1 Thessalonians 4:13-17

Today in one of our texts for the week we read a passage of scripture that has been commonly interpreted in some Christian circles as referring to the so-called “rapture”— a time when the Christians will suddenly vanish from earth, leaving non-Christians behind to face the end of the world.  Though the word “rapture” never occurs in the Bible, a man named John Nelson Darby less than two hundred years ago[1]  interpreted our section of scripture today as alluding to such an event.[2]  His ideas were popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909 in the King James Version.[3]  In the margins, Scofield lays out in detail John Nelson Darby’s rapture theology.

This rapture theology has continued to have its adherents since. In 1970 author Hal Lindsey published the Late Great Planet Earth, an influential book which perceived the end of the world to occur at any moment, interpreting the threat of the Cold War as a sign of the end times.  Movies such as A Thief in the Night continued the trend in the 70’s and 80’s.  And it was the publishing of the Left Behind book series beginning in 1995 that pushed this idea to the forefront once again.  Selling millions of copies and reaching the New York Times best-seller list on multiple occasions, the books were ultimately made into three movies.  Produced on tight budgets and with limited release, the films never achieved widespread success.

Just a month ago Left Behind the movie was released once again, a remake starring well-known actors such as Nicholas Cage, Chad Michael Murray, and Lea Thompson.  The writers of the book on which the movie is based adhere to the aforementioned belief that Christians will one day be “raptured” up into heaven while the unsaved left behind.  They understand the book of Revelation to be fore-telling the events that will unfold in this scenario.

I want to be upfront and say that I do not believe in such a scenario.  While in my younger days I believed in such an idea, with further study of the scriptures I have come to believe that such an understanding is not in adherence with Biblical teaching.  So while I am not asking you to automatically accept what I think for yourself, I would like to explain to you why I do not think the idea of the rapture is biblical, why I think it is not historically Christian, why I think it is not healthy for the church, and why I think it is not responsible for Christians.

I do want to say that I believe in the second coming of Jesus.  The return of Christ is something Christians have believed in and have been in agreement on for centuries.  The Nicene Creed proclaims, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Ever since the time of Jesus, followers have been anxiously awaiting the coming of the Kingdom of heaven in all its glory.   In just a few short weeks we will be celebrating Advent, the time when we celebrate Jesus’ coming to earth as a baby and also anxiously await his coming back to earth to be with us on earth.

Examining our text for day, it is this return of Christ that this section of scripture is talking about—not a so-called “rapture.” Paul was writing to a group of Christians who expected Jesus to return in their lifetime.  When members of their group began to die off, there was concern about whether those who had died would be able to participate in Jesus’ coming kingdom. Paul wrote to comfort these people and ease their concerns.

 

In verse 15 we read of the “coming of the Lord,” parousia is the Greek word.  I want you to take note that “this term was typically used for the ceremonial arrival of a king who was greeted with honor and acclaim.”[4]

Continuing on we read of those who are asleep. “The ones who have been sleeping” would actually be a more accurate translation.  Notice Paul does not use the word “dead” here.  The NRSV Bible translates it as such, but the NIV does not.  I think Paul uses this language purposely.  He is trying to differentiate between those who are without Christ (dead) and those with Christ.  Therefore, to bring light to that hope and emphasize that their physical death is not the end, Paul uses the term “sleeping” instead.

In verse 16 we read that the Lord “will descend” or “will come down.”  Please pay attention to that. Christ will come down. And there is no indication hereafter that “the Lord switches directions.”[5]

Further along we read that “the dead in Christ will rise.” The word “rise” is used elsewhere in scripture referring to the raising of the dead[6] or a person simply standing up[7].  Nowhere does the word imply anything such as rising into the air. Rather, imagine as in a Halloween movie, people standing up out of their graves, coming to life again.  Based on what can be read from the original language, this is what Paul is implying here—not springing out of the ground and getting teleported into heaven.

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Verse 17 is the heart of the rapture theology.  Our text reads, “caught up;” and the word “rapture” comes the the Latin version of this world rapturo.  The word from which we get “caught up” is used fourteen times in the New Testament, elsewhere understood as being taken away or seized.

“In the clouds” is where the text says we will join the dead in Christ.   Something I want to point out though is that Paul uses the word one other time in his writings, in 1 Corinthians 10, talking about the Israelites and their exodus.  There, Paul refers to Israelites’ relation to a cloud, but he is not talking about literal clouds but instead referencing the presence of God among them.[8]  So it could be that Paul is saying that with the coming of Jesus, we will all be in the presence of God. And even if Paul meant this literally as puffy white clouds, the coming verses suggest Christians won’t be in the clouds for long.

Paul then writes that we will “meet the Lord.”  The word “meet” refers to a practice in the Greek world of the reception of a dignitary. “When a city was officially visited by a general or a monarch, a delegation of citizens went out to meet him and to conduct him on the last stage of his journey.  A crowd of people were stirring at the entrance of the city itself.  In this way, there was a royal triumphal procession,”[9] coming back with the dignitary into the city itself, not going elsewhere.  So even if Christians are taken up into the sky momentarily, “those who meet Christ do so to escort him back to earth.”[10]

Finally the text tells us that we will meet the Lord “in the air.”  While we commonly think of the air representing the air we breathe or the sky above us, Paul writes in Ephesians 2 about “the kingdom of the air” referring to those who follow the ways of the world as being under the influence of the kingdom of the air.[11]  So if Jesus is coming to establish his kingdom, then building off Ephesians, Paul is talking about Christ returning to earth and overtaking the ways of the world and the evil influence that had existed.  Therefore I understand this verse as talking about Christ returning to earth.  Whether or not Christians meet Jesus in the sky, I think the text is pretty clear–we will be welcoming him back to earth, not going away to heaven.

