Signs of the Times - Week Four: Never Again


Today we are going to continue the sermon series that we started earlier this month, a series entitled, Signs of the Times: Rediscovering Revelation. 

We've been studying the most enigmatic, misunderstood, and misinterpreted book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, and the timing couldn't be more perfect.  I was looking at some Revelation memes online and I thought I would share a few just because... 

Today we're actually going to be exploring one of the most controversial topics in Christian eschatology (study of end times)---The "Rapture."  

The Rapture is a relatively new thing in Christian theology because we went for like 1800 years without it.  Essentially, the concept of the Rapture is boiled down to this: 

At some point in the future, Jesus is going to make a triumphant and very noisy return to Earth, and then everyone who is a real Christian will be snatched mysteriously away, sans clothes and stuff, to Heaven where they'll have a front-row seat to all of the horrible end of the world stuff that happens next. 

Apparently, this will result in the destruction of a ton of things.  Airplanes crashing because the pilot is gone... cars crashing... trains crashing... boats...  Pretty frightening. 

The fascinating thing is that the word "rapture" is not even mentioned in the Bible at all.  And the concept itself is not present in Revelation... but it's so inextricably connected to Revelation in popular Christian culture that we had to take it on today. 

So we're going to talk about the Rapture, it's history, the theology and it's lack of biblical support, and then we're going to talk about what it looks like when God gets what God wants, which is what we actually see in Revelation. 

First let's do a little bit of Rapture history: 

In the 1830's a British clergyman by the name of John Nelson Darby, who was part of a group called the Plymouth Brethren, had an encounter with a young woman who'd had a strange, ecstatic vision of Jesus lifting Christians to safety from imminent doom. 

She probably got her vision from any number of images like this, which adorned countless churches in the UK, but nonetheless, it was compelling to Darby and got him thinking.  

Eventually, he would form a theological system that became known as "dispensationalism" that asserted there were various dispensations of time within which God revealed Godself to people, and when various prophecies would be fulfilled.  

All of this was grounded in two things for Darby a literalistic view of Scripture and taking a ton of Scripture out of context, and also completely ignoring the cultural context within which the book was written. 

At any rate, Darby asserted that Jesus would dramatically return and there would be a rapture of the true Christians along with the faithful departed, and they would be spared judgment on the earth.  

His views didn't really gain a foothold in the wider Christian world until Cyrus Scofield published a reference Bible in 1888 that used Darby's interpretations to offer commentary on a host of Apocalyptic passages in the Bible.  

His book Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, added some of his own views as well---again, taking the Bible literally, and out of context. 

Dispensationalists grew in number in the subsequent several decades, but it took on wide popular appeal in the 1970s with the publication of Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth and There's a New World Coming.  Lindsey made all of the dispensational theology accessible, and easy to consume, and his work became bestsellers, and part of the preaching and teaching in much of Evangelical Christianity. 

Then along came Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and their "Left Behind" series, which blurred the line between fiction and fact, and again---used a literalistic approach to the Bible and also took a ton of stuff out of context. 

So now there are millions of Christians both Protestant and Catholic alike who hold these ideas as biblically true and prophetically predicted.  How?  What is behind this theology, really?  

Well, there are two things:  

Triumphalism - my side wins, yours doesn't.  Being on the winning side is what it's all about. 

Certainty and Reward - being certain about what is going to happen at the end of all things and about what happens to you after is really appealing in times of uncertainty.  And the fact that there's a reward if you keep all the rules, and believe all the things can't be glossed over either. 

Here's the thing, though...  All of this theology is built on a house of cards.  

Sure, it's based on a literalistic view of the Bible where everything is literally true, and there's no possibility that the people who wrote the books within it were sophisticated enough to write in metaphor, which honestly is truer than literalism by a long shot. 

But that's another sermon. 

And besides, some of these books are taken literally and some of them are not, so which is it?  The whole idea of a Rapture just isn't biblical, and we'll explore some of the texts that people use to "prove" it here in a moment.  

John the Revelator didn't provide an easy out for followers of Jesus, in fact, he described the exact opposite.  But he did offer something else... 

THERE IS NO ESCAPE CLAUSE WHEN YOU FOLLOW JESUS, BUT THERE IS A GRACE AND A PEACE CLAUSE. 

I'm going to take us today to Revelation 7:9-17, which is at the end of one of the cyclical passages that John the Revelator intentionally creates in the book.  Just before this, it feels like the whole world is about to end, as six seals are broken on a scroll by John's vision of the Lamb--who is Christ. 

9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,

who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 

12 saying:
“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God forever and ever.
Amen!”

13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 

15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Okay, just to reiterate where we are in John's narrative---we're in the cycle of Revelation which is all about dying and rising, about discovering hope when everything feels hopeless.  

It's at this point that the focus shifts to the Lamb of God, to Jesus himself who now gets all of the accolades.  Unlike human rulers--Jesus has conquered by faithfully enduring to the end, even unto death. 

Jesus took on the worst the world had to offer for the sake of all Creation and to triumphantly demonstrate what it looks like when God gets what God wants.  And what does God want?  God wants to take all of the chaos and create beauty.  God wants to take the worst things and turn them into the best things.  God is always in the Resurrection business and baby business is good. 

The people wearing white robes, who have endured the worst things the world has to offer have been transformed, made new, and now find themselves in the presence of God and the Lamb where everything is made new. 

6 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

The Rapture is not mentioned here--only endurance, and faith, and sacrifice.  The tribulation they have endured is marked by the circumstances that the faithful find themselves in when their values and beliefs clash with those of the Empire. 

John wanted the readers to find hope as they persevered in spite of their hardships --because the real battle had already been won. 

So how do we avoid the pitfalls of an escapist and triumphalist Christianity that takes its cues from poor interpretations, bad theology and the like?

Dig Deeper Into The Text—the Rapture “clobber” texts don’t make sense… 

First, it’s important to note that Jesus himself never talked about the rapture, ever. We read in Mark about the “Son of Man coming in the clouds,” but this is a reference back to the Old Testament Book of Daniel, where we get the image of a “son of Man” who is actually going the other way, up to meet the Ancient of Days.

It’s all broadly metaphorical, a kind of dream. In Mark, the oldest gospel, this passage is about the vindication of Jesus as he comes to heaven and is recognized as a true son of the father. In Luke 19, we read about a returning king, but a close study of this passage suggests that Luke is talking about God coming back to Jerusalem, not about Jesus returning to Earth.

I  Thessalonians 4:16-18

16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The word “meet” in Greek is “apentesis,” and it means to gather for a reception for visiting dignitaries. Even the idea of being “snatched up” is thoroughly inadequate for the Greek word “harpazo,” which is better translated as “gathered” – a point made by many biblical scholars over the years. In any case, Paul is being dramatic, imagining a holy reception committee that will greet the returning Christ. And why not?

Live More Fully Present In The Present—we are here for a purpose, and that purpose can get hijacked when our faith is based on a "this world is not my home kind of view." When Jesus talked about being "left behind" it was a good thing... 

Let Go of Exclusive Claims—the Gospel is bigger than that.  We are called to live in solidarity with those who are suffering, move to margins, live for the sake of the world, our world, a world that God has not given up on and never will.  


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