Second Coming of Christ — Rapture and Return to Earth
The Two Phases of Jesus’ Second Coming
Most believers don’t realize that there are two phases to the Lord’s Second Coming: 1. Jesus’ return for his Church, known as the Rapture, and 2. Jesus’ return to the earth to establish his millennial kingdom. The former is detailed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and the latter in Revelation 19:11-16. A comparison of these passages and other pertinent Scriptures reveal two separate phases of Jesus’ Second Coming that can be distinguished like so:
(Click image for enlargement and clarity)
The Rapture is Imminent while Definitive Signs Precede Christ’s Return to Earth
One of the differences on the list is that the Lord’s return for his Church—the Rapture—can happen at any time once the general season of the end is apparent, meaning it’s imminent, whereas many distinct signs precede Christ’s return to the earth. These signs include, amongst others: the global cataclysm of the Tribulation period itself (Revelation 6-19), the revealing of the antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:1-8), the two witnesses (Revelation 11:1-12) and the institution of the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:16-17). In short, once the Tribulation begins—and it will be obvious when it does—you can be sure that Jesus will return to the earth seven years later.
However, this isn’t the case with the Lord’s return for his Church because, again, it’s imminent and could happen at any time with zero warning once the general season of his return is at hand, which means now (Matthew 24:3-14). Notice what Jesus said:
(36) “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (37) As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
(42) “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (43) But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. (44) So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Matthew 24:36-37, 42-44
As you can see, we are instructed to “keep watch” and “be ready” because Jesus “will come at an hour when we do not expect him.” Interestingly, the Son doesn’t even know the day or hour, only the Father knows (verse 36). We must be “dressed ready for service” and “keep our lamps burning” (Luke 12:35) precisely because the Lord’s return for his Church is imminent. I should add that, while we don’t know the day or hour, we can know the general season via Jesus’ descriptions and, again, that season is now.
Is “The Rapture” Biblical?
While some claim that the word “Rapture” isn’t biblical, it is. It refers to a phrase used in this passage:
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
1 Thessalonians 4:17
‘Caught up’ in the Greek is harpazó (har-PAD-zoh), which means to “snatch up” or “obtain by robbery.” It’s translated in Latin as “rapio” in the Vulgate, which is where we get the English “Rapture.” With this understanding, when the Bridegroom, Jesus, comes for his bride, the Church, he’s going to obtain us by robbing us off the earth!
First Thessalonians 4:13-18 is the most prominent support text for the Rapture, but there’s quite a bit more support:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. (2) My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? (3) And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—(52) in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
1 Corinthians 15:51-52
and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
1 Thessalonians 1:10
What is the “coming wrath” and how does Jesus “rescue” us from it? The coming wrath refers to the Tribulation and the Lord rescues the Church from it via the Rapture.
Notice what Jesus promises the faithful church of Philadelphia:
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.”
“The hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” is referring to the Tribulation period detailed in Revelation 6-19. Jesus doesn’t say he would just protect believers during the Tribulation, but that he’d “keep them from the hour of trial” altogether. Keep in mind that, while the church at Philadelphia was one of seven first century churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3; these seven churches were picked by the Lord because they typify the seven kinds of churches that exist throughout the Church Age. As such, Jesus’ words were to all faithful Christians throughout the ensuing centuries of the Church Age. In fact, since the Rapture and the Tribulation didn’t come at the general time of this message to the church of Philadelphia circa 90-100 AD, the passage must more specifically refer to a future generation of faithful believers.
“Come Up Here”
Further support for the Rapture can be observed in what happens to John in the book of Revelation. Jesus gave John the threefold contents of Revelation at the end of chapter 1: “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (Revelation 1:19). This is the Contents Page of the book of Revelation: “What you have seen” refers to chapter 1 because that’s what John had seen up to that point in the vision while “what is now” refers to chapters 2-3 and “what will take place later” refers to chapters 4-22.
