There is no Biblical teaching concerning a “third coming” of Christ. Our Lord has already come to earth once (during His Earthly ministry from approximately 4 BC – AD 28), and scripture calls for His eventual return to live on Earth again and reign as King for 1,000 years. Therefore, we speak of Christ’s return as a second coming because it will be the second time Christ resides on the earth.
On the other hand, the Bible does teach of another kind of appearance of Jesus, which is fundamentally different than either His first or His second comings. This other appearance is a kind of return but only to “the clouds” (i.e., in the sky) to retrieve the Church saints and remove them from the Earth.
Jesus revealed this unique return in John’s Gospel:
John 14:1 “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.
John 14:2 “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.
John 14:3 “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.
At the end of John 13, Jesus had announced He would leave the disciples soon, and Peter objected saying:
John 13:36 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “ Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.”
Jesus told Peter that the disciples would have an opportunity to “follow” Jesus later. Then in John 14, Jesus explains what He meant. Jesus described the place He was going as “His Father’s house.” This is the Heavenly throne room, and this is the place Jesus went when He departed the Earth:
John 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’”
Then Jesus explains that in this place are many dwelling places, and He was departing the Earth to prepare a place for each believer. So Jesus promises every believer in the Church an opportunity to join Jesus in the Heavenly realm in a future day.
Then Jesus said that His return to fulfill this promise will occur in the same manner as when He left the earth (i.e., passing through the clouds as described in Acts 1:9). Notice this particular return is strictly for the purpose of retrieving the believers on earth and then taking them back to Heaven. Specifically, Jesus says He will “receive” us to where He is so that where He is (i.e., in Heaven) so will we be also.
Such an appearance of Christ is very different than the nature of Jesus’ promised second coming to live and reign on earth. In fact, this appearance is not a “coming” at all, in the sense that Jesus never reaches the Earth or sets His feet upon the ground, according to Paul. Instead, Jesus comes to the sky to retrieve the Church and then returns to the Father without making the Earth His dwelling place.
1Th. 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
1Th. 4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
1Th. 4:15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
1Th. 4:16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
1Th. 4:17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
1Th. 4:18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
In this passage, Paul writes to comfort the church concerning the fate of those believers who die before Christ’s return for His Church. Paul assures the church that those who die (i.e., are “asleep”) will not be left behind at the resurrection, but in fact, they will rise first to meet Christ. After the dead rise, those saints who are still alive on Earth will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Once again, notice that this rendezvous occurs above the surface of the Earth in the sky.
Therefore, we know Paul cannot be describing Jesus’ second coming, for Jesus remains “in the air” and only meets the resurrection saints after they have departed the Earth in new resurrected bodies. This important detail proves this moment is a unique event, altogether separate from Christ’s Second Coming, and one that matches Jesus’ promise to believers in John 14.
The Church has taken to calling this unique event the “rapture,” because the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible published in the early 5th Century used the Latin word rapere in 1Thessalonians 4:17 for the Greek word harpazo, which means “caught up.” The Bible uses the word “resurrection” to describe this moment in 1Corinthians 15.
Regarding the timing of this event in relationship to the Tribulation, we first must understand the purpose of Tribulation before we can establish the timing of the rapture. The Bible teaches repeatedly and clearly that the time of Tribulation is a time of judgment specifically intended for the Jewish nation.
The Bible teaches consistently that the seven-year period of Tribulation is intended by God to chasten Israel for Her sins under the Mosaic Covenant, but it will lead the nation as a whole to repent and turn to Christ.
For example, in Ezek 20-33-38 God promises to bring Israel back into her land for a period of judgment and redemption. In Dan 9:24, God lists seven reasons why Israel must experience the seven years of Tribulation. And in Jeremiah 30:2-9 God promises an unprecedented period of distress coming for Israel called the time of “Jacob’s troubles” but the nation will be saved in the end.
So, the seven-year period of worldwide distress called Tribulation is a time of judgment specifically directed toward the nation of Israel for the purpose of bringing Israel back to God. Due to the unprecedented nature of this time of judgment, it impacts the entire world and brings distress to everyone living on Earth in those days. Nevertheless, it is a result of Israel’s sin and is directed specifically against that nation.
Because the purpose of Tribulation is for Israel (and not for the Church), Paul teaches that the Church will not be subjected to this time of distress when it arrives on Earth. We can find Paul’s teaching on the rapture and its relationship to Tribulation in several passages, beginning with 1Thessalonians 1:10:
1Th. 1:10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
Paul says the Lord’s return from Heaven is timed to rescue the Church before the wrath to come. The wrath Paul mentions is the wrath of the entire seven years of Tribulation.
In another passage from 1Thessalonians, Paul wrote to assure the Church that the Lord reassures the Church that we are not to worry about the day of Tribulation overtaking us unaware, because the Lord has not destined us for His wrath. Paul specifically referencing the rapture in this passage, when he reminds the Church it will escape the terror of Tribulation:
1Th. 5:1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you.
1Th. 5:2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.
1Th. 5:3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.
1Th. 5:4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief;
1Th. 5:5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness;
1Th. 5:6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
1Th. 5:7 For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night.
1Th. 5:8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.
1Th. 5:9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,
1Th. 5:10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.
Notice in v.9 Paul says the Church is not destined for wrath, which begs the question who is destined for the wrath of Tribulation? The answer came in the earlier verses when Paul says that the unsuspecting world will be the intended target, which principally refers to unbelieving Israel. As mentioned above, Tribulation is a time of judgment intended for the Jewish nation and the unbelieving world, but the Church will escape this time, because Christ collects the Church from the Earth and escorts His Bride away before the coming judgment.
Finally, Paul gives additional detail on the rapture in 1Corinthians 15:
1Cor. 15:51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,
1Cor. 15:52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
1Cor. 15:53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
Paul’s main point in 1Cor 15 is to demonstrate the truth of resurrection and the need for a new “incorruptible” body before men can enter into the heavenly realm. As he teaches on this point, Paul introduces a “mystery,” a hidden truth that God is now unveiling through Paul’s writing.
The mystery Paul revealed in this passage was that not every Christian will experience physical death (i.e., “sleep”) before they receive their new, incorruptible body. Though most Christians will experience a physical death before the resurrection of the righteous, some Christians will still be living when the moment of resurrection takes place.
Paul then says that in a moment (in Greek, the phrase literally means in “an atom of time”), the dead are raised into their new bodies and the living are “changed.” The Greek word is allasso, which means an exchange of one thing for another.
Paul is teaching that at the moment of the resurrection for all saints, any believers who are still alive at that moment will instantly exchange their present body for a new body. The exchange for a new incorruptible form is necessary because we are immediately escorted into Heaven with the Lord.
This is the same Rapture Paul described in 1Thess, and it is a moment the Church has expected and longed for since Paul wrote these words. The rapture (resurrection) of the Church occurs prior to the Tribulation and is intended to remove the saints prior to the Lord returning His attention to the sins of Israel and Her disobedience under the Old Covenant.