In Revelation chapter seven, the saints are sealed with the seal of the living God. In Revelation chapter nine, the locusts from the abyss with the power of scorpions are commanded to harm only those people who do not have the seal of God on their forehead. Dr. Jeremiah says that God has to remove the saints from the earth in order to protect them from the divine wrath which God pours out upon the earth in the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation says that God protects His saints while they are living on earth by sealing them with His protective seal. In the book of Revelation, the saints are persecuted by the world unto martyrdom, but they are protected from the wrath of God by God’s seal.
This past week I read the newly published book, The Great Disappearance by David Jeremiah. This book is about the rapture of the saints, and it teaches the same understanding of the rapture that is found in the book The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, and in the Left Behind prophetic novels by Tim LaHaye. Dr. Jeremiah mentions in his book that both he and Hal Lindsey studied biblical prophecy at Dallas Theological Seminary under professors Drs. Walvoord, Pentecost and Ryrie. I also studied at Dallas Theological Seminary just a few years after Dr. Jeremiah. A difference between me and Dr. Jeremiah is that I came to disagree with what I was taught at Dallas Theological Seminary about the rapture.
The rapture of the saints is a biblical doctrine that is taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. That passage says that when Jesus descends from heaven, those Christians who are then alive together with the resurrected dead in Christ will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. The Greek verb in verse 17 which is translated “we … shall be caught up” is translated in the Latin Vulgate with the Latin verb from which we get the English word “rapture.” The rapture is the catching up of the saints at the return of Jesus in order to meet Him in the air. Those alive at the time will be transformed into a glorified state, just as if they had experienced the resurrection unto life, without their ever having experienced physical death. At that moment, the living saints who have been translated or transformed and the dead saints who have been resurrected will be together raptured or caught up.
The basic message of Dr. Jeremiah’s new book is that the rapture of the saints will occur seven years before the second coming of Jesus to earth. Certain departed saints will be resurrected at the time of the rapture, and others will be resurrected later. This is a relatively new teaching in the history of doctrine. Someone first proposed it in the early nineteenth century, and it didn’t become popular until the twentieth century. It became popular through means such as the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s book The Late, Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind prophetic novels.
The historic teaching of the church is that the rapture will occur not seven years before the second coming but at the time of the second coming. This is the teaching found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was written in the seventeenth century. Here is what we read in Chapter Thirty-Two:
At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up … The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to his own glorious body.
This teaches that all the dead, both the just and the unjust, both New Testament saints and Old Testament saints, will be resurrected at the time of the rapture.
You may wonder what difference it makes which is true, the modern teaching or the historic teaching. Every scriptural truth is important, and we should try to get them all correct so that we may be workers who need not be ashamed. Yet admittedly some doctrines are more important than other doctrines. Is there any great harm in getting wrong the relationship of the rapture to the second coming? Let me tell you about an experience that I had while attending seminary, and then you can decide for yourself if any harm was done.
When I was in seminary, I taught a high school Sunday school class. One Sunday, a teenage boy and his girlfriend visited the class. After the class, the young man stayed behind to talk with me, and he shared with me his philosophy of life. He knew that the rapture of the saints would occur really soon. He was living a life of sin, and he planned on continuing to live a life of sin until sometime after the rapture. He would be left behind, and that would give him a few more years for sinful living. His plan was to become a Christian shortly before the seven years were up so that he could avoid eternal punishment. He thought that he had figured out a way to get what he considered the best of both worlds. For some reason, he wanted me to know about it.
There wasn’t much that I could say in response because at that time I agreed with his understanding of the rapture. All I could think of to say was that his plan was risky because he might die at any moment. His response was that that was a risk that he was willing to take. He was convinced that the rapture was going to happen really soon, and he didn’t expect to die anytime soon. He was a young man, and the odds were on his side in that regard. At that point, I didn’t know anything more that I could say.
I sometimes wonder whatever became of that young man. Our conversation was over forty-five years ago. At that time, he believed the preachers who were then saying that the rapture was coming really soon. When those preachers proved to be so very wrong on the timing of the rapture, did this young man dismiss everything else that they had said as well? Did he continue sowing his wild oats without worrying any longer about a future in hell? If the preachers had been so very wrong about the timing of the rapture, then they could be wrong about the reality of hell as well.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have responded to this young man differently. I would have told him that he had been misled about the coming rapture. When the rapture of the saints happens, the day of gospel opportunity will be over. Those who are left behind won’t have a continuing opportunity for conversion. The day of the rapture will also be their judgment day. There won’t be a seven year delay during which they can come to Jesus for deliverance from eternal punishment.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is the classic Scripture on the subject of the rapture of the saints. The Christians at Thessalonica were concerned about the Christians who had already died and thus would not be alive when Jesus returned. They wanted to know if these Christians who died before Jesus returned were at any real disadvantage. In response to that concern, the Apostle Paul assured the Thessalonicans that the dead in Christ were with Jesus in heaven and that their disembodied spirits would accompany Jesus at His bodily return to earth. When Jesus returns, what will happen first is that the bodies of those who are dead in the Lord will be reunited with their souls and raised to life. As our passage says, the dead in Christ will rise first. Only then, after that resurrection, will the saints be caught up to meet Jesus in the air. The resurrected saints and the living saints will be raptured or caught up together. The saints who are alive when Jesus returns won’t have any advantage over the saints who are dead when Jesus returns. There was no reason to worry that those who die in the Lord will be at any disadvantage when Jesus returns to earth.
Where I disagree with Dr. Jeremiah is on the relationship of this passage to the second coming. According to Dr. Jeremiah, this passage is not talking about the second coming. In the second coming, Jesus will return all the way to earth in His glorified resurrection body. Dr. Jeremiah interprets the rapture as an event at which Jesus does not come all the way to the ground, all the way to the earth’s solid surface, all the way to terra firma. Dr. Jeremiah says that what is here being described is not Jesus’ second coming to earth but Jesus’ rescue mission in the sky. Jesus is descending only as far down into the atmosphere as He needs to go in order to meet the raptured saints as they ascend up into the atmosphere. After Jesus and the raptured saints meet in the sky, Jesus will reverse course and take the raptured saints with Him back to heaven from whence Jesus came. According to Dr. Jeremiah, the purpose of the rapture is to rescue the saints from the earth so that they can escape a coming seven years of tribulation on earth. The second coming, according to Dr. Jeremiah, will not be until seven years later when Jesus will descend all the way to earth and end the time of tribulation.
I have shared with you my understanding of the rapture’s relationship to the second coming, and I have shared with you Dr. Jeremiah’s understanding as well. Next I want to share with you some of the reasons for my understanding. One reason for my understanding is my study of the Greek word translated “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where it says that we will meet Jesus in the air. Dr. Jeremiah does not discuss his understanding of this Greek word, even though the Kindle version of his book is over two hundred fifty pages long.
According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the Greek word here translated “meet” “is to be understood as a technical term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors” (I.380). According to The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, the Greek word here translated “meet” was “the ancient expression for the civic welcome of an important visitor or the triumphal entry of a new ruler into the capital city and thus to his reign” (I.325). In other words, when a king of antiquity approached his capital city to begin his reign from that location, citizens of the city went out to meet him in order to escort him into the city. It was the ancient equivalent of rolling out the red carpet. I believe that this meaning of the word best fits the context of 1 Thessalonians four. The raptured saints will rush forth to meet Jesus at His return as earth’s conquering king. Then the raptured saints will reverse course and accompany Jesus down to earth.