By D. G. Alley
When Hal Lindsey wrote his book The Late Great Planet Earth back in the 1970s he touched off a firestorm of interest in the study of prophecy. What was once only of interest to scholars suddenly became a subject of discussion for everyday people. And by the millions, they wanted to know more. Since then, numerous books and articles have been written in an attempt to interpret the Bible’s descriptions of the end times, and in particular, its prophecy of the Rapture. During that time, a rather curious consensus seems to have emerged. It seems to be the opinion of most theologians, prophecy scholars, etc, that Paul was the first to reveal the promise of the Rapture, and that Jesus never mentioned it.
Actually, he did.
Just to make sure that we will recognize a prophecy of the Rapture when we happen across it, let’s look at the descriptions of the Rapture in the letters of Paul.
1 Cor 15:51-53 (NRSV) – Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
1 Thess 4:13-18 (NRSV) – But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from Heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul says that he will tell us a mystery, meaning that he will explain to his readers something that had been a secret, not previously revealed to them. Although Jesus had already lived, died, and rose again, the Gospels had not yet been written and circulated at the time Paul wrote these letters.
What is the word picture that he paints with these two passages?
Jesus will descend out of Heaven.
With the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God, Jesus will command his dead believers out of their graves.
The dead will rise to life in new, immortal bodies.
Then, the bodies of those believers who are still alive when that happens, will be changed to immortal bodies also.
The change will be fast, happening in the twinkling of an eye.
Both those believers who had been dead and those who were still alive will then be caught up into the clouds to meet Jesus and be with him forever.
Notice in the Thessalonians passage that Paul makes a distinction between God the Father and Jesus the Son, and he indicates that Jesus is the agency through which God will accomplish these things. Notice also that when he uses the term ‘Lord’, he is referring to Jesus. And lastly, notice that he declares these things “… by the word of the Lord…” which would seem to indicate that Jesus had mentioned them to his disciples. Paul is claiming that Jesus had actually talked about these things while he was here on Earth.
That being the case, it would be reasonable for us to search the Gospels to see if any of the writers recorded Jesus’ words on the subject. Will we find any? Yes we will.
In the fifth chapter of John, we find Jesus speaking to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
John 5:25-29 (NRSV) – “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
The phrase ‘…the Father has life in himself…’ doesn’t merely mean that God is alive; it means that God the Father has within him the capacity and power to bestow life. Jesus then indicates that God the Father has given Jesus that power also, along with the authority to decide who to give life to.
In this passage, Jesus doesn’t go into as much explanation as Paul did in his letters, but we do have some of the elements listed by Paul:
Jesus is the agency who will accomplish these things.
The dead saints will be called out of their graves.
The dead saints will be raised to life, not condemnation.
Later on, in Chapter Six, we find Jesus speaking to a crowd along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
John 6:39,40 (NRSV) – And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
In this passage we find that:
Jesus is the agency who will accomplish the feat.
He will raise up (from the dead) those who believe in him.
The raised believers will have eternal life.
In both of the instances cited above, we have some of the elements listed by Paul, but not all. Jesus talks about what he will do about believers who have died, but in neither case does he talk about those who are still alive. Fortunately for us, elsewhere he does.
In Chapter 11 of his Gospel, John records the death of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. When Jesus arrives in Bethany four days after Lazarus had died, Martha confronts him on his way into town.
John 11:21-26 (NRSV) – Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
The phrase ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ mirrors the comments Jesus made in Chapter 6. He is the agency through which the resurrection will be accomplished, and He has the capacity to bestow life. Actually, Jesus appears to be correcting Martha’s misguided understanding of the concept. She espouses a generalized belief in a resurrection, and Jesus, in effect says, “No, I am the one who will accomplish the resurrection.” He changes the concept from something, which will merely happen, to something, which He will personally carry out.
The first half of the next sentence is rather straightforward; the dead who had believed in Him will be brought back to life. This also agrees with chapter 6.
The second half of that sentence, however, deserves a bit of analysis and explanation, because Modern English does not always use verb tenses in the same way that Koine Greek did.
“…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
At first glance, to the Modern English speaker, this appears to say that all the people who ever became believers in Jesus would escape death. But that would contradict the first half of the sentence, which indicates that some will, indeed, die. It would also mean that people like Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Jonathan Edwards, and Dwight L. Moody would still be around, collecting Social Security, and perhaps still teaching at the seminary. But they’re dead. Believers have been dying for about twenty centuries now, so the sentence simply must mean something else. What might that be?
Consider the following:
If someone were to ask you how Old Man Smith was, you could reply, “He lives.” But, your listener would be left hanging by such a reply, expecting you to complete the thought by saying where Old Man Smith lives. He will be expecting a phrase like ‘on Elm Street’ or ‘in a nursing home.’ Even though the word ‘lives’ is the present tense, continuing action form of the verb ‘to live,’ we normally don’t use it that way. The word ‘lives’ is most commonly used to mean ‘resides.’ Thus, ‘Old Man Smith lives on Elm Street.’
If we merely wanted to express the thought that Old Man Smith had not yet died, instead of saying, “He lives,” we would more likely say instead, “He is still alive.”
Since ‘is still alive’ means exactly the same thing as the present tense, continuing action verb ‘lives,’ let’s make a substitution and compare the second half of the sentence again.
“…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
“…and everyone who is still alive and believes in me will never die”
The meaning comes through a bit more clearly, doesn’t it?
But now, the sentence begs the question, ‘Still alive, when?’ Well, it’s the second half of a sentence. Obviously it means still alive when whatever is contained in the first half of the sentence, happens. Still alive when those who had died, come back to life. Let’s reprint the whole sentence with the substitution and compare.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who is still alive and believes in me will never die.”
Suddenly, what was cryptic becomes understandable.
Jesus claims the capacity to grant life.
Jesus says that he will accomplish the resurrection.
Dead believers will be brought back to life.
Believers who are still alive will live forever.
Now, that has to be the rapture! Jesus may not have gone into as much detail as Paul did, but he said enough for us to recognize that they were talking about the same event. What Jesus said was a flat-out promise of the Rapture!
What happened in Bethany that day was an astounding sequence of events. Martha confronted Jesus and accused him of letting Lazarus die instead of healing him.
In response, Jesus did the following:
He claimed the power to grant life.
He promised to raise dead believers back to life.
He improved the promise to not just life, but eternal life.
And he included believers who would still be alive at the time.
Then he called a dead man back to life out of the grave to prove that he could do what he promised!
In his letters, Paul gave a testimony of words when he explained the Rapture. In Bethany, Jesus gave us a more powerful testimony of action.