Pithy Passages.2: The Rapture

by admin on January 20, 2015

Reflections for 18 January 2015
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 [4:1-12]

Kansas City, 1970, NAE convention what’s the school’s eschatology? Episcopal priest: let’s just be glad he’s coming back. Is he? Other than a few sayings like: Jesus is coming—look busy….most don’t give it a second thought. Then entered Harold Camping a couple of years ago. Remember…he predicted this would all come true on May 21, 2011.

Luxury of money gives advertising a leg up and Jesus face in Times Square. The countdown began and May 21 loomed large. What happened?

Important to consider the rapture—how could he be wrong? Is it a Christian expectation? Can one calculate its arrival? What does it say about Christianity when prophetic utterances miss the mark? More importantly—how could so many miss the mark of Jesus second coming?

Shrouded in disappointment Harold Camping said the day or two after that he was “flabbergasted” that Jesus didn’t show up. He had missed the day several years prior but new calculations and a worthy time-table proved May 21 was it. Having miss that date we now have a reprieve until who knows when because Camping died in the meantime—December 2013.

For myself I am perfectly indifferent to any and all dates that may be figured out for the rapture, because I do not believe there will be any rapture envisioned by various Protestant sects since the 19th century. Rapture has never been part of the Church’s teaching tradition.

John Nelson Darby (middle name for Lord Nelson) was an Anglican priest, who eventually broke with church and began to preach about second coming—rapture. He eventually went forward to found the Plymouth Brethren and a movement called dispensationalism. God works through dispensations—Law/Grace—in times and places to accomplish his sovereign will.

Favorite texts were drawn from apocalyptic passages in Bible—Daniel, Matthew, Revelation, 1 Thessalonians. Eventually these were drawn out in charts and graphs and made popular through the Scofield Reference Bible, et. al.

A bigger push for this thought was through the Left Behind series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins who made several millions of dollars. Hey, why not come to terms with mammon while waiting for Jesus to take you home?

In addition, such thinking has a strong militarist component that has direct implication for US foreign policy in the Middle East. John Hagee ministry is a good example.

Rapture is not a word from Scripture. However it claims Jesus will descend from heaven, take up the believers, and return home. Rapture = Latin raptio= to snatch. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of driverless cars, crashing airplanes, two people talking and one suddenly disappears leaving behind his shirt and pants, as in the movie.

Once safely ensconced in heaven Jesus will unleash the horrible tribulation before he returns seven years later to wrap up history. The upshot is that there is now a two-part Second Coming. [recall the mystery of faith Christ died, Christ risen, Christ will come again]

Handily this scenario offers a comfort to Christians that they won’t have to share in the sufferings of this world with everyone else. Jesus is pretty clear about suffering being part of the faith equation.

So what’s up? It is exactly this passage in 1 Thessalonians that gives the Biblical proof text for rapture. A principle of interpretation: Martin Luther: I can prove anything by Scripture; I can prove that bad beer is better than good wine. He also called such faulty exegesis “the wax nose of the devil.”

Thessalonians is Paul’s first recorded letter corpus. Reading Thessalonians on through Romans will give one a perspective of spiritual growth and maturity. Throughout his lifetime he’s had to wrestle with much: persecutions, deaf ears, betrayal of friends, friends dying. This later one just might be the impetus behind Thessalonians.

Paul’s was a near contemporary of Jesus; and he believed that Jesus would return any moment. Thus Paul has an eschatological perspective, which is all through this book. Paul’s assistant, Timothy, has just brought news to him of the Thessalonians’ faith community—how well it is doing: abounding in love and faith…..but something was missing…..hope. Thus, early on we hear Paul’s sacred three: faith, hope, love.

They don’t hold out hope very much because some of their company have died. For believers expecting the immanent return of Jesus this was difficult to accept. Part of this early belief in immanent return was the assumption of assumption like Elijah and Enoch; they were to be assumed up into heaven with the Lord at his final return.

To alleviate this grief, Paul cites an early Christian creed—Jesus died and rose again (v14) Then he affirms that what God did for Jesus, God will also do for those who die in Christ.
This idea is carried over into much of Paul’s thinking in Philippians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans.

1. Bible interpreters have puzzled over this for a long time. V13 is clear about Paul’s intention: I don’t want you ignorant about death and so be like the rest of the pagan world who has no hope of life beyond the grave. Paul is addressing a bunch of former pagans, whose thought patterns probably did not include an idea of bodily resurrection; that was a Jewish idea, again, reaffirming the body as important to identity.

Greek philosophy talked about dualism: body and soul, with soul being preferred and being off in the nether land once death occurred. But the real reason behind pagan hopelessness—the rest of humanity—was the deliberate rejection of God and disobedient actions in terms of his decrees. Romans 1 is an excellent example of this thought drawn out.

2. The reason one should not grieve—we believe. Jesus was raised so that we too may also believe that God will bring those asleep through Jesus with him. With him does not mean “raptured” but what happened to Jesus happens to his followers. “If we are united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him is a resurrection.” (2 Cor 4)

3. What’s really happening here is that Paul is clearing up a problem in the belief system of the Thessalonians. Should be no surprise this was true. Remember, we’ve said, these folks were mostly pagans—secular people—not acquainted with Jewish religious thought. Once they joined up with the Jesus movement, they had to assimilate a whole new way of thinking—world view, humanity, religion—for starters. How easily is that done?

I go back to my favorite idea about Jesus: Repent! Think in a new and different direction. How easy is that? Constant detours. Those old synapses are difficult to rewire. So in light of Paul here…..this would take along time to get straight. In the meantime he remind the Thessalonians that Christ died, Christ risen, Christ will come again.

And as we read Paul, we discover that he himself shifted his thinking from imminent return to he’s on his way…..our salvation is nearer today than when we first believed.

Is Jesus coming back? The Nicene Creed confesses: he will come again to judge the living and the dead. NB—no rapture. But don’t waste time calculating the day/time. The essential virtues taught by Jesus himself are vigilance and preparedness. This might be in invitation to begin to consider our own personal expiration date. There is an old Serbian proverb: Work as if you will live to be 100; pray as if you will die tomorrow.

When Harold Camping advertised the Rapture, a small cottage industry sprung up. True to American ingenuity several entrepreneurs found ways to make money. My fav: Rapture pets send us $250.00 (PayPal) and we will watch over your pets in the interim of rapture and parousia. Some people sold everything and waited. Others were more skeptical.

The gleeful chatter and cynicism of the unbelieving world very much part of this. Maybe those atheist guys got something right. Christianity is preoccupied with Judgment Day and the fear of God, alongside God’s wrath and condemnation for those outside the believing flock. Deservedly this keeps the Gospel on the defensive and again sends very confusing signals as to what Christians really believe.

A concentration is removed from the love of God expressed supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That love of God is experienced here every Sunday in our fellowship and table. Also in a life of prayer (the practice of rewiring your brain). And in the joy in the hearts of believers who trust in the further fulfillment of God’s promises. This means above all else—hope.

All of this means a calling to a greater capacity for true judgment and understanding and a better knowledge of the Scriptures.

Martin Luther: If Jesus is returning tomorrow I’ll plant a tree today. In this interim, what will you be doing?

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