The first event that will interrupt the societal decline discussed in a previous article is known as the Rapture. The Rapture is the first of six events in the order of last things. It is the gathering of all Church Age believers—both the living and the dead—into the presence of the Lord. The term “Rapture” derives from the Greek verb harpazo which means “to snatch up.” First Thessalonians 4:16-17 says all who are “in Christ” will be “caught up” together to meet the Lord in the air. First Thessalonians 4:13-18 describes the event:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
With respect to the Rapture, six aspects should be understood in anticipation of this wonderful event.
First, the Rapture is imminent, meaning that it comes next. You might wonder what the Bible says must occur before the Rapture, and the answer is nothing. It comes next, and it could come at any time. The Rapture is a sign-less event, meaning that there are no signs or developments that must precede its occurrence.
Second, the Rapture is inevitable. Despite the multiple biblical passages predicting this event, some professing believers still deny the coming sudden removal of God’s true Church from the Earth. But notice how Paul links knowledge of the Rapture with knowledge of Christ’s death and resurrection (v. 14). Paul is saying if you believe Christ died and rose again, then by the same token you should believe in the coming Rapture of the saints.
Third, the Rapture occurs in the air. The text says those both dead and alive will be “caught up together…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). This fulfills the prophecy spoken by the angels to the Apostles as they gazed into heaven at the Ascension of Christ:
…as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”Acts 1:9-11
A cloud took the Lord Jesus into heaven at His ascension. And in that same manner, Jesus will come from heaven for His believers, as they rise to join Him in the air.
Fourth, this Rapture of the Church to meet Christ in the air is different from the Second Coming of Christ. In the Rapture, Christ’s followers rise to meet Him in the air as He descends in the clouds. Later, at His Second Coming, Christ will also descend in the clouds, but then He will not remain in the air but will descend all the way down to Earth. Zechariah 14:4 declares on that day, Jesus’ feet shall stand upon the Mount of Olives, which will then split to form a great valley. But, as we shall see, this is still to come.
Fifth, the Rapture is for believers, involving a Reckoning, a Reward, and a Resurrection:
- Reckoning—the Rapture may be when Church age believers appear before the Lord, at what is called the Bema judgment or Judgment Seat of Christ, to give an account of all they have ever done (Rom 14:10, 12; 2 Cor 5:10).1 Paul writes in Romans 14:10 that “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” and that “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (v. 12). Here, one must remember the Rapture is about uniting the Church with Christ. None of the Rapture passages in Scripture (John 14:3; 1 Cor 15:50-58; Col 3:4; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Rev 3:10) mention any hint of punishment. While believers will regret the myriad ways they have grieved God, the Bema judgment is not a time when believers will be punished for their sins, for there is no threat of condemnation in light of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf (Rom 8:1). For those who are redeemed, all the sins committed during one’s life—both prior to and following salvation—were forgiven at the cross. Because of this, the joy of believers at finally experiencing the physical presence of the Lord will overwhelm any real but fleeting shame that comes as they review their earthly transgressions. First John 2:28 says, “And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears we may have confidence and not shrink from Him in shame at His coming.” This is meant as an encouragement for believers to remain steadfast, living in a holy and upright manner, so that they might not be ashamed when Christ appears.
- Rewards—after the Rapture is when believers receive their rewards. First Corinthians 3:13-14 says, “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.” When Jesus references reward or recompense, He is not talking about the believer’s salvation. Believers do not receive salvation for what they have done; they receive salvation for what Christ has done. So these are distinct rewards beyond salvation, which Christ has promised for faithful work done while His physical presence has been away (cf. Matt 5:12; 25:14-30; Luke 14:14; 19:11-27; Col 3:24; 2 John 1:8).
