The Rapture of the Saints

Herbert W. Butt

The Nature of It

Of great comfort to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ is the revelation in Scripture of the rapture of the saints. The word “rapture” does not occur in the Bible. It is derived from the Latin verb “rapere”, meaning “to seize”, hence “to transport” and is applied to the Bible doctrine of the gathering of the saints to Christ at His Second Advent.

The norm passage on this subject is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 where the Apostle Paul treats the rapture in relation to the Second Coming. His reason for doing so was to allay the fear in the hearts of Thessalonian believers that the departed saints would be disadvantaged in regard to Christ’s return. Not so, Paul affirms. When Christ descends from heaven the first happening will be the resurrection of the holy dead. Their departed spirits, apparently returning with Christ, will be reunited with their bodies raised to a state of glorification. Immediately thereafter the living, remaining saints, will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”, and thus together they shall “ever be with the Lord”. Hence, the saints who have died will suffer no disadvantages in relation to the Lord’s return. In fact, they will be shown preference. They will be resurrected before the living saints are changed, and together they shall be transported to glory. “We who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who are asleep”.

The same truth is enunciated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57. There he speaks of a mystery, something known only by Divine revelation. The mystery is not the resurrection of the dead. That is revealed in the Old Testament. Nor is it the time of the resurrection. That, too, is made known in the Jewish Scriptures. The mystery is the fact that some saints will not die. At the return of the Lord the surviving saints will be changed instantly from a state of corruptibility to a state of incorruptibility and from a state of mortality to one of immortality. Without experiencing death they will enter the heavenly kingdom. But immediately prior to their experiencing this glorious change, the holy dead will be raised incorruptible. The wicked dead are not in view here. This is apparent from the context and particularly from 1 Corinthians 15:23 where we are informed that those “who are Christ’s” will be raised at this time. When Christ returns from heaven He will “change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20, 21).

The Time of the Rapture

The time of the rapture is important, and it is clearly revealed in Holy Scripture. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15 Paul states it is at “the coming (parousia) of the Lord”. This is when “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout (cry of command), with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (v. 16). And this trumpet is the last trumpet according to 1 Corinthians 15:52. On this occasion the saints are caught up in the clouds “to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). It should be observed that there is nothing secret about our Lord’s coming here; it is in manifested glory.

It should be noted, too, that the Apostle says nothing here of the saints returning to heaven with the Lord. They are caught up for a meeting (eis apantasin) with the Lord. The same expression is used in Matthew 25: 6 and Acts 28:15. Just as the virgins go out to meet the bridegroom and accompany him to the house of the bride’s father from where they came and the brethren came from Rome to meet Paul and his party at the Market of Appius and the Three Inns to accompany them back to Rome, so the saints are caught up for a meeting with the Lord in the air to accompany Him back to the earth. “We shall meet Thee on Thy way” says Frances R. Havergal in her grand hymn on the Second Coming.

Pursuing the same subject in 1 Thessalonians 5 Paul calls this event “the day of the Lord” which will come “just like a thief in the night” upon the wicked. This fact the Thessalonians knew well, for Paul had previously taught them this. He had explained to them that the periods of time and exact character of the epochs to intervene before the return of Christ had not been revealed. Thus there was no need for him to write them on this theme.

However, Paul felt it needful to assert that the day of the Lord would bring inescapable destruction upon unbelievers, suddenly, “like birth pangs upon a woman with child” (1 Thess. 5: 3). This same day of the Lord would overtake believers (v. 4), but not “like a thief”; for they are the children of light and the children of the day. They are “not of the night nor of darkness” (v. 5). Being not “in darkness” (v. 4) the saints will discern the signs of the times. They will perceive the portents of the approaching day of the Lord, so it will not take them by surprise. It will overtake them, but not to their doom, but to their blessing as the end of chapter 4 makes plain. Moreover, here in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 Paul declares God has not destined believers “to wrath, but to obtain salvation (from sin and death, not the great tribulation) by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him”. This last clause connects this passage with the end of chapter 4. There Paul explains how the living and dead saints come to live together with Christ at His coming.

