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Israel and the Church in Prophecy

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

A Biblical Discourse on the Pre-tribulation Rapture

For the correct understanding of the Bible, and especially end-time prophecies, Israel and the church should be clearly distinguished from one another. The prophetic future of Israel as a people is fundamentally different to that of the church. Israel are restored to their land in unbelief where they will conclude a covenant with the false messiah and pass through the time of Jacob’s trouble under his reign. This will be a worldwide time of tribulation and divine judgements upon all unbelievers. A remnant of Israel will be saved from the seven-year distress when they see the true Messiah set foot on the Mount of Olives. After that, they will be the leading nation in the Messiah’s thousand-year reign of peace on earth.

The disciples of the Lord Jesus among all nations, that is the true church of Christ, are not destined for the time of antichristian tribulation and divine judgements upon unbelievers, and will escape it by way of the rapture. Since they will be caught up to heaven as a united group the first resurrection, which is only for believers, will take place shortly before the rapture. The living saints will get new bodies without dying. Immediately after that, all the saints will by caught up with glorified bodies to appear before the judgement seat of Christ, receive their rewards and be united with Him as the bride of the Lamb. During the subsequent seven years they will be around the throne when the Lamb will judge the world in righteousness. At the end of the seven years they will return to the earth with Christ where He will destroy the enemies of His kingdom, save the remnant of Israel and the nations, and establish His reign of peace on earth.

The purpose of this article is to show the differences between Israel and the church. In the light of these facts it will be evident that there will be s seven-year period of Israel’s divine history during which God will allow great distress upon Israel and the equally unbelieving nations. There is not a single prophecy which indicates that the church will pass through this seven-year period. For that reason, Christ will remove His bridal congregation from earth before the start of this dark period in the history of the world.

The biblical knowledge needed to make a clear distinction between Israel and the church is a condition for the correct view about the rapture, as well as its right place in God’s plan for the ages. When people are unable to understand these differences the rapture is first moved to a wrong place and later denied and rejected. Certain promises, e.g. on the end-time restoration to their own land, were only given to Israel, while other promises, e.g. on the rapture, were only given to the true church of Jesus Christ.

The dispensation of Israel

The divine history of Israel started four thousand years ago at the calling of Abraham. He was the first Hebrew (Gen. 14:13); consequently, his descendants through Isaac and Jacob were called Hebrews (Ex. 2:11) who also speak the Hebrew language (Acts 22:2). A “Hebrew” means “Someone who has crossed over.” It refers to the fact that the Hebrew people crossed over from the heathendom to God’s kingdom. I a literal sense, Abraham, after his calling, crossed the Euphrates River to a land which God had promised to him and his descendants.

Later, when Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” (Gen. 35:10), his descendants in the twelve tribes were referred to as “Israelites” (“Warriors for God” – Gen. 49:28). Several centuries later, the same people acquired a third name when they became known as “Jews.” One of the twelve tribes of Israel, i.e. Judah, became the royal tribe. The first king from this tribe was David, from whose descendants the Messiah-King, Jesus, was born. After the death of Solomon, Israel became divided into two kingdoms comprising the southern kingdom of Judah (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) and the northern kingdom of Israel, comprising the other ten tribes. In course of time, members of the southern kingdom were called “Jews” (2 Kings 16:6).

The division of Israel into two kingdoms was terminated by the Assyrian captivity of Israel and the Babylonian captivity of Judah. During their captivity, members of the twelve tribes became reunited and were restored to their land as a united people composed of twelve tribes. Since that time they were called both “Jews” and “Israelites” even to this day (see Ezra 6:8,16-17,21; Neh. 1:6; 4:1; Jn. 3:1,10). The name “Hebrews” also still applies to them as a third name. Paul says: “I am indeed a Jew (Acts 22:3)… I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham (Rom. 11:1)… a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5).

Not one of these names can be transferred to the New Testament church, and we cannot even in a spiritual sense refer to ourselves as “Israel.” The “true Israel” or the “spiritual Israel” refers to saved Jews who are also circumcised in their hearts. Only they are in the true (spiritual) sense of the word “Israelites” or “Jews” who qualify to be described as the people of God. The Lord is not pleased with the unsaved members of this people and has pronounced His judgements upon them (1 Cor. 10:5). For this reason, He says: “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). This distinction is made spiritually: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29).

In Israel there is, like in all other peoples, only a small minority true children of God who are on the narrow way while the majority are spiritually dead and children of the devil (Jn. 8:39-44). Because of their descent, the majority are still called Jews or Israelites but it has no spiritual significance to them. Ultimately, only the spiritual remnant of Israel will be counted worthy to inherit God’s promises that were made to His covenant people (see Rom. 9:27). God made the promises to Israel within the context of several covenants.

Never in the entire history of Israel was there ever the slightest doubt about the validity of the promises that God made to the founding fathers of this nation. The Lord Himself was, and still is, the guarantor of the Abrahamic (Gen. 15:18), Canaanitic (Num. 33:51–34:15) and Davidic (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Ps. 89:3-4, 34-37) covenants which ensure the eternal allocation of the land as well as the permanence of David’s throne. Israel’s exile from the land because of disobedience cannot invalidate these covenants. Even if Israel is unfaithful, God remains a faithful covenant-keeping God who will again restore the nation to their land.

A solemn assurance to this effect was given long before the Babylonian captivity and the international diaspora: “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them: for I am the LORD their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God: I am the LORD” (Lev. 26:44-45).

Daniel 9:24-27 describes Israel’s divine history since the end of the Babylonian captivity to the start of the Messiah’s reign of peace within the chronological framework of 70 year-weeks. During this time, two messiahs will play prominent roles – the true Messiah and the false messiah:

“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. Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off; but not for Himself; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end of it shall be with a flood, and till the end of the war desolations are determined. Then he [the false messiah] shall confirm a covenant with many for one week; but in the middle of the week he shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate, even until the consummation, which is determined, is poured out on the desolate” (Dan. 9:24-27).

