One of our favourite games when we were kids was Hiding. Someone would cover their eyes and everyone else would find a place to hide. The person whose eyes were covered would begin to count, then call, “Coming, ready or not.” During the counting we’d all scamper around looking for a place to hide, and I’m sure, being small children, we found a lot more places to hide in those days than we’d find now.
At the moment I feel a little like we are facing a countdown. I believe our world is poised for the second most momentous event in its history, The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The most important event in history so far, the birth of Jesus, changed the world immeasurably. Even though many modern historians are trying to write His influence out of history, they will find it difficult to alter the calendar around which the 21st century world revolves. Every time we write a date we are making reference to that world-changing event, when God was born into the world to save humanity from destruction.
Some people insist they don’t need saving. I remember hearing someone at the National Gallery of Australia, who was standing in front of a renaissance painting of the crucifixion, saying, “I didn’t ask Him to die for me.” It wrenched my heart to stand there and look at someone who had no idea of their enormous need. We need to be changed to meet our Creator. And no matter whether we’re ready or not, Jesus will come again. He told His disciples a number of times He would return after His ascension and the early Christians continued to repeat the message of His imminent return.
God gave details of the return of Jesus in such a way, that throughout the history of the church, the followers of Jesus were always hoping He would come in their lifetime. Knowing this, why should we have any confidence in the idea that He will actually return in the immediate future? Why is it that many Christians believe it will actually happen very soon?
The answer is to be found in the study of Bible prophecy. Prophecy is a particular way of communicating a message that will only be understood by the people it is intended for. If Christians do not take the time to prayerfully study prophecy, they may not hear God’s message to them. Until recently, not everyone had access to the scriptures, but now that so many people can study the Bible for themselves, many Christians are looking very carefully at New Testament prophecies, and also at those in the Old Testament that appear to be awaiting fulfilment. And a surprising number of these believers feel the signs point to Jesus returning in the not too distant future.
The timing of the Lord’s return has always been an important issue for His followers. Matthew records an incident that occurred during Jesus’ time on Earth:
And as He sat on the mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of you coming, and of the end of the world?” (Mat 24:3)
Most people would be aware that if we do not know the language or culture of another person, it is very difficult to understand what they are saying to us. In the same way people need the Holy Spirit to open Bible prophecy up to them so that they can understand what God is saying. As Peter wrote:
Know this, no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)
Prophecy is not meant to be understood by non-Christians, it is God’s special message to His people, who are filled with His Holy Spirit. God opens His Word to people at just the right time, and now, at this point in history, as people have been seeking to understand the signs Jesus gave to His disciples, He has been opening the scriptures up to indicate that His return is at hand.
Over the past 100 years Christians have been studying and sharing ideas on the many biblical passages surrounding this topic and many believe that Jesus will actually return twice. The first will not really be a return of the Lord Jesus to Earth, Jesus will come to lift the believers out of the Earth. This may not be a time when unbelievers will actually see Him, they may only be aware that many people, who were followers of Jesus, suddenly disappeared. Paul described this episode in his letters. He writes:
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 trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1Cor 15:51-53)
To the Thessalonians Paul wrote:
For they keep talking about the wonderful welcome you gave us and how you turned away from idols to serve the living and true God. And they speak of how you are looking forward to the coming of God’s Son from heaven—Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. He is the One who is rescuing us from the wrath to come. (1Thes 1:9-10)
In the same letter he goes on to say:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thes 4:13-18)
Paul is concerned that believers should not be ignorant, or “uninformed”, about Jesus’ return, like people who “have no hope”. He is writing to assure believers that “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus”, that is, born-again believers who have already died, will be resurrected and will “rise first”, before the believers who are still alive at that time are transformed to be united with them. Then they will all be “caught up together” to meet the Lord Jesus Christ in the air. This is a description of an event that has come to be known as The Rapture (from the Latin rapturo or raeptius, which means to seize, carry off or to snatch out or away).
