For our study this morning we are going to look at what the Bible has to say about the "rapture." Most Christians today view the rapture as describing an escape from the troubles of this world. They believe that one day soon (it is always soon—it was "soon" when Yeshua spoke it to the Thessalonians, and it is still soon today) Yeshua is going to physically appear in the sky, and immediately all the dead are going to be resurrected and rise to meet Him, and the living Christians will be caught up in the clouds with them to be with Christ. They believe that Christians will physically be "raptured" off of this planet. I'm sure you've seen the pictures of the unmanned cars crashing and bodies coming out of the graves with everyone going up into the sky.
Last month the movie Left Behind, staring Nicolas Cage, came out in theaters across the country. This film is based upon the popular book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. This movie represents a severe misinterpretation of what the Bible actually says about the topic. But sad to say that the movie will influence the theology of many more Christians than the Bible will.
Are you aware that this "rapture of the church" idea is not a historical teaching of the church? To the surprise of many, rapture-based theology has only been around for the past couple hundred years and predominantly in America. The biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, refers to it as an "American obsession" and notes that few Christians in the U.K. hold any sort of belief in it. The origins of rapture theology lie in 1830 Scotland where a fifteen year old girl, Margaret MacDonald, claimed to see a vision of a "two-stage return of Yeshua." Then John Nelson Darby, a British evangelist and the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, took MacDonald's vision and created an entire system based off of it in which Yeshua returns not once (as Christians have always believed), but twice!
Through various "mission trips" to the U.S. in the late 19th century, the notion of a "rapture" found itself appealing to American Christians who were going through the atrocities of the Civil War, which, by all measure, must have looked like Armageddon: nation rising up against nation, brother against brother, son against father, etc. With more than half a million dead, who wouldn't find a "let's get out of here" theology attractive? This mind-set was exacerbated with World War I and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, which was handed out to soldiers in the trenches.
Two other events corresponded to the promotion of the "rapture" in America: the conversion of Dwight L. Moody to the eschatological system (he later founded Moody Bible Institute and a major radio program, which would become important in the promotion of rapture theology) and the establishment of Dallas Theological Seminary, a dispensationalist training center. During the twentieth century the "physical rapture" of the Church became a dominant eschatological view in America.
Let's look at the biblical text that is used to support the modern idea of the "physical rapture" of the church:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, 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 Yeshua died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Yeshua. 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 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
The first question that we need to ask here is, "Who is the Apostle Paul writing to?" Who is the "you" that he did not want to be ignorant? The clear and un-refutable answer is the Thessalonian Christians of the first century.
As we read and study any text of the Bible, we must keep in mind audience relevance—what did the original audience understand this to mean? The Bible was written for us, but not to us. I have had some Christians flip out on me for making that statement. They think that the Bible is written to us. How can it be written to us when it was written two thousand years ago?
When Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, he was writing to Thessalonian Christians who lived in the first century. We MUST understand this if we are going to understand what he is saying.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 NASB
First of all, who are those who sleep in Yeshua? To understand who they are, we need to know what the "hope" was that the Thessalonian believers had, but that the unsaved didn't have. The "hope" of Israel was the resurrection:
having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. Acts 24:15 NASB
"And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews. "Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead? Acts 26:6-8 NASB
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion will be hidden from My sight. Hosea 13:14 NASB
So, the "hope" that Paul is talking about to the Thessalonians is the resurrection.
What exactly did they understand about "the resurrection"? The traditional view that is held by most of the church is this: When believers die, their bodies go into the grave and their spirit goes to heaven to be with the Lord. They are in a disembodied state awaiting the resurrection at the end of time. Then, at the end of time, the Lord returns, resurrects all the decayed bodies of the dead saints, puts them back together, then changes the physically resurrected bodies into spiritual immortal bodies like Christ's.
