In the Book of Hebrews, it speaks of a promise, and regarding that promise, it states-
“So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.”
Hebrew 9: 28
The word in Greek for “eagerly wait” is apekdechomai” and it means to assiduously and patiently wait. Paul said-
“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
2 Timothy 4: 8
In terms of the Lord’s Second Coming, there are two events; His Appearing and His Coming. He will appear for the saints or the Church according to His Promise.
Clement (35-99AD), a bishop in Rome in the first century, wrote in his First Epistle (which is one of the oldest Christian documents):
Ye perceive how in a little time the fruit of a tree comes to maturity. Of a truth, soon and suddenly shall His will be accomplished, as the Scripture also bears witness, saying, “Speedily will He come, and will not tarry;” and, “The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Holy One, for whom ye look.”12
In the Didache, it records:
Be watchful for your life; Let your lamps not be quenched and your loins not ungirded, but you be ready; For you know not the hour in which our Lord comes.13
So, did the early Church believe in a literal return of Christ? The Promise for the Church? The Last Days? And the Tribulation Period?
Let us also remember, as Paul explains, that there is a crown given to those who eagerly await His return. So let us be raptured in Him before the rapture, eagerly awaiting His return, discerning the times and knowing what to do.
In The Shepherd of Hermas, an early and very popular church document at the time, which was written in 150AD, it says-
“Go therefore and declare to the Elect of the Lord His might deeds and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation which is to come. If ye therefore prepare yourselves and with your whole heart turn to the Lord in repentance, then shall ye be able to escape it, if your heart is pure and blameless….”
Our Gathering Together
So, what is this promise? Did the rapture teaching start in the early nineteenth century? In this study, I will seek to answer those questions and show the rapture, or better term, “our gathering together” unto Him, is in the Word and was taught by the early Church.
“When in the end that church will suddenly be caught up from this, then it is said, ‘Tribulation such as not been since the beginning, nor will be.”
Irenaeus Against Heresies 5: 29
Irenaeus was a Greek bishop (130-202AD) who ministered in southern France. He was famous for developing Christian theology and standing up against heresies. He came from Smyrna and sat under the preaching of Polycarp (John’s spiritual son). He was famous for his work on doctrine and challenging heresies.
Then there was Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD), who was an important theologian of the early church. He wrote…
“These things, then, I have set shortly before you, Theophilus, drawing them from Scripture itself, in order that, maintaining in faith what is written, and anticipating the things that are to be you may keep yourself void of offense both toward God and toward men, ‘looking for that blessed hope and appearing of our God and Savior,’ when, having raised the saints among us, He will rejoice with them, glorifying the Father. To Him be the glory unto the endless ages of the ages. Amen.’
Hippolytus On the Antichrist 67
Now to understand this “blessed hope”…
“By the heat he means conflagration. And Isaiah speaks thus: ‘Come, my people, enter thou into thy chamber, and shut thy door: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation of the Lord be overpast.’ And Paul in like manner: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth of God in unrighteousness.”
Hippolytus On the Antichrist 64b
Hippolytus of Rome (170-235AD) was one of the most important second-century theologians.
Just to add something from Polycarp, he said
“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;”  and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross,  is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.10
In the early Church, they would use Jewish terms, including the term “Aliyah” which means to ascend and refers to the Jews in diaspora returning to the Land of Israel. It talks about the Children of Israel being returned to One place at One Time. The early Church believed that the Lord would “gather together” the Church, which would ascend and be brought together with Him in One Place at One time. This was the Promise or completion of our salvation. We will receive our new bodies and become like Him at this event.
The Tribulation Period
Many claim that all the Book of Revelation prophecies were fulfilled in AD70. So, let’s turn to the early Church to see what they thought. Two key leaders who can help us here are Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who both studied under Polycarp, and John trained Polycarp. So clearly, they knew of John’s writings and what he said in the Book of Revelation. Did they believe it was fulfilled in the first century?
