When Christ Comes for the Church
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
During the lifetime of Christ the disciples did not understand that some prophecies were to be fulfilled in relation to the first coming of Christ and others in relation to His second coming. It was not until Christ died, rose again, and ascended into heaven that it became clear to the disciples that He would not fulfill the prophecies relating to His second coming until He returned. Accordingly, When will Christ return? became a very important question.
Likewise, for the Christian who comes to understand that Christ died for him and rose again and who enters into the wonder of his salvation as he walks and has intimate fellowship with Him, it is only natural to long to see Christ face to face. The church is described in Scripture as a bride waiting for her husband (2 Cor. 11:2). Just as a bride looks forward eagerly to her coming marriage, when she will begin her life with the bridegroom, so a believer in Christ, even though he is thrilled with the fellowship he has with Christ now, looks forward to that fuller fellowship that will be his when he is in Christ’s presence forever. This is why the hope of Christ’s return is called a blessed or happy hope (Titus 2:13). The more one loves Christ and seeks to have more intimate fellowship with Him, the more he will be looking for the return of Christ for him.
The first coming of Christ fulfilled hundreds of prophecies in the Old Testament. As the Old Testament predicted, Christ was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); He was both God and man (Isa. 7:14); He was born of a virgin (Matt. 1:23); He performed miracles (Isa. 35:5-6); He died on the cross for the sins of the whole world as predicted in the Old Testament as well as in the Gospels (Isa. 53:6; 1 Cor. 15:1-3); and He rose again the third day, predicted in Psalm 16:9-11, and frequently mentioned by Christ Himself (Matt. 16:4, 21; 17:22; 20:18-19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; Luke 9:22; 18:31-33; John 10:15, 17-18).
The present age followed His life on earth, and Christ’s discourse in John 13-17 outlined the major features of this age. The present age, however, will conclude with the return of Christ. All the church creeds that are orthodox include the idea that Christ is coming again as revealed in both the Old and New Testaments. Christ Himself spoke on this extensively in Matthew 24. In His second coming to the earth, He will set up His kingdom for a thousand years and reign on the throne of David (Luke 1:32-33; Rev. 20:4-6).
Not revealed in the Old Testament is the prediction of Christ that He would come and take His disciples to heaven. This was included in His Upper Room Discourse in John 14:3, where Christ said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Though some people try to harmonize this with the doctrine of the Second Coming, it is actually a different event because here believers will be taken from earth to heaven, whereas in the Second Coming, Christ will come from heaven to earth to remain in the earth to set up His kingdom. The disciples did not understand this, and Christ did not explain it, as the disciples were in no condition to understand it. Actually, a number of tremendous events have to take place after Christ comes for His church but before His second coming, and this includes the rise of a world church, the formation of a world government led by a world dictator, and the regathering of Israel to her ancient land, a prophecy that is already being fulfilled. The period between Christ’s coming for His church and His second coming to the earth is climaxed by a time of unparalleled trouble that will last for three-and-a-half years and will culminate in a gigantic world war that will be fought in the Holy Land. While this is still underway, Christ will come back to set up His earthly kingdom.
In the Scriptures, however, whenever Christ’s coming for His saints is mentioned, it is always presented as an imminent event, that is, no events are predicted as preceding it. This is in contrast to His second coming to set up His kingdom. Many prophecies in both the Old and New Testaments must be fulfilled before His second coming can be realized.
The Church as a Major Purpose of God
To understand prophecy it is important to determine the different programs of God. These include the contrast between all who are saved and go to heaven and all who are lost and will be cast into the lake of fire.
Other distinctions arise in Scripture that may or may not be related to the question of salvation. One of these is God’s plan for the world, or the Gentiles. This is revealed especially in Daniel 2, 7, and 8. There it is revealed that four great empires would emerge in history: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Preceding these historically were Egypt and Assyria, which figured largely in the history of Israel before Babylon. In all, six world empires were described in history and prophecy.
The final world empire, or the seventh empire, will be the kingdom from heaven, which will come after the Second Coming (Dan. 7:13-14). From God’s point of view, these seven empires embrace the significant history of the world.
