Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why is the Timing of Christ's Return Important?

I was recently teaching a segment on eschatology (the doctrine of future events) in a New Member’s Class at my church. One of the men asked me, “How can you be sure that there is a ‘rapture’ of the church since the word ‘rapture’ is never used in Scripture?” He then added, “I’ve looked at the passages in 1 Thessalonians and I don’t think they present a strong case for such, so why do you hold to that position?”

I thought about that question later and wondered how many other Christians believe in the rapture of the church simply because (1) their pastor has taught that there is one, and (2) they like the idea that they won’t be here on earth to experience the evils of the Tribulation. At least that man was thinking and trying to understand the Scriptures and not simply accepting what he was taught at face value.

So I thought I would try to summarize why I hold to the pre-Tribulation rapture of the church and why I believe it is an important doctrine. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this; in fact, one of my closest friends disagrees with me. So I will admit up front that good men of God differ on the timing of the rapture of the church. Some hold that it takes place after the Tribulation, others hold to a mid-Tribulation rapture. Still others spiritualize the whole thing and altogether deny any kind of rapture of the church.

My view is founded on the major premise that the best way to interpret the Scriptures is by using a literal-historical-grammatical approach. As a corollary to that premise, Israel and the church must be seen as two distinct groups. Even amillennialists will admit that if the literal method of interpretation of the Scriptures is the right method, premillennialism is the correct interpretation. But I believe we must adopt a literal approach to understanding Scripture or else everything is up for grabs. And when that happens, we can easily start down the slippery slope toward the error of the Emergent Church, in which nothing is certain.

Since, in my understanding of Scripture, Israel and the church are two distinct groups and Scripture teaches that the primary purposes of the Tribulation are (1) the judgment of the unbelieving world, and (2) the purification and salvation of the nation of Israel, it seems to me that there are good arguments for why the church will not be in the Tribulation.

God promised the church at Philadelphia in Rev. 3:10 that he would keep her from the “hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth,” so it seems that there is at least some biblical evidence that the church will not be present. And as you continue reading through Revelation 6-19, you never find the church mentioned as being present as God’s wrath is poured out on mankind.

In fact, in Rev. 6:16-17, as the judgments of the Tribulation are being poured out on the earth, men beg the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them “from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” In addition, six times in Revelation, the terrors of the Tribulation are referred to as God’s wrath (11:18; 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15). This seems to me to give additional insight into the passages in 1 Thessalonians (1:10; 5:9) to which the gentleman in the New Member’s class referred. 1 Thess. 1:10 tells us to “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” 1 Thess. 5:10 says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thus, when we put together the statement in Rev. 3:10 about being saved from the hour of testing that is coming on the whole world, plus the absence of any mention of the church in Revelation’s detailing of the Tribulation, and the designation of the Tribulation as the time of God’s wrath, Paul’s encouraging words to the Thessalonians seem quite clear—the true church will not be present during the Tribulation, but will be saved from having to go through that time.

Let me also add that the nature of the church itself argues against being present in the Tribulation. The church is the bride of Christ; His body of which He is the head. Thus, we have been brought into the closest of all relationships to Him. If the church is present in the Tribulation, God would be subjecting the people for whom His Son died, whose sins have been completely washed away, and who no longer abide under any condemnation or judgment (Rom. 8:1) to the harshest, most severe punishment and judgment that will ever take place on this earth. Since all of our sins have been forgiven in Christ, and His righteousness has been imputed to us, we are, in the Father’s eyes, as pure as His Son. Thus, it is unnecessary for the church to experience the judgment that will befall rebellious sinners.

Finally, the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ is at stake here. Scripture repeatedly tells us to be watching for Christ’s return (Acts 1:11; 1 Cor. 15:51-52; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 1:10; Titus 2:13; James 5:8). These passages do not tell us to look for the signs of the Tribulation that would precede His coming, but to look for Him. In fact, when the disciples asked Jesus what the sign of His coming would be (Matt. 24:3) and He began to instruct them about the signs of the Tribulation, he was speaking to them in the context of their Jewish understanding of who the people of God were; namely, the nation of Israel. So when He spoke of His coming, He was speaking of His Second Coming which takes place at the end of the Tribulation. At no time in Scripture, when the church is being addressed, are believers ever instructed to look for signs, but rather to look for Christ. So if we start looking for signs of the Tribulation, we denigrate the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return.

Many Christians feel these matters are unimportant and think, “So what? As long as I’m saved, that’s all that really matters.” Well, I will gladly admit that our view of Christ’s return does not determine whether or not we are genuinely saved. However, that does not mean we should ignore such issues in theology. A proper understanding of such issues will affect how we live. In his book, Maranatha, Renald Showers has succinctly stated the importance of this doctrine in these words:

The fact that the glorified, holy Son of God could step through the door of heaven at any moment is intended by God to be the most pressing, incessant motivation for holy living and aggressive ministry (including missions, evangelism, and Bible teaching) and the greatest cure for lethargy and apathy. It should make a major difference in every Christian’s values, actions, priorities, and goals.

Since all other views, to one degree or another, diminish the importance of Christ’s imminent return, I believe that holding to the pre-Tribulation view of the rapture really does matter.


Unknown said...

Bruce - I'm with you on this topic and enjoyed reading the article. I have to admit that I have not had as much time to study eschatology; so although I generally understand what our positions are, I do have questions. One of my questions comes from the fact that I understand why the Amillenialist feels the way they do about Israel and the Church - once we're all under the blood of Christ, aren't we all the same? Don't we all have the same eternal destiny? So, I know that we approach Scripture with a literal paradigm, leaving us with promises to Israel, but is there anything else in play for us to understand? Aren't born-again Jews the "bride" or "Church" also?

Bruce Mills said...

There are many passages in Scripture which, if read by themselves, can lead one to believe the Amillennial viewpoint. However, if one holds to a literal-historical-grammatical approach to interpreting Scripture, the logical conclusion is that there is a distinction between Israel and the church. In fact, the promises to national Israel are so clear and eternal in nature, that most Amillennialists will admit that if the literal-historical-grammatical approach is correct, one must conclude that Israel and the church are two separate entities. As to both having the same eternal destiny, believing Jews today are a part of the church and considered to be "in Christ." However, during the Tribulation (also known as Daniel's 70th week), God will return to dealing with the nation of Israel in order to purge her of her sinful rejection of Messiah, and ultimately the nation will be saved. If you want to know more, I recommend the book Things to Come by Dwight Pentecost. It is comprehensive in nature, explaining all aspects of both Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Premillennialism. Admittedly he is, as I am, a dispensationalist when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures and future events, but as I said before, I believe that such a view is the most logical conclusion of the literal-historical-grammatical approach to interpreting the Bible.
I also recommend a six message series by John MacArthur titled "Why Every Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist." It is available on Grace to You's website at MP3 downloads for $18.