The rapture: The blessed hope, Jesus, and Paul

The apostolic church lived in expectation of Christ's return in glory and power.

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

The apostolic church lived in expectation of Christ's return in glory and power. Paul defined Christians as those who experience the grace of God, live a sanctified life, and "wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation [epiphaneia, "appearance"] of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13).* This "blessed hope" of the glorious appearance of Christ "to judge the living and the dead" (2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:14), became the Christian hope of the church, until John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), of the Plymouth Brethren in England, began to teach the novel theory of a "pretribulation rapture" a secret, invisible "rapture" of Christians to heaven some seven years before Christ's coming in glory.1 According to this viewpoint, at the rapture, Christ comes invisibly "for" His saints; at the glorious parousia (advent) or epiphaneia (appearing), Christ will return with the saints. This construct of a two-phase second advent is the result of a system of hermeneutics called "literalism," originated by Darby and popularized by C. I. Scofield in the (New) Scofield Reference Bible.2

The fundamental difference between the secret rapture theory and historic Christianity is the doctrine that Christ will return in glory exactly seven years after the rapture of the church. Hidden in this human construct is a secret date-setting for the Second Advent, something explicitly forbidden by Christ (Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:6, 7). Serious Bible students have written many critical evaluations of this futurism or Dispensationalism, especially of the radical dichotomy it creates between Israel and the church.3

We offer a brief review of the biblical position on the blessed hope as taught by Jesus and Paul. The main passages are Matthew 24:29-31; John 14:3; 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; and 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; 2:1-8. Every text needs to be inter preted within the framework of its own literary and historical context. Our use of the words "church," "Israel," parousia (advent) and "imminent," must be determined by the progressive revelation of the New Testament instead of by dogmatic considerations.

Jesus' teaching about His future parousia

Of the four Gospels only Matthew 24 uses the term parousia (presence, coming, arrival) for His glorious appearance at the end of the world. From the start, Christ's coming is connected with God's retributive judgment at the end of the age: "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the end of the age?'" (Matt. 24:3; cf. 13:39, 40, 49, 50). Jesus affirmed this concurrence when He replied that all peoples on earth will see the "sign" of His parousia when He arrives on a cloud of angels in the sky "with power and great glory" as the "Son of Man" of Daniel's judgment vision (Dan. 7:13, 14): "'Immediately after the suffering [thlipsis, "tribulation, distress"] of those days [cosmic signs will occur] . . . Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see "the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven" with power and great glory'" (Matt. 24:29, 30). Christ emphasized the universal visibility of His parousia, stating: "'For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man'" (verse 27).

It is essential to recognize that Jesus adopted the phrases "tribulation," "Son of Man," "the clouds of heaven," "power and great glory," all from Daniel's visions. Daniel 7 and 12 depict the final deliverance of God's faithful covenant people as coming after their tribulation by the end-time enemy of God (Dan. 7:25-27; 12:1, 2). Daniel thus portrayed a post-tribulation deliverance of the saints through the intervention of the royal "Son of Man" or celestial Michael. Jesus claimed to be that heavenly King-Messiah of Daniel's vision and announced that God's judgment will be dramatically realized at His parousia in awesome power and glory. All people on earth will not only witness His parousia but, as a consequence, also "mourn" or be filled with bitter remorse and despair.4

This apocalyptic "mourning" in Matthew 24 is repeated and expanded by John in his Apocalypse: "Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail" (Rev. 1:7; see its enlargement in Rev. 6:12-17). This worldwide "wailing" is not the mourning of repentance but that of hopelessness and fear for the approaching judgment, because they will all "see" Him "coming on the clouds of heaven." Contemporary Greek writings used the word parousia as the official term for the triumphant arrival of kings and rulers on a visit to a town.5 Jesus endorsed Daniel's prophetic perspective by declaring that His parousia would occur "immediately" after the end-time tribulation of His people (Matt. 24:21, 22, 29, 30; cf. Dan. 12:1). Clearly, Jesus also taught a post-tribulation parousia.

What dispensationalists assume, however, is that Jesus directed His prophetic discourse exclusively to His disciples as representatives of Israel as the "elect nation," so that Matthew 24 is not applicable to the church, the rapture, or the resurrection.6

Ironically, of all the four Gospel writers, Matthew alone uses the term ekklesia, "church" (16:18; 18:17). Matthew defines the "church" of Christ as the body of all who like the apostle Peter confess Jesus as Israel's Messiah (16:16-19), as the body in which Christ's presence dwells until His parousia or the end of the age (18:20; 28:20). Jesus called those believers "His elect" and "His church" (16:18; 24:31; cf. John 6:44; 12:32).