Chapters 2-3 of Revelation cover “what is now,” meaning the Church Age, as noted above. These chapters cover the seven types of churches that exist throughout the Church Age. Chapters 4-22 address “what will take place later” and chapters 4-19 specifically the period of the Tribulation, which involves the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments of God’s wrath that will befall the earth and its inhabitants.
Here’s my point: John was an apostle of the church and right at the beginning of Revelation 4—the beginning of his coverage of the Tribulation—Jesus says to him, “Come up here,” referring to heaven (verse 1). You see? John is representative of the church and just before the Tribulation he is taken up into heaven. Why? Because the church itself will be delivered from the Tribulation via Jesus’ return for his church, which is the Rapture.
Another thing to consider is that the church is referred to no less than nineteen times in the first three chapters of Revelation and not once on earth in chapters 4-19. Why? Because the existing church—all genuine believers—were “snatched up” to heaven before the Tribulation started. Revelation 19 details Christ’s return to the earth at the end of the Tribulation. Guess who’s riding with him? The church (verse 14).
This doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be believers during the Tribulation because there will be multitudes; and, yes, they are the church because ‘church’ simply refers to the ekklesia (ek-klay-SEE-ah), the “called-out ones” who are called out of the darkness of this world into the kingdom of light. However, the existing church at the time of the Rapture before the Tribulation will have been snatched away. In other words, believers during the Tribulation embraced the gospel after the Rapture. We’ll address this in the next section.
A Biblical Pattern
The snatching up of the church before the Tribulation corresponds to the biblical pattern of the righteous being saved from destruction when God’s judgment falls on unrepentant masses. Jesus noted this pattern when he taught on the Rapture:
For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. (25) But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
(26) “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. (27) People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
(28) “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. (29) But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
(30) “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. (31) On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. (32) Remember Lot’s wife! (33) Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. (34) I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. (35) Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
Jesus is talking about “the day the Son of Man is revealed” (verse 30) that “will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other” (verse 24). In other words, it’ll take place in the blink of an eye. The last two verses show beyond any shadow of doubt that Jesus was talking about his snatching up of the church: “Two people will be in bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left” (verses 34-35). This, incidentally, presents a problem for those who argue that the Rapture takes place at the same time as Jesus’ return to the earth at the end of the Tribulation because the impression of these verses is that of ordinary every-day life and not of people who just went through a worldwide cataclysm horrifically described in Revelation 6-19.
Observe in verses 26-29 how Jesus likens the time of the Rapture to the “days of Noah” and the “days of Lot”. “Just as it was” in the days of these two “so it will be” when Christ returns for his church. What’s the significance of this? In the days of Noah and Lot there were warnings of the LORD’s coming judgment on masses of people if they stubbornly refused to repent. In Noah’s situation the judgment concerned the entire world whereas in Lot’s situation it concerned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In both cases the righteous were removed before God’s judgment fell. “So it will be” with the future Tribulation—those in right-standing with God will be taken out of the way before His wrath falls on rebellious humanity. Those who become believers during the Tribulation are those who wisely respond to the pouring out of God’s wrath by repenting.
In verse 30 Jesus says “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.” Just like what? Just like the days of Noah and Lot where people were carrying on business as usual—eating, drinking, marrying, buying, selling, planting and building (verses 27-28). This is what people will be doing when Jesus comes for his church, not enduring a global upheaval, which disproves the post-Tribulation position.
Speaking of the post-Tribulation view, how do people who hold this position explain Luke 17:24-35? They argue that Jesus only speaks of his coming once in this passage, not twice, and when he comes he will 1. snatch up the righteous and then 2. pour out his wrath on the unrighteous, citing verses 26-32. The problem with this, of course, is that it’s an explicit description of the pre-Tribulation position (or, at least, “pre-wrath”). The only thing they’re omitting is Jesus’ return to the earth after God’s wrath is poured out on rebellious humanity to set up his millennial kingdom (Matthew 25:31). As already explained, this is detailed in the book of Revelation: In Revelation 4:1 Jesus says to John—representing the church—to “come up here” to heaven. Chapters 4-19 cover the Tribulation where God’s wrath is poured out and Jesus returns to the earth at the end (Revelation 19).
