Do you believe in the rapture? Maybe you’re reading this and wondering, “What is the rapture?”
In our Advent 2021 study of 2 Thessalonians, we’ve learned that Paul is teaching the Thessalonian Christians about the second advent of Jesus. He describes it in 2 Thessalonians 2, verse 1 as a day in the future when Christians will be gathered to Jesus. What does that word “gathering” indicate?
The rapture? Maybe. It’s hard to know, especially because there are numerous theories about what will happen when Jesus returns and gathers his people. Hold that thought. We’ll try to at least begin to answer the questions of “What is the gathering? Is it the rapture?” in today’s post. For now, though, in 2 Thessalonians 2, verse 1, Paul simply focuses on the idea that Jesus will return, and people will be gathered to him at that point. Paul brings up Jesus’ return because he has a word of caution for the people, and he gets to that next.
In verse 2, he cautions them not to be easily shaken in their minds, to not be fearful about the day of the Lord. When he refers to the day of the Lord, Paul is talking about Jesus’ second coming. Why would they be fearful of that? You’d think they would be excited for Jesus to return again. But they are fearful, Paul explains, because they heard that Jesus already came back!
Paul likely learned this news from Timothy. We learned in our study of 2 Thessalonians 1, that Paul had previously written the letter of 1st Thessalonians to them, and he sent Timothy to visit the Thessalonians and deliver the letter. The Thessalonians told Timothy about someone who was teaching that Jesus’ second coming already happened. The Thessalonians were rightly afraid, then, that they missed out. That reminds me of the acronym FOMO. Do you know what FOMO stands for? Fear of missing out.
That’s the fear that the title of the Left Behind books and movies taps into. It came from Larry Norman’s song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which he released in 1969. In the song, Norman sings, “There’s no time to change your mind, The son has come and you’ve been left behind.”
What is Norman talking about? Left behind from what? He describes it further in the rest of the song:
A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
Norman is talking about the rapture. I mentioned that earlier, in reference to the “gathering” Paul talks about in verse 1. The rapture is a theory that Jesus will have two second comings. The first of those, the theory goes, will only be in the air. He won’t land on the ground. When he returns in the air, he will gather up all his true disciples to be raptured with him. Just like the song says, the rapture is the idea that all the true Christians will disappear from earth when Jesus returns, and they will instantly go to heaven. Some Christians say that the rapture will be the sign marking the beginning of the end times. Once the rapture occurs, they believe there will be seven years of tribulation and great pain, war, destruction and persecution will happen. Then after those seven years, Jesus will return again, this time to earth, and he will defeat Satan, beginning a millenium-long reign on earth.
In Matthew 24:30-31 Jesus himself describes what might be the rapture. Maybe. It is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the letter Paul previously wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, that we read perhaps the clearest description in the New Testament of a rapture, a gathering of Christians in the air. So that brings us back to the question I asked earlier. What is the rapture, the gathering?
The word “rapture” is rarely used in conversational English. We sometimes talk about rapt attention, which means someone is staring intently at something, like the Prophetic Stare, which we’ve seen over and over in the Ezekiel series. Another way I have heard the word “rapture” used is in reference to wonder or awe or ecstasy. We might say that a person in rapture is carried away by emotion or joy. They’re so focused, it’s like they are in another world. I will admit, that can happen to me.
I’ve always loved reading books. In my childhood, my mom would be in the next room calling me, and she would come into the room where I was reading, with a look of frustration on her face, saying, “I have been calling you a million times.” I never once heard her. That’s rapture. You get so carried away, so into something, your senses literally cannot experience the world around you. See how this relates to the idea of The Rapture, where Jesus comes to carry his people away to another world, heaven?
The question is this, though: is that idea of a two-part second coming the right way to interpret Scripture? I used to think so. Now, I’m not so sure. There have been many, many books and articles and sermons debating this, and I’ve read quite a few. They go far more in-depth than I will here. I have come to the conclusion, the more I’ve studied, that the New Testament writers are far less interested in when Jesus will return or how he will return. What Jesus himself and Paul here are really concerned about is how we answer the question: Am I ready for his return?
Therefore the Thessalonians were rightly concerned that they had missed out. Whether it was a rapture or a final second coming, the method is not the issue. The issue is, did they miss out? If they did miss out, they show they were not ready for his return. Neither do you and I want to miss out. We want to be ready for him. That is the theme of our 2021 Advent series, “Ready for the Return.” But how do we get ready? Paul already helped us answer that question last week in our five-part study of 2 Thessalonians, chapter 1 starting here. This week he will have more principles to help us be ready for Jesus’ return as we continue studying 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 in the next post.