It is difficult to see how anyone can deny the fact that the apostles, to whom Jesus addressed His prophetic discourse, were also the founders and first members of the Christian church, which Christ had earlier called "My church." The apostles are representatives of all believers among all nations (Acts 1:8). Jesus' prophetic discourse in Matthew 24 is therefore addressed to the apostolic church till the end of the age (Matt. 28:19, 20). Any attempt to separate the apostles or Matthew 24 from the "church" is an unbiblical compartmentalization. Peter called all church members a "chosen people" (1 Peter 2:9) and "God's elect" (1:1, 2, NIV). Paul like wise called the church "God's elect" (Rom. 8:33; cf. Titus 1:1; Eph. 1:42; 2 Tim. 2:10;). Jesus certainly did not restrict "His elect" to a Jewish rem nant of believers after He witnessed greater faith in a Roman centurion than in any Israelite: "T tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'" (Matt. 8:11, 12).

The argument "from silence" that Jesus did not mention the rapture or the resurrection in Matthew 24 because "the rapture does not occur at the second coming" (Walvoord) ,7 begs the question. Such a precarious assumption is not based on Scripture but on doctrinal considerations. In Matthew 24, Jesus replied to the particular question of His disciples regarding the sign of His parousia (verse 3). In His answer Jesus pointed to the book of Daniel as the primary source for His reply (verse 15). There we read how the deliverance of the saints from the end-time tribulation will occur: the celestial Michael will descend for their rescue and bring about the resurrection of the dead (see Dan. 12:1, 2). We must read Matthew 24 therefore against the background of Daniel to receive the fuller picture. Shortly afterward, when Jesus assured His disciples that He would "come again" to "take" them to His Father's house in heaven (John 14:2, 3), He did not suggest a "secret" rapture, but explained the comforting purpose of His earlier promise of their resurrection on "the last day": "This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day'" (John 6:40, 44, 54).

Paul's apocalyptic gospel

As early as 50 or 51 A.D., Paul wrote two pastoral letters to the Thessalonian church, which he had founded himself. Because the citizens of Thessalonica strongly favored the rule of the Roman emperor, they became hostile to those who glorified Christ as their Redeemer-King (see Acts 17:l-9).8 Paul's central theme for the Thessalonian Christians was the hope for the parousia, a term he used seven times in these epistles.

Paul described the blessed hope of the church with a preponderance of parallels with Matthew 24. One scholar concluded from his detailed comparison: "For in the Matthean and Pauline accounts we find the same Greek words used in the same sense and in similar contexts."9 Another listed twenty-four substantial parallels between Matthew 24-25 and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, stating: "There is a greater amount of material parallel to Matthew's account than to either Mark's or Luke's, leading to the conclusion that the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew were the source of Paul's teaching."10

Paul recognized the authority of Jesus' teaching and appealed to "the word of the Lord" for his description of the Christian hope (1 Thess. 4:15). He adopted many of Jesus' key expressions and concepts, such as: the parousia from heaven, the final gathering of the saints by the angels, the clouds of heaven, the blast of the last trumpet, the coming of the Day of the Lord as a thief in the night. Jesus and Paul also emphasize that a sacrilegious apostasy will develop within the institutional church, accompanied by deceptive signs and lying wonders, before the gathering of the saints at the glorious parousia of Christ (Matt. 24:10-12, 24, 29, 30; 2 Thess. 2:1, 3- 10). No wonder that New Testament scholars who have compared the two accounts meticulously, agree that "the substantial parallelism is remarkably extensive, and it includes parallelism of structure as well as of ideas."11 This evidence requires that we consider Paul's eschatology as an elucidation and application of Jesus' prophetic discourse.

Paul may have used a source of "Logia," an original collection of sayings of Jesus, that antedated the writing of Matthew's Gospel. We focus on Paul's use of the key term parousia in comparison to its use by Jesus in Matthew 24. Paul responded to the question of some in the church of Thessalonica as to whether those who had died in the Lord had any disadvantage at the Parousia over those who will survive. Would the sleeping saints miss the glory of the Parousia? They needed reassurance of the Christian hope in contrast to those who had no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).

Paul grounded the hope of the gospel on the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died" (1 Thess. 4:14). This passage affirms that all who die in the Lord will surely be resurrected, just as Jesus died and rose again from the dead. The phrase, "God will bring with him," does not suggest any return of souls from heaven to earth but God's act of bringing the dead back from the grave, just as God had brought Jesus back from the tomb as the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20, 23).

Paul explained his creedal statement as follows: "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [parousia] of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:15-17).

