Who's Coming First, Christ or the Antichrist?
In their final conversation with the risen Savior, it is apparent that the last question on the disciples' minds and lips regarded the timing of His return. That's not what they called it. It's not obvious that they even realized that He was about to leave them anyway. In any case, their focus and wording doesn't match ours so very much, but that's no surprise. After all, they were all ethnic Jews and national Israelites.
Dr. Luke records for us in Acts 1:6b that they asked Jesus, "Lord, will You at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" Well, that question doesn't really point to what we call the rapture, does it? It actually points to the 2nd Advent (the Second Coming; the Return) of Christ; the time when He will establish His Kingdom on earth.
Jesus was noticeably evasive in His answer though. He basically told them that such was none of their business and should not be their focus. Their focus was supposed to be solely on the propagation of the gospel. But why? After all, Jesus had spent 40 days speaking to them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
That conversation occurred just 10 days prior to the very beginning of what you may have heard labeled the "Church Age" (the Age of Grace, or the era of the church). It appears to me that this time period would properly be bookended by 2 events: (1) the baptism of the Spirit on Pentecost at the beginning and (2) the Rapture of Christians at the end. Admittedly, I haven't yet offered any proof of such claims, but have only stated my perspective.
However. Recently―from several different encounters―I have been confronted with questions about the timing of the return of Christ.
Some people claim that such questions are mere distractions. Some feel that it can't be known or that it doesn't even matter. Others obsess over it and imagine that we can predict with exactitude the timing of this great apocalypse.
One thing is certain: we are now much closer to the end than the disciples were when they questioned the Master about this matter. And, much more revelation has been given to us since their inquiry. In fact, specific prophecies are recorded in the New Testament that beg us to delve into this mystery with eagerness and anticipation.
To be honest, for most of my ministry I have only heard one voice speak concerning this matter. Perhaps one should call this voice the uniform belief in the imminent, pre-millinial, pre-tribulational rapture of the bride of Christ; the church. This has been the common and accepted eschatological position of almost every IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) teacher and preacher that I've personally encountered, as well as almost all of the authors I've read and the radio & internet voices to which I've listened.
Once upon a time, I did listen to a whole series of sermons (on CD) by an unknown evangelist who held to a mid-tribulational rapture view. Unfortunately (or fortunately) he was not a very effective spokesman for the theory. His whole argument hung on some linguistic/etymological association between the words Wormwood and Chernobyl. I won't get into that because (to me) it was a laborious, tedious, and absurd proposition (no offense intended).
Rather than argue against mid-tribulational, pre-wrath, post-tribulational, or any other view of the rapture, it seems to me to be most constructive to focus only on why I do hold to a pre-tribulational view of the rapture. (Full transparency: I'm looking at the book, "Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology" by J. Dwight Pentecost*).
At the risk of not being as clear, I choose today to avoid a numerical listing of the reasons why I believe that Christ will come before the Antichrist rises to power. You can find that kind of a presentation in J. D. Pentecost's book for yourself, which I highly recommend.
I am an unapologetic dispensationalist. It seems clear to me from a literal, simple, and consistent reading of the Bible that God has dispensed His grace and has revealed Himself to mankind in differing ways at various junctures in history. Simply put, there was a time when He was primarily using the nation of Israel as His mouthpiece to the world. Now He is using a largely non-Jewish group of people called the church. When He is done working on (and through) the church, He will return to the program He was accomplishing through Israel before they rejected His Son and temporarily lost their spot at the table (or place in the Vine, if you prefer that metaphor). The rapture is the event that ends this current parenthetical dispensation and resumes the 490 year program of Daniel's forecast concerning ethnic Israel. I find no biblical reason for an overlap of the 2 eras.
Daniel's 70th week is presented as the final stroke of God's judgment against Israel. All 7 years of it are negative. All 7 years are aimed at purging Israel of its rebellion against God and their rejection of their Messiah. Of course the 2nd half of it is worse than the 1st, but the whole thing is a time of trouble and tribulation. It is all characterized by God's wrath against His disobedient Jewish children, and by His hatred of their mortal and spiritual enemies. The church fits in neither group and has no place in the program of justice which God has outlined for them. The church is a group of saints called out from both the chosen people of Israel and from the strangers of Ham's and Japheth's descent―belonging to neither.