Another major program of God is His plan for Israel. This began with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the twelve tribes descending from Jacob’s twelve sons. Most of the Old Testament deals with Israel’s program. Promised in the Old Testament is a triumphant and glorious future kingdom to be brought in by the Second Coming. Christ will restore Israel spiritually and politically in her promised land along with His worldwide government over the Gentiles.
Revealed in the New Testament but not in the Old Testament is God’s purpose in the present age to form the church as the body of Christ consisting of both Jews and Gentiles to fulfill a purpose different from His purpose for the Gentiles or Israel. The church is especially designed to illustrate the grace of God (Eph. 2:4-10). This will be its function in time and eternity. As the program for Gentiles reveals God’s sovereignty and infinite power, and as Israel reveals God’s faithfulness, love, and righteousness, so the church is designed to illustrate the grace of God.
Much of the confusion in the interpretation of prophecy may be traced to confusion of God’s plan for Israel and His plan for the church. At the Rapture, the program of God for the church ends its progress on earth and begins its program in heaven. By contrast, the program for Israel and the program for the Gentiles will continue on earth. To some extent all the programs converge in the millennial kingdom and the eternal state that follows.
Prophecies of the Rapture
Though Christ did not stop to explain to the disciples what He meant in John 14, as they were not prepared to understand, it was given to the apostle Paul many years later when writing his first letter to the Thessalonians to outline exactly what would be done at the Rapture. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul stated, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
As these verses show, Christ will come bodily from heaven, where He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, to the air above the earth. This event will also feature the voice of the archangel who will give a shout of triumph. The rapture of the church will be accomplished in spite of all that Satan has done to hinder the church and people coming to Christ, and together they will rise to meet the Lord in the air, being raptured or snatched up, and subsequently go to heaven.
According to 1 Thessalonians 4:14, when Jesus comes from heaven to the air above the earth, He will bring with Him the souls of Christians who have died, as these souls have been in His presence in heaven. Now He brings them back to the sphere of earth because He is going to resurrect their bodies and their souls will reenter their bodies forever. At the same time living Christians are changed, and both those resurrected and those on earth will receive bodies that are suited for heaven, patterned after the resurrection body of Christ.
As John 14:3 indicates, once they meet the Lord in the air, they will proceed in triumphal procession to heaven, to the Father’s house, an event that will pave the way for great prophecies to be fulfilled on earth preceding His return to set up His kingdom.
In I Corinthians 15:51-58 more light is thrown upon the character of the change that will take place at that time. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that people in their natural bodies need to have a change before they can be with the Lord because our present bodies are sinful, they are subject to age and decay, and they are subject to death. A resurrection body should be without sin and without advancing age and without death. Accordingly, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
The fact that those raised from the dead and those translated will have new bodies is confirmed by Ephesians 5:27, where it is revealed that Christ will “present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” The same thought is given in Philippians 3:21, where it states that Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
The resurrection of saints who have died refers only to Christians who are saved in the present age and who are “in Christ” (1 Thess. 4:16). Apparently, those who died in the Old Testament and those who die in the coming period after the church is raptured will be raised at the time of Christ’s second coming because this is inferred in Daniel 12:1-2 and Revelation 20:4. The wicked, however, are not raised until after the Millennium (Rev. 20:5-6, 12-13).
Contrast Between the Rapture and the Second Coming
Christ’s coming for His church is often designated as the Rapture. This is based on the statement of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where those who are resurrected, or translated, are “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The idea of being “caught up” is embraced in the word rapture, or snatched up, and this is what will occur at the time of Christ’s coming for His church.
The Rapture, however, stands in sharp contrast to what will occur at the Second Coming.
(1) Christ’s coming at the Rapture is to take saints from the earth to the Father’s house in heaven, in contrast to the Second Coming, when the saints will come from heaven to earth and remain in the sphere of earth throughout Christ’s millennial kingdom.
(2) At the Rapture those who are “in Christ,” believers during the present age, will be resurrected from the dead, and living Christians will be translated, in contrast to the Second Coming, when no one will be translated.
