By Robin Corner
Many Christians today believe that Jesus is coming again soon. I myself believe this. I find this belief in the Lord’s soon return has enormously sharpened my faith and desire to serve Jesus. This too was the case with the early church. This is what Peter had to say:
But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that Day the heavens will disappear with a shrill noise, the heavenly bodies will burn up and be destroyed, and the earth with everything in it will vanish. Since all these things will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people should you be? Your lives should be holy and dedicated to God, as you wait for the Day of God and do your best to make it come soon—the Day when the heavens will burn up and be destroyed, and the heavenly bodies will be melted by the heat. But we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will be at home.
And so, my friends, as you wait for that Day, do your best to be pure and faultless in God’s sight and to be at peace with him. Look on our Lord’s patience as the opportunity he is giving you to be saved, just as our dear friend Paul wrote to you, using the wisdom that God gave him.
(2 Peter 3: 10 – 15)
In Peter’s thinking, the expected soon return of the Lord was a reason to be diligent about day-to-day living a life pleasing to God, taking care of our relationship with God, and thanking God for his patience in giving more time that many more people should come to a saving knowledge of Jesus. Also it’s an additional reason to stay free from deception. Elsewhere, Paul told Timothy that the trials of the last days meant he should be all the more careful to share with people true doctrine, and keep on preaching to everyone who would listen. So what they thought were the last days made a difference to the early Christians, who led lives of faithfulness and zeal because of their joyful expectancy that Jesus is coming soon.
So it’s a matter of great joy today that so many should share this expectancy. For many, especially in the evangelical/charismatic churches, talk of the return of Jesus immediately evokes images of the book series ‘Left Behind’, by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and the films of that name. The books have had a great reception in America especially, with current worldwide sales of $65 million, and the latest film was released on Oct 3, 2014. They portray chaos all over the world as, from the point of view of ordinary non-Christian folk, millions of people just vanish. A car ploughs through the windows of a shopping mall when it’s driver disappears, and a small plane without a pilot crashes in the mall parking lot. Passengers in buses and planes vanish, leaving their clothes in neat piles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R66AjqjuvU
Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory
“Left Behind” is a fictional portrayal of the outworking of a theological doctrine known as the “pre-tribulation rapture theory”. According to this theory, prior to a coming 7-year tribulation period on earth, Jesus will come to take all the Christians out of the world. This is why, in the film, all these people have gone. They are Christians, who have been spared the tribulation by being “raptured” out of the world by Jesus. Another name for this doctrine is the “Secret Rapture”, because the people of the world don’t know that Jesus has been. In other words, according to this theory, there will be two “Days of the Lord”. The first time Jesus comes in secret to take the Christians to Heaven. The second time Jesus returns is after the seven-year tribulation period. This second return is in order to mete out judgement to the non-believing people of the world.
I have many great friends who are very convinced that this is an accurate picture of coming events. I think it’s great that they, and I, share the belief that Jesus is returning to earth soon! That probably means we are 90% in agreement! Furthermore, I am very convinced that God allows us to have different views on Bible prophecy. So do feel free to disagree with what I say. Let’s stay friends! I just have one little problem. I’ve been studying the Bible since I was born again in 1985, and I feel very sure that it does not portray this “Left Behind” scenario. But if, after reading this study, you still feel the “Secret Rapture” is going to take place, please write to me. I’m always open to be convinced by God’s Word. So come and let’s take a walk through scripture. Our purpose is to gain an accurate picture of what the coming of Jesus is going to be like. My commentary will be in sharp debating style, in order to bring out the points as best I can, but please don’t take offence if you are a secret rapture believer. Let’s just focus simply on what the Word of God says, and, just for the moment, forget about what our favourite preachers and Bible commentators say. We cannot lose from doing this, and afterwards we can check whether their words line up with God’s word.
