A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 1/2/00
As we enter this new mathematically arbitrary Millennium, we continue our brief look at what the Bible says about the real one. Last week we saw that Daniel's vision of the Great Statue being destroyed suddenly and cataclysmically rather than gradually is incompatible with Post-Millenialism, and that it is difficult to read all the OT promises to Israel as having a "spiritual" fulfillment in the Church (as in A-Millenialism) without some serious stretching. We therefore adopted the basic Pre-Millenial framework as the hypothesis that gets in more of the biblical data than any other. We now encounter a second set of prefixes: Pre-, Mid-, and Post- Tribulationalism. These have to do with the relation of the "Rapture" of the Church to the Tribulation that immediately precedes the return of Christ: will it happen before,during, or after that period?
The Rapture is that element of biblical eschatology that has occasioned more hype and sensationalism than any other (with the possible exception of the AntiChrist). Many of us find the typical presentation of this event by our Evangelical cohorts profoundly embarrassing as a result. We hang our heads in shame at bumper stickers that proclaim, "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned." What meaning do you think a non-Christian unfamiliar with Evangelical jargon would get out of that? But that is no excuse to avoid dealing with NT teaching on this topic. Rapture comes from a Latin root meaning snatch away. It refers to the true saints being "caught up in the air" to meet the Lord when He returns for us. Today I want to look at the significance of the Rapture, and then next week take up the vexed issue of its timing.
Most discussions of the Rapture completely ignore the context of its introduction in 1 Thes. 4. What is the question the doctrine is designed to answer? It is given in 4:13. People were concerned about the fact that some of their Christian brothers and sisters had already died. You have to remember that people from a Greek background believed in the immortality of the soul, but thought of it as existing in a shadowy underworld. When Oddyseus travels to the underworld he meets his mother and tries to hug her, but his arms go through empty air. She is insubstantial. He meets his old friend Achilles, who, he supposes, is enjoying a wonderful life in the Elysian Fields. But he is soon disabused of his illusions. "I would rather be a slave on the poorest farm in Greece," Achilles spits out, "than lord it over all the exhausted dead!" And Hades is the only Greek god who never answers prayer--this existence isone's fate forever. You can see why Paul refers to those who "have no hope" in this passage. Now, the early Church expected the return of Christ to set up the Kingdom in their own lifetime. He would return and they would reign forever with Him. But what of those who had already died? Would they miss out on the Kingdom, stuck in a shadowy underworld existence? No, Paul asserts: you have nothing to fear for your loved ones. When Christ returns He will bring their souls with Him to be reunited with their bodies. They in fact will rise first, and then we will be caught up with them in the air to meet the Lord in the clouds and be with Him forever. Therefore, comfort each other with these words.
Why this meeting "in the air"? Well, when Christ returns to earth it will be to judge the AntiChrist and his kingdom. We need some time for the joy of seeing Him face to face before this rather heavy moment goes down. Also, He will return as a conquering King. We will meet Him therefore in order to escort Him back to earth in triumph--we will be part of His conquering army. That is the reason for the "Rapture," meeting Him in the air on His way down rather than simply waiting for Him on the earth.
Now, see how badly we have corrupted this teaching. Look again at the flow of chapter 4:13-18. The doctrine of the Rapture is not the answer to the question, "Will we go though the Great Tribulation?" but rather the question, "What will become of those who have died in the Lord?" We are to comfort each other in 4:18 with these words, but the Tribulation is not even mentioned until 5:3. The comfort, in other words, has nothing to do with the fact that we will not have to go through the tribulation. We will deal with that question next week. The point is, whether we are going through it or not is not the primary concern. Paul was beaten within an inch of his life more than once, shipwrecked, arrested, finally beheaded. Do we think the Tribulation will be worse than that? They can only torture and kill you--it will not be any worse than it was for Latimer or Ridley, who were burned at the stake for their faith. Yet all these people knew the strength and comfort of this passage in and through their personal tribulation. The Rapture is not about escaping Tribulation but about meeting the Lord and about real life returning to the bodies of those who are dead in Him. I cannot believe that our misreading of the "comfort" of 4:18 is unrelated to the spiritual anemia of our churches. May the Lord deliver us from that false comfort--whether He delivers us from trials and tribulation or means us to go through them for His glory.
Here endeth the lesson.