Pretribulation Rapture Signpost #2: Unique
The next signpost pointing to the occurrence of the rapture before the tribulation simply says “unique.” For pretribulationism to be biblical, the rapture and second coming cannot be the same event; they must be separate events.
While this post repeats much of what I wrote in a previous article, I am including it again for the sake of completeness and because of its significance in pointing the way to our final destination. Now that we have the foundation of premillennialism, it’s essential that we see the rapture as a unique event in the New Testament.
If premillennialism is true, and it absolutely is, then the following differences between the rapture and second-coming passages argue strongly for regarding them as separate and unique events.
- The Place of the Resurrection in the Order of Events
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul tells us the “dead in Christ will rise first.” After raising the dead saints, Jesus catches up living saints to meet him in the clouds. We see this same sequence in 1 Corinthians 15:52: When Jesus comes for us, He raises the dead in Christ first. The resurrection of the saints happens first in these two key passages regarding Jesus’ return for His church.
In Revelation 20, however, the resurrection of the dead tribulation saints occurs after Jesus’ triumphal return to earth, His defeat of the vast armies gathered against him, His destruction of the false prophet and antichrist, and the imprisonment of Satan.
After all of these time-consuming events, the Lord sets up thrones on the earth and raises the dead tribulation saints from the grave (Rev. 19:11-20:6). The resurrection of saints happens last in the sequence of events during Christ’s return to earth, perhaps not even the same day.
The place of the resurrection in the order of events differs greatly in passages dealing with the rapture versus those of the second coming. In one it happens first; in the other it happens last.
- The Participants of the Resurrection
Not only does the place of the resurrection differ in the order of events, but so does the identification of its participants. John identifies those Jesus raises from the dead at His second coming as those killed during the tribulation (Rev. 20:4).
When Paul writes about the rapture, he says Jesus will raise up all the “dead in Christ,” rather than a subset of believers as John specifies in Revelation (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52).
John Walvoord made this point about the difference in participants in the two resurrections of the saints:
- It is most impressive that when the resurrection is mentioned in Revelation 20:4, it is specifically limited to the tribulation saints as contrasted to the church. If the tribulation saints were a part of the church, why was not the expression “the dead in Christ” used as in I Thessalonians 4? The fact that this group is singled out for resurrection, as if they were a special body of saints, points to the conclusion that the church had been previously raptured.[i]
When Jesus comes for his church, he raises all the dead in Christ. At His second coming, He only needs to raise those saints killed during the tribulation.
- The Place Jesus Gathers His Saints
In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul states that all believers who are alive at the time will be “caught up” along with those He resurrects from the dead to “meet the Lord in the air.” Jesus does not come to the earth, but gathers us to Himself in the clouds. He meets us somewhere in the clouds.
This differs significantly from passages related to Christ’s second coming. Rather than catch believers up to meet him in the air, Jesus returns to the earth with much fanfare and defeats all His enemies in a climactic battle. After that, He then sends out his angels to gather living believers and unbelievers for judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). He gathers both believers and unbelievers to a place on earth, not in the air.
Do you see how the place living saints meet Jesus differs between the rapture and second-coming passages? When Jesus comes for His church, He will meet us in the air. When He returns to earth, saints living at the time stand before Him on the earth.
Those who attempt to combine the rapture and second coming assert that Jesus brings the church out to meet Him as He returns. This, however, contradicts Scripture. How can the dead saints greet the Lord on His way to the earth if Jesus does not raise them from the dead until after the long series of events we find in Revelation 19:17-20:4?
- The Transformation of Living Believers
As we see in Paul’s 1 Corinthian 15 description of His appearing, Jesus transforms the bodies of living believers as well as those He raises from the grave; He gives both imperishable bodies (vv. 53-54). We also see this emphasis in Philippians 3:20-21; when the Lord comes for us He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”
Paul emphasizes the transformation of living saints in passages that deal with His return for the church (see also Rom. 8:23-25).
