I grew up listening to prophetic preaching. There was no doubt that this preaching was premillennial as well as dispensational. The rapture was always presented as pretribulational (occurring before the great tribulation period). For me these were grand days of my young adulthood. The church I grew up in was large with well-known guest speakers often ministering, many of whom were known for their prophetic messages. Though I was saved at age eleven, I was sixteen years old when I began attending regularly because I could drive on my own and we lived forty miles away. These services drew me back into church and placed me in a position to listen to God and, by His grace, He saw fit to call me into the ministry.
Contrary to popular writing today, I never felt pressured in large evangelistic services nor was I made afraid by the preaching of the rapture or a literal hell or the white throne judgment. I was warmed and challenged by these truths and grew deeper in biblical understanding as the years went on. It is common now to read blogs online from someone who has departed from these things and maybe has become angry or disappointed over circumstances and now is writing “I can’t believe I was deceived” articles. But for me, any misunderstanding or lack of knowledge (or even disappointment by men) was more than recovered by the continued blessing of the biblical panoramic of dispensational truth and the blessed hope of the pretribulation rapture.
In my Bible college and seminary days, I learned that these doctrines had been seriously challenged by men such as Alexander Reese, O.T. Allis, George Ladd, Robert Gundry, and more recently by the preterist views of R.C. Sproul, Hank Hannegraf, and even Jay Adams (to name a few). I’ve also been challenged by young people who are very forward in their criticism of the pretribulational rapture, though I confess that I haven’t heard any new reasons differing from those I struggled with years ago. The historical arguments or the personality arguments and the exegetical arguments (all only confirm these things to me) only take us back to the Bible for our final answer. Because dispensationalism was developed into a more complete system a few years after Reformed theology, we often receive the charge that it is a recent phenomenon. Charles Ryrie answered this years ago in his foundational book on dispensationalism. He quotes John Calvin (who, of course, was no dispensationalist nor even premillennialist) defending his own system, “First, by calling it ‘new’ they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. . . . That it has lain long unknown and buried is the fault of man’s impiety. Now when it is restored to us by God’s goodness, its claim to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery.”1
Robert Gundry, in his 1973 critique of the pretribulational rapture and its dispensational counterpart, paid our position a compliment unintentionally, “In the chronological question concerning the rapture, the dispensational issue centers in the field of ecclesiology. An absolute silence in the OT about the present age, a total disconnection of the Church from the divine program for Israel, and a clean break between dispensations would favor pretribulationalism: the Church would not likely be related to the seventieth week of Daniel, or tribulation, a period of time clearly having to do with Israel.”2 With minor exceptions over definitions, this is exactly why I still maintain that the rapture is the great hope of the church!
John 14:1-6 (AD 32)
The coming of Christ for His church is not revealed in the Old Testament prophets because the church itself is a mystery from that perspective. Jesus did not even discuss the building of His church until six months before His death and then only mentioned it in two passages (Matt. 16:18 and 18:15-17). The disciples did not understand much about the church or this present age before the New Testament was revealed and written. On the night before He died, Jesus spoke to His disciples about a new concept. He told them that although He would go away to His Father’s house, He would come again and also take them to the Father’s house to be with Him.
This receiving of the believers unto Himself and taking them to a place He had prepared for them, where God Himself dwells, is a totally new concept in Scripture to this point. We search in vain to find such a thing in the Old Testament or even in the gospels. The prophets speak much about the second coming of Christ in glory and the establishing of His kingdom on earth. The Old Testament saints looked forward to resurrection and to standing upon the earth and in their very flesh seeing God (Job 19:25-26). They knew His feet would one day be planted upon mount Olivet and He would rescue them from the antichrist (Zech. 14:1-5). They knew He would enter Jerusalem from the east and His glory would fill the whole earth (Ezek. 43:1-2). But no one knew of disciples being taken to heaven (because the order of resurrection was still unclear) in their resurrected bodies.
Jesus did not elaborate. It was enough at this time for the disciples to be strengthened and encouraged in light of what would happen over the next few days. In response to Thomas’ question, he needed only to know that the way to the Father’s house is through personal faith in Christ. He is the way and the truth and the life and no one can come to the Father except through Him. Even after His resurrection their question is not so much about this resurrection and home-going as it is about the establishment of the kingdom (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ answer to them is interesting. He tells them that the events surrounding the establishment of the kingdom (the “times and seasons” —see the unique parallel in 1 Thes. 5:1) was not their concern. Rather, they would now be engulfed in a world-wide evangelistic ministry and the end of a such a thing would be the Father’s own prerogative. The time of the rapture and even the nature of it were still a mystery to the believers.