This is one of the clearest pronouncements in the Bible on the dispensational position of Israel since the time of their restoration from the Babylonian captivity in the 5th century BC until the dawn of the Messianic kingdom. A first remark on the 70 weeks (or year-weeks) is that they refer to an exact period. A year-week is seven years long: “Six years you shall sow your field… but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the Lord (Lev. 25:3-4). After every seven year-weeks, the 50th year, which is the first year of the following week, is celebrated as a jubilee (Lev. 25:8-10).

Modern Israel has re-instituted their biblical year-weeks and in these cycles orthodox Jews celebrate every seventh year as a sabbath. Their present year-week started on 1st Tishri 2001 (September 2001 on the Gregorian calendar) and will be followed by the next year-week on 1st Tishri 2008. Israel observes a lunar calendar in which each month starts with the new moon and every year on the 1st Tishri (referred to as the Rosh Hashanah). Tishri is the first month on Israel’s civil calendar, but the seventh month on their religious calendar (Lev. 23:24). The latter commences in the spring month, Nissan, referring to the new life that dawned for Israel during their exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:2). Since a complete lunar cycle until the next new moon is only 29½ days, a year on the lunar calendar is 354 days long – 11¼ days shorter than a seasonal (or solar) year. Because of this, Israel often have leap years to which a 13th month is added. In this way they harmonise their calendar with seasonal years as Tishri, in the northern hemisphere, should always coincide with autumn when it is harvest time in Israel, being a winter rainfall area.

However, the seventy year-weeks of Daniel are neither solar years nor lunar years, but 490 prophetic years of 360 days each (see Rev. 11:2-3, 12:6 and 13:5 which refers to the two halves of the 70th year-week as 42 months and also as 1260 days, being months of 30 days each). In connection with the prophetic period of 70 year-weeks, we should clearly note the following facts:

·       The 70 year-weeks started when the decree was issued to rebuild Jerusalem.

·       The period was interrupted at the end of the 69th week when the Messiah was rejected.

·       The 70th week will commence when a covenant is concluded with the false messiah.

·       Israel will revoke their covenant with the false messiah in the middle of the 70th week.

·       The 70 year-weeks will only be concluded when the whole Israel is saved after being individually and nationally reconciled to the Messiah.

When clarity has been obtained about the conclusion of this period, all unbiblical interpretations are nullified. Few people would argue about the beginning of the 70 year-weeks as being the decree by Xerxes in 445 BC that Jerusalem was to be rebuilt by the Jews who were in exile (Neh. 2:1). However, many conflicting assumptions are made about the consummation of the 70 year-weeks. Some people attempt to conclude the entire period of 490 prophetic years at the crucifixion of Christ, while others view the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as the end of the period. We should always observe the following conditions that will prevail after the final fulfilment of this prophecy, and these promises will only be fulfilled after the second coming of the Messiah and Israel’s national reconciliation to Him:

1.      At the end of the 490 years God will finish the transgression of Israel when they will make an end of sins by virtue of the Messiah making reconciliation for iniquity. The verb kala means to bring something to an end, to finish it. Israel’s sin of disobedience will be brought to an end at the Messiah’s second coming: “In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1). The atoning work that was in principle done at Calvary will then, in practice, be accepted in faith by the entire Israel. On that day, the remnant of Israel will look on Him whom they have pierced and mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son (Zech. 12:10). “The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:26). After this event, the whole nation will be reconciled to God and serve Him with a pure heart (Jer. 32:38-40). A situation like this has never prevailed during the long history of Israel, and clearly indicates that the 70 year-weeks have not yet expired. The presently restored Israel (except for a very small minority of Messianic Jews) reject Jesus as Messiah as clearly as their forefathers of the first century did. A comprehensive national reconciliation with the Messiah should occur before the following prophecy will be fulfilled: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts: and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:31-34; emphasis added).

2.      After Israel have been reconciled to God, everlasting righteousness will be brought in to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy. The phrase “everlasting righteousness” literally means “righteousness of ages” and is a prophecy that God will establish an age characterised by righteousness. This is a reference to the millennial kingdom (Is. 60:21; Jer. 23:5-6). God will also “seal up vision and prophecy.” All that God through the prophets said He would do in fulfilling His covenant with Israel will be fully realised after the 70 year-weeks in the millennial kingdom. The remnant in Israel will then all be saved and restored in their land, and the Messiah will rule over the whole world from the restored throne of David in Jerusalem. This situation clearly does not prevail yet. Until all these prophecies are finally fulfilled they remain unsealed. When the “Anointed One” (the Messiah) has come God will “anoint the Most Holy.” His servants, the seat of government in Jerusalem, as well as the millennial temple, will be holy to the Lord.

Since the year-weeks are recognised units of time in Israel’s chronology we are here dealing with a very literal and exact prophecy. From the going forth of the command to restore Jerusalem, seven year-weeks have elapsed until the city, the temple and the wall around the city were built. Subsequently, another 62 year-weeks of troubled times elapsed during which Jerusalem was occupied and further expanded until the coming of the Messiah. In total, 69 year-weeks have elapsed until the Anointed One would be cut off (the crucifixion of the Messiah).

History indeed proves that 69 year-weeks (483 prophetic years) have elapsed since 1 Nissan 445 BC when King Artaxerxes granted permission to Nehemiah on to rebuild Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1-8), until the crucifixion of Messiah on 14 Nissan 32 AD. The period of 483 prophetic years of 360 days each represents 173 880 days. If this number is divided by 365¼ it equals 476,06 years on our Gregorian calendar. On this calendar, the period of 69 year-weeks elapsed between 23rd March 445 BC and Friday, 11th April 32 AD, and was terminated on the day when Jesus was crucified. All that then remained in the divine history of Israel as a nation until the dawning of the Messianic reign was seven years – the 70th year-week of Daniel, when Israel will conclude a covenant with the false messiah.

It is obvious that the rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah would interrupt Israel’s divine history. Jesus told the Jews that their house (Jerusalem) would be destroyed and become desolate because they rejected Him as their promised Messiah-King (Mt. 23:37-38). In consequence, He would leave them until a future time when they will accept Him as their Messiah: “For I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!’” (Mt. 23:39).