Paul clearly explains that this event is a time when believers will be rescued, when they will be snatched away from the wrath to come. He then goes on to explain what will happen next:
But of the times and the seasons, brethren, you don’t need me to write to you. For you know perfectly that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. For when they are saying, “Peace and safety”, then suddenly destruction will come upon them, like labour pains upon a woman with child – and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sister, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. You are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Th 5:1-9)
This event does not sound like the Second Coming, because Jesus does not come all the way down to Earth during this event. He only comes to meet the believers in the air. Paul explains that The Rapture will be a comfort to believers, because it will be a supreme act of God’s grace, when His love and mercy rescues them from the wrath and sudden destruction that is about to be poured out on the Earth during a period called The Great Tribulation. In his letters Paul is describing two incidents occurring in two different places. The children of the light have the hope of salvation and will be lifted away, while those who persist in darkness will remain to experience the wrath to come.
Believers will be rescued from the worst of the persecution, wars, natural disasters, and judgments that the Revelation, the book of Daniel and the other prophetic scriptures explain will occur during the seven year period leading up to the Second Coming. Christians will not to be caught off guard by The Rapture because they have been warned to remain watchful and sober.
However, unbelievers will be feeling reasonably safe and secure at this time and they will not be prepared to listen to their Christian friends who are waiting and watching for their Lord. For the unbeliever, Jesus will come “like a thief in the night”, to snatch away the saints. He will come and take away His people, and because they will not be watching for Him, the unbelievers may not even be aware it is happening until after the event.
Although there are some Christians who reject this understanding of prophecy, it creates a striking harmony between the many scriptures that cover the topic. I have written in far more detail about my reasons for coming to this conclusion in my book (see the Revelation chapter). I have also covered a number of reasons why many students of eschatology feel the Lord’s return is imminent.
Sadly, people who are not born-again believers in Christ at the time of The Rapture, will remain on the Earth to live through what Jesus referred to as the Great Tribulation (Mat 24:21). However, the Bible teaches that people who repent and turn to Jesus as their personal Saviour and Lord during the Tribulation, will be forgiven of their sins, regenerated by God’s Holy Spirit and saved from ultimate judgment and eternal destruction. These new believers will still have to endure the horrors that will occur on the Earth during that time, and many will face martyrdom, but I believe God will give them a special outpouring of His Spirit to enable them to reach out to the lost in God’s last momentous attempt to reach people before Jesus returns and this present age draws to a close. This will be the time when people are offered their very last chance to be part of God’s eternal kingdom.
When Paul describes the “sudden destruction” as being like “labour pains” (1 Thes 5:3), he is using the same concept the Lord Jesus used when He explained that the world will experience “birth pangs” in the last days (Matthew 24:8). At that time Jesus was talking to a Jewish audience, and just as with Paul, He then went on to give a description of the Tribulation, during which time He will be reaching out to His people, the Jews, in a mighty effort to bring them back to Himself (Is 27:12,13). Revelation tells us God will recruit 144 000 Jews to perform this task of evangelisation during the Great Tribulation (Rev 7:4).
While we don’t know exactly when The Rapture will occur, it seems it will not come during a time of intense “contraction” such as a major economic or military upheaval or natural disasters, but rather, during a time of “release”; a time when things appear to the non-Christian world to be peaceful and safe. We know labour pains start out with long pauses between contractions, and gradually become more frequent and more intense. Jesus explained that there would be signs that were simply the beginning of the labour pains and that once these began to occur people would know the end was near. As no one could possibly describe any moment during The Great Tribulation as a time of “peace and safety”, it follows that the Rapture cannot take place during this time when God pours out His wrath on a world that has resolutely refused to turn to Him.
For those of us who are eagerly anticipating His return, Jesus tells us:
“I leave you peace. It is my own peace I give you. I give you peace in a different way than the world does. So don’t be troubled. Don’t be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am leaving, but I will come back for you.’ (John 14:27-28a)
Jesus was assuring His disciples that even though He was about to be crucified, He would return and they should not be afraid. If He were to return for the saints at the end of the Great Tribulation, it would be very difficult for Christians not to be troubled by the events that will precede His coming. In the book of Revelation we have a very clear picture of a time that would terrify even the most pious of saints. Instead, the Lord assured His people He will rescue them from this horrific time.
