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We are a Christian Fellowship meeting in North London with a strong interest in teaching the Bible and understanding our time in

the light of Bible prophecy

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The rapture of the Church - a new doctrine?

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In our Winter edition last year we looked at some of the statements of the early church and showed how the main view of the first Christians was that the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus would be followed by His 1000 year reign from Jerusalem, known as the Millennium. There is however another aspect of the teaching on the end times which is controversial amongst Bible believing Christians. This is the teaching of the Rapture of the Church (rapture is the Latin form of the Greek harpazo to catch up or seize away). This event is described in the verses from 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11: For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. In this passage the Lord comes for the saints (i.e. the true believers in Jesus) and meets them in the air. In Zechariah 14 and Revelation 19-20 the Lord comes with the saints to the earth for his millennial (1000 year) reign.

 

The question is, Does this event coincide with the coming of the Lord to the earth or is it separated in time by a period seven years? In other words, Is the Second Coming of Christ in two stages? The view that the second coming is in two stages is known as the pre-tribulation rapture, because this event is said to precede the final seven years of the Great Tribulation described in Matthew 24.15-31 and in Revelation 6-19. Critics of this view say that the second coming is all one event and that the idea of a separation in time between the two stages of the second coming is a novel idea which the early church knew nothing of.

 

The usual criticism is that the pre-tribulation rapture theory originated around 1820, ascribed either to Emmanuel Lacunza (1812), Edward Irving (1816), Margaret Macdonald (1830) or John Darby (1820). Dave MacPherson in The Incredible Cover Up stated: Margaret Macdonald was the first person to teach a coming of Christ that would precede the days of Antichrist. Before 1830 Christians had always believed in a single future coming, that the catching up of 1 Thessalon-ians 4 will take place after the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24 at the glorious coming of the Son of Man when He shall send His angels to gather together all of His elect. (In fact the modern interest in this subject really began with John Darby who came to see from his study of the Bible the need for a gap in time between the rapture and the second coming to the earth in 1827, with no influence at all from Margaret Macdonald, who was a 15 year old girl at the time).

 

However there is evidence of an understanding of the coming of the Lord in two stages in the early church. The writer Ephraem the Syrian was a major theologian of the early Byzantine Church, who lived from 306 to 373. The work On the Last Times, the Antichrist and the End of the World may have been written by Ephraem or one of his disciples. This message was considered important enough at the time to be translated into several languages.

 

Ephraem's text shows a literal method of interpreting scripture and teaches the pre-millennial return of Christ. It reveals a clear statement about the Lord returning before the tribulation to take his elect saints home to be with him to escape the coming tribulation. For all the saints and elect of God are gathered prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.

 

In addition Ephraem declares his belief in a personal Antichrist who will rule the Roman Empire during the last days, a rebuilt Temple, the two witnesses and a literal Great Tribulation: And there will be a great tribulation, as there has not been since people began to be on the earth … and no one is able to sell or buy of the grain of the harvest, unless he is the one who has the serpentine sign on the forehead or the hand. And when the three and a half years have been completed, the time of the Antichrist, through which he will have seduced the world, after the resurrection of the two prophets, in the hour which the world does not know and on the day which the enemy or the son of perdition does not know, will come the sign of the Son of Man, and coming forward the Lord shall appear with great power and much majesty, with the sign of salvation going before him, and also even with all the powers of the heavens with the whole chorus of the saints.

 

So the teaching that the second coming is in two stages was not unknown to the early church. It may have been little known and understood, but that is not a bar to it being true. At the time of the first coming of the Messiah Jesus, it was not understood even by his closest disciples that there were to be two stages in his Messianic mission, the first to suffer and die as a sacrifice for sin (in fulfilment of prophecies such as Isaiah 53), the second to rule and reign over the redeemed earth (in fulfilment of Isaiah 2.1-4 and other prophecies). After the Day of Pentecost they understood the truth, that there was to be a time gap between his first and second coming during which time they were to evangelise the world (see Acts 1.6-8).

 

So too the literal understanding of the prophecies demands that there is a time gap between the first and second stage of the second coming of Christ. The first stage, the rapture of the church happens unexpectedly, as a thief in the night. Even from the point of view of the writers of the New Testament it could happen at any time:

 

You also be patient, brethren. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5.8) See also 1 Corinthians 1.7, 16.22, 1 Thessalonians 1.10, Titus 2.13, Hebrews 9.28, James 5.7-9, 1 Peter 1.13, Jude 21, Revelation 3.11, 22.7,12,17,20. If the rule of Antichrist, the Great Tribulation and the Mark of the Beast system had to come first it would be impossible for Christ to come at any time as was the expectation of the early Christians.

 

Expecting Jesus to come at any time means that we as believers should keep our lives in continual readiness for this event as John taught in his epistle: We know that when he is revealed, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. (1 John 3.2-3). This is also a tremendous hope for those who are suffering in this body: For our citizenship is in heaven from which we eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body. … The Lord is at hand. (Philippians 3.20, 4.5)

 

In view of this our response should be to make sure that we are ready for the rapture of the church by repenting of our sins and believing in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus to save us from the wrath to come. If you are not sure that you are ready, pray the following prayer and contact us for further information on living the new life in the Messiah Jesus:

 

Dear Heavenly Father, I admit that I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe that Jesus the Messiah died in my place paying the penalty for my sins. I am willing right now to turn from my sin and accept Jesus the Messiah as my personal Saviour and Lord. I commit my life to you and ask you to send the Holy Spirit into my life, to fill me and to take control and to help me become the kind of person you want me to be. Thank you Father for loving me. In Jesus name, Amen.

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