1Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
We have made it to the end: the end of the book of Revelation, the end of this sermon series, and the end of the world as we know it! You have stuck with me through six weeks of challenging teaching which has called into question some of the ways many of us grew up understanding Revelation – as if anyone understands Revelation.
Today I want to look at a few things as we finish this series – tie up a few loose ends, if you will. I want to look at why Rapture Theology tends to not be biblical, why Rapture Theology fails to form Christian disciples, and what the book of Revelation really does reveal about the end times.
Rapture Theology, which is often called “Dispensationalism,” was not really developed until John Nelson Darby championed this line of thinking in the second half of the 19th century. It was later popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible in the early 20th century. So this way of reading the book of Revelation has only been around for a little more than 100 years. Most of us were shocked when we found out that there were other ways of reading Revelation, and now we know that for the first 1800 years of Christianity, Rapture Theology didn’t even exist.
Rapture Theology says that at some point in time, usually soon, Jesus will come back to the earth and take all of the true Christians from this planet to be with God in heaven. There will then be tribulations, pain, and suffering for those left behind, and eventually the world as we know it will be destroyed.
This theology is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which says, “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.” The word rapture comes from the word we translate as “caught up” in this verse. We will come back to this in a few minutes.
The other passage that provides some footing for Rapture Theology is Matthew 24 (and parallels) where we find this in verses 40-41: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”
When you take those two passages out of context and place them together, mix in a little bit of Revelation, you find Jesus coming back on a cloud, calling up the Christians to be with him in the clouds, and then we assume that the earth and everything in it is destroyed as the unfaithful are “torn to pieces” and thrown into the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51, NIV).
This makes sense if you start with the assumption that the earth is a bad place, that our bodies are bad, and we need to escape all of these bad things to go to heaven as a good spirit. But that is not biblical; that is Platonic. We get the idea that the world around us and our bodies are bad from the Greek philosopher Plato, not from the Bible.
The Bible tells us from the very beginning that God created the heavens, the earth, the animals in the air, in the sea, and on land, and human being and called them “good.” Not only good, but “very good.” Furthermore, there was no death, no pain, no destruction in Eden.
“We” messed up, I think we can all agree with that. Adam and Eve took matters into their own hands, Cain slew Abel, and things slid away from what God created and called “very good.”
But God sent Jesus to this world as a part of his plan for reconciliation, restoration, and shalom. 1 John 4:14 says, “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” John 3:16 is likely a little more familiar to us, and if you are like me, you probably memorized this one in the King James: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Jesus is the Savior of the world; God so loved the world. The word we translate as world is “cosmos,” which means the entire created order. John could have used the word “anthropos,” which means human beings. He could have used the word “andro,” which means man, or “gune” which means woman. John could have said “psuche” which means soul or “pneuma” which means spirit. But he doesn’t. God loves human beings, man, woman, and child, mind, body, and spirit. God loves the entire world and sent Jesus as the savior of the world God created and called “very good.” God isn’t going to scrap this world. No, God is going to reconcile and restore this world.
Perhaps many will wonder what it matters if we are taken from this world or if this world is restored. It matters quite a bit, as we will see. Michael Gorman dedicates a number of pages in his book Reading Revelation Responsibly to the practical problems he finds when people buy into Rapture Theology rather than a theology of restoration. I’m just going to mention a few here, specifically ones that I can and have seen in the lives of people who focus much of their attention on the rapture:
- It reduces the gospel to “God and Jesus and the Rapture and the Glorious Appearing,” amounting to an unhealthy preoccupation with the details about events surrounding Christ’s second coming.
- It reduces the primary reason for conversion to fear.
- It reduces discipleship to (a) faith in Jesus’ death in order to avoid being left behind or destroyed; (b) evangelizing others so they won’t be left behind or destroyed; (c) correlating “Bible prophecy” with current events; and (d) preparing to die or kill for the gospel/kingdom.
- It is escapist and therefore has no ongoing ethic of life between the times, between the first and second comings. There is no compulsion to love one’s neighbor, practice deeds of mercy, work for peace and justice, etc.
- It is inherently militaristic. Anything resembling pacifism, international cooperation, or disarmament is satanic, and believers are called to participate in literal war that is guaranteed victory by the return of a conquering Jesus.
- It is uncritically pro-American.
- It privileges the modern state or Israel in an uncritical way.
- It is suspicious of anything to do with the work of the United Nations or international organizations.
- It inculcates a survivalist and crusader mentality into the minds of its readers (pages 72-73).
The word that keeps jumping out to me is “reduces.” This theological approach reduces the Gospel to a personal faith in Jesus and discipleship is something that you do to keep from being left behind. I would argue that Christianity is more than that. It is about partnering with God for the reconciliation, redemption, and shalom-making of this world as a witness to those around us.