“In 2 Thessalonians, the ‘falling away’ is an apostasy of faith and there will be a literal rebuilt Temple. In Matthew (24) the ‘abomination spoken by Daniel’ is the Antichrist sitting in the middle of Daniel’s 70th week and last for a literal three years and six months. The little horn is the Antichrist… The Roman Empire will first be divided and then dissolved. Ten kings will arise from what used to be the Roman Empire. The Antichrist slays three of the kings…”
Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 25, 26
And we have from Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) was an early Church apologist:
“The man of sin, spoken of by Daniel, will rule two (three) times and a half, before the Second Advent… There will be a literal 1000-year reign of Christ… The man of apostasy, who speaks strange things against the Most High, shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against us, the believers.”
Justin Martyr Dialogue 32, 81, 110
Clearly, both these men believed the Tribulation Period was a future period and would involve a rebuilt Temple (as the Temple had been destroyed at the time they wrote their letters).
The Day of the Lord
The term Day of the Lord is used throughout the Word and refers to this seven-year Tribulation Period and should not be confused with the Appearing of the Lord.
Scofield explained regarding the day of the Lord-
“The day of Jehovah (called, also, ‘that day,’ and ‘the great day’) is that lengthened period of time beginning with the return of the Lord in glory, and ending with the purgation of the heavens and the earth by fire preparatory to the new heavens and new earth (Isa. 65: 17-19; 66: 22; 2 Peter 3: 13; Rev. 21:1).1
The Day of the Lord must be separated from the Day of Christ or His appearing. Scofield explained it this way-
“The expression ‘day of Christ,’ occurs in the following passages: 1 Cor. 1:8; 5: 5; 2 Cor. 1: 14; Phil. 1: 6, 10. A.V has ‘day of Christ,’ 2 Thess. 2: 2, incorrectly, for the ‘day of the Lord” (Is. 2: 12; Rev. 19: 11-21). The ‘day of Christ’ related wholly to the reward and blessing of saints at His coming, as ‘day f the Lord’ is connected with judgment.”
Fullness of Times
If we turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see
“That in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in Heaven and which are on earth- in Him.”
Ephesians 1: 10
Here we see the purpose of the mind and heart of the Father. Wuest explains that in this verse, ‘The preposition is eis, ‘with a view to,’ indicating what direction the purpose took.”2
Further, he explained that the verse indicates a specific period in human history that is called “the fullness of times.” To better understand this term, we must go back to the Old Testament, the Book of Daniel, and the 70 weeks of punishment.
Seventy Weeks Are Determined
The Lord explained to Daniel that the Children of Israel were due 70 times 7 years of judgment. This sounds strange to Gentiles, but to the Jews, they understand “Shmitahs” or seven-year cycles. In the Lord’s dealings with Israel, He works in cycles and patterns. So, Daniel explains that there are 70 shmitahs coming:
“Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most High.”
Daniel 9: 24
Now regarding these 70 weeks of years of years Daniel added-
“Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; The street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself; and the people to the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end of it shall be with a flood, and till the end of the war desolations are determined. Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week; but in the middle of the week he shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering…”
Daniel 9: 25-27a
Nehemiah recorded the decree to rebuild the Temple, and thus, the clock started. In the third century, an early church father, Julius Africanus (180-250AD), wrote a book called, ‘O the Weeks and This Prophecy.” Only fragments of the book remain today, but in fragment 16, he provided details on how to calculate the exact date, converting from the Jewish to the Roman calendar.
Sir Robert Anderson, who worked as the second Assistant Commissioner (Crime) at the London Metro Police and a theologian, recreated this process and determined the date when the Messiah would be ‘cut off” to be April 6th, 32AD. 3
This was of course, when Jesus was crucified. But now we face a time gap between that date and the final week or the Tribulation Period. This period is the “fullness of time” or the time of the Gentiles. This is revealed in Romans chapter eleven. Paul, in this chapter, explained that although the Church started as totally Jewish, a hardness came over them and blindness in part that opened the door to the Gentiles.
To summarize, we see that the Children of Israel were told that there were 70 weeks of years of punishment due them; however, at the end of the 69th week, Christ was crucified, and a time gap began. That leaves 1 week of years or 7 years of judgment left that is assigned to Israel (not the Church).
A Time Gap
Understanding the time gap is essential, and it can only be explained by the Church Age. But in the Tribulation Period, the Lord turns back to the Children of Israel.
