God did not present His entire revelation at once. This fact can be grasped almost intuitively. The Bible contains sixty-six books. They were written over a process of at least fourteen hundred years. It makes sense that God would continue to reveal truth all through the canon.
Often the newer revelations serve to fill in the details of previously-revealed information. For example, Genesis 3:15 gives a promise of a future seed of the woman, someone who will crush the serpent’s head. This promise implies a future Redeemer who will save people from their sin. In Genesis 3, however, details are scant.
The rest of the Old Testament fills in this promise with an increasingly clear picture of a coming Redeemer. Readers learn that He will be a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He will be Shiloh from the line of Judah. He will be the Messiah, the son of David. Readers gain details about Messiah’s birthplace, mission, kingdom, priesthood, and suffering.
Not until the New Testament, however, do they discover that the coming of the Messiah will actually be two comings. This information was never disclosed in the Old Testament. Indeed, certain passages placed details from both comings side-by-side in the same prophecy and even in the same sentence. One example is Isaiah 61:2, cited by the Lord Jesus of Himself in the synagogue of Nazareth (Lk. 4:16-21). The first half of the verse is about Jesus’ first coming, and the latter half (which Jesus did not quote) is about His second coming. The two would never be distinguishable on the basis of Isaiah’s words alone. Only the events of the New Testament provide that detail.
In other words, what the Old Testament views as an undifferentiated event, the New Testament views as a plural event. Both the first and the second comings are aspects of the coming of Messiah that was foretold in the Old Testament. The undifferentiated coming presented in the Old Testament turns out to be a complex of events.
Complex events are not uncommon in biblical prophecy. They become apparent when later events or teachings distinguish details that were not disclosed in earlier prophecies. From a later perspective, these complexes can still be grouped under the rubric of the original event, but they can also be recognized as distinct, particular events that together compose the original event.
Another example is provided by the first coming of Jesus. A discussion of Jesus’ first coming will include many events. Among others these are the annunciation, visitation, nativity, presentation, epiphany, flight into Egypt, disputation, baptism, various discourses and miracles, triumphal entry, crucifixion, resurrection, the ascension. Any of these events can be spoken of as accomplished at Jesus’ first coming. Jesus was born in Bethlehem at His first coming. Jesus fed the five thousand at His first coming. Jesus died and rose again at His first coming. Clearly the undifferentiated event of Messiah’s first coming included many particular events. The complex event of Jesus’ first coming occupied well over thirty years.
If the coming of Messiah is a complex event, and if the first coming is also a complex event, it would hardly be surprising if the second coming also turned out to be a complex event. In fact, that is just what the Bible teaches. The New Testament presents a second coming in which the complex of events covers something more than seven years. It begins with the return of Jesus in the air for His Church, and it ends with the coming of Jesus to the earth to establish His kingdom. The former event is often specified as the Rapture, but both events are parts or aspects of Jesus’ second coming.
Since the Rapture is specifically Jesus’ second coming in the air for His Church, it could not have been revealed until the Church itself was revealed. Nothing in the Old Testament foretells the future existence of the Church and nothing in the Old Testament prophesies the Rapture. Furthermore, Jesus only hinted once or twice at the future existence of the Church—and He gave few details in these hints (see Matt. 16:18). Consequently, the gospels contain no explicit teaching about the Rapture.
Specifically, the Olivet Discourse teaches nothing explicitly about the Rapture. In this discourse, Jesus answered questions that had been posed by the disciples. When they asked these questions, the disciples knew nothing about a Church age that would intervene before the establishment of Jesus’ glorious kingdom. They asked about the end of the age, but they were not asking about the Church age. They were asking about the age that terminated with Jesus establishing His kingdom in glory. Jesus answered the questions they asked. The Olivet Discourse contains some information about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It contains much information about the Tribulation, or Daniel’s Seventieth Week. It contains applications that can be made by all believers, including Church saints. What it does not contain is explicit teaching or information about the Rapture.
The clearest hint that Jesus gave about the Rapture was in John 14:1-4. There He told the disciples that He would return to take them to the home that He was going to prepare for them in His Father’s house. From the perspective of later revelation, readers can understand that Jesus was talking about the Rapture. At the moment, however, this statement struck the disciples as a puzzling anomaly. As Thomas expressed (John 14:5), they lacked the framework to understand where Jesus’ promise would fit into previous revelation.
The earliest direct biblical teachings about the Rapture occur in the Thessalonian epistles. These letters were written about twenty years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The first direct explanation of the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:13ff) was given to address the ignorance of the Thessalonian believers—in other words, they did not previously know what Paul taught them in these verses.
The doctrine of the Rapture was disclosed very late in the progress of revelation. The Old Testament contributes nothing, and the gospels contribute very little, toward the development of this doctrine. If it is to be understood at all, it has to be understood within the eschatological framework that is presented from the Thessalonian epistles onward.
The late appearance of this teaching should not provoke surprise. Many other teachings had to be revealed before the doctrine of the Rapture could even make sense. It has to be understood as one aspect of a complex event that is itself an aspect of an even more complex event. But that is how revelation works: it provides increasing detail over time.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
And Must This Body Die?
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
And must this body die?
This mortal frame decay?
And must these active limbs of mine
Lie mould’ring in the clay?
Corruption, earth, and worms,
Shall but refine this flesh,
Till my triumphant spirit comes
To put it on afresh.
God, my Redeemer, lives,
And ever, from the skies,
Looks down and watches all my dust,
Till He shall bid it rise.
Arrayed in glorious grace
Shall these vile bodies shine,
And ev’ry shape, and ev’ry face,
Look heav’nly and divine.
These lively hopes we owe
To Jesus’ dying love;
We would adore His grace below,
And sing His power above.
Dear Lord, accept the praise
Of these our humble songs,
Till tunes of nobler sound we raise
With our immortal tongues.