Why We Watch

By Dr. John F. Walvoord

About one-fourth of the Bible was predictive when it was written, and obviously divine revelation is intended to alert us of future events with the intent of preparing believers for the events before they happen. Prophecy was never intended to be a contentious subject for people to argue over, but rather a practical subject to alert people to prepare for God's future plan. Much has been lost by misunderstanding and neglect of the prophetic Scriptures.

How Can Prophecy Be Correctly Understood?

In the history of the interpretation of the prophetic portions of the Bible, it is tragic that so many have misunderstood what the Bible teaches. This is first of all evident in the revelation in the Old Testament of the first and second coming of Christ. Though specifics of His coming to die, as well as His coming to reign are given in Scripture accurately as the writers were guided by the Holy Spirit, there is no evidence that anyone understood that there would be two comings, a first coming in which Christ would suffer and die and a second coming in which He would gloriously reign. Jewish interpreters of the Bible wrestled with this and were unable to come to a satisfactory solution. The tendency was, however, to gloss over the passages dealing with suffering and to emphasize the glorious prophecies of Christ's reign on earth such as is found in Psalm 2,72, and 89, and Isaiah 2, 11, 65, and 66, to name a few.

Expectation was high in Israel that when the Messiah came, He would deliver them from the oppression of the Roman Empire and exalt Israel to be a leading nation of the world over whom the Messiah would reign in fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. It is unquestionably true that the disciples followed Christ anticipating His glorious reign not His sufferings and death. If they had understood Christ's sufferings as preceding His glory, it is questionable whether they would have followed Christ but apparently nobody in the gospel period, except Christ himself understood that there would be a first coming in which He would suffer and die and a second coming in which He would reign gloriously.

In following Christ, the disciples confidently expected that He would exalt Israel and give them places of authority and honor. This was confirmed by the statement that they would sit on the throne judging the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:27-28). Christ made it plain that this would be when He sat on His throne of glory but they did not understand that this had to follow His second coming, not His first.

As the time approached when Christ would be crucified, they were repeatedly warned that Jesus would be crucified, die and be resurrected (Matt. 16:21-22; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-33; Luke 9:22,44-45; 18:31-34). The disciples did not receive this announcement with understanding, and so thoroughly erased it from their minds that when Christ actually died, they did not remember His predictions or that He would rise from the dead. By contrast, His enemies remembered and sealed the tomb and sent the soldiers to prevent anyone stealing His body and claim that He was resurrected. It is doubtful that the disciples ever really understood that there was a first coming in which He suffered and died separated by a long time period before His second coming until actually they saw Christ ascending to heaven (Acts 1). That reinforced that His sufferings and death were past and His second coming would feature His glorious reign.

This misunderstanding concerning the difference between the first and second coming and the time interval between is perpetuated in the New Testament in the confusion over whether the second coming includes the rapture or whether the rapture is an earlier event separated from the second coming by a time period.

In the history of the church, it was recognized that the Rapture, the truth that Christ was coming for His saints, is presented as an imminent event but that the Second Coming had certain very specific prophecies that had to be fulfilled first. They struggled with this and the Early Church fathers frequently on one page would say that He could come any day and on the next page that something had to happen first without resolving the problem. There is no clear record of the concept that the Rapture and the Second Coming are two events until the emergence of Ephraem of Nisibis (306-373). A prolific writer, he was copied by others who claimed to be him who stated that the elect will be gathered before the Tribulation and taken to be with the Lord. Though controversy raises some question about this quotation, it seems that there were a few who caught the idea that the Rapture was a separate event. Later this was given widespread interpretation in the Bible conference movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centu- ries. Accordingly, the idea of a pre-Tribulation Rapture separated from the Second Coming by probably more than seven years has been followed by a large number of premillennial interpreters.

