What would Jesus and Paul say about the current End Times mania? What would they think of all the people correlating Bible prophecies and current events, or writing about pre-tribulation rapture?
Jesus and Paul would not have recognized this whole approach to biblical prophecy. They would have been very surprised to hear that they were, in fact, talking about events at the end of the 20th century or the beginning of the 21st century.
It's true that both Jesus and Paul believed they were living in the times when the Kingdom of God was breaking into human history. Both of them operated within an eschatological worldview, and almost everything they say has an eschatological undercurrent or overtone. The discussions about current fulfillment of numerous prophecies, the inbreaking Kingdom of God, about the future destruction of the Temple, about the future of Israel, about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about the future resurrection of believers, about the building up of the eschatological community of God which will involve Jews and Gentiles-all of these themes arise in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul precisely because they both believe they are already living in the End Times.
But this does not mean Jesus and Paul believed that the eschatological age would conclude shortly. Indeed, there were many things that needed to happen before that could transpire.
For them, the end of the eschatological age meant the ushering in of the new heaven and the new earth, not the end of the space-time continuum. No New Testament writer thought that God intended to bring the world or the space-time continuum to a dead halt, to be replaced by life in a disembodied condition in heaven. Heaven, even in the Book of Revelation, is viewed as an interim destination, not a final destination. It is just a way station along the way to the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth that will arrive after the return of Christ and his full establishment of the Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
We can be quite confident that the church did not make this saying up, which predicated ignorance on the part of Jesus about the timing of his own return. In other words, this saying must surely go back to the historical Jesus. Jesus clearly says that he doesn't know when the Second Coming will happen.
Consider a motif found in teachings of both Jesus and Paul-the "thief in the night" motif. In Mt. 24.43/Lk. 12.39, Jesus warns that one must always be vigilant in preparing for the coming of the Son of Man, because he will break into human history like a "thief in the night"--at an unknown and unexpected hour. There is certainty that He is coming, but the timing of the coming is unknown. Paul picks up this idea and carries it further in 1 Thess. 5.2, as do other New Testament authors (cf. Rev. 3.3; 16.15; 2 Pet. 3.10). In every case the metaphor is taken to refer to the coming Day of the Lord at an unexpected hour.
It's the certainty of the return, coupled with the indeterminacy of the timing (it could be sooner, it could be later) that generates the need to be constantly prepared and vigilant. The earliest followers of Jesus could not say and did not believe that Jesus would definitely return within their lifetimes, but they also could not rule out that possibility either. Likewise, Christians today cannot pinpoint the day and the hour-and shouldn't try to.
Neither Jesus nor Paul would have been pleased with the current "Left Behind" craze. Let's look at the notion of the pre-tribulation rapture. Don't both Jesus and Paul, and even John of Patmos (the author of Revelation), speak of this concept? The answer is no. Indeed, no Christian interpreters seem to have come up with such an idea before the 19th century. Here is a good rule of thumb-if no Christian commentator understood the NT to refer to a pre-tribulation rapture during the first 1800 years of church history, there must be a good reason why not.
This discussion precedes the famous passage in Mt. 24.40-41, which also has as its immediate contextual setting a discussion about a previous judgment on the earth, the flood, in which some were "taken away," indeed all were swept away except those who entered the ark. Notice the language of Mt. 24.39-"the flood came and took them all away." The language of being taken away refers to those who were judged, not those who were rescued. The same applies to the saying that follows: "Two will be in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding with a handmill, one will be taken and the other left." It is perfectly clear from the context that "being taken" means being taken away by or for judgment. It says nothing about being raptured into heaven. Indeed, it is those left behind who are the fortunate ones, because they were not taken away to face the judgment!
But what about the famous text in 1 Thess. 4.16? "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with a voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." In fact, this also has nothing to do with a rapture into heaven, it is rather about the rising of the dead in Christ from out of their graves, and the transformation of the living believers who will all go out to meet Christ in the air (not in heaven). The reference to clouds clearly rules out heaven as the location of this event, for heaven is never called "the air" in the New Testament.
The language of coming on the clouds refers to a person heading for earth-in this case Jesus-not someone going to heaven (see Mk. 14.62). To understand this passage, we need to know the protocol for greeting a royal dignitary when he comes to visit. The ruler and his entourage would be preceded by a herald, who would blow a trumpet as the king approached the city and announce his coming, and alert those expecting him to open up the city gates and come out and greet him (see Ps. 24.7-10 for such an entrance liturgy). Once they went forth to greet him, the king, his entourage, and the welcoming party would all enter the city. Paul uses this very imagery here to depict what will happen when Christ returns.
Though he does not mention the sequel to meeting Christ in the air here, Paul does in 1 Cor 15.23-28, where he makes plain that Christ will return all the way to earth, and will reign upon the earth with the risen believers until all his enemies are dealt with and the Kingdom comes fully on earth. Once again, knowing the context makes it clear that we are not talking about a rapture into heaven.
The same can be said about texts in Revelation, for example in Rev. 4.1-2. Here, a visionary prophet is taken up in the vision and in the Spirit so that he may see what is going on in heaven, but all the while his feet are still firmly planted on terra firma-in this case on the island of Patmos.
The earliest Christians believed that many of these Scriptures were already being fulfilled in their own day. They certainly were not expecting a 2,000 year hiatus before the rest of the prophecies were fulfilled. But they had to be open-minded because Jesus had not told them when the Second Coming would be. They could not say "we know for sure Jesus is coming in our lifetimes" without violating the teaching of Jesus, which is deliberately vague about the timing of the event.
God reveals enough of the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to exercise faith. Think about it for a minute. If God clearly revealed a multitude of specific crucial events in advance, including the timing of those events, then we would not have to walk by faith in the interim.
If we knew, for example, that Jesus would definitely come back in a month or two, some people would live it up, empty their bank accounts, and plan on a last- minute repentance on the day before Jesus came! There is a deliberate indeterminacy to biblical prophecy, an intentionally metaphorical and symbolic character, precisely to preclude the very sort of forecasting we see in the "Left Behind" series.
The true spirit of biblical prophecy is violated by overly curious piety that wants God to be more specific, clearer, more particular than God has chosen to be about such matters. God wants these prophecies to strengthen faith and perseverance, not preclude them!
Both Jesus and Paul had a lot to say about the future, and both believed they already lived in the eschatological age. But neither knew or revealed the timing of the End of the Eschatological Age. Indeed, a careful and prayerful study of what the NT actually says about such matters should lead to the end of such idle and fruitless speculation. Far better for the Master to find us all working hard at the tasks we have been bequeathed, all doing what we have been gifted and graced and called to do, so that when he does return at a surprising hour and moment we will hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant, inherit the Kingdom of God."