The Rapture Of the Church
January 12th, 1958 @ 7:30 PM
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
THE RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
1-12-58 7:30 p.m.
Now, let us all turn to the first Thessalonian letter – all of us – First Thessalonians. The first Thessalonian letter, the fourth chapter. We’re going to read this great apocalyptic passage – one of the great eschatological Scriptures in the Bible: First Thessalonians 4:13-18. We all have it? The first epistle of Paul to the church at Thessalonica, the fourth chapter, beginning at the thirteenth verse. Now, let’s all of us read it together:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not even as others which have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first.
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so shall we ever be with the Lord.
Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
[1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]
I said this morning that I was preparing four sermons on this passage. The first one was the sermon of hope; "That Ye Sorrow Not as Others Who Have No Hope," and that was the message this morning. Then, the message tonight on the translation of God’s believing children, sometimes called "the Rapture" – called that because we shall see our Lord. We shall be enraptured with His presence, the glory of His appearing.
Then the third sermon is to be on The Great Separation; these who are caught up to meet the Lord in the air – all of the church, all of God’s believing people and the earth without a Christian – The Great Separation. Then, the fourth one; Forever with the Lord: "Wherefore comfort one another with these words" [1 Thessalonians 4:18] – "forever with the Lord" [1 Thessalonians 4:17].
Now, the sermon tonight is the second one on the passage, the translation of God’s believing children, the rapture of His church; the immortalization, the transfiguration of God’s living and the resurrection of our beloved dead who sleep in Jesus. This passage is, of all eschatological passages, somewhat the most meaningful because it delineates; it discusses. It’s a further revelation of the most precious of all of the promises of our Lord.
This has never been said before, never been mentioned before except one time and that from the lips of our blessed Savior. So we’re going back now to the life of our Lord and see how it was that He said that and now Paul avows that this further revelation came from the same Lord Jesus Himself.
The Old Testament prophets spake of the coming of our Lord endlessly. Almost the whole substance of their prophesying was the glory of the Messianic kingdom and the exaltation and wonder of the Messianic king. From the start of the Old Testament Scriptures to the last syllable, it is filled with those glorious prophetic utterances of the coming Lord and Savior and Redeemer and triumphant King. The only thing the Old Testament prophet never saw was this:he never saw an interval between two appearances of the Messiah. He just saw one.
There’s no exception to that. There was no Old Testament seer or sage or preacher or prophet who saw other than that great wonderful vision of the coming King. Sometimes, he’d describe Him as Isaiah did: a man lowly and acquainted with grief [Isaiah 53:3], a Lamb of God [Isaiah 53:6], a suffering servant by whose stripes we are healed [Isaiah 53:5]. And the same prophet in the next voice would describe the glory and the majesty of that incomparable servant of God whom he names Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace [Isaiah 9:6]. They put it all together. To them it was one great prophetic promise and vision.
Now, the disciples were like that. They never saw in between a great valley of the suffering Lamb of God who should come for the sins of the world, who should die for us, and then this long age called the age of the church, the age of the Spirit, the dispensation of the Holy Ghost. They never saw that.
And the disciples, when they heard the Baptist [John the Baptist] announce that the Messiah was in their very midst, they were filled with all of those glorious expectations of the coming king and the establishment of the house of God among the nations: the exaltation of Judah, one of them to sit on His right hand, one of them to sit on His left hand [Matthew 20:20-21] to lead Israel out from under the bondage and the yoke of the Roman government and to establish forever the kingdom of Israel [Acts 1:6]. They were filled with those glorious expectations. They were doing nothing but reflecting the Old Testament Scriptures that they loved and had read all their lives.
Can you imagine, then, the crest fall and despair that came upon the Lord’s disciples when He began to tell them that He was to be slain, to be killed? [Matthew 16:21] It was inconceivable to their minds and understanding. And when actually and finally, the Lord of glory died on the cross like a felon, like a criminal, like a malefactor [Matthew 27:44; Luke 23:39] – when finally Jesus was slain and they looked at Him in death, to them it was the end of the Messianic hope. There expired in the death of Jesus every dream and every prophetic vision that they had read in the Bible and that they had loved and entertained in their hearts.
