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THEOLOGY > Future > End of the Age > Rapture Question > Sequence of End-Time Events



Toward the end of His ministry Jesus spoke to His disciples concerning the Temple in Jerusalem: “Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). The destruction of the Temple was predicted by the Lord, and this prophecy disturbed and perplexed the disciples.

While He was sitting on the Mount of Olives they asked Him a series of questions: “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (v. 3). Their questions reached from the destruction of the Temple to the termination of the current age; they were concerned about the period in which they lived, as well as the events of the future. In response to them Jesus gave the teaching known as the Olivet Discourse, found in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.

Before continuing the main thought, it should be pointed out that Dispensationalists make much of the fact that Jesus is speaking to the “disciples” who are literal Jews and, therefore, are representing, Dispensationalists claim, ethnic Israel. Support for this is said to be the fact that their questions relate to the Jewish Temple and the Lord’s coming in relationship to the Temple. Therefore, the events discussed in the Discourse relate uniquely to Israel and not to the Church. Based upon such reasoning Dispensationalists affirm that the Rapture is not in the Olivet Discourse and that you should not expect to find it there since the entire passage relates exclusively to the nation of Israel. This results in the passage being divorced from the Church before the passage is even considered. Such thinking should be seen for what it is—a novel idea based on unjustified exegesis and with no historical precedence.

Earlier, speaking to the apostles, and particularly to Peter who had responded to the Lord’s question concerning who He was, Jesus informed them of the Church that He will build and the keys that Peter will use (Matt. 16:13-19). Later, in chapter eighteen of Matthew the Lord gives the apostles instruction concerning Church discipline. Shortly after the Olivet Discourse the apostles were with the Lord in the Upper Room observing the Passover, and the Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper for the Church (Matt. 26:17-30). In these three incidents, all related to the Church and all recorded by Matthew, the Apostles were with the Lord. How could anyone believe that when these events occurred the apostles represented the Old Testament ethnic nation of Israel and not the new spiritual Israel that is fully revealed in the New Testament? In the middle of these incidents, there is the Olivet Discourse. When the apostles asked Jesus the questions in verse three, are they asking as representatives of Old Testament Israel or as representatives of the Church that Jesus is building?

Clearly, the apostles stand as representatives of the Church, not of Israel. Hence, their representative role in the Olivet Discourse leads to the conclusion that the tribulational saints addressed through them belong to the Church (Gundry, Church and Tribulation, 134).

It seems that the Lord’s brief answer to the disciples’ first question—“when will these things be?”— regarding the destruction of the Temple is found in Luke 21:20-24, a part of the Olivet Discourse omitted by both Matthew and Mark. The Lord indicates that Jerusalem will be surrounded (v. 20), the people will need to flee (v. 21), and many will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away captive (v. 24). He adds: “And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 24). In AD 70 these predictions were fulfilled when the Roman General Titus captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, destruction reported in detail by Josephus, the Jewish historian.

Matthew and Mark’s accounts focus more on the Lord’s answer to the second question regarding His coming and the end of the age. In verses 4-14 of Matthew 24 Jesus seems to speak of the events of this current age. He speaks of “wars and rumors of wars” (v. 6) and of “famines, pestilences, and earthquakes” (v. 7); these He says are “the beginning of sorrows” (v. 8; “sorrows” are literally “birth pangs”). Believers will be hated, betrayed, and killed (vs. 9-10); and deception will abound (v. 11). There will be the necessity of endurance (v. 13), even while there is the worldwide preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom (v. 14). The present age, Jesus says, is to be characterized by trouble that will intensify as the end approaches.

In Matthew 24:15 the “abomination of desolation” spoken of by Daniel the prophet is referred to; he, the “abomination of desolation,” will stand in “the holy place.” While interpretations vary, most Premillennialists view this as none other than the end-time Antichrist, who is also described in II Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13. The “holy place” that he will desecrate is possibly the rebuilt Temple, though other interpretations have been suggested. Perhaps it is a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes (168 BC) and/or the ruin brought by Titus in AD 70, both of which could anticipate and be typical of the end-time man of sin. But whatever is the precise nature of the desecration, when it happens “there will be great tribulation” (v. 21). This is the important point.

Notice the manner in which these two, the Antichrist and the Great Tribulation, are tied together. Verse 15 reads: “when you see the abomination of desolation,” and the topic continues until verse 21 which reads: “For then there will be great tribulation.” The relationship of the Antichrist and the Tribulation is seen is the words “when” and “then.” “When” the Antichrist appears, “then” will be the Great Tribulation. Tote is the Greek word for “then” and means “at that time” or “at the same time.” Thus, the time of the Antichrist will be the time of the Great Tribulation.

