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Removal of the Church

THE REMOVAL
OF THE CHURCH FROM EARTH
By D. M. PANTON, B.A.
 

 It is a most happy fact, solving a complex and warmly debated problem with ease and finish, that, if a single phrase in theApocalypse—wheat—is a symbol of the church, a graded removal of the Church from earth, a removal in sections, passes out of the realm of discussion into that of certainty. This symbol is the Pass of Thermopylae which our good friends the opponents of selective rapture must lay down their lives rather than yield. For the Harvest and its reaping in the Apocalypse is a statement of fact: it is not an ambiguous reference; or a debatable doctrine: or an attempted synthesis of Scriptures: or even a statement of principle; it is a picture of what actually occurs: and therefore, if the Harvest is Christian, the narrative is a photograph, taken beforehand by God's camera, of the Church in the act of her removal from earth to heaven. If Wheat is a God-designed symbol of the Church of Christ, the many hearts—they must be a great host—who are sincerely desirous of the truth on a point which grows more fearfully urgent and practical with every passing hour, can be set at rest in a fundamental certainty.
 

FIRSTFRUITS
 

Now the first key-fact of the drama is that the scene opens in heaven, and that all the actors in it—the Lamb, the First-fruits, the Angels—move in and from the heavenlies. The proofs of this are unmistakable. (1) Christ is in the heavenlies. “I saw, and behold, the Lamb standing” (Rev. xiv. 1): the Lord does not descend to earth until the nineteenth chapter: and even later in this very chapter, when, as Reaper, He casts His sickle to the earth (v. 14), He is still seated on the Parousia-cloud in the heavenlies. The Lord's title throughout His sojourn in the heavenlies is ‘The Lamb’: ‘the Son of Man’ is His title on descending to the earth. (2) ‘Jerusalem’ throughout the Apocalypse never means the earthly Jerusalem and Mount Zion below, so far from being occupied by Christ—who does not descend upon it until after the Vintage pictured at the close of this chapter—is, at this moment, in the grip of the murderous Antichrist (Rev. xi. 8): the Mount Zion here named is, therefore, the “mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem ” (Heb. xii. 22) to which we have already in spirit come. (1) The Firstfruit company sing “before the throne, and before the four living creatures and the elders ” (xiv. 3); and the Throne of God is indisputably in heaven. (“Jerusalem never designates in the Apocalypse the city commonly known by that name; and the earthly Zion had long ago lost its significance to the Seer of the Revelation. As certainly as ‘the voice from heaven’ in ver. 2 is the voice of the 144 000, so certainly must the Mount Zion, where the Lamb stands, be the heavenly one” (Hengstenberg). “‘Heaven,’ from which the sound comes (v. 2), includes the ‘Mount Zion’ of verse 1, on which the Lamb and His followers stand” (A. Plummer, D.D.). So whoever they are, and whatever they are, the Firstfruits are in heaven; and they are already on high when an Angel goes forth to warn earth of the approaching reign of Antichrist.
 

THE HARVEST
 

Now the other key-fact in the drama is the inescapable identity of firstfruits with harvest. “If the firstfruit is holy,” Paul says, “so is the lump”(Rom. xi. 16)—the crop from which it is cut: that is, if the Firstfruits are a heavenly body, so also is the Harvest a heavenly body, although still on the surface of the earth. For it is impossible to deny that the Firstfruits and Harvest in this chapter each relate to the other, as the first-cut and the later-cut of one body of wheat: beyond the sharply numbered firstfruits stretches the un-numbered and innumerable harvest. Thus all is exactly square with all other Scriptures. For as the fig stands for Israel; the cedar, the bramble, etc., for Gentile nations (Judges ix. 14): the darnel (or tare) for the bastard Christian; and the Vine (in the Apocalypse) for Antichrist's followers—so the wheat throughout Scripture is never the symbol of any group but the Church. The Lord Himself is the falling grain of wheat (John xii. 24): when the Apostles are sifted, they are sifted as wheat (Luke xxii. 31): when the Lord commands prayer for the missionaries of two thousand years, it is for the reaping of wheat (Luke x. 2): when James counsels patience all down the Gospel ages, it is patience over wheat ( Jas. v. 7.): when Paul pictures the breaking of Christian tombs, it is for the springing of wheat (1 Cor. xv. 37). The whole history of the Church is summed up in this symbol by our Lord:— “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world”—not Palestine; “the harvest is the end of the age”—the culmination, that is, of two thousand years of sowing, or the Church epoch; “and the reapers are angels” (Matt. xiii. 37). The Harvest, as Dr. Swete says, is “the wheat-harvest considered apart from the tares,” which follow immediately in the Vintage (“The Harvest is the ingathering of the Good, the ingathering of the wheat into the heavenly barn: the Vintage is the crushing of the wicked” (Bishop Chr. Wordsworth). So Bengel:—“By means of the Harvest a great multitude of the righteous, and by means of the Vintage a great multitude of the ungodly, is removed from the world: the Vintage is expressive only of wrath, the Harvest is entirely of a gracious character.”); or as John the Baptist put it:—“whose fan is in his hand, thoroughly to cleanse his threshing-floor [Christendom] and to gather the wheat into his garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire” (Luke iii. 17).
 