For, you see, they did not realize – they had not come to know that there was first a coming of our Lord in suffering, in humility, taking upon Him the diseases and the sins and the illnesses and the infirmities of the people, and dying, an atoning redeemer for the world [1 Peter 2:24]. Then some of these days – some glorious triumphant day, some other day, some farther day – there should be another coming of the Lord in grace and in triumph and in mighty power, visible, open, establishing a kingdom that shall abide forever and forever [Revelation 1:7].
In the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, Paul describes that great parenthesis that the Old Testament prophet never saw. He says hid in the counsels of God from the beginning of the world was this "mystery" [Ephesians 3:9] he calls it.
A "mystery" in the Bible is a secret known to God and just imparted and shared with those who are initiated. That’s the meaning of the word "mystery" in the Greek language: a musterion. The musterion – the mystery religions – they had secrets like in a Masonic lodge, and nobody knew them except they who were initiated.
So Paul calls this great parenthesis, the age in which we now live that the prophets of the Old Testament never saw, he calls that a musterion. It was something hid in the counsels of God that they never saw, and it was only revealed to the holy apostles that Christ should die in the first appearing and that the gospel of the Son of God should be preached to all of the world in this day and in this age, and that it should consummate, conclude with a glorious and marvelous personal triumph of Jesus over His enemies shared in by all of those who place their trust in Him.
Now, when the Lord made that announcement to His apostles – they who were filled with all of these visions of grandeur of the coming king and of the kingdom that should last forever, and they on His right hand and on His left hand [Mark 10:37] – when He made the announcement to them that He was to die, they were plunged into uncontrollable, indescribable grief and despair. And it was then that Jesus made the first revelation of this something else that was to come to pass.
Listen to Him. I referred a moment ago to it as being the most precious of all of the promises of our Lord: "Let not your heart be troubled" [John 14:1].
No wonder they were troubled. Every hope and vision of their life was being snuffed out in the crucifixion and death of their Lord and king.
Let not your heart be troubled . . .
In My Father’s house are many mansions . . . 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 you may be also.
Before the consummation of that kingdom, before His appearing in glory and in power, the Lord says He’s going away. He’s going to heaven, to the Father’s house, and there build a city for us; and, someday, He’s coming again to receive us and take us to His Father’s house: "That where I am, there you may be also" [John 14:3].
"I will come again": that is not death. In death, our spirits, disembodied, go to be with Jesus [2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:14]. He’s coming for us. That’s not the destruction of Jerusalem. "Let not your hearts be troubled" [John 14:3]. "I will come again in the destruction of Jerusalem." That’s not the destruction of the Roman Empire. That’s not scientific advancement and the spreading of scientific knowledge in the earth and a thousand other things that people say that it is. When He says, "I will come again," that is our Lord – living, triumphant, Himself: He our blessed Savior! He is coming for His own, and He told the disciples that in the shadow of the cross and in the midst of their grieving despair.
Now, that is what Paul is adding to in this apocalyptic passage that we’ve just read together: "I will come again" [John 14:3]. And how shall it be? "This we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain" in this world when that great and glorious and triumphant day comes, "we who are alive and remain, we shall be caught up with God’s sainted and resurrected dead" [1 Thessalonians 4:15-17]. We shall be caught up with them, transformed, immortalized, transfigured [1 Corinthians 15:51-53], translated like Enoch was [Genesis 5:24] walking with the Lord and there in the presence of God forever. We who are alive and remain, we shall be caught up with God’s sainted dead to meet the Lord in the air when He comes for us [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. And look how Paul describes that: "For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven" [1 Thessalonians 4:16], and he uses three phrases there: en keleusmati; second, en phōnē archangelou; third, en salpingi Theou. One, two, three.
"For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven" [1 Thessalonians 4:16]: en keleusmati. Keleuo is the Greek verb for "to order, to command." Keleusma is the Greek word for "the shout, the order of command." It is used in Greek to refer to a general giving a command to his army. It’s used in Greek to refer to an admiral addressing his horseman. It is used in Greek to refer to a charioteer as he drives his horses: a shout of command – en keleusmati.
"The Lord shall descend from heaven with a shout" [1 Thessalonians 4:16]. The Lord God shall speak, and these dead shall arise incorruptible [1 Corinthians 15:52]. Think of the sovereignty and the power of the commanding, decreeing, electing, Almighty sovereign God! It’s like somebody said when the Lord Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and said, "Lazarus, come forth!" [John 11:43]: had He not used the name "Lazarus," had He not called him by name, the entire dead of the entire world would have arisen and come forth to meet the living Lord.
