accurate exegesis. The basis of the Gospel at all times, is the same, namely, the death of Christ. But the special emphasis in the Gospel message differs according to the age in which it is preached. There is no conflict between Matt 24:14 and Gal 1:8. Each passage relates to a different time from the other. The one has to do with the salvation of the soul; the other, in Matt. 24, with the salvation of the body.
Our commission is to ‘Occupy till I come’. It is true that the parable speaks of our Lord having gone to a ‘far country’ and returning after a ‘long time’, but we must remember He was speaking a parable. Even so, He returned within the lifetime of all the ten servants. So that, instead of encouraging a sense of delay, it should create a sense of urgency. He may come back within our lifetime.
Paul’s duty was, and ours is, to fulfil the ministry received from the Lord and to spare no efforts in so doing. His hope was his Lord’s return. He was well-balanced and two passages are cited which beautifully illustrate this. Paul uses ‘we’ in 1 Thess 4:16 linking himself with those that are alive and in 2 Cor 4:14 he uses the pronoun ‘we’ linking himself with those that shall have died. He was prepared for either. He cannot be charged with inconsistency. He knows the Lord will come. He does not know when. He knows some saints will be alive when He comes: he himself might be, so he uses ‘we’ in regard thereto. But he knows also that some may die before that and circumstances indeed seemed to indicate he himself would and so he uses ‘we’ in connection with sleeping saints.
Apostolic times, moreover, were unique and special. Peter, for example, was foretold his death and its manner. But it is doubtful if this was common knowledge until such times as the whole of the New Testament was in the hands of the saints. John’s record of the Lord’s statement of Peter’s martyrdom as not written till long afterwards. In any event we are confronted with this: Peter in the very chapter in which he alludes to the manner of his own death, encourages the saints to give heed to the prophetic word ‘until the day dawn and the day star arise’ (2 Pet 1:19). Was not that encouraging them to hope that the Lord might return before they died, even though Peter had to fall asleep?
But, we are asked, how could Peter have expected the Lord to come in his lifetime} Even if we grant (as we must) that his case is exceptional, we ought not to base too much on it. Peter did not disclose to the saints his foreshadowed martyrdom till he wrote, at an advanced age, his second letter. Moreover, he tells them that his death was ‘coming swiftly’ (2 Pet 1:14 RV). Little time was left to elapse and it was not calculated to upset but rather to stimulate their hope.
It is alleged that the events on earth, of which both the synoptic Gospels and the Revelation speak as occurring prior to the Lord’s return, are like a railway semaphore telling of the soon arrival of the train bearing a friend. But surely if the train took three and a half years or more to arrive we should imagine that something had gone wrong.
All the eschatological passages of the New Testament have been written by an All-wise Spirit who knew the end from the beginning. But at any time during the age which has now so far advanced, believers would have found a living message for their times in them. We can well believe that they supposed they were on the eve of His coming in their day. This was the design. It was no deceptive or tantalising thing. To them ‘the sky not the grave was their goal’, and though they have gone into death they will have priority in resurrection. Saints should ever be like Paul, prepared to be either of the ‘living’ or ‘sleeping’ company. The Scriptures were not written to satisfy our logical minds: they were written to search our wayward hearts.
We are told that the words ‘but the end is not immediately’ (Luke 21:9 RV) is a solemn warning against expecting Him back too soon. But the 40 years that elapsed between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem (see v6) were full of disturbance or revolt. Who could have known at the time that these forty years would elapse? Jerusalem might, for ought they knew, have fallen at any time earlier. It is in Matthew and Mark that we have another enquiry concerning a more far-reaching future, “What shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the age?” He was answering only one of their questions in Luke’s record, and at this point He said “Not immediately” (RV). The “end” here is not the Rapture, but the Epiphany on earth. His aim certainly was not to push off the hope of His coming to the air to the far, far distant future so that His hearers could have no possible interest in it. He was speaking to them and for their instruction, as well as for us upon whom the ‘end of the ages have come’. For the most part, Luke 21 relates to the present dispensation, but not all of it. As we have before said, there is no mention whatever of the Rapture in Luke’s Gospel.