Following the resurrection, Jesus did return to His people for a short time. However, His last instruction for them before He ascended was that they should tell people everywhere about Him. This is exactly what Christians have been occupied in doing since He went to be with the Father. In the 21st century, Christians have added a new aspect to this message – anyone who wants to be part of God’s rescue program, which is scheduled to occur just before the Great Tribulation, can find their hope of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
After Jesus was caught up in the clouds at His ascension, some angels assured His watching followers that Jesus would return again. As Luke described it:
“But the Holy Spirit will come on you and give you power and you will be my witnesses. You will tell people everywhere about me – in Jerusalem, in the rest of Judea, in Samaria, and in every part of the world.” After Jesus said this, He was lifted up into the sky. While they were watching, He went into a cloud, and they could not see Him. They were staring into the sky where He had gone. Suddenly two men wearing white clothes were standing beside them. They said, “Men from Galilee, why are you standing here looking into the sky? You saw Jesus carried away from you into heaven. He will come back in the same way you saw him go.” (Act 1:8-11)
Throughout the history of the church Christians have eagerly anticipated the return of Christ (1 Cor 1:7; Php 3:20; 2 Tim 4:8; Heb 9:28). Today, many believers are not anticipating having to endure the Great Tribulation, because the Lord has promised they will be spared from God’s wrath. Instead, these believers are anticipating being taken away to be with the Lord forever (1 Thes 4:18). This is a wonderful hope. The fact that Jesus has not, as yet, returned simply means more people will have the opportunity to be part of His rescue plan and His eternal kingdom. But before this kingdom can be realised on Earth, there is yet the Great Tribulation to be actioned on Earth. As Matthew records, Jesus told his disciples:
“For then shall be Great Tribulation, such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be.” (Mat 24:21)
The Great Tribulation will be the time when God’s judgment on evil will be executed on Earth. It is hard for mortal people to understand the immortal, omniscient, omnipotent God who created the universe, but He has given us His Holy Spirit and His Word, The Bible, through which we can learn a great deal about His purposes and plans. God has very good reasons for this final outpouring of His wrath upon the Earth. I address these reasons more fully in my book. We can choose to avoid this horrific time by simply acknowledging our Creator as having supreme authority over us and giving our lives into the hands of His Son. He has been reaching out to humanity with love and mercy from the beginning of time, but He will not allow evil to endure forever. In Revelation we find:
And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the chief captains, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman and freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains; and they say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of their wrath is come; and who is able to stand? (Rev 6:15-17)
This will not be a game. God created a magnificent planet and filled it with miraculous living creatures, but humanity has despoiled God’s creation. People have lied, hated, cheated, killed, polluted, perverted and destroyed, and they have resolutely refused to be subject to their Creator. This is His universe and many choose to be wilfully ignorant of His plans and purposes for their lives. During the Great Tribulation there will be nowhere to hide from the Creator or from His Truth. However, this is not the end. Jesus said:
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Mat 24:29-30)
This is not part of the events described by Paul during The Rapture, this is a description of the Second Coming, which all the world will see. It will occur at the end of the Great Tribulation, when Jesus returns to the Earth with the transformed saints to establish His thousand year reign on Earth (Rev 19:11-20:6). He will come, whether we’re ready or not.
For those who know and love Him, Jesus will return to take them to be with Him eternally. Those people who have chosen to remain on planet Earth during the Great Tribulation will then live through the worst seven years humanity has ever endured. During this time many will turn to their Creator, having been driven, finally, to an understanding of their need for salvation. However, those who resolutely refuse to acknowledge the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as their Creator may try to hide. But eventually, we must all face our Creator. Will we stand before Him as a beloved child, redeemed, cleansed and transformed, or as a rebellious renegade, doomed for destruction?