In passages concerning the second coming, we do not find any reference to the transformation of living believers. Yes, Jesus sends his angels to gather the elect, but the text does not say He gives them imperishable bodies. They enter the kingdom in their natural bodies.
- The Presence of People in Natural Bodies During the Millennium
If the rapture and second coming are the same event, no one would enter the thousand-year reign of Jesus in natural bodies. Since Jesus gives all believers, whether alive or dead, glorified bodies at His appearing, that leaves no one to enter His kingdom in natural bodies.
This, however, is a far, far different scenario from what both the Old and New Testament tell us about the millennium, Jesus’ kingdom reign centered in Jerusalem.
John MacArthur explains this distinction well:
- If God raptures and glorifies all believers just prior to the inauguration of the millennial kingdom (as a posttribulational Rapture demands), no one would be left to populate and propagate the earthly kingdom of Christ promised to Israel. It is not within the Lord’s plan and purpose to use glorified individuals to propagate the earth during the Millennium. Therefore, the Rapture needs to occur earlier so that after God has raptured all believers, He can save more souls—including Israel’s remnant—during the seven-year Tribulation. Those people can then enter the millennial kingdom in earthly form.[ii]
Zechariah 14:9-19 refers to people during Jesus’ earthly reign as having the capacity to sin. Isaiah, in writing about the kingdom, refers to people dying at the age of 100 and of others bearing children (65:19-23). This cannot happen if the rapture and second coming are the same event since everyone alive would have glorified bodies that are not subject to death and cannot sin.
At the end of the millennium, there will be a massive uprising against the Lord as described in Revelation 20:7-9. This can only happen if the rapture is a unique event that occurs a significant amount of time before the second coming.
- The Destination of Believers
The accounts of Jesus’ second coming in the Gospels and in the book of Revelation do not include any return to heaven either for the Lord or for us. This differs greatly from the passages related to the rapture. In John 14:2-3, Jesus promises to take us back to the “place,” the physical dwelling he is preparing for us in his “Father’s house.”
Why mention His Father’s house in heaven in this context if he does not intend to take us there when he comes for us? What’s the purpose of mentioning the place He’s preparing for us if not to take us there when he comes for us?
The meeting in the air of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, foreign to passages dealing with the second coming, implies a return to heaven as does Colossians 3:4.
The feet of those on the earth at the time of second coming never leave the ground; there is no meeting in the air. With the rapture, we meet Jesus in the air and He takes us back to His Father’s house.
- The Rapture as a Mystery
In 1 Corinthians 15:51, the apostle Paul begins his description of the rapture with these words, “Behold! I tell you a mystery.” Last year, my wife and I saw the movie Murder on the Orient Express, a depiction of the novel written by Agatha Christie. This story is a mystery; we do not know who murdered the man on the train until the end of the movie. This is what we typically think of when we hear that something is a “mystery.”
The use of the word “mystery” in the New Testament differs much from this definition. The word as the apostles used it designates something new, a truth God did not reveal in the Old Testament. When Paul introduces the Lord’s return for his church in the book of 1 Thessalonians he says, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord . . .” (4:15). This was new revelation; something not revealed at an earlier time.
The second coming was not a “mystery” associated with the church. We find references to it throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus referred often to it during His earthly ministry. Jude tells us that God revealed the glory of Christ’s return to earth to Enoch, who lived before the flood of Noah (see Jude 14-15). The second coming was neither a new revelation nor a mystery reserved for the church age.
Why Is This So Important?
Why all the fuss in separating the rapture from the Second Coming? If the rapture is not a unique event, we are at a dead end on our journey to establish a biblical case for the pretribulation rapture.
However, since Scripture describes Jesus’ return for His church as a distinct event, our journey continues. Future signposts will confirm the error that many make in combining the rapture and second coming.
This separation of these events changes our expectation from one of the terrors of the tribulation to the glory of being caught up to forever be with the Lord Jesus. As we will see in the next signpost, this was the anticipation of the New Testament saints; they waited eagerly for the Lord’s appearing as though it could happen at any moment.
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[i] John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 38.
[ii] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), p. 136.