Reprinted from eParousia Vol. 2 No. 1, January, 2004
ACCORDING TO JESUS…
During the time of the Great Tribulation, spoken of in Matthew 24, Jesus tells of a period of betrayal, hatred, persecution of believers, multiplying false prophets and false Christs, and great deception. Revelation 13 tells us of the rise and reign of the Antichrist, and his persecution of those who refuse to worship him and to take his mark. In this context, we are told, “Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints” (Rev. 13:10). This time of persecution will require perseverance and faith. We can thank God that He strengthens us by His Holy Spirit and has promised to keep us from stumbling (Jude 24).
In order to understand the sequence of end-time events, there is one crucial verse which has been overlooked by many. Matthew 24:21-22 states:
For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Jesus says that these days of tribulation will not run their entire course, but will be “cut short” for the elect’s sake. The Greek work for “cut short” is koloboo, which means “to abridge,” “to curtail,” or “to amputate.” It is the amputation of something so that it is now shorter than it was before. How long, we may ask, is the Great Tribulation said to last? The answer is 42 months, 1260 days, or 3-1/2 years. We get this from numerous Scriptures (Dan. 7:25, 9:27; Rev. 13:5). Jesus is telling His disciples that the days of Great Tribulation against the elect will be cut short to less than the 3-1/2 years. The 3-1/2 years will not be cut short, but the tribulation against the elect will be shortened. How is this going to happen? By Jesus return and the rapture of His elect.
Jesus states plainly the time of His return and the gathering together of His elect:
But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other (Matt. 24:29-31).
Jesus says that the gathering of His elect will occur “after the tribulation of those days,” which He told us would be “cut short.” So, this event of the sun and moon being darkened and stars falling from the sky, occurs after the beginning of the Great Tribulation, but before the full 3-1/2 years have transpired.
Who are the elect for whose sakes the Great Tribulation will be shortened, and for whom Christ returns? They are believers in Christ, saints, His bond-servants, the body of Christ. Throughout the New Testament believers in Christ are called the elect of God, those whom He chose as His own (See Rom 8:33, Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 2:10; Tit. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1-2). Matthew 24:29-31 represents none other than the rapture of the Church at Christ’s return to rescue believers from the time of Great Tribulation.
ACCORDING TO PAUL…
Paul gives us even more details of the rapture of the Church. The most famous rapture passage is in 1 Thessalonians 4:
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:15-17).
Paul comforts the Thessalonian believers by telling them that the dead in Christ will be resurrected just before the translation of living believers. Christ will descend visibly with a shout, the archangel Michael will raise His voice, and the trumpet of God will be blown. This is a visible, noisy, glorious event, not some secret catching away! The word Paul uses for “remain” is perileipo, which is best translated as “survive.” There will be many believers killed during the Great Tribulation, but Paul is saying that “we who survive until the coming of the Lord” will be caught up to meet Christ along with resurrected believers.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells more details of the rapture of the Church. He states,
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him [i.e. rapture], that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God (2 Thess 2:1-4).
Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that the coming of the Lord and the rapture of the Church will NOT happen until after the son of destruction (i.e. Antichrist) is revealed when he takes his seat in the temple and demands the world’s worship. In other words, the rapture of the church will NOT happen until AFTER the beginning of the Great Tribulation.
ACCORDING TO REVELATION…
And finally, the book of Revelation, while not telling of the event of the rapture itself, does show us the results of the rapture, and the timing is exactly parallel with that of Jesus and Paul. We read in Revelation 6 of a time of death and martyrdom in seals 4 and 5 (the time of the Great Tribulation), and then seal 6 is the same sign in the sun, moon and stars that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24. Following these heavenly signs, we see in Revelation a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, people and nation standing before the heavenly throne. When John asks who these folks are, one of the elders replies, “these are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.” In other words, they were in the midst of the tribulation period, and have been caught up to heaven. This great multitude is none other than the raptured Church, the gathered elect, the saints.
So, putting all of these passages together, when will the rapture of the church take place?
1. After the revealing of the Antichrist
2. After the beginning of the Great Tribulation
3. After the sign in the sun, moon and stars
4. Before the 3-1/2 years of the Great Tribulation is completed
5. When Christ visibly descends from heaven with a shout, with the archangel (and other angels),
and with the blowing of the trumpet of God
6. After the dead in Christ are raised first
What is the application for us? We must be prepared spiritually for the “evil day” ahead. We are take up the full armor of God. We are to look expectantly for the return of Christ. We are to watch for the signs of His coming. We are to reach the world with the gospel while God’s patience still allows time. And finally, we are not to fear. We have a great God who has a wonderful plan. That plan may sometimes involve suffering, persecution, even death. But we are not to despair. We are to persevere in faith, not looking at what is seen, but at what is unseen, fixing our eyes on Jesus. We are to sing with the great reformer, Martin Luther, who wrote:
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
This article was originally published through eParousia, Sola Scriptura’s monthly end-times e-newsletter.