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1. The Rapture

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Editor’s Note: This is a lightly edited transcription of the audio message. Thanks goes to Marilyn Fine for the transcription work.

Passage: I Thessalonians 4


It is great to be back here once again at Word of Life. I have been coming in and out some 30 years and it has been marvelous to see how the Lord has blessed this work and spread it all over the world. I just see a constant miracle here as God leads souls to Christ, provides the financial means, the personnel, and everything else involved. It is a great privilege to have part in this week. I am sure that through the years they have many, many famous and capable, gifted Bible teachers here. For a teacher to come in for a week like this and bring something that is helpful to people is not an easy choice.

But I want to speak on a familiar subject this week on the Rapture of the Church. By the word “Rapture,” I am referring to I Thessalonians 4:17 where it says “we are going to be caught up, or snatched up, to Heaven when the Lord comes for His Church.” We call this the “Rapture.” The Rapture means to snatch up. That is the prospect that is before us.

Now, have you ever met a person who was really excited about the Rapture of the Church? Well, I suppose we have, but they have not been very many. It is amazing to me how people can know this truth and believe it and tuck it away in their doctrinal statement, but it does not really affect what they are doing today. They do not wake up in the morning and say, “perhaps today.” It seems to me that there should be an excitement about this and I would like to give you some reasons for that as we go through this week and, hopefully, also give this doctrine and hope of the Rapture a larger place in your thinking and in your evaluation of your own life.

Now, many of you studied this before, but it is rather amazing how frequently when I speak on this subject someone will come up to me after the service and say, “I never heard this before.” Is that true of you? Well, if you came into Word of Life here you have heard probably it before, but in some churches there simply is no preaching of prophecy.

I ran across a senior citizen one time who told me that she had not heard a sermon on prophecy since she was a teenager, but she had been going to church regularly every Sunday. We are raising a whole generation of people who are just ignorant as to what God has planned for their future. We understand. They are caught up in what is in philosophy called “existentialism.” It is an attempt to evaluate everything in the present tense. They are not interested in history. Young people are often quite impatient with what was done in the past. They want to do now and they are also often quite impatient with the future. They do not want to be bound down to a future program. They want it now. Thus preaching is sometimes limited to the perspective of the problems that are here and now instead of also relating to the broader perspective of the Word of God.

The Meaning of the Rapture

I thought tonight we would simply turn to the Bible and get clearly in mind what we mean by the Rapture. I am surprised that sometimes people have studied this and have not caught on to some of the most obvious facts about this truth about the Word of God. This is found, of course, in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament they had the doctrine of the First and Second Coming of Christ. There are many passages that deal with this, sometimes whole chapters. Some of them like Isaiah 53 talk about the sufferings of Christ and others talk about His glorious reign like Psalm 72, but, you know, throughout the Old Testament and throughout the Gospel period, apart from Christ Himself, nobody understood that there were two comings. They all thought there was one coming, but as Peter tells us in his epistles the Jewish rabbis and scholars puzzled how could the Messiah be a suffering, dying Messiah and at the same time a glorious reigning Messiah. They never solved their problems.

Some thought that perhaps there were two Messiahs – one fulfilled the suffering, the other the glorious reign. But, the tendency was to gloss over the suffering part and to emphasize the glorious Kingdom of Christ when He reigned on earth. And that is why the disciples followed Christ, you see. They did not know He was going to suffer and die. That had never entered their thinking. They thought He was going to gloriously reign. When they recognized that He was indeed their Messiah, they followed Him because they had visions of glory and honor and prominence as Christ delivered Israel from the oppression of the Roman Empire and brought in the fulfillment of these glorious promises. Then, as time went on, three years, three-and-a-half years, they began to wonder. This was not happening. It seems as if Christ was not as popular as He once was. They knew the leaders of Israel hated Him because they did not like the competition. What is going to happen to this glorious Kingdom?

Judas, you remember, finally began to lose faith that this was going to happen so he made a deal with the high priest to identify Christ and betray him, for 30 pieces of silver. Judas argued this way. He said “now if Christ is the Messiah they won’t be able to hurt him, but if he is not the Messiah, 30 pieces of silver.” We can’t lose. This is the same argument we do when we sin against God. We say we are getting something we would otherwise be deprived of. Of course, he lost everything – his life, his soul, his future.

But, the other disciples were equally disturbed. So when Christ assembled the disciples in the upper room on that night before His crucifixion they had an ominous feeling that something was about to happen. Then, Christ told them “one of your number is going to betray me” and they did not have the slightest idea who that was. Then, He said “I am going to leave you and you cannot follow me.” They had been following Christ because they thought He was going to bring a kingdom on earth. How could He leave them? The kingdom was not here.

