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Foundations (12): We which are alive and remain

W S Stevely, Ayr

By the time he was writing his second letter to Timothy, Paul felt sure he would be martyred for Christ. Equally, it is clear that earlier he classed himself as among those who were "alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord" (1 Thess 4.15). For him, at that earlier point, it was a real possibility that the Lord would come again before he, Paul, died. Any believer reading these words now is in the same category as the apostle was then!

The promise of His coming

Of all the promises made by the Lord Jesus, the one about His return for them, given in the upper room to the disciples, arguably has brought the greatest comfort. "If I go…I will come again, and receive you unto myself" (Jn 14.3). That He will come again is not in doubt. The promise makes clear that the purpose behind His coming for His disciples is that "where I am, there ye may be also", and that place is with the Father, "In my Father’s house". The hope of heaven for the Church is writ large in this and other New Testament passages. Despite this, the detail surrounding the coming for which we wait has been the subject of great controversy.

His coming to reign on earth

When thinking about His coming it is necessary to distinguish how that will affect different groups. For example, in Revelation 19 there is a description of Him coming as a mighty warrior out of heaven to defeat every enemy of God and in particular to deal with the Beast (the Man of Sin, the Antichrist as that wicked person is variously entitled). This will be a very visible and striking event that will bring many to judgment.

This same event is also referred to elsewhere. So, in Matthew 24.37-41 the Lord Jesus draws a parallel with the Flood. Mankind prior to the Flood behaved as though God did not exist, or, if He did, He was not important. But the Flood came and "took them all away" in judgment. They perished. Those left to enjoy God’s world were Noah and his family. The Saviour goes on to state that in a future day "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left". The parallel demands that we understand that the one taken is taken for judgment, the one left, like Noah, is left for blessing here on earth.

The blessing for those left on earth at the coming described in Revelation 19 will be to enjoy the millennial Kingdom that the Lord will establish at His coming from heaven. That, literally, He will come to earth is emphasised by the fact that He will stand upon the Mount of Olives (Zech 14.4). The judgment at that time will take men completely by surprise. Like the antediluvians they will be living without a concern for God. Despite the preaching that will take place they will be as hardened against it as were those who heard Noah during the building of the ark. Even those who are aware that He will come will not know the exact timing of His arrival though the events described in Revelation chs.4-18 will make them aware that He is "at hand".

The preachers during the period leading up to His appearing will come firstly from a Jewish remnant, but will no doubt include Gentiles who believe their message. The preachers and those who accept their message will be waiting for the Saviour and will have the promise that they will enter into His Kingdom here upon earth. The Jews among them will rejoice to know that promises made to "the fathers" will shortly be fulfilled. Their identity as Jews will be important and will be preserved. In the Millennium, Jerusalem will be a place of pilgrimage for all nations. Men will "take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you" (Zech 8.23). Given statements like this it is impossible to do other than recognise that the hope of the millennial Kingdom is not the same as the hope given to the Church. That there will be a period of unparalleled peace and righteousness here on earth is spoken of so often in the prophecies of the Old Testament that it should need no emphasis. To refer just to one by way of example, Isaiah 2.2-4 speaks of that day when "the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…and all nations shall flow unto it". It is here that we learn that "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more".

The Rapture of the Church

As noted above, and in contrast to this, the Church and its members have an "inheritance in heaven". Furthermore, the Church knows no distinction between Jew and Gentile. It is not waiting to receive the land promised to Abraham and the nation descended from him.

How then will the hope of the Church be realised? According to John 14 already quoted, the Lord Jesus will come personally to take "his own" to be with Him where He is; namely in the Father’s house. Further light is shed on this by 1 Thessalonians 4.17 which teaches that "we which are alive and remain shall be caught up…to meet the Lord in the air" so that we shall be with Him eternally. This taking away is not for judgment but for blessing. This is the reverse of Matthew 24. A different event is in view.

The idea behind the term "caught up" is of a sudden seizing. It is used on several occasions and is illustrated well in the parable of the Sower. The seed on the wayside path is devoured by the birds. The Lord explains that this is a picture of the activity of the devil. "Then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown" (Mt 13.19). Similarly in Acts 23.10 there is a description of Paul being rescued from the mob by Roman soldiers who were commanded to "take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle". The concept is obvious and well justifies the use of the old-fashioned term "the Rapture". It must be conceded that "rapture" is not now commonly used in this way. More explanation is needed today when speaking of the Rapture to ensure that its definition is clearly understood.

Since this event is not the same as the appearing of the Lord Jesus described in Revelation 19 it helps one to an understanding of the fact that God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. If they were the same then there would be no distinction between Israel and the Church. It has been commonly taught that wherever one reads promises to Israel then one simply replaces the nation by the Church. But the distinction between the Rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the Appearing of Revelation 19 cannot be readily reconciled with this view.

In the future, the nation of Israel will be once again at the centre of God’s work on earth. The overall message of Romans 11 is simple even if some of the detail might be difficult. Says the Scripture, "Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved" (vv.25-26). Again the passage notes that "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (v.29). It is hard to envisage an interpretation of this chapter that can avoid the conclusion that God will work through Israel for their blessing and for the blessing of the Gentile nations.

Now it follows from this that since a person who is saved today becomes a member of "the body of Christ", the Church, there must be something different in the period when Israel is recovered. A Jew, in that day, repenting and turning to God, accepting that the Lord Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, is counted among the "remnant" that, having endured "great tribulation" will enjoy great blessing at the return in glory of the Saviour. During this period the Church can no longer be on earth to be "added to"! She is in Heaven, the Bride of Christ.

The Rapture must take place before the prophecies surrounding the nation of Israel are fulfilled. Two distinct events, separated by a period of time, fall within the general description of the return of Christ.

In the meantime there is a great responsibility that falls upon each of us. God’s work, insofar as it uses His people, is ours to do. The Rapture may be soon. We are not to stand "gazing up into heaven" (Acts 1.11) while waiting for it. There is service to be completed by those who "are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord" (1 Thess 4.15).

Concluded.

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