Chapter 16

Preliminary Events

In times of crises throughout the centuries the Rapture of the Church has been the hope of the saints. When disappointments, sorrows and disasters come upon men and women and all earthly prospects are swept away from under their feet, instinctively they look to the Lord for deliverance. Is this hope a figment of the imagination or is it based upon factual foundation?

Foundational Facts

Someone has well said that all fundamental principles and doctrines set forth in the Scriptures are to be found in their embryonic form at least, in the book of Genesis. Are there traces, then, of this glorious hope in the "Book of Beginnings"? Yes, in the case of Enoch, the seventh in the theocratic line from Adam:

And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah: and Enoch walked with God after he begat Methuselah three hundred years, and begat sons and daughters: and all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: and Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him (Gen. 5:21-24).

God always has His men, a faithful remnant, who will oppose the wrong in order to be faithful to Him. Such was Enoch. He did not float with the times, but walked with God by faith, simply trusting Him and taking Him at His word. No doubt many of his contemporaries thought him a crank or a fool because he did not live as they did. The farther he walked in the pathway of life with God the clearer the way became until, finally, when he had completed his work here below, he disappeared mysteriously from his earthly environment. His neighbors and friends were unable to find him, for "God took him."

Enoch's experience doubtless has a typical significance and indicates that at the psychological moment, when God has completed the work He has for His Church, suddenly and mysteriously she will disappear from this wicked world, as clearly set forth in the New Testament.

Elijah was another who did not see death but was taken up to God in a mysterious, miraculous manner. We are frequently told that "death is a debt all must pay," but the prophet's experience shows conclusively that this is not necessary. While death is the common lot of the human race, these two men of God were exempted and there will be other exceptions, for when our Lord descends from Heaven to raise the dead in Christ, He will then catch up all the living saints to meet Him in the air (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

The text in Luke concerning the Rapture differs somewhat from that in Matthew. By closely examining the two passages we can see that each writer was viewing the situation from a different angle. Yet the similarities are so great that it is evident both were recording the same prediction. These records are not contradictory but supplemental. In Matthew's statement the personal coming of our Lord for His saints is emphasized, whereas Luke is especially interested in the manifestation of the kingdom of God upon the earth.

These differing aspects of the same prediction might be illustrated by holding a coin between two people and asking them to describe what they see on it. Both would be looking at the same piece of money, but from a different viewpoint, so their truthful statements would naturally differ.

There can be no doubt in the mind of the faithful believer that every word spoken by Matthew and Luke was uttered by the Lord; however, neither one purports to be an exhaustive, verbatim record of all that was said on this occasion. Mark's record, as you can see, is virtually identical to Matthew's account.

Analysis of Matthew 24:32-36

The fig tree: Are we to understand that Jesus was referring to a literal fig tree in vs. 32 or did He have a symbolic significance in mind? Some students affirm that we are to understand this passage as being figurative, while others insist that it is to be taken literally. In view of this controversy, it becomes necessary again to call attention to the fundamental principle of interpreting all language--each word is to be taken at its primary, ordinary, usual significance unless there is warrant in the context justifying a departure from the literal meaning and demanding a figurative one. We search in vain, however, for evidence demanding a departure from the normal meaning in the words of this passage.

But doesn't the fig tree signify Israel? Is it not a symbol of the Jewish nation? In Joel 1:7 it does have this figurative significance, as seen in studying the entire context of ch. 1. The fig tree was a symbol of the Jewish nation and was used in this way on certain occasions. The question is, does the fig tree have a symbolic meaning in this passage? No, the context here does not warrant a departure from the literal meaning. As I see it, Jesus simply called His disciples' attention to an illustration in the vegetable kingdom. Whenever they saw the fig tree budding they knew assuredly that spring was near. Remember that people in our Lord's day did not have several calendars on the walls of their homes as we do. But they could tell that winter was breaking up and spring was approaching by the budding of the trees.

One February day years ago, I left Winnipeg, Canada, after a month's stay. The thermometer was registering thirty-five below zero with a strong, cold wind blowing. But two days later I stepped off the train in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the trees were beginning to bud and I knew that spring had come on the Pacific Northwest coast--the evidence of it was before my eyes! Such is the force of our Lord's reference to the fig tree. As one can tell by the budding of the fig tree that summer is near, "ye also, when ye see all these things, know ye that he is nigh, even at the doors."

"All these things": What is meant by this expression? The answer is found in vs. 8: "But all these things are the beginning of travail." We have already found that the things referred to in vs. 8 are explained in vs. 7--a world war, famine, pestilences and great earthquakes in diverse places. These four things occurring at the same time constitute the first birth-pain, the warning pain that indicates to the world that the time for it to be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God is close at hand.

Since "all these things" in vss. 7, 8 constitute the sign of the end of the age which naturally precedes that great event, and since "all these things" in vs. 33 refers to the same catastrophes, we see that this passage takes our thoughts back from the Millennial Age of vs. 31 to the time prior to the world war, famines, pestilences and great earthquakes in diverse places. Here our Lord was employing the Law of Recurrence.