Paul's purpose was not to describe the signs that introduce the Second Advent, but "by the word [or authority] of the Lord" to answer the specific question regarding the sleeping saints in relation to the Parousia. Only the aspect of the dead in Christ, mentioned four times in verses 13-16, is in view to reassure the grieving believers that the dead in Christ will have no disadvantage over the surviving saints, because they will "rise first." Both groups will then simultaneously (hama sun) be snatched up to meet the Lord in the air.

The advent of Christ thus synchronizes with the resurrection and translation of the saints! In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17 Paul clearly expanded in detail what Jesus had revealed in Matthew 24:30, 31. There is no need or justification for compartmentalizations. We should not assume that Paul suddenly reveals a different gathering and resurrection of the saints and a different parousia than the one mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24. The same trumpet that announces the angelic gathering of the elect in Matthew 24:31 also calls forth the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16. As Commander in Chief of the hosts of angels, Christ will appear in the sky and send forth His "cry" of command like a loud trumpet blast at His glorious parousia. Thus in this clearest text (1 Thess. 4:16, 17) addressing any kind of "rapture," if taken literally, Paul teaches the very opposite of a secret rapture.

In his famous "resurrection chapter" to the church in Corinth, Paul introduced the apocalyptic "trumpet" again to announce the resurrection and the translation of all the saints: "Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twink ling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51, 52). Paul does not state that the rapture will take place "in a moment," a popular misconception, but that the perishable body of the believer will be "changed" instantaneously into an immortal body "in the twinkling of an eye" (see also Phil. 3:20, 21). This translation into glory will take place, however, only "at the last trumpet," which will be heard, according to Jesus, at His glorious parousia (Matt. 24:31).

The other question the Thessalonians asked Paul concerned the intervening time before the Day of the Lord arrives: "concerning the times and the seasons [kairoi, dates]" (1 Thess. 5:1). Paul replied that such a question is beside the point (see also Acts 1:7), since the date of that Day cannot be calculated, for "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2) sudden and unexpected for unbelievers (verse 3), but expected by the saints because they live in constant readiness of the approaching end (5:4-8; cf. Matt. 25:13).

Paul stressed that the Day of the Lord, or the parousia of Christ (1 Thess. 5:23), will have a twofold aspect: "For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (5:9). Paul used this "wrath" to indicate the wrath or retributive judgment of God (1:10; Rom. 5:9), which he described in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10.

In his second letter to the church at Thessalonica Paul faced a different situation. Now he had to respond to an error regarding the timing of the parousia of the Lord and of its gathering of the saints (2 Thess. 2:1). Some in the Thessalonian church believed that "the day of the Lord" was "already here" (verse 2). As a result of this belief, some had become disorderly and refused to work for their living (2 Thess. 3:10, 11). This led Paul to a pastoral refutation of this premature sense of apocalyptic fulfillment. Paul reminded them of his previous instruction concerning the future rise of "the lawless one" in the church age, as an event that must come before the Day of the Lord (2:3). Because that antichrist figure had not yet made his "parousia" apparent with "power, signs, lying wonders," Paul said that the day of Christ's parousia could not yet have come (verses 3, 4, 9).

As a second argument against their unjustified insistence on the expectation of Christ's coming as being immediately imminent, Paul remind ed the Thessalonians of the well-known "restraining" power that prevented the public coming of the "lawless one" to reveal himself "in the temple of God" at that time (2:4-7).12 To properly understand Paul's prediction of a massive "apostasy" or falling away from the Christian faith before the Day of the Lord, we must recognize Paul's application of Daniel's out line prophecies regarding the enemy of God (in chapters 7; 8; 11; 12). From Daniel 7 the Church Fathers learned that the "restrainer" who delays the rise of the antichrist, was the civil power of the Roman Empire and its emperor.13 Dispensationalists insist that the "restrainer," who must be "removed" before the "lawless one" can be revealed, is the Holy Spirit working through the church, thus assuming a hint at the rapture of the church "at any time."14

In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul's intention is precisely to refute such an expectation by his use of Daniel's sequence of world empires in his prophetic forecasts (2 Thess. 2:3, 4 applies Dan. 7:25; 8:25; 11:36, as the New American Standard Bible rightly indicates). Daniel is the indispensable key to understanding Paul's outline of the church age in 2 Thessalonians 2.15 Paul urges the church therefore to watch for the signs of the predicted apostasy (cf. Acts 20:29, 30), so that the Parousia or Day of the Lord will not surprise her like a thief (1 Thess. 5:1-6).

Paul stressed the effect of the glorious Parousia on the antichrist: the Lord will come to destroy the lawless one "with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming [parousia]" (2 Thess. 2:8). The effect on the saints will be quite the opposite: "As to the coming [parousia} of the Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him [episynagoge] ..." (2:1; cf 1 Thess. 2:19; 4:15-17). Thus Paul repeats the inseparable union of the Parousia and the rapture, which he had described earlier at length in 1 Thessalonians 4.