Here’s a timeline diagram to help visualize these events:
(Click image for enlargement and clarity)
Both the Rapture and Jesus’ Return to Earth are the Parousia
Some people suggest that the Rapture isn’t part of Jesus’ Second Coming and that only his return to the earth should be designated as the Second coming, but Jesus himself spoke of his snatching up of the church as “the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27,37,39) and within this context are clear references to the Tribulation (verses 21-22 & 29). The Greek for “coming” in these passages is parousia (par-oo-SEE-ah), traditionally translated as “advent” in Christian circles as in “the Second Advent of Christ.” This is the same word used to describe the Lord’s coming at the end of the Tribulation in 2 Thessalonians 2:8. Jesus elsewhere referred to this latter coming as “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” (Matthew 16:27 & 25:31). Since the Rapture of the church is clearly separate from the Lord’s coming to the earth—with the Tribulation separating them—and both the Rapture and Jesus’ return to the earth are described in terms of “coming” then we must conclude that they both represent his Second Coming, albeit two phases.
Someone might argue: “But these two phases are separated by several years, how can they both refer to the same Second Coming? Because it’s one coming taking place in two stages. Besides, seven years isn’t that long of a time to the eternal God. Let me put it in perspective: The Bible says that a thousand years is like a day to the Lord (Psalm 90:4 & 2 Peter 3:8), which means that seven years would be like 10½ minutes! So from Jesus’ perspective the Second Coming—both stages—takes place in 10½ minutes. It’s hard to get out of the airport without baggage in that amount of time!
If you or anyone else prefers to designate Christ’s return to earth specifically as his Second Coming, that’s fine with me. I’m not going to argue with you. But this doesn’t change the biblical fact that parousia is used to describe BOTH (1.) Christ’s rapture of the Church and (2.) his return to earth shortly later. Furthermore, consider this: To believers the rapture IS Christ’s Second Coming whereas to the unsaved his return to earth is His Second Coming. So both refer to His Second Coming depending upon the spiritual condition of the individual; they’re just two different phases.
Lastly, notice what this passage says:
so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
As you can see, the verse states that Christ will appear “a second time” — clearly referring to his Second Coming — and then goes on to say that when he appears this “second time” he will “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him,” which is an obvious reference to the Rapture.
“For it will not be, unless the Departure comes First”
Both phases of the Lord’s Second Coming are covered in this passage:
Now, brothers, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to him, we ask you (2) not to be quickly shaken in your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by letter as from us, saying that the day of Christ had come. (3) Let no one deceive you in any way. For it will not be, unless the departure comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of destruction, (4) who opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God or that is worshiped; so that he sits as God in the temple of God, setting himself up as God. (5) Don’t you remember that, when I was still with you, I told you these things? (6) Now you know what is restraining him, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. (7) For the mystery of lawlessness already works. Only there is one who restrains now, until he is taken out of the way. (8) Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will kill with the breath of his mouth, and destroy by the manifestation of his coming;
2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (WEB)
Verse 1 shows that this text concerns the Second Coming, including the church being “gathered together to him,” which is the Rapture. Verse 8 details the second phase of Jesus’ coming, which is when he returns to the earth and destroys the “lawless one”—the antichrist—simply with a word or two from his lips. (So much for Christ being a milksop weakling as he’s often maligned in modern Western culture!) The Greek word for “coming” in both verses is the aforementioned parousia. You see? The Second Coming consists of 1. Jesus’ return for his church and 2. His return to the earth to vanquish his enemies and establish his millennial kingdom.