With a shout, with a shout of command, God shall speak and these graves shall be emptied, and these who are alive who trust in Jesus shall be raptured – translated, transformed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:52]. The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout [1 Thessalonians 4:16], en keleusmati – a shout of command: "Arise. Arise. Arise!" And the dead shall hear the voice of God and live again: with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, en phōnē archangelou.
The archangel: there’s only one in the Bible, just one, and his name is Michael [Daniel 10:13, 21, 12:1;Jude 1:9; Revelation 12:7]. That’s one of the strangest revelations there: "that, at the voice of Michael, the archangel" [1 Thessalonians 4:16].
I’ve thought and wondered with "the voice of the archangel," with the voice of Michael. Well, I’ll tell you why. That is the voice of victory and of triumph! For Michael is he that wars against Satan, and Satan and his angels war against Michael. And ever since that Garden of Eden, Michael has been the defender of his people and the protector of Israel. And in this great and final day, the shout of the archangel, Michael, is a shout of glory and of triumph – the shout of the archangel, when Michael raises his voice, and Satan and death are vanquished, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God:en salpingi Theou, "and with the trumpet of God" [1 Thessalonians 4:16].
Paul described that trumpet in the first Corinthian letter and the fifteenth chapter: "This I say, brethren, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" [1 Corinthians 15:50]. As long as things as they are now, we’ll never have the kingdom of God. As long as we’re in this body of sin, we’ll never have a new body nor shall we ever walk those golden streets in our impurity and our iniquity.
"Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption [1 Corinthians 15:50]. But I show you a mystery" – a mustērion. There it is again – a mustērion, a thing hidden in the heart of God that no man could ever know save by revelation. "I show you a mustērion. We’re not all going to sleep" [1 Corinthians 15:51]. Some of us are going to be alive when He comes. In a moment – we shall not all sleep. 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 all be changed" [1 Corinthians 15:52].
There that same thing is again as it is over here: with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we shall all be changed [from 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52]. Well, what is that "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump" – the last trump? [1 Corinthians 15:52]
Well, here’s what he’s referring to. In the Roman army, in the marching of those legionnaires conquering and all conquering, there were three blastings of the trumpet. First, when the trumpet sounded in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day – at any hour – every Roman legionnaire sprang to his feet and struck his tent. At the sounding of the second trumpet, every legionnaire stood in line, ready to march. And at the sounding of the last trump, away and away and away did they march.
That’s what he means "the last trump": time to march, time to rise. "Rise, shine, all Jerusalem, all Israel, all church, all people of God, for the glory of thy light is come and the favor and blessing of the Lord God is upon thee. Arise, shine. Put on thy beautiful garments" [from Isaiah 60:1]. My soul, what a day, what a day at the blowing of the trumpet of God.
You know, I almost just stopped there and prepared me a sermon on the blowing of the trumpet of God, but if I were to stop and prepare a sermon every time I want to, we’d never get through this Bible. But you could sure do it. I tell you, I’d put in there the blowing of the trumpet when they went around Jericho and on the seventh day and the seventh time and they blew the trumpet and the walls of Jericho fell down! [Joshua 6:4-5, 12-20] And you ought to sing that song again. Don’t you have a song like that? Do you have any trumpet setting? If you don’t, it’s not scriptural. It’s not a scriptural song. No, sir. They fell at the blowing of the trumpets [Joshua 6:20] – trumpet of God.
They blew the trumpet at the beginning of a new year: a new day, a new hope. They blew the trumpets at the great jubilee. They blew the trumpets when they went into battle marching for God. And, "The voice I heard behind me was as a trumpet" [Revelation 1:10]. Oh, the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ rising first, and we who are alive caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].
Now, one or two little things: who are these who are raised, and who are these who are translated? Not all the dead. It’s a selective, elective, resurrection: only those hear the trumpet of God and the voice of the archangel and the shout of command from God – whose hearts have been turned to the Lord. And the rest do not hear. They’re not raised. They lie in a Christless grave. That’s here tonight. Do you hear? Can you hear? Does the voice of God speak to your heart? Does the Spirit have a way into your soul? Can you hear?
Listen, friend, beloved, if you can hear the voice of God and the Spirit of God, and you open your heart to the call and command of God tonight, you’ll hear Him again in that great day that He comes for His saints. But if you can’t hear it now, you won’t hear it then.
