Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 1 John 2:28, 1 John 3:2-3
The King Returns For UsDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 12, 2010
Selected highlights from this sermon
End times prophecy has a bad name. There are controversies over what the Bible teaches and in what order things will happen. And of course there are the false prophets, those who take advantage of others for financial gain, and there are also Bible scholars who erringly set dates for events that never come to pass.
In this first message of the series, Pastor Lutzer takes us through the sequence of pre-tribulation events.
May this series of messages motivate us to lives of holiness and prepare us for the day when we meet Jesus.
I need to tell you that prophecy has a bad name today for several different reasons. First of all, it’s because of false predictions, and I’m not just simply talking about the people who gather on a hilltop believing that Jesus is going to come at midnight on a certain day. We have had enough of that in church history. I’m talking about good sane Bible teachers who have looked at the Scriptures carefully and then have made predictions regarding how many years it’s going to be, or “we’re very close to midnight” and somehow midnight never comes.
One day at the Moody Bible Institute library I checked out a book of a well-known Christian statesman who is in heaven today, who, in the 40s, wrote a book showing that Hitler was the anti-Christ, and Mussolini was the false prophet, and it really looked as if he had a case for what he believed, but he was wrong.
So in this series of messages we’re not going to speculate regarding time. I’m not going to be talking about whom I think the Anti-Christ is and whether or not he’s alive today, and whether we can know in advance who he is. I’d like this series of messages to still be relevant even if Jesus doesn’t come in the next ten years, or the next twenty years, or beyond it, because what I want to do is to share with you things that we know will happen even though the time frame is unknown to us.
There’s a second reason why it is that people today are skeptical about prophecy, and that is the controversies. You know, we’re going to have to be introduced to some of these controversies. Is Jesus going to come before the tribulation, or after the tribulation? But even though these controversies are important, some of you may wonder why it is that you just can’t all agree, or why you can’t get everybody in the same room with the same Bible and then come up with a chart that we can depend on. The reason that’s difficult is because the Bible tells us what’s going to happen but it doesn’t lay out the sequence. It is kind of left up to us to figure out the sequence of events. That’s part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that some people take the scriptures more literally than others, and the more literally you take them, you fall into one camp or the other.
Now in this series of messages we’ll introduce you to these controversies but it is not at all my intention to try to prove one view over another, or spend a lot of time trying to argue a point. What I’d like to do is to give you first of all a sequence of events, and the sequence may not be entirely accurate but I want to speak about events that we know will take place. They will happen even if, when Jesus comes, we discover that our sequence may have needed some adjustment.
Secondly, the purpose of these messages is for you to fall in love with Jesus all over again. The Apostle Paul said, “It is time for me to be offered.” That is, “It is time for me to die,” and he said, “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith, therefore there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me on that day, and not to me only, but to all them also who love his appearing.”
As a result of these messages I want you to love Jesus more and I want you to long for His appearing, just like Paul did, and just like we should do. And then the other reason is, of course, to be ready for Christ’s return. John said that we should live in such a way as to not have shame at His coming. The clear implication is that some Christians are going to have shame at the coming of Jesus. Wow!
Now you say to me, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what if I live a very good life without shame and then Jesus doesn’t return in my lifetime? What if I have to die?” You’ve lost nothing because those who die before Christ comes have no advantage at all or disadvantage, as the case may be, as we shall show today from the Scriptures. And in this series of messages, because I am so anxious to see your life changed, four out of the ten messages are going to be about events in which you will participate whether you are alive at the coming of Jesus Christ or whether you die. Either way you will be there.
The message today is on one of the events on the rapture of the church. Next time we’re going to speak about the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ where all believers will appear. What an event that is going to be! And that’s where some of us might experience shame at His coming. And then following that we’re going to talk about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. All believers will be there as well, and then, of course, we’ll talk about geo-political events. We’ll talk about the rise of Anti-Christ in this series, but then we’ll conclude by talking about Jesus Christ’s invitation for us to rule with Him, another event in which you will participate as a believer. So you stay with us. The intention is life change.
Peter said that in light of the fact that all these things are going to be destroyed, what manner of people we ought to be in all holiness, and that’s where this series is going. We’re anxious to see your life changed. Well, that by way of introduction. Now we do have to introduce you to some terms, some expressions and some differences when we talk about prophecy.
First of all, I want to introduce you to what is known as Pre-tribulationism. Pre-tribulationism is the view that Jesus Christ’s return is going to be in two stages. First of all, He comes for His Church, and the Church therefore is exempt from the Great Tribulation, which takes place after that–seven plus years. It may be longer than seven years, and then Jesus returns at the end of that period to establish His kingdom. In the first coming He comes for His saints. The next time he appears, it is with His saints. That is known as Pre-tribulationism. The Church is exempt from the Tribulation. Christ comes before the Tribulation, and so the Church (that is us who are believers) is in heaven when the Tribulation is going on, on earth.
