All Request Summer Sermon Series
July 24, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We turn this week to the topic of the rapture, at the request of Melba Fry, and to Van Mill’s question of what we must do to prepare for it.
We start in 1 Thessalonians chapter four. Many of the first Christians believed Jesus would return in their lifetimes, bringing about the promised fullness of the kingdom of God. As Jesus delayed his return and as their fellow congregation members aged and died, the early Christians became concerned. When Jesus did come back, would only those alive be able to experience the new heaven and the new earth? Or would the dead be included as well? Paul responded with these words of assurance, still frequently read at funerals:
1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
We do not want you to be uninformed brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so 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 died. This we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Two crucial assurances: First, Christ will return. Second, everyone will experience the glory to follow. The dead will be raised. The living will be blessed. Everyone will join together with our risen Lord.
This event, this transformation of the saints, came to be called the rapture. When will it happen? Paul doesn’t say. How will it happen? Paul doesn’t say. How do the other texts about Christ’s return fit into this? Paul doesn’t say. Will Christian and non-Christian alike be raptured, or only the saints? Paul doesn’t say. How about those who died before Christ? Or have never heard of Christ? Paul doesn’t say.
Across the millennia most Christians have been content with Paul’s assurances and Paul’s mystery. Presbyterian rapture theology leaves all the mystery intact. Christ will come. The dead will be raised to be with Christ. The living will join them. Christ will pass grace filled judgment upon everyone. And we’ll all live happily ever after in the new heaven and new earth promised by God.
In the 1800’s some Christians in Great Britain and the United States stopped being content with the mystery and unanswered questions. The 19th century was a time of great societal change, economic instability, political unrest and religious fervor. Many Christians felt the world was going to end, that Jesus would be returning in their lifetime. They formed Bible study societies and began pouring over the scriptures – especially the books of Revelation, Daniel and Matthew – seeking to better understand God’s revealed plan for the end of the world. One of those was an Irish cleric named John Nelson Darby who would go on to launch the Brethren movement. C.I. Scofield, an American politician turned preacher, would place Darby’s ideas at the heart of his bestselling Scofield Bible. The result: pre-millennial dispensationalism, a staple of television preachers, the worldview behind the Left Behind books, and the passion of my good friend Fr. Lee Martin, the rector of Christ the King Anglican down the street and our consulting theologian for this sermon.
At this point we need some charts.
If you want to get technical, Presbyterian end of world theology, is either a-millennial or post-millennial – the millennium being the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20:4.
According to this viewpoint, developed by Augustine in the 5th century and accepted across most of Christianity, we experience both the millennium’s spiritual completeness (the thousand years is not taken literally) and the despair of tribulation in our present age. The battle between the two ebbs and flows, but the Spirit always prevails, bringing increased wholeness to society. At some point, Christ will return, the dead will be raised, humanity will be judged and God will create a new heaven and a new earth, where we will live happily ever after with Christ.
Pre-millennial dispensationalism creates a chart like this. The pre-millennial refers to the rapture happening before the millennium. We’re going to ignore the dispensational.
In this viewpoint, developed by Darby and refined by Scofield, we are currently in “the age of the church,” a time of indiscriminate length ending with the rapture. At the rapture, all the saints, living and dead, will ascend to heaven. All the unsaved will be left behind, to seven years of extreme tribulation. At the end of the seven years, Christ will return, cast out evil-doers, bind up the devil and launch the millennium – a 1,000 year earthly paradise. After the 1,000 years, the devil will get loose, unleash havoc, and be defeated again. At this point, everyone – saints and sinners – who missed the rapture (either because they weren’t saved or because they were born after it) will be raised from the dead, judged, and sent to either heaven or hell. Finally, God will destroy the earth, create a new one, and all those who have been saved will live happily ever after in heavenly paradise with Christ.
As you might suspect, both these models come complete with full biblical footnotes. The Presbyterian viewpoint gets points for simplicity, optimism and a vision of this world salvation. In it we find the hope and confidence to change the world we live in instead of hunkering down and waiting for the next.
The Darby/Scofield/Lahaye viewpoint gets points for synthesizing almost every end-time scripture in the Bible. It also contains enough drama and fear to encourage evangelism and serve as a framework for bestselling novels. For those who take every word of the bible literally and believe biblical prophecy speaks directly to our future, its really the only way to go.
So that’s the rapture. What do we do about it? How do we prepare for it? I asked Father Martin, who has devoted much of his life to studying this, these very questions. For him, understanding the secrets of the Biblical prophecies gives him a framework for understanding world events. Terrorism attacks, wars, trade agreements, Brexit, elections, supreme court decisions, legislative losses or victories, they all become part of something much larger, part of God’s divine plan for the world. Even more importantly clearly understanding the doom that is coming upon humanity, is our strongest motivation for evangelism. We don’t want our friends and neighbors to be left behind. So we rejoice in our salvation, and work like crazy to save everyone else because tomorrow the trumpet may sound.
Jesus tells us to watch and to wait. It helps to know what to watch for. How long to wait. But I’m fine with ambiguity. I prefer to watch not for signs of the end but for signs of re-creation here and now, for signs of how God’s healing and justice binds Satan again and again, directly confronting the tribulations of our time. I see God working, I know the hope Christ can give, so I evangelize – yes to save my neighbors from God’s eternal judgment, but more so to enable them to become new creations in this life, filled with the peace of Christ.
I watch. I wait. Not with fear. But with hope; with courage
- the courage to pray without ceasing
- the courage to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior
- the courage to unmask idolatries in church and culture
- the courage to hear the voices of peoples long silenced
- the courage to work with others for justice, freedom and peace
The rapture will come and I wait. Giving thanks every day for my salvation in Jesus Christ. Feeling empowered by God’s spirit to serve Christ in my daily tasks and living a holy and joyful life even as I watch for God’s new heaven and new earth praying, Come, Lord Jesus.