So what do we do with those two passages that we looked at earlier? Let’s look first at 1 Thessalonians 4 which says that the faithful are “caught up” in the air to meet Jesus when he returns.
We are just a few weeks past Palm Sunday. We call it Palm Sunday because the Jews that had come to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover lined the streets as Jesus came into the city and laid palm branches and their cloaks on the ground, welcoming Jesus into the city. They were welcoming him as the messiah, as the king of the Jews.
Our history books tell stories of kings coming home to their kingdoms after traveling abroad and being welcomed back to their kingdoms by their followers in a way similar to how Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem. Often they would ride for miles beyond the city gates and escort the king back to his kingdom.
When 1 Thessalonians 4 says that we meet Jesus in the air, it does not say that we stay there, hanging out in the clouds, as if heaven is just on the other side of that cumulonimbus over there. When the disciples last saw Jesus, he ascended into the air. It should not surprise us then that our scriptures tell us he is coming back the same way he left. We welcome Jesus back to the earth as a returning king, ready to restore and rule his kingdom, by meeting him in the air.
When we consider passages like Matthew 24 where two men are working in a field, one is taken, and one is left behind, why do we assume that it is preferred to be taken and not left behind? The passage is somewhat unclear as to which is the better option. There is no mention of where they are taken to.
But if we back up two verses to verse 38, we find a bit of a clue as to which is the better choice, to be taken or left behind: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.”
Jesus uses the example of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark. The sinful people kept doing what they were doing right up until Noah entered the ark and the flood took them all away. It is the sinful ones who are “taken away,” and the faithful ones who are left behind. They are left behind to welcome their king back to the earth, for the restoration of the world that God once called “very good.”
I recently came across a video that can be summed up in one simple word: awesome. Not everyone is going to love this video in the same way I do, but I hope that you can appreciate it for its creativity and the skill of the artists involved.
The video is of five young men from Denmark playing Michael Jackson’s hit single “Billie Jean” on an instrument that many of us have attempted to play, but perhaps never mastered: the bottle. The video can be found here.
I show that video today because I believe that this is a small window into what we find in Revelation 21. We find a new heaven and a new earth, the Holy City descends upon this earth and God’s dwelling place is among God’s people. There are no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering. These things were removed from the world and what is left behind is that which is good, that which is beautiful, that which is love.
The men in the video make something beautiful – beauty is in the eye/ear of the beholder – out of trash, garbage, something many of us would just throw away. And while so many people think that God is just going to throw this world away, the Bible tells a different story. This world will be restored to its original intention, it will once again be “very good.”
This matters because how we understand the end times affects how we live today. We live in a rather “disposable” world. We buy things knowing that they only have to last a few years and then we will get another. Our major appliances like washers, dryers, and television sets are not meant to last twenty years like they used to. And when you don’t expect something to be around forever, you are likely to abuse it.
Think about a rental car. When you rent a car, do you make sure to take as good of care of that car as you would take of your own? I avoid potholes with my own car, I aim for them with a rental. This world is not a rental that will be taken back and exchanged. This is the world that God so loved, this is the world that God will make new again.
I noted a couple of weeks ago that one of the most-frequently used words in Revelation is “martus,” which is the word from which we get the words martyr and witness. In the middle of all of the fallen-ness, the brokenness, the hatred, and despair; in the midst of idol worship, injustice, pain, and suffering, we are called to be a witness to a better way.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann tells a wonderful story about our witness as Christians to the rest of the world. In this story Brueggemann repeatedly says that we as Christians live in a “different world.” He told a story about his son’s professor in college, a Marxist atheist, who was teaching in a field where religion was seen as an obstacle to overcome rather than an asset. This professor was having a conversation with Brueggemann’s son one day and the atheist, Marxist professor said, “I notice that wherever there is a justice crisis in the world, you Christians always show up. Why is that?”
Brueggemann’s response? “We live in another world!”
Brian Zahnd notes in his book A Farewell to Mars, “I know of many St. Jude and St. James hospitals, orphanages, relief agencies, and the like, but I’m still looking for the Nietzsche hospital or Voltaire children’s home.”
We as Christians are called to feed the hungry because one day there will be no hunger. We work to heal the sick because one day there will be no death and illness. We Christians are called to care for the environment because creation care is the original mandate in Genesis 1, but also because one day this world will be made new again. We do these things as a witness to the world that is coming, the world where heaven and earth come together and God dwells among us.
When Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask him to teach them how to pray, Jesus does not teach them to pray to God that they might be raptured from this terrible world. Jesus taught them to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The final vision that John is given in Revelation 21 is the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer. This is the Lord’s Prayer come true.