WHEAT
 

So then the sole obstacle to a divided reaping—namely, the theory that the Firstfruits are ‘Jewish’—collapses. For no Jewish body is ever removed from the earth at all. Wheat is so characteristic of the Christian that it could not be a symbol of an earthly people: its fragile stalk, dying to earth as it ripens heavenward, so unlike the rooted, luscious grasp on earth of fig or vine; its annual relays moving off the field in successive pilgrim generations; its value as the supreme food for man, even as the Church is the supreme satisfaction of God; its lack of what, to the world, would be pleasant fruit—fig or grape: wheat is manifestly created to be God's kindergarten of the Church; and the theory that this body of redeemed on high is ‘Jewish’, under investigation, melts as a mist in the sun, or a fog swept by a sea-wind. How clear minds could ever have confounded the earthly First-fruits (Rev. vii. 4) with the heavenly Firstfruits is one of the mysteries of Apocalyptic interpretation. For it would be difficult to find two groups of the saved more radically distinguished by explicit statements of Scripture. The one group is on the earth, the other is in heaven: the one is named as Jews, the other is named as catholic: the one is drawn from the Twelve Tribes of Israel the other “from among men”—mankind in general: the one escapes into the wilderness (Rev. xii. 14) the other into the heavenlies: the one is stationary in the desert, with Christ as the Jehovah Angel, the other moves freely everywhere, with the Lamb: the one is sealed in the forehead as a miraculous safeguard against assassination (Rev. ix. 4.), the other is named in the forehead in a realm where assassination is impossible. The virginity of the Lamb's body-escort is also profoundly un-Jewish; and redemption from the earth, as Israel's from Egypt (1 Chron. xvii. 21), indicates a physical removal. “That the Seer intended to represent this throng as composed exclusively of Jews is an utterly ridiculous assumption from beginning to end” (Lange); an assumption which probably arose from the mistake—a mistake based on the spurious ‘us’ of Rev, v. 9—which identifies the Church with the heads of the angelic hierarchy, the Elders, and so compels commentator after commentator to find in the First-fruits (standing separately from the Elders) some body not the Church.
 

DIVIDED REAPING
 

Therefore the stupendous fact now confronts us—not an inference, nor a doctrine, but a photograph—that not all the Church is reaped into the heavenlies at one swing of the scythe. Between Firstfruits and Harvest yawns an ominous drama. Between the Firstfruits reaped on high, and the Harvest still uncut on earth, successive judgment Angels proclaim wrath on the threshold, the accomplished overthrow of Babylon, and the Mark of the Beast at the doors, followed by a dirge (or elegy) of the spirit over a sudden burst of martyrdom— all events that are close to the opening hours of the Great Tribulation; and the Harvest is still uncut. The Firstfruits, garnered we are not told when, but earlier, are, as Dean Alford says, “choice ones among God's people, and not the totality of those who shall form the great multitude that no man can number”. It is a significant fact that there has never yet been a rapture except of conspicuous saints. “Without question, there is pre-eminence in being the firstfruits of the heavenly harvest. They are not all the saved. The very word indicates that there is much more to follow. Nor are they the mass of the saved. Theirs isthe ‘first resurrection’, of which we read in chapter xx.—that resurrection of the dead which St. Paul calls ‘the resurrection’, and the ‘mark’ toward which he pressed, if by any means he might attain unto it (Phil. iii.). Infinite mischief is done by the belief that all will be equally blessed, equally honoured.” (Pulpit Commentary. Our Lord is in their midst, and is also first-fruits (1 Cor. xv. 20)—thus proving that first-fruits are composed of dead, and not only of living, saints and, as reaped two thousand years earlier, the Ascension divides the cutting even of first-cut: for the 144,000 are not ‘the first-fruits’, but ‘first-fruits’ (no article) a section of a far vaster throng: “but each in his own order”—group, company, flight; “Christ the first-fruits, then they that are Christ's in His Presence” (1 Co, xv. 23)—in successive reapings during the Parousia. Resurrection accompanies each rapture, both being embodied (Rev. xi. 11, 12) in a single graphic example. The peculiar nature, history, and functions of this particular group of first-cut saints lie outside the scope of our present article).
 