From a practical standpoint, however, if Christ is not coming before the Tribulation, His coming is not imminent because obviously there is still Tribulation ahead and prophecies to be fulfilled before the Second Coming. If however, the Rapture is before these events, then it takes on the concept of an imminent return which many believe the Bible teaches. The question of looking for the Lord's return however is therefore preceded by other questions which must resolve the problem of the place in the future events that the rapture of the Church occupies.

Causes for Confusion in Prophetic Interpretation

Because of widespread disagreement as to when the Rapture occurs and what its true nature is, a great deal of confusion is evident in prophetic literature. Many books have been written describing in graphic terms the great Tribulation, climaxing in the second coming of Christ as if the world is already in the process, often totally ignoring the passages dealing with the Rapture. If the Rapture precedes the Tribulation it becomes one of the most prominent, important prophecies which a believer today can understand.

The cause for confusion goes back in the history of the Old Testament as has been previously mentioned, in which the first and Second Coming were considered one event. There is a similar confusion with the Rapture and the Second Coming today. The immediate cause however was the rise of non- literal interpretation of prophecy due to the influence of a school of theology which sprang up in Egypt to Alexandria about A.D. 190. They attempted to harmonize the Scripture with a pure idealism of Plato and the only way this was possible was by taking the entire Scripture as a great allegory and not interpreted literally. The Early Church rose up and defended the interpretation of grammatical, literal, and historical interpretation and for the most part succeeded in erasing the non-literal interpretation from most areas of theology. Because eschatology is different in depending on future fulfillment, they were less successful in this and the result was that premillennialism was largely put aside in favor of amillennialism, namely the teaching that we were already in the millennium or at least that there was going to be no literal millennium following the second coming of Christ. This became the predominant doctrine of the church and was standardized somewhat by Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries and it became the accepted doctrine of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers. Obviously, the matter of the Rapture could not be studied or clarified until the issue of whether the premillennial view was correct or not. This did not occur until the last few centuries when the Bible conference movement rescued premillennialism from this obscurity and made it one of the prominent doctrines of conservative Christianity today. If there is a literal Millennium then there is also a literal Tribulation and the concept of the church going through this as those who deny the pre-Tribulation Rapture hold, becomes far less tenable.

In the history of the Church, the doctrine of the literal Second Coming is incorporated in a] I of our major creeds whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Greek Orthodox, and for this reason even the secular world understands that Christ said that He would bodily come again to judge the world as these doctrinal statements declare. While this is a clear interpretation of prophecy literally, confusion arises when the events which lead up to it are not taken literally and the events that follow are not taken literally as is true particularly of the amillennial point of view.

There has been considerable development in this since World War II, because prior to this it was customary for the amillennialist to ignore the Tribulation completely as something that has already been fulfilled in the sufferings of the Church. After World War II, they made a complete U turn and recognized that there is a time of Tribulation preceding the Second Coming and so took away the doctrine of imminency of the second coming of Christ. It also made less tenable the idea that the Church could go through this period of trial unscathed. This was accomplished by watering down the Tribulation and taking it in less than its full description as it is portrayed in the Bible prophecies of the end times.

The Rapture as Presented in the Bible

The rapture of the Church is a New Testament doctrine not found in the Old Testament. There is no indication in the Old Testament that God would take a whole generation of believers out of the world prior to the final time of trouble. The first indication of this is found in John 14 the night before His crucifixion when Christ announced that He would come back to take His disciples to the Father's house. This was incomprehensible to the disciples who were looking for a kingdom on earth and was not explained until later when the apostle Paul was given special revelation on this subject. This became part of his missionary message and, as in the case of the Thessalonians, he preached not only the death and resurrection of Christ but also the fact that Christ promised to come back to take His church to heaven. As presented in I Thessalonians 4, it was given to the Thessalonians as an imminent event and something that would end their bereavement for loved ones who had died.

