Regardless of how early one sees evidence of a rapture theology within Church writings, the deciding of this issue must rest on the inspired Word of God and what is written in it.
I have been asked to share my views regarding the so called “Rapture” of the saints (believers). This article is by no means exhaustive; however, it does seek to address the common misconceptions and Biblical misinterpretations offered by Rapture proponents.
For many followers of Messiah (Christ) the theological construct known as “The Rapture” is presumed rather than considered. In fact, in speaking to most Messiah followers I find that few if any contest the idea of the Rapture. For the most part the only issue that arises from discussing the Rapture with other believers is whether or not they are pre-tribulation or post-tribulation believers. When I’m asked my thoughts on the so called “Rapture” I often respond, “Rapture? What Rapture?” This is because as both a Jew and a follower of Messiah, I am unable to find evidence for the so-called Rapture in either the Tanakh (OT) or the Ha-Brit Ha-Chadashah (NT). However, before I address the concept (conceived, not self-evident) itself by testing it against Scripture, I will give a brief history of this relatively recent theological phenomenon.
A Brief History of the Rapture Construct:
Proponents of the theological construct called “The Rapture” often sight the writings of early Church fathers as evidence that the Rapture Theology dates back to the earliest days of Gentile Christianity. They interpret the writings of these early fathers of the Gentile Church in a revisionist fashion in order to read into them their preconceived view. In this respect their interpretation of the early Church fathers’ writings is no different from their interpretation of Scripture.
From the writings of Ephraim the Syrian (306 CE – 373 CE) they read “gathered” as “raptured” or “taken up”, and thus conclude a rapturing of believers. In the writings of Cyprian (200 CE-258CE) they read “delivered” as “raptured”. In the writings of Irenaeus (130 CE – 202 CE) they read “tribulation” and presume a “rapture”. In every case they are not quoting explicit evidence for the Rapture but instead are misinterpreting the writings of the Church fathers in the same way they have misinterpreted the Scriptures that they misuse to support the concept of a rapture. The truth is that there is no explicit evidence of the teaching of a rapture in any of the writings of the early Church fathers (1st to 3rd Centuries CE). Even more importantly, a rapture of believers was not taught by Yeshua (Jesus) or the apostles, and further, has never been a theological concept within ancient Biblical Judaism.
While there is evidence that rapture theology was present in the Church for some time prior to the 19th century (Though not as early as the 3rd Century), Pre-tribulation Rapture theology became popular in the late eighteenth century, with the Puritan preachers, and was popularised extensively in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby. Darby’s assertions were picked up by Scofield and distributed further in the United States in the annotations of the Scofield Reference Bible in the early 20th century. Thus, the popular presumptions regarding the Rapture are largely premised on its recent revival in modern Anglo-American Church history.
Regardless of how early one sees evidence of a rapture theology within Church writings, the deciding of this issue must rest on the inspired Word of God and what is written in it. Therefore, what follows will be an examination of the Scriptures that are supposed to prove the Rapture construct (teaching of men).
Scriptures that Prove the Rapture?
1. The most famous of the Rapture passages is found in 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 and reads:
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left until the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the shofar of God: and the dead in Messiah will rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up (harpazo[G], gathered, taken away) in the clouds (of the presence: nephele[G] Ex. 13:21), to meet the Lord in the (open) air (aer[G]): and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” -1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 (Author’s Translation from Greek text)
I have placed in brackets the full meaning of the Greek words used, for the purpose of exposing some of the primary misunderstandings that are concluded from the text. First, the Greek word harpazo translated “caught up” in many English versions, rarely means “caught up”. In fact, out of its eighteen uses in the Ha-Brit Ha-Chadashah (NT), there are only three that explicitly mean “caught up” (2 Co. 12:2, 12:4; Rev. 12:5). In all other cases (15) harpazo means “to gather, take away, catch, pluck, seize”, none of which explicitly refer to being lifted into the sky. Further, harpazo is related to the word aihreomai meaning to take for oneself, that is, to prefer, and is used exclusively in the Ha-Brit Ha-Chadashah (NT) to refer to the act of choosing and or those who are chosen (Php. 1:22; Heb. 11:25; 2 Th 2:13).
Neither does the mention of nephele[G] “clouds” denote the sky. In fact, unless otherwise qualified i.e. “the clouds of the sky” (Matt. 26:64), the word nephele[G] (clouds) can refer to clouds or a cloud appearing on earth, like the cloud of the presence that lead Israel through the desert (Exodus 13:21). In fact this same Greek word nephele[G] is used by the Septuagint (Greek OT) to translate the Hebrew anan[H] (cloudy mass, covering) in Exodus 13:21 and refers not to the clouds of the sky but to the cloud of the presence in which the Malakh HaShem (Messenger of the Lord) manifest Himself (Many understand this to be a manifestation of the Messiah Himself). This bears much greater continuity within the context of 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17.