MATURITY
 

The moral lesson now stands forth (as designed) in all its penetrating power. For the grain is reaped solely according to its ripeness. Earth-removal depends, for the servant of God, on spiritual maturity, as exactly and as inevitably as harvesting is dated, not by the farmer, but by the grain. The Lord had already warned us of this momentous principle, in His description of the ripening Church. “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear: but when the fruit is RIPE, immediately he putteth forth the sickle, because the harvest is come” (Mark iv. 29). So the identical phrasing is used here. “Send forth thy sickle”—the sickle is ‘sent’, for it is an intelligent scythe of falling angels—“and reap: for the hour to reap”—an hour which depends solely on the maturity of the grain—“is come; for the harvest of the earth is OVER-RIPE” (Rev. xiv. 15); rather, perfectly ripe, so that the stalk is dry (Alford). Wheat which never ripens would be a blasted field: but the Church of God cannot be a blighted crop: sooner or later, all mature, all are reaped, all are gathered into the Heavenly Garner. A broad hint that the corners of the field, which according to the type (Lev. xxiii. 22) must be reaped later than harvest, are uncut until the neighbourhood of Armageddon is contained in the characteristic Church warning:—“Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments [works : of Rev. iii. 4, 18], lest he walk naked, and they see his shame” (Rev. xvi. 15.)
 

HEAVENLIES
 

So now we reach the momentous fact carefully designed to revolutionize our whole Christian life. Maturity in the spiritual realm is grace perfected in the character; and the critical alternative unfolds before us either of maturity gained now by grace, or a forced growth under judgment. For ‘firstfruits’ is not only a time-word, so that if reaped simultaneously with harvest, it is not firstfruits; but it is also a quality-word, for firstfruits (in Scripture) are invariably the pick of the crop (Num. xviii. 12), peculiarly holy to God, and to be carried bodily into the House of God (Neh. x. 37). So of the Christian Firstfruits moral excellence of the highest order is stated: “they are without blemish” (Rev. xiv. 5): whereas the Harvest, although ripe at last, has no special excellence, as wheat, stated; and its maturity, unlike that of the Firstfruits, is a maturity not due to rapidity in reaching perfection, but is produced by the slow and painful process of burning heat—“the harvest of the earth is dried up”. As the Firstfruits are two baked loaves (Lev. xxiii. 17), burnt edible—so ceasing to be raw grain—through an earlier suffering with Christ, so the Day of the Lord burneth as an oven (Mal. iv. 1), thus baking its Loaves: the fierce sun of the Day of Wrath, penetrating grain which avoided the earlier fires, destroys earthliness in the wheat at last. The root cause of maturity is fundamentally the same in both—made perfect through suffering.

THE CRISIS
 

So the urgency of the issue, its summons to sanctity, our practical peril—all lodge inselective rapture alone the rousing truth without which the warnings of God on unwatchfulness fall flat and unheeded. We are exotics ripening for another soil; and sunripe wheat, rather than forced hot-house growth, is God's ideal: for it is not the pressure of coming judgments, nor any inherent necessity that we should escape the coming perils—martyrs have had as bad—which is the determining factor compelling removal, but a principle quite other —our fitness for the heavenly garner (The blade is the green sprout of a living profession of Christ, a proof past all doubt of vital standing in Him; but it is not the fruitful ear, much less the full corn in the ear; and men do not reap blades. It is a decisive confirmation of the interpretation here given that, in the Feasts of the Law which are a complete history in type of the redeemed under grace, wheat (as ever) is the symbol selected for the Church, and the Feast of Harvest (Lev. xxiii. 9-22) reveals a carefully graded reaping). And how solemn are the facts! In spite of the huge cataclysm of the War with which God shook the world [WW I], it is a fact past all denial that the great majority of the Christian groups treat the Saviour's return with derision. Is this ripeness for the sickle ? Nothing short of Tribulation horrors will shock the main mass of the converted into maturity at last.