Peter, you remember, had said, “Lord, well, I will die for you!” And the Lord said, “No, you will not, Peter. You will deny me three times before dawn, before the cock crows.” He did not know Peter very well, did He? Rather, Peter did not know himself!

Then, Christ went on to give us this marvelous 14th chapter of John. If you were going to be with your disciples for the last time in three-and-a-half years as Christ was, what would you tell them? You would tell them important things, wouldn’t you? The whole 14th chapter of John is devoted to having peace in the midst of trouble. How desperately we need that truth in our lives today.

Let not your heart be troubled: You believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you where I am also. (John 14:1-3)

The disciples did not understand at all what He was talking about. Their kingdom was on earth. He was talking about believing in heaven, about coming back to take them to heaven. But they were in no condition to receive a brand new truth that we call “the Rapture of the Church.” Before the end time reaches its climax and before the great tribulation with the Second Coming of Christ, Christ will take His own out of the world. The Church, living and dead, will be transformed and meet Him in the air and go to the Father and Son.

Christ did not bother to explain. How could He explain the Rapture to people who did not understand the difference between the First and Second Coming? I do not think that the disciples ever really caught on that there were two comings until they saw Him ascend into heaven. And then they realized He had come once, He had died, He was resurrected, and now He is gone—so He would be coming a second time.

Now, today we have this same type of confusion between the Rapture and the Second Coming. People try to put it together, but it does not work together any more than the First and Second Comings do. You see, the Rapture is a movement from earth to heaven. The Second Coming is a movement from heaven to earth. It would be hard to imagine two comings of the same person that would be so radically different in purpose, in character, in movement and everything else. The Rapture is a movement from earth to heaven.

Christ did not enlarge on it here. It was not until later when the apostle Paul became a Christian and God gave him a post-graduate course in the doctrine of grace and also in the doctrine of prophesy that this wonderful truth was unfolded. But now, what follows was this. The apostle Paul felt this truth of the Rapture was so important that it was in the cardinal message which he delivered in his evangelist work. He would preach that Christ was the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins and rose again and that salvation comes to those who put their trust in Him. Then, he would also tell them He is coming back and He is going to take us out of the world and take us to heaven. It could happen any day. It is part of his dynamic message.

Well, today there are churches where the gospel is not preached faithfully but in some churches, where it is preached faithfully, they still miss this most important and dynamic fact that Christ is coming back and He could come back any day.

I Thessalonians 4

Now, let’s turn to I Thessalonians 4 where the apostle Paul explains the rapture. You see, the Thessalonians accepted this doctrine, and Paul has left them because there was opposition. They were plans to kill him on the part of his enemies. Then a bit later on he sent Timothy back to see how they were getting along. Timothy came back to Paul. He reported they had a problem, a theological problem. You see, the Thessalonians believed that when Christ came He would take all the living to heaven who were saved. But, since the time Paul had left, some of that number who had just gotten saved had died. Now what?

You know, death confronts us with this question of when will we see our loved ones again. They could not answer that question. They asked Timothy about it. He could not answer it. We do not know exactly what they had in mind, but probably they had an inkling that after the Rapture there would be the time of trouble or tribulation and then there would be a Second Coming of Christ to the earth. We do not know just how much they knew because Paul only taught them for a short time. Anyway, they thought it would be sometime later and they were troubled by the fact that if the Lord came for them they would not see their loved ones. In the process of explaining this, Paul wrote this section and set forth in precise details exactly what is going to happen when this so-called Rapture, this coming of Christ for His Church, takes place.

First of all, he reminds them that God has written prophecy with a purpose. One-fourth of the Bible is prophetic when it was written. If you do not speak on prophecy, you cut out one-fourth of your Bible. It is quite apparent that God wanted us to know what He reveals in that one-fourth prophecy of the Bible. Now, He has not revealed everything. There are all sorts of questions and sometimes in question/answer sessions, most of the questions deal with things that God has not told us. But, He told us plenty. He told us all we need to know. That is, the facts.

Now, here he tells them exactly what is going to happen. In verse 13, we read this,

“I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which have fallen asleep lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.”