Nor does the use of the Greek word aer[G] “air” denote the sky. In fact this Greek word refers specifically to the breathable air of the lower atmosphere. The Greek lexicon states that aer is “particularly the lower and dense air as distinguished from the higher and rarer air”, so not the sky but the breathable air close to the earth. The more accurate translation would be “open air” i.e. “I’m going outside into the open air”. In common 1st century Greek speech this would not have been confused with the upper atmosphere of the sky. Thus, the Greek recipient of this first century letter to the Church would not have understood this to be describing a rapture (lifting up into the sky, levitation), but a taking away in a cloud like the events describe in Exodus which describe Israel being lead to safety by the cloud (nephele[G]) of God’s presence.
Therefore, a correct reading of the Greek text, even out of context (which is how proponents of the Rapture have taken this text) would be:
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left until the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the shofar of God: and the dead in Messiah will rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be gathered in the clouds of the presence, to meet the Lord in the open air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” -1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 (Author’s translation from Greek text)
This is in keeping with the fact that God will make His dwelling with us on the new earth and not aloft in the heavens (Rev. 21:3). Rapture proponents must ask themselves, “Why would God rapture up believers only to drop them down again so that they can dwell with Him?”
These things aside, proponents of the Rapture take the 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 Scripture entirely out of context.
In the context of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, Rav Shaul HaShaliach (Paul the Apostle [Sent One]) answers questions that believers in Thessalonica had concerning death. What has happened to our loved ones who have died before the return of the Messiah to earth? In the end, what will happen to us? What will happen to them? Rav Shaul’s (Paul’s) answer explains the bodily resurrection at the return of Messiah to earth, and not an escape into the sky (Rapture, mass levitation).
In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4:15-17, Shaul (Paul) is making a drash[H] (comparative teaching) using two specific images from the Tanakh (OT) that were familiar to Jewish believers and Gentile converts who were familiarising themselves with the Hebrew tradition. The first has to do with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, from out of the cloud of the Lord’s presence, carrying the Torah (Tablets) accompanied by the great blast of the shofar [Ram’s Horn] (Exodus 24).
The second image is taken from Daniel chapter 7 where the “One like the Son of Man” (or “human being” or “The Human One”) and the community He represents is vindicated over the enemies of the people of God. Clouds here symbolise the power and authoritative judgement of God in rescuing, delivering, protecting His people Israel (Ethnic, religious, chosen, empirical). Shaul (Paul) now applies this idea to Gentile Christians as well as to Jewish believers, who were facing various forms of persecution in the first century C.E.
Rapture, as it is popularly understood, is nowhere to be found in this so called “Rapture” passage. Scripture clearly teaches that the Messiah will return to resurrect, to cleanse, to heal, restore and to establish the eternal kingdom of God on this earth. Heaven and earth will be united forever as a result of the sacrificial death and resurrection of the King Messiah Yeshua (Jesus).
Concerning the Messiah’s return, the Bible teaches, “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. 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’” (Revelation 21:3-4).
The renewed world will be our eternal home with God and His King Messiah Yeshua, and we have the opportunity in the present world to reflect that hope. Rapture on the other hand invites us to escape this world: which is the opposite of the truth seen in the life and ministry of Yeshua. We pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” according to His instruction, and not “Your will be done in heaven alone far away from the earth!”
2. Some claim that Matthew 24 proves the Rapture.
“And as were the days of Noah, so shall be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall be the coming of the Son of man. Then shall two men be in the field; one is taken, and one is left: two women shall be grinding at the mill; one is taken, and one is left. Watch therefore: for ye know not on what day your Lord comes. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken through.” -Matthew 24:37-43
When reading this teaching of Yeshua we should understand it according to its proper context. The flood destroyed the earth, taking away the wicked and leaving behind God's people (Noah's family). Thus, It was the wicked who were taken and the righteous, Noah and his family who were left behind. Therefore, these verses cannot and do not support a rapture of believers. It is the wicked who will be taken away in the last days and the righteous that will remain.
3. There are those who claim that Luke 17:20-37 proves the Rapture.
“Two women shall be grinding wheat together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. And they answered and said to Him, Where, Lord? And He said unto them, where ever the body is, there will the eagles (Vultures) be gathered together.” - Luke 17:35-37 (context v.20-37)
As in the case of the previous Scripture, the context is relative to the days of Noah and those taken are the wicked while those left are the righteous. In the text of Luke 17:35-37 the disciples ask for clarification saying, “Where Lord?” They were not wondering where the one left behind would be? That one had gone nowhere. The disciples were asking “Where will the one who was taken be?” Yeshua answers, "Where ever the body is, there will the birds of prey be gathered together." The Greek aetos[G] translated eagle is also used to translate carrion, thus “birds of prey” is perhaps a better rendering. Carrion (Vultures) gather over dead bodies, therefore, we read “carcass”. Even if we read “eagle” the result is the same, the dead body is the subject.