There is also Post-tribulationism. Post-tribulationism says that Jesus has only one appearing and it’s going to be after the Tribulation, so the Church will go through the Tribulation. There will be Anti-Christ, etc. and then Jesus comes and He comes to receive his Church and to establish His kingdom all at the same time. So the Church goes through the Tribulation. Pre-Tribulationism – Post-Tribulationism. You should become acquainted with those terms.
Now, here at The Moody Church I need to tell you that we do accept either view, but for my purposes I am going to assume, without going into detail why, the Pre-tribulation rapture of the Church; that is to say that the coming of Jesus is going to be in two stages. Today I speak about what is known as the rapture of the Church. I think of somebody this past week who said, “Oh, you’re speaking on the rapture? The word rapture doesn’t even occur in the Bible.” Now, I have to smile at that point because if you have your Bibles (as you ought to have your Bibles), I want you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians, Chapter 4. We’ll be reading this passage, but I want to look at one expression in verse 17. It says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. The Latin word for caught up together is rapturo from which we get the word rapture. So it is true that the English translation does not have the word rapture, but rapture is a thoroughly Biblical term.
Now you ask, “Do both Post-tribulationists and Pre-tribulationists believe in the rapture? Absolutely! Here it is in God’s Word and both of them accept the Scriptures as authoritative. The difference is this, and thank you for following along. You’ll notice that it says in verse 16, “The dead in Christ will rise first.” Because I believe in the Pre-tribulation rapture of the Church, I take the dead in Christ to be only the Church, because the Church was formed on the Day of Pentecost, and by the Holy Spirit we were baptized into Christ, and so it is the dead in Christ. Abraham died a believer but he didn’t die in Christ, and he is going to be raised, I believe, sometime before the Millennial Kingdom begins, and we’ll talk about that, but this is the Bride of Christ. It is the dead in Christ who shall rise.
Well, with all of that as background now, let’s look at the sequence of events, and this sequence is one, whether you are Pre-trib or Post-trib, you would agree with. You would not necessarily agree with who is going to be raised, but the sequence in the Scripture is very clear.
Now before we look at 1 Thessalonians 4 in detail, I need to say that the background is this. You know, you may say you are into church planting. What would you teach the people? Paul always taught the people about the return of Christ. He taught them to look forward to the return of Christ. That’s very clear. He is there in Thessalonica and he’s talking about it, but some Christians were confused because they were living in anticipation of Christ’s return, and some of their members had died, so they were saying, “Hey, my friends didn’t live until the return of Christ.” The truth is, those folks didn’t either. Christ doesn’t come for 2,000 years, but the question they had in the back of their mind was a very good one, namely, “If people die before Christ returns, are they at a disadvantage?” You know, to live when Christ returns seems so much better. What about my uncle? What about my wife, my husband, my child? Will they be at a disadvantage? Paul’s answer, as we shall see, is a resounding, “No, not at all would you be at a disadvantage.”
All right, with that background, let’s look at the sequence of events that Paul lays out. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers (this is verse 16), about those who are asleep (that is, those who have died), that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
I need to pause here. Cyprian, one of the early writers who lived in the era of the 200s, said that if it were not for the plagues, Christianity would have never swept North Africa. He said the plagues were what did it because the Christians died better. The pagans said of the Christians, “They carry their dead as if in triumph. Where is all this hope coming from? We’d like to have hope too.” And so the Christians would witness to the saving grace of Jesus because Christians died differently.
So Paul says, “Grieve, but your grief isn’t a hopeless grief.” More could be said about that, but verse 14 says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
Stop there for a moment. Sequence number one is this: Paul says that those who have died, who are believers, God through Jesus will bring with Him. This past week, Rebecca and I were in Colorado Springs for the funeral of a dear friend who was a musician. He died unexpectedly in his sleep. And by the way, as a musician he may have something still to do in heaven. I need to tell you that as a preacher of the Gospel, in heaven I will be officially unemployed. They will not need me to preach the Gospel there. But you see, his body was laid tenderly in the ground and we were there at his grave, and his soul went to God and it took on the characteristics of the body, so the people who die today can communicate. They recognize one another. They are in the presence of Jesus, enjoying Him, but they are still incomplete. Their permanent resurrection body has not yet been given to them.
So the Apostle Paul is saying that when Jesus comes in the rapture, Jesus brings with Him all who have slept, all who have died in Christ. You know, it is so tempting to hurry over this, but let’s not fall into that temptation. Do you realize what this means? I’m thinking of my father who died at 106 years old. I’m thinking of relatives and friends who are in heaven, children whom we said goodbye to, and who are going to be up there, who are there now with Jesus, and they are going to return. I mean, just imagine. You’ve got all of these souls of the dead, the Bible says, coming back with Christ. Now the souls are very much alive, but the first stage is Jesus comes back with those who have died. That’s exactly what the text says, so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. That’s number one.
