(Note: This is the sermon I preached this morning at John Knox Presbyterian Church. I am posting it here because several people had asked for a copy. I am not interested in debating Dispensationalism with anyone. If you disagree with the views presented here, you are in good company: most American Evangelicals are Dispensationalists. So just consider this sermon a very small attempt at “equal time.”)
Unless you live under the proverbial rock, you could not escape the coverage this week of Harold Camping’s prediction that the “rapture” would occur yesterday (Saturday), at 6:00 p.m., no matter what time zone one lived in. And if you use any social media to any degree, you, like me, saw the comments from Christians that ran the gamut from derision to concern for those who believed Camping and whose faith may now be seriously shaken, if not completely destroyed. There were of course many reactions from unbelievers too, most of them decidedly in the “derision” or “mockery” category.
I’ve already seen commentary from Christians decrying the “date-setters,” but I think that date-setting is just the tip of the iceberg. The May 21 debacle was not just a result of one unbalanced man who decided to put a day and a time to the rapture scenario. It’s the whole rapture scenario itself with its attendant sensationalism and speculation that has given rise not only to Camping but to others who spread superstition clothed as biblical teaching. Their names are a who’s who of the modern Evangelical church. Not just the people you see on TV like Jack Van Impe or John Hagee, but also people like Chuck Swindoll, Charles Ryrie (the Ryrie Study Bible), David Jeremiah, Adrian Rogers, and many more.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks pretty simply on the subject. He says “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” There’s not a lot of detail here. Certainly nothing you could make a chart from, or a series of novels. And we can’t really say for certain from these words if Jesus is talking about his coming for us individually at the hour of our death, or for us collectively at the last day. All we can say for certain here is, after this life is over, we will be with Jesus in the Father’s house. Does that speak of the intermediate state, what we usually call “heaven,” does it speak of life in our resurrected bodies on the renewed, purified earth as described in the book of Revelation, or could it possibly refer to both? We can’t say for sure. What we can say for sure is, again, after this life is over, we will be with Jesus in the Father’s house. Going from this passage alone, anything beyond this would be speculation or superstition.
But this is not the only passage in which Jesus speaks of the last day. Hear what he says in this same book, the Gospel according to John, Chapter 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
We’re going to slow down here, because this is important. Notice what Jesus says first. He says “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me–that’s God–has eternal life. Such a person has passed from death to life.” He’s talking about a particular kind of resurrection. And in the next verse he says that this particular resurrection is a present–not a future–reality: “An hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” That’s a present reality? Are the dead hearing the voice of the Son of God and coming to life as a result? Jesus says they are. He said it in this passage, very plainly: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has passed from death to life.” What’s he talking about? Regeneration. The new birth. Being born again through faith in Jesus. That’s passing from death to life. That’s the resurrection that Jesus says, his exact words now, “is now here.” Then Jesus tells us about a resurrection that is coming that is not yet here. He says “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out,” both the righteous and the unrighteous. That’s another kind of resurrection, and unlike the first resurrection, Jesus doesn’t say that this one is already here. This one is still in the future. The first resurrection is the new birth. It is a spiritual resurrection. It is a passing from death to life that occurs when we believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, receiving and resting upon him alone for salvation as he is offered in the Gospel. The second resurrection, by contrast, is a physical one. It is the resurrection of the body at the last day, the Day of Judgment, the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). And note that this future, physical resurrection isn’t just for believers: it’s for everyone. “All who are in the graves,” not just some. Not just believers. The righteous are raised to eternal life, and the unrighteous are raised for the judgment. For this reason, we call it the General Resurrection. That means the resurrection of all people, not a “secret rapture” of believers only.
Jesus’ very plain words in John 5 help us to understand the more symbolic language of Revelation 20. Bear in mind this is also written by John, the author of the Fourth Gospel: “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.” Then, John writes, after these thousand years have ended, “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And she dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
So revelation speaks of the souls, note, the souls, not the bodies, of those who believed in Jesus. He says they came to life–not that they were raised from their graves–they came to life, that’s his language, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. Then, at the end of that period, he says that all those who are in the graves are raised up, and Judgment Day follows immediately. This passage is saying the very thing Jesus says in John 5! The first resurrection that Revelation speaks of is a spiritual resurrection: those who believe in Jesus pass from death to life. They come to life and, as the Church, they rule and reign with Christ a thousand years. So the thousand years is now. The “millennium” is now, as Jesus rules and reigns in heaven, and as we, his church, carry out the commission he has given us, remembering that he has said that all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He rules and reigns now. The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Then, at the end of the millennium, when the Great Commission is completely fulfilled, a date and time which is known only to God, Christ returns to earth, and all the dead are raised from the graves, just as Jesus said in John 5. This resurrection, the physical resurrection, the General Resurrection, is the one that Revelation calls the “second resurrection.” So the first resurrection is a spiritual one: regeneration or being born again. Jesus says it’s a present reality. The second resurrection is a physical one. Jesus says it’s for everyone, righteous and unrighteous, also known as the general resurrection.
There is nothing in what John writes, either in the Gospel or in Revelation, of a Second and Third Coming of Christ, that is, a “secret rapture” for believers only and then a subsequent event involving the raising of the rest of the dead and the Judgment Day. Instead, the Second Coming is the day of the resurrection of all people, the Judgment Day of all people, and the beginning of the eternal state. No delays, no complications, no complex scenarios, no charts. It’s really pretty simple.
