0 Raptures (Really?)
We are continuing our series on Numbers in the book of Revelation. I have a feeling that the number we are looking at this Sunday is perhaps the most surprising number. That number being 0…as in 0 raptures. Make no mistake I believe in the glorious and triumphant return of Jesus Christ to claim his people and make all things new…but I do not believe that there is enough evidence in the Bible of a rapture of Christians out of this earth when Christ does return. Now with that said, I have brothers and sisters in Christ, I have friends who believe the rapture. So what I am sharing with you this morning is what I believe is the best way to understand this from a biblical perspective. However, I do not think my colleagues in ministry and friends are unstudied or unbiblical or less of a Christian because they disagree with me…I just think they are wrong…that’s all...and they think I’m wrong. And if you can’t respectfully disagree about something…if you can’t agree to disagree and still love the person and appreciate them, then you need to take a deep long look at your heart and your capacity to love someone. We can disagree on this and still be all about Jesus Christ and his kingdom on this earth.
I grew up in the Methodist church and I do not remember hearing teaching and preaching on the end times and on the rapture and on the tribulation. It’s just not a big deal in the Methodist church. Were any of you raised in the Baptist church? In most Baptist churches end times is a big deal and it’s preached and taught and talked about. I was surprised when I got to seminary and discovered that end times theology is a big deal to people.
So let me just back up a little bit share with you the predominant views of how the end of the world is going to happen. What I’m going to show is three main views of people who believe in the rapture. Here’s a chart: Pic.
Now to understand the chart you have to know what the tribulation is. In the book of Revelation the tribulation period is thought to be a period of seven years where God unleashes hell on earth to judge those who are not Christians. During this seven years 75% of the people on earth are destroyed. This is the four horseman and the beasts and plagues and moon turning blood red and the sun being blotted out type of stuff. The people who take this stuff literally believe this time to be the tribulation and the rapture will happen either before during or after the tribulation.
The most common view is this first one in the chart…where Christians are raptured to heaven then there is seven years of tribulation, then Christ will come again and there will be 1,000 years where Christ reigns on earth to get those who are still living for that amount of time to believe in him (this is called the millennium).
Then there’s midtribulation where the rapture happens in the middle of the tribulation period, then there’s also postribulation which says the rapture happens after the tribulation period.
This can get really confusing so don’t worry about memorizing this chart. I’m just sharing this with you so that you know that even among people who believe in the rapture there are different understandings of exactly how it’s all going to go down. Let me back up and give you some history about where the idea of the rapture came from then we will dig into the Bible itself.
In the mid 1800’s a british born pastor by the name of John Nelson Darby discovered a new way to understand the Bible called Dispensationalism. Within this new way of understanding the Bible Darby also saw a literal rapture and a literal period of tribulation and literal millennium of Christ reigning on earth. He was the first one to see this in the Bible. So for the first one thousand 800 and fourty years of the church existing on earth there was no writings or discovery or theology or belief about a rapture from the Bible. So all the people that studied and taught and preached the Bible (up until John Nelson Darby) did not see this idea of a rapture in the Bible. None of the early church Fathers who have been so influential in the theology that we believe today, not one of them taught or wrote about a rapture. The idea that there is a rapture is only about 170 years old, compared that to theology that’s over 1800 years old…that fact alone should make us at least skeptical of rapture theology. Because when it comes to what we believe about the Bible, new is not always better. So how did it become so popular?
Rapture theology became popular in the United States first through a pastor named C.I. Scofield. Some of you may have a Scofield study Bible which taught dispensational theology and within that system taught the rapture. Then Charles Ryrie came out with a study bible that was also supportive of rapture theology. In 1969 Hal Lindsay wrote a book called The Late Great Planet Earth…some of you may remember that. Then in most recent times through writers Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins we see this theology in the Left Behind Series which many of you have read the books or seen the movies. And they are actually in process of making the movies again with Nicholas Cage. The Left Behind series is Christian fiction…please do me a favor as someone who takes the bible seriously and do not base your beliefs on Christian fiction. If you read the Bible and come to the conclusion of a rapture that’s fine, but don’t use this popular Christian fiction as your basis.