Number two, their bodies will arise from the dead. Now we have to pick up the text again. I’d like to begin here at verse 16: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” Wow! Their bodies are going to join their spirits. The souls will now be clothed as the Apostle Paul says because their bodies will rise from the dead, and it says, “The Lord will descend with a cry of command.” He will say, “Get up. You’ve been dead long enough,” and there they will be. The bodies will rise, and connect with their souls.
It will be something like the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus was at the tomb of a dead man. You know, when I was growing up we used to say, “You’re making enough noise to raise the dead.” Well, I’m sorry but you’re not making enough noise to raise the dead. It’s very difficult to raise the dead. I’ve taken students to a cemetery to preach to the dead, and they turned white. That is, the students did. (laughter) But the graves were still closed. But when Jesus stands at the tomb of Lazarus, He says, “Lazarus, come forth.” It was Augustine who said, “Thank God he said, “Lazarus came forth. If he hadn’t named him the whole cemetery would have come up from the dead.” (laughter) In fact, that’s exactly what the Bible teaches. It says that the day is coming when the dead shall hear His voice, and they shall be resurrected–some to the resurrection of life and some to the resurrection of damnation, but in the end, everyone responds to the voice of Jesus–the shout of command. And when He shouts, the dead come out of their graves. Believe me, they will.
And then it says, “The voice of an archangel (It’s probably a reference to Gabriel. I’m of the opinion that many angels are going to accompany this event. They were there when Jesus was born. They are going to be there when He returns. In fact, some of the other texts talk about Jesus coming with angels, and so they will be there too.) and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” What was the trumpet used for in Old Testament times? The trumpet signified that it’s time to move.” You remember when Israel was in those camps in the desert and it was time for them to move, and then they would blow the trumpet, and you could imagine that people who are asleep, even they would begin to move. I remember as a joke someone who actually blew a trumpet in a bedroom where his friend was sleeping to wake him. And thankfully his friend awoke. The other option, of course, would have been to die of a heart attack. (laughter)
Jesus will come with a blast of a trumpet and the dead in Christ will rise first. They have an advantage. That’s what the Apostle Paul is teaching. If you think that it is a disadvantage to die and not be present at the appearing of Jesus, I mean, you know you are wrong. Paul says here, “The dead in Christ shall rise first (that’s in verse 16).”
Well, what’s the next sequence? The first sequence is the Lord returns with the saints who died. That is, He brings the souls of those who died with Him. Secondly, their bodies are raised from the dead. Thirdly, the living believers will be instantly transformed. They will be instantly changed. They will get their bodies instantly–their permanent eternal bodies. Now look at what the text says. Verse 17, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together-raptured (rapturo)-with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
Now, the Apostle Paul taught that there was going to be a whole generation of Christians who would be alive at the return of Jesus. The same events are spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep (meaning we shall not all die), but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead in Christ will be raised imperishable,” and it will happen in a twinkling of an eye.
How long does it take for your eye to twinkle? Well, actually I think I heard it’s about one-fiftieth of a second. Just like that! There’s going to be a whole generation of believers who are going to go from this existence to their eternal bodies in a second after the dead in Christ have been raised, the Apostle Paul says. Probably a few seconds after that they will be raised and will be with Christ, and it says, “He will come together with them in the clouds.” The appearing of Jesus is always associated with clouds. That can be because clouds sometimes represent even human beings. Maybe it is a reference to all the angels. You know, the Bible says that we are living with a cloud of witnesses. Or it may be simply a natural event in the heavens as Jesus comes, and now, all these Christians go up and they are with the Lord in the clouds. I think that God decided to hide what takes place there from the eyes of the world because the world will have to come up with an explanation as to why so many people disappeared, “and so we will ever be with the Lord.”
And that’s number four in the sequence. Living believers, number three, will be instantly translated. Number four, both groups meet the Lord in the air.
You know, that word meet actually is used sometimes where you have a delegation meeting an important person. Not to stretch it too much but it’s almost as if the people now who have been raptured, join as do those who previously died, and they, of course, have been translated, and everybody who believes in Christ (all those in Christ) have their permanent bodies. It’s almost as if we are going toward Jesus in a procession, and we’re saying, “Hail, King Jesus. Thank You for coming for us. Thank You for redeeming us. Here we are, Jesus, Everlasting King.” (applause)
And then Paul says, “So shall we ever be with the Lord.” “Always with the Lord” is what this translation says. Always means forever. Think about it. We are going to be with the Lord. If Pre-tribulationism is correct we’re going to be with the Lord during the Great Tribulation on earth. We will be in heaven with the Lord.