That the saints enter into glory and the wicked are cut off in judgment at the same time, at the advent of Christ in manifested glory, is patent in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-11. There Paul avows God will repay tribulation to them that trouble” and relief to the afflicted along with the apostles, “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, taking vengeance. . .” It is at this glorious advent of Christ that God deals out retribution to His foes and glory to His friends. The order is significant. Paul writes of the judgment of the wicked and the glorification of the righteous in that order. There is no lapse of time between the two. The saints are not raptured first and then the wicked finally judged seven years later. God repays them both at once, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven”. Nothing here is done in secret. It is the time of Christ’s public vindication and honoring at His revelation from heaven with His mighty angels. It is the day of the Lord—the day of supreme manifestation of judgment in which the wicked perish for ever and of supreme manifestation of grace, in which the righteous are glorified. Thus Peter exhorts the saints: “hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). Hence,

1.      Firstly, the rapture of the saints occurs at the glorious appearing of Christ when He comes to execute judgment.

2.      Secondly, the rapture eventuates after the apostasy comes and the man of lawlessness is revealed (2 Thess. 2:1-3). The apostle could not more plainly have stated this fact. He warns the saints not to be deceived on this point by any means. What point? The notion that the days of the Lord the day of Christ’s coming and “our gathering together to Him” (which Paul described in 1 Thess. 4:13, 5:10) — “had come” or was “at hand”. That day, asserts Paul, “shall not come except there come the apostasy first, and that man of lawlessness be revealed”.

3.      Thirdly, the rapture happens when the lawless one is destroyed. In 2 Thessalonians 2: 6, 7 Paul mentions the restraining influence, of which his readers were already apprised, which kept the lawless one from being revealed prior to the time appointed in the counsels of God. (Surely it should not need to be said that there is not a shred of evidence here for a rapture of the saints before the manifestation of the man of lawlessness. If Paul were asserting such an idea he would be contradicting his teaching in verses 1-3). Then in verse 8 Paul affirms the lawless one will be revealed “whom the Lord will consume with the spirit of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming (parousia)”. His coming means His personal advent. The brightness (epiphaneia) means His public manifestation or shining forth. When Christ returns in power and glory He will slay the lawless one, Paul is saying. And this is the time, according to Paul, when God will rapture the saints (2 Thess. 2:1; 1 Thess. 2:19; 4:15; 5:23).

Hence, these Thessalonian epistles which are cited as the stronghold of pre-tribulation rapture teaching, in fact teach the post-tribulation rapture at the appearing of Christ to destroy antichristianism.

And to this agree the Scriptures throughout. Isaiah 25:8 (quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:54) and 26:19 assert the resurrection of the dead. According to the context (Isaiah 24-27) which is eschatalogical, this event (which, as we have seen, is followed immediately by the translation of the living saints) takes place at the day of the Lord (24:21; 26: 1), after the coming time of trouble (24:1-25: 9), at the conversion of Israel and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom (25:6-9; 26: 1-9; 27: 1-6, 12-13), and when supernatural signs are seen in the heavens (24:23).

Moreover, Daniel 12: 2 places the resurrection after the rule of the willful king (11:36-45) and the time of trouble and when Israel is delivered (12:1). Matthew 13:40-43 locates the transfiguration of the saints at the consummation of the present age immediately after the cutting off in judgment of hypocrites in the Kingdom. In Matt. 24: 29-31, the Lord Jesus, answering the query of His disciples as to what would be the sign of His coming and the consummation of the age (v. 3), declares His return and the gathering of His elect to Himself would be post-tribulational. In Luke 14:14-15 our Lord mentions being “recompensed at the resurrection of the righteous” in conjunction with eating “bread in the kingdom of God”. And in Luke 20: 34-36

He links attainment of the age to come and participation in the resurrection. According to John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; and 11:24, the resurrection of believers comes about on the “last day”. Peter insists Christ cannot return from heaven “until the time of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:20-21). And agreeably Paul fixes the revealing (glorification) of the sons of God at the time the curse is lifted from creation (Rom. 8: 18-23), which is post-tribulational.

