by Dennis Costella
©Fundamental Evangelistic Association
What signs will precede the return of our Lord Jesus Christ? This theme is a very popular one today among Christians. Well known Bible teachers have gained large followings by setting a date for Christ's return. Some point out political, economic, religious and earthly developments that, they say, must occur before the Lord's return to catch away His church. They refer to passages in the Bible that appear to support their claims. The Word of God, however, presents the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ—He could come at this very moment! No calamitous phenomenon on earth or in the heavens, no political, religious or economic developments, no scriptural prophecies need to be fulfilled before Jesus Christ can return for His Bride (Jn. 14:1-6; Eph. 5:23-32).
Why then is there confusion on this subject? It is simply this: there is not a proper delineation between the time preceding the Lord's return in the air for the saints and the time preceding His return to the earth with the saints to inaugurate His Millennial Kingdom. These two events have great dispensational significance and must be kept separate. Any signs mentioned in the Scriptures as preceding "the Lord's return" must be placed in the correct context and dispensational setting. The order of prophetic events yet future is as follows:
We are in the "latter times," the "last days," the Apostles referred to in addressing the church. The portions of Scripture that describe this period of time must, therefore, apply to the believer in this dispensation. Biblical texts that meet this qualification are 1 Timothy 4:1-5; 2 Timothy 3:13; 2 Timothy 4:3,4; and 2 Peter 3:3,4. A study of these texts reveals the characteristics and attitudes that will prevail in the days immediately before the Rapture. These prophesied "last days" for the church will be marked by apostasy, seduction by false spirits, unnatural affection, pride, treachery, sensuality and skepticism, to name only a few. Read these texts carefully.
This is the condition of the world at this very moment! The believer in this Church Age is never instructed to look for signs that will precede the Lord's return. We are to look for Him! This has been the Blessed Hope of every born-again believer in this dispensation (Titus 2:13). There are no signs that must appear before the Lord can return for the church. All is ready. The character of the last days of this Church Age is at this moment abundantly evident.
The disciples of Christ were well-aware of the literal, earthly reign of the promised Messiah (as plainly prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures). The Church Age and the Rapture were not taught in the Old Testament and they could not, therefore, be inquiring about doctrines that had not yet been revealed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in Matthew 24:3, they requested of the Lord, "Tell us...what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?" They desired to know what manifestations would precede His coming as their promised King to set up the promised kingdom on earth. The disciples did not have the Rapture in mind when questioning the Lord; they were only concerned about what would transpire before His return to reign over Israel as prophesied in the Old Testament. The Lord detailed the seven-year Tribulation period that would set the stage for His return "with power and great glory" to inaugurate His Millennial reign in fulfillment of promises made to the patriarchs (Matt. 24:29-30).
The twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew is often erroneously used to describe the scene before the Lord's return in the air for His church. For example, some say that Christ's return is not imminent because the "gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world...then shall the end come" (vs. 14) before His return. Therefore, they say that universal evangelization is a prerequisite to the Rapture of the church. The context of Matthew 24 reveals that this universal proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom (see also Rev. 14:6-8) will occur during the Tribulation, not during the Church Age. It is proclaimed in all the world by God's miraculous means, not by the church which is in Heaven. This Gospel of the Kingdom is the message of the coming King and the pending judgment upon all who fail to trust in Him. This world evangelization will take place after the Rapture.
There will be, however, signs that Israel is to look for during the seven year Tribulation following the Rapture. The church is then in heaven. God will at this time deal with Israel again in judgment. It will be a terrible ordeal for Jew and Gentile alike. During this time, Israel is tried and refined in preparation for the return of the King of kings who will rule the earth from Jerusalem—"the city of the great king" (Matt. 5:35). A few other signs for Israel during this time (many more could be cited from companion texts) are:
What do these signs precede? They pave the way for the coming of the Lord in "power and great glory" to redeem a purified Israel and to usher in His Millennial Kingdom upon the earth (Lk. 21:27,28; Matt. 24:27,30,42). Their prophesied literal fulfillment will take place after the believers of the Church Age are removed. Then judgment will "come upon the whole world" (Rev. 3:10,11) and these signs will be clearly seen.
Today, however, many of the previously mentioned signs are evidenced in one degree or another (they will be literally, fully manifested during the Tribulation just as they are described in Scripture). This can only mean that the stage is rapidly being set today for the final fulfillment of each of these prophesied signs given by the Lord to His disciples. If the Great Tribulation is, therefore, looming on the horizon, then the catching away of the church before that time must be near, indeed!
Nothing must come to pass before the Lord can return "in the air" to receive the Body of Christ unto Himself. To believe otherwise is to be shaken from the blessed hope God has given His church. The believers in the Thessalonian church were troubled by false teachers who taught that they had somehow missed the Rapture (2 Thess. 2:1-3). The severe trials and tribulations they were experiencing made them wonder if they were at that very time in the midst of the Great Tribulation—the "day of the Lord"—of which the Old Testament prophesied (1 Thess. 5:1,2 cf. Amos 5:16-20; Joel 2:1-11; Zeph. 1-7,14-18; etc.).
The apostle then proceeded to explain future events and how they affect the believer. That day—the "day of Christ" (2 Thess. 2 cf. Rev. 6:16)—will not come until two things happen. First, the Antichrist will be revealed, and second, the great "falling away" (2 Thess. 2:3 cf. 2:8-12) will take place when all the world will be deceived by the beast and the false prophet (Rev. 13:3-14). The revelation of the Wicked one (the Antichrist) and the events surrounding the "Time of Jacob's Trouble" take place after the Rapture, but before the full manifestation of the great and terrible Day of the Lord that will culminate when Christ returns to destroy the wicked. We are not to watch for supernatural signs, nor the antichrist. We, like the early churches were instructed, are to be looking for our Lord!
The lukewarm, Laodicean spirit that the Bible sets forth as characteristic of the "last days" is readily apparent. Our Lord's return is imminent— He could come back today to catch away every true believer. That was the "Blessed Hope" of the early church (the Epistles are full of admonitions to watch for the Lord's imminent return), and it has been the glorious expectation of the Christian in every generation since the time of the apostles. The saint who daily watches for his Lord's return is not ill-equipped to face hardship and tribulation as the opponents of the Pre-Tribulational Rapture position suggest. He is, on the contrary, truly prepared to do the Lord's work of reaching the lost for Christ, walking in the Spirit and earnestly contending for the faith. The prospect of the Lord's immediate return fosters this kind of circumspect walk (1 Jn. 2:28-3:3).
When the Rapture is not the believer's daily expectation and joy, then there will inevitably be a tendency to become caught up in programs and causes that are foreign to the church's calling and mission. "Kingdom building," "Dominion Theology," or even "digging-in" in an attempt to weather the coming Tribulation are not instructions left to the church.
Watch! Work! Witness! "...It is high time to awake...for now is our salvation [our deliverance from coming wrath] nearer than when we believed" (Rom. 13:11). May we say with the apostle, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus."
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