The Hope of the Early Church
Ever since the Lord Jesus was taken from His disciples to glory on the day of His ascension, the hope of His imminent return has been the constant expectation of each generation of Christians. In the early church this was a dominant theme of the apostles’ teaching and an impelling motive in their witness. As gradually the great truths about the purpose of God in the church were unfolded and the present age began to extend, the hope of His return continued undimmed. At the close of the last book of the New Testament, the aged Apostle John still breathes a prayer, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
Unbelief and Confusion on This Doctrine Today
The passing centuries have brought scoffers who have said, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4). It is the fashion of our day in high theological circles to discount the doctrine of the coming of the Lord and to isolate this portion of Scriptural teaching as outside the realm of scholarly investigation. We are told that Paul and the other apostles were mistaken and naive to hope for the coming of the Lord in their day. Others, while admitting the teaching of the Scriptures on this doctrine, have interposed various prophesied events and thereby have postponed the hope of His return by generations and even millenniums. Resulting controversies have obscured and confused the blessed hope of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Three Leading Questions
Before an intelligent understanding of the issues involved in the hope of the imminent return of the Lord can be achieved, three main questions must be considered: (1) Can we believe the Bible and accept its revelation literally? (2) Are there predicted events which must occur before the Lord’s return? (3) Do the Scriptures present the fulfillment of the hope of His return as an imminent event, i.e., as possible of fulfillment at any moment?
For the purpose of the present study, in answer to the first question, we must assume the inspiration of the Scripture and the validity and infallibility of its revelation. The present chaotic condition in prophetic study has come partly through failure to accept the Bible as the Word of God.
The answer to the second question is one of the most complicated in the whole field of prophecy. Many schemes of interpretation have been offered. The postmillennial view interposes a whole millennium between the present and the coming of Christ, thereby postponing that glad event by at least a thousand years. The posttribulationists believe the church must continue on earth through the Day of the Lord, including that unprecedented and indescribable time of trouble on the earth culminating in the great tribulation which Christ predicted (Matt. 24:21) and of which the Apostle John gives great detail (Rev. 6-19). If either of these two views—the postmillennial or the posttribulational—is correct we must give up the doctrine of the imminent coming of the Lord and must look instead for either a millennium on earth or a time of great tribulation.
What Do the Scriptures Teach?
The Bible teaches, according to the premillennial interpretation, both the doctrine of a millennial kingdom of righteousness on earth and the awful time of tribulation which will precede it. The question is whether Christ will come first, before both of these predicted periods, to meet His church in the air and take her home to glory. This we believe to be the teaching of the Scripture and the only view which fully resolves all the problems of interpretation involved.
The Word of Comfort to the Thessalonians
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, the great truth of the coming of the Lord is expounded. One can gather from this section that Paul had taught the Thessalonians much of this doctrine in his brief stay with them (Acts 17:1-10), but some questions remained. One of these questions concerned those of their number who had already passed into the presence of the Lord. When would they be raised from the dead? That they would be raised no one doubted, but would they be raised at the time the Lord came for the living saints or would it be later? This is answered emphatically in this passage. The dead in Christ would be raised first, just a moment before the living saints were caught up to meet Christ in the air. On the basis of this hope, they were exhorted, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18). The word which is translated comfort in both the Authorized and Revised Standard Versions includes the idea of exhort and encourage. This was to be a great encouragement and comfort to them—their reunion with their loved ones was no more distant than their reunion with the Lord when He came for His own.
Having established the order of the resurrection and translation, the next question was the time. When was the event to occur? In chapter five this is answered. Under the term “day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:2) the period immediately following the translation is described. It will come as a thief in the night— unexpected by those in that period (1 Thess. 5:2). It will involve “sudden destruction” and “they shall not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3), In contrast to these overtaken so suddenly by destruction, this trouble will not overtake the saints (1 Thess. 5:4). The reason is that the saints are “children of light” and “children of the day” (1 Thess. 5:5). “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9; cf. Rev. 6:17). In a word, the contrast is made sharply between those translated and those left on earth so unexpectedly to destruction while the church is caught up to be with the Lord. The day of wrath, destruction, and judgment will follow the translation. The church will not be included in the wrath poured out upon the earth (1 Thess. 5:9). The teaching of the apostle in this passage establishes not only the order of resurrection and translation but also the relation of these events to the time of tribulation which follows.
