Though probably not as discussed as the topic of women’s roles in the church today, the ‘rapture’ has probably been one of the most discussed topics in the 20th century. For some, when approaching eschatology (the study of last things), they cannot stop talking about it. For others, they are tired of hearing about it.
But what is the rapture? What is this whole thing all about?
For starters, the word never actually appears in our English translations of Scripture. Our versions use the phrase ‘caught up’ found in 1 Thess 4:17. The word, rapture, is in fact derived from the Latin translation of the Bible (known as the Vulgate).
In getting our heads around the rapture, the best place to start would be 1 Thess 4:13-18.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Oddly enough, in this section, Paul’s ends by stating: ‘Therefore encourage one another with these words.’ Unfortunately, when most people talk about the rapture, they don’t refer to it with encouraging words. The passage can be utilised to scare people, and it becomes very unhelpful with the verses being used in the exact opposite way Paul intended.
Again, if we read vs17, we find the little phrase ‘caught up’. This is translated from the Greek word harpagēsometha (the NT was written in Greek, so that is why it would be important to know such language background). At the root of this long Greek word, harpagēsometha, is the Greek word harpazo, which carries the idea of a known stealing. This contrasts with the Greek word klepto, which means to steal secretly.
Now, why the lesson in Greek here? Well, when many people teach on the subject of the rapture, they usually speak of it as a secret event. Once the church gets raptured away and taken out of the earth, the rest of humanity are left looking around and wondering what just happened. But, according to the New Testament Greek, this is going to be an event in which all people know what has taken place. Christ will be returning for his Bride and he will make sure all know about the event.
The second important phrase in vs17 is ‘to meet’. So on to another Greek lesson.
These English words come from the Greek phrase eis apantēsis. Now, all Christians believe in this ‘meeting in the air’ (or rapture) with our Lord. The question is: What do we believe about it?
The phrase eis apantēsis means this: to leave a place in order to go and meet one who is coming toward you. It is similar to the practise in that day when nobles of a city would go out to meet an important dignitary coming to visit their city in order to escort him back to the city.
Thus, it seems the ever-discussed passage in 1 Thess 4 is teaching that Christ will be coming for his Bride, we will go to meet our Bridegroom in the air, and then we will escort him back to earth (the place he was coming towards already). Then, in continuing the discussion on eschatology, this would lead to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 17:7-9), with us dwelling forever in the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21-22).
Many people use the passage in 1 Thess to speak as if Christ is going to take us, the church, out of the earth during a seven-year tribulation period. And to back up this teaching, they also look to Matthew’s Gospel to find support. Read these intriguing words:
For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. (24:37-43)
But if we read this passage carefully, we can realise that it is not teaching that we are going to be taken out of the earth. Jesus taught that it would be like the days of Noah – two men will be in the field, one will be taken and one left; two women will be grinding at the mill, one will be taken and one left. Many see this as referring to a rapture of the church out of the earth.
Yet, remember – what happened in Noah’s day? Who was left and who was taken away? It was the righteous who were left on earth (Noah and his family) and it was the unrighteous who were taken out of the earth in judgment. Noah and his family were left to inherit a kind of new earth and new heaven. Thus, a prototype for the end of the age.
You see, it is not God’s plan to take His people out of the earth, but it is His plan to bring His kingdom rule to the earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). God’s heart is to see heaven completely invade earth one day, bringing His righteous, peace and rule to all that He created. All the while, He will have dealt with and judged all unrighteousness and sin.
This is why I believe Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matt 5:5). And that is why it is the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, who comes to inherit a new heaven and new earth (Rev 21:1-3).
God’s plan is not to ultimately get us out of the earth. But, as He has made His people new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), He also longs to restore and redeem the physical earth to make it even better than it was in the beginning (Rom 8:21). It will be the final ‘new creation’. His purpose is to dwell with us forever on the new earth as He brings the fulness of His kingdom at the return of Christ.
With eschatology, I believe this is getting back to the truth of what Scripture teaches, rather than to a lot of timetables and conjectures of ‘the end’. So let us not hold to any theology that might embrace the idea that we will abandon the earth, for God has a great purpose to redeem and restore it to its original intention. And we will be able to enjoy it with Him for all eternity!