Read the series so far.
This series explores the various avenues which have to be gone down in order to get the doctrine of the Rapture of the Church right. I am deliberately avoiding the more conventional comparative approach. This may annoy some and intrigue others. I hope the former group is smaller than the latter!
The Day of the Lord, Cosmic Upheavals, and the Return of Christ
The concept of the Day of the Lord describes different yet related things. If I pick it up where I left off last time, with 2 Peter 3:10, the Day of the Lord is matched specifically with the dissolution of the present created order.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
My understanding of this verse is that it takes a telescopic view of the whole intervention of the Divine presence to throw off the reign of sinful men and replace it with the rule of the Son of Man. This overthrow and reign (specifically with a rod of iron—Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15), terminates when earth and heaven flee away (Rev. 20:11), and then the reign is continued under perfectly harmonious conditions where “there is no more curse” (Rev. 22:3).
If the kingdom-age (the “regeneration” which Jesus speaks of in Matt. 19:28, cf. Lk 22:29-30) intervenes between the end of “this age” and the New Heavens and Earth, then Peter’s designation of the Day of the Lord does not refer only to the Second Coming, and certainly not only to an outpouring of wrath just prior to the Second Coming. In 2 Peter, it more definitely refers to the Advent, rule, and final destruction of the planet at the very end of the millennial-kingdom age. What this means (if I may recap what I have pointed out before) is that while “the Day of the Lord” may speak of all or part of the Tribulation in some contexts, it does not settle the dispute about where we put the rapture (I will address whether one should equate the “Day of the Lord” with the Tribulation below). This lack of finality is because the phrase “Day of the Lord” is somewhat flexible, and its association with the taking out of the church is placed within, and partakes of, that flexibility.
Saying this does not mean that the doctrine of the rapture becomes nebulous. It is a real future event for Christ’s Church. But it does mean that the timing of the rapture is arrived at only through deductions from inductively-concluded premises. Let me illustrate.
Pretribulationists are prone to identify “the Blessed Hope” spoken of by Paul in Titus 2:13 as the taking out of the Church, and I think they are right to do so. But I don’t think they are right automatically. That is, they are not entitled on exegetical grounds to simply deduce that “the Blessed Hope” equals the rapture because the rapture is pretribulational. I do not think the exegetical case for any rapture position is decisive, and am trying to show why. Thus, exegesis of the several rapture texts will substantiate that there is a rapture, and that the Body of Christ is its subject, but only valid inferences will determine the timing of the rapture.
Here’s a longer illustration. Going back to the Olivet Discourse we read:
For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. 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. 24:27-31)
The cosmic phenomena which Jesus mentions occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days” and are connected to the Second Coming in verses 27 and 30. The “gathering,” which some (not I) believe to be the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4, happens around that time. No doubt the saints are moved to safety right before Armageddon; whether by rapture to glory (which is somewhat speculative) or in another way it is not necessary to decide right now.
Furthermore, this “gathering” looks similar to the one in Matthew 13:47-50, or that in Revelation 14:14-20, both of which seem to happen at (or in close proximity to) the Second Advent, not at any distance prior to it. With this set of passages, the locus is at the very end of the Seventieth Week. One might wish to insert a longer period of time between the upheavals and the Advent (say, six months up to three and a half years), but these verses are not encouraging in that regard.
Another group of “Day of the Lord” scriptures support this interpretation of equating the very end of the Tribulation with the Second Advent as Day of the Lord.
Joel 2:31 speaks of the signs mentioned in Matthew 24:29f., and puts them “before the great and terrible day of the LORD.” If the Day of the Lord is the Return of Jesus in this text, then perhaps there is an interval of some extent between the two events? But Joel 3:14-16 indicates that this “before” is “in the Valley of Decision” where “the day of the LORD is near.” That passage reads,
Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!
For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon grow dark
And the stars lose their brightness. The LORD roars from Zion
And utters His voice from Jerusalem,
And the heavens and the earth tremble.
But the LORD is a refuge for His people
And a stronghold to the sons of Israel.—Joel 3:14-16
This text places the cosmic disturbances at the time of the great battle (Armageddon). The “day of the LORD” is said to be “near,” which indicates that in this passage it backs up to the Second Coming proper. The celestial troubles happen at Armageddon and not before.
