The Rapture of the Church, and Subsequent Events in Heaven
The Rapture of the Church
It was the Lord Jesus Himself who first promised that He would return and take all believers back to His Father’s house with Him (Jn 14.1-3). There are no direct references to the Rapture or the Church in the Old Testament, since these truths were not the subject of Old Testament revelation. Again, Christ Himself first predicted that He would build His Church in the future (Mt 16.18). The Church as the Body of Christ was not formed until about AD 30, with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell all believers on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2. It did not begin in Genesis, as some believers today mistakenly hold. The apostle Paul was privileged to reveal to us the remainder of the truth about the Church and its Rapture. He said that the mystery of the Church had not been revealed before the beginning of the age of grace (Eph 3.1-6; Col 1.25-27). Bible students have often observed that in several Old Testament prophetic Scriptures there is an implied gap between predictions of Christ’s first and second comings. Those prophets moved directly from Christ’s first coming to His second coming, because what lay between them, namely, the whole of the Church age, had not been revealed to them (Isa 61.1-2; Dan 2.40-44; 9.24-27; Zech 9.9-10). The Church age is a parenthesis in God’s dealings with His earthly people Israel, and the Church, comprising all believers from Pentecost to the Rapture, is unique in a number of ways; in its union of Jews and Gentiles saved on the same basis, in its privilege of nearness to Christ, and in its destiny of heavenly glory with Christ, as God’s supreme masterpiece of redeeming grace.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Scripture teaches that the Church will not go through the Tribulation at all, but will be raptured to Heaven by Christ shortly before that awful time of judgment begins. Christ is the Deliverer of the churches from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1.10); in fact, we are not appointed to wrath at all, but to obtain salvation by Christ (5.9). The risen Lord Jesus promised the faithful local church at Philadelphia that He would keep them from the hour of trial which was soon to test all unbelievers on earth (Rev 3.10). The coming wrath and the universal hour of trial clearly refer to the imminent tribulation predicted in Revelation 6-19. Paul reveals, by a special word from the Lord, that the Rapture of both resurrected and living Church saints to Heaven with Christ will be a rescue operation by God before His judgments fall on this world (1 Thess 4.13-18). No prophecy needs to be fulfilled before the Rapture occurs; it is always imminent, so that Paul thought that he could be still alive when it happened. He therefore spoke of “we which are alive and remain” (v 15).
There are important differences between the Rapture of the Church and Christ’s subsequent coming in glory. At the Rapture, Christ will come to the air and then take the Church saints back to His Father’s house in Heaven. At His later appearing in glory (so some believe), Christ will come with all His saints, and bring them all down to earth to reign with Him (Rev 19). Whereas the Rapture is imminent, Christ’s appearing in glory cannot occur for at least seven years; the duration of the Tribulation period. The Rapture will occur very quickly, so that only His own saints will see Him (1 Cor 15.52). However, when Christ returns to earth in glory, His descent will be quite slow, and everyone will see Him clearly (Mt 24.30; Rev 1.7). The two events are thus clearly different, and separated from one another by several years.
The imminent prospect of the Rapture of the Church to Heaven should have a profound effect upon us now. It should make us want to become more like Christ; pure and holy, so that we need not be ashamed before Him at His coming (1 Jn 2.28 - 3.3). At the Rapture, we will be given bodies of glory like Christ’s, and completely changed, with sin removed from our natures (Phil 3.20-21). That is God’s purpose in saving us. The prospect of the Rapture should also motivate us to greater fervency in evangelism, because God’s purpose in prolonging the age of grace is to enable many more sinners to be saved, besides ourselves. Peter said that we should account God’s longsuffering as an opportunity for sinners to receive His salvation before His judgment falls on this world (2 Pet 3.8-10, 15).
The Judgment Seat of Christ
Paul, again, is our only source of information on this event, which will probably occur soon after the Rapture of the Church saints to Heaven. The apostle several times says that he, and we, should live and serve our Lord with this occasion in view, which is also referred to as “that day” (2 Tim 4.8), or “the day of Christ” (Phil 1.10). Paul outlines the principles which our Lord Jesus will follow in conducting a searching review of our lives and service since we were saved (Rom 14.10-12; 1 Cor 3.11-15; 2 Cor 5.9-11). He will give, or withhold, rewards according to our faithfulness, or unfaithfulness, rather than according to our successes, or apparent failures. The quality of our service and characters will be tested by the fire of His holiness, rather than their quantity, or popularity with others. Our motives will be revealed to us, and we will be tested on how harmoniously we related to our fellow-Christians. It will be a solemn occasion, which should inspire in us a healthy reverential fear at the prospect of a face-to-face meeting with our Lord. However, He will be perfectly fair and just, so that we, in our glorified bodies, will agree with His conclusions wholeheartedly. Many will receive crowns for their faithfulness here, but it is possible that some believers will suffer loss of reward, although not of salvation, since that is eternally secure (1 Cor 3.12-15).
The Worship of Christ in Heaven
Revelation chapters 4-5 reveal to us the throne-room of Heaven after the Rapture of the churches of chapters 2-3. There, John saw 24 elders uniting with millions of angels in worshipping Christ as the once-slain, but now risen, Lamb of God, with almighty power to judge the world below. These elders are possibly the glorified Church saints, now rewarded at the Judgment Seat; the whole heavenly priesthood (1 Pet 2.1-10; cf 1 Chr 24.1-19). It is doubtful that they are angels, since Scripture nowhere else calls angels ‘elders’; rather, elders are always men. They cast their crowns at the Lord’s feet, and their worship centres on Christ’s redemptive work on Calvary. These elders enquire concerning the progress of the judgments on this world, which follow the Rapture, and also concerning those who are saved during the Tribulation on earth (Rev 7). They disappear from the book during chapter 19, after celebrating the fall of Babylon the Great.
The Marriage of the Lamb
It is very significant that, in Revelation 19, as soon as the 24 elders and the angelic beings have worshipped the Lord, we are introduced to the Marriage of the Lamb and His bride, who must be the glorified Church in Heaven. She is said to have made herself ready for Christ by being clothed in fine linen, clean and white. This garment is said to be the “righteousness” (‘righteous acts’) of the saints. Are we aware that we are preparing ourselves to be united with Christ then by the way we live now, performing acts of righteousness which please Him? He will be the chief focus of attention at that wedding; not ourselves as His Church. At last Christ will have a suitable bride and wife, for whom He gave Himself. What a day of rejoicing that will be!
The Marriage Supper of the Lamb
Although some Bible students think that the Marriage Supper will take place in Heaven, many now support the view that it will take place on earth during Christ’s millennial Kingdom. Therefore, we shall consider it later, in connection with our study on that Kingdom.
(To be continued …)