God has to do something. And if you die and are buried and never have heard and given your heart to the command of God, when that day comes, one is taken, you’ll be left [Matthew 24:40-41], and God’s sainted dead arise out of the dust of the ground [1 Thessalonians 4:16], and you shall stay buried in the earth until the judgment of the wicked dead described at the Great White Throne in the twentieth chapter of the Revelation [Revelation 20:11-15]. "O God, blessed are they who have a part in the first resurrection – in this resurrection – for upon them the second death shall have no power" [Revelation 20:6].
Do you hear the voice of the Lord? Do you? Can you hear it? Does He call the shout and command of God? Then respond with your life! And someday, you’ll respond from the grave if you fall before He comes.
A second thing here: where are we going? Paul doesn’t say. This is just for a certain purpose: comforting the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:13, 18]. "Going to meet the Lord in the air" [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. Where we going? Where we going?
Bless your heart, when He comes, He’s coming like a thief in the night [1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3, 16:15]: first, to steal away His jewels. In this earth is a treasure. For it, He paid His life – the pearl of price [Matthew 13:45-46] – and He’s coming without announcement, like a thief in the night, to take away His jewels.
And Paul says here: "And we meet Him in the air" [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. There where the cloud received Him out of their sight [Acts 1:9], our beloved dead raised to stand in the presence of their Lord. And all of us who abide and remain at that time immortalized, transfigured to meet the Lord and to stand in His presence [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].
Then, where we going? Bless your heart. We going where Jesus said He’d prepared a place for us [John 14:2-3]. We’re going to glory. We’re going to heaven, and we’re going to sit down and share with our Lord the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb [Revelation 19:7-9]. We shall be presented, and the Bible uses the expression of a bride adorned in fine linen, clean and white, without spot and without blemish [Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:8]. We shall be presented to Jesus as a bride living by His side, loved in His sight; and when I think of that: glory, glory, glory!
I know some blind, and when they’re presented to Jesus, they can see. And I know some deaf; when they are presented, they can hear. And I know some crippled, contorted, and lame, and when they’re presented, they can walk. And I know some poor, and when they are presented, they will be rich [Revelation 21:4]. And I know some sinners – mostly me – and when we poor, lost sinners are presented, we shall be washed clean and white in the blood of the Lamb [Revelation 7:14, 22:14].
Oh, glory, glory, glory! We not waiting for the worm. We not tarrying for death. We’re not looking forward just to the grave, the night and the dark. But we, in our Lord and in His name, we’re lifting up our eyes and turning our faces to the glorious sun rising when the Lord shall be king of the earth and when we shall reign by His side [2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6, 22:5]. O, Jesus, blessed, blessed Savior! And that’s just the beginning. If we had about five more hours here tonight, we’d talk about what else we’re going to do when we go to be with the Lord.
How could a man say nay to Jesus? "I want no part in it. I want no share in that kingdom. I’d rather die the death of the damned. I’d rather fill a Christless grave. I’d rather live my life outside of His church. I want to be an unrepentant, unbeliever. I want to say no to Jesus and no to this church and no to this preacher. I want to say no to the invitation tonight. I want to go out this door lost and damned and ruined. I want to die!" Oh, no, no, no. That’s Satan’s perversion of our minds and our hearts. My brother, my friend, let us live in His sight. Let us open our hearts to His voice of invitation. Let us look up and trust.
Oh, tonight, tonight, somebody you, would you give your heart to Jesus – entrust your life in His gracious hands? "Lord, if it’s tonight, I’m ready. If it’s at dawn, I’m ready. If it’s at midday or at twilight again, O God, I am ready. Even so, come, Lord Jesus" [Revelation 22:20]. Would you tonight?
Somebody you, put your life in the hands of Jesus. Somebody you: "I’ve already been saved, preacher. I’ve trusted Him as my Savior. Best I know how, I’ve followed the Lord in repentance, in faith, in baptism. I want to be in His church here." Would you come?
Is there a family you? "Here I am, pastor. Here we come."
Down these stairwells at the front, at the back, in this great congregation on the lower floor, somebody you, tonight, tonight: "I take Jesus as my Savior," or, "Tonight, I’m placing my life in the fellowship of His church." Would you make it now? On the first note of this first stanza, into that aisle and down here to the front, "Here I am, pastor, and here I come. Tonight, I make it now" while we stand and while we sing.