We live in a time when believers are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). This is especially true in regard to the return of Jesus. Today, we face a myriad of differing “schemes” regarding the rapture and other end time events.
How do we find our way in the midst of such confusion? It’s the words of the Bible that keep us grounded in truth.
This is especially true regarding the rapture, the return of Jesus to take us to the place He is preparing for us in His Father’s house (John 14:2-3). Many expositors today combine the rapture with the Second Coming. I believe the Bible teaches that they are separate events.
In making my distinctions between them, I assume a premillennial belief. Without beliefs in a literal seven year tribulation, Jesus return to earth after this time, and the setting of a millennial rule that includes Israel, these distinctions would be not make much sense or even matter.
If premillennialism is true, and it is, then then the following differences between the rapture and second coming passages argue strongly for regarding them as separate events. And not only that, these distinctions point to a considerable length of time between the two.
1. The Place of the Resurrection in the Order of Events
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul emphasizes that the “dead in Christ will rise first.” After raising the dead saints, Jesus catches up living saints to meet him in the clouds. We see this same sequence in 1 Corinthians 15:52: Jesus He first raises the dead in Christ before He does anything else.
In Revelation 20, however, the resurrection of the dead tribulation saints occurs after Jesus’ triumphal return to earth, his defeat of the armies gathered against him, his destruction of the false prophet and antichrist, and the imprisonment of Satan. After all of these events, the Lord sets up thrones on the earth and then raises the dead tribulation saints from the grave (Rev. 19:11-20:6).
The place of the resurrection in the order of events is totally different between passages dealing with the rapture versus those of the second coming. When Jesus comes for his church, He immediately raises the dead in Christ. With the second coming, Jesus raises the saints martyred in the tribulation after several other time-consuming events and does so while firmly situated on earth rather than in the air as He does with the rapture.
2. The Participants of the Resurrection
Not only is the place of the resurrection different in the order of events, but so is the identification of its participants. John identifies those Jesus raises from the dead at his second coming as those killed during the tribulation (Rev. 20:4). When Paul writes about the rapture, he says Jesus will raise up all the “dead in Christ,” not a subset of believers as John specifies in Revelation (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52).
John Walvoord made this point about the difference in participants in the two resurrections of the saints:
It is most impressive that when the resurrection is mentioned in Revelation 20:4, it is specifically limited to the tribulation saints as contrasted to the church. If the tribulation saints were a part of the church, why was not the expression “the dead in Christ” used as in I Thessalonians 4? The fact that this group is singled out for resurrection, as if they were a special body of saints, points to the conclusion that the church had been previously raptured.[i]
3. The Place Jesus Gathers the Saints
In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul states that believers who are alive will be “caught up” with the resurrected saints to meet the Lord in the air. This fits well with Jesus’ description of his return for us in John 14:2-3 where He take us back to his “Father’s house.” He does not come to the earth, but gathers us to himself in the air and then takes us to his Father’s home in heaven.
This differs significantly with passages related to the second coming. Rather than catch us up to meet him in the air, Jesus returns to the earth, defeats his enemies, and sends out his angels to gather both living believers and unbelievers before him for judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). He gathers both believers and unbelievers on the earth.
Do you see how this differs significantly from the rapture passages? Rather than meet believers in the air as He does during the rapture, with the second coming Jesus sends out his angels to gather his elect on earth to another place on earth (Matt. 24:31). Furthermore, it’s likely that the reference to the “loud trumpet” in this verse limits the “elect” to the Jewish people who are called to Jerusalem (Isa. 27:13).
4. The Transformation of Living Believers
In Paul’s 1 Corinthian 15 description of the rapture, Jesus transforms the bodies of believers; He gives them imperishable ones (vv. 53-54). We also see this emphasis in Philippians 3:20-21, where the apostle again states that when the Lord comes for us He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”
In all the passages that speak of Jesus’ second coming, we do not find any reference to such a transformation of living believers. Yes, after his return to earth Jesus sends his angels to gather the elect, but the text does not say He gives them imperishable bodies.
To the saints who survive the tribulation, Jesus invites them to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Mat. 25:34). The text assumes that the living believers go into the kingdom with natural bodies. There is no mention of a transformation of believers here that would surely be the case if it were to happen at this time.
There are three other reasons why we should not confuse the Second Coming with the rapture. We will cover these in part 2.
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[i] John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 38.