John, in the Apocalypse, holds before the seven churches of Asia (1:4) the hope of Christ’s coming in the clouds in manifested glory when “every eye shall see Him, and they also who pierced Him; and all the kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him” (1: 7), alluding to Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10. This is what Paul calls “that blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” for which believers are to be looking (Titus 2:13). In Revelation 2:23 Christ says, “I will give to every man according as his work shall be”, referring to His glorious appearing (22:12 cf. Matthew 16:27), and in verse 25 He says to this church, “hold fast till I come”, surely having in mind the same event. In Revelation 11:15-18 John times the judgment of the dead, the rewarding of the saints, and the destruction of earth-destroyers with the delivering of the kingdom of the world to our Lord and His Christ. And after describing the glorious appearing of Christ and the consequent doom of the beast, the kings of the earth and their armies, and the false prophet, John relates the binding of Satan and the resurrection of the holy dead (19:11; 20:6). This first resurrection includes the martyrs under the beast’s tyranny, indicating conclusively that the rapture is post-tribulational.

Revelation 3:10 is often appealed to as undoubted support for the pretribulation rapture theory. But the language, “I will keep thee from the hour of temptation” does not demand such an interpretation. The same verb and preposition are used in John 17:15 where there is no idea of bodily removal of the disciples from the world but preservation from the power of evil in its very presence. The same preposition is found in Galatians 1:4 where no physical removal from this age is in view but deliverance from its influence. Moreover, the promise of Revelation 3:10 applies primarily to the church of Philadelphia of John’s day. It was fulfilled not in its physical removal from the world but by way of sustaining grace through the trial that came upon it.

Some pre-tribulationists insist the 24 elders of the Revelation are the translated church in heaven. They may represent the church and yet without involving the idea of a previous rapture. There is no conclusive proof they do represent the church, however. In fact, they could be angels. In Revelation 7:14 John addresses one of the elders as his superior; and in 11:18 the elders distinguish themselves from the prophets, the saints and those who fear God’s name. In 14:3 the elders are differentiated from the purchased from the earth who sing a song the elders cannot learn. Whoever the elders are, the inference made that they are the pre-tribulation raptured church is without biblical warrant.

It is argued that after Revelation 3:22 there is no mention of the church, on earth, therefore it must be raptured before the events described thereafter. But there is not mention of the church as the corporate body of the redeemed before 3:22, nor thereafter is “church” used even of the saints in heaven. Is there no church in heaven? After 3:22 believers are called “saints”, “brethren” and other such titles befitting members of Christ’s mystical body. If they are not members of the universal church of Christ who are they? Christ has only “one flock” (John 10: 16). All the saints of all the ages have the same inheritance in Christ (John 11:52; Eph. 2:11-22; Heb. 11:13-16, 32-40; Rev. 21:12 and 14) and ultimately are in union with the ascended Christ whether in their days on earth they were citizens of theocratic Israel, of a congregation of believers among Gentiles, or earthly participants in the millennial kingdom. Moreover, the word “church” does not occur in 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1 and 2 John. Does this prove the absence of the church?

The stock argument of pretribulationists is that the church cannot be on earth during the Great Tribulation because God’s wrath will then be poured out. But as we have seen, saints are on the earth then. Are only some saints exempted from God’s wrath? Surely not. All are. However, Scripture makes clear that whatever Divine wrath falls upon men in the Tribulation it will not strike the saints (Rev. 7:3; 9:4; 16:2, 6, 10) any more than the plagues in Egypt befell the Israelites.

The Purpose of the Rapture and Application

The purpose of the rapture, then, is not to remove the saints from the world prior to the final infidel persecution under the antichrist, but to gather them to Christ at His coming to execute judgment in the earth that He might be glorified in them and marveled at by them (2 Thess. 1:10). He will be glorified in their being manifested in glory with Him and acting as co-adjudicators and co-regents with Him (Col. 3:4; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 3:21; 5:10; 20:4; 22:5). It behooves us who profess His Name to seek grace to prove ourselves worthy of such incomprehensible honor at His appearing and kingdom (2 Thess. 1:11, 12).