(3) At the Rapture only the church is caught up to heaven in contrast to the Second Coming, when Old Testament saints and tribulation saints will be resurrected but remain in the earth.
(4) The Rapture of the church will remove the church before the time of judgment preceding the Second Coming, in contrast to the Second Coming, when believers on earth who are under persecution will be rescued by Christ but will remain in the earthly sphere.
(5) The Rapture is revealed in Scripture to be an imminent event, that is, there are no predicted events that precede the Rapture, in contrast to the Second Coming before which many important world-shaking prophecies must be fulfilled as seen in Revelation 6-18.
(6) The Rapture is a New Testament truth, whereas the doctrine of the second coming of Christ to the earth is revealed in both Testaments.
(7) The Rapture relates to those who are saved with no judgments on earth, in contrast to the Second Coming, which will deal with both saved and unsaved.
(8) Before and after the Rapture Satan will still be active, but after the Rapture Satan will be allowed even greater activity (2 Thess. 2:3-10; Rev. 12:12). At the Second Coming, however, Satan will be bound for a thousand years (Rev. 20:1-3).
(9) The purpose of the Rapture is to take saints from earth to heaven, in contrast to the Second Coming, which involves resurrection of the Old Testament saints and the tribulation saints who remain on earth. Later, at the Second Coming those raptured earlier will join those still living in the world who will enter the millennial kingdom.
(10) At the Rapture there is no judgment of the world, whereas Matthew 25:31-46 indicates that Gentiles will be judged in regard to entering the millennial kingdom. Also, Jews will experience a similar judgment (Ezek. 20:33-38).
(11) If all the saints had been raptured at the time of the Second Coming and met Christ in the air, the judgment of the Gentiles in Matthew 25:31-46 would be unnecessary, because there would have already been a separation of the saints from those not saved while Christ was coming from heaven to earth (1 Thess. 4:16-17). The fact that this judgment takes place after the Second Coming, when they are still intermingled, is proof that the Rapture did not take place as a part of the Second Coming.
(12) In Scripture the Rapture relates to the church, both living and dead, in contrast to the Second Coming, which relates primarily to Israel and the Gentiles as such.
(13) The Rapture is a blessed hope, a happy expectation, which could take place at any time, in contrast to the Second Coming, which can be realized only after the Great Tribulation when the majority of the earth’s population will have perished in one disaster or another.
(14) The Rapture is a comforting hope (John 14:1-3; 1 Thess. 4:18), in contrast to the Second Coming, where the hope of survival is realized only by a few.
(15) The world probably will not see Christ at the time of the Rapture as the church will be taken out of the world instantly, in contrast to the Second Coming, which is a majestic procession of the saints and angels from heaven to earth which will take many hours and the whole earth will see.
Practical Aspects of the Rapture
God intended that the revelation of the Rapture be a blessing. In John 14 it was part of the reassurance that Christ gave His disciples, who were struggling with His predicted death on the cross. In 1 Thessalonians 4:18 the Rapture is presented as an encouraging, or comforting, hope. At the Rapture, of course, Christians will see their loved ones who have died and preceded them to heaven. It will also end their earthly problems, and they will be forever with the Lord. Because this event is imminent, it is all the more real and precious.
The promise of the coming of the Lord is also a purifying hope, because Christians realize that after the Lord comes they will be judged at the judgment seat of Christ. Scripture makes it very clear that every human being will be judged before entering the life after this, but these judgments do not occur at the same time. This is an important factor for Christians to consider in relation to the Rapture, because the judgment of every Christian at the judgment seat of Christ immediately follows the Rapture.
The central truth of the judgment seat of Christ is stated in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” As this text makes clear, this is a judgment for Christians only, as the issue of salvation was already settled by the fact of their rapture to heaven.
This judgment is not concerned with the sins of Christians, as the words “good or bad” are words relating to value, not morality. The question is whether a Christian’s life included things of eternal value in God’s sight.
When a person becomes a Christian he is “justified through faith” (Rom. 5:1). This means he is declared righteous. To be declared righteous is more than being forgiven, as forgiveness is subtracting or wiping away our sins, while being declared righteous is the declaration that we possess the quality of righteousness.