Two key events played a major role in the hardening of the hearts of the Jews to Christianity back in the early Church, and they were:
- The First Jewish-Roman War, which saw the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple (AD 66-73)
- The Bar Kokhba Revolt (AD 132-135)
Christians fled Jerusalem before its destruction because of the warning Jesus gave, and then, as they refused to see Kokhba as the messiah and would not support the revolt, the Jews turned on Christians and considered them “anathema.”
Since then, the Church has become mainly Gentile, but recently, things have begun to change. And during the Tribulation Period, the Lord will return to the Jews. This period is referred to as the Church Age, which will end with the Tribulation Period.
As we read the Word, we see a series of Dispensations:
- The Dispensation of Innocence (Until Man’s Fall)
- Dispensation of Conscience
- Dispensation of Human Government
- Dispensation of the Promise
- Dispensation of the Law
- Dispensation of Grace (Church Age)
Let me start by quoting from the Didache: Teachings of the Apostles:
For in the last days the false prophets and corrupt doers shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate. For lawlessness increases, they shall hate one another and shall persecute and betray….and then shall the signs of truth appear. First an opening in the Heaven, then a sign of a voice of a trumpet, and thirdly a resurrection of the dead; Yet not of all, but as it was said, ‘The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of Heaven.”
Each dispensation reveals a different way in which God, through His Holy Spirit, dealt with people, spoke to them, and addressed sin. There is always an authority that He uses during a particular dispensation which is typically removed before we move into another dispensation.
The Fullness of Time brings the Church Age to a close, and we enter the Tribulation Period, in which the Father turns to the Children of Israel. Each dispensation sees a change in the spiritual authority and voice on the earth and how God deals with man.
For example, the period of Conscience ended when man’s thoughts were continually evil, and the flood came. During that time, the Lord allowed angels to come down with the goal of teaching men righteousness. We know these angels fell and had relations with the women, creating the “Nephelium.”
After the flood, the Lord gave laws to Noah and called man to replenish the earth. Man sought to form his own government without God, resulting in Babel and the confusion of their languages. We then go to Abraham, when God gives him a promise that ended when Jacob’s sons died. We then enter the dispensation of the Law under Moses.
If we look, we see how the Lord communicated with a man often changed with the different dispensations. For example, under the dispensation of the Law, the Lord called prophets, of which John the Baptist was the greatest. His ministry faded, and he was imprisoned and killed as Jesus’s ministry began. This is because you can’t have two authorities or voices on the earth. This would violate God’s delegated authority.
Jesus had to leave so that the Holy Spirit could come, and the Church Age began. The Tribulation Period is a different dispensation in which the Lord speaks through the two witnesses and the 144,000 witnesses in the first three and a half years. In the final three and a half years, we see angels preaching, and at the end, Jesus, Himself comes to preach to the Jews.
Going back to the Promise, Hippolytus quoted from Isaiah-
“Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead. Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourself, as it were, for a little moment, until the indignation is past.”
Isaiah 26: 19, 20
The prophet Isaiah calls believers to go into the “chedar” or wedding chambers until the “indignation’ or “wrath is over” The term “indignation” or “wrath” is used of the Day of the Lord. Paul talking of the Day of the Lord…
“For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then suddenly destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are the sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober,, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you are doing.”
1 Thessalonians 5: 2-11
We are of the day and not the night and so have a promise regarding the Day of the Lord. We are to comfort one another with this hope and Promise. We should recognize the time and what is coming. Sadly, many believers refuse to believe in a Tribulation Period. Now we may disagree on the timing of the Rapture or our Gathering Together unto Him, but we must appreciate that the final seven years or Jacob’s Troubles are coming. This time period, the Tribulation Period, will be worse than any other time in history. We can think of the horrors of the Second World War, but it will fail in comparison to what is coming. It will be the darkest time ever in human history.