Before Israel would be restored to their land, with an own government that can take decisions on the rebuilding of the temple and conclude a national covenant with the Messiah or the false messiah, they would first, for a long time, be dispersed among the nations while the time of Gentiles takes its course. Jesus said to them that they would “be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). This clearly implies that, in the last days, Israel would be restored to the land which God gave to their fathers: “Thus says the Lord God: Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land” (Ezek. 37:21). The Jewish population of Israel has grown to 5,4 million in 2004, which is almost the same figure as that of the American Jews. By about 2007, Israel will have the largest Jewish population in the world. That will constitute an important demographic turning point as Israel will then, since the start of the Diaspora in AD 70, have the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world. According to orthodox rabbis, the Israeli government will only then be in a position to take binding decisions and conclude covenants on behalf of all Jews.

Seven years before the second coming of the Messiah Israel will, during the 70th year-week, conclude a covenant with the false messiah. Jesus clearly warned them against this serious mistake: “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive” (Jn. 5:43). It is clear that the interruption in the 70 year-weeks followed on the rejection of the Messiah, and will last until the day when Israel concludes a covenant with the false messiah. On that day, the countdown of the last seven years of their divined history before the start of the Messiah’s millennial reign will begin.

We are now living in the time of the progressive restoration of Israel and their capital city, Jerusalem. That is a clear indication that the 70th year-week of their divine history since the end of the Babylonian captivity will soon begin. According to Daniel 9:26-27 it will take effect when a “prince who is to come” (the Antichrist, or false messiah), will conclude a covenant with Israel and many other nations. His appearance will probably coincide with the prophesied Russo-Arab war in Israel (Ezek. 38-39), in which he will claim credit for the victory. At a critical moment, he will come to the rescue of Israel and will also be praised by all nations for having averted a threatening third world war and an international economic collapse.

These highly dramatic events will greatly influence the Jewish people, their government and their religious leaders. They will become even more excited when this self-declared messiah claims the throne of David by producing deceptive ‘evidence’ that he is a direct descendant of David. Israel will conclude a covenant with him – thereby officially recognising him as the promised Messiah. He will grant them the right to rebuild the temple and re-institute the sacrificial service, as that would be a clear sign of the continued rejection of the Messiahship of Jesus and His once for all sacrifice on the cross.

During the celebrations that will mark the inauguration of the false messiah, a spiritual revival will occur in which 144 000 Jews will accept Jesus Christ (Yeshua Ha Mashiach) as the true Messiah (Rev. 7:4) and outrightly reject their government’s covenant with Satan’s “angel of light.” Their public stand against the false messiah will lead to severe persecution against them. The false peace of the Antichrist will only last for 3½ years. In the middle of the week of seven years he will enter the Most Holy place of the rebuilt temple and declare himself to be God (2 Thes. 2:4). An image of him will be placed in the Holy of holies and all people everywhere commanded to worship his image (Rev. 13:14-15). Israel’s sacrificial service will then be terminated: “In the middle of the week he shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations there shall be one who makes desolate” (Dan. 9:27).

Israel will be greatly disillusioned when they realise that they have been worshipping a false messiah who pretends to be God Himself. They will immediately terminate their covenant with him. On that day the Jews will have to flee for their lives as the false messiah will perpetrate genocide against them (Mt. 24:15-22). Daniel also refers to this terrible time of persecution, when flattery will also be used to deceive many Jews:

“And forces shall be mustered by him [the false messiah], and they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits. And those of the people who understand shall instruct many; yet for many days they shall fall by sword and flame, by captivity and plundering. Now when they fall, they shall be aided with a little help; but many shall join with them by intrigue. And some of those of understanding shall fall, to refine them, purge them, and make them white, until the time of the end; because it is still for the appointed time. Then the king shall do according to his own will: he shall exalt and magnify himself above every god” (Dan. 11:31-36).

This arrogant leader “shall come to his end, and no one will help him” (Dan. 11:45). The true Messiah will destroy him during His second coming (2 Thes. 2:8; Rev. 19:19-20). That will bring about a sudden end to his seven year reign of terror and thus also the end to the 70th year-week of Daniel.

From the prophecies on the 70 year-weeks of Israel’s history before the Messiah’s reign it is evident that Israel would “cut off” the true Messiah at the end of 69 year-weeks, thereby rejecting God’s divine plan for the nation, become dispersed from their land, and that, just before the start of the 70th week, they would be back in their land in great numbers to conclude a covenant with the false messiah. These prophetic events indisputable underscore he fact that the entire 70th week will be an integral part of Israel’s divine history and thus not a part of the church dispensation. The church dispensation, which coincides with the temporary rejection and long international dispersion of Israel, must first be concluded before the 70th year-week can commence.

At the end of the 70th year-week there will be a highly dramatic intervention by God in the history of the Jewish people. It will prevent the false messiah’s attempted annihilation of Israel and lead to their salvation by being reconciled to the Messiah when He comes. Everlasting righteousness will then be brought to Israel, and all of them will serve God with one accord through the Messiah. The culmination of their divine history will occur during the subsequent thousand year-reign of the Messiah. All nations will seek their favour as it will be evident that God is with them in a very special way (Zech. 8:22-23).

The 70th year-week will be just as literal as the first 69 year-weeks between Israel’s restoration from the Babylonian captivity and the rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah. The Bible clearly states that the last year-week will be counted in years (7 years, or 2X3½ years), in months (2X42 months) and even in days (2X1260 days). The only unknown factor is the time when the church dispensation will be terminated by the rapture, leading to the revelation of the Antichrist and his seven-year covenant with Israel and the nations. The advanced stage of Israel’s restoration in their land since the budding of the fig tree in 1948, as well as Jerusalem’s constitutional restoration in 1980 as Israel’s capital city, are indicators that the final year-week is at hand.

Dispensation of the church

With the birth of Jesus the Messiah did come, subsequently offering the opportunity to Israel to enter the Messianic era should they accept Him as their Messiah-King. However, that did not happen and “the Anointed One [was] killed, His kingdom still unrealised” (Dan. 9:26; Living Bible). He came to His own people, and they did not receive Him (Jn. 1:11). Because of their national rejection of Jesus as Messiah, God’s watch in Israel’s divine history had stopped. Consequently, a very long gap ensued between the 69th and 70th year-weeks, during which the kingdom of God was established mainly among the Gentile nations.