The Thessalonians apparently had followed Paul's teaching on the Rapture so closely that they anticipated the Rapture could occur at any time. When some of their number died however, this presented anew problem as to when they would see their loved ones again. There were some apparently who postulated that there might be a delay and though this is not clear, they may have had in mind that they would not be resurrected until the Second Coming which would climax the Tribulation. When this problem of interpretation was brought to Paul's attention by Timothy, he wrote I Thessalonians and described in detail what would happen when the Rapture occurs. A careful study of I Thessalonians 4:13-18 reveals the Rapture as an imminent event.

Verse 13 indicates that God wants us to know the wonderful hope we have in Christ. In verse 14, he states that the Rapture is just as sure as the death and resurrection of Christ even though it is still future. He further states that on the occasion of the Rapture, God would bring back from heaven the souls of Christians to the earthly sphere who have died, because He would resurrect their bodies and the soul will re-enter the body. The exact process is described in verse 15-17 in these words:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (I Thess. 4:15-18;NKJ).

The order of events involve Christ descending bodily from heaven to the air above the earth, His shout of command ordering Christians who have died to be resurrected and living Christians to be instantly changed attended by the shout of the archangel and rejoicing in this event and what is described as the trumpet of God. When this occurs all over the world, Christians will be instantly resurrected and living Christians will be instantly changed according to I Corinthians 15:51-53. After being caught up from the earth, they will go to the Father's house as indicated in John 14:3. In answer to the Thessalonian's questions, they will not have to wait for their loved ones to be resurrected as it will occur a moment before their translation. The promise is that after this, they will be with the Lord forever wherever He is, whether on earth, the millennial earth, or the new heaven and new earth. The message is intended to be a comfort and an encouragement to the Thessalonians who were facing the loss of their loved ones.

It should be noted that there is not a word here about any intervening event. The Thessalonians are not told that they have to go through the Tribulation first before they will see their loved ones. Here as in all the passages on the Rapture, there is implication that the Rapture could occur any day. As far as Scripture revelation is concerned, there are no intervening events. This coincides with the pre-Tribulation Rapture but does not make room for the post-Tribulation view or other views.

The question remains as to how soon the Rapture will occur. After all, almost two thousand years have passed since this prophecy was given. How does a believer know that there will not be many more years before the Rapture is fulfilled?

The Timing of the Rapture

Many attempts have been made to date the Rapture and all of them have been false because the Bible does not give this information. However, there are indications that the Rapture could occur very soon. This seems to be a contradiction, because if the Rapture has no signs, how can one say that there are signs of the Rapture approaching.

The answer is found in the sequence of chronological events that occur before the Second Coming. If prophecy is taken literally, the Bible describes in detail exactly what the world situation will be at the Rapture and how events will unfold that finally climax in the Second Coming.

These events can be stated in order. At the time of the Rapture, there apparently will be a revival of the ancient Roman Empire that was in power when Christ was on earth. Today that empire is dead and gone but the Scriptures imply that there will be a resurrection of this empire in the end time. This is indicated in Daniel 7:7-8 where the ten horns of the beast represent ten kingdoms according to Daniel 7:25, and apparently anticipates that there will be revival of the Roman Empire in the form of ten countries. Under these circumstances, it is very significant that developments in the world today seem to pave the way for this. When these ten nations get together in a voluntary political union, a dictator will arise who will conquer three as indicated in Daniel 7:8 where the little horn, the ruler, uproots three of the ten horns representing conquering three countries. From then on, the Scriptures regard him as the ruler of all ten nations. From this position of power, he is able to attempt to solve the major problem of the Middle East, namely the place of Israel.

