When talking about dispensationalism to people who are not familiar with the term, I sometimes explain it as an approach to reading the Bible that attempts to put things in their right place. For instance, recognition of the times and cultures of the people to whom the text was first delivered can greatly enhance our understanding as to its proper meaning. But of course, the opposite is also true. Taking a Biblical truth out of its place and applying it to a people and culture for whom it was never intended will undoubtedly lead to confusion.
Few Biblical doctrines have fallen out of their right place more than ‘The Rapture’, which has also been mislabelled as ‘the rapture of the church’. I know that many people would disagree with that last statement, because it would seem, from its popular usage, that the doctrine of the rapture is a clearly established fundamental Christian truth beyond question.
Not only is the rapture well accepted in Christian circles, it is also well known by many non-Christians. This is due to the multitude of books, TV shows, movies and websites that portray this event as a catalyst for chaos. Scenes are drawn where planes fall out of the sky, cars pile up on freeways, trains crash and derail, and millions of people are thrown into hopelessness and despair as family members and friends who are Christian simply disappear, leaving them in a Godless world to negotiate their survival against the armies of the antichrist.
This interpretation of the events is, for the most part, derived from 1 Thessalonians 4:15–18 which reads:
‘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 by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord’. And also 1 Corinthians 15:51,52: ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed’.
Putting these verses together draws a picture of Christ descending from heaven, the dead in Christ being raised first and then those who are alive, with both groups being caught up to meet the Lord in the air, all of which takes place instantaneously, ‘in the twinkling of an eye’. While there are other verses used to support this view, most Christians will point you to 1 Thessalonians 4 as the ‘proof text’ of this doctrine. Added to this is that the rapture is evidently imminent. In short, the events described above, coupled with the possibility that they can take place at any moment, has become the Christian hope of today.
The word ‘Rapture’
The word rapture is taken from the words caught up in verse 17 of 1 Thessalonians 4, which is a translation of the Greek word harpazõ. Some have argued that the word rapture is technically not a Biblical word, as it is not found in any of the Greek texts; however if you happen to be reading the Latin Vulgate, which was the common text for about one thousand years after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, you would read rapiemur in 1 Thessalonians 4, which is the Latin translation of ‘caught up’, and it is from this word that the word rapture is derived. The Greek, harpazõ is used thirteen times in the New Testament and its basic meaning is ‘to be taken by force’. This meaning can be seen clearly in some of the English words derived from rapture: rapids, ravish, raptor and rape, all of which are forceful words. In its simplest form, the rapture is the mode of transport for those who are taken to meet the Lord in the air. In other words, the rapture is the journey, a part of another more important event, yet it has been made to be ‘the event’ for Christians today. Isolating the rapture from its context and magnifying it to the point that it becomes greater than the event of which it is only a part, misses the point completely.
Whenever specific sections of Scripture are isolated and magnified out of their place in this way, they usually introduce a host of other problems. When the rapture is made to be the event, some of the problems that arise are confusion regarding the hopes of Scripture, removing all hope for Israel, and providing a false hope for the church. It also keeps Christians in an unhealthy state of heightened anticipation and, in a wider context, it brings Christianity into disrepute.
The last two points are the inevitable consequences of the first. Many Christians who are eagerly anticipating the imminent return of the Lord often live an unbalanced life, failing to plan for their future or the future of their children. They see the rapture as the panacea for all their problems. Some become so obsessed with the nearness of Christ’s return that they attempt to fit every major world event into a scheme of Biblical interpretation that brings the rapture closer and, in turn, twists Scripture to support their view. The more recent history of Christianity is a testament to the many failed date-setters who, in their desire to predict the timing of the rapture, have caused many to go astray. Such schemes and schemers do nothing more than bring Christianity into disrepute.
Failure to Adhere to Pauline Doctrine
It is interesting to note that Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:15: ‘This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me’. When Paul wrote those words, Christians were being martyred in Rome, a fact that Paul would have been aware of. They had not turned away from Christ, but they had turned away from Paul and his doctrine. Today’s rapture doctrine is a result of failing to rightly divide the epistles of Paul.
To understand where the rapture fits into Scripture, it is necessary to dispel the myth that Christ came to start a new church which officially came into being on the day of Pentecost and that the book of Acts records the progress of this new church age, providing an example for all believers to follow. In many Christian circles, these things are considered to be foundational truths and they provide a framework in which the rapture doctrine sits as the jewel in the crown, being the culmination of the church age. But a closer look at the context in which the ministry of Christ and the disciples during the book of Acts took place, paints a different picture.