After His resurrection, Jesus commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations on earth (Mk. 16:15). The ensuing period is referred to as the times of the Gentiles (Lk. 21:24), not the time of Israel, as the non-Jewish world would then get an opportunity to be saved. Individual Jews are also saved during this period, but as a people they would remain rejected and dispersed. This situation would prevail until the end of the church dispensation when Israel and Jerusalem would be restored and the last generation take its course up to the start of the 70th week of Daniel: “And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24; cf. Rom. 11:25). From this Scripture it is evident that there will be a time of restoration for Jerusalem and its inhabitants in order that the last year-week before the coming of the Messiah can be fulfilled.

The church dispensation was a mystery that was not revealed to Daniel. That is the reason why he did not refer to it and described the 70 year-weeks as a seemingly continuous period. The long time of Israel’s spiritual blinding because of their rejection of the Messiah was also a mystery that was not revealed to Daniel. These mysteries were revealed to Paul: “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:25-26). After the period of world evangelisation Israel will, as a people, enter the kingdom of God by all accepting the Messiah-King.

Although individual Jews can be saved and thus become members of the body of Christ during the church dispensation, the people of Israel, as a nation, would remain dispersed and spiritually blinded until the end-time. In Romans 16:25, Paul says that the mystery of the preaching of Jesus Christ to all nations was kept secret since the world began (cf. Col. 1:26-27). None of the Old Testament prophets knew about it. Another mystery of the church dispensation is the promise of the glorification and catching away of the true church. Those who died in Christ will receive glorified bodies during the first resurrection, while the living believers will be changed from corruptible to incorruptible beings in the twinkling of an eye (1 Cor. 15:51-53). Immediately afterwards, they will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thes. 4:16-17).

These mysteries that were revealed in the New Testament, are only applicable to the church dispensation. The formal start of this dispensation was during the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. After the Lord Jesus was rejected by Israel and delivered to the Romans to be crucified, He was buried and rose from the dead on the third day. Before His ascension He commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations (Mt. 18:19). However, they were instructed to wait on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit before starting with their ministry (Lk. 24:46-49). Afterwards, both Jews and non-Jews became members of the hitherto unknown body of Christ among all nations, i.e. the assembly, or church, of Christ. The dispensation of the church will continue until the day when Jesus Christ will take them away to heaven (Jn. 14:2-3).

When the true church, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit, is suddenly taken away, the light of the world will disappear to make way for great spiritual darkness. The false messiah will then be revealed without any resistance and conclude his covenant with Israel and the deceived nations. Paul says: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. And the lawless one [the Antichrist] will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thes. 2:7-8).

The dispensation of the church will, therefore, be terminated by the rapture, immediately to be followed by the revelation of the false messiah and the start of his seven-year long reign on earth. At the end of his relatively short reign of terror the true Messiah will come and destroy the false messiah with a word from His mouth. John says: “And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh” (Rev. 19:19-21).

During the 70th year-week, many people on earth will be saved but that time will not form part of the church dispensation. They will all die as martyrs (Rev. 6:9-11) as they will not enjoy the following promise of the Lord Jesus which was only applicable to the church dispensation: “…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). With regard to the coming tribulation period under the rule of the Antichrist we read: “And it was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And he was given authority over every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 13:7).

Prophetic perspective in the Gospels

The differences between the church and Israel are quite evident from the complementary presentations of the gospel by Matthew and Luke. Matthew presents a typical Jewish perspective; consequently, we should not make the mistake of trying to determine the future of the church in this book. This Gospel was mainly circulated among Jews. Luke, on the other hand, follows a much wider approach, in which the position of the church and the nations is more clearly revealed.

The perspective in Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew was written for the Jews, and has a decidedly Jewish orientation in which the first place in the kingdom of God is often assigned to Jews. Preference is explicitly given to Israel for proclaiming the message of God's kingdom. In the period before the national rejection of Jesus by the Jews, the disciples were ordered to concentrate on Israel and not to go to Gentiles such as the Samaritans (10:5-6), while Jesus said He Himself was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24; cf. 19:28).

In Matthew, a positive stand is taken in support of the law (the Torah) and its relevance as a divine guide for spiritual and moral norms is confirmed (5:18-19). Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it (5:17). The law was fulfilled in the Messiah’s New Testament law of love (22:36-40). “On these two commandments [of love] hang all the Law and the Prophets” (22:40; see also Rom. 13:8-10).

The writer of this Gospel is intent on indicating the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. These two Testaments converge in the Messiah's redemptive work and ministry; therefore, the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets are not abolished but find their final fulfilment in the new covenant of the Messiah. As proof of this relationship Matthew frequently refers to the Old Testament by, among others, 43 quotations and a further 22 allusions. This is done to demonstrate to a sceptical nation that the life and works of Jesus in minute detail fulfil the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

The presentation of facts about the virgin birth and naming of Jesus, His temporary sojourn in Egypt and subsequent stay in Nazareth, the fact that He healed the sick, spoke in parables, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was eventually forsaken by His disciples, is explicitly linked to Old Testament prophecies “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:22; 2:15,23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54). Important facts about His birth in Bethlehem, the unbelief of the Jewish nation and their rejection of Jesus, as well as the fact that He would be betrayed and sold for 30 pieces of silver, are consistently linked to Old Testament prophecies (2:5; 13:14-15; 26:31; 27:9). The quotations from and references to the Old Testament in the other Gospels are not nearly as numerous and extensive as those in Matthew.

As a predominantly Jewish work, Matthew clearly depicts Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. A Jewish genealogy is quoted for Him, which is reckoned from Abraham who is the first Hebrew – and not from Adam, as Luke does. His descent from David is often mentioned and strongly emphasised (1:1,20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9,15; 22:42-45). His genealogy proves beyond any doubt that He is heir to the throne of David and therefore King of the Jews (cf. 2:2). Apart from these facts, His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary fulfils the sublime expectation of the Old Testament prophets of the coming Messiah, thereby rendering Him in a very special sense the Son of His heavenly Father. Because He is God (11:27) He can rightfully claim the title Immanuel – God with us (1:23). The Messiah is portrayed as the ‘Son of Man’ whose coming was prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 7:13-14) and who will, in the end-time (Dan. 12:4), be seated on the throne of His glory to judge the nations (16:27; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64, etc.).