To review the discourse up to this point, vss. 7 and 8 give us the sign of the end of the age, the first birth-pain. Vss. 9-14 give us a rapid survey of the spiritual and moral conditions of the Great Tribulation. In vss. 15-28 our Lord employs "the Law of Recurrence" and gives us another view of the Great Tribulation period, laying emphasis upon the immediate cause, its horrors and sufferings and the false christs who will prey upon the credulity of the people. In vss. 29-31 He describes the phenomena in the natural world, both terrestrial and celestial, with which the age terminates and concludes the verses with a prediction of His coming to establish the glorious Millennial kinodom uoon the earth. Then in vss. 32 and 33, by calling attention to the "all these things" mentioned in vss. 7 and 8, He takes the apostles' minds from the Millennial Age back to the time preceding the sign of the end--a world war with famines, pestilences and great earthquakes in diverse places. If World War I with its attending calamities was the fulfillment of this prediction, which I am strongly inclined to believe, then vss. 32 and 33 are directed especially to the generation living in 1914. I will not be dogmatic on this point--we should each have an open mind to investigate any fresh evidence that the Lord brings to us.

Analysis of Luke 21:29-33

In this passage, which is parallel to the one which we have just discussed, our Lord called the disciples attention not only to the fig tree but to all the trees. If the fig tree here symbolizes the Jewish nation, the other trees would indicate the rest of the nations. According to this theory, Israel is without national life until she begins to show signs of political revival, then the kingdom of God is near. Since the hypothesis assumes Israel's national death, the reference to the other trees must signify a similar condition among the nations. But this is not true to the facts, so we can only assume that Jesus used the fig tree and all the other trees in a literal sense and that He drew His illustration from the natural realm with which the disciples were familiar.

Matthew emphasized that the personal return of the Lord would be near whenever the disciples should observe a world war, famines, pestilences and great earthquakes occurring simultaneously. However, Luke emphasized the kingdom of God instead of the personal return of our Lord. Both are true. When the Lord returns in power and glory He will set up the kingdom foretold in the Old Testament as the restored kingdom of Israel which will increase until it includes all nations. With the exception of these points, Luke's record is parallel with those of Matthew and Mark.

The Significance

Having studied the passages in Matt. 24:32-36, Mark 13:28-32 and Luke 21:29-33 that pertain to the preliminaries to the Rapture of the Church, we are now ready to gather our data together and state plainly their teaching.

By calling attention to "all these things" (Matt. 24:33), our Lord carried the minds of the apostles back to the time antedating the world war, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes. Whenever you see such a colossal catastrophe, he was saying, you can know that My return is close at hand, "even at the doors." Thus our Lord said that the generation which witnesses a world war should be looking momentarily for His return. "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished" (vs. 34).

What is meant by "this generation"? Some answer that it is the Jewish race. The word in the original does mean people of the same race. Thayer in his Greek lexicon gives that as one of the four meanings of the word. Whenever a word has more than one meaning, the signification must be accepted that accords with all the facts of the context. In the preceding verses the Lord stated that when a world war with famines, pestilences, and great earthquakes occurs He, Jesus, is near--that is, His coming is near. This thought shows that He is talking about time, the shortness of the time between the sign of the coming and the actual advent. To claim that the word generation in this instance should be understood as a reference to the Jewish race does not, as I see it, accord with the facts of the context. But the span of a generation--the length of time of a generation--fits exactly with the demands of the context and the flow of the thought.

What is the length of a generation? According to modern statistics, a generation is looked upon as being from thirty-five to forty years. Jesus was not looking at things from the modern point of view, but from the Scriptural standpoint. According to Moses in Ps. 90:10 a generation is threescore and ten years, "or even by reason of strength fourscore years." There is no other Scriptural statement that limits a generation or modifies this statement. Hence, as I see it, it is the Scriptural norm for the lifespan of a generation--seventy or eighty years.

According to the Lord Jesus, the generation which witnesses the sign of the end of the age--a world war with its attending circumstances--will not pass away until all these things shall be accomplished. Was he talking about a generation that has spent half or three-quarters of its life before this sign occurs? Such an interpretation of these words would be meaningless. Since Jesus was giving a definite idea of time by His use of the word generation in this passage, it could only mean the generation that was rising when the sign occurred.*

The expression, "all these things," in Matt. 24:34 has a broader significance than it does in vs. 33. As already discussed, vs. 33 refers to the things mentioned in vss. 7 and 8--the sign of the closing age or the first birth-pang. But in vs. 34 it includes all of the things mentioned in the discourse up to this point. Otherwise it has no meaning. As we have already learned, the prediction not only includes the Great Tribulation, but the personal return of our Lord at the conclusion of that period and the establishment of the kingdom of God upon the earth. Therefore if the major conflict of 1914-1918 is the thing referred to by our Lord in this passage, we may be certain that all of the things mentioned in the prediction will occur within the lifespan of the generation of that time.

