Bible Prophecy, Chap. 5, The Church Age
The unknown span with a sudden end
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost after Jesus returned to heaven, the first Christians were all Jews. But soon it became apparent that the Gentiles too were included in this new church. And with that came the first major controversy in the church: the issue of whether Gentiles had to first become Jews. So a council convened in Jerusalem, overseen by James and with the testimonies of Peter and Paul (Acts 15). And at the end of it all, James quoted the prophet Amos as saying that at a future time God would restore the fallen kingdom of David after a period of exile, and that Israel would never be uprooted again.
There are two ways to look at this statement. One is that since James cited the salvation of Gentiles as a fulfillment of Amos, it must mean that the return from exile had been accomplished and the Davidic kingdom had been restored, which was the reason for the Gentiles seeking the Lord. But there are some problems with this interpretation. First, no Jew was ruling over Judea or Jerusalem in the first century; it was administered by Rome. Second, it was not this particular return from exile that was drawing in the Gentiles. In fact, Paul stated just the opposite in Rom. 11:11; it was the salvation of the Gentiles that was to make Israel envious. Some might then argue that Amos was referring to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but this is an extremely indirect reference if true, and it has no anchor in the immediate context.
The other way to look at this is to recall a precedent set by Peter at Pentecost. He cited Joel 2:28–32, yet only part of that passage was fulfilled; there were no woundrous signs in the heavens. So though James quoted Amos, and though Israel had indeed returned from exile and the Gentiles were seeking God, not every detail was fulfilled. So the prophecy of Amos, like that of Joel, awaits a yet future completion.
Paul would later elaborate on this matter of Gentile salvation in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 11, vs. 25, Paul writes that Israel would remain partially hardened against the Gospel until “the full number of Gentiles has come in”. So the span of time God allows for this focus away from the Jews and toward the Gentiles is marked not by years or signs, but by a number. And scripture never tells us what that number is; after all, we really have no way of knowing how many have been saved over the centuries anyway.
However, since there are signs for the prophecies for Israel, and since we have begun to see some of them unfold, the set number of Gentiles must be nearly completed. This is why the church is charged with watching and being prepared (Phil. 3:20, Heb. 9:28, 10:25, James 5:7–9, 2 Peter 3:10, 2 Tim. 4:8), just as Israel is. But the only thing we are told to watch for is Jesus; no signs, no covenants, no cosmic disturbances, no Antichrist. There are general statements about the condition the world will be in during the last days, but none of these are called signs by which the church will know when Jesus is coming.
As explained in the chapter on Israel and the Church, we look to the Letters to see specific instructions for the church. It is Paul to whom this church was revealed, and Paul was the only apostle to write details about the end of the church age. He did so in three passages: 1 Cor. 15:35–58, 1 Thes. 4:13–18, and 2 Thes. 2:1–12. The first two give details about our departure, while the third tells us what happens after that:
We can see that Jesus will defeat The Lawless One (after the Tribulation, as will be explained later). But before this, God sends a strong delusion on all who hated the truth. Before that delusion, the Man of Lawlessness is revealed. That revealing cannot happen until the Restrainer is taken out of the way via the Departure. All of this is in the context of the Day of the Lord, and Paul is saying that this Day cannot begin until after the Departure. And as noted in the chapter on Israel and the Church, the church is “not appointed to wrath” (1 Thes. 5:9), to which we could add Rev. 3:10 and its promise that we will be kept out of the time of trial to test the entire world. Of course, this is a particular time of the wrath of God, not the normal suffering of life or the persecution common to Christians in every generation. And since the first 69 weeks of the prophecy of Daniel were not about the church, then neither will be the 70th. All generations of Christians in the past have escaped the Tribulation, so there is no reason to presume that the final generation will not escape it as well.
The word Paul uses to describe this meeting in the clouds is harpadzo, which means a sudden, forceful snatching away. This same word was used by Luke in Acts 8 to describe the sudden transportation of Philip from the road between Jerusalem and Gaza to the town of Azotus. The word apostasia is one which most translations simply transliterate2 and use to mean a departure from the faith. But the word itself only means to depart;3 context supplies additional meaning by indicating what is being departed from. And the context here is not false teachers but the Day of the Lord.
One other passage by Paul is 1 Thes. 5:1–11. Who are “they” who say “peace and safety” in vs. 3, after which there is “sudden destruction”? Whoever is not “you” in the church. And the way the church is not caught by surprise is by always being watchful and ready (Phil. 3:20), rather than by somehow knowing the exact date and hour. Keep in mind that Jesus directed his comments toward the people of Israel, not the as-yet unrevealed church (Rom. 11:25, 16:25, Eph. 3:6–9, Col. 1:26–27). So what he said about watching and being ready, as well as praying to escape (Luke 21:36), was for them and not the church. But of course, Christians of all times are to be eager to see Jesus return, and to live such lives that we will not be ashamed when he does; this is taught throughout the Letters.
So the church age ends when the full number of Gentiles has been saved, and then Jesus descends from heaven and we all Depart to meet him in the air. This event in itself will be a sign for the rest of the world. But for the church, we are given no instructions beyond watching and waiting for Jesus (1 Thes. 1:10). What Paul calls “a crown of righteousness” awaits all who are found doing this when Jesus returns. This does not mean that only those who watch and wait will be taken; rather, it means that those believers will get a particular crown as a reward. Salvation is always by faith in the risen Jesus, not in one’s prophecy viewpoint. While other prophecies such as those at the end of Revelation certainly include Christians, the church is never again addressed as such after the seven letters (Rev. 2 and 3, with the same churches referenced again in Rev. 22:16).
Beyond speculation about where the church must fit into other prophecies by implication, we have established the fact that none of the prophecies remaining to be studied are about the church. As stated in the last footnote of the chapter on Israel and the Church, everyone in the church is a saint, but not every saint is in the church. So when we encounter this word in other prophecies, we know that they refer to the righteous outside of the church.