Pretribulation Rapture Signpost #3: Imminent
A GEICO commercial portrays a spy fleeing from armed men on a roof as well as from a black helicopter approaching from the air. His phone rings as his adversaries appear ready to capture him or perhaps kill him. Thinking the call is from those coming to rescue him, he answers the phone shouting, “Where are you?”
We then see his mom relaxing by a pool as she calmly talks to him about his dad’s battle with squirrels in the attic. As she continues talking to her exasperated son, the narrator interjects, “If you’re a mom, you call at the worst time. It’s what you do.”
Reflecting on New Testament teaching regarding Jesus’ imminent appearing, we might change that to: “Once we receive the Lord’s gift of eternal life, we live in expectancy of Jesus’ return. It’s what we do.”
When we say Jesus’ appearing is “imminent,” we mean it can happen at any moment. If Jesus is coming for us before the start of the tribulation, we would expect to see such an anticipation of the rapture on the pages of the New Testament. And, that is exactly what we see.
Don’t take my word for this; please allow the following biblical texts to speak to you on this matter.
The Eager Anticipation of New Testament Saints
In Philippians 3:20-21 Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” The Greek word for “await” in verse 20 points to an “intense anticipation” or an “excited expectation” of a future event.[i]
As citizens of “heaven,” the apostle says we eagerly anticipate the time when the Lord will appear and at that time change our perishable bodies into imperishable ones. His words imply this could happen at any moment, the essence of imminency. Why would Paul describe believers as excitedly awaiting Jesus’s appearing if many other prophetic events needed to happen before it? His description of the saints at Philippi, and us, only makes sense if Jesus could appear at any moment to take them back to heaven.
Luke used the same Greek word for “await” in Acts 17:16 to describe Paul’s restless “waiting” in Athens for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. After the apostle’s troubling experiences in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, we can be sure he intently watched for their return, hoping he would see them soon. It’s this same passionate yearning of the soul with which the apostle characterizes the waiting of the Philippians for the Lord’s appearing or what we refer to as the rapture.
In 1 Corinthians 1:7, Paul used the same Greek word here for “wait” as he did in Philippians 3:20 to indicate his readers’ heartfelt longing for Jesus’ appearing, “. . . as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Despite the immaturity of these believers, they eagerly waited and watched for Jesus to appear to take them home. It was the natural result of believing the Gospel message.
We see this same eager expectation in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 where the result of their decision “to serve the living and true God” was waiting “for his Son from heaven.” After putting their faith in the living God, these new believers settled into the posture of waiting for Jesus’ appearing. They assumed it could happen at any moment. Why else would they immediately begin watching for it?
For the rapture to have been regarded with the heightened expectation we see in the New Testament, it had to be an imminent event. It does not make sense that this is the second coming. Why would they eagerly await an event that could only occur after seven horrific and violent years of the tribulation during which they would likely perish?
The Prayer of New Testament Believers
In 1 Corinthians 16:22 Paul prayed, “Our Lord, come.” The word for this phrase in the original text is the Aramaic “Maranatha.” This signifies “a petition to Christ that He should return now—at any moment. Paul used it in this letter to Greek-speaking (mostly Gentile) Christians in Corinth because it expressed an idea that had become universal in the early church. Christ could come at any moment, and Christians called upon him to do so.”[ii]
Jesus’ soon return for his church was not just something the New Testament saints believed might happen at any moment; they prayed for it to happen soon. “Maranatha” expressed the prayer of the New Testament saints for Christ to come and take them back to his Father’s house in heaven as He promised them He would do in John 14:2-3.
This prayer indicates a strong desire for Jesus to come in the immediate future, such as what we would expect if they regarded it as an imminent event.
New Testament Expressions of Hope
Peter wrote this regarding our hope, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13). Peter possessed the same expectation as Paul and accordingly instructed his readers to focus their hope exclusively upon Jesus’ appearing.
Why would he encourage such anticipation of Jesus’ appearing if the events of the tribulation came before the rapture?
We see a similar expression of hope in Jesus’ appearing in Titus 2:11-13, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Upon turning to Jesus, these early believers in Jesus began waiting for their “blessed hope,” the appearing of Jesus. Such anticipation flowed out of their reception of the Gospel message.
The writer of Hebrews said, “. . . so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28). This verse describes followers of Jesus as “those who are eagerly waiting for him.” It was what they did; it’s what we do. The New Testament saints watched for Jesus’ imminent appearing to the extent that it became something that characterized them.
What If Imminency is Not True?
Many pastors and teachers today argue against the biblical evidence for imminency on the basis that it’s already been two thousand years and the Lord has not yet returned. They often ask, “How could Jesus’ appearing possibly have been an immediate expectation during the time of the apostles?” They insist there must be a more viable interpretation to the passages that teach imminency given the long delay in Jesus’ return.
It helps to look at this matter from another perspective. What would have happened if Jesus had told his disciples His return was not imminent? What if He had implied it would be many centuries or possibly much longer before he returned? What if instead of telling His followers to be ready and constantly watch for His coming (Matthew 24:44; 25:13), Jesus had told His disciples to relax because He would not return for a very long time?
Can you imagine the impact of such a message? Would the disciples have had the same urgency to proclaim the Gospel to the world? I don’t think so. Would any generation of the church afterward have viewed the Lord’s return with even the remotest sense of urgency? I can’t envision that happening.
What about the motivation for purity that results from viewing Jesus’ appearing as imminent as we see in 1 John 3:1-3? If Jesus cannot return at any moment or anytime soon, the rapture ceases to be such a motivation. People would naturally think they have plenty of time to make things right with the Savior.
For the prospect of Jesus’ return to encourage, comfort, and motivate believers of all ages to purity, it had to be an imminent possibility. Once it’s pushed to an indefinite future, Christ’s appearing ceases to be a factor in the lives of the believers, and the things of this earth soon occupy all their thoughts. Their ultimate hopes switch to the temporal things of this life.
It Must Be the Rapture
Jesus’ return to earth at the end of the tribulation cannot possibly be the event the apostles wrote about as the eager expectation of the saints. Several other prophetic events must happen before Jesus’ second coming such as the revealing of the antichrist’s identity, his desecration of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and the many horrific events of the tribulation.
The New Testament passages that speak to an imminent return of Jesus thus cannot refer to the second coming; these verses must have the rapture in mind. Why would the apostles describe early believers as excitedly watching for Jesus’ appearing if the tribulation with its death and widespread destruction had to occur first?
Jesus’ return after a horrendous time of God’s outpouring of wrath on the earth does not fit with eager expectations of New Testament saints for His appearing. It must be the rapture and it must occur before many of the events of the tribulation, if not all of them.
This sense of imminency argues strongly for a pretribulation rapture, but does not seal the deal. The case for the pretribulation rapture will continue to grow stronger with each signpost along the way. Stay on the road and watch for further signposts . . . .
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[i] Colin Brown, editor, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969) p. 244.
[ii] Wayne A. Brindle, “Imminence” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, eds. Tim LaHaye and Ed
Hindson (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), p. 145