Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When is the End Not “THE” End: Biblical Eschatology (5)


          Several responses to earlier posts in this series have asked about the concept of the “day of the Lord,” in particualr, the claim that this phrase does not always refer to “the” End of history and final judgment but rather to events within history.  Therefore, in this post I reproduce a section of an article “A Basic Introduction To The Day Of The Lord In The Old Testament Writing Prophets,” by J. Ed Komoszewski, Th.M. on “The Timing of the Day of the Lord” at http://bible.org/article/basic-introduction-day-lord-old-testament-writing-prophets.  In short, he identifies texts where the “day of Lord” is a past event and those where it is a future event.  He then shows how do kinds of passages can be close together in the same book and how they relate to each other when this happens.  After this section of the article, I’ll deal with the announced topic of this post, the so-called “rapture.”  I apologize for the additional length of this post.

The Timing of the Day of the Lord

By virtue of its diversity the Day of the Lord is not properly viewed as a one-time event, and technical force should be assigned to the phrase with caution.[1] Nevertheless, even when one recognizes multiple referents for the phrase, distinguishing a given referent’s precise timing remains difficult.
Past references to the Day of the Lord emphasized God’s sovereign judgment over the nations. Assyria was raised up to judge the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE (Amos 5:18, 20), Babylon was raised up to judge the southern kingdom of Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE (Lam 1:12; 2:1, 21-22; Ezek 7:19; 13:5; Zech 1:7-13; 2:2-3), Babylon was raised up once more to judge Egypt in the sixth century BCE (Jer 46:10; Ezek 30:3), and Medo-Persia was raised up to judge Babylon shortly thereafter (Isa 13:6, 9). Determining the fulfillment of past references to the Day of the Lord is a relatively easy task.
Future references to the Day of the Lord are not difficult to locate. However, determining whether those referents point toward an imminent or eschatological event from the vantage point of the writer is another matter. Some descriptions are clearly eschatological. Isaiah (2:10-22; 34:1-8), Obadiah (15), Joel (3:1-16), and Zechariah (14:1-3, 12-15) all describe judgments, which will affect the entirety of nations simultaneously. Since no such collective judgment has occurred up to the present, these references to the Day of the Lord must be yet future. On the other hand, the Day of the Lord is described with the imminent terms “near” (Isa 13:6; Ezek 30:3; Joel 1:15; 3:14; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7) and “coming” (Isaiah 13:9; Joel 2:1; Zeph 1:14). It would seem somewhat problematic that five different prophets spanning four different centuries would continue to refer to the Day of the Lord in such terms, especially in light of the fact that latter prophets were most certainly aware of earlier ones. In other words, how near can “near” be if the day had not arrived in over four hundred years from the time of its first mention? This very question has led some scholars to suggest that the prophets viewed the Day of the Lord with “bifocal vision,” allowing them to see both historical and eschatological fulfillments at once.[2]
Interestingly, both imminent and eschatological aspects of the Day of the Lord are found in close proximity in the Book of Joel. The phrase “Day of the Lord” was used to describe the plague of locusts that destroyed crops and resulted in famine (Joel 1:15-20), as well as the imminent invasion of powerful armies (Joel 2:1-11).[3] However, if one reads the celestial changes in Joel 3:14-16 literally,[4] then Joel also refers to the Day of the Lord as an eschatological event. If read in this manner, chapter three functions as a climax to Joel’s prophecy, telescoping from the immediate (and escalating) events of chapters one and two to the far, eschatological event of chapter three. Some may question the validity of telescoping from a near to a far event without regard for events in between, but prophetic telescoping may legitimately be credited to ignorance on the part of the writer. God only provided that information which was necessary for the writer to know—nothing more and nothing less. 
Regardless of the reasons for prophetic telescoping, contextual evidence strongly suggests that it is a common feature of Old Testament prophecy. With respect to the Day of the Lord, its continual unfolding in biblical history combined with its clear future element sets up the former as a precursor to the latter in an “already/not yet” fashion. Past events worthy of the designation “Day of the Lord” provided a taste of things to come, and provide continued opportunity for repentance before arrival of the day. (Footnotes at the bottom of the page are for this article.)