“Does the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? She dwells and abides in the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. From thence she seeks the prey, and her eyes behold afar off. Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there she is.” - Job 39:27-30
In the Matthew 24 account, Yeshua makes it clearer by saying that the body is a “carcass”. Thus, those taken away cannot have been raptured, rather, they are the wicked dead.
4. There are many Christians who use the phrase "coming as a thief" as proof of a rapture.
By separating it from the context and believing that Yeshua is coming as a thief for the body of believers, they establish a false theology on a flawed premise. Here’s what the Shaliach (Apostle) Shaul (Paul) says regarding the phrase “comes as a thief”:
“But of the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need that I write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, ‘peace and safety’; then sudden destruction will come upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. You are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.” -1 Thessalonians 5:1-5
First, followers of Messiah understand that there are times and seasons in the outworking of God’s redemptive plan, and Shaul sees no reason to write to them regarding the certainty of their hope in Messiah’s return (v.1).
Second, Shaul clarifies what the believers already know, that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”. Note that it is the day of the Lord and not the Messiah that is referred to.
Third, “they” (not believers but unbelievers), “shall say, ‘peace and safety’; then sudden destruction will come upon them…” This cannot refer to believers because v2 already clarifies that believers know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief upon those who are unprepared.
Fourth, Shaul reaffirms that the believers will not be taken or surprised by the day of the Lord (v.4) because they are not in darkness (night).
Therefore, the day of the Lord will come “as a thief” for the world. It will “come suddenly”, on those who are unaware of Messiah? Shaul (Paul) reminds the community of believers that followers of Messiah Yeshua are not overtaken “as by a thief”, because we will be watching and waiting for the Lord, expecting His return (v.4).
“The thief comes for no other reason, than to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: ‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.'” - John 10:10
The Messiah is not a thief, nor should we understand Him figuratively as one who steals. What does a thief come to do? To steal and destroy! Yeshua is not coming to steal and destroy His bride (Body of believers)! Rather, the day of the Lord will bring about the destruction of the wicked.
The day of the Lord will not come like a thief for the body of faith. Rather, the day of the Lord will come as a great surprise to the wicked, just as a sleeping man is surprised by a thief at night.
Therefore, this scripture is also devoid of any evidence supporting a rapture.
5. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” -John 14:3
Where will Yeshua be? He will be with the Father in the New Jerusalem on the New earth (Rev. 21). Therefore, what need is there for Him to rapture those who He will gather to Himself? There is no need, nor does this Scripture support this false idea.
6. “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” -Luke 10:20
Yes, our names are written in the book of life which is presently held in the heavens. However, Revelation clearly teaches that the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven and that God will dwell with us on the New earth (Rev. 21). Therefore, our names being presently written in heaven does not qualify the Rapture construct. In fact, this verse is identifying believers as Ben Elohiym (Sons of God: God fearers), as set apart from Ben Adam (Sons of humanity: idolaters).
7. The Appearing of the Son of Man
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud shofar call, and they will gather His elect (Jews) from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” -Matthew 24:30-31 (Mark 13:24-27)
Notice that it is Yeshua Who will come “in the clouds of heaven”, and not the elect (Jews). Notice also that He will gather the elect (Jews) from the four points of the compass. He does not lift up the elect, He gathers them. The phrase “From one end of the heavens to the other” is an ancient Hebrew idiom meaning “all of the earth”. Therefore, this verse does not support the Rapture construct.
8. Citizenship in Heaven
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.” -Philippians 3:20-21
As alluded to previously, our names and subsequently our citizenship are presently recorded in the heavens (as members of the Heavenly Kingdom which will descend). However, as also stated previously, the New Jerusalem will come down out of heaven and our residence will be on the new earth in the presence of God the Father and the King Messiah Yeshua.
Not one of the Scriptures proposed as proof by “Rapture” proponents, when read in context using the original languages, support the Rapture construct. In fact, to the contrary, they refute it and in addition, when coupled with the text of Revelation and the wider body of Scripture, they instead properly illuminate the truth that God intends to come down and dwell with us rather than steal us away up into the heavens.
With this in mind, and the fact that neither the books of Daniel or Revelation (the ultimate prophetic descriptions of the latter days) mention a rapture, not once, nor do they imply any kind of rapture, not once; we must conclude that there is no Rapture. Scripture demands it. The reality is that the Rapture theological construct has more in common with the levitation of false esoteric eastern religions than it does with Biblical Judeo-Christianity. In short, the Rapture is a foolish exercise in spiritual escapism.
So when I’m asked, “Yaakov, what’s your take on the Rapture”, I will continue to respond, “Rapture? What Rapture?”
Copyright Yaakov Brown 2020
*Previously published as "Rapture? What Rapture? Deconstructing the Rapture Construct" Copyright 2019 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.