The Greek word for tribulation in Matthew 24:21, 29 is thlipsis, a word meaning “a pressure or pressing,” “affliction,” or “distress.” Dispensationalists claim God will not allow His people to endure the Great Tribulation, but that the Church will mercifully be caught up by the Lord before that awful time. But this word is used of suffering that is the expected lot of the believer throughout the history of the Church. Note the following verses:

In the world you will have tribulation (thlipsis); but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jo. 16:33);

We must through many tribulation (thlipsis) enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22);

And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations (thlipsis), knowing that tribulation (thlipsis) products perseverance (Rom. 5:3);

Blessed be . . . the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our tribulation (thlipsis), that we may be able to those who are in any trouble” (II Cor. 1:3-4).

Tribulation is predicted for the believer; and in the midst of the tribulation, the believer is told to be of good cheer and even to glory in the tribulations. God is to be blessed because of the comfort He provides for his own during the tribulation. This is sufficient to show that tribulation is not inconsistent with the life of the believer.

The difference between ordinary tribulation and the end-time tribulation is the intensity and the severity of that which comes toward the end of history. “Since the beginning of the world (v. 21),” Jesus says, there has never been a time like this and never will be afterward. It will be so dreadful that unless the time is shortened all flesh will die. “But for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (v. 22). This is the Great Tribulation described in Revelation 6-19, and specifically mentioned in 7:14.

Following the Great Tribulation, the Lord will return. Verse 29 of Matthew 24 reads: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days . . .” And verse 30 continues: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Note the words, “Immediately after” of verse 29 and the word “then” of verse 30. By these words the return of Christ is placed in it proper relationship to the Tribulation. “After” the Tribulation, “then” the Lord will return; the order is without question. This is one text that clearly and definitely places the Second Coming after the Tribulation.

When the Lord returns, He will be joined with His people; the Rapture will take place. Verse 31 reads: “And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” The elect will be gathered together by the angels of the Lord. Christ and His Church will be united; the Groom is coming for the bride. This simple statement by Jesus is further amplified by the classic passage describing the Rapture in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, which gives additional details of the event of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 24:31.

In Matthew 24 you have discussed in a single passage the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the Second Coming of Christ. These three are discussed in a total of seventeen verses. Without any doubt the sequence is Antichrist, Great Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ. The sequence is unmistakable by the manner in which the passage develops:

v. 15     “when you see the abomination of desolation”

v. 21     “Then there will be great tribulation”

v. 29     “Immediately after the tribulation”

v. 30     “Then . . . they will see the Son of Man coming”

The three (Antichrist, Great Tribulation, Second Coming) are joined together in order by the adverbs: “when,” “then,” “immediately,” and “then.” One follows the other; no other conclusion can be reached. The Olivet Discourse, therefore, establishes the proper sequence of end-time events.

When the Antichrist appears,
then the Great Tribulation will take place;
and immediately after the Tribulation,
then Lord will come back and gather together His elect.
 (see: The "Elect" in the Olivet Discourse)

To reject this order or to even question this order, there must be an explicit statement for doing so somewhere else in God’s Word. Just as no Scripture states that the Return will be in two parts, so no Scripture states that Christ will come before the Tribulation. But here is a passage that states explicitly that He will come after the Tribulation. A careful and serious student of Scripture should not easily reject the clear sequence outlined by Jesus Himself in the Olivet Discourse.

To dismiss the sequence by stating, as the Dispensationalists do, that the passage does not relate to the Church but only to the nation of Israel is not even worthy of rebuttal. All of the New Testament is written for the Church. How could any believer think otherwise? Ladd’s comment regarding the Olivet Discourse will suffice: “The assumption that this is exclusively Jewish ground is a human interpretation which is not supported by the Word of God” (The Blessed Hope, 133).

If one does accept, without hesitation, the relevance of Matthew 24-25, as well as the relevance of the rest of the New Testament, to the Church, then the issue of whether the Church will go through the Tribulation is settled by this passage. It establishes the presence of the Church on the earth during the Great Tribulation. In this passage and in all other New Testament passages that speak of both the Tribulation and the Second Coming of Christ, the Return is after the Tribulation. In fact, no passage in the Word of God states that the Rapture will be before the Great Tribulation. Surely, if the Rapture is to precede the Tribulation then it would be so stated somewhere in Scripture. But one will search in vain for such a declaration.

Shortly after Jesus delivered the Olivet Discourse, He spoke to His disciples the words recorded in John 14:1-3.

Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. 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 to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.

Dispensationalists identify this passage with the Rapture, which, according to them, takes place before the Great Tribulation. But Jesus does not distinguish the “coming” in Matthew 24 from the one in John 14. Since no distinction was made by the Lord, why should we make a distinction? The “I will come again” of John 14:3 is the same as “the Son of Man coming” of Matthew 24:30. It is interesting to note that both passages were spoken to the disciples who were literal Jews, but who also represented the foundation of the Church Jesus was establishing. And both of these passages were spoken just a few days apart. And both of the statements spoken by Jesus were about His coming. How could one statement apply to the Church (Jo. 14), while the other does not apply to the Church (Matt. 24)? There is no word in either text to suggest that they are not speaking of the same event. Surely, in the minds of the disciples who heard both statements, the statements were synonymous.

