The Main Verses
In this installment all I want to do is to set down the main verses which are used in discussions about the rapture. Let me make it clear that this is not to say that many other passages must be considered so as to understand the doctrine. As I will be at pains to show, the rapture is not a teaching that can be established by simply comparing proof-texts. The doctrine excites many passions and this can lead to wishful thinking in exegesis. Some of the verses listed below are brought very hardly and reluctantly to bear on the doctrine we are considering.
We have already taken a quick look at 1 Thessalonians 4:17, but there are other salient passages. 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 is often brought in to help. Then Jesus’s words in John 14:1-3 must be considered. Also joining the fray are 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and 13, Matthew 24:36-44, 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9, and Revelation 3:10. Let’s try to situate each one of these.
1 Thessalonians 4:14-18
The main purpose of this passage is to give comfort to anxious saints who were concerned about loved ones dying off before the return of Christ. To do that Paul tells the Thessalonians about something they seem not to have known (4:13). This appears to be in contrast with what they knew very well, that is, the doctrine of the Day of the Lord (5:1-2).
There is no doubt that the snatching away of the saints described in this passage is for the purpose of finalizing the work of salvation begun at regeneration. The Lord is described as coming from heaven amid the calls of a trumpet and of the archangel. The meeting of all Christians with their Lord, including those who had been deceased for a long time, takes place “in the air”. Nothing is said about which way Christ and His saints go from there, whether returning to heaven or continuing on to earth. However, from the viewpoint of a taking out of people this passage is a direct statement (a C1 for the proposition that Christians will at some future time be ‘caught up’ to meet Christ in the air).
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
This passage is included in Paul’s resurrection chapter and comes only after Paul has spoken about the logic of resurrection; “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” (15:49). This “must” language is then given a terminal point in the next section where the Apostle writes,
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. – 15:51-52.
This passage is revealing something new (a mystery), which speaks about a transformation of all Christians in an instant. This “change” refers to the receiving of our resurrection bodies – those which will “bear the image of the heavenly.”
The language is clearly culminative, and one naturally connects it with Paul’s rapture teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4. But there is no actual removal mentioned, only transformation. This is not problematical since it fits nicely with Paul’s earlier argument. But it is at best supportive of 1 Thess. 4:17, adding some new information about what occurs at the rapture. Hence, it is a C3 statement for the rapture: if the the text coincides with 1 Thess. 4, as it seems to do, it declares that a change happens in an instant as the saint is caught away.
This passage is proleptic in that the “you” to whom our Lord refers is not primarily the disciples; for He says,
If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also – Jn. 14:3
Jesus cannot just be referring to those to whom He spoke but would intend His words to be taken in the context of His Second Advent (rather like the Preterist ‘proof-text’ in Matthew 10:23). But what has this passage to do with the rapture? Well notice that Christ is coming for “you”, which I take to be His people. He comes to take them back to heaven (where He has been preparing places), although nothing is stated in regards to a transformation.
As for the timing of this gathering, it may appear cut and dried that it speaks to the Second Coming. But if so, there is a problem created by our being with Christ in heavenly mansions (or rooms if you prefer) and Christ’s earthly reign. If Christ is ruling on earth and we are in heaven the latter part of Jn. 14:3 cannot be true.
This leads to an inquiry over whether there will be an earthly reign of Christ. If not, then there’s no problem. But I’m going to step right over that question and just assume (for present purposes) that there will be one (in line with many OT passages and with Matt. 19:28). Some may say that’s unfair and stop reading, but I am content to call the likes of H. Bonar, Ryle, Chafer, Bultema, Scroggie, R. Thomas, T. Garland, and even A. Hoekema to witness for me and move on regardless.
The timing of this event is obviously important to settle.
Those are the major rapture passages, but there are several which demand inclusion.
1 Thessalonians 1:10
This verse says we “wait for His Son from heaven” who “delivers us from the wrath to come.” The mention of Jesus coming from heaven matches 1 Thessalonians 4 and John 14, but the “wrath” must be identified. If it refers to the seven year Tribulation (derived, as we shall see, from Daniel 9), then the verse favors a pre-trib rapture. However, if “wrath” bears a more restricted and technical sense, it could refer either to the last three and a half years of the said Tribulation (in which case it would argue for a mid-trib rapture), or the last part of the Tribulation when the bowls of God’s wrath are emptied out upon the planet (Rev. 16).
In any case this verse must be retro-fitted to an already established teaching to be of any corroborative help.
1 Thessalonians 5:9
God has not appointed us to “wrath”, but the same question of identification as above needs to be addressed to utilize this verse well. It is not unfair though to mark the fact that these two verses are written to the Church.
This passage must be understood in context, especially the “coming” of verses 27, 30, 37, and 39 must inform the meaning of “coming” in verse 44. There can be no serious doubt that Christ is talking of His Second Coming in terms strongly reminiscent of OT prophecy (e.g. Dan 7; Isa. 63), and the parables of Matthew 13, especially verses 40-43. This is after the Tribulation.
The question is, what does the Lord mean by “one will be taken and the other left” in 24:40-41? Because of the close association with “the days of Noah” in 24:37-39 many expositors believe that the ones “taken” are whisked off to judgment. Is this so? Is there enough in the passage to come down on one side? Furthermore, if those “taken” (paralambano) in verses 40-41 are actually raptured, doesn’t that pretty much seal a post-trib rapture?