The church is referred to with various images in the New Testament. It is called “the body of Christ,” “the bride of Christ,” “the gathering,” “the flock,” “the household of the faith,” “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” and “the Way.” But there is another expression used in the New Testament to describe the church: the Mystery.
Different things are labeled a mystery in the Bible, but clearly in Romans 11:25 and Ephesians 3:3 Paul reveals the mystery that God has set the nation of Israel aside for a period of time until the time of the Gentiles, His church, is finished.
The reason the church is called a mystery in the New Testament is because the full extent of God’s plan to set aside the nation Israel for a period of time and work in and through Gentiles all over the world was not so clearly revealed before. Paul explains:
By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel…. – Ephesians 3:4-6 (NASB)
In this same passage Paul goes on to explain that he was called by God to preach to the Gentiles “and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden…so that the manifold wisdom of God might be known through the church…” (Ephesians 3:8-10, NASB). Paul also says, “Of this church…that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints…” (Colossians 1:25-26, NASB).
Just as the nation Israel has been and will be part of God’s prophetic message, so the church is living out its prophesied role in God’s plan. The church is living in the prophetic present right now. This is the first prophecy regarding the church. But there is more foretold about the church.
Regarding the prophetic future of the church, there are certain promises yet to come. In another prophetic promise we are told the church will be raptured, caught up to meet the Lord in the air – both living and dead church saints – to be with the Lord forever:
But we do not want you to be uniformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 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. 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. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up (raptured) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NASB, parentheses added by author)
Here Paul is writing the church at Thessalonica informing them there will be a time when those who are part of the church – both those who have died and those who are still living at the time – will be raptured up to meet the Lord in the air. This is distinct from other resurrections. (More on those later.) It is not the picture we will see later of the return of Christ to the earth. This is meeting Him in the clouds. This is a promise to the church, unlike any promise to anyone else.
There is no little amount of debate about when this rapture will take place. I will not delineate all these positions and their arguments. However, I will say most biblical students who hold to a normal, literal historical and grammatical interpretation of all the Scriptures agree the text seems to point to this rapture taking place before the Great Tribulation described in Revelation 4-18. This is the view I believe best takes into account all of the Scriptures on the subject.
A third prophetic promise regarding the church, after we are raptured, is we will stand before the Lord to receive our rewards, as athletes stands on a platform to receive their medallions. Notice these words of Paul to Timothy:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done…. – 2 Corinthians 5:10 (NASB)
The church is presently living out the past prophetic promise that it would come into existence as a mystery revealed. But it is promised yet in the future that it will eventually be raptured to meet the Lord in the air, be rewarded, and in their glorified bodies, they will reign with Christ forever (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 22:5).
 Ephesians 4:12
 Ephesians 5:24-27
 Acts 1:15
 1 Peter 5:2
 Galatians 6:10
 1 Timothy 3:15 (NRSV)
 Acts 24:14