Let’s start with this description of His coming, spoken by Jesus Himself:
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 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. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Mat 24:27-31)
First, it seems very obvious that this coming of Jesus is in no way secret. His coming is like lightning flashing from east to west. The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars will fall from the sky. The sign of the Son of Man will appear. Everyone will see Him, coming on the clouds with great glory. His angels proceed with a great sound of a trumpet!
Now the question is, at the point in time spoken of in these verses, when Jesus comes with great glory, has He been previously, to rapture the church? The answer is no, He has not, because the church is still on earth! The angels are sent to gather together His elect. He uses poetic language in saying that they will be gathered from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other, but His meaning is clear. The true church (the elect) is gathered from all over the earth at this coming.
Could it be that He came seven years previously to take all who were saved at that time, and the elect spoken of here are only those saved during the seven year tribulation? Surely the answer is again no. These verses say that the angels will gather together His elect… . They don’t say the angels “will gather some of the elect”. Nor do they say “the angels will gather those who were saved during the tribulation”, as some commentators interpret. Let’s have a look at the context. The verses are part of a longer discourse of Jesus, which is His response to the question, Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age? (Mat 24:3). Of course His answer is addressed to those who asked the question, His disciples, and by extension all believers, including ourselves, who have lived before the events described. So He is speaking to us, very directly. Throughout the discourse He uses you: ..if anyone says to you (Mat 24:23); …I have told you beforehand (Mat 24:25). It is obvious that He is not speaking in a parable. He is just telling us simply and straightforwardly about events which sooner or later the Christian believers will go through. And because the events described have not yet happened in history, we know they are in the future. He lists features of a tribulation so severe that no flesh would be saved if it were not shortened for the sake of the elect. Why does it need to be shortened for the sake of the elect? Of course, because the elect (the chosen ones, we) will be here on earth. If it were not the case that the believers will be here, one would expect Jesus to have said something like, “Of course, you will not be here, but this is what is going to happen…….”, or, “I will come and gather you, and then these things will happen……”. He would not have needed to warn us about the extreme nature of the tribulation, as He so clearly does. Finally, the passage says that the appearance of Jesus, and the gathering of the elect, will take place immediately after the tribulation of those days. The gathering does not occur before the tribulation, but after the tribulation, according to Matthew’s Gospel.
Through our study of Matthew chapter 24 so far, it seems we can understand the following points:
- The appearance of Jesus referred to in this chapter will be very obvious to the whole world, with signs, glory and a trumpet sound.
- The angels will gather together the elect.
- Jesus has warned us that we (or at least all of us who believe, who are alive at the time spoken of) will go through extremely severe tribulation before the angels gather us.
- It doesn’t seem as though there can be a prior gathering of the elect hidden from the world.
- The events described are at the end of the age.
So let’s look at other scriptures to see if they agree with this analysis. The parallel discourse in Mark chapter 13 follows the Matthew 24 discourse almost exactly, and acts as a second witness. But chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel gives us more information and helps us work out the sequence. Here Jesus gives us a parable. But after giving us the parable, he explains it, to clarify what He means:
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares
Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Mat 13:24-30)
The Parable of the Tares Explained
Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”
He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Mat 13:36-43)
This passage also describes the end of the age. The situation outlined is that the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the wicked one are in the world together until the end of the age. So any “secret rapture” is categorically ruled out. The really interesting question is, “Who are the first to be gathered?” (verse 30) It may surprise many to know that the first gathered are the tares! Jesus sends out His angels to gather them and cast them into the furnace. Then the righteous shall shine forth! So far from being left behind, the sons of the wicked one are gathered first.
Matthew and Luke both include the famous words where Jesus compares the time of the end to the days of Noah (Mat 24:37-44; Luke 17:26-27 ).
But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what houryour Lord is coming. (Mat 24:37-44; )
We notice a number of points. The people of the world are described as carrying on life as usual, completely oblivious to the imminent judgement of God. Surely this would be impossible if millions of people had vanished only seven years previously. But even more interesting to my mind is this. One (man) will be taken and the other left…...One (woman) will be taken and the other left….. Most modern Christians think that those who are taken are those Christians who are raptured out of the world. But armed with the knowledge of Matthew 13:24-43, we know that the first to be gathered are the tares, or sons of the wicked one. So the ones who are taken here are not the Christians, but the non-believing and the wicked. They are destined for the furnace of fire. If you are alive at this time, you will want to be left behind!