- Resurrection—the Rapture is when believers in Christ, both dead and alive, receive their glorified bodies. Paul describes this vividly in one of the most glorious passages in the entire Bible:
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 imperishable, and we shall be changed.1 Cor 15:51-52
It is very likely that Paul is describing the Rapture event in this passage. He calls it a “mystery” (v. 51) meaning here he is giving new information that was not revealed in the Old Testament. The resurrection was revealed in the Old Testament (Ps 16; Isa 26:19-20; Dan 12:2; Heb 11:19), so that is not the new information. The mystery is that some people will get a perfect, immortal, supernatural, glorified body without first having to die and then be resurrected! That concept was never taught in the Old Testament.
What is meant in saying the believer will receive a “resurrection body?” The Bible declares that when one dies his or her spirit immediately leaves its physical body and goes to its spiritual assignment, either to heaven to be with the Lord (cf. Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23), or to hell to be reserved until the Day of Judgment (cf. Luke 16:22-23). In other words, there is no such thing as Purgatory, or “soul sleep.”
Next, the Bible teaches that everyone—both the redeemed and the unredeemed—will eventually undergo a resurrection, when one’s spirit will be reunited with a body (cf. John 5:28-29; Rev 20:5-6). The frail living bodies of Church saints will be “translated” or “transformed” (Phil 3:21) on the spot at the Rapture. Their mortal bodies will instantly become glorified supernatural bodies while they are still alive. These bodies will never taste death or decay throughout eternity, nor will they ever be capable of sinning.
As for how these bodies are allocated, the Bible lists different stages or times of resurrection for different groups. And the stage or time of resurrection—when a person receives his or her eternal body—will depend on whether that person is redeemed or not. Furthermore, among the redeemed, the time of resurrection will depend upon the era or period during which the believer lived. Paul said there was an “order” to resurrection (1 Cor 15:23), meaning not every person gets their resurrection body at the same time; there is a chronological sequence. Thus, the order of resurrection is as follows: 1) Christ is the firstfruits of resurrection (1 Cor 15:23); 2) Old Testament saints buried around Jerusalem were raised immediately after Jesus died on Friday (Matt 27:52-53); 3) Christians at the time of the Rapture (1 Thess 4:16); 4) the two witnesses murdered during the Tribulation (Rev 11:11-12); 5) the rest of the Old Testament saints and Tribulation martyrs (Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2; Rev 6:9-11; 20:4); 6) Millennial saints (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:6); the unredeemed of all the ages at the Great White Throne (Rev 20:5, 11-15). Our resurrection bodies will be patterned after Jesus’ resurrection body (Phil 3:21). It’s incredible to imagine that Jesus, the eternal One, who had no physical body prior to being born through Mary, will retain His physical resurrection body for all eternity and at the same time He has all the attributes of deity, including omnipresence.
Finally, there is a sixth and crucial point about the Rapture: it removes the Spirit’s restraining influence from the world. Believe it or not this world is not as bad as it can be—actually, not even close. But someday the world will be at its worst—rampant wickedness like never seen before. Jesus said so (Matt 24:21). The world isn’t as bad as it might be now because of the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit who is currently restraining evil in the world through conscience, world governments, the Church, prayer, and the influence of His indwelling presence in individual believers, who are a preserving salt and light in a corrupt world (Phil 2:15). In the future the Holy Spirit will remove all His restraining forces and let evil run amuck. This removal will be triggered at the Rapture. Second Thessalonians 2:7 says, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only He who now restrains it will do so until He is out of the way.” To understand how the Rapture triggers an upsurge in evil upon the earth, recall the present dwelling place of the Holy Spirit—within the hearts of believers (cf. John 14:17; Rom 8:9-11; Eph 1:13). With the removal of all true believers from the earth at the Rapture, the Spirit’s presence—and thus His restraining influence—is also removed. In other words, as the Spirit departs with the raptured believers in whom He dwells, so His restraint of evil also departs—that is the gist of 2 Thessalonians 2:7. And this crescendo of evil coinciding with the Spirit’s departure sets in motion the next event in the order of last things: the Tribulation.
1. Bema is used in 2 Cor 5:10 and means “a step” or raised platform used in ancient times as a speaker’s platform or judicial bench.
You can read more on this topic in Colin’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future.