Paul's apocalyptic gospel resembles closely that of Jesus in Matthew 24:21-31. Both Jesus and Paul present the Second Coming and the rapture as a single event that will occur immediately after the tribulation brought about by the antichrist. While Jesus warned particularly against the deception of a secret, invisible parousia (Matt. 24:26, 27), Paul warned specifically against the deception of a premature, "any moment" parousia (2 Thess. 2:3-8).

* Unless indicated otherwise, all Scripture passages in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.

1 J. F. Walvoord explains: "Pretribulationism arose as a refinement of premillennialism based on literal interpretation of prophecy" (The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1976, 48]). More correct is the assessment of David P. Gullon concerning Darby's two-stage coming of Christ: "The idea of the secret rapture of the church prior to the tribulation was a radical departure from historic premillennialism" (An Investigation of Dispensational Premillennialism: An Analysis and Evaluation of the Eschatology of John E Walvoord [Ph.D. Diss. at Andrews Univ., Berrien Springs, Mich.. 1992, 12]).

2 See C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965, 44, 45). For a critical evaluation of the dispensational eschatology of John Walvoord, see David P. Gullon, see Note 1.

3 See O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co.. 1974); G.E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids.: Eerdmans, 1972); A. Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ (Grand Rapids: International Pub., 1975); R. H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1973); R. R. Reiter, P. Feinberg, G. L. Archer. D. J. Moo, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984); A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids.: Eerdmans, 1979, ch. 15); H. K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God. Principles of Prophetic Interpretation (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews Univ. Mon., Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, 1993, 8th pr.); G.A. Blaising and D. L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism: Israel and the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).

4 See K. K. Kim. The Signs of the Parousia. Ph.D. Diss. at Andrews Univ., 1994. Korean Sahmyook Univ., Mon. Doct. Series 3. Seoul, Korea, 1994. Dr. Kim states: "Nowhere else in the New Testament is there a Parousia scene composed of six apocalyptic motifs as we find in Matt 24:29-31" (364). See his treatment of the Old Testament sources of the apocalyptic "mourning," on pp. 231-39.

5 See Dictionary of the New Testament. C. Brown, ed., 2:898-901 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). A. Deissmann concluded: "We can now say that the best interpretation of the original Parousia hope is the old advent promise: 'Lo, your King comes to you!" (Light from the Ancient East, 1911, 372). Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 1957). 635.

6 See J. F. Walvoord. The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1976)34, 35. Cf. The New Scofield Reference Bible, note on Matthew 24:3.

7 Ibid., 59.

8 See A. Smith in The New Interpreter's Bible, 11 (2000):675-78.

9 J. B. Orchard, "Thessalonians and the Synoptic Gospels," Biblica 19 (1938):19-42; quotation on 37. See also D. Ford, The Abomination of Desolation in Biblical Eschatology (Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of America, 1979). 198-210. L. Hartman, Prophecy Interpreted. Gleerup Lund, Sweden, 1966, 178-205.

10 G. H. Waterman, "The Sources of Paul's Teaching on the 2nd Coming of Christ in 1 and 2 Thessalonians," Journal of the Ev. Theol. Soc. 18:2 (1975):105-113; quotation from 113, Italics added.

11 D. Wenham, "Paul and the Synoptic Apocalypse," in Gospel Perspectives. Vol. 2, R. T. France and D. Wenham, eds., JSOT Press. 1981, 345-75; quotation from 352.

12 See Hans K. LaRondelle, "The Middle Ages within the Scope of Apocalyptic Prophecy," JETS 32/3 (1989): 345-354; How to understand the End-Time Prophecies of the Bible (Sarasota, Fl.: First Impressions, 1997), ch. 7, "Paul's Understanding of Daniel's Prophecies."

13 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 25 (ANF 1:554), already interpreted 2 Thess. 2 by means of Daniel 7. See LaRondelle, "Paul's Prophetic Outline in 2 Thess. 2," AUSS 21:1 (1983): 61-69, esp. 64. G. E. Ladd states: "The traditional view has been that the restraining principle is the Roman Empire and the restrainer the Emperor. This view, or a modification of it, fits best into the Pauline theology" (A Theology of the New Testament [Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1974], 560).

14 See Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, 128. J. D. Pentecost, Things To Come (Findlay, Ohio: Dunham, 1961), 296.

15 For a brief treatment on the main allusions to Old Testament prophecies in 2 Thess. 2:4, see H. K. LaRondelle, in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 866-69); The Israel of God in Prophecy, ch. 2.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

September 2001

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