My brother recently pointed me to a 3-part series that LifeChurch.TV is undertaking on the end times. Let me say first that I appreciate much of what Craig Groeschel in this message. He is absolutely correct that the return of Christ should be a topic of extreme encouragement and joy for believers. On this point pastor Craig and I agree, and as brothers in Christ we both hold in common this essential and unifying truth.
The primary text for the message is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. It reads:
“¶ But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1Thessalonians 4:13–18 ESV)
Groeschel divides the passage into three parts: 1) The Return of Christ; 2) The Rapture; 3) The Reunion
1. The return of Christ: According to Groeschel, verses 13-16 refer to the second coming. This is no doubt true. Christ will return with a “shout of command”, the “voice of the archangel” and the “trumpet of God.” This is a loud and highly visible event. Christ will return and the dead will rise. Groeschel also rightly connects this to John 14.3, where Christ promises that he is going to prepare a place and will return for his people.
With regard to the resurrection of the dead, Groeschel indicates his view that there will be two resurrections and two judgments. The two resurrections are those of believers at the rapture, and unbelievers later. The two judgments are the Bema seat of Christ (Christians) and the great white throne judgment (unbelievers).
With regard to resurrections, he appeals to Revelation 20, where you have the first resurrection and the second death. “Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection, the second death has no power over them.” The problem with this reference, however, is that it cannot refer to the resurrection at a pre-trib rapture. If Revelation 20 is talking about a future millennium, the resurrection mentioned is a resurrection after the battle of Armageddon just before the thousand years. More likely, the first resurrection in Revelation 20 actually refers to those who have died in Christ and are seated with him in heaven, having received the “crown of life.” Whatever the case, the first resurrection of Revelation 20 cannot be the pre-trib resurrection of believers at the rapture.
Groeschel will discuss his view of the two resurrections in more detail in his second message, so we will address it then. Suffice it to say that the New Testament seems very clear that there is only one judgment and one resurrection, which both happen at the second coming of Christ:
“¶ “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:31–33 ESV)
Even in 2 Thessalonians in a context very close to the passage under discussion, only one coming and judgment is indicated. It states,
“¶ This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”(2 Thessalonians 1:5–10 ESV)
It is when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his angels that he will BOTH judge the ungodly and grant relief to believers. Only one coming and judgment is indicated. Groeschel’s second point has to do with the rapture.
2. The Rapture. Groeschel defines the rapture as that moment when “living Christians are taken away.” He says that the one of the primary reasons he believes in a pre-tribulational rapture has do to the Greek word “harpazo” (caught up), which he contends primarily carries the idea of being rescued. Harpazo is used 14 times in the New Testament, and in the vast majority of cases it simply means to snatch away (often in a violet sense; see Matt 11:12; 12:29; 13:19; John 6:15; 10:12, 28–29; Acts 8:39; 23:10; 2 Cor 12:2, 4; 1 Th 4:17; Jude 1:23; Rev 12:5). The closest use to the present passage is that of 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, where Paul says he was “caught up into the third heaven/paradise.” The idea of rescue is not present here. In two instances (Jude 23 and Revelation 12:5) where the idea of rescue is present, it is not the word itself that carries that connotation, only the context surrounding the word. In 1 Thess. 4, however, there is no mention of a tribulation to be rescued from, rather it is a joyous occasion when Christ returns for his people. Thus there is no need to force the word to mean rescue. It simply means what it always means, to take up or snatch away. The when and the why are not found in rescue from tribulation, but rather in the final and global (not secret) coming of Christ.
Another passage Groeschel uses to support his view of the rapture is Matthew 24; however, it seems apparent that this passage is referring to Christ’s final coming at the last judgment. Verses 23-45 say:
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.
For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. ¶ “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. ¶ “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
¶ “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:23–45 ESV)
Thus, this is a time of judgment as in the days of Noah. It is the time when the son of Man’s coming will be as lightning across the sky AFTER the tribulation of those days. Also, it is also more likely that those who are “taken away” are parallel to those “swept away” in judgment during the days of Noah. It was actually Noah and his family who were left, and the ungodly being judged who were “taken away.” In any case, most commentators rightly hold that Matthew 24 cannot be about a pre-trib rapture, but rather describes Jesus’ final coming. In the same way, 1 Thess 4 is not about a secret rapture of the church (after all it involves a loud cry, the voice of the archangel and the final trumpet!), but about the second coming of Christ where all will be judged, some to everlasting punishment and some to everlasting life.
One more thing should be said. Those who are “caught up” are also said to “meet the Lord” in the air. This idea is “meeting” is not an uncommon term. It was used of Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom (Matt. 25.6; see also Acts 28:15). When they met him, did they go away with him, or return with him to the city? The word often refers to the processional that would meet a someone important on his/her way into the city, and then to return with him in celebration. This seems to be the most likely sense here. God’s people are caught up to meet him, and then return in victory with all those who have died in Christ.
3. the Reunion. Groeschel’s final point demonstrates the essential commonality we hold as believers. Christ will return. He will make all wrongs right. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and we will be reunited with him forever. These are certainly words we as Christians can and should encourage one another with.
In the meantime, however, let us seek diligently to understand the details of Christ’s return, as John promises in his Revelation, “blessed is the one who reads and those who hear the word of this prophecy, and those who keep all the things which are written in them, for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
Christ will return, and upon his return he will judge the living and the dead. All will be raised, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting torment. Yet the one who endures to the end will receive the crown of life and be saved. Let us endure. Maranatha!