No matter what you believe about the future, we will be with Him when He returns in glory to establish His kingdom. We’ll be with Him during the thousand-year millennial reign that we will talk about in this series, and we will be with Him while we reign with Him forever and ever and ever with Him.
You know, of course it’s not only being with Jesus. Oh, how wonderful that is, but it’s also being with all of our friends. Clearly that’s why the Apostle Paul says, “Encourage one another with these words.” It isn’t just that everybody is going to be with Jesus, but everybody is going to be with everybody else that they knew on earth so that when somebody dies as a believer, and we say that we shall see them again, and we shall connect with them again, we actually mean that. The departures on earth for Christians are never permanent. You never really say goodbye. You say goodnight.
You know the expression that those who sleep in Jesus? The imagery is this, and you mothers can relate to this. You have a little baby. You have fed the baby and now you have lulled the baby to sleep. When Christians die, it is as if Jesus has lulled them to sleep in His arms, and then of course, they shall rise to be with Him forever and ever. So comfort one another, encourage one another with these words. Weep but not as those who have no hope.
Now the implications of this for all of us, I think, are somewhat momentous, aren’t they? One of them is an inspiration and a motivation toward holiness. Listen to what John says. He says, “Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know when he appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.” Think about that for a moment. You’ll be like Christ. That is, you’ll have a body like Jesus. I mean we’re talking about no doctor bills because there’ll be no cancer, no aches, no pains, and no need for sleep. We will be like Him for we shall see Him as he is.
And then, as the New Testament always does, it doesn’t give us these prophetic words just to satisfy our curiosity. John goes on and says, “And he who has this hope in him purifies himself, even as Christ is pure.” The motivation to holy living is always there. It is always presented. The return of Christ is presented to change us, to change our priorities, to say all the things of this world that I think are so important (success) I want to exchange for significance. I’ll tell you that the next message I preach in this series is going to be very sobering because the next message is based on 2 Corinthians 5:10 where it says, “We all (speaking of Christians) shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad.” Wow! So it’s a motivation to holiness.
Secondly, obviously it’s a motivation for preparedness. I don’t know whether there is a word like preparedness, but let’s just say there is now. I mean, can you imagine a table with bits and pieces of plastic and wood, but also some little bits of iron filings, and then a very strong and powerful electro-magnet just goes over them, and you’ve got all these little iron filings all being pulled up and connecting to the magnet. Everything else is left behind.
When Jesus returns, the question I want to leave you with is, will you be left behind? Actually that might be a great title for a series of books. (laughter) But people will be left behind. My question is whether or not it’s you.
You know, dogs can be very loyal. In fact, I think they all are. There is a story about a farmer who had a very close relationship with his dog, and then the old farmer died. They took his body and they put it in a coffin in a box and they put it on the train. And according to the story that I heard his dog came to the train every single day when it came to the station. The dog was always hoping that his master would return.
God says in the Old Testament, “The donkeys know their owner; the cows know where the stalls are, but my people, they don’t know.” I have to ask you a simple question today. Do you love Jesus, do you love His appearing, and do you love Him for the right reasons? At the Parliament of World Religions many years ago I met a woman, and somehow I forget how the conversation began, but I was asking her if she loved Jesus and she said, “Oh yes, I love him,” and she began to cry. She said, “I love him.” I said, “Why?” She said, “I love him because of all the miracles he did. I love him because he loved children. I love him, I love him, I love him.” And I looked square into her eye and I said, “Do you also love him because he died on the cross as a sacrifice for sins so that we could be forgiven and know God?” And she broke eye contact with me and said, “I never thought of that before.” You can even love Jesus for the wrong reasons, and I urge you today, if you’ve never trusted Him as Savior, He did die on the cross for our sins so that we could know Him, and so that we could connect with God, and so that we could be what the New Testament calls “in Christ,” so that when the Rapture happens we’re caught up together with the Lord in the clouds.
Face to face with Christ, my Savior,
Face to face, what will it be?
When with rapture I behold him,
Jesus Christ, who died for me.
Only faintly now I see him,
With a darkling veil between,
But a blessed day is coming,
When his glory shall be seen.
I hope that all of us will be ready. Let us pray.
Father, we pray that the momentous things that we spoke about today may grip us. May those who know You come trembling in your presence willing to give up their sins. May all of us be willing to be pure, even as Jesus is pure. And may those who do not know Christ as Savior hurry to Him as the only one who can save them, that they too may die in Christ. We’ve nothing more to say, Lord, to You except that we hope that You’ll do a work in us that is permanent and lasting, and we do love You, and we do anticipate Your return, and we can hardly wait, and we pray in Your name, Amen.