One of the major problems with this view is that Paul taught that the resurrection was "about to happen" in his day:
having hope toward God, which they themselves also wait for, that there is about to be a rising again of the dead, both of righteous and unrighteous; Acts 24:15 YLT
Notice that the resurrection was about to happen in Paul's day. What is the resurrection? It was Yahweh removing all the Old Covenant dead saints out of Sheol and taking them to heaven to live in His presence. Prior to Yeshua's messianic work, no one went to Heaven:
and no one hath gone up to the heaven, except he who out of the heaven came down—the Son of Man who is in the heaven. John 3:13 YLT
Prior to Yeshua's messianic work, all who died went to a holding place of the dead and waited for the atoning work of Christ and the resurrection from the dead. Until Christ paid for man's sin, He could not go into Yahweh's presence. To be taken out of Sheol and brought into the presence of Yahweh is what the Bible calls "resurrection."
For if we believe that Yeshua died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Yeshua. 1 Thessalonians 4:14 NASB
Who are those who "sleep in Yeshua" that Paul speaks of here? They are the dead saints of the Old Covenant age that were in Sheol. Paul assures the Thessalonians that when Christ returned He would rescue the Old Covenant saints from the grave—they would be resurrected.
It appears as though the Thessalonians were concerned for their departed brethren. Paul reassures them by telling them in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 not to worry, for they would rise with Christ at the Parousia, and "We who remain alive will follow in our turn!" This is directed very specifically toward the first-century Thessalonians:
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. 1 Thessalonians 4:15 NASB
Notice that the "we who are alive and remain"are TIME STATEMENTS, for the "we" MUST be seen as the collective group of Paul and his audience. They (Paul and the Thessalonians) were expecting the return of Christ in their lifetime. This is very clear throughout the book:
and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Yeshua, who rescues us from the wrath to come. 1 Thessalonians 1:10 NASB
For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Yeshua at His coming? 1 Thessalonians 2:19 NASB
so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Yeshua with all His saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NASB
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Yeshua Christ. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 NASB
Paul and the Thessalonians were clearly expecting to see the return of Christ in their lifetime. Notice also:
For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Yeshua will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Yeshua. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 NASB
The Thessalonian believers will be given rest from their enemies when the Lord returns in His Second Coming. If the Second Coming did not happen in their lifetime, the Lord gave them false hope, and, in fact, deceived them.
Paul is assuring the Thessalonians that Christ would return in their lifetime and that those who were alive at that time would not go into God's presence ahead of the dead saints. Young's Literal Translation puts it this way:
for this to you we say in the word of the Lord, that we who are living—who do remain over to the presence of the Lord—may not precede those asleep, 1 Thessalonians 4:15 YLT
Let's move on to the next verse in our text: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. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 NASB
"The Lord Himself will descend from heaven"—the word "descend" was commonly used with the priest's descent out of the Temple to announce that atonement had been completed.
If we are going to rightly interpret the Word of God, we must diligently work at it, applying the rules of hermeneutics. The primary rule of hermeneutics is called: the Analogy of Faith—this means that Scripture interprets Scripture. No part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture.
As we compare Scripture with Scripture, we see that this is apocalyptic language speaking of judgment. Comparing this text to a parallel text in Matthew 24 will help us to better understand its meaning:"And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. Matthew 24:30 NASB
Does that sound familiar? It should, this is a parallel text to the Thessalonian passage. Yeshua spoke these words in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and said that their generation would see all these things fulfilled:"Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Matthew 24:34 NASB
In biblical language, "clouds," is symbolic of God's wrath and judgment against the enemies of His people. David said that the Lord delivered him from his enemies while descending on clouds ( Psalm 18:3-15). The Lord said that He would ride into Egypt on a cloud and punish them:The oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt; The idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence, And the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. Isaiah 19:1 NASB
The Lord did not literally ride on a cloud, but Egypt did receive this judgment at the hands of the Assyrians (Isaiah 20:1-6). The idea of Yeshua physically coming on the clouds would have been contrary to the nature of their understanding of the Old Covenant prophets.
