Last week, we introduced the different views Christians hold regarding the rapture of the church. (If you aren’t familiar with these views, you might want to read this post first.) It may seem like we have a lot of work ahead of us to try to sift through all of these views. But if we ask the right questions first, we begin to see an important, clarifying distinction right away.
The pretrib, midtrib, and even pre-wrath views are all variations of the same basic viewpoint. While they may differ on the length of the tribulation, they all agree the rapture is an event that is distinct from the final return of Christ. Whether it’s seven years earlier, three-and-a-half years, or mere months or weeks, all of these views claim that Christ will first return for his church, and then later return with his church. Of course, those who hold the posttrib view would demur. This is the fundamental difference that separates the differing views of the rapture. So we’re going to spend the next few weeks answering this question:
Does the Bible teach that the rapture of the church and the final return of Christ are two separate events?
As we discussed last week, we find no pretrib view of the rapture in the first 18 centuries of the history of the church. Until 1830, nobody saw in Scripture the idea that the rapture will occur at a separate time before the return of Christ. This doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss the idea, but it does mean we should examine it very carefully before jettisoning the historical view of the church.
The primary question for us should always be: What does Scripture teach? And here we face a challenge to the pretrib view: There’s no passage of Scripture that describes the rapture as occurring at a different time than the return of Christ. We just don’t get this idea from a clear, unambiguous biblical reference. Instead, the case for the pretrib rapture is said to be built on other biblical truths that lead necessarily to the pretrib rapture of the church. Last week, we listed the three biblical truths that pretrib teachers claim point to a pretrib rapture. This week we’re going to examine the first of these claims:
- In history, God always works exclusively with either the people of Israel or the church. During the tribulation period God is once again focused on Israel, so it doesn’t make sense for the church to be here.
If you’ve attended pretrib Bible studies on the end times and the rapture, you’ve probably heard this idea emphasized as a sound principle for interpreting Scripture. Pretrib teachers see the church age as a kind of parenthesis or interruption in God’s working with his chosen people, Israel. When the church was established at Pentecost, God temporarily ceased working with Israel and devoted his attention to the church. But they believe that God will finish his work with the church at the rapture, and then once again focus his efforts on the people of Israel. Does Scripture bear this out?
The fulfillment of prophecy concerning Israel
We should first note that it’s not only pretrib believers who are anticipating God’s fulfillment of all the prophecies concerning Israel. We’ll look at some of these prophecies in greater detail in a future post, but most premil Christians—including pretrib and posttrib believers—expect God to keep all the promises he made specifically to the people of Israel. How he’ll do that and what that means for us today are questions for another study. But, even though they’re a little more cautious about speculating which current event matches which biblical prophecy, most posttrib pastors and teachers agree that God is not done with his chosen people, Israel.
Two peoples of God?
The early pretrib teachers believed that Israel and the church are completely separate and distinct—not only now, but for eternity. They believed we would eternally constitute two different peoples of God: Israel and the church. This claim isn’t as common now, but we do still encounter it from time to time. What is the relationship between Israel and the church? Does God distinguish between his people, either in eternity or the current age? Let’s see what Jesus had to say to the Jewish people of his day:
I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.
Who are the “other sheep” Jesus was describing to his fellow Jews? These are the Gentiles who would someday place their faith in him. Together with the Jewish followers of Christ they would be one flock with one shepherd. Compare this to what Paul wrote:
For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.
This reminds us of what Paul said in Romans 11:17:
But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in.
He explained that God’s chosen people of Israel were like a cultivated olive tree, and the Gentile believers were like wild olive branches graciously, but unnaturally, grafted into the cultivated tree. We need to understand it was God’s will for the people of Israel to naturally progress from the Old Covenant into the New. God always intended for the church—the New Covenant people of God—to be the ultimate destination and home for his chosen nation, Israel. (Don’t forget that the original church was thoroughly Jewish.)
Yes, God is not finished with the ethnic people of Israel and, in the very end, he will fulfill his promises to them. But his plan for them is to bring them into New Covenant relationship with him, into the church, the body of Christ, so there will be one flock and one Shepherd. In one sense, the people of Israel are to come into the church; in other sense, we Gentiles have become part of the existing covenant people of God. This is why Ephesians 2:11-22 tells us:
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. . . . In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far way from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. . . .
So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. . . . Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.
It’s wonderful that God will bring the remaining Jews into the New Covenant people of God, the church. (We’ll talk much more about this in a future study.) But it’s even more amazing he expanded his covenant people to include more than his chosen people of Israel, but to incorporate anyone who would believe in Christ. Yes, we should rejoice in the future hope for Israel; but, no, we should not seek to divide or separate Israel and the church into different peoples of God. He is making the two one. And what God has joined together, let no one separate.
A problem of timing
Another problem with this idea of God always working exclusively with either Israel or the church is it just doesn’t fit history. Most pretrib teachers would agree God dramatically established the New Covenant church at Pentecost. Most also agree that God judged unbelieving Israel through the destruction of Jerusalem. But Pentecost occurred sometime around 30 AD, and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. So some 40 years after the birth of the church age, God was still dealing with the people of Israel.
It gets worse. The events in the Middle East over the last 70 years certainly seem to reveal the powerful hand of God behind the scenes of history. I don’t know any pretrib pastor or teacher who would deny this. History has witnessed an ethnic people wander without a homeland for almost two millennia, maintain their distinct identity and culture, then return to and reclaim their ancient homeland, and even resurrect their ancient tongue as their everyday language. This is historically unprecedented! To see this as simply a natural occurrence and not involving strong divine providence strains credulity. Most pretrib teachers would not only agree, they share an excitement in watching developments unfold in the Middle East.
The problem for them is that this powerful, historical testimony to God working once again in the national affairs of Israel is happening before the rapture. These events are occurring during what is supposed to be the church age, when God only works with the church, not Israel. So this claim that God works exclusively with either Israel or the church simply doesn’t fit what God is actually doing in history.
Where is it written?
Of course, the biggest problem with this idea is we don’t see this principle expressed anyplace in Scripture. There’s no passage that explains to us how God only works with Israel or the church, not both during the same period of time. The next time you hear someone teach this, I suggest asking them, “Exactly where is this principle taught in Scripture?”
So this first supporting principle for the pretrib view hasn’t fared so well under closer examination. But more emphasis is usually placed today on the other two supporting claims. We’ll examine the second principle next week.
The return of Christ series:
Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church [see above]