This can be illustrated in the function of a checking account. If one has a checking account and overdraws his account, the bank may honor the check but notify the depositor that he is overdrawn. If anyone deposited the amount of the overdraft in the account, it would bring the account back to zero and the depositor would be forgiven. However, if someone deposited a large amount of money in the account, it would not only wipe out the deficit but add credit to the account. The believer is in a position of having a credit. Not only are his sins forgiven but he has credited to him the righteousness of Christ because God sees him in the perfections of the person and work of His Son.
The basis for justification is that a believer was baptized by the Holy Spirit and placed “in Christ” (Eph. 1:4-12) when he believed, so that God from then on views his position as “in Christ.” In this position, the believer is “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). He is seen in the moral perfection of the Person and the work of Christ. Accordingly, Paul argues in Romans 8:31-34, “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
Though a believer is perfect in his position, his state is far less than perfect, and he is subject to experiential sanctification as he becomes more and more in conformity to perfection in Christ. The believer must also avail himself of the promise of forgiveness upon confession to have unhindered fellowship (1 John 1:9). When the believer is raptured, however, he achieves immediate perfection in the spiritual state conforming to his perfection position in Christ. Hence, the judgment seat of Christ does not deal with sins but with the service of a believer while on earth.
Paul uses three illustrations to teach this doctrine. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 he compares our life to a building to be tested by fire:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
The building is built on a foundation that is supplied—Jesus Christ, our salvation. The materials of the building, though not explained, illustrate various values in life: (1) gold refers to what is done to the glory of God; (2) silver represents the metal of redemption and speaks of soul winning; (3) precious stones represent any work reflecting the glory of God that has eternal value.
In contrast, the wood, hay, or straw represent values not eternal: (1) wood represents things of value by the world’s standard, but not eternal; (2) hay represents food for animals but not eternal in value; (3) straw represents a thing that has little value in this life and no worth in eternity. The fire does not destroy the gold, silver, and precious stones, but the wood, hay, and straw are reduced to ashes. The challenge to a Christian is to build into his life that which corresponds to gold, silver, and precious stones.
In a second illustration in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul compares this life to a race:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
When in college athletics, I had occasion to observe a fellow student who was an expert runner. Almost always when he ran a race he would win. It was a thrill to see him line up at the start, get on his mark, and when the starter said “go,” instantly start the race. Before long he would be leading the others. There were certain things I noticed he never did as a runner. He did not wear his top coat or heavy clothing but wore light clothing that would not hinder movement. When the starter said “go,” he did not ask whether the starter meant him, but he would immediately start the race. As he ran, he would never look back to see the other runners, because this would cause him to lose stride, and he might lose the race. Also, he never stopped to pick flowers along the way. While picking flowers was not a crime, he would lose the race if he did this. Furthermore, he never waved at the grandstand as he ran by, though his friends were there. He concentrated on running the race, and everything else was put aside to win the prize.
The way my friend ran the race can teach us many lessons that apply to the Christian life. How we need to leave aside everything that would hinder our running the race! When the Lord says “go,” we should go instantly. We should give the race all the strength we have. We should not be diverted into things that may be good but may not be the will of God for us. We should not be concerned about whether people notice what we are doing, for God is our judge and He will reward. Life is certainly like a race. As we run the race, we should run to win and fulfill God’s will for our lives.
Races were common in Corinth. The victor was given a crown of laurel leaves, which soon decayed. Paul urged Christians to qualify for a crown that would not decay, given at the judgment seat of Christ.
Paul offers another illustration in Romans 14:10-12: “Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘“As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.”’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
The figure is that of a steward or trustee who has committed unto him something that actually belongs to another. As a boy I used to love to go with my father to our little bank with its row of cashiers behind the iron grating. I was always impressed by the amount of money they had in their booths. It was not until I became older that I realized that the money did not belong to them but belonged to the bank. They were stewards or trustees and had to report the day’s transactions each evening.