The Messiah’s kingdom is a very common subject in this Gospel. God the Father assigned the rule over His kingdom to His Son, the Messiah, who will sit as King on the throne after His Second Coming (25:34,40). It is clearly described as an eschatological kingdom, which will be established in the end-time when the Messiah comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (24:30).

In keeping with the general approach in the Gospel of Matthew, the prophecies are discussed in such a way that they relate primarily to the future of the (unsaved) Jewish nation. The time frames used for these prophecies are two generations: the first one is the generation following the rejection of Jesus as Messiah (23:34-36) and the other one the generation directly preceding His Second Coming (24:32-34).

The first generation started with Jerusalem (the seat of government and core of the Jewish nation) rejecting Jesus as Messiah, and this generation ended with the destruction of Jerusalem (23:37-38). Prophecies that were fulfilled during the first generation are the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the enemies of Israel, to the extent that not one stone of the temple buildings would be left upon another that would not be thrown down (23:37; 24:1-2). At the end of this generation Jerusalem would become desolate and its inhabitants either killed or dispersed (23:38). These prophecies were literally fulfilled during the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. That happened almost 40 years after the beginning of the church dispensation and serves as a clear indication that God keeps on dealing with Israel as a distinct entity – they were not replaced by the church. Although individual saved Jews become members of the church during this dispensation, does not change the fact in any way of Israel’s unique prophetic future as a nation.

The last generation would start with Jerusalem being restored to the Jews in preparation for another opportunity that they will have, as a nation, to accept Jesus as Messiah. After being rejected by the Jews during His first coming, Jesus said that He would go away but when He returns to Jerusalem, they will accept Him as their Messiah-King: “…for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!’” (23:39). The Jews quote these words from Psalm 118:26 every year in a liturgical prayer during the Feast of Tabernacles, not realising that they actually refer to Jesus as their Messiah.

Jesus told the unbelieving Jews that they would have to face the great tribulation before the Messiah comes again in power and glory (24:21). The end-time will be characterised by the rising of false christs and false prophets (24:4-5,11,24) when a counterfeit Messiah will come to them, pretending to be the true Messiah (24:23-27). It will also be a time of wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes and the severe persecution of God’s people (24:6-7,9).

Matthew devotes a long section to the end-time flight of Jews from Judea to the mountains (24:15-22). He clearly links the starting-point of this event to the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem by the false messiah, as prophesied by Daniel: “…when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place… then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (24:15-16). Daniel (9:27; see also 11:31-39) says that this event will occur in the middle of a year-week (a period of seven years) thereby indicating that the false Messiah will conclude a covenant with Israel for seven years, but in the middle of this period he will desecrate the temple by declaring himself to be God and setting up an image of himself in the Holy of holies.

The Jews who refuse to accept the false messiah in his capacity as self-declared God, will have to flee quickly before his advancing armies. Jesus said they should pray that their flight might not be in winter or on the Sabbath (thereby implicating orthodox Jews), “for then there will be great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world” (24:20-21). The Lord will allow this flight to save the Jews from total annihilation by the false messiah. Those who fled will experience severe anxiety and hardships as they will still be in the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7). At the end of this week of tribulation, the Messiah will return to Jerusalem at His Second Coming (24:29-30). The surviving Jews will then say: “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (23:39).

The perspective in Luke

This Gospel was dedicated to Theophilus, a senior official in Rome, and afterwards distributed in Antioch among a predominantly non-Jewish community. Events in this Gospel are discussed in a chronological order, while Matthew arranged the information according to subjects.

To Luke, the Gospel message has a much more universal application as it is meant for all people regardless of their nationality or class. He does not deny the Jewish context of the Gospel but explicitly indicates the worldwide objectives of preaching the Gospel message. That is the reason why Luke does not offer a Jewish genealogy for Jesus, as in Matthew where His descent is only reckoned back to Abraham, but traces it back to Adam. Christ, therefore, addresses all the descendants of Adam and not only the lost sheep of the house of Israel who are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He became man for all of us, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (19:10).

This approach is evident from the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and also from the rebuking of the Jews because of their intolerance towards the Samaritans (9:51-56). In this Gospel, Jewish people were reproached by the Lord Jesus since nine of the ten lepers whom He healed, all nine Jews, acted ungratefully by not returning to thank or follow Jesus. Only the tenth one, a Samaritan, turned back to glorify God (17:11-19). In Luke 10, seventy disciples were sent out to proclaim the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles. Matthew did not record this incident as the assignment of the 70 was not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

In his prophetic review, Luke not only discusses the fate of the unbelieving Jewish people but he also records prophecies related to the Messianic believers, the non-Jewish Christians and the nations. The first generation escape of Messianic believers from the destruction of Jerusalem, which had been promised by Jesus, is described by Luke (21:20-22) but not by Matthew. Luke then goes on to mention “the times of the Gentiles” (21:24) which would elapse from the first generation until late in the last generation of the present dispensation. This period was not even mentioned by Matthew as he confined himself to the divine history of Israel (the same approach was followed by the prophet, Daniel, who gave no indication of the long break between the 69th and 70th year-weeks in his prophecy on Israel – Dan. 9:24-27).

The restoration of Jerusalem would mark the end of the times of the Gentiles as Jerusalem would be trampled by the Gentiles “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). Luke then proceeds to describe a period of worldwide distress among the nations, leading up to the Second Coming of Christ (21:25-27). The great tribulation is not discussed in any detail by Luke – neither does he mention the flight of the Jews after the desecration of the temple in the middle of the week, as Matthew has done. Luke only summarises the great anxiety and cosmic signs of the tribulation period and then offers a sure way to escape it: “Watch therefore and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36). Matthew did not make mention of this promise of escaping the tribulation since the Jewish people, as a nation, will have to pass through the time of Jacob’s trouble because of their spiritual blindness.

