|The Rapture and the First Revelation
William L. Pettingill
What does "the Rapture" mean? The Greek lexicon will show you that the word rapture is derived from the word which means "to be caught up." The use of the word in connection with the study of prophecy is based upon verses 13 to 18 of I Thessalonians 4.
"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are
asleep,that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope: For if we believe
that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God
bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which
are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent (precede) them
which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout,
with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ
shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together
with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with
the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."
There is no question, I believe, as to the date of this epistle. All agree that it was Paul's very first contribution to the New Testament, and many believe that of all the books of the New Testament it was the first one written. We shall, therefore, make no mistake in beginning here.
It is evident that I Thessalonians was written in reply to hard questions sent from Thessalonica to Paul by Timothy, his friend and fellow laborer. Chapter 17 of Acts and chapter 3 of I Thessalonians will make this clear. Paul had labored in Thessalonica only two or three weeks when his enemies drove him out of the city. After his departure many perplexing problems confronted the young converts there. Paul had taught them that when turned to God from idols, it was "to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven" (I Thess. 1:9,10). He had not talked much about the death of believers, but since he had gone from them, some of their number had died. Through Timothy they sent an inquiry to Paul concerning these Christians who were dying. What had become of them? What should be their relation to the ever-imminent event of which he had told them--the catching away of the Church to meet her Lord?
First Thessalonians is Paul's answer to this and other questions. The dead in Christ were with their Lord, and those who would be alive and remaining should in no wise precede them when the Lord should come for His own. That coming for His own was something for which to wait constantly. It might take place at any time. Their duty was to serve and to wait. All through the epistle these things were stressed, and in most of the later epistles of Paul to the churches they were among the subjects treated. Nothing is more insisted upon than the attitude of expectancy in view of the imminent Rapture of the Church.
The Rapture of the Church, as is seen from the Scripture already quoted, is linked with the resurrection of the saved. I say "of the saved," for the lost will not be raised from the dead at the same time with the saved. The resurrection of the saved "is the first resurrection," as Revelation 20:5 tells us. The whole passage reads as follows:
"And I saw thrones, and they (the armies of heaven--19:14) sat upon them, and
judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded
for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped
the beast (the wicked king of chapter 13), neither his image, neither had received
his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived (literally, lived again,
or revived) and reigned with Christ a thousand years."
Here it is proper to explain that the word millennium means "a thousand years." It comes to us through the Latin mille, meaning "a thousand," and annum, meaning "year."
"But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:5,6). Then follows a description of what comes after the Millennium.
There are, then, two resurrections instead of one, and the two are separated from each other by a thousand years. The first resurrection is premillennial, or before the Millennium. The second resurrection is postmillennial, or after the Millennium. The first resurrection is only for the saved; the second resurrection is only for the lost.
But now we need to turn to chapter 5 of John to clear up a point in connection with this part of our subject. Here in verse 24 a resurrection--that is, a coming to life from the dead--is described, but it is spiritual resurrection. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life."
This is spiritual resurrection, clearly enough; it is what takes place when a man is born again. We also find this in the next verse.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead
shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live."
Bodily and Spiritual Resurrection
This is spiritual resurrection also; for the Lord said, "The hour is coming, and now is." Bodily resurrection has not taken place yet, but spiritual resurrection now is possible. Every time the gospel is preached to lost men--and the gospel is certainly "the voice of the Son of God"--it is preached to those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Some will, by the power of the grace of God, hear that voice; and they that hearken will live. That is spiritual resurrection. It is coming from death unto life; yet it is not bodily resurrection.
Now let us go to John 5:28,29. There we shall find bodily resurrection.
"Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves
shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the
resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."
Standing by itself this statement would seem to teach the resurrection of all, both saved and lost, at the same time. But let it be noted that the "hour" of verse 25 has already lasted for nineteen hundred years. Why, then, should not the "hour" of verse 28 endure throughout the thousand years of the Millennium? Even here in verse 29 two resurrections are named--one unto life and one unto damnation. In Luke 14:4 the first resurrection is called "the resurrection of the just."
These are hints in the teaching of the Lord Jesus which seem to show how His own mind was often occupied with anticipation of that great day of the Rapture of the Church and the resurrection of His beloved ones. For example, between Christ's words in the opening verses of John 14 and Paul's words in chapter 4 of I Thessalonians there is a parallelism that can easily be traced.
Our Lord said, "Let not your heart be troubled." Paul said, "Comfort one another with these words."
The Lord said, "Ye believe in God, believe also in me." Paul said, "If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him."
The Lord said, "If it were not so, I would have told you." Paul said, "This we say unto you by the word of the Lord" (literally, "by a word from the Lord"; that is, from Jesus' own mouth).
The Lord said, "I will come again." Paul said, "The Lord himself shall descend from heaven."
The Lord said, "And receive you unto myself." Paul said, "We...shall be caught up...to meet the Lord in the air."
The Lord said, "That where I am, there ye may be also." Paul said, "And so shall we ever be with the Lord."
The parallel is too complete to be accidental. It is of the Spirit of God.
There is another such parallelism in connection with I Corinthians 15:51-54, a passage so familiar as to have lost its point with many who seem to think that it has no important place outside the funeral ritual. But let us look at it as something new, just as if we had never seen it before. Let us place ourselves by imagination in the home of Aquila and Priscilla on the night when probably the church at Corinth met in their house to hear the latest news of their beloved Paul (I Cor. 16:19). The meeting came to order, and someone announced that there was a letter from the apostle to be read to the assembly. Imagine, if you can, the tremendous impact when the startling words were read: "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep."
In modern phraseology this means, "Listen! I have a secret to tell you. Not all of us will die!"
Whatever could the man mean? Everybody knows that we must all die. But that is the great mystery now revealed--the wonderful secret never before made known.
"Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In
the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall
shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on
incorruption (literally, incorruptibility), and this mortal must put on immortality. So when
this corruptible shall have put on incorruption (literally, incorruptibility), and this mortal
shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death
is swallowed up in victory."
For the parallelism let us turn to John 11:20-26 and note carefully the language.
"Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat
still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had
not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, Gid will give it thee.
Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall
rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus saith unto her, I am the resurrection, and the
life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead (literally, though he die), yet shall he live: And
whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?"
Here is language that confuses the commentators and defies all intelligent or intelligible exposition until the parallelism is seen to which reference has been made. It is as clear as the noonday sun that the Lord Jesus, who was about to enact a miniature representation of "the resurrection at the last day," had the scenes of that day in mind while He was talking to Martha.
When the day arrives--the day of the first resurrection--He who is the resurrection and the life will do on a large scale what He did in the Bethany burying ground when He called His friend Lazarus out of the grave. But He will also domuch more than raise dead men to life. On the great day that is coming He will speak out of heaven the word of power, and "he that believeth in" Him. "though he were dead, yet shall he live." As Paul puts it, "The dead shall be raised incorruptible."
As for those other believers, those who "are alive and remain," our Lord declares, "Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." Again the parallel is complete. It is impossible to regard it as accidental. It fits as a hand in a glove. It is of God's Spirit.
So, then, death does not await all of God's children. Some will not die. The Lord Jesus may at any moment say, "Come up hither" (Rev. 4:1), and He will draw His own--the living and the dead--up to Himself in the air. For this we are to look, for this we are to wait, and in this hope we are to live. Blessed hope! How it should lay hold upon us! How it should mold our lives! What a pity that we have not learned it and have not been gripped by it! It is written that "every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." May it be so with each one who reads this chapter. May every day be lived in the power of the God-given truth that before the day is ended we may be "caught up...to meet the Lord in the air!"
Caught up! Caught up! No wing required!
Caught up to Him, by love inspired,
To meet Him in the air!
Spurning the earth with upward bound,
Nor casting a single glance around,
Nor listing a single earth-born sound,
Caught up in the radiant air!
Caught up with rapture and surprise!
Caught up! Our fond affections rise
Our coming Lord to meet!
Hearing the trumpet's glorious sound,
Soaring to join the rising crowd,
Gazing beyond the parted cloud,
Beneath His pierced feet!
(Reprinted, by permission, from God's Prophecies for Plain People, by William L. Pettingill, Van Kampen
Press, Wheaton, Illinois)