Pastor Ben Witherington has said, of biblical interpretation, that “text without context is just a pretext – for whatever you want it to be.” To be clear, mainstream, evangelical eschatology proposes that Christendom presently awaits Jesus’ first imminent, and invisible, return to rapture His redeemed to heaven, where they will watch and wait for seven years (Daniel 9.24-27), while earth’s inhabitants, primarily Jews, endure colossal persecution, the end of which culminates in, yet, another Messianic coming when Jesus installs His earthly kingdom.
First on our list of most prevalent passages misinterpreted by Rapture proponents is the Scriptural warning that provides the graphic imaginings for the namesake of Christian America’s favorites book series – “Left Behind.” Indeed, the image of someone sitting on an airplane next to an empty seat, draped with the outfit of another who has just disappeared evokes mystical curiosity. Who would want to face whatever happens next? This vision is depicted in Matthew 24.39-41: “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. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”
In what setting does Jesus give this warning? Beginning in Matthew 21, He physically clears the temple and pronounces judgment by cursing Israel for their hypocrisy (18-19), utilizes parables to guarantee judgment for their rejection of God’s salvation, (41, 22.7), and pledges judgmental woes against the apostate leaders for their duplicity (23.13-32). Matthew, then, dedicates chapter 24 to Jesus’ prophecy that God’s judgment upon His chosen people will culminate in the total destruction of Israel’s temple (1-2). Have you picked up on the contextual theme? Judgment. This is the primary reason why Jesus called upon Noah’s account to illustrate what the “coming (‘Parousia’) of the Son of Man” will be like (37).
The popular American evangelical understanding, about “the Rapture,” is that the righteous are “taken” away to heaven, while the unrighteous are “left behind” on this doomed planet. Friends, read the texts; they do NOT say that. In fact, this is a completely backwards reading which, inevitably, reverses the meaning. In lamenting the absolute depravity of mankind, God generated a flood that swept evildoers away, thus making them the ones “taken” in this narrative. Conversely, the righteous (Noah’s family) were the ones “left behind.” Read that, again. Jesus’ application purports that the wicked were “taken” to judgment, while those saved were “left behind” to inherit the earth.
The truly sobering element is, however, the imminent nature of such destruction. Like those in Noah’s generation, people will be so vigorously distracted, having convinced themselves of moral subjectivism and numb to sin’s effect, that they will not have even a moment to respond against God’s surging punishment. Likewise, Luke’s parallel reference to the days of Lot enforces this depiction of consummating judgment as “fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.” (17.29). My following question is genuine: does Matthew 24.42 say, “Watch, therefore, for you know not what hour the ‘pre-tribulation Rapture’ comes…?” No. There is only one kind of event that the New Testament consistently describes as coming like a “thief” – the Day of the Lord (Matthew 24.43, 1 Thessalonians 5.2, 2 Peter 3.10, Revelation 16.15). This historical, Hebrew phrase described a divinely inspired, temporal event that conclusively defeated rebellious entities (cities, nations, peoples), during which God’s remnant was preserved amidst the surrounding earthly destruction. The “imminence” to which this passage alludes is, therefore, a reference to impending judgment; not Jesus’ retrieval of Christians to heaven.
And this notion of “preservation,” is an undoubtedly, significant spiritual component to the Rapture debate which guides us to our next biblical passage for analysis. The third chapter of Revelation provides a verse that should serve as one of the, seemingly, stronger references to support the preconception of a Christian removal prior to a future Great Tribulation: “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also shall keep you from the hour of testing which is about to come upon the whole inhabited world to test those who dwell upon the earth” (10). Because many evangelicals ascribe an exclusively futuristic outlook to this book, modern Christians seem to think this applies to them.
However, the first three chapters of Revelation introduce a message for seven explicit churches in Western Turkey – in the first century. So, first and foremost, these letters are not addressed to you, 21st century, American Christian. Jesus’ accusations are evident to these local churches’ particular behaviors, His assurances of impending persecution align with the time of Revelation’s composition, and He levies charges of church capitulation to a group of first century heretics (Nicolatians) who had been spreading dissent among the faithful. Because the Philadelphia Church, in particular, had not faltered, He promised them “preservation” from trial; an idea clearly expressed by the Greek term, “keep from.”
This phrase (3.10) has only one other precise appearance in the New Testament which provides us with an exclusive meaning to aide our understanding – John 17.15. In that context, Jesus offers a prayer to God the Father, thanking Him for the disciples and asking for His providence over their lives: “My prayer is not that You take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.” This language, clearly, represents a specific request, by the Savior, for the disciples’ preservation through trial; not a direct removal from their earthly circumstance. Jesus, thus, asks that we stay; Rapture advocates demand that we go.
Can you see how Rapture theology teaches a contrary meaning of the verses it relies upon for support than what the authors had intended? Indeed, the notion of divine protection for God’s “remnant” is a consistent biblical refrain extending from the Israelite experience during the final plague on Egypt in Exodus 12 to the 144,000 sealed from divine judgments in Revelation 7. Thus, the proposition that God has planned a “secret,” global removal of the Christian Church in the “last days,” is antithetical to the Scriptural theme of how God’s people endure trial under His faithful shield.
Forgive my feeble attempt at levity, but if you want to see a Rapture, just look at how “dispensationalism” has “removed” these verses from their context.
One additional, but separate, Scriptural argument defending the pre-tribulation Rapture, is that the “Church” is not mentioned in the book of Revelation from chapters 4-18. Evangelicals believe this biblical section encompasses the primary narrative of earth’s futuristic tribulations. And because the Greek word “ekklesia” (“Church”) is absent from this chronicle, the implied presumption is that it must have been raptured. However, “saints” – the New Testament term describing Christian believers – are mentioned numerous times, throughout this portion. For example, in Revelation 12.17, the dragon becomes enraged and begins a widespread persecution against Israel’s offspring, “those who keep God’s commandments and hold fast to their testimony about Jesus” (the Christian Church).
A pre-tribulation Rapture is not supported in these texts by context, language, or implication.
Now, that we are on the road to a genuine examination of, seemingly, Rapture “friendly” passages, let’s prepare for some serious exegesis…