From the different perspectives adopted by Luke and Matthew it is very clear that the promise of escaping the tribulation period is only made to the disciples of Jesus by Luke (21:36). Furthermore, it is obvious that His disciples in the end-time would be mainly non-Jewish (24:47). They are encouraged to live vigilant lives so that they may be worthy to escape the coming tribulation by being removed to the blessed presence of the Son of Man. This title of Christ (the Son of Man) is used more often in Luke and alludes to His position as God-Man for the salvation of all those in the entire human family who believe.

By promising an escape route to both first generation and last generation believers (Lk. 21:20-21,36), Jesus confirms the fact that believers are never judged with unbelievers. As in the days of Noah and Lot, believers must first be removed from disaster area of divine judgements before the wrath of God is poured out upon the wicked.

A final comparison

In Matthew, a further striking feature of the presentation of the prophetic message is that Jerusalem (of which the inhabitants represent the core-group of the unbelieving Jewish nation) is addressed in the first person with a message that directly concerns the Jews. In proclaiming first generation prophecies, Jesus said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I wanted to gather your children… but you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate” (Mt. 23:37-38). The same approach is followed in last generation prophecies: “When you see the abomination of desolation (the false messiah desecrating the temple)… flee to the mountains… Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ [Messiah] or ‘There!’ do not believe it” (Mt. 24:15-16,23). During the subsequent coming of the Son of Man, all the tribes (nations) of the world will mourn (Mt. 24:29-30). In this way the Jews are told that not only they will mourn for Him whom they have pierced (see Zech. 12:10), but the remnant of the Christ-rejecting nations will do the same. Nevertheless, the primary message in these prophecies is directed to Israel.

In Luke, the prophetic message is not addressed to the Jewish nation in the first person, but to the disciples of Jesus (whether Jew or Gentile). In connection with the first generation destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus said to His disciples: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near” (Lk. 21:20). All references to Jerusalem and its inhabitants are made by Luke in the third person. Even the Gentiles, who are explicitly included in the prophetic scenario, are referred to in the third person as Jesus communicates information about them to His disciples. The Messianic (Jewish) believers are told that their persecution by orthodox Jews will begin before the tribulation period: “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons” (Lk. 21:12). In reviewing the major signs of the tribulation period, Luke does not single out Israel but mentions all the nations: “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity… men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken” (Lk. 21:25-26). But the true disciples of Jesus are assured, in the first person, that “you… will escape all these things… and stand before the Son of Man” (Lk. 21:36). This is definitely not a message to Israel, but to the end-time disciples of Jesus Christ.

In Luke, the end-time scenario is clearly linked to the end of Jerusalem’s trampling by the Gentiles: “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). It needs to be indicated here that biblical Jerusalem (the Old City, also referred to as the City of David) was physically recaptured by Israel in June 1967 during the Six Day War, while its political restoration to its former status as capital of Israel occurred in August 1980. These events ushered in the end-time generation before the Second Coming of Christ (Mt. 24:34; Lk. 21:32).

Taking into account the different prophetic perspectives in Matthew and Luke, the parameters of the two critical generations in the present dispensation between the first and second comings of Jesus are as follows:

The first generation: This generation started with the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah-King and ended with the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The big war by a Roman army caused the death of many Jews in Jerusalem, while the surviving remnant of the inhabitants were taken as captives of war and became dispersed to other nations. During the first generation, Israel and the church coexisted but Israel was gradually phased out as a vehicle for world evangelism due to their rejection of the Messiah, and the church was phased in to fulfil the assignment of evangelising the world.

The times of the Gentiles: The long period between the first and last generations is described as “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24). During this period the entire non-Jewish world (including the dispersed Jews) would get the opportunity to become members of the kingdom of God by accepting Jesus as their Messiah and Redeemer and be born again (Mt. 28:18-20; Lk. 24:45-49).

The last generation: This generation started with the political restoration of Jerusalem by the restored people of Israel. During this generation the church and Israel will initially co-exist, but before its final seven years (the 70th week of Daniel) the church will be phased out by way of the rapture (Lk. 21:36) and Israel as a nation gradually phased in as the spiritually restored people of God. The first phase of their spiritual restoration will be the salvation of 144 000 Jews early in the tribulation period, soon after the rapture, while the whole remnant will be saved at the end of the tribulation period when the Messiah returns to Jerusalem (see Zech. 14:4-5). On that day, the remnant of Israel will say to Him: “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Mt. 23:39; see also Zech. 12:10; 13:1,9).

In connection with the last generation escape of believers (Lk. 21:34-36) Proff. Walvoorrd & Zuck (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 258) say: “Jesus warned His disciples to be ready at all times. Though a believer will be able to anticipate the coming of the kingdom by the signs, it is possible to get so entangled with the affairs of life that some will not be ready for the kingdom when it comes – unexpectedly (Lk. 21:34) and universally (Lk. 21:35)… It was against this wrong attitude that Jesus said, ‘Be careful (v. 34) and be always on the watch’ (v. 36).” The universal nature of the catastrophes of the tribulation is mentioned in Luke 21:25 where it is plainly stated that on the (whole) earth there will be distress of nations, while in Luke 21:35 Jesus says that the sudden coming of the day of the Lord will affect all people on earth: “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” When the heavenly Bridegroom suddenly and unexpectedly takes His bride away, the false messiah will be revealed and the wrath of God poured out over all the inhabitants of the earth. It is in view of these coming events that we must watch and pray that we may be worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass (the worst tribulation and suffering known to humanity) and to stand in the wonderful presence of the Son of Man in heavenly places.

A dramatic rescue operation

Apart from taking the bride away to enjoy the glory of heaven, the rapture also constitutes a dramatic rescue operation in which true believers will be removed from the scene of imminent divine judgement. Although the rapture is a unique occurrence, there are examples in the Bible of times when God poured out His wrath, but provided an escape route to true believers since they were not the objects of His wrath. There has often in history been the evil-inspired persecution of believers but never divine judgements.

In the days of Noah, God announced His judgements upon a wicked and depraved generation: “And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark...” (Gen. 6:13-14).

Shortly before the outpouring of God’s judgements eight believers escaped the disaster area by entering the ark. God Himself closed the door behind them before He judged the wicked who despised God’s way of escape (Gen. 7:11-23).