A comparison between 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and Matthew 24 is fascinating. As we keep in mind that Yeshua uses apocalyptic language in Matthew 24:29-35, we can't expect the same language to be literal in 1 Thessalonians 4-5. Those who believe the coming in Matthew refers to the spiritual events surrounding Jerusalem's fall would insist that we not literalize the clouds, the angels, or the trumpet blast. If they are not literal in Matthew, why would they be in Thessalonians? Matthew is the source of the language in Thessalonians:
1. Christ Himself Returns Matt. 24:30 1 Thess. 4:16
2. From Heaven Matt. 24:30 1 Thess. 4:16
3. With a Shout Matt. 24:30 1 Thess. 4:16
4. Accompanied by Angels Matt. 24:31 1 Thess. 4:16
5. With Trumpet of God Matt. 24:31 1 Thess. 4:16
6. Believers Gathered Matt. 24:31 1 Thess. 4:17
7. In Clouds Matt. 24:30 1 Thess. 4:17
8. Time Unknown Matt. 24:36 1 Thess. 5:1-2
9. Will Come as a Thief Matt. 24:43 1 Thess. 5:2,4
10. Unbelievers Unaware of Impending Judgment Matt. 24:37-39 1 Thess. 5:3
11. Judgment Comes as Travail upon Expectant Mother Matt. 24:8 1 Thess. 5:3
12. Believers to Watch Matt. 24:42 1 Thess. 5:4
13. Warning Against Drunkenness Matt. 24:49 1 Thess. 5:7
In Matthew 24, Yeshua predicted His coming to gather together the saints in that generation. In 1 Thessalonians 4-5, Paul spoke of the same coming of the Lord to gather the saints. How many comings of the Lord, with His angels, in fire, in power and glory, to gather the saints, are there in the New Testament? Just ONE! The conclusion is inescapable: 1 Thessalonians 4-5 is dealing with exactly the same coming, judgment, and gathering that Matthew 24 is.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. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 NASB
Paul is talking to the Thessalonians about Christ's coming in judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70. When this happened, the Old Covenant saints were raised out of Hades and brought into the presence of the Lord.Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 NASB
This is the verse that the physical rapture theory comes from. A little time spent looking at the Greek words should quickly dispel many false notions. Let's start with the first word in the verse—the word "then." This is the Greek word epeita. Normally, when a sequence of events is described, the simple word eita (then)is used. Eita is best translated as: "at that time" or "next." Eita is used to indicate an immediate sequence. We see this in:When Yeshua then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then [eita] He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own household. John 19:26-27 NASB
This is a series of events—one immediately after the other. But in our text, the Greek word is not eita, but epeita, which is essentially the same Greek word with an "epi" prefix. This has the effect of affixing the word "after" to the word "then," and the best translation becomes "after then," "after that," or "after that time,"and thereby doesn't necessarily mean: "right after," but it could. Some say that epeita means that the living would be caught up to meet the Lord at a later time, maybe referring to their death. In other words, when you die you go to be with the Lord in the air. I used to hold this view, but I have changed my mind for two reasons: 1) Epeita does not always mean: "after that time." Epeita is used 16 times in the New Testament an 12 of them have the idea of "after that time" indicating some time later. But 4 of the New Testament uses of epeita do indicate right after. For example:And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then [epeita] miracles, then [epeita] gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:28 NASB
Did the Lord give these gifts "after" the other ones? Epeita here doesn't mean: "after that time."But the wisdom from above is first pure, then [epeita] peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. James 3:17 NASB
Here epeita doesn't mean: "after that time."who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then [epeita] for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. Hebrews 7:27 NASB
Here epeita doesn't mean: "after that time" indicating some time later because the high priest offered for the sins of the people shortly after he offered for himself. Notice the sequence here:"Then Aaron shall offer the bull of the sin offering which is for himself and make atonement for himself and for his household, and he shall slaughter the bull of the sin offering which is for himself. "He shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. "He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die. "Moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. "Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Leviticus 16:11-15 NASB
So he offers for himself and then for the people.
So I changed my mind, first of all because Epeita does not always mean: "after that time." And secondly because the parallel texts don't indicate a delay for the living. We don't see a delay in the Matthew 24 where He comes in the clouds and the elect are gathered. And we don't see a delay in:Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NASB
Here the dead are raised and the living are changed:For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 1 Corinthians 15:53 NASB
The living put on immortality, which is to be in the presence of the Lord.
The question is, "Why does Paul use the word epeita instead of the normal word eita?" The answer is, "I don't have a clue. But since the writer of Hebrews and James used it also to refer to a sequence, I guess it can be used that way."Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 NASB
The words "caught up" are the Greek word harpazo, it means: "to snatch away." This is where the word "rapture" comes from. But certainly being "caught up" means something different than a levitation of the physical body from earth up into the atmosphere of the sky. Remember, this being "caught up" happens at the Second Coming.
