STUDIES ON THE SECOND COMING
THE TIMING OF THE RAPTURE
AND THE PURPOSE OF CHRISTIAN SUFFERING
Dealing with the subject of the second coming has almost been a kind of journey for me. I grew up in a very conservative Baptist home which accepted without qualification what we had been taught in church about the second coming. There was little doubt in my mind that we lived in the church age of Laodicea, that Christ was going to rapture the church, that only after the church was raptured would the great tribulation begin, that Christ would return to defeat the Antichrist after the tribulation, and that Christ would then reign upon the earth for 1,000 years. All was so simple back then.
My first encounter with a different view occurred when I was attending a church in north Austin during my senior year at college. The pastor at the church I was attending believed a quite different view about the second coming. I couldn't believe it. I was thoroughly convinced that he was a "liberal" with a big capital "L." Because I really liked the church, I continued to serve there even though I feared that its pastor was going to go to hell. Oh well, churches can't be perfect in every way.
Things took a turn for the worse when I went to seminary. There I encountered some really godly men who believed the Bible to be God's Word and yet who spoke about different views of the second coming. They didn't necessarily promote a certain view about the second coming; they just showed us (in their learned opinion) the strengths and weaknesses of each of the views. Finally, after my first year in seminary I decided to see for myself which view was true. It was only about 10 years later that things began to get clearer and clearer to me.
What helped me the most was first to learn the different views, especially the great 3 views (the 4 discussed in the previous lesson MINUS postmillennialism), and then see which of the 3 really agreed with Scripture. Unfortunately, most of us adopt a view of the second coming and then impose it upon the Scriptures. Just checking out the Scriptures themselves without trying to impose strained interpretations upon them really helped me. I didn't want to know what this view or that view said as much as what Scripture itself said. It was only after 8 years of careful study that I came to believe that the view which harmonized BEST with Scripture was the view that Christians are raptured only AFTER the tribulation and not before.
What we want to do now is look at the major passages on the rapture and try to determine which view they support, the rapture before or the rapture after the tribulation.
MAJOR PASSAGES ON THE RAPTURE (and what they are REALLY saying about the Rapture)
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
THE classic passage on the rapture is found in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. Paul claims that the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and then the dead in Christ will rise first. After the resurrection of dead Christians, Christ will transform Christians who are still alive and snatch them up into the clouds (see 1 Cor. 15:51-52 which discusses the same event). From that time on they will forever be with the Lord.
Just a side note here. Remember that whatever else the rapture involves, it primarily involves the RESURRECTION of Christians. It is not just a snatching up into the clouds; it is RESURRECTION. Later this fact will be huge in our discussion.
At this point some will claim: "There you go. This passage proves that the rapture occurs BEFORE the tribulation BECAUSE Christians go to be with the Lord in heaven after they are raptured. Only AFTER the 7 years of tribulation they will come back down to earth with the Lord so that He can reign for 1,000 years." My response to this: "Where does it say that? Where does it say that Christians go back to heaven with the Lord? It DOESN'T say that. All it says is that we will be with the Lord forever. It doesn't say where that is."
So can we use this passage at all to get some insight as to the timing of the rapture, that is, before or after the tribulation? I believe we can because of the way Paul describes the rapture and also a certain word he uses in this passage.
As we said earlier in 1 Thess. 4, whatever else the rapture involves, it primarily involves the resurrection of dead Christians and the radical transformation of Christians who are alive upon the earth. John speaks about the resurrection of dead Christians in Rev. 20:5-6
According to John, Jesus returns from heaven at the end of the 7 years of tribulation to defeat the Antichrist at the battle of Armageddon (notice that this is a scene of war, just like the scene in 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christ will bind Satan for 1,000 years, throw the Antichrist and his servant the false prophet into the lake of fire, and THEN RESURRECT DEAD CHRISTIANS.
Notice that it is at the END of the tribulation that Christ resurrects the dead Christians who then reign with Him for 1,000 years. But could this not be the second resurrection, with the first resurrection occurring BEFORE the tribulation? There is a problem saying this. John goes on to say that the resurrection which occurs AFTER the tribulation is actually the FIRST resurrection. Not the SECOND resurrection, but the FIRST resurrection. In fact the way he says it in the Greek emphasizes that this IS the FIRST resurrection: "This is the resurrection--the FIRST one" (Rev. 20:5). Since the rapture IS resurrection, it cannot happen BEFORE the tribulation since John says the first one occurs AFTER the tribulation.
The fact that John calls the resurrection of dead Christians AFTER the tribulation the FIRST one means that one of 3 things is true:
Take your pick which one of the 3 options is true.
Matthew 24:4-31 (esp. 29-31)
This and Mark 13 are the classic passages on the second coming which come from Jesus Himself. In both passages Jesus teaches that a great time of tribulation is going to fall upon the world, that the key event of the tribulation will be the abomination of desolation, and that He will come to rescue and rapture His followers AFTER the tribulation (Matt. 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27).
Some will claim though that this rapture refers only to those Jews who were saved during the tribulation which occurred BEFORE the tribulation started. While this could be possibly true, there are several problems with this. You pick which one of the following statements is true.