“For at that time the trumpet shall sound [1 Thess. 4:16] and awake those that sleep from the lowest parts of the earth, righteous and sinners alike. And every kindred, and tongue, and nation, and tribe shall be raised in the twinkling of an eye [1 Cor. 15:52]; and they shall stand upon the face of the earth, waiting for the coming of the righteous and terrible Judge, in fear and trembling unutterable. For the river of fire shall come forth in fury like an angry sea, and shall burn up mountains and hills, and shall make the sea vanish, and shall dissolve the atmosphere with its heat like wax [2 Pet. 3:12]. The stars of heaven shall fall [Matt. 24:29], the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood [Acts 2:20]. The heaven shall be rolled together like a scroll [Rev. 6:14]: the whole earth shall be burnt up by reason of the deeds done in it, which men did corruptly, in fornications, in adulteries, and in lies and uncleanness, and in idolatries, and in murders, and in battles. For there shall be the new heaven and the new earth [Rev. 21:1].” Hippolytus’ On the End of the World4
Back to the Fullness of Time
Let’s return to Ephesian’s Chapter One, verse ten-
“That in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in Heaven and which are on earth- in Him.”
Ephesians 1: 10
Wuest explains the word used for “times” here means-
“In the Ephesian passage, the word is Kairos in which Trench defines as ‘joints or articulations in these times (chronos), the critical, epoch-making periods without observation ripening through long ages is mature and comes to birth in grand decisive events, which constitute at once the close of one period and the commencement of another.” The word could be translated ‘seasons.” The word “fulness” is ploroma, ‘fulness, completeness.” The Kairos (times) refers to the various periods of human history as they have to do with Israel and the Church in which God deals with these in a particular manner, each season, age, or dispensation being marked by a separate and distinct manner of dealing, such as the Age of the Law or Age of Grace.”5
We discussed how God deals differently in each different season or age.
At the fullness of the times He will gather together all, those who are in Heaven and those who are on the earth. The word for “gather together” Wuest explains, is, “to bring back to and gather around the main point.”6
Ephrem the Syrian (306-373AD wrote:
“Because all saints and the elect of the Lord are gathered together before the Tribulation which is about to come and be taken to the Lord…”
On the Last Times 1- Ephraim the Syrian7
On a side note, as we look forward to the day we shall finally see Him face to face, Irenaeus wrote that the gifts of the Spirit would continue until we see Him face to face. Amen?
“Whom, not seeing, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, ye have believed, ye shall rejoice with joy unspeakable;”(11) neither do we receive another Holy Spirit, besides Him who is with us, and who cries, “Abba, Father;”(12) and we shall make increase in the very same things [as now], and shall make progress, so that no longer through a glass, or by means of enigmas, but face to face, we shall enjoy the gifts of God;–so also now, receiving more than the temple, and more than Solomon, that is, the advent of the Son of God, we have not been taught another God besides the Framer and the Maker of all, who has been pointed out to us from the beginning; nor another Christ, the Son of God, besides Him who was foretold by the prophets.8
Irenaeus explained the dispensations and our gathering together in Christ-
Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations(6) of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,”(7) and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven,, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess”(8) to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all;
The early Church leaders clearly believed in the Promise for the Church, the Last Days and a Tribulation Period in which the prophecies of the Book of Revelation and Old Testament would be fulfilled.
“Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord (have alike taught us). Let us be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good, keeping ourselves from causes of offence, from false brethren, and from those who in hypocrisy bear the Name of the Lord, and draw away vain men into error.”
In these Last Days, let us be found as sincere, having surrendered our whole heart unto Him, and as Polycarp continued to say regarding the Last Days:
“Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the Word which has been handed down to us from the beginning; ‘watching unto prayer,’ and preserving in fasting;”
- I. Scoffield, Reference Bible, P. 1349.
- Word Studies in the Greek New Testament. Vol 1. Page 44
- Johnson, Ken. The Rapture (p. 17). Biblefacts.org. Kindle Edition.
- Johnson, Ken. The Rapture (pp. 76-77). Biblefacts.org. Kindle Edition.
- Wuest page 43
- Wuest page 44
- On the Last Times 1- Ephraim the Syrian7
- Irenaeus. Against Heresies (p. 318). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition.
- Irenaeus. Against Heresies (pp. 31-32). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition.
- The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (Annotated) (Kindle Locations 369-373). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
- Clement of Rome. The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (Illustrated) . Aeterna Press. Kindle Edition.
- Didache: Teaching of the Apostles . Saint Edwin’s Cell. Kindle Edition.