The hope is imminent
Third, the true Christian hope is imminent, meaning that the Lord Jesus could come back for His blood-bought Church at any moment. No prior signs in terms of events in heaven or on earth have been predicted as having necessarily to occur before our Lord returns to complete our salvation at the resurrection and rapture of New Testament believers living in the present age of grace. Paul, in Thessalonians and elsewhere, appears to include himself as one of those believers who could be still alive on earth when the rapture of the Church takes place. He uses the pronoun "we", not "they", as in 1 Thessalonians 4.15 and 17, where he predicts, " that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord", and again, "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them", that is, with those believers who have already died before then and are resurrected first. By contrast, the Lord Jesus, when asked about the sign of His coming in power and glory to reign over the earth in Matthew 24, predicted many signs to His disciples at that time. Also, in the passage (1 Thess 5.1-2) which immediately follows the revelation of the truth of the rapture of the Church, Paul draws a contrast with ch.4, when he says, "But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night."
We are all expected to be well aware, both from Old Testament Scripture, and the remainder of New Testament Scripture, of the many detailed predictions concerning the Lords coming back to earth to reign. But, before Pauls special ministry to the Church, we could not have known about the imminence of the rapture. All this forms evidence of a distinction to be drawn between two separate stages of Christs second coming. These will be separated from each other by at least the complete duration of the fulfilment of the prophecies concerning Israel on earth made in Daniel 9.27. This latter verse relates to the final week (or period of seven years) of the seventy weeks predicted in that chapter, the only part of that prophecy remaining to be fulfilled to date. Also, a few events, such as the Judgment Seat of Christ to review the lives and service of believers today, and the Marriage of the Lamb just prior to His coming to judge and reign on earth, are predicted for the Church in heaven.
These events will presumably take place there while God is dealing with Israel and the Gentile nations on earth, as already set forth in other Scriptures. It has become increasing clear to believing Bible students that the whole period of Christs second coming will not be accomplished in just a short time, but rather cover at least seven years. The precise length of time will depend on how long after the rapture of the Church the final week of Daniels prophecy concerning Israel will commence. If this all seems to be unlikely, consider that there is a parallel here with Christs first coming, which extended over more than thirty-three years and included many separate events from its beginning to its end. And, just as Christs first coming introduced the whole Christian era of grace, so Christs second coming will introduce the thousand-year millennial reign of Christ on earth in manifested glory and power, the final era of Gods dispensational dealings with mankind.
So we can assert that in a sense there are some signs in the world that would lead us as members of the New Testament Church to expect the rapture quite soon. These are the return of Israel to their promised land after many centuries of exile and dispersion, the growing apostasy of professing Christendom, and the increasing incidence of wars, moral corruption, and natural disasters. Coming events do cast their shadows before them, and we are seeing many of them in our days. Nevertheless, nothing needs to occur in our lives before the Lord Jesus fulfils His promise to come again for us at the resurrection and rapture of New Testament believers. That event must occur before any other in Gods programme for the future.
The hope is pretribulational
Fourth, the Christians hope is pretribulational. The New Testament Church will be raptured to heaven before the beginning of the period of time called in Scripture the "great tribulation", or "the wrath to come" (Dan 12.1; Mt 3.7; 24.21; 1 Thess 1.10; Rev 7.14). We must distinguish between the "many tribulations" (Acts 14.22, RV), through which Paul warned the early believers in Asia Minor we must expect to pass before we enter the kingdom of God (as did other apostles and the Lord Jesus Himself), and the Great Tribulation, which is a yet future time of unparalleled suffering, foretold in both Testaments and fully predicted in Revelation 6-18. The latter will be a series of increasingly severe judgments inflicted by God directly through the mediatorial hand of the risen glorified Christ as the Lamb of God upon all unrepentant sinners remaining on earth, both Jewish and Gentile. It is definitely not just a way of describing all the sufferings of believers throughout the Christian era, as some Bible expositors of the amillennial persuasion suggest.
No, it is a literal period of seven years of judgmental sufferings, fulfilling the remaining seventieth week of Daniels prophecy of seventy weeks of years. It will be divided into two halves. The former part is described by the Lord Jesus as "the beginning of sorrows" (Mt 24.8). The second half, variously described in the book of Revelation as 1,260 days, 42 months, and "a time, and times, and half a time", that is three and a half prophetic years, will be the Great Tribulation proper, the worst period of judgment in the worlds history. This time of Great Tribulation will be the fulfilment of Jeremiahs prophecy of "the time of Jacobs trouble" (30.7), intended especially to chasten Israel for their moral and religious apostasy from the Lord their God. The Gentiles will also suffer for their rebellion from God and the crucifixion of Christ.
This will be the first part of Gods direct intervention in judgment in this world, the beginning of "the day of the Lord". This is otherwise referred to as "that day", from Isaiah 2 onwards throughout Scripture. It includes at least 1,007 years from the beginning of the Great Tribulation, through the millennial reign of Christ, and culminating in the destruction of the present heavens and earth prior to the day of God (2 Pet 3.10-14). The New Testament sometimes refers to the Great Tribulation as "the wrath to come", or "the hour of trial" (RV), or simply as "wrath", intended to judge unbelievers.
Believers of this dispensation of grace will not experience such days. Scripture addressed to local churches of this age clearly state that they are, and will be, exempt from this time of retribution upon unbelievers. Note that Christians are waiting for Gods Son from heaven as "our deliverer from the coming wrath" (1 Thess 1.10, JND); that "we shall be saved from the wrath through him" (Rom 5.9, RV); that "God hath not appointed us to wrath" (1 Thess 5.9), which in the context refers to the judgments of the Day of the Lord. How could the truth of the rapture, taught in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, be a comforting and present hope if, prior to it, Christians had to endure the horrors of the Great Tribulation and probable martyrdom? The Lord Jesus states to the faithful local church at Philadelphia, "Because thou didst keep the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from (Greek, out of) the hour of trial, that hour which is to come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the earth" (Rev 3.10, RV). This "hour of trial" is clearly intended to chasten unbelievers on earth, not New Testament believers, and must, in context, refer to the events of the Great Tribulation described in Revelation 6-18.
Throughout these chapters there is no reference to local churches on earth. There are, however, several significant references to twenty-four elders crowned and enthroned in heaven (chs.4-5), followed by equally significant visions (chs.19-21) of the wife, or bride, of the Lamb. She accompanies her Lord at His appearing in glory to judge and rule the nations, and thereafter is always associated with Him. Surely, these are references to the New Testament Church. All these facts, plus the fact that chs.6-18 refer mainly to many purely Jewish and Gentile matters on earth, strongly suggest that the New Testament Church will be translated to heaven before the Great Tribulation begins and ever after be with the Lord. This is the fulfilment of His most precious promise to "His own" (Jn 14.3) to come again for us, and take us back to His Fathers house in heaven.
To be continued.