Again, remember the purpose of Jesus' teachings in Matt. 24 and Mark 13. Jesus gives us both Mark 13 and Matt. 24 so that we can be prepared and not be misled by Antichrists who emerge during the tribulation, something we wouldn't have to worry about at all if we are raptured BEFORE the tribulation. In fact look at all the passages about the second coming and discover the purpose Jesus, John, and Paul give in these passages. None of the passages makes sense if we are raptured BEFORE the tribulation since in each of these passages they are warning us not to be misled. You can't be misled if you aren't there!
ORDER OF EVENTS AT THE SECOND COMING
In light of what has been said above, we can outline the events surrounding the second coming as such:
Some highly object to the scenario outlined above. First of all they claim that it is not fair that people who became Christians before the tribulation should have to go through the tribulation. Where in the world did they ever get such an argument? Not from the Bible. Moreover, if God were fair, we would all go to hell because hell, not heaven, is what we actually deserve. I'm not glad God is NOT fair.
God Won't Let His People Suffer Like That
Some will claim: "We are God's sons and daughters! He won't let us suffer like that!"
First of all, God's people will NOT suffer the wrath He pours out upon the earth. Just like the Antichrist marks his people with the "666," so God marks His people at the beginning of the tribulation (Rev. 7:1-4). Why? So that they won't be hurt by the wrath He pours out upon the Antichrist and His followers (Rev. 9:4). Just like God protected the Jews from the wrath He poured out upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, so He will protect His people from the wrath He pours out upon the Antichrist and his followers during the tribulation.
Second, God WILL let His people suffer like that. If you don't think that God won't let His sons and daughters suffer, then you need to take another good hard look at the cross of Christ. No one will EVER suffer to the extent Jesus did. Well, if God let His favored Son suffer, how much more will He let you and me suffer.
What About the Jew?
Some will claim: "But I thought that the Jew was going to be the focus of the tribulation. Christians have to be raptured so that God can focus once more on the Jew!" I agree that God IS going to focus on the Jew once more before Christ's return; HOWEVER, the Bible does NOT say that the church is to raptured before God can work among the Jews again. It doesn't say that. Moreover, why does the church have to be raptured before God can work powerfully among the Jews once more. The Bible doesn't say that; plus it is not necessary for that to happen.
Just one final note here. All the arguments for the view that the church is raptured before the tribulation are logical. As a matter of fact, ALL the different views about the second coming are "logical." It's just that they are not Bible-based. Nowhere does the Bible put the rapture at the end of the tribulation. It's just that it appears that the only view which is Bible-based is the view stated above.
CHRISTIAN SUFFERING HAS MEANING and REWARDS!
Christian Suffering Has Meaning
The major question remains unanswered: "Why do Christians have to suffer great tribulation?" Before answering that, remember that Revelation states quite clearly that Christians indeed DO suffer during the tribulation. In fact the tribulation will not end, according to John, until every last Christian who is destined to die during the tribulation actually dies (see the fifth seal in Rev. 6:...).
Now as to the purpose of Christian suffering. First, naturally all the reasons Christians suffer before the tribulation also serve as reasons we suffer during the tribulation. Christ uses suffering to transform us into His image. Sufferings help us break free from this world to prepare us for the next. Our sufferings prove that we are truly aligned with Christ, the GREAT sufferer. If He suffered, then it only stands to reason that we suffer too.
More than these reasons seems to be involved here. Jesus claimed that His sufferings on the cross were actually the pangs of child-birth. In other words, on the cross Christ suffered birthpangs in order to produce something new and wonderful (see John 16: where Jesus uses this very imagery). Whereas the mother suffers these birthpangs to produce a baby, Jesus suffers birthpangs to produce a new heaven and a new earth.
As our pastor reminds us, it is really difficult to understand Jesus fully if you don't understand Judaism. Well, one of the major teachings of Judaism was the messianic sufferings. In other words the Jews claimed that there would be great suffering upon the coming of the Messiah. After these sufferings occurred, God would bring about the new age, the new heaven, and the new earth. Jesus seems to have embraced that very concept. Yes, His sufferings did remove the penalty of sin from His followers; however, they also served to produce a new heaven and new earth.
The scene from The Passion of the Christ.
Although all the sufferings needed for our sins were experienced by Christ on the cross, Paul claims that these other sufferings have not yet been completed. He claims: "and am making up in my own life, on behalf of His body, which is the church, the afflictions of Christ which are still lacking" (Col. 1:24). In other words, a certain amount of labor pangs are necessary to produce the new heaven and new earth. Christ indeed suffered extensively in order to produce this new heaven and earth; however, the cross did not fill up those sufferings. More suffering is needed. He suffers more by suffering through His people. Christ allows us to share with Him in His suffering to produce the new heavens and the new earth. The NT seems to be saying that the suffering in the tribulation completes that suffering. YOUR life and YOUR sufferings have great meaning and purpose. YOU are valuable in what God is doing right now!
Christian Suffering Has Rewards
Of course nobody wants to suffer. God did not create us to be masochists. There is nothing wrong with despising the sufferings we have to endure at times. Jesus actually despised the sufferings He had to endure on the cross: "who . . . endured the cross, despising the shame ..." If Christ only endured the cross and despised the shame, then it is OK for us just to endure our cross and despise our shame.
HOWEVER, and this is a HUGE however, we need to remember what awaits us on the other side of suffering. In the Heb. 12 passage the author writes: "[Jesus] for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame." Jesus knew what was waiting for Him after He completed His sufferings. John in Revelation and also Paul inform us what is waiting for us on the other side of suffering: