The doctrine of the Rapture of the Church was a well established principle that was first taught by Paul to the Christians alive in the first century. As we examine the historical record, we also find that the Rapture was taught to every generation of believer since the first century.
In This Essay we will Examine:
- The evidence for the Rapture, from the Bible
- The teaching of the Rapture before the Tribulation, in the early Christian church.
- Evidence the early church taught a pre-Tribulation Rapture
When Paul wrote his second letter to the church at Thessalonica, it was with great concern that he penned his words. After visiting this church in the past and having taught them about the return of Jesus for His church in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, false teachers had come in and said that the Day of the Lord had already taken place.
Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. ~2 Thessalonians 2:2
After Paul departed Thessalonica, men came who began to teach that the “Day of the Lord,” the Tribulation, had already begun. Those who had lost loved one’s to death, wondered where they were since Paul had taught them previously that before the Tribulation began, Jesus would come and raise the dead who loved Jesus and translate the living who loved the Lord, giving both the living and the dead, new eternal bodies, meeting Him in the air.
Paul’s First Visit to Thessalonica:
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep 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 by no means precede those who are asleep. 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 together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. ~1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
For those who claim that the Bible does not teach a “Rapture” of believers, it is very difficult to maintain this assertion in light of the above verses. Paul begins his statement by telling the believers in this church that the purpose of the letter was to inform the believers in Jesus of what had happened to those who have died already, believing in Jesus.
The phrase: “those who have fallen asleep,” is a polite way of saying; those who have died.
Paul then states that “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again,” this is the qualifying part of this text; a person must first believe that Jesus has died for their sins and rose again, then the rest is applicable. If we do not believe that Jesus died for our sins, then this verse does not apply to us.
Paul states that God will bring those who have formerly died, with Jesus, when He comes again for His church, and here is how it will happen:
“We who are alive,” at the time that Jesus returns, “will not be taken before those who have already died.” First, Jesus will resurrect those who have died believing in Him. Then, those who are alive at that time, will also be “caught up” to meet the Lord; “In the air.” The Greek word that was used for “caught up,” here, is Harpazo; a sudden taking by force. The Latin word for “caught up,” is rapturo, from where we get our modern word: Rapture.
If we stop here for just a moment, we must ask the question: “If the Rapture is not taught by the Bible; if the first church did not believing in the doctrine of the Rapture, then what is the purpose of these verses that Paul wrote to this church? The obvious answer is that the claim that the Christian church did not teach or believe in the Rapture until Darby began to describe it is 1830, is incorrect. Here we see that the church already believed-in and was teaching the Rapture from the beginning.
Objection: The Rapture Was not Taught In The Christian Church, Until 1830
The chief objection to the modern teaching of the Rapture, comes from writers who claim that before 1830, the Christian church only believed in a single arrival of Jesus, after the Great Tribulation.
As we examine the records of the early church, we see that this is not true. From the beginning, the coming of Jesus before the Tribulation, was well established in the minds of early believers. It is true that for a long durations of time, the teaching of the Rapture fell into period of disinterest by large numbers of the church. There was a sort of revival of interest in the return of Jesus, beginning in 1820 after Emmanuel Acurzna (Ben Ezra) began to teach this doctrine and others followed; Edward Irving (1816), Margaret MacDonald (1830), and later, John Darby in 1830, who revived the facts of 1 Thessalonians 4 and fact of Paul’s instruction that the church will be “caught up,” or Raptured to meet Jesus in the air.
We must remember that when Daniel was given the incredible prophecy of chapter 9, detailing all the events that would include the Rapture, the Tribulation, and the return of Jesus to the earth, this aging prophet did not understand the prophecies in their entirety. To his request for an explanation for what these prophecies meant, Daniel said:
Although I heard, I did not understand. Then I said, “My lord, what shall be the end of these things?” And he said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Daniel 12:9
The Lord intended that the church would not understand all of these things, until the time of the end. There are many parts of Daniel’s prophecy that were not fully understood by the church until the last 100 years. Only now, as we are able to see the events that are taking place in the world, do we have the ability to understand what Daniel was writing and how these things fit into the events of the world today. These matters were “sealed up till the time of the end…” We are in the days that Daniel described, so it is not a surprise that the Christian church has only recently understood that Jesus would return twice; once at the Rapture to remove His church, before the seven year Tribulation, and a second time, physically to the earth, with His church, to conquer the antichirst, defeat his armies, and set up His kingdom on the earth for 1,000 years.
The Intent Of 1 Thessalonians Is Clear:
The specific language of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, is difficult to explain any other way, other than the events known as the Rapture.
“The Lord will descend from heaven with a shout.”
We have Jesus departing heaven, to return to earth. We notice that this is not the physical return to earth that is described in Revelation chapter 19, where He is coming to earth with a great company of people who are wearing white garments, described as those whom Jesus has redeemed.
This is the same group that we see in Revelation chapters four and five, who are in heaven, wearing white garments, which are described as clothing worn only by the church of Jesus. They are singing a song in heaven that only those who are a part of Jesus church can sing: “You have redeemed us by your blood…”
The Tribulation period does not begin until chapter six, yet here we see Jesus church, already in heaven, singing songs of redemption—before the Tribulation begins, in chapters four and five. We also notice that from Revelation chapters 6-18, when the seven year Tribulation is occurring, there is no mention of the church on earth, anywhere in this text. We don’t see the church again, until chapter 19, when we learn that she has been in heaven during the past seven years, and is now returning with Jesus to the earth.
Paul then continues with his explanation of the moment when Jesus will descend from heaven, back to earth:
“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 together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
Two Groups Are Raised To Meet Jesus In The Air
Both the living Christians and the dead, will be “caught up,” (Latin: rapturo) together, to meet the Lord in the air.
This is not a physical return of Jesus to the earth at the end of the Tribulation period where Zechariah, the book of Acts, and the book of Revelation, describe Him as coming to the Mount of Olives upon His return.
And in that day (of His return) His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, Which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, From east to west, Making a very large valley; Half of the mountain shall move toward the north And half of it toward the south. Zechariah 14:4
The arrival of Jesus at the Rapture is: “in the air,” the outer atmosphere of earth. The purpose of this return is to gather His church.
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.“ —1 Thessalonians 4:16
Why Would Jesus Gather His Church From The Earth, Before The Tribulation?
The answer is clear: Jesus is about to pour out His wrath on the earth during the Tribulation.
This is not the “tribulation,” that Jesus said that all those who believe in Him would experience while living in the world.
These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” —John 16:33
There Are Two Types Of Tribulation:
- From the world, that all Christians experience (trials and difficulties).
- From God, His wrath, which no Christian will experience.
The Tribulation (trouble) that comes during the seven years is the type that comes from Jesus, to judge the whole world who has rejected Him and has worshipped the beast instead. When the kings of the earth see the judgements that are coming upon the earth in Revelation chapter 6, they shout: “hide us from the wrath of the Lamb…for the great day of His wrath has come…”
“And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Revelation 6:15-17
The Wrath Of The Lamb
This Tribulation is the wrath of Jesus, the Lamb. Does it make sense that Jesus, who suffered so horrifically for us in order to save us from the wrath of God against our sins, would not require us to go through the Tribulation that is clearly defined as the time of His wrath?
Paul wrote that we are not appointed to experience the wrath of God at any time. Not for our sins, and not during the time when God will punish the world for rejecting Jesus as the Savior.
For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, ~1 Thessalonians 5:9
Jesus told the true church of Revelation, chapter 2; Philadelphia, that because they had a little strength, had kept His word, and not denied His name, He would keep them from the hour of trial (the tribulation), which shall come upon the whole world.
“I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. ~Revelation 3:8-10
There is no other event that can be given the title “hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world,” except the seven year Tribulation. Jesus clarified this unique moment in history, with the words:
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. ~Matthew 24:21
The group that Jesus told that would go through the Tribulation, are the Jews who will be living in Jerusalem during the time when the antichrist will enter the temple and proclaim that he is God.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. …But he who endures to the end shall be saved…. “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. ~Matthew 24:9-16
Then Jesus tells the Jews that “He who endures to the end of the Tribulation period, will be saved. Finally, giving the Jews specific instructions on what they should do when the see the “abomination of desolation,” the antichrist entering the temple and demanding worship as God. Jesus told the Jews: “Flee to the mountains…”
The Context Of Paul’s Two Letters To The Church At Thessalonica
When we examine the context of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, we find that Paul began this paragraph with a definition. He is speaking of things that will occur during the “Day of the Lord,” a clear reference to the seven year Tribulation. He calls this time: “sudden destruction,” and then states that those who are a part of Jesus church, are not living is darkness so that this time should overtake us like a “thief.”
Finally, Paul closes this text with the words: God did not appoint us to experience this wrath that he has been describing in the Tribulation period. God has appointed us to salvation, to be saved from this wrath and all wrath. Finally, he leaves the discussion with the words: whether we are alive (wake) or are dead (sleep), we will live together with Jesus. This is a clear reference to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, where the Rapture is described.
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. ~1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
A final question that must be answered, regarding the seven year Tribulation period is: What is the real purpose of this time in history?
As we examine the Book of Daniel, where God tells the prophet that “seventy-weeks are determined,” we find that the 70th week, the final seven year Tribulation period, is not directed at Jesus church; it is specifically ordered by God for the nation of Israel and the Jews.
“Seventy weeks are determined For your people and for your holy city, To finish the transgression, To make an end of sins, To make reconciliation for iniquity, To bring in everlasting righteousness, To seal up vision and prophecy, And to anoint the Most Holy. Daniel 9:24
When the “Times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled at the coming of Jesus for His church, God will turn His attention from the church that He has been gathering for Jesus—back to the nation of Israel. It is at this time (the seven years) that God will again deal with Israel and open their eyes to the fact that Jesus is their Messiah. Then they will look upon Him and mourn, as for an only Son.
“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn. Zechariah 12:10
The Tribulation is not for the church, it is for Israel—for their salvation, and to judge the world who has rejected Jesus as their Savior. This is not a time for those who love Jesus and who have been trusting Him for their salvation.
The Pre-Tribulation Rapture Was Taught During The Entire Church History
One of the false statements that has been made in recent years, regarding the occurrence of the Rapture, is the assertion that this is a relatively new doctrine in the Christian church, that was not taught by the early church. This, they assert, is evidence that the Rapture is not taught in the Bible and is a later addition that was added by pastors in the 1800’s. The facts of history disagree with this theory. When we examine the writings of the early Christian church, we find that the Rapture, before the Tribulation, was widely taught in the church.
The Shepherd of Hermas (96-150)
Here we see that in the first century, the leaders of the Christian church were teaching the doctrine of the Rapture to the people. The Tribulation is described, with the possibility of those who truly love and serve Jesus, as escaping this period of history.
“You have escaped from the great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life serving the Lord blamelessly.”
Victorinus ( 270-303 A.D.)
In his commentary on the book of Revelation, Victorinus describes the church as being removed from the earth, before the Tribulation begins.
“And the heaven withdrew as a scroll that is rolled up.” For the heaven to be rolled away, that is, that the Church shall be taken away. “And every mountain and the islands removed from their places intimate that in the last persecution all men departed from their places; that is, that the good will be removed, seeking to avoid persecution.
Ephraem of Nisibis (306-373)
One of the early church’s most prolific writers from the Eastern Byzantine church, Ephraem clearly taught a pretribulational rapture for the church.
“We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled, and there is not other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of hte Roman kingdom. Why therefore are we ovvupied with wordly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that He may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms the world? Believe you me, dearest brothers, because the coming of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it it the very last time. Or do you not believe unless you see it with your eyes? See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares: “Woe to those who desire to see the Day of the Lord!” Because all saints and the Elect of the Lord are gathered together before the tribulation which is to about to come and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins. And so brothers, most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of this world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their earth exists with blind infidelity, arriving at its downfall early. Commotions are brought forth, wars of diverse peoples and battles and invasions of the barbarians threaten, and our regions shall be desolated, and we neither become very much afraid of the report nor ofthe appearance, in order that we may at least do penance; because they hurl fear at us, and we do not wish to be changed although we at least stand in need of penance for our actions!
Other Early Church Leaders Who Taught The Doctrine Of The Rapture:
- Papias (60-130)
- Clement of Rome (90-100)
- Ignatius of Antioch (98-117)
- Barnabas (100)
- The Didache (100-160)
- Justin Martyr (110-165)
- The Epistle of Barnabas (117-138)
- Irenaeus (120-202)
- Tertullian (145-220)
- Hippolytus (185-236)
- Cyprian (200-250)
- Lactantius (260-330)
We must also add to this list, the fact that Paul was teaching all of the churches in Asia, during the first century, that the Rapture would occur before the time of Tribulation begins. This is the clear text of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4; supported by dozens of other scriptures from the entire Bible.
The preceding is from the new book: “Dead or Alive,”