Here’s what I’m telling you, for over 1,800 years rapture theology was not known or heard of in the Christian church. It wasn’t taught or preached by Catholics or Protestants, by Calvinists or Armenians. Iranaeus, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley…none of them were even familiar with rapture theology much less believed it because they didn’t see it in the Bible. It wasn’t until someone came up with this new system of reading the Bible that we see the rapture being taught. Do you know why no one saw the rapture in the Bible until this one man saw it around 1840?…because it’s not there.
Lets get into the Word. The first text today is from Revelation 4 verse 1. This is the very next thing that happens after the specific message to each of the seven churches in Asia Minor. The last church to receive a message is Laodicea and then we have this. READ.
People who believe the rapture say that John is representative of the church as a whole. So that when the voice John hears says “Come up here.”…that the voice is calling the entire church to come up there and that this is the part in the book of Revelation where the rapture takes place. So that most of the rest of the letter is when the church, the body Christ, Christians are not present on earth and therefore those chapters are describing the period of time called the tribulation. So for chapters 4 through chapter 19 in Revelation Christians are not on the earth, that’s the belief.
I believe this way of reading the book of Revelation is isogesis at it’s finest. Isogesis is a fancy way (every now and then I have to throw out these big words so you know I went to seminary) of taking an idea that we already believe and putting it in the text. I believe the Bible supports slavery…so I take that idea and put it in the Bible and when I do that I can make a case. I believe the Bible supports polygamy (having more than one spouse) so I take that idea to the Bible and make my case. I believe the rapture is isogesis. We take that we believe the rapture and then look for it in the Bible.
What we want to do is exegesis. Exegesis is the process of extracting the idea already there in the text. So when we do exegesis on Revelation 4:1 here’s what happens. We know that this is a letter to seven churches who are undergoing sever persecution and need a message of hope. So John is writing to them (and by extension to Christians) with this message that Jesus and those who belong to him win in the end. John is writing the letter. There is no indication when you do exegesis of the text that John has more than just himself in mind when he is taken up to heaven in this vision. This is a vision for him…the message is for the rest of the church, but the experience is for him to experience and then record for Christians everywhere. There is no indication that this is the entire church taken up to heaven. The earliest church fathers who studied the Bible didn’t see and most rapture theologians and scholars…the ones that take it seriously enough to do exegesis…most of them will say that this is not a text that teaches the rapture but that you can see the rapture in it. So their own proponents of rapture theology take the one text in Revelation that can be considered about the rapture and say it’s probably not about the rapture.
This is the only evidence in the entire book of Revelation that we have of any sort of rapture and it is suspect by it’s own proponents. If rapture is such a big deal to God why didn’t he make it more clear in the one book of the Bible that is about how the world is going to end? There are only a handful of texts that we can even say might be the rapture. That’s it. This is not a theme that is throughout the entire Bible.
Now, lets look at the text that spells out what people think is the rapture more than any other text. It’s 1st Thessalonians 413-18. Read.
So it appears that when Jesus returns he will come down from heaven with a loud command – there is not a secret rapture – even if you believe in a rapture…it’s not going to be secret. There’s a loud command and the voice of the archangel and trumpets. The Left Behind Series presents a secret rapture…even if I believed in the rapture and used this verse I could not come to the belief that it is a secret rapture. Do you think a loud command and the archangels voice and the trumpets of heaven are loud…this sounds like a public announcement.
Keep that in mind. So when Jesus returns it’s announced that he has returned and the dead in Christ will rise first (this Christians who have died)…this is the resurrection of beleivers that we see throughout scripture…we know that when we are raised up that we will be raised in new life with glorified bodies…this is the resurrection of those who believe in Christ but have died. After that, Christians on earth will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. “And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
We are caught up in the clouds, we meet the Lord in the air, and then we are with him forever. Where are we with him forever? It doesn’t say does it. I believe this text is talking specifically about the resurrection of believers that we see elsewhere in scripture…especially 1 Corinthians 15. It’s an awesome read.