If World War I, attended by famines, pestilences and earthquakes was the world war, and if we are to accept the statements of Rev. 6 and 16 as predictions of two subsequent world struggles, which of these are we to understand is the sign of the end of the age? In other words, if the Bible foretells a series of world wars, how are we to tell which of the series is the first birth-pang?

Though the illustration of telephone posts was previously used, the importance of this subject justifies repeating it. Suppose that I live in a rural district on a highway and that you are coming to visit me. Upon stopping someone and inquiring the distance to my place, you are told, "On the left side of the road there is a telephone line with the wires attached immediately to the posts. Pay no attention to them until you see a post with a crossarm. Directly across from it is Cooper's gate." Several miles are driven before the post with the crossarm is sighted. Beyond this one, however, you notice that all the posts have crossarms. Opposite which one would you expect to find my gate? Common sense immediately answers, "the first one."

Since the Bible foretells a series of world conflicts and since our Lord designates such a one attended by famines, pestilences and great earthquakes in diverse places as the sign of the end of the age, one would naturally conclude that when the first one transpires we are to understand that it is the sign of the closing age. And the generation seeing the infallible sign of the end of the age will also witness the glorious coming of Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God upon the earth.

Parallel Promises

In 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Paul speaks of the Rapture of the Church and informs us that the Lord will "descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God" and that "them also that are fallen asleep [dead] in Jesus will God bring with him."

The dead in Christ will rise first, followed by the living saints who will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air: "And the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Here occurs a definite promise of the Rapture. Note in this passage that the Lord will not come all the way to the earth, but that the saints, risen and translated, will meet Him in the air.

In 1 Cor. 15:50-52 the same hope is set forth:
"Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." In our natural bodies we cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Though we are in the spiritual kingdom of God at the present time (Col. 1:13), we cannot inherit the kingdom that will be revealed at the second coming of our Lord. That the saved are in the kingdom of God during this dispensation is indisputable. But the kingdom that we are now in is not the only phase of God's rule and government. Paul taught his young converts, who undoubtedly were in the kingdom, that "through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Peter urged Christians to give all diligence in supplying in their faith the Christian graces and assured them of the blessed promise: "For thus shall be richly supplied unto you the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:11). These and many other passages speak of the kingdom of God which will be established when Jesus returns. It is this kingdom which cannot be inherited in the mortal state. In this great passage which we are now studying, Paul told how men will be transformed so they may enter it.

"Behold, I tell you a mystery." A mystery is not something that is intangible or incomprehensible but simply that which has not been made known. After it has been declared it ceases to be a mystery--it is a revelation. There are several mysteries referred to in the New Testament but the one which he had in mind here is, "We all shall not sleep." Frequently we hear people say that death is a debt which all must pay. Such doctrine is contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul here, for "sleep" is the Scriptural term for dying. Instead of dying, Paul declared that "we shall all be changed." This statement was made to the church at Corinth directly and to "all that call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, their Lord and ours" (1:2).

When one recognizes the character of the church at Corinth--how carnal it was and how many errors and sinful practices were being carried on with official approval--and when he notes the statement "we shall all be changed," he realizes as never before the abounding grace of God. The Lord does not put a premium upon sinfulness; neither am I making any apologies for the same. I am, however, trying to look the facts in the face. To this church at Corinth which he called "carnal," Paul by the Spirit declared, "we shall all be changed." From this statement I conclude that every regenerated, born-again child of God will be caught up at the time of our Lord's coming and of the translation of the saints.

The Rapture mentioned in the Thessalonian and Corinthian letters we have just studied occurs at the time of our Lord's coming. It is promised in Matt. 24:32-36, but it will become more abundantly evident when we study the next section of this passage.


* EDITOR'S NOTE: There are two pertinent aspects to this concept: 1) the rising generation could be considered to consist of those who were born early enough to read the Scriptures and then, looking about them, recognize the things occurring as the fulfillment of this prophecy. This would have been the case with the generation born around the turn of the century. Anyone born around 1900 would have been a teenager during World War I--the time of the first birth-pang--and would fit in this category. 2) "This generation" could refer to those born near the time of nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom, famines and earthquakes in diverse places--all these things that are "the beginning of travail" (Matt. 24:7,8). In either case, "this generation" was to be alive when these things began and everything was to be accomplished during their normal life expectancy of seventy to eighty years (Ps 90:10)

To illustrate this second group, I was born in 1913 just before World War I. Some of my first recollections had to do with the boys being "over there" and the songs of the day "Tipperary," "Hinky Dinky Parlezvous." I remember the newsboys coming down the street shouting, "The Armistice has been signed!" and Dad holding me on his shoulder when the boys came marching home. I had that terrible killer flu during the epidemic of 1918 and I vaguely recollect the family discussing a big earthquake somewhere. While I knew nothing of these prophecies at the time, yet they live to me because of these experiences. And Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished" (vs.34).
-David L. Cooper Jr.