If the Second Coming is after the Great Tribulation, then the Dispensationalist’s affirmation of imminency must be reconsidered and viewed in a different light. Their concept is that Christ can come back at any moment; therefore, believers are to be constantly looking for Him. The Church is to watch and wait; His coming is imminent. “He can come today” is the popular message. Imminence means that there is nothing that must take place before the Lord returns. He can literally return this very second.

For instance, Dave Hunt wrote: “A post-anything Rapture flies in the face of many scriptures which clearly demand a coming of Christ that could occur at any moment” (The Berean Call, 1). Scriptures that he claims support his position are the following: Matt. 24:44; 25:13; Mk. 13:36-37; Lu. 12:35, 40; I Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20-21; I Thess. 1:9-10; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 9:28; Jas. 5:7). These are the passages most often used by the Dispensationalists to support their concept of imminency.

For the Dispensationalists imminency is the inevitable conclusion of their position and the very foundation of their interpretation. Walvoord stated: “For the most part, scriptural evidence for imminency today is equivalent to proof of the pretribulation viewpoint” (The Rapture Question, 73). There is no debate. The two are interrelated. Imminency supports a pretribulation Rapture, and a pretribulation Rapture requires imminency.

But Matthew 24 establishes the certainty that the Second Coming is not imminent in this sense. According to the Lord, it will not occur until after the Great Tribulation, which is at least one of the events that must come to pass before the Lord returns. Thus, Premillennialists do not embrace the pretribulation concept of imminency. If one is rejected, then the other must be rejected; the two concepts are intricately woven together. Walvoord agreed: “For all practical purposes, abandonment of the pretribulational return of Christ is tantamount to abandonment of the hope of His imminent return” (The Rapture Question, 75). Walvoord devoted an entire chapter to the concept of imminency, calling it, “The Imminency of the Rapture” (69-76). Support, according to him, is found in such passages as: Jo. 14:1-3; I Cor. 1:7; I Thess. 4-5; Tit. 2:13; I Jo. 3:1-3. The reader is encouraged to peruse these passages and to decide for himself if these passages speak of imminency.

What is the proper meaning of “watch” (Matt. 24:42-44; Mk. 13:33; I Thess. 5:10; I Pet. 4:7)? To watch for the Lord and His return implies what? For the Dispensationalists “watch” implies, even necessitates, imminency. We are to watch because His coming could be today. It can happen at any moment; we do not know when. Therefore, we are to watch. But is imminency the proper implication or requirement of “watch?” Can the interpretation of this word by the Dispensationalists be sustained?

Ladd has an excellent chapter, “Watch,” that should be read in this connection; see The Blessed Hope, 105-119. Succinctly stated, Ladd affirms that to watch means to be spiritually awake so that one is prepared when He does come. “Be on the alert” is the translation of this word by the NASB. Thus, the focus of “watch” is not on an any moment return of Christ, but on the responsibility of the believer to purify himself in anticipation of the Lord’s return and to be careful of his manner of life. To watch also means to long for His return and to be assured that the sufferings of the present age will terminate with the return of the King. In this sense, believers are “sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness” (II Thess. 5:5). Even in the midst of tribulation, there is comfort and hope. Believers have knowledge of God’s sovereignty (see: God is Sovereign) and the flow of history. They know that history is headed toward a destiny, the destiny God has ordained! We are not to be anxious. “Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober” (II Thess. 5:6).

If the sequence of the Olivet Discourse is accepted, then the pretribulation concept of imminency cannot be substantiated. For in this significant passage at least two events are predicted to take place before the Lord returns: the Antichrist will appear and the Great Tribulation will take place. Imminency, therefore, must be rejected; Christ cannot come at any moment.  Certain events must precede His coming. We are to watch because He is coming; we are to watch because we are to be ready; we are to watch because we long for His return.

While all of Scripture is equally inspired, it should be pointed out and remembered that Jesus Himself is the One who specifically placed His Second Coming after the Great Tribulation. And this chronology should not be replaced by another scenario without explicit Scriptural support that establishes a different sequence and also explains the sequence stated by Jesus. There simply is no such Scripture.

The Olivet Discourse establishes the sequence of end-time events.

The Rapture of the Church before the Tribulation is an assumption;
it is not taught in the Olivet Discourse.

The assumption that this is exclusively Jewish ground is a human interpretation
which is not supported by the Word of God.
George Ladd

Every specific Scripture that speaks of a time relationship
between the tribulation and the return of Christ
places His coming after the tribulation.
Arthur Katterjohn

The final “tribulation”
to which the wicked will subject God’s children
is that which will ripen the world for judgment.
So it is immediately after that severest of all trials
that the Son of man arrives.
William Hendriksen

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