It has been stated that the ‘last trump’ of 1 Cor 15:51 is identical with the seventh trumpet of Rev 11:15. The seventh trumpet of the apocalypse, however, is not in fact the last trump. It is, admittedly, the last of the series of seven but there is yet another trumpet to be sounded as referred to in Matthew 24:31. This trumpet is sounded after the return to earth of the Son of Man, The seventh trumpet is sounded at the time of the last great conflagration resultant upon and synchronous with the coming forth of the Lord from heaven (Rev 19:11). Is it any marvel then that there should be a trumpet at the Rapture before these seven trumpets as well as a trumpet after these seven? The trumpet which is sounded after the seven will be for the regathering of God’s elect earthly people.
Again, if the seventh trumpet was identical with the ‘last trump’ of 1 Cor 15:51 it would involve that some part of the Church must experience the ‘wrath to come’ and not be delivered from it. For the ‘wrath’ does not begin with the seventh trumpet: that is the climax of it. Thus this interpretation contradicts the indubitable word of promise of Rom 5:9 and 1 Thess 1:10.
The phrase ‘last trump’ was understandable by those to whom Paul wrote. Unlike Old Testament prophecy New Testament letters were self-explanatory and capable of being understood by the recipients. Seeing that the apocalypse was not written till about thirty years later than the Corinthian letters, it follows that they knew nothing whatever of the ‘seven trumpets’. Nor is there ground for assuming that Paul did. It would be a strange thing for him to have known of them, and to write of one of them, and yet not to refer to the other six. 1 Cor 15 has several military terms in it: ‘order/ ‘victory’, ‘the dead,’ and why should not the phrase ‘last trump’ be understood similarly of a military signal to march off? It was a well known expression in those times.
There are distinctive purposes for the blowing of these trumpets:
(1) The Corinthian trump is to call the redeemed to the air to meet the Lord. This is identical with that of 1 Thess 4. 1 Cor 15 has to do with the believer’s body. 1 Thess 4 has to do with the place to which he goes.
(2) The seventh trumpet is to bring in the Lord from heaven to earth and, concurrently, His judgment on the nations. We should not restrict the ‘coming wrath’ of 1 Thess 1:10 to the ‘wrath’ of Rev 11:18: it is inclusive of that but it includes all the coming wrath such as that referred to in Rev. 6. 17 (RV) and 14:10.
(3) The trumpet of Matt 24:31 is designed to gather God’s elect earthly people back to their own land. For this the angels are sent. In 1 Thess 4 the Lord Himself comes not with an archangel but an archangel’s voice. Matt. 24: 31 is the fulfilment of Isa 27:13, the feast of trumpets (Lev 23:23) and is typified by the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:9).
(4) The trump of Paul’s letters brings blessing to the saints. The trump of the apocalypse brings judgment on the world.
(5) The trump of 1 Cor. 15 relates to a ‘mystery’ not found in the Old Testament, but the trumpets of Revelation relate to developments of well-known Old Testament prophecies.
(6) The trump of I Cor. 15 and I Thess 4 is the trump of God whereas those of Revelation are the trumpets of angels.
(7) The seven trumpets were symbolic but there is nothing symbolic in 1 Cor 15 and 1 Thess 4, though plainly they will not be material trumpets.
Another objection has been raised: it is that the revelation of the Man of Sin does not take place at the beginning of Daniel’s last week but in the middle of it, and if this is so then there is no ground for saying that the saints will be raptured prior to the beginning of the seventieth week. But is it so?
The word ‘revealed’ in 2 Thess 2:3, 6 does not mean ‘manifested in character’. When Paul wishes to convey that meaning he uses an entirely different Greek word. He uses this word in 2 Cor 5:10 where the manifestation of our character at the Judgment seat is in view. But the word he uses in 2 Thess 2 is that which means ‘unveiling’, bringing to light someone hidden.
The Man of Sin is not unveiled by his depriving the Jews of their religious liberty in the middle of the week. He is unveiled when as head of the revived Roman Empire (Daniel 9:26 ff) he signs the covenant with them (Isa 28:15). He is fully identified by the facts (1) that he is the head of a tenfold kingdom; (2) he has suppressed three kings; (3) he makes the covenant for the period of seven years; and (4) that such covenant is made with the mass of the apostate Jews. Here are four things which make identification sure. The Man of Sin is thus openly displayed.
The view that he is revealed in the middle of the week entails us in the difficulty that the Church would be in part of the seventieth week, and that God would be contemporaneously recognising and dealing with both an earthly and heavenly people and consequently that true Christian ground and true Jewish ground would co-exist, whereas they are actually incompatible with each other. If a Jew believes now he becomes part of the Church: if the Church is then existent, and the godly Jew is acknowledged as such by God, what will be his position? He cannot occupy both positions. It would make God’s ways contradictory and unequal.