What I’m saying is this: if the “day of the LORD” in Joel 3:14f is the same as the “great and terrible day of the LORD” in Joel 2:31, then the adverbs “before” and “near” refer to things immediately prior to the Lord’s Second Coming and not to a longer protracted period of wrath extending over months or years, the “wrath” here (though not everywhere) would be the Second Coming! This is how it is in Revelation 19:15, (which matches Revelation 14:14-20, see above), and Isaiah 63:1-6, which is a Second Advent passage. This would mean that the “immediately after the tribulation” reference in Matthew 24:29 comes promptly before, or even at, Armageddon.
As well, if one takes the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17 as referring to the Second Coming (and its match in Isa. 2:10-21 points to that conclusion), the report may easily be taken as speaking of the events directly in front of and including the Advent, just as the passages above have indicated. The example shows that these texts argue for “the Day of the Lord” and the cosmic signs occurring together in and around the great battle in “the Valley of Decision” and its ending at the Second Coming.
This rather elongated example shows that while there may be some fodder for post-tribulationism, there is little in this for the other positions to bite into as far as the rapture is concerned. Pretribbers are not threatened with the connections I’ve made, even if many of them like to interpret the gathering up of Matthew 24:31 in a different way than I have, and some will object to putting the sixth seal at the end of the Seventieth Week. Though Pre-wrathers have wrought valiantly on these passages to prize a wider time period for the rapture right before the “wrath” of God, which is poured out for at least several months after the Lord’s return, I do not think they are successful at proving their point. As I have tried to demonstrate, the heavenly chaos happens at Armageddon, and that battle is soon settled by the Second Coming of the King of Kings. Pretribulationism and Posttribulationism can handle this, but Posttribulationists, and to a lesser extent Pre-wrathers, confuse Israel and the Church, the latter having both groups going through the Tribulation concurrently. We’ve already seen this in Part Four, but there is more to say.
The Dragon and the Woman: Who Does Satan (and the Beast) Have in Their Sights?
The timing of the rapture is impacted by its subjects. Does it concern the Church only, or the Church and Israel? We must keep trying to sort out the related data.
Genesis 37:9-11 says,
Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, “Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me. He related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground? His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
Jacob’s interpretation of the dream shows that he thought the “Sun” was (in all likelihood) himself, the “moon” was Joseph’s mother Rachel, and the “stars” his brothers. In chapter 42:6-9 his brothers (the stars) did indeed bow down to him, and Joseph “remembered the dreams” (42:9). The Apostle John employs the symbolism within this dream in Revelation 12.
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth. (Rev. 12:1-2)
The twelfth star would be Joseph (cf. Rev. 7:5-8). Hence the “woman” is Israel who is pictured as bringing forth Messiah (Rev. 12:5. Cf. Jn. 4:22). It isn’t Mary since that would not make any sense of the emblems worn by the woman. Besides, Mary did not flee from the Devil into the wilderness for “1,260 days” (12:6), or “a time, times, and half a time” (12:14). The woman is not the Church, since patently the Church did not produce Christ. No, the woman is Israel. But when was Israel chased by Satan for “a time, times, and half a time”? Well, this time index is used in Daniel to depict the persecution of “the saints of the most High” (Dan. 7:21-25); a persecution halted by the appearance Christ and the kingdom (Dan. 7:22).
The phrase is used again in Daniel 12 in the context of “the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9) when, “there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. (Dan. 12:1). So the events concerning the woman fleeing into the wilderness are at the end of the age. What does all this have to do with the rapture? Answer, if the woman is Israel, not the Church, then the Dragon’s ire is upon Israel and is not directed at the Church.
In Revelation 12:12 Satan is defeated by Michael and thrown down to earth. Some say this has already occurred, but the context requires it to be future (see above). Now granting this future defeat and the mention of three and a half years (time, times and half a time), it is proper to place this angry reaction of the Devil to the mid point of the Tribulation. This means that the wrath of the dragon is meted out from the middle of the Seventieth Week, not from the start of it. But we have already seen (in Part Five) that “Antichrist steps on to the scene at the beginning of the seventieth week and makes a covenant with Israel, Daniel’s people.” Those who see the Church within the Seventieth Week, let alone any or all of the second half of the Week, are faced with the focus being shifted off the Church and definitely back on Israel; the same thing Paul is alluding to in Romans 11:24-25.
The “fullness of the Gentiles” is the completion of the mainly Gentile Church. If the Church is “full,” and the attention of both God and the Antichrist is back on Israel (remember Dan. 9:24-27), logically it’s time for the Church to go—pretribulationally!
(More to come)
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.