James 5:7-9 (AD 45)
Most scholars believe that James and Galatians were the first New Testament books written. The events of both books would have occurred during the famine in Jerusalem and just before the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). Paul wrote Galatians in response to his first missionary journey and James wrote his book to encourage the Jerusalem saints during those difficult times. Though James does not add much understanding to the nature of the rapture, he does introduce us to an important word—the appearing (parousia—presence) of Christ, and to an important concept—the imminency of that appearing. In addition, the “patience” spoken of in this passage is not the normal word hupomone which is a bearing up under a burden, but in every case is the word makrothumia or longsuffering, the long waiting for an event to take place.
“Be patient therefore, brethren [long-waiting], unto the coming [the soon presence] of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience [waiting] for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient [long-waiting], stablish your hearts: for the coming [appearing, presence] of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.” What greater comfort can believers receive, in the light of difficult trials, than to know that their Lord could appear at any moment.
These verses by themselves would be insufficient information about the rapture although we don’t know all that the apostles taught the Jerusalem believers up to this point. But now we have the rest of the New Testament revelation, especially from Paul’s letters, and so these words and concepts carry weighty evidence of the deliverance which Jesus promised and about which Paul later wrote in his epistles.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (AD 50)
Paul was on his second missionary journey and had passed through Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), preaching in the synagogues. Having quickly established a church in this city, he was forced to leave in a short three weeks. Arriving in Corinth (Acts 18:1-17), Paul spent a year and a half and no doubt wrote this epistle back to the troubled church at this time. Paul’s inspired writing ministry was in full swing. He had taught this church and was now writing to them concerning many things related to Christ’s coming. They were waiting for God’s Son from heaven who would deliver them from the coming wrath (1:10); they would be Paul’s glory and joy when Christ appears (2:19-20); it is the church’s goal to be unblameable and holy at the coming (parousia) of Christ with all His saints (3:13). The major revelation about the rapture is given in 4:13-18. Further explanation about the “times and seasons” follows in 5:1-11.
For the first time, rapture is linked specifically to resurrection. Those loved ones who have died (Paul uses the euphemism “sleep”) in Christ will be raised just as Christ was raised and will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. (Paul will affirm later that though bodies of believers are in the grave, souls of believers are with the Lord). But there is an additional truth added here. Not only will “sleeping” believers be resurrected and then caught up into the air, living believers will also be caught up into the air! Later (in 1 Cor. 15:51-58), we learn that the bodies of living believers will instantly be changed at that moment from a mortal existence into an immortal existence. These living believers will be “caught up together with them [sleeping believers] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (4:16). This is new information to the Thessalonian believers but it is plain and straightforward. Those who are “in Christ,” i.e., the church, will be raptured!
This cannot be the coming of Christ in glory when He comes to put an end to Armageddon and establish His kingdom. This is a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to take His believers home to the Father’s house! Jesus doesn’t come to the earth here, but gathers the believers together in the air. His feet don’t touch the mount of Olives here, but remain in the clouds in the sky. He doesn’t enter the eastern gate of Jerusalem here, but returns with His Bride to enter the Father’s house and to be married to the Bride and prepare for the marriage supper.
The apostle John later records, at the end of the great tribulation (Rev. 19:7-9), that by then the “marriage of the Lamb is come” (vs 7—aorist tense, “has come”) and now the Lamb and His Bride are making ready to return to the “marriage supper” (19:9). The awarding of white robes to be worn to the supper have been distributed (Rev. 19:8, 14). The casting of crowns received at the Bema Seat had taken place in heaven seven years before (Rev. 4:10). These events can only mean that the rapture of the dead and living believers took place seven years prior to chapter 19, before the tribulation period began!
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (AD 50)
Paul reminds the believers that the rapture will be followed by “the times and the seasons” (5:1). This is a time of “darkness” and “night” but the believers are “children of light” and “of the day” not of the night. As was the emphasis in Acts 1, the believers have evangelistic work to do now with the “breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation” (vs. 8). We can do this diligently without fearing the coming wrath of the tribulation period “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 9). We can do this without fear of death for ourselves or our loved ones because we now understand the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (vs. 10).
Donald Grey Barnhouse, well-known Presbyterian pastor and author wrote, “Oh what a day that will be! An unprecedented experience! Our redeemed loved ones raised from the dead and brought into fullness of true life never dreamed of! And we who may still be alive on that day will be transformed and made over into Christ’s likeness . . . . And caught up to meet all the redeemed of all ages in the air. . . . This is the denouement, culmination, finale of our redemption.”3