In the time of Lot another rescue operation took place. The night before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot and his family received an urgent command to depart from the area marked out for judgement. The angels urged Lot to leave Sodom and helped him and his family to do so before they destroyed it. Shortly after their departure, fire and brimstone rained down on the ungodly (Gen. 19:13-25).

The Lord Jesus says that there is a clear correlation between these historical events and God’s end-time dealing with believers and unbelievers: “And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man: They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed” (Lk. 17:26-30; also read Genesis chaps. 6,7&19).

The depravity which characterised the time of both Noah and Lot is typical of the spiritual, moral and social decline of the last days. The minds of those at enmity with God are darkened and they persist in pride and rebellion until disaster and judgement befalls them.

Withholders

Noah and Lot had to remonstrate with the ungodly people of their time with persistent warnings. Christian believers of the church era have an even greater responsibility to fulfil their role as the salt of a corrupt earth and the light of a dark world. The church indwelt by the Holy Spirit is opposing the iniquitous spirit of the Antichrist in advance of his coming: “And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thes. 2:6-9).

“The great and the terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31) will not come prior to the rapture and the subsequent revelation of Antichrist. That awful period of judgement will be preceded by a great “falling away” (2 Thes. 2:3). This Greek term (apostasia) literally means “to depart”. When the truth departs, the lie prevails. When Christians depart at the rapture, spiritual darkness will prevail on earth.

While Christians remain on earth they are expected to make a bold stand for the truth, thus restraining the build-up of antichristian forces. After their departure at the rapture, the Antichrist will be able to take over the world unopposed. A spirit of delusion will then prevail and, as “the man of sin” (2 Thes. 2:3), the Antichrist will display to the entire world a personal example of an utterly amoral, godless life-style.

The Antichrist cannot be revealed until the one who restrains him has been taken out of the way. This role is fulfilled by the church as the body of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Do not attach any credibility to the theory that the rapture will occur in the middle of the tribulation period of seven years. After 3½ years the Antichrist will break his covenant with Israel, desecrate the temple and declare himself to be God (Dan. 9:27, 11:36-37; Mt. 24:15-21; 2 Thes. 2:4). Then Israel will have to flee to the wilderness for survival (Mt. 24:16; Rev. 12:14). This flight to the wilderness in the middle of the seven-year tribulation period is not to be confused with the rapture. It is something quite different.

The unscriptural teaching of a mid-tribulation or a post-tribulation rapture leads to a warped perspective and wrong priorities. Instead of awaiting the coming of Christ, people are awaiting the Antichrist. In this way they compromise their commitment to Christ. Instead of striving for sanctification in expectation of the imminent coming of the heavenly Bridegroom, they start planning an earthly survival strategy for the tribulation period. Such activities are irrelevant as they are motivated by a distorted prophetic vision of future events.

The command to us is not to prepare for the coming of the Antichrist, but for the coming of Jesus Christ! We should remain engaged in His work until He comes. If we are constantly occupied with the work assigned to us by Christ, we will not be on earth when the Antichrist is revealed. People who think that they can calculate the time of the rapture by waiting for the Antichrist to come and then add another 3½ years until the Lord comes, are missing the point and also a very important aspect of the prophecies.

Good news

The rapture is the good news element in a dark scenario of end-time prophecies. Without this promise Christians would be left only with the bad news about the coming of the Antichrist and the tribulation period which they would have to face before Jesus comes. Their chances of surviving all the apocalyptic disasters of the great tribulation and the battle of Armageddon would be slim indeed. A situation like that can be equated to the Flood without the ark, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without any provision for the escape of the believers from the scene of God’s wrath.

Such a situation would be highly demoralising and contradict a clear biblical principle that true believers are never the objects of God’s wrath. “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation…” (1 Thes. 5:9).

People who are cynical about the promise of the rapture and do not heed the exhortation to be prepared to escape the coming tribulation period reveal a very irresponsible attitude. What would have been the consequence for Noah and family (and for the future survival of the entire human race!) if Noah had argued as follows: “God is a God of love and I do not really believe that He will send a flood to judge all people; therefore, I am not going to build an ark to escape this so-called judgement.” Or what would have happened to Lot and his family had he taken the following stand: “I think the prophesied judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah should be interpreted symbolically. I do not have to escape for my life. Even if the disaster does occur I believe that God will protect us from His wrath here in this place.” Similar arguments are often heard today.

The coming judgements during the tribulation period are irrefutable biblical facts. Jesus said there will be great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world (Mt. 24:21), and that we should be ready to escape it. The rapture is part of the good news of the gospel of our Lord Jesus. He came to this sin-drenched world to pay the price for the salvation of sinners. He returned to heaven to prepare a place for us. He will come back to take us away to our heavenly abode. If we are truly born again we will be worthy to escape the horrors of the coming tribulation on earth by way of the rapture. We do not have to despair at the knowledge of what is coming upon the world since there is a wonderful element of good news in the prophetic word.

A correct future expectation

To believe in the pre-tribulation rapture gives us the assurance that we have a truly biblical future expectation. It does not in any way contradict other biblical truths. This end-time perspective honours the Lord Jesus and recognises Him as the key to all prophecy in Scripture, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Christians should remain focused on Him and wait for His sudden appearance – not for the Antichrist’s. Those who deny Jesus Christ will remain behind after the rapture. Having rejected the way of escape and salvation offered by the true Christ, they will have to endure the Antichrist’s dictatorship and the terrible judgements to follow. What they will experience on earth will be a direct result of the seals of God’s wrath being broken by the Lamb in heaven.

Never deny Jesus Christ His central position in biblical prophecies. To expect His imminent return, and to order your life accordingly, is a command which is intended to be a strong, positive motivation to all Christians of all ages. Although He will come at an hour when no one expects Him (Mt. 24:44), we should nevertheless look out for His coming and expect it at any time. That should be the main focus of our lives.

A motivation for steadfastness

The coming of the heavenly Bridegroom will take place during a time of religious compromise and worldliness. There will be a great falling away from the truth of God’s Word. A relatively small group of evangelical Christians will shine like lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15). As in the times of Noah and Lot, the earth will be filled with violence, materialism, and sexual perversion. Unfortunately, the spirit of unrighteousness and immorality will also take its toll among Christians. They will relax their vigilance and make downward adjustments to their spiritual standards: “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12). Some Christians will become backslidden or discouraged in the work of the Lord.