The Christian is set aside from the world as people who have hope, wonderful hope. The hope of the future. The hope of heaven. The hope of the Lord’s return. Then, he goes on to point out that this hope is not insecure, but if they believe, verse 14, that Christ died and rose again, and they did, so then they can also believe that He is coming again, just as certain, even though it is still future. Now, you see from God’s standpoint, all prophecy is certain, just as certain as history. That is why when prophecy is fulfilled it meticulously follows exactly what God predicts. The more I study prophecy, and I have studied now for many years, I am impressed with the relentlessness of the prophetic word to do exactly, when it is fulfilled, what the Bible predicts.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called, “Prophecy.” Now it’s a hand book. And I attempted, because this is what the publisher wanted, a book which would cover every prophecy in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It is an 800-page book. When I got through, I counted up the prophecies and I dealt with 1,000 passages - sometimes verses, sometimes whole chapters, about the future and when it was written. I discovered something I had not fully comprehended before that. Half of these prophecies had been literally fulfilled already. You want proof that the Bible is the Word of God? Is there any other book like this? Obviously, only God knows the future. So there is this relentless accuracy in the Word of God concerning the future that has been demonstrated hundreds of times. Thus we can approach the future ones that are not yet fulfilled with absolute certainty that within God’s time and in God’s ways they will have a literal fulfillment. This idea that prophecy is not fulfilled literally is wrong. It is a false doctrine. Prophecy that is fulfilled is always fulfilled literally. In other words, God’s Word is the same by the facts that come afterward. Now, he tells us here that just as surely as Christ died and rose again, God is going to bring the souls of Christians who have died with Him from heaven to earth, to the air above the earth.

Now, when a Christian dies we call the medical doctor and he can pronounce a person dead. Theologically, a person dies when the soul leaves the body and the Bible indicates in II Corinthians 5, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” One of our comforts in the case of Christians who die is that they go instantly to the presence of God. We leave their body to rest here, but the soul is not there. They are not there. Their soul is in heaven. Now, when the Rapture occurs, Christ is going to bring their souls with Him from heaven back to the sphere of earth. Why? Well, as the verses which follow indicate He is going to resurrect their bodies and the soul is going to re-enter their new bodies permanently.

Notice how He describes this in verse 15,

“For this we say unto you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep for the Lord Himself will be sent from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, with the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then, we (that is Christians) who are alive and remain shall be caught up (and that is the word Rapture), caught up, snatched up, Raptured together, with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and, thus, we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words.”

Now, suppose it happens tonight. It could. First of all, Christ would bodily descend from His place at the right hand of the Father to the air above the earth. He would give a shout which is a shout of command and all over the world Christians who have died will be resurrected and living Christians will be instantly changed in their bodies. According to I Corinthians 15:51-53, these are bodies that are suited for heaven, bodies without sin, bodies without age, and bodies that are immortal. You see, we need a different kind of body.

We are going to rise from earth and meet the Lord in the air. There is going to be the voice of the archangel. Michael, the archangel, has been fighting the forces of the demon world and the devil for these thousands of years and now in spite of all the devil has tried to do against the Church to spoil it, here is the Church triumphant, the body of the saved greeting the Lord in the air. Then, there is the trump of God which is a signaling device, of course, used throughout scripture to signal an event. The trumpet sounds. All over the world this happens instantaneously.

Now, you remember their question was, would they have to wait to see their loved ones who died? And the answer is “no,” because they are going to be caught up first. Just a split second perhaps. The Bible does not explain why. Perhaps it is because we bury them in the ground and they have a little bit farther to go, so they start a little sooner than the rest of us who are on the earth. In any case, we go up together to be forever with the Lord. Wherefore, comfort or encourage or exhort one another by this wonderful fact.

The Exciting Rapture

Now, to me this is exciting. It could happen today. As far as scripture is concerned, (and you can read all the passages on the Rapture) not once are we told to look for a preceding event. It is quite different than the Second Coming. The Second Coming has all kinds of major events which precede, but not the Rapture. This is an event which could occur any time and could occur tonight.

Why should we be excited about it? Well, I am sure that all of us have loved ones on the other side. The older you get, the more you have. I suppose I have more friends in heaven than I have on earth. Time marches on and one by one they are taken away from us. Some of them are very precious. I worked with Louis Sperry Chafer who was president of Dallas Seminary for many years before he died. First I had five years under his teaching ministry and then I joined the faculty at his invitation and worked as his associate in theology. He was a beloved character. He loved the Lord. He loved the Lord so dearly. He was a man of prayer and faith and we missed him when he left. I missed him. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to talk to him about the school? He never dreamed that Dallas Seminary would go from the small school he started to a school of 14, 15, 1600 students. He never dreamed of such a thing. I do not know how much he knows in heaven about it. Maybe he knows, but he would be thrilled in what God has accomplished through those who followed Him. What a wonderful thing to be together.