We are told that the man-child of Revelation 12:5 is Christ and the Church and that the reference is to the Rapture. The reason for this statement is that the same word is used, ‘caught up’. But it is not difficult to show that this is not so.
The man-child is caught up to ‘God and to His throne’. It is different with the Church. That is caught up ‘to meet the Lord in the air’. Israel is not the mother of the Church; she was the national mother of the Lord according to the flesh. The Church, however, is founded on a risen Christ. He is the firstborn of the dead. The Church is neither earthly, nor national – it is heavenly. You cannot get a heavenly thing out of an earthly. God closed judicially the history of man altogether at the cross and at Pentecost brought in something entirely new.
Let us sum up, then, the conclusions to which we have reached after having sought fairly to deal with objections:
(a) So far as Scripture states, it appears that nothing need necessarily occur before the Lord comes to the air. There is no event put between His promise to us and its realisation; nothing that has transpired in history has belied this statement. When the Lord was telling His disciples of His return to earth He recited much that had to occur before then, but when He spoke of His return to gather His own to Himself He says not a word about anything having to transpire. He tells them, it is true, that during the time of His absence they will find the world hostile to them and that the Holy Spirit will be their comforter. But in the upper room discourse there are no allusions such as those in Matt 24. When He spoke to them about the things of Matt 24 He regarded them as the remnant of Israel. In the upper room He spoke to them as the nucleus of the Church. The place where He spoke is not insignificant. In the synoptics He is in sight of the Temple, but in John, He is within the confines of the upper room. His ‘outlook’ is, therefore, different in each case.
(b) It is not a little remarkable that God did not permit John to commit to writing the upper room discourse until Paul had taught his doctrine of the Rapture. But when he did so write, it became evident that the Lord’s own teachings, instead of contradicting Paul’s, endorsed them. The synoptics agree with 2 Thess 2, whereas John 14:3 and 11:25 fall into line with 2 Cor 15 and I Thess 4.
(c) ‘Till He come’ should, therefore, be ever before us. But even the word ‘until’ has been made use of in an attempt to show that the Lord’s return could not be for some prolonged period and Psalm 110:1; Rom 11:25; Matt 13:30; Acts 3:21 have been cited in particular. But all of these passages relate to the Lord’s coming to earth: none of them has in the remotest way to do with the coming of the Lord Jesus to the air for His own.
(d) It is true that there are very significant events happening on earth in our own times. They may be heralds of His near return. But national affairs are so variable that a reversion of conditions could easily occur and what then? After the Church has gone, Israel will rightly look for signs on earth, but no sign of any intervening event whatever is given for the Church. Saints have been taught to wait for the Lord from heaven. They look up to Him in heaven and not to the land on earth.
(e) Because the Lord made provision for His absence, it does not follow that He did not want His people at the same time to wait for His return. We are told that He intended to be away a long time because He promised the Holy Spirit should come: He forewarned of persecution: He vouchsafed further disclosures of truth and said that Peter would die, that the Gospel must be preached to all nations, that He would go to a far country and after a long time would return and so on. But is it not remarkable that in the upper room BEFORE He made any statement whatever as to the provisions to be made for His absence, He spoke of His coming? He did so in the present tense, not the future. He did so in distinct contrast with what He had earlier said as to the nation of Israel. Surely the sense is that of a Friend who is departing for a little time, making adequate provision for the time of His absence, and encouraging a loving anticipation of His speedy return. Even the innkeeper expected the return of the Good Samaritan and the two pence would not last long. “Behold I come quickly: Behold I come quickly: Surely, I come quickly,” He said when closing the canon of Scripture. It is His last word. He Himself is keenly looking forward to His return. Why should not we? Whence springs these increasing attempts to keep the heart occupied with earth and its changing scenes instead of with Himself, and to defer the prospect of seeing Him till some long unknown future?
Let not the Hope grow dim. When it was recovered over a century ago, how it found utterance in the longing of the heart in many a hymn which we love still to sing! A new note was added to our hymnology such as ‘A little while, our Lord shall come’; ‘I am waiting for the dawning’; ‘Blessed Lord our souls are longing’; and ‘Bride of the Lamb awake’. Let us sing them still especially at the Remembrance feast, which we keep ‘until He come’.