Christ's return for His bride, the church, is presented in the New Testament as imminent. That is, it could happen at any moment. It is the blessed hope. There are no prophetic signs or perquisites for it. Paul was looking for it. John, James, and Peter recorded prophecies that pointed to its impending nature. There are plenty of signs for the 2nd Advent. But there are none for the rapture. Yet, once the seals of the scroll of Revelation 5 begin to be broken, there will certainly be a ticking prophetic clock. Who can image one man ruling the world, bringing peace between Israel and their enemies, yet simultaneously bringing famine, economic disaster, and destroying all semblance of local peace... and yet there being no understanding of these signs in the minds of God's remnant? It is clear that God's children can't be deceived by antichrists (Matthew 24 & Mark 13). There can be no chronological landmarks from which to count down to something that has been imminent for nearly 2,000 years. If the rapture is supposed to happen midway through or at the end of the 7 year Tribulation Period, then one could logically discover an approximation of the timing of its occurrence, if not the very precise day. The New Testament does not present this event in any way that allows for its placement on a prophetic calendar after some other event. Other events are counted from that day, but never that day from other events.
One of the most persuasive arguments from Scripture is the role of the Spirit of God in this age. His role now is unique. Jesus promised (to His apostles and their followers) an indwelling presence. That presence was given at Pentecost. The Spirit comforts the saints and rebukes the sinners in this age. His presence restrains sin and Satan. But according to 2nd Thessalonians 2, the same Spirit that was given uniquely to the inhabitants of this earth in this era will someday be taken away. In what paradigm of thought is it reasonable to conclude that the Spirit could be taken while the church remains here? His exit marks the beginning of the Antichrist's Satanic conquest. At some point an argument against a pre-tribulational rapture becomes strained and should be abandoned.
It is quite evident to me that while the events of the Tribulation period are occurring on earth, there is a very different and separate program going on in heaven. The judgment seat of Christ (at the least), and according to my view also the marriage and the marriage supper of the Lamb both occur in heaven while Israel is being first unified with and then estranged from the Antichrist here on earth. This certainly separates the resurrection and removal of the church from the resurrection and reestablishment of blessed Israel. Not only that, but the very descriptions applied to the rapture of the church (1st Thessalonians 4:13-18) are completely distinct and different from the events and traits describing the 2nd coming of Christ with His church (Revelation 19:11-21).
One reason (that I had passed over previously but that has come to light in my reading today) for believing that the church will not be present at any point during the 7 year Tribulation Period is that there are no instructions by either Christ or the apostles directed at the church concerning what we should expect or how to respond during the time of the Antichrist. There are plenty of warnings and instructions for Israel, but not for the church. It's hard to imagine that in all the meticulous comforts and reassurances that were offered by the apostolic authors, they would fail (under the inspiration of the Spirit) to address the most significant and most dangerous moment in the church's future. Jesus certainly gave plenty of needed admonitions to the Jews (for example in Matthew 24) in preparation for Daniel's 70th week. Why would neither He nor His apostles help the church out in similar fashion? The silence is deafening and the conclusion foregone.
In conclusion, while there are other peripheral arguments in favor of the resurrection and rapture of the church prior to the rise of the Antichrist, my final entry has to do more with the nature of God than of anything else. Whether you consider Noah, Rahab, Lot, or even King Josiah, it is evidently God's custom, habit, and practice to deliver His precious ones out of the way before He deals harshly with His enemies. Surely this must also be considered when we read of how Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it? He has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain favor and salvation. Fear not. He has gone to prepare a place for you. He will come again and receive you and me to Himself. Where He is, you and I will also be. You and I will never bow under the heavy hand of the son of perdition. We will be delivered body and spirit even as He has already delivered our soul.
"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 to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord will not precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ will rise first: then we who are alive, who remain, 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. Comfort one another with these words." (1st Thessalonians 4:14-18).
Not, "Warn each other of the coming false witness of the Antichrist." No. None of that lingo anywhere. Just this good news of deliverance-in-a-flash. Be comforted! You have nothing to fear, because you won't be here.
* This book was gifted to me 20 years ago by Kevin and Martha Loney.