by Mark Sweetnam, Truth & Tidings Apr 2013
On the eve of His crucifixion, the Lord Jesus and His apostles gathered in the upper room. The night was dark, and sinister forces were in operation. In just a few hours, the Savior would be arrested, tried, condemned, led out to the place of execution, and suffer an agonizing death, a death that spoke of rejection and shame. The men who gathered with the Lord were about to experience the most traumatic and trying hours and days of their lives. And knowing all this, the Lord Jesus reassured them: “Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1).
On the lips of any other man these words would have been the worst of platitudes. But it was the Lord Who spoke, and, in the moments that followed, He outlined the resources that gave meaning to His reassurance. He spoke of a place prepared, of His person, of His prayer, of the Paraclete, of His presence, and of His peace. Much of what He unfolded introduced new aspects of familiar truth, but the promise He made to His disciples was distinctively new. “If I go away,” He declared, “I will come again and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2).
With these words of promise, the Savior introduced the great hope of His imminent and personal return for His own. The disciples would have known that Christ would one day be manifest in power and glory to subdue His enemies and establish His kingdom, but this return was something different, unique in its immediacy, and unique in its purpose.
This event has come to be known as the Rapture. Though this term is not found in Scripture, it effectively conveys the nature of the event. We use it now most often to describe a transport of delight, but the Latin word at its root means “to snatch away,” and was originally used to describe the actions of an invading army that would swoop down and grab people and property. It provides a vivid picture of the suddenness and swiftness of the Lord’s return to remove His people from the enemy’s territory.
It is this suddenness that is emphasized in the Lord’s promise. The return that He describes is an imminent one – it could happen at any moment. He mentions only one condition to be fulfilled before the Rapture can take place – His going away. From the moment that He returned to heaven, every precondition for His return had been accomplished. And the imminence of His return is confirmed by the grammar of the passage. The verb phrase translated “I will come again,” is in the present tense, and could be translated as “I am coming again.” The Lord Jesus did not encourage His own with the promise of His return at some remote point in the future. Rather, He ensured that even the darkest and most difficult days that they passed through would be enlightened by the thought that, at any moment, He would return, with the tender purpose to receive them to Himself. This hope remains for us today. The return of our Lord could take place at any moment, and this radiant hope should cast its transforming glow over every aspect of our lives.
The truth of the Rapture, revealed by the Lord in John 14:2 is developed in Paul’s epistles. Writing to the Thessalonians, he dealt with the program of the Rapture. The Thessalonians were concerned that believers who had already died had missed the Rapture. Paul writes to ensure that they would not sorrow, as those who had no hope. And, as he outlines the Rapture program which he himself received “by the word of the Lord” (1Thes 4:15), he stresses that “the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord, are in no way to anticipate those who have fallen asleep” (v15, Darby). He demonstrates this by giving us the most detailed account of the Rapture we find in our Bible.
The events Paul describes are dramatic- the archangelic shout and the trumpet of the Lord. This heavenly summons will go unheard and unheeded by the majority on earth. But its call will reach the ears of those who are in Christ. First the dead and then the living will rise “to meet the Lord in the air.”
In the spiritual realm, too, the impact of this glorious event will be tremendous. The Savior will triumphantly invade the sphere of Satan’s influence and, as “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) stands impotently by, Christ will marshal the serried ranks of those whom He has loved and Satan has hated. And those who gather will not only reflect the glory of Christ, but will be transformed to share it. There, in the air, grace will reach a grand climax, and Satan will taste anew the bitterness of his irretrievable rout at Calvary.
Notwithstanding the drama of the scene, the greatest thrill in the hearts of the redeemed is its intimacy. It is the Lord Himself Who comes to claim His own. When the time comes to regather scattered Israel, He will “send His angels, and … gather together His elect” (Mark 13:27). However, for the rapturing of His Church, for the calling of His bride, no emissary will suffice. “The Lord Himself” is coming for us.
The Thessalonians had been confused about the program of the Rapture, but the truth of Christ’s return for His own was not new to them. The central importance of the Rapture is confirmed in 1 Thessalonians 1:10. They had “turned to God, from idols” and became workers and watchers. They began “to serve the true God” and “to wait for His Son from heaven, Whom He raised from the dead” (v10). Paul expands on this, not because the Thessalonians had any doubt about the identity of God’s Son, but in order to stress the preservation associated with the Rapture. The coming Son of God is “Jesus, our deliverer from the coming wrath” (v10, Darby). Paul is not saying that because the Thessalonians had trusted Christ they would never be in hell, wonderful though that truth was. Rather, he is reminding them that Jesus is their Savior from the tribulation, the seven year period when God’s wrath will be poured out on the earth in a cataclysm of suffering. In those awful days the Church will not be present. “For God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thes 5:9). Like Enoch, we will be snatched away before judgment breaks, preserved from the wrath to come.
When Paul speaks of the Rapture to the Corinthians, it is the power of the event that he stresses. Addressing their error, he demonstrates the link that exists between Christ’s resurrection and the believers. To doubt one is to deny the other. Christ’s resurrection is the prototype and proof of our resurrection. But the power of the resurrection has implications for the living as well as for the dead. The apostle is unfolding a mystery concealed in earlier ages and that mystery is the truth of the Rapture. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump” (1Cor 15:51-52). What a mighty impact God’s resurrecting power will have in that instant – “the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” “In a flash, at a trumpet’s crash” every defect, every trace of death’s dark dominion, will be obliterated, and we shall share our Savior’s glory.
The Rapture is a precious truth. It is precious to us, and precious to Christ, for not until that moment will He receive the answer to His prayer that we might be with Him, where He is, that we might behold His glory (John 17:24). It is also a practical truth. The hope that our Lord is coming for us, and the consciousness that He could come at any moment should shape our priorities, our values, and our actions; it should stir us to live every day for Him, as though it were the last we had to give.