The timeline for Christ’s return is the most important key to understanding what happens when. It is the bird’s eye view of the gathering together, the rapture.
By timeline we are not talking about predicting when Christ will return, when the gathering together will occur. The Bible is specific that no one on earth will know that.[i] Nor are we talking about whether it will happen before the tribulation or after the tribulation or sometime in between. The Bible is specific about that, too, but that is not the object of this blog.
Why do we need a timeline?
Here we want to put together the order of events for this one occasion, when Christ returns for his saints. To do that, we need a timeline.
When piecing together different facts and incidents about any event, be it past or future, the more accurate your timeline is, the more accurate your result is going to be. Without a timeline there is much more guesswork involved. With the timeline you have a bird’s-eye view, making it much easier to determine what comes first, what comes next, and so on.
You may be asking yourself, “So why isn’t there a simple listing of events?” It seems we rarely see that in the Scriptures, on any subject.
The return of Christ was taught earlier
While we have Thessalonians and Corinthians as our main references on this, that was not the case for those living in the first century. They were taught this in person. In Acts we see Paul, Timothy and Silas coming to Thessalonica and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.
The same three men also taught about the return of Christ in Thessalonica.
II Thessalonians 2:1,5
Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?
This re-teaches certain truths
What we have in Thessalonians today is a follow-up to what had been taught originally. Paul was reiterating certain truths to encourage and strengthen the believers of Thessalonica. He did not reteach the entire topic.
We in the twenty-first century do not have the whole story in one place. But we do have something they did not have – the entire canon of Scripture. We can pick up our Bible and read it or study it at any time. Not to mention all other books that help us in our study. Within the pages of the Scriptures it is all there, it just takes more work to put it together.
We will start with the timeline for Christ’s return.
The Timeline for Christ’s Return
I Thessalonians 4:16
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
There doesn’t appear to be a timeline here, but there is definitely a lot going on. How do the Lord’s descent from heaven, the archangel’s voice, and the trump of God relate to one another?
The answer is in the word with that connects these three phrases.
The Greek word translated with in this verse usually deals with location and may translated in, with, among, or by. When dealing with time, that is a special case. With time it refers to an action that occurs within a certain period of time.[ii]
One verse in Matthew uses both aspects of this same word, here translated in.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea. The location of his birth was within the city of Bethlehem.
We also see he was born in the days of Herod’s rule. Herod ruled for a period of time, and during his reign Jesus was born.
As you know, there is no graphic attached to this Scripture depicting a map of Bethlehem and a big red X where Jesus was born. There are more clues in other Scriptures. But as far as this verse goes, all we know is what it says, that he was born in Bethlehem of Judaea.
It is the same with the time of Jesus’ birth. After reading this verse we may ask, “How many days did Herod rule? Was his birth at the beginning of his reign? Towards the end? Sometime in the middle?” This verse does not say. To get a more precise time than “in the days of Herod the king” we need to look elsewhere. All we know from this verse is that he was born within the period of time that Herod ruled.
Now, back to Thessalonians.
The Lord’s Descent Anchors the Timeline
I Thessalonians 4:16a
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God:
To visualize what is being said here, we will start with a timeline and a large L that represents the Lord?s descent from heaven.
The Lord?s descent from heaven is the central point around which all the action revolves. Christ’s return is the anchor of the timeline.
The Voice of the Archangel
Next, we know the Lord?s appearance will be in the voice of the archangel, within the period of time the archangel is speaking. How long will the archangel be speaking? When during his speaking with the Lord descend? We don?t know, but you can be assured it will be at just the right moment. After all, this event has been planned for a long time.
For simplicity, we will use a V to indicate when the voice of the archangel begins, and another when it ends.
This shows us the archangel will begin speaking, and after he begins the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout. The archangel will continue speaking afterwards. This doesn’t mean Christ will return in the exact middle of the archangel’s speech. But he will return sometime during the time the archangel’s voice is being heard.
The Trump of God
The next phrase, in the trump of God, encloses the archangel’s speech and the Lord’s return within the sound of a trumpet. We will add a T to our timeline to represent when the trumpet begins sounding, and another T representing when the trumpet sound ends.
That is the basic timeline for the gathering together. The first thing we will hear on that glorious day is the sound of a trumpet. While it is sounding the archangel will begin to speak. While he is speaking, the Lord Jesus will descend from heaven with a shout. The archangel will continue speaking until he is done, and sometime after that the trumpet sound will cease.
Just seeing that is exciting! But there is a lot more we can learn about that day. We will start with the trumpet.
[i] Acts 1:7, I Thessalonians 5:1-2
The picture of the watch at the top of this post is courtesy of Wayne Lougee.