So while I think interpreting this passage of scripture as talking about the rapture is not accurate, I also want to say that I believe the idea of the rapture is not in-line with scripture, it is not consistent with historical Christian teachings, it promotes an unhealthy attitude among Christians, and it leads to an attitude of irresponsibility.

First the rapture is unbiblical in that the scripture passages used to promote this idea are taken from twenty-one different Bible passages found in twelve different biblical books, eight in the New Testament and four from the Old Testament.[12]  Basically, the creators of Rapture theology “draw isolated verses from several biblical books, books written by different authors in different time periods, giving no attention to the meaning of those verses within their original contexts, and then braid them together.”[13] Even “proponents admit that the (rapture) system is not spelled out in any single passage of the Bible;”[14] it is not so much an interpretation as it is an invention.

Second the rapture is not historically ChristianThe idea of the rapture was imagined less than two hundred years ago by John Nelson Darby, who was criticized in his own time for this interpretation.[15] Never before in the history of Christianity had this idea been believed. The idea that Jesus is coming again is both biblical and consistent with historical Christianity.  However, the idea that Jesus will come to “rapture” away a select group of Christians first is not. “Traditional Christian theology has always looked to Jesus to put an end to inequality and injustice, to judge the wicked and save the righteous, and to create a new world order in which equality and justice will rule.[16]  In short, Jesus is coming again, but only once—not twice.

“Historically, Christianity has not taught that the kingdom was delayed, rather that it has been fulfilled in the church.  The kingdom of heaven has come; it is here and now.  We are experiencing the kingdom of heaven through the life of the church.  At the same time, the church has consistently looked to the future for something more; the faithful have hoped for a new and just social order. Although the faithful may die a physical death, the hope has been that God would gather the community of faith from every era together to celebrate and sustain this new social order.[17]  This is what we will be celebrating in Advent, both the “now” and the “not yet.”

Third the idea of rapture is unhealthy for Christians in that it creates an “us” vs. “them” mentality. The idea that God is going to take from the world a small, select group of people only to then destroy the world and those remaining behind just doesn’t fit with the testimony of scripture that God loves the world and sent his son to save it.  “God saves us not by snatching us out of the world, but by coming into the world to be with us.  This is the central message of Jesus’ incarnation and of the Bible.”[18] And as we will celebrate this Advent, Immanuel, God with us.

The sense of crisis inherent in this view leads some to an inward, self-protective focus, as threatening circumstances always do, and ultimately the New Testament commitments of love of neighbor and love of enemies are lost.  In other words, the gospel message is truncated. In the end, the hungry are not fed, the thirsty are not given water, the stranger is not welcomed, the naked are not clothed, the sick are not cared for, and the prisoners are not visited (Matthew 25:35-46). Instead, they are only prosletyzed. It is the gospel mandate to care for the poor, receive the stranger, and love both neighbor and enemy that is left behind.[19]

What a difference it makes in our treatment of our fellow human beings and even of God’s creation when we realize Jesus is not taking us from the earth and leaving it to rot, but rather coming to us once again to redeem the world and all who abide on it!

Finally, the idea of the rapture rids us of responsibility.  One of the reasons I so dislike the Left Behind ideology of rapture is that is disregards one of the main tasks Jesus asks of his followers—that of transforming the world to the ways of God.  As nice as it would be to get magically zapped out of this earth and be rid of the responsibility of putting in practice the ways of God in the world, reality is different.

“Looking to events around the globe as supernatural signs of the coming kingdom also means overlooking the role—and responsibility—the church has for ushering in that kingdom and thus changes the mission of the church.”[20] But if we look instead to “the message of both the prophetic call to reform and the apocalyptic vision of God’s new day (we are implored) to engage in the needs of the world and to help usher in the kingdom of God.”[21]

“Jesus is coming.  We can agree on this.”[22]  Therefore encourage each other with these words.

 

[1] Howard-Book and Gwyer, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Mayknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 7.

[2] Rossing, Barbara. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 22.

[3] Towner, W Sibley, “Rapture, Red Heifer, and Other Millennial Misfortunes,” Theology Today 56 no. 3 (O 1999): 386.

[4] Parsenios, George. “1 Thessalonians 4:13-18,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 4:281.

[5] Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 176.

[6] Acts 9:41

[7] Acts 9:39

[8] Raymond Bryan Brown, “1 Corinthians,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 10 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), 346.

[9] Houwelingen, P H R van, “The great reunion: the meaning and significance of the ‘word of the Lord’ in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-28,” Calvin Theological Journal 42, no. 2 (N 2007): 320-321.

[10] Bingaman, Brock. “Learning from Left behind? A call for coherent accounts of Scripture,” Anglican Theological Review 91 no. 2 (Spr 2009): 266.

[11] Herchel H. Hobbs, “1 & 2 Thessalonians,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 11 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), 282.

[12] Snow Flesher, LeAnn. Left Behind: The Facts Behind the Fiction (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006), 103.

[13] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 115.

[14] Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 24.

[15] Bingaman, “Learning from Left behind,” 261.

[16] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 101.

[17] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 146.

[18] Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 35.

[19] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 149.

[20] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 148.

[21] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 150.

[22] Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 16.

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