Context, context, context
In Matthew 3:1–3, John the Baptist heralds that great proclamation: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’, which was also a key element in the ministry of the Lord, and His disciples. For many, this is where their Christian journey begins – to them it is as though John was revealing something brand new to his listeners. However, his declaration was not without a context. In Matthew 3:3 the Scripture associates John the Baptist with the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3, showing that he is ‘the voice of the one crying in the wilderness’. This clearly places John’s declaration of the Kingdom in the context of Isaiah 40, a context that is solely concerned with the physical rule of the Lord on the earth.
The Hope in Isaiah 40
Isaiah 40:1–11 foretells of the comfort that Israel could look forward to under the rule of their Messiah when the glory of the Lord is revealed. It highlights the physical changes that will take place on the earth when the Lord comes to establish His Kingdom, and how Israel will be regathered from all the places where they have been scattered – (compare this with Ezekiel 34:11–14). In verses 15–17 we see the total insignificance of the nations in the face of that glory. Every Israelite who heard John’s declaration on that day would have understood exactly what Kingdom he was talking about.
Far from being the start of something new, the Kingdom that was declared to be near, by John, by the Lord and the disciples, had been the subject of many of the Old Testament prophets. It was not a new beginning. It was, in fact, the opposite – it was the end of the ages, a term used emphatically by Paul in Hebrews to describe the time of Christ’s presence on the earth and His sacrifice of Himself. Hebrews 9:26: ‘He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.’
That Paul considered the period of time in which he lived to be the end of the ages, is evident also in 1 Corinthians, where he refers to himself and the Corinthians believers as people ‘upon whom the ends of the age had come’. 1 Corinthians 10:11: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.’
All the writers of the Acts period epistles believed they were living at the end of the ages, a time that anticipated the soon return of the Lord to establish the Kingdom that both John the Baptist and Isaiah had spoken of. There was no thought in their minds of a new church which would function independently of the promises made to the fathers. In plain words, they were looking forward to the hope of Israel.
The view that Paul’s epistles gradually moved from an Old Testament kingdom perspective to that of a New Testament church is not borne out by the statistics. The following table shows the accepted chronological order of the Pauline epistles written during the Acts, comparing the approximate number of Old Testament references in each. Notice that Romans, which was the last epistle written during this time, (and which most scholars agree was around Acts chapter 20), contains over fifty percent more Old Testament references than those found in the book of Hebrews.
|Acts epistles in written order||Approximate References|
What about the rapture then?
So, you may well ask, what does this have to do with the rapture? Well, think about it! If the Lord’s earthly ministry was set in the context of the Old Testament hope of Israel, and if the apostles continued to think and preach about this kingdom, and if Paul’s latest Acts period epistle is full of references concerning the Old Testament promises to Israel, whose hope is the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4?
Bear in mind that Thessalonians was written 6 to 7 years before Romans! How, then, can the rapture be anything other than the hope of Israel? It is interesting to note that even as late as Acts 28:20, Paul, while a prisoner of Rome, declares to the Jews in Rome that, ‘for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain’. This verse speaks volumes regarding which hope Paul was concerned with at that time. It cannot be the same hope that he later writes about in Ephesians 2:4–7, which is a heavenly hope, where the believer is seated together with the Lord in the heavenly places.
The Hope of Romans
Bearing in mind the timing of the writing of Romans, it is worth taking a closer look at the hope outlined in chapter 15. Paul writes in verse 4, that the ‘things that were written before were written for our learning’, for the purpose of providing hope, and he closes this subject in verse 13 with a prayer that the ‘God of hope’ would fill them with joy and that they may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Reading on from verse 5 to 12, it could not be any clearer which hope Paul was referring to. He shows in verse 8 that ‘Christ was a minister to the circumcision’, meaning Israel only, to confirm the promises made to the fathers – again Israel only.
He then proceeds to quote four Old Testament references which are listed below, which leave no doubt as to the nature of the hope he had in view. Take the time to read these references, looking them up in their original passages, to gain a full understanding of the setting.
The Hope of Romans 15
Romans 15:8,9: ‘Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy…’
Compare this with Psalm 18:49: ‘Therefore will I give thanks unto thee, O Lord, among the nations, and sing praises unto thy name.’ This looks forward to the kingdom rule of God in which the Gentiles would be included.
This is the Hope of Israel
Romans 15:10: ‘And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people.’
Compare with Deuteronomy 32:43: ‘Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants…and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.’
This is the Hope of Israel
Romans 15:11: ‘And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.’
Compare with Psalm 117:1: ‘O praise the Lord, all ye nations; praise him, all ye people.’
This is the Hope of Israel
Romans 15:12: ‘And again Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in him shall the Gentiles trust.’