Verse 3 reveals the sequence of events, emphasizing that the “day of Christ” will not come to pass until “the departure comes first, and the man of sin is revealed.” The “departure” is an obvious reference to the snatching up of the church while the revealing of the “man of sin” refers to the unveiling of the antichrist, a wicked, possessed man who will obtain worldwide power during the Tribulation (Revelation 13:7).
The Greek word for “departure” is apostasia (ap-os-tas-EE-ah) and is only used one other time in the Bible where it refers to departing from the law of Moses (Acts 21:21). Interestingly, the word was translated as “departure” or “departing” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in the first seven English translations of the Bible, which changed when the King James translators decided to translate it as “falling away.” Most modern English versions have followed the lead of the KJV by translating it as “apostasy” or “rebellion,” but the World English Version (above) translates it as “departure.” I believe this is the proper translation for a couple of reasons:
- The verb form of the word is used 14 times in the New Testament where it predominantly means “departed.” Luke 2:37 is a good example where it refers to an elderly prophetess who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying;” Acts 12:10 is another example where it refers to an angel leaving Peter after helping him escape from prison.
- It doesn’t make sense in the context of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 to translate apostasia as “rebellion” or “apostasy”/“falling away.” Concerning the former, the world has always been in rebellion against genuine Christianity (please notice I said “genuine”). Concerning the latter, there’s already mass apostasy in Christendom with whole denominations embracing gross libertinism and rejecting the most obvious biblical axioms. In fact, this has been increasing for decades.
- Translating apostasia as “departure” fits both the immediate context of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 and the greater context of the Lord’s Second Coming in the Bible, the latter of which we’ve already covered. Concerning the former, verse 1 speaks of the Second Coming in terms of the church being gathered to Jesus, which involves believers departing from this earth. And verses 6-8 speak of the “restrainer” of lawlessness, which must be removed before the antichrist can rise to power. Who is this “restrainer” of lawlessness? The most obvious answer is the Holy Spirit and, by extension, the church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). When they depart the earth the antichrist will no longer be restrained in the vacuum and will make his move. Whereas the church will remain in heaven during the Tribulation the Holy Spirit will return as masses of wise people will almost immediately turn to God after the incredible testimony of the Rapture. The Holy Spirit obviously returns because it’s the Spirit who regenerates people through the gospel (Titus 3:5). As noted earlier, untold millions will be saved during the Tribulation (Revelation 7:9,14) through the testimony of 1. the Rapture, 2. the 144,000 Jewish evangelists, 3. the two witnesses, 4. the mass divine judgments, and 5. an angel commissioned to preach the eternal gospel to the inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 14:6-7).
As you can see, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 strongly supports the two phases of the Second Coming and the pre-Tribulation Rapture.
Let me close by stressing that I personally don’t care if the Rapture takes place before the Tribulation, mid-Tribulation or “pre-wrath.” I don’t even care if it takes place at the same general time as Jesus’ return to the earth at the end of the Tribulation. Don’t get me wrong, like any sane believer I have zero desire to go through the Tribulation, but as a responsible minister of the Word of God all I care about is accurately conveying what the Bible teaches and my studies have led me to conclude what’s contained in this article. Bear in mind that I’m a devoted non-sectarian and therefore don’t draw doctrinal conclusions based on the pressure of a certain group. I draw conclusions from the God-breathed Scriptures and, as you see, they overwhelmingly point in the direction of a pre-Tribulation Rapture.
I encourage you to unbiasedly look at the different perspectives in your studies and draw your own conclusions with the help of the Holy Spirit. I recommend David Reagan’s many excellent articles, which can be found at lamblion.com, as well as the great works of Hal Lindsey and Todd Strandberg. Check out the latter’s popular website raptureready.com.
Lastly, all genuine believers who know how to read agree that the Lord will “snatch up” his church when he returns based on the clear passages we’ve looked at in this article, so the Rapture is a biblical fact. It’s the timing of the Rapture that believers disagree on and this is a secondary issue; it’s not something to argue about or break fellowship over. Whether pre, mid, post or pre-wrath, the Rapture will occur.
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