But what about I Thessalonians 4? Yes, what about that? “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven surreptitiously, with his inside voice, and with the sound of the whisper of God, audible to believers only. And she dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and then go back up into heaven with him, and so we will be with the Lord for three and a half to seven years, after which time he’ll come back to earth, but all the way this time, and then we will be forever with the Lord.”
Even if you’re not following along, I hope you know that’s not how it reads. But that is precisely what millions of Christians, the vast majority of them Americans, read into this passage every day. No, here is what it actually says, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet call of God tell me that this will not be a secret event. This will not be a sudden, unexplained disappearance from the world of all true believers, as described in the Left Behind books and by all the TV preachers. This will be a visible, unmistakable Advent of our God! But what about the “meeting the Lord in the air”? Surely that speaks of a “rapture”! Well, to be fair, the term “rapture” means “caught up,” and this passage does speak of believers being caught up in the air to meet the Lord. But does it say that we will then go back up into heaven with him to wait for a few years until he comes back a third time? You have to do some impressive mental gymnastics to read something like that into this passage.
Think about the story of the Prodigal Son with me for a moment. When the Prodigal Son finally came to his senses and said, “I will arise and go to my father,” do you remember what happened next? We read this, “But while he [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” So the son is still a long way down the road from his home, but the father is out there, looking down the road, hoping his son will return. When he catches sight of his son on the horizon, he doesn’t wait for the boy to get to the house or even to the end of the block: the father is so overjoyed that he runs way down the road, down to where the son is, hugs him and welcomes him home. And where do you think they go from there? Back the way the son came from? Back to the pig sty? No. Back home, where the father kills the fatted calf and they have a big celebration. So it is when Jesus returns to earth. Those who are anxiously awaiting him, like the father in the story, when they first catch sight of Jesus, they can’t wait for him to come all the way down to earth, so they rush out to meet him. They are so overjoyed that they leap into the air to meet him there! But they then do not go back the way he came. No. Instead, just like the overjoyed father and the Prodigal Son, they continue on, in joyful procession, to earth, which will now become a renewed earth, a perfected earth, for a big celebration: the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
In sharp contrast to the multi-stage rapture theory popular with American Christians today, the Scriptures clearly witness to a unified event: the Second Advent of Christ, General Resurrection, and Last Judgment. This is not only the witness of Scripture, but the witness of the historic, worldwide church. It is what all Christians everywhere have always believed, until quite recently in terms of history. It is the consistent, unified witness of the three ecumenical creeds of Christianity, those three historic statements of faith that are common to all three branches of the Christian faith: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. The earliest of these three, the Apostles’ Creed, dating back to the 2nd Century AD, says of Christ: “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick (the living) and the dead.” So, he shall come to judge. The Second Advent and Judgment Day are seen as occurring together. The Nicene Creed, written in AD 325, says, “And he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.” Again, the Second Advent and the Last Judgment together, not separated by three and a half, seven, or a thousand years. And the Athanasian Creed, written in the 5th Century AD, drawing heavily on John 5, puts it this way: “He sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.”
If this is the witness of the one, holy catholic, and Apostolic church, as evidenced by these creeds from the second, fourth, and fifth centuries, then where and when did the rapture theory come about? It dates back no earlier than the year 1830, and can be traced to the ecstatic visions of a young Scottish woman named Margaret Macdonald. These visions were picked up by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Then, the Brethren’s views were adopted by C.I. Scofield of Scofield Reference Bible fame, and the rest is history. Recent history, in the light of over twenty centuries of Christianity, but history nonetheless. Since then, its sensationalistic nature has made it quite popular, but that doesn’t make it right and true.
Why is it important? Why take the time to debunk the rapture scenario? First, because it’s not true, and God’s people have no business perpetuating superstition. Second, because the theology that underlies the rapture scenario presents us with a Jesus who does not yet rule and reign, yet our Lord told us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. He rules and reigns now. The millennium is now. Thirdly, because our ruling, reigning Lord Jesus has given to us, his body, a commission, to make disciples of all nations. The Lord calls us to change the world, not to escape it. The Christian’s calling is to reach this world with the Gospel, and that’s not just about telling people how to go to heaven when they die. It’s about bringing the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ to bear on all areas of life: in the academy, in the sciences, in politics, in business, in medicine, in the arts, everywhere, because it all belongs to Christ. When we expect as Christians not to influence our world for Christ, but rather to get sucked out of a world that will then go to hell in a handbasket, we lose the spirituality of all spheres, the full-orbed Gospel we are called to proclaim, and are left with an anemic, pietistic, gnostic, sentimental, pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by sort of Gospel that is far short of the one we see proclaimed in Scripture. The Scriptures promise that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The Great Commission will succeed!
I need to add a very important aside here: even though we have biblical theology and the witness of church history on “our side,” for all that we profess and confess about Christ’s rule being a present reality, and our belief that we rule and reign with him now, “heavenizing” and “Jerusalemizing” this world, for all of our good, Kuyperian, cultural Calvinism and the “spirituality of all spheres,” there are millions of Christians who hold to this rapture theory, who do not believe in covenant theology or the present reign of Christ, who nevertheless put us to shame with their zeal for Christian mission. We, of all people, should be a people on a mission, but there is a disconnect somewhere. The tires don’t quite meet the road. Our profession does not match our way of life. We need to change that.
We are called to carry out Christ’s Great Commission until Christ, by his Spirit, brings it to completion. This is the blessed hope of the church. And it is the blessed hope of the world. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.