Compare Isaiah 11:10: ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria…and from the islands of the sea.’
Isaiah 11 is the great millennium chapter that shows the Messiah coming to rule in wisdom and righteousness and to slay the wicked (verses 3 and 4); there will be no hurt in the Kingdom (verses 6–9) and the Gentiles will seek Him (verse 10) and Israel will be regathered (verse 11).
This is the Hope of Israel
Sheer logic dictates that, if Paul, as late as Acts 28, was still writing about the hope of Israel and speaking about the same Kingdom that John the Baptist and the apostles spoke of, the hope of 1 Thessalonians 4 must be that same hope, the hope of Israel. Following the setting aside of Israel as the favoured nation at Acts 28:28, Paul wrote seven more epistles which reveal a new hope for the church which was not known at the time Thessalonians was written. To take the hope of Israel in 1 Thessalonians 4 and give it to the church, is to place something where it does not belong, and doing so will result in error, as always.
Now, a question that may arise as a result of this view is that, if the hope of 1 Thessalonians is the hope of Israel and not the church, then it must be possible to find it in the Old Testament. This is just what we do find, and in part two of this article, I will show the hope of 1 Thessalonians 4 in the Old Testament, in its correct setting, clearly establishing it as the hope of Israel.
In the first part of this study we saw that even as late as Acts 28, the hope of Israel was one of Paul’s primary concerns. then as a prisoner of Rome under house arrest, he called the leaders of the Jews together and said, “…therefore I have called for you, to see you and speak with you, because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain”. (Acts 28:20).
Although there were many Christians in Rome at that time, he did not make any reference to the hope of Christianity, only the hope of Israel, because at that time the hope of Israel was also the hope of Christian believers.
We also saw that the hope of Israel focused on the kingdom rule of God coming upon this earth. This is the same kingdom that both the Lord and John the Baptist declared was at hand, a kingdom where Israel’s enemies will be destroyed and Messiah will rule with justice and righteousness. But this is not the same hope that Paul writes about later in the epistle to the Ephesians – the Ephesian hope has the believer seated far above all in heavenly places, with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–7). The Ephesian hope is a heavenly hope – the hope of Israel is an earthly hope.
1 Thessalonians chapter 4:15–18, is most often put forward as a proof text for the rapture of the church. but when set in its proper context, the events of this chapter are very much in line with the earthly hope of Israel and like so many things concerning Israel’s calling, this event had been previously anticipated in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Timing is crucial
Paul provides us with a startling revelation in Acts 26. While relaying to Agrippa his experience on the road to Damascus, he says: “… to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come, that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.” Acts 26:22
It is astonishing to think that Paul’s teaching, up until that time, had not gone beyond that which had already been revealed through Moses and the prophets. Yet, we see the same thing in Luke 24:27 where the Lord, beginning with Moses and the prophets, revealed all things concerning Himself to the two men on the road to Emmaus. These things were written in the Old Testament the whole time, but they had not been understood until the Lord opened their eyes (verse 31). Paul’s ministry during the book of Acts was similar, the Old Testament Scriptures that he had reasoned from in Acts 17:2 had not changed, but his understanding of them had.
There is, however, a difference between that which had been written and that which had been hidden. Neither Moses nor the prophets knew about the mystery of the one body (Ephesians 3:6) because as Paul tells us, it was hidden in God (Ephesians 3:9). Neither also did Paul know about the mystery of the one body when he stood before Agrippa because, at that time, it had not yet been revealed to him. This revelation of Ephesians came sometime after Acts 28:28, sometime after Israel had been temporarily set aside, and with this new revelation came a new hope for the Church, a heavenly hope, a hope that had not been known before.
Hope in Thessalonians
To read the hope of Ephesians into the epistles of Thessalonians confuses the two hopes, and it is from such confusion that the rapture theory has been able to take root. The hope of the Lord’s coming is a dominant theme in Thessalonians, being mentioned no less than six times. Paul sets the tone in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 when he commends the Thessalonian believers because they “…turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven.” These believers were waiting for Christ to return from heaven, but were they waiting for Him to come and take them back to heaven with Him? Or were they waiting for Him to come and establish His kingdom rule on the earth?
Bearing in mind that Thessalonians was one of Paul’s earliest epistles, there are no other writings to show that the expectancy of the disciples had changed since Acts 1:8, when they anticipated the restoration of the kingdom to Israel; nor from Acts 1:11 when the angel told them that “…this same Jesus shall come in the way that you see Him go.” Nor from Acts 2:29–35, where Peter talks about David’s hope that Messiah would sit on his throne and make His enemies His footstool.
