The Nature of the Lord's Return
Is the Lord returning in love or in wrath?
When you think of the coming of the Lord, what do you think of? What is your image? Is it positive or negative? Is it a return in love or in wrath? And what do you feel? Fear or joy? Comfort or anxiety?
How would you characterize your overall attitude about the Lord's return? Desire or apathy? Do you pray for it? Or, do you try not to think about it? Are you enthusiastic or passive?
Finally, how would you describe the Lord's coming? How would you explain it to someone who knows nothing about it?
The Scriptural Images
There are two detailed descriptions of the Lord's return in the New Testament, one written by the Apostle Paul and the other by the Apostle John.
Now, let me ask you some more questions. How can these two descriptions be reconciled? I ask that because they are as different as night and day. Did you notice that?
Look again and make a careful comparison. Notice that they have absolutely nothing in common. In fact, they are totally incompatible.
Comparison and Contrast
The passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 presents a scene of love, mercy, and grace. The picture that is painted by Revelation 19 is one of vengeance and wrath. In the Thessalonians passage, the Lord appears in the sky, but does not descend to the earth. In the Revelation account, he come to the earth. Zechariah 14 says He will return to the Mount of Olives from which He ascended into Heaven.
One of the most significant differences between the two passages relates to the Church. In the Thessalonian account, the Lord comes for the purpose of taking His Church, both the dead and living members, out of this world. In Revelation, by stark contrast, He returns with His Church. This is indicated in Revelation 19:14 where it says that "the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean were following Him on white horses." We know these people constitute the Church, because the same group is described a few verses before (verses 7 and 8) as being the "bride" of Christ.
Thus, in Paul's description of the Lord's return, He is portrayed as coming for His Church, to deliver believers from the "wrath that is to come" (1 Thessalonians 1:10). But in John's description, Jesus is portrayed as returning with His Church in great wrath. In Thessalonians Jesus returns as a Deliverer. In Revelation He comes back as a Warrior. In one scene He is coming to claim the righteous; in the other, He returns to condemn the unrighteous.
A Problem in Reconciliation
What is going on here? How could these two passages be talking about the same event? How can they be reconciled?
I believe there is only one way to reconcile them and that is to conclude that they are describing two separate events. That, in turn, implies rather clearly that there are going to be two future comings of the Lord.
One of those — the one described in 1 Thessalonians 4 — will be more of an appearing than a coming, for the Lord will not actually return to the earth. He will, instead, appear in the heavens and supernaturally draw the Church, living and dead, to Him.
The second future appearance of the Lord — the one described in Revelation 19 — will be the true "Second Coming," for the Lord will actually descend to the earth to pour out the wrath of God and establish His reign over all the world.
This means the "Second Coming" of the Lord is going to be in two stages. The first stage will be what has come to be known as the Rapture — the snatching of the Church out of the world. The second stage, which will occur later, will be the return of the Lord to the earth.
The Issue of Imminence
This method of reconciling these passages solves a serious problem that emerges when you think of only one future coming of the Lord. That problem relates to the emphasis that the Scriptures give to imminence.
What I am referring to, of course, is the constant warning of the Scriptures that the Lord may appear any moment and, therefore, we are to always be ready for the Lord's return (Matthew 24:36, 42, 44, 50 and 25:13).
If there is only one future coming of the Lord, then these warnings are a waste of time and there is no imminence because there are many prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled before the Lord can return. For example:
- A peace treaty must be signed that will guarantee Israel's peace with all of its Arab neighbors (Daniel 9:27).
- The Jewish Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem (Matthew 24:15, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, and Revelation 11:1-2).
- The Great Tribulation must begin and run its seven year course, resulting in the death of over half the world's population (Revelation 6-18).
- The Antichrist must reveal himself and begin an unprecedented persecution of the Jews — one that will result in the death of two-thirds of all the Jews (Revelation 12:13-17 & Zechariah 13:7-9).
- The Gospel must be preached to every person on the earth (Matthew 24:14 and Revelation 14:6-7).
- An unprecedented system of economic control must be established that will prevent persons from buying or selling anything unless they can display on their right hands or foreheads the mark or name of the Antichrist.
- The worldwide kingdom of the Antichrist must be destroyed in "one hour of one day" (Revelation 17 & 18).
These are all events that are clearly prophesied in Scripture as occurring before Jesus returns to earth. None of them has yet been fulfilled in history. If there is only one future coming of the Lord, and it must take place after these events, then why should we be looking for Jesus Christ? We should be looking instead for the Antichrist!
Living with Expectancy
The only way that the imminence taught by the Scriptures can be maintained is to believe that Jesus can return any moment. The only way to maintain that belief is to conclude that the Lord's appearing for His Church (the Rapture) is an event that is separate and apart from the Second Coming and is an event that can occur any moment.
That is what I have concluded from my study of prophecy, and I therefore live looking for the Rapture to occur any moment. This is exactly what Paul commands us to do when he writes that we are to live "looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus" (Titus 2:13).
I therefore do not believe there is one prophecy in the Bible that must be fulfilled before the Lord appears for His Church. He can appear any moment. And the imminence of His appearing increases daily as the signs of the time point to the events that will culminate with His Second Coming. Those signs include, among others, the re-establishment of the state of Israel, the Jewish reoccupation of the city of Jerusalem, the reunification of Europe, and the rise of Arab militancy in the Middle East.
Keep in mind that the Rapture is not the event that will kick-off the Tribulation. That event is the signing of a peace treaty that will guarantee the peace of Israel with all its Arab neighbors and will also authorize the Jews to rebuild their Temple (Daniel 9:27). The Rapture could occur years before the Tribulation begins, although it is most likely to occur near the beginning because the Tribulation is the time for the pouring out of God's wrath, and 1 Thessalonians 1:10 says that Jesus will "deliver" His Church "from the wrath to come."
Hope or Terror?
To summarize, we should be looking for two future comings of the Lord — one at the beginning of the Tribulation, the other at the end. The first, the Rapture, will be the appearing of the Lord for His Church. The second, the Second Coming, will be the return of the Lord to the earth to "judge and wage war" against the enemies of God (Revelation 19:11).
The signs of the times point to the fact that Jesus is at the very gates of Heaven, waiting for His Father's command to appear for His Church. The Rapture is imminent.
Are you ready? Will Jesus appear (the Rapture) as your Blessed Hope? Or, will He return (the Second Coming) as your Holy Terror? The choice is yours.
Concerning Jesus' Second Coming, read more...
Concerning all the signs that we are at the end of this age, read more...