One central scripture relied on by the proponents of the “secret rapture” is:
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 by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up 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. (1 Thes 4:15-18)
How can these verses support a secret rapture? As we noticed in our study of Mat 24, this coming of the Lord is anything but secret. Integral to the scene are the Lord’s shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God. Surely this is the same trumpet sound that rang out in Matthew 24:31, and the archangel one of those in Matthew 13:41. We are getting another picture of the same event. Now we learn that all the believing dead will be raised, and will be joined with the believers alive at that time. What an incredible moment that will be!
Another aspect of this incredible event is described in these verses:
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?O Hades, where is your victory?” (1Cor 15:50-55)
Here, we learn about the exchanging of our corruptible bodies for incorruptible bodies, and the resounding defeat of death. Once again, we read about the sound of the trumpet, this time specifically described as the last trumpet. And perhaps our new changed body explains why we will shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of our Father (Mat 13:43).
How can we be sure these passages all describe the same event? There are common themes: for example, the trumpet; raising of the dead; return of Jesus; gathering of the saved; end of the age; condemnation of the wicked. The passages quoted all contain two or more of these themes. The event is sometimes referred to as the Day of the Lord. Most importantly there is only one Day of the Lord spoken of in the New Testament. The New Testament writers all make it clear that we will meet the Lord at that day, and we should be prepared. Nowhere is it suggested that we the believers will have our own private rendezvous seven years earlier. Here are examples, with my comments:
…..it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe because our testimony among you was believed. (2Thes 1:6-10)
Hear Paul clearly speaks about the Day (one only) when 1. Jesus is revealed from heaven; 2. With mighty angels; 3. Taking vengeance on the wicked; 4. To be glorified and admired among all who believe; 5. To defend and deliver His people. There is no suggestion that there are two separate days, one day to be revealed from heaven to the believers, and another to take vengeance on the disobedient. Only one Day is coming, the Day of the Lord, when believers and non-believers alike have an appointment with the Lord of the universe!
For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day (2 Tim1:12). Paul himself is waiting for “that Day”. There is only one day spoken of, not two, one secret and one open.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, (Tit 1:11-13). This passage is obviously about the believers, who are urged to look towards the glorious (not the secret) appearing of Jesus Christ.
There are at least 100 verses in the New Testament which refer to the Day of the Lord, sometimes referred to as the day of God, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, the appearing/revelation of Jesus Christ. Here are some of them: Mat 16:27; Mat 25:31; Mat 26:64; Mark 8:38; John 14:3; Acts 1:10-11; Acts 3:20; 1Cor 1:8; 1Tim 6:14; Tit 2:13; 1Pet 1:7; 1Pet 1:13; 2Pet 3:12; Rev 1:7. Some of them specifically mention the Day of the Lord or one of the other descriptions. In some of them, there is no specific mention of the day, but what is spoken of is obvious by context. In fact, it surely would not be an exaggeration to say that the whole New Testament is focused on the glorious coming again of our Lord. What is clear on looking at these verses is that there is no plain, simple reference to a secret rapture. Arguments for the secret rapture always hinge on some alleged inference, some alleged contradiction in verses describing Jesus’ coming, or some interpretation of prophecy. But surely, if it is true that we are to expect not one, but two returns of the Lord Jesus to planet Earth, God would have given us a plain, clear Scripture to tell us about it. If words have meaning, every New Testament writer was focussed on the one Day of the Lord. It is a day when we see the awesomeness of God. It is a day of vengeance against sin and evil. It is a day of delight and vindication for believers. Let’s make sure we are not gathered by the angels when they go out to gather the unbelievers and the wicked, in order to commit them to the furnace of fire. Let us make sure we are “left behind”!