One of Calvary Chapel’s core values is an eager anticipation of Jesus’ soon return for His Church. We look for the rapture! The “Pre-trib rapture” of the Church has been a lynchpin in Calvary Chapel’s history, and it will also be a key to our destiny.
For the first Calvary Chapel folks, many of whom were disillusioned young people, the pre-tribulation rapture was not just an eschatological theory. As it is referenced in the Scripture, it was our “blessed hope.” Pastor Chuck ministered to young people immersed in worldliness – in drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. His belief that Jesus would snatch away His Church made us upwardly focused. His teaching on the rapture caused us to ready ourselves to meet Jesus! One of the passages that stirred us was 1 John 3:2, “Now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him.”
It was our pastor’s heart to wean us from the entrapments of this world, and point us to the next. Did he go overboard at times? Did he go too far plotting prophetic events on a futuristic timeline? Probably so. I remember in the early 1980s, Chuck suggested Israel was the fig tree of Matthew 24. It budded into a nation in 1948. A generation is forty years, and that generation will not pass away until the Lord returns. Forty years from 1948 was 1988, subtract seven years for the Great Tribulation, which meant the rapture would occur in 1981! Chuck seemed convinced. At the time, I realized he was making some assumptions – about the budding fig tree, and about a biblical generation – but I appreciated his zeal and enthusiasm in regards to seeing Jesus! No one can deny, that Pastor Chuck lived life on the edge of his seat. He modeled the expectancy the Bible teaches we all should have. Fault him for being overzealous if you like, but Chuck Smith longed for heaven. He “loved the Lord’s appearing…” and based on Paul’s promise to Timothy, for that he has received a “crown of righteousness.”
Yet I see pastors today, sitting back smugly, taking a noncommittal approach. “Well, the Bible isn’t really clear. How can we be certain? I’ll just teach the different theories and let our folks decide for themselves.” I once taught on the Pre-Trib rapture, and afterwards a man asked me when was I going to present the opposing point-of-view? I told him in love, “when hell freezes over.” It is every pastor’s job to preach what he believes to be God’s truth.
I had another friend who was fond of saying he was “Pan-trib.” Rather than Pre-trib or Post-trib, he was Pan-trib, or “however it pans out.” He thought he was being cute. I thought he was copping out! Please tell me, how is it more spiritual to hedge your bets, than it is to trumpet the truth that the risen Christ is coming in time and space to deliver the Church He loves from God’s wrath? What most inspires the faith of your people – a pastor who is unsure, or one who is looking for Jesus?
Sure, there is a lot we do not know about Jesus’ coming, but there are some things we do know:
- We know He is coming! He will snatch away His church!
- His return is eminent – that is, it can happen at any moment.
- Nothing else needs to occur prophetically before we see Jesus.
- His coming will take place when people least expect it; when life on earth is business as usual.
- We know it is God’s heart to deliver His people from His wrath.
We actually know quite a bit, and when I put those certainties together, I can confidently conclude that the Bible teaches a Pre-tribulation rapture of the Church!
Yes, there’s a verse, a single verse, 2 Thessalonians 2:3, “for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition…” People read this verse and assume the rapture cannot come until the apostasy and Antichrist appear, which puts the Church in the midst of the Great Tribulation. Yet be careful about making assumptions. People have taken “that Day” (“the day of Christ” in verse 2) to mean the rapture. But it could be a synonym for “the day of the Lord” (that’s how it is translated in the New American Standard Version). “The day of the Lord” is the period of time when God judges this evil world. In that case, the verse teaches that God’s fierce judgments will not begin until the apostasy and Antichrist appear. The implication is that since the Thessalonians had seen neither, they knew the rapture had not occurred, since it comes first! In addition, the phrase “falling away” also has multiple definitions. It literally means “a departure.” Some people assume that it refers to “a departure from the faith,” but Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest suggests that it could mean, “the departure of the church, the rapture.” If that is so, God’s judgments will not come down until the Church goes up!
My purpose here is not to parse 2 Thessalonians 2:3. It is an admittedly difficult passage that can be interpreted in various ways. But 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is just one verse in a New Testament that teaches from start to finish that the return of Christ and the rapture of His Church will be a surprise! And it cannot possibly be a surprise if the Antichrist appears first. We are called to look for Jesus Christ, not the Antichrist! As to 2 Thessalonians 2:3, when a verse is difficult, we should read it through the lens of the rest of the New Testament, not read the rest of the New Testament through the lens of a difficult verse.
Realize, the Bible speaks of two types of tribulation. Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation…” Our world was hostile to Christ, and if you follow Him you should expect it to be hostile to you. The world inflicts tribulation on the Church. But there is also a “Great Tribulation” that God will bring on this evil world. And throughout the New Testament, God makes promises that He will spare the Church this judgment. 1 Thessalonians 1:10 is such a verse. Paul tells us, “to wait for (God’s) Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Christians are subject to this world’s tribulation, but spared God’s tribulation on the world.
Have you read Revelation 6-19 and the cataclysmic judgments that will rock this planet? Entire populations will starve and die. Demons will be unleashed to torment mankind. Jesus will pelt the Earth with huge hailstones. According to God’s Law, the penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning. That is the judgment Jesus exacts on the whole Earth. Do you really believe He will subject His faithful Bride to what He reserves for blasphemers? Years ago, actress Farrah Fawcett starred in a movie about a battered wife. There were scenes that showed her beaten black and blue. You looked at her and wondered what animal would do this to his bride? But realize, if believers survive the Great Tribulation, they are bound to be battered. And you have to ask, “do you really think this is how the Lord is going to treat His Bride?” Of course not! Jesus died to save and sanctify His Bride, not to inflict upon her a beating. In fact, He took THE beating so we could be healed! The world might rough us up, but such harsh treatment doesn’t come from the hands of Jesus! That is not the Lord we serve.
This is why I believe the Pre-tribulation rapture is non-negotiable for Calvary Chapel pastors. If you have not thought deeply about this, you might categorize the rapture as an elective doctrine, while issues like the deity of Christ, justification by faith, and the inspiration of the Bible are the core curriculum. However, I suggest that elective status does not do the rapture justice. The Pre-Tribulational rapture is vital because of what it infers about the Savior’s heart for His Church. If, for some reason, you are a pastor who struggles with the timing of the rapture, we can still be friends. We are certainly brothers, and can enjoy each other’s fellowship. But if you pastor a Calvary Chapel, you will deny that church an important part of their identity and emphasis.