THE RAPTURE IN CONTEXT

 

by Doug Ward



MARCH 2009-In his first epistle to early Christian congregations in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul answered a question that had arisen among the Thessalonians about the future of believers who had already died:

 

"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words" (I Thes 4:13-18, NIV).

 

The main event described in these verses, the meeting of both resurrected and still-living saints with Jesus in the air, is commonly known as the Rapture, after the Latin word for the verb translated "caught up" in verse 17. There are differing opinions with regard to the timing of the Rapture:




The traditional view, still held by a majority of Christians, is that the Rapture will occur at the Second Coming of Jesus. In this view Jesus will proceed to the earth, together with the saints, right after meeting them in the air.



A second view that has gained popularity over the past 150 years places the Rapture a few years before the Second Coming. According to this scenario Jesus and the raptured Christians will go to heaven after meeting in the air, where those Christians then will be protected from a time of tribulation on earth leading up to the Second Coming.



One way to begin evaluating these competing models is to study them in light of other biblical passages about the Second Coming. Personally, I have always believed that a comparison of I Thes 4 with Matt 24:30-31, I Cor 15:51-52, and Rev 11 provides strong evidence in favor of the traditional view.1 Not everyone agrees with me, however. Proponents of "left behind" scenarios take these same verses, along with others, into account and reach different conclusions.

 

Happily, there is a current trend in biblical studies that sheds light on the Rapture controversy. That trend is a growing awareness, promoted by the work of N.T. Wright and others, of the powerful political ramifications of the New Testament message. In the Dayton, Ohio, area, one New Testament scholar who is interested in the political undertones of Paul's epistles is David Wheeler-Reed, an adjunct professor of religion at Wright State University. Wheeler-Reed, who is in the process of completing a PhD in New Testament at the University of Toronto, gave a lecture entitled "Parousia and Empire" at the Church of the Messiah on March 6, 2009. In his lecture, he showed that an awareness of the political context of I Thessalonians can enhance our understanding of that epistle, including the Rapture passage.

 

Christ vs. Caesar



Paul mentions that the recipients of his letter had "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (I Thes 1:9). Wheeler-Reed explained that the worship of the Roman Emperor was a major component of the idolatry that the Thessalonian Christians had abandoned. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, had been called Lord and Savior of the world. His arrival as a Savior was hailed as good news, literally a kind of gospel. Upon his death in AD 14, he was declared to be a god. This set a pattern for future Roman emperors. Thereafter when an emperor died, he was hailed as a god, making his successor a "son of god."

 

By the time Paul wrote his letter in around AD 50, worship of the emperor was pervasive in the territory controlled by Rome. There were temples devoted to the emperor cult in all the major cities, and coins proclaimed the emperor's divine status. One side of a coin would carry a picture of the emperor, the other side an associated god or goddess.

 

This background information helps us grasp sone of the challenges faced by early Christians. Christians had to avoid worship of the emperor, which made them seem unpatriotic and led to persecution from their neighbors. Paul mentions in his letter that the Thessalonians endured "severe suffering" (1:6) and were persecuted by their countrymen (2:14).

 

The details of Roman emperor worship also reveal the subversive nature of Paul's message. When Paul refers to Jesus as Lord and Savior in his letters, he is using the same words that were applied to the emperor, thus implying that it is Christ, not Caesar, who is the legitimate ruler of the world.

 

Wheeler-Reed pointed out additional loaded language in I Thessalonians. In chapter 5, Paul urges the Thessalonians to be prepared for the imminent return of Jesus:

 

"Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, `Peace and safety,' destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape" (5:1-3).

 

One source of a message of "peace and safety" in those days was the Roman emperor Claudius. Rome offered peace and safety to those who would submit to its rule. Pax and Securitas, the Latin words for peace and safety, actually were personified as goddesses on coins. So in I Thes. 5:1-3, Paul is saying that the Roman government's promises were hollow, and that Jesus was the only one who could guarantee genuine pax et securitas.

 

Rapture Politics



It turns out that I Thes 4:13-18, the passage quoted at the beginning of this article, itself has important political implications. A key word in this passage is parousia, the Greek word used for the "coming" of the Lord in I Thes 4:15.

 

Wheeler-Reed explained that when the Roman emperor paid an official visit to some city in the empire, that visit was called a parousia. In honor of such a visit, special coins bearing the emperor's picture (called "adventus coins") were minted. It was believed that the parousia of the emperor brought a new age of peace and well-being to the city. As the emperor approached the city, he would be met by a throng of the city's inhabitants, who would then escort the emperor through the city gates, beginning a special celebration.

 

In light of this background, Paul's description of the parousia of Jesus in I Thes 4:13-18 takes on heightened meaning. Paul is saying that the Roman emperor is a pale imitation of the true King. Like the Roman emperor, Jesus would be met by a welcoming crowd as he approached the earth. But Jesus would be much greater than the human emperor. As the emperor reached the city gates, he would pass by the city cemetery and nothing would happen. In contrast, graves would open and the dead would be resurrected at the coming of Jesus. The emperor could make empty promises about pax et securitas, but Jesus would bring true justice and shalom.

 

This understanding of I Thes. 4:13-18 fits well with the traditional Christian interpretation of the Rapture but has little connection with the popular "left behind" scenarios of the dispensationalists. Paul was not talking about Jesus coming secretly to whisk away his followers before a time of trouble. Instead, he was picturing Christ's triumphant return to set the world right.

 

A Challenge to American Christians



In his lecture at the Church of the Messiah, Wheeler-Reed elucidated the true nature of the Rapture of I Thes 4, but he ultimately had bigger questions in mind. In particular, he wanted his audience to consider the possible modern-day implications of Paul's subversive first-century message.

 

Looking back at the Roman Empire of Paul's day, it is clear that its emperors were guilty of hubris, making false claims about divine status and an ability to bring lasting peace and security. The first Christians had to resist the worship of the emperor and instead follow Jesus. Wheeler-Reed suggested that it might be easy for today's American Christians to fall into a sort of twenty-first century analogue of emperor worship. Are we looking for security in a Pax Americana or for a government that will solve all of our problems? Or are we placing our trust in the true King?

 

Wheeler-Reed concluded the lecture by reviewing the Christ hymn of Phil 2:6-11, which proclaims that every knee will bow at the name of Jesus. He suggested that the best prayer we can make for today's political leaders is that those leaders not be guilty of hubris, but instead submit to Christ.


Footnotes:

1See, for example, the article "The Rapture of the Saints" in Issue 1 of Grace & Knowledge.

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