The Rapture

          Clearly, the “sexiest” aspect of much popular thought about the biblical view of the future is the “rapture.”  This is the idea that at some point (debated by those who hold this view) the Lord will return in the sky and call all who belong to him from the earth to return to heaven with him before the onset of God’s final judgment and the Millennium.  Prof. Robin Scroggs once described this view to his students this way.  You are sitting looking out the window and suddenly you see people start to rise in the air, leaving their cars, jobs, and even lost family behind, and you say to yourself, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

          This idea is only about a century old and rests on one biblical text:  1 Thessalonians 4:15-17:
15 What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died. 16 This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. 17 Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.
But does this passage support the “rapture”?  I think not.  Paul speaks of the Lord’s “coming” which suggests it is his return that he has in view.  The imagery Paul uses to describe this coming, in its first century context, makes it clear that this, and not some “rapture,” is in view.  Here’s the background:  When a ruler arrives at the outskirts of a city or town, his presence, or coming, is announced to that place by trumpet and messenger.  The “leading men” of that area, upon hearing of the ruler’s coming, were to drop whatever they were doing and make their way to where the Lord was to form a procession of honor to lead him into the city or town.  Upon entering the city the ruler would go to the Temple as a sign of claiming his ownership and receiving his rule over that place from the gods. 
If this sounds a bit like Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” entry into Jerusalem, it should.  For it is this pattern he follows.  Only the “leading men” of Jerusalem do not come out to lead him in in honor. Rather it is the peasants who play that role.  And when Jesus views the temple and leaves it, this signals the failure of the temple and Jesus’ departure means it judgment and destruction.
Back to Paul and the rapture, though.  Using spatial imagery of down and up, he portrays Christ’s return according this pattern.  Christ comes, halts in order to allow his arrival to be announced by celestial trumpet.  Believers dead at that time are raised first, followed by the living believers to meet Christ in the air in order to form his procession of honor to the earth in order that he may exercise the judgment and claim the lordship due him at his return.  There is no mention of a return to heaven.  And the final line about us being with the Lord forever is the fulfillment of the great biblical hope that God and his people will dwell together forever on God’s new creation (see the first post in this series).
So I conclude that here in 1 Thessalonians Paul expresses the traditional Jewish hope for the final “Day of the Lord” on which God will come to dwell with his people according to the accepted pattern of a ruler’s “coming” in the first century.
          There is no rapture here or elsewhere in the scripture.  As “glitzy” as it may seem to be, it is a modern innovative misreading of one passage in Thessalonians that forms a piece of a larger overall misreading of biblical prophecy.
          I will offer some reflections in the next post on what it means for us that Paul and the early church seem to have expected Christ’s return within their own lifetime.  How do we handle the evident reality that this did not happen?


[1] G. M. Burge, “Day of Christ, God, the Lord,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 147.
[2] E.g., G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 259.
[3] There is some question as to whether the reference to an army in 2:11 is to be understood as a powerful military brigade or a figurative reference to the locusts of 1:15-20. Joel 2:25 makes reference once again to locusts, so some have argued that a literal swarm of locusts have been in view all along. Though the view which reads a literal swarm of locusts through all of chapters one and two finds support in curses leveled for abandoning the Mosaic covenant (cf. Deut 28:38-39), it is also true that multiple punishment is one of the curse types (cf. Lev 26:18, 21, 24, 28). In other words, it may be possible that the outbreak of locusts was the harbinger of an even greater catastrophe (i.e., military invasion) to come. Indeed, the Assyrian armies under Sennacherib in 701 BCE or the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar in the 590’s and 580’s would have carried the destructive potential depicted by Joel. Regardless of the manner in which one interprets the reference to an army in 2:11, this unmistakable sign of God’s judgment was clearly a past event worthy of the designation “Day of the Lord.”
[4] In addition, Joel’s use of imagery seems to anticipate several New Testament texts (Matt 13:41-43, 49-50; 24:37-41; 25:31-46; 2 Thess 1:9; Rev 14:17-20). Clearer allusions are found in the collocations “that day” (Matt 7:22; 1 Thess 5:4), “day of God” (2 Pet 3:12), “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5-6), and “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10). In both anticipation and allusion, the same day produces a certain terror for the unbeliever and a joy for those who know the Lord behind the day.

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