Inactive Christians often compromise their dedication to the Lord and their responsibility to serve Him faithfully. Their spiritual decline may manifest itself in various ways. The most common are, either to abandon the need for sanctification, becoming worldly-minded, enjoying worldly parties and eating and drinking to excess; or to become critical and dictatorial in their relations with other Christians. The Lord Jesus warned against such sinful behaviour and challenged it by using the prospect of His sudden, unexpected return as a positive motivation to remain steadfast to the end: “Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing… But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him… (Mt. 24:45-50).

Correctly determining and prioritising works

The expectation of the coming of Christ before the tribulation period guides your actions in the right direction. You prepare for His coming and not for the coming of the Antichrist. The concept of the rapture explicitly confronts you with your responsibility to give account of yourself before the judgement seat of Christ immediately after being caught up to heavenly places (2 Cor. 5:10). The following crowns will be awarded to the faithful:

·       The crown of rejoicing for soul-winners (1 Thes. 2:19).

·       The incorruptible crown for a holy life (1 Cor. 9:24-25).

·       The crown of life for Christian martyrs (Rev. 2:10).

·       The crown of glory for faithful shepherds (1 Pet. 5:2-4).

·       The crown of righteousness for those who loved the appearing of the Lord (2 Tim. 4:8).

The fact that our works will be judged after the rapture, and that only those with eternal value will be rewarded, is of great significance in helping us to devote ourselves to objectives that are higher than the material things of this perishable world. After conversion our lives should yield the fruit of the Spirit and we should not waste time and resources on earthly things, pleasure or valueless works: “…let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon… Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire” (1 Cor. 3:10-13).

Will you be found a worthy servant or will you stand empty-handed before the judgement seat of Christ on that day, saved as by fire? If you lose sight of the possibility of the Lord’s imminent return you may lapse into complacency, spiritual inactivity, and even into sin: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night… You therefore, beloved, since you know these things beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and for ever” (2 Pet. 3:10,17-18).

The faithful and wise servant keeps himself busy with the work of the Lord, always realising that the time to work for his Master is running out. The Lord Jesus Himself said: “I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (Jn. 9:4). The night of God’s judgements during the great tribulation is fast approaching – then, there will be no religious freedom.

Motivation for holiness

One of the strongest motivations that the promise of the rapture instils into a Christian is that of holiness. As members of the bridal church we should commit ourselves to the challenge of being presented to the heavenly Bridegroom as chaste virgins. That implies the responsibility to be vigilant by not allowing the wicked one to pervert or corrupt our minds and lives (2 Cor. 11:2-3). Jesus Christ gave Himself to sanctify and cleanse the church that He might present it to Himself holy and without spot or blemish (Eph. 5:25-27). We have a distinct responsibility to use the means of grace at our disposal to walk in the ways of the Lord and to become holy in all our conduct (1 Pet. 1:15). “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord” (2 Cor. 7:1). If we abide in Christ, we will have confidence when He appears and not be ashamed before Him (1 Jn. 2:28). Dedicated service to Him not only leads to Holy lives but will also hasten His coming by accomplishing the Great Commission (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

The great significance of the rapture

In the light of all the biblical facts about the pre-tribulation rapture it is clear that this is an extremely important teaching to all believers. There are at least 12 different aspects of the rapture that need to be properly understood and taken account of:

It is a direct intervention by God. The supernatural nature of the rapture, in which millions of Christians will be caught up in the air, will be so clearly an intervention by God that no scientific explanation will ever account for this astounding phenomenon. “The Lord Himself” will remove the saints from planet earth (1 Thes. 4:16).

It is a meeting with the Lord Jesus. When the Lord Jesus descends from heaven with the sounding of the trumpet of God, those who died in Christ will be raised from the dead, while the living believers will be changed in the twinkling of an eye. Together they will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thes. 4:16-17). The unsaved people on earth will not see Him on this occasion.

It is associated with the first resurrection. The rapture is directly related to the first resurrection when all believers will receive glorified resurrection bodies. Those who have died in Christ will be raised first – then the living believers will be miraculously changed while they pass from mortality to immortality without dying (1 Cor. 15:52).

It separates true and nominal believers. Apart from the division that the rapture will effect between the saved and unsaved people in the world, it will also separate born-again believers from the nominal Christians within the professing church (Mt. 25:1-13), many of whom have only a form of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5)

It marks the end of the church age. It is important to consider the rapture in its dispensational context – i.e. at the end of the church age and just before the beginning of the tribulation period, which will be a distinct dispensation with its own characteristics (2 Thes. 2).

It makes way for the revelation of the Antichrist. The rapture is directly related to the revelation of the Antichrist. The true church of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is withholding the Antichrist, who can only be revealed after the church has been taken out of the way (2 Thes. 2:6-10).

It is an escape from divine wrath. The rapture also constitutes a dramatic rescue operation in which true believers will be removed from the scene of impending divine judgements upon earth, since they are not the objects of God’s wrath (1 Thes. 1:10; 5:9; Lk. 21:36).

It is a motivation for steadfastness. There will be a great end-time falling away from the truth of God’s Word. Christians having the hope of Christ’s coming, purify themselves as He is pure (1 Jn. 3:3), and resist any tendency to grow cold in their love for Him (Mt. 24:12).

It is a summons to the judgement seat of Christ. The certainty of the rapture confronts us with the solemn prospect of appearing before Christ at His judgement seat to give account of our lives (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10).

It is a journey to the marriage of the Lamb. After appearing before the judgement seat, believers forming the bride will be united to the heavenly Bridegroom never to be separated from Him again (Rev. 19:7-8; Ps. 45:9).

It is a journey to our eternal home. The Lord Jesus promised that He would return to take the saints away to their heavenly abode in His Father’s house with the many mansions (Jn. 14:2-3). “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9 NKJV). What a wonderful future to look forward to!

It will promote us to be co-rulers with Christ. After the rapture and the tribulation period, the glorified saints will return with Christ and reign with Him as kings on earth (Lk. 19:17-19; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 2:26-27; 5:10).