These things constitute the hope of Israel, an earthly hope where Christ rules from the throne of David on earth. In fact, there is no part of the Old Testament hope of Israel that has believers returning to heaven with the Lord, and neither does such a concept exist in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. This view is taken from verse 17, but a close reading of that verse will show that it says no such thing. “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Read it carefully. The idea that those who are raptured are going to go back to heaven with Lord has been interjected into the text – it simply isn’t there. The text says that they are caught up to meet Him in the air and nothing whatsoever about whether they are going up or down at that point.
The assumption is that the Lord is going to go back to heaven and so they are going to go back with Him. However, that is not what this verse says, that is a supposition based on a preconceived idea. Does the Lord go back to heaven at this point? Comparing this verse with 2 Thessalonians 2:1 we see a similar thought: “Now brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him…” If this gathering together to Him is the same event as being caught up to meet Him in the air, then reading on to verse 8, we see that, at the coming of the Lord, the man of sin will be revealed, sitting in the temple of God, with lying signs and wonders, putting forth that he is God. “…whom the Lord shall consume with the breath of His mouth and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming…” 2 Thessalonians 2:8
How will the Lord destroy this man of sin who sits in the temple if He never sets foot on earth but immediately returns to heaven? This complication is a man-made one. We are given a clear picture in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–10 of the Lord’s coming to the earth to destroy the antichrist along with His enemies, a picture which is consistent with the hope of Israel.
Trumpets, Clouds and Angels
An important comparison can be made by taking note of the imagery used in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–18. Here we have the Lord descending with a shout, the voice of the archangel, a trumpet sound and clouds. There is insufficient space in this article to follow through on all these attributes in detail, but a quick comparison is made below with Matthew 24, the great ‘second coming’ chapter. It is obvious that there are many commonalities across these verses, Despite this, however, the rapture viewpoint maintains that these two sections of Scripture teach two entirely different comings of the Lord. While it is true that no one section of Scripture gives a complete picture of the second coming, there are many other second coming passages scattered throughout the Bible where one or more of these same attributes can be found.
For instance, in Revelation 1:7 we read, “He is coming with clouds and every eye shall see him.” The prophet Daniel sees a vision in 7:13 and 14 of “one like the son of man coming on clouds… to whom a kingdom and dominion are given.” When the angel sounded in Revelation 11:15, there were loud voices in heaven and the kingdoms of this world were given to the Lord to reign over.
Psalm 47 paints a wonderful picture of the Lord taking control of the earth, with verse 5 declaring that God went up with a shout and the sound of a trumpet. In verses 9 and 10, He rules over the nations, and the princes of His people are gathered together. Then in Joshua 6:5 and 6, we have a foreshadowing of what is to come, with Israel entering the Promised Land when the last trumpet is sounded, not to forget 1 Corinthian 15:52 when the last trump shall sound and the dead will be raised.
Trumpets, clouds and angels are clearly associated with Christ’s second coming to the earth to reign, and the events described in 1 Thessalonians 4 fit perfectly into that mould. There is probably no Scripture, however, that captures all of the elements seen in Thessalonians as succinctly as Exodus 19. There we see a clear type of the rapture taking place at Mount Sinai.
A Type of Rapture
In Exodus 19 we find the people of Israel being made ready to hear the Lord speak to Moses. This was so that “…the people may hear when I speak with you and believe you forever” (verse 9). God was going to give Moses the Sinai covenant and He wanted the people of Israel to know that Moses had received it directly from Him. Reading from verse 16 on, we see a scene very recognisable to anyone familiar with 1 Thessalonians 4:15–18. “Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. Then the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.”
In these five verses we have all Israel gathered together at the foot of the mountain, there is thunder and lightning, fire, a thick cloud of smoke and the sound of a trumpet which sounded long and became louder and louder. The people came out to meet with God and the Lord descended in the thick cloud and then the voice of God is heard and Moses is called to go up the mountain. In verse 24 we see that only the select remnant of Moses and Aaron are allowed to go up to meet the Lord. This is a typical rapture, this is the Lord coming to His chosen people, this is the prefiguring of 1 Thessalonians 4:15–18. This is the hope of Israel.
Moses came back down the mountain with the Sinai covenant, which is revealed in the next chapter of Exodus. He did not stay with the Lord. So also, when Christ returns to Israel, a select remnant go up to meet Him and come back with Him to administer the new covenant, which will be written on their hearts. He will establish His throne on the earth and they will rule with Him in righteousness and justice.
This is the earthly hope of Israel, the hope of ‘the church which His body’ is entirely different being a heavenly hope, unknown until revealed to Paul after Israel were set aside in Acts 28:28.