Then, most of us have parents on the other side, some with two at least. There are people who love the Lord and who influenced our lives and ministered to us. Just imagine seeing them and talking and renewing our friendship. And, of course, some of us have those who are very dear there. We have a son who was killed 16 years ago now in an auto accident, two weeks after he graduated from medical school. We still miss him. Then, we have in our home two children who are handicapped mentally. One of them quite severely handicapped, in institutions, but when the Lord comes suddenly they are going to be made whole. This is thrilling!

This is wonderful and it could happen today. Why don’t people get excited about it? I am going to be answering that all week. There are a number of reasons, but, you know, all the reasons I have stated are important but they are not the most important reason. The most important reason is that we love the Lord. Do you ever long to see Him? When you do you are not going to see Him as He was in Galilee, the prophet, the lowly prophet who hid His glory. You are going to see Him as He is in Revelation, chapter 1—the glorious, magnificent King of Kings and Lord of Lords in all His heavenly glory. We are going to realize then as never before that He left it all. He went through all the humiliations of earth and finally the cross itself where He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. We can never understand this completely. He loved us. The love of Christ constrains us. And because He loved us, we love Him. If you love somebody, I think it is perfectly normal to want to see them.

A few years ago when I was in Bible conference ministry, sometimes for a week at a time or more, Geraldine had to stay home. We had children at home who needed care and we would be separated. Whenever we were separated, it does not seem like everything is quite right, you know. I used to try to write her every day and then I discovered the mail was so slow I got home before the letters did. So, then we gradually shifted to the telephone . It is wonderful to talk on the telephone to be brought up to date, you know, and it’s a familiar voice, and you feel like they are almost there. That is not quite like being face to face, is it? You know we can have that same experience with the Lord. I think it is wonderful to have fellowship with the Lord. I think for some Christians it is sort of marginal. It is a wonderful experience to talk to the Lord and have Him talk to you. You know, the Bible tells us we are indwelled by the triune God, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. He is as close as our breath, as our life. But, in order to grasp this little bit I like to think, when I am at my desk, for instance, and working on things that He is in a chair right beside me. I have a letter. What should I saw about this problem letter. I can talk to Him about it. He can tell me.

I do not buy this idea that some scholars say that God never gives guidance. I could not have worked a day with God’s guidance. When you are President of a school you are making decisions that determine other people’s lives. The teacher may move to Dallas and bring his family. You have changed their whole course of life by your decision to invite them. His children are going to marry somebody different than if they had stayed where they were. It is a change. I do not like to play God. You have got to be right when you make a decision. Only God can guide you.

As wonderful as that is, it is not the same as seeing Him face to face. I would generally always be asked the question when I left town, “when are you coming back?” She wanted to know exactly the day, the time, the means that she can meet me. Now, there are thousands of people in Dallas who could have cared less when I got back, but she did. Why? Because she loved me. When you love somebody you want to see them. You want to be with them. I cannot imagine anything more exciting than the possibility that tonight, tomorrow, the next day, suddenly that shout from the blue and we are on our way to the most wonderful experience we have ever had of seeing the Savior face to face! That is what is ahead.

When we see Him, the Bible says we are going to be like Him. No more sin. No more impurity. No sin nature. Death, sickness, all these things pass forever. We are going to be perfectly comfortable in the holy presence of our omnipotent Savior. Now, I think that that is what is ahead for us and that is the marvelous truth of the Rapture of the Church.

Now, why aren’t people excited? Well, I think there are a number of reasons and I want to explore some of them. One of them is that they do not think Christ is coming soon. They really do not. I read—now this man was a liberal, he was not a believer in the Bible—but he said that the world had to go on at least another hundred million years for evolution to run its course. Well, that is a little bit long to wait, one hundred million years!

No, even Christians who believe in the Bible and the marvelous pattern of belief do not always believe that Christ is coming soon. You know, I think there is some evidence mounting up in the last few years that point unmistakably to a conclusion, not only that Christ is coming, but He could be coming very soon. Are you prepared for that? You see, prophecy was given to us not to argue about or not to debate and write books about. It is written to prepare us for things to come. The question is are you ready?

You see, there comes a day when it is too late. It is too late. It is too late, but now there is still time. It is too late for some to receive Christ. Oh, I think people will be saved after the Rapture, some will be. But, how much more wonderful it is to be saved when He comes.

Then, there is this whole system of values. What is important in your life? What are you doing with your time and your destiny and your money and your talents, and so on? Are you living for eternity? Eternal values? You see, that is the issue and that is why prophecy was given to us.

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