This truth was reinforced when I saw one of our Dallas Seminary students serving as a cashier. I asked him later how it worked. He said that at the beginning of the day he had checked out to him the amount of money he would need for the transactions of the day. All day money would come in and go out. At the end of the day, however, he had to account for every penny, as none of the money belonged to him.
Paul asked the question, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). The more we receive the greater is our responsibility. Christians are saved and given spiritual gifts by God as a solemn trust, that they be used wisely. Christians should not attempt to judge others in regard to reward, for each will have to give account to God and to no one else.
This figure is the great leveler of human attainment. Judgment is on the basis of faithful use of gifts, not necessarily how successful an individual may be. Every Christian has an equal opportunity for reward, because those with few gifts must account only for what God gave them. Those with many gifts actually have the greater difficulty of using all that God has given them. Many an obscure Christian will be rewarded more than those who had many gifts. Therefore, comparison of one Christian’s life to another’s is unwise.
These truths will come into focus, especially at the time of the Rapture. The fact that the Rapture is an imminent event that could occur at any time teaches us the importance of making the most of our present opportunities, whether in the form of witness, stewardship, or holy living. Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58 is most appropriate with regard to the Rapture when he says, “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
1. Was it natural for the disciples to long to see Christ in His return to the earth?
2. How does a bride awaiting marriage illustrate the church waiting for the coming of Christ?
3. What were some of the important prophecies that the Old Testament predicted that were fulfilled in Christ’s life on earth?
4. Why is the Upper Room Discourse, John 13-17, important for Christians today?
5. How did Christ describe His second coming in Matthew 24:23-27?
6. What Scriptures indicate that at the second coming of Christ He will begin a kingdom for a thousand years on earth and will reign on the throne of David?
7. What new truth was introduced by Christ in John 14?
8. Why is this a different coming than His second coming to set up His kingdom?
9. What are some of the tremendous events that will precede His second coming to set up His kingdom?
10. What characterizes the last three-and-a-half years preceding the Second Coming?
11. What do you gather from the fact that the Rapture as presented in Scripture is always considered an imminent event, that is, no preceding events are mentioned?
12. What major division of the human race is involved in God’s purpose and plan?
13. What was the broad outline of God’s plan for the Gentile world as revealed in the Old Testament and especially in Daniel?
14. What were the six world empires anticipated in the Old Testament?
15. What will characterize the seventh kingdom, which will follow the Roman Empire?
16. What is the broad outline of God’s plan and purpose for Israel? How is this related to the Second Coming?
17. What is God’s present purpose for the church? What does it reveal about the character of God?
18. What did Paul reveal in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 concerning the Rapture?
19. Why will Christ bring with Him the souls of Christians who have died?
20. What will be the effect of the Rapture on the bodies of Christians who have died and those who are living?
21. What are some of the major things wrong with our present body that need to be corrected before we can go to heaven?
22. Describe the beauty of the church as anticipated in Ephesians 5:27.
23. Who will be included in the rapture of the church?
24. When will other people who are saved be raised from the dead?
25. When will the wicked be raised from the dead?
26. What are some of the major contrasts between the Rapture and the Second Coming?
27. Why do these differences reinforce the fact that the Rapture is a different event than the Second Coming?
28. What are some of the practical aspects of the Rapture?
29. Why is the Rapture a comforting hope?
30. Why is the Rapture a purifying hope?
31. What is the nature of the judgment seat of Christ?
32. Why is the judgment seat of Christ not concerned with the matter of salvation?
33. What is meant by justification?
34. Though a believer is justified, how do you explain the work of sanctification?
35. When will a believer’s state be as perfect as his position?
36. How does a building and its materials illustrate the judgment seat of Christ? What does this teach about the quality of our life now, anticipating the coming of Christ?
37. What is taught by the illustration of running a race in respect to the judgment seat of Christ?
38. What are some of the things a runner does not do who wants to win the race?
39. In what respects is the judgment seat of Christ an illustration of stewardship or being a trustee?
40. How does the illustration of stewardship bring equality to Christians regardless of their ability? In what way does this give all believers an equal opportunity to obtain God’s rewards?
41. What is Paul’s final exhortation regarding the Rapture in 1 Corinthians 15:58?