Harpazo could refer to the body being "caught up," but it could also refer to the Christian being "caught up" without the body. It is used this way in:I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 NASB
Paul doesn't know whether the body was involved in this man's "snatching away." The body isn't necessary, then, in the harpazo event, or Paul wouldn't have expressed this uncertainty. We know that Paul didn't mean that living Christians would be caught up in their living, physical bodies at the Second Coming of Christ, because this never happened. Christians were still around on the earth after the Second Coming, as history plainly tells us.
In the book, Before Jeruselem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation—An Exegetical and Historical Argument for a Pre-A.D. 70 Composition by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., evidence is given that John was seen by Polycarp in the 90s. So, some twenty years after the Parousia, John was still around. Paul says that those who were alive at the Second Coming will be caught up together with the dead who were raised, to meet the Lord in the air.
Now we have to ask, "What does the Bible mean when it says that we shall be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air?" Does this mean we'll be physically sucked up into the sky? What does the word "air" mean? Is it in our atmosphere or the air we breath? I think that Ephesians, chapter 2 gives us an idea of what air means here:in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Ephesians 2:2 NASB
The word "air" is another word for "heavenly or spiritual realm." Satan was an opponent of the scheme of redemption, as we can see throughout the Bible. He was the prince of the power of the air. In Romans 16:20, Paul says that Satan would be crushed "shortly" under their feet (remember original relevance). Yeshua now has taken over that sphere and rules in the "air" with the saints since the destruction of Jerusalem. If that is the same "air" where the saints were to meet, then there is no necessity for us to believe that the rapture was to be in the physical realm.
Paul says that believers are to "meet the Lord in the air," the word "meet" (apanteas) is only used three times in the Bible, each time signifying the sending of an advance party to meet a dignitary, and then escort him back to where they came from. In the case of Acts 28:15, the Christians in Rome went out to "meet" Paul at the Appii forum, and then they escorted him back to their homes. The other usage of this word is found in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. In the parable of the ten virgins, the kingdom of heaven "is likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom." The word used to "meet" the bridegroom is apanteas, which means: "to meet, to escort back," as is evidenced by the fact that they met the bridegroom, and then went into the house from which they came:"And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Matthew 25:10 NASB"Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour. Matthew 25:13 NASB
In verse 13, Christ clarifies that this is what will occur in that generation when He comes. The significance of this is that when Christ came in the clouds, He literally, yet spiritually, gathered those that were alive to be caught up in the kingdom with Yeshua the Christ, and Yeshua spiritually returned with the believers to the earth to ever be with them. This was a spiritual event that was visibly manifest in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The idea of "being caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" is a picture of God's elect being brought into His presence in the Holy of Holies.
Is Paul talking about a literal rapture here? I don't think so! Paul believed that the Lord would return in his lifetime. He preached strongly about the Second Coming, the resurrection and judgment, but he never spoke of a physical "rapture" for living Christians.
It is not the physical body that is raptured. It is the Christian himself who is raptured as he is brought into the presence of the Lord. The dead believers were resurrected when Christ returned, and all other Christians were caught up at that time.
In looking at the related passages of what immediately followed the Parousia, we find the phrases: "Gather the elect from the four winds," in Matthew 24:31; "Each in his own turn," in 1 Corinthians 15:23; "We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever," in 1 Thessalonians 4:17; and "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on," in Revelation 14:13. These are all equivalent, and are all applicable for us today. The process of being "snatched" or "caught away from" death and Hades and being "gathered in" to the presence of the Lord happened in A.D. 70. The "rapture" deals with being brought into the presence of the Lord.
The idea of a "physical rapture" is nowhere to be found in the Bible, neither is it taught there. There is no Scriptural support for it. This escapist philosophy is pure fiction. We are not taught to escape reality in the Scripture, but rather to face it knowing that God will work all things out for our good (Romans 8:28-30):Therefore comfort one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:18 NASB
Are these words still a comfort to us? Yes, they are. We are comforted in the fact that as believers, we are now in the presence of the Lord, we are not waiting for anything. We are now in His presence, and when we die we will leave the physical realm and move into the heavenly/spiritual realm.