The very exhortation of comfort of the Lord’s return loses its meaning if the church must pass through the great tribulation. What comfort can there be to a prospect of distant deliverance if in the path between there is probably martyrdom, destruction, and persecution? Far better to die a normal death and be raised in the resurrection than to endure such a period in order to avoid death in translation. The whole point of the Thessalonian passage hangs on the imminency and pretribulational character of the coming of the Lord.
The Word of Revelation to the Corinthians
The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is rightly known as the resurrection chapter. With its gospel introduction (1 Cor. 15:1-4) it first argues the resurrection of Christ as an essential of Christian faith and hope, and then links this with the resurrection of men in general. Having established these great truths, in the close of the chapter, by sharp contrast, the grand exception to the doctrine of resurrection is revealed: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
This passage is obviously parallel to 1 Thessalonians 4. It is the time of the resurrection of the dead and translation of the saints. The subject is introduced as a “mystery.” As used in the New Testament, this word refers to truth “hid” from Old Testament revelation, but now revealed in the New. That there should be a resurrection of the just is certainly no mystery. Nor is it a mystery that there should be living saints on the earth at the time of that event. Both of these general factors are clearly indicated in the Old Testament (cf. Dan. 12:2; Zech. 12:10). The mystery is that the living saints shall be translated, “changed” from a mortal body to an immortal body “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump” (1 Cor. 15:52). This is nowhere taught in the Old Testament. It should be carefully noted that this transformation is for “all”— “not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).
This teaching demands a time interval between the event here revealed and the coming of the Lord to establish His kingdom on earth. In other words, this event must occur before the tribulation while the kingdom is established by the coming of the Lord to the earth after the tribulation. The necessity of this conclusion is plainly implied in the passage before us. According to the premillennial interpretation of Scripture, during the millennium there will be tilling of the ground, raising of crops; there will be marriage, increase in population, and death. Amos speaks of the plowman, planting, the vineyards, the making of gardens, and eating of their fruit (Amos 9:13-15). That this refers to the millennium is made clear because the promise is related to the final gathering from which there will be no more plucking up out of the land (Amos 9:15). If this is true, there must be a body of saints still in the flesh, not resurrected, and not translated, to perform these natural functions. Further, this body must be on the earth at the time of the Lord’s coming to establish His kingdom on earth. But, according to the 1 Corinthian passage, all the living saints at the time of the Lord’s coming for the church are translated, leaving no redeemed to fulfill a natural function on earth. The only way both concepts can be fulfilled is for a time interval—the seven years anticipated in Daniel 9:27—to elapse between the translation of the saints of this age and the return of Christ to establish His kingdom. In this period a new generation of believers can be formed. In other words, the passage in 1 Corinthians is left without an adequate interpretation unless Christ comes for His own before the tribulation.
Posttribulationists have no explanation of this problem and usually choose to ignore it. The truth is that the great Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments dealing with the return of the Lord to establish His kingdom at the end of the tribulation never speak of a translation at that time. The saints on earth who greet Christ on that occasion remain on the earth, in the flesh, and enter the millennial kingdom as either redeemed Gentiles or redeemed Israel. By contrast, the redeemed of this present age are translated, changed, and caught up to glory.
In view of this tremendous revelation, the apostle concludes the section: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Our hope is translation, not resurrection; the coming of the Lord, not the tribulation.
Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled
Probably the first recorded revelation clearly distinguishing the translation of the saints from the establishment of the kingdom on earth after the tribulation is found in John 14 in the tender context of the Upper Room Discourse. Peter had just been informed that he would deny his Lord thrice. All were troubled at the Lord’s words, “Whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 13:33). Then came the comforting exhortation, “Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1). They are exhorted to believe in God and also to believe in Him. Simply the Lord unfolds the tremendous revelation: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2-3). Here is the explanation of the reason why they could not follow Him now and why He was going to leave them. He was coming back to take them to the prepared place in the Father’s house. What a contrast this is to the Jewish expectation understood by the disciples! The Jews were looking for an earthly kingdom promised by the prophets. Christ was expected to rule on the throne of David on earth. But this was different. Christ says here that He would take His own to heaven, to the Father’s house. This was to be their expectation as believers in this present age. With this they were to comfort their hearts and for this they were to wait.
In the light of the later revelation given in Thessalonians and Corinthians, it should be evident that we have in John 14 a parallel passage. Christ is speaking of the time of the translation of the saints. Obviously, the disciples could not go to the Father’s house apart from such a transformation of body and spirit. The important fact was that the Lord was coming for them and the time of separation, however long, was only temporary.
In Thessalonians it was revealed that the translated and resurrected saints would meet the Lord in the air. In John we learn where they go from that meeting place. They go to heaven, to the Father’s house. The place has been prepared by the loving Bridegroom for His bride. How fitting to leave behind the world with its cares and sins and to be taken into the glorious presence of the Father’s house! Those who believe the church will go through the tribulation think otherwise, however. For them the meeting in the air is just a momentary event followed by immediate return to the earth with the Lord to establish His kingdom and to destroy His enemies. The church corporately, for them, never goes to heaven at all. If they are right, the place prepared in the Father’s house will never be used by the resurrected and translated church. Instead, the church will be plunged immediately into the millennial earth and afterwards into the newly created new heaven and new earth. How much better the interpretation that gives full luster to the hope of the imminent return of Christ as an event before the time of tribulation with its provision for the refuge in heaven while the storms of divine wrath purge the earth and fit it for the millennial state! Such a hope brings solace to hearts wounded by separation and longing for the face of the Beloved. There is no cloud between, no wearisome events of ominous proportions standing between us and that glad moment. In the twinkling of an eye the transcending event is accomplished and the church is forever with the Lord.
Every Man That Hath This Hope
The truth of the Lord’s coming was intended to be a comfort, an exhortation, and a hope that quiets troubled hearts. In 1 John we have a further truth as a counterpart to that revealed in the Gospel:
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
What a prospect! We shall be like Him when we see Him. This is not a reward for long toil and walking the weary road. This is the love token of a Bridegroom to the bride. The transformation, of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, is to transfigure the bride until she, like the Bridegroom, is altogether lovely and without a trace of sin or disfigurement. This is not merely a sentiment, an ecstasy of anticipation. This is a purifying hope. “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”
As in the other passages considered, the imminency of the Lord’s coming is that which underlines and emphasizes the meaning of the exhortation. It is because it is a moment-by-moment expectation that the believer is exhorted to holiness. It is as if a distinguished guest were expected at any moment. Everything must be in order and spotless. There will be no time for preparation when he comes. Not only is there the customary cleaning; but as the moments of waiting continue there is the constant reinspection to be assured that all is in order. If it were known that the guest would not arrive for days or months or years, there would be no need of vigilance. It is the imminency of his coming that determines the urgency for preparation.
So it is with the coming of the Lord. Many there are for whom this hope is dim and distant. By reason of theology or unbelief, they are assured that there is yet plenty of time for preparation. Much must intervene first before the Guest comes, they believe. For such His coming is not a purifying hope. But, “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” Those who really believe in the imminent coming of the Lord are more mindful of their purity than of anything else, more eager to see His face than to participate in things of the earth. So may it be with us. May the coming of the Lord be a blessed hope, a purifying hope, a comforting hope, a steadfast hope, the ray of light in a dark world, the path to glory!