According to Daniel 9:24-27, Israel's total prophetic history is embraced in 490 years, the last 7 years of which have never been fulfilled. A reasonable explanation is that this ruler will impose a covenant on Israel for 7 years offered as a covenant of peace. According to Daniel 9:27, it will be observed for three and one-half years and then will be broken and a time of desecration and destruction follow. This coincides with prophecies in the Book of Revelation that there will be 42 months of Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:14, 13:5), a title which Daniel, Christ, and the Book of Revelation give this final three and one-half years leading up to the second coming of Christ (Dan. 12:1; Matt. 24:21; Rev. 7:14). In this period, the dictator of the ten nations becomes a world ruler dominated by Satan (Rev. 13:7) and reveals his own atheistic background as he claims to be God himself (2 Thess. 2:4). Because he tries to eliminate from the world all who would not recognize him, God pours out the terrible judgments described in the Book of Revelation, and the world is decimated in its human population and destroyed in its physical properties leading up to the second coming of Christ. Christ himself said in Matthew 24 that if He did not terminate the process of the Great Tribulation, there will be no people left (Matt. 24:22).

In summary, the events are as follows: the revival of the Roman Empire approximately at the time of the Rapture, emergence of a ruler who conquers the first three, and then all ten countries, the imposition of a seven-year covenant upon Israel according to Daniel 9:27, the observance of a peace treaty for the first half of the seven years, the breaking of the treaty at the time of the Great Tribulation, the last half in which a world ruler would take over dominated by Satan, the terrible judgments of the Tribulation time both from God and from the world ruler, and then the second coming of Christ.

When this sequence of events is clearly understood, the fact that Europe is at peace today becomes tremendously significant. For centuries, the major nations of Europe have fought each other and when each war ended, they would start arming for the next. This was true for hundreds of years up to the time of the Second World War. At the conclusion of the Second World War however, a strange change took place. Due to the atomic bomb, it was recognized that if another war broke out, each 'Side would be able to destroy the other which would not make the war profitable. Accordingly, they abandoned efforts to fight each other and adopted a friendly stance where the common market was made possible and today Europe is an economic unit with more than ten nations involved. While this unification of Europe economically is not the political union which the Bible predicts, it is obviously the soil in which such a political union could take place. Even the secular press frequently refers to the possibility of the United States of Europe uniting Europe in a political union. Because this is precisely what would happen if the ten nations of the Roman Empire were revived, it makes it clear that we are now for the first time precisely at the moment in history where the Roman Empire could be revived and if this is connected with the rapture of the Church, it also helps us to date it.

Probably a sensible conclusion is that while the date of the Rapture is not revealed, for the first time, we have some solid evidence that the Rapture could be very soon. This leads to practical conclusions about what we Christians should do in the light of these prophesied events.

Are We Ready for the Rapture?

The reason Christians should be watching for the Rapture rather than the Second Coming is that the Second Coming is not imminent but the Rapture is. If Christ may come any day and Christians who have died will be resurrected and living Christians changed, it obviously puts a challenge before those who are living today to make every day count for Christ. In other words, our opportunities should be maximized in doing the things that we want to do if Christ were coming very soon.

There is no ground in Scripture for frantic efforts, but obviously the first question is are we ready in the sense of are we born again for only Christians who are born again and part of God's family will be raptured. They have to be in Christ by the baptism of the Spirit which occurs at the moment of their faith in Christ. Undoubtedly, many church members will be left behind who fell short of a vital, personal relationship to Jesus Christ.

A second, very practical lesson is that we should be concerned about those around us who are not Christians whether they are loved ones or strangers. Christians should get behind every effort to win people for Christ and they should be engaged in personal evangelism and prayer for the lost, supporting the church and evangelistic efforts in trying to win others to Christ. Certainly, this is a crucial time in history if the Rapture could be very soon.

It should be noted that the Bible does not outline frantic or extreme efforts in preparation for the Lord's return. The Bible does not indicate that Christians should give all their money away as some have tried to do who have dated the Rapture. Instead, however, Christians should be wise stewards giving as much as they can because obviously if the Rapture occurs, they will leave behind whatever physical wealth they have. It is also obvious that we have many opportunities for service for God in recognition of His plan and program and we should order our lives especially as they are related to eternal values, things that will really count as we stand before Christ, the judgment seat of rewards, which the Bible describes as following the Rapture. Accordingly, we watch because it could be soon but watching is not enough. We must be serving and making the most of our remaining time.