N.T. Wright is one of the most prominent New Testament scholars in the world right now. Wright rightly states that Paul is describing the resurrection using imagery that has been falsely interpreted. Remember Paul was a Jew before his conversion to Christianity. He wasn’t just any Jew, he was a highly educated Jew. Three things about this text that Paul has in mind.
First, Paul echoes the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses comes to see what’s been going on in his absence.
Second, he echoes Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.
Third, Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. Remember how I said it sounds like a public announcement…just like the announcement of a king coming to visit a city…the city officials would want everyone in the city to know about the visit and the leaders would go out and meet the king outside the city wall and escort that king back inside as a way to host the king and let the king know he is welcome.
Remember, Paul is the one who hammered on the resurrected body for a long, entire chapter in 1st Corinthians 15 and he writes about the resurrection body over and over again in his other letters to the churches. If Paul intended for this to be a rapture as so many understand it wouldn’t that same idea appear more than once in his writings. It doesn’t. The first Christians who read this would have seen this as welcoming an emperor into their city and I believe that idea is the idea Paul intended to communicate.
Lets look very quickly at a parable Jesus told. Matthew 24:36-41. READ. The reference is the story of Noah and the flood. Another movie coming out next year is about Noah played by Russell Crow…should be interesting. In the parable the sinners are the ones not in the ark that Noah built and the righteous are the ones in the ark. The ones who are swept by the flood are done so as a sign of judgment. Those in the ark are saved. The ones in the ark are the ones who are left behind. Get it. To be left behind in the parable that Jesus is telling is to be saved from the judgment which in Noah’s day was a flood. You want to be left behind according to this parable that Jesus tells.
Here’s my final point. Rapture teaches escapism. Rapture theology teaches that Christians are going to escape from this earth so that we don’t have to face a time of tribulation. There’s a story of a pastor sharing at a Christian conference about our responsibility as Christians to make a difference in the world. To be people who take care of the widow and orphans and who are in ministry with the poor and are willing to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves and just try to make this world a better place to live. A woman raised her hand and asked him: “but if we do those things the world won’t get worse and worse and it will take longer for Jesus to return.” See, the hope of this world is not that things have to get worse so that Jesus can rapture Christians out so that the tribulation can start…the hope of the world is what we pray every Sunday…that the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus did not teach escapism…he taught being engaged in such a way as to bring the goodness of heaven into this broken world. And guess who is tasked with being the hands and feet of Christ? The body of Christ…you and me…Christians!
God’s people in the Old Testament, the prophets, Jesus and Paul…none of them taught escapism. The idea of being in Christ is that we would take up our cross daily for the sake of Jesus. Jesus promised that we would face tribulation in this world…he even used that word. Paul said to rejoice in suffering because it leads to character building.
The overall theme of the bible does not teach that people who belong to Christ are escapists. What it does teach over and over and over again is that people who belong to God are endurer’s and overcomers who believe that through Christ in us we can remain faithful in the face of the most difficult of circumstances.
If I have taken away something that you hold dear…if I have taken away the belief of rapture from you…I am thankful. I also know how hard it is to have something you have always believed and that you have held dear taken away. And I believe it is important to replace it with something else. Here’s what I suggest you can replace it with: the return of Jesus to make all things new and usher in the eternal and glorious future that is the new heavens and new earth. You don’t have to believe in the rapture to believe in the return or Jesus.
If you still believe in the rapture after this morning…I still love you and appreciate you and will not judge you. This is not about whose right or wrong, this is about being faithful to a God who loves you and who we can all agree wins in the end. That’s the good news we can all agree on and that matters more than exactly how the end of the world happens. Jesus, the slain lamb of God, wins in the end and we get to participate in the victory! Amen.