Saturday, April 25, 2020

Rapture Fever

It appears that we are living in a day of Christian paranoia. All too many believers greet each new day with suspicious eyes. Every circumstance of more than passing interest—be it a change of government or a change of the weather—has become for them ominous evidence of doomsday’s early arrival.

Warning us with zealous certainty that the current world crisis is pregnant with eschatological importance, they cite the pandemic, the conflict in the Middle East, problems with Russia and China and Iran as woefully specific signs that we are now living in the “last days.” 

Wars and rumors of wars, famines, plagues, earthquakes, and pestilences—which all seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity—apparently compel them to assert that we have at last arrived at the end times. Surely, they say, the long-awaited dread day of “the Rapture” is nigh upon us. And thus, a kind of resigned pessimism about redemptive activity in the world coupled with a kind of contrived optimism about redemptive escape from the world has become their hallmark.

But in the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24–25) Jesus attempted to redirect such speculative fears. He showed that eschatological pessimism is actually not consistent with genuine faith or kingdom living.

Following His prediction that the temple in Jerusalem would soon be destroyed, His nervous disciples began to ask Him a series of questions:
When will this happen and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3).
Jesus responded by telling them that they had nothing to fear (24:6). They were instead to be on guard against those who would unduly alarm and deceive them (24:4). In spite of a spate of wars, rumors of wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, tribulations, and persecutions, they were to be assured that the end was not yet in sight (24:6–12). In fact, He told them, these signs were just the beginnings of mankind’s long and tortured struggle through history—the very birthpangs (Matthew 24:8).

Instead of focusing on these subjective and often misleading “signs of the times,” Jesus directed their attention to the great task of preaching the Gospel to all nations (24:14).

Although His discourse is indeed filled with specific portending prophesies—as the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. ultimately demonstrated—the primary thrust of Christ’s message was that eschatology is essentially ethical and only secondarily predictive. It is revealed by the good providence of God to provoke His people to uphold their responsibilities—to faithfully carry out the Great Commission, to diligently build up the church, to pray without ceasing, to engage in spiritual warfare, to serve the hurting and meet the needs of the helpless, to walk in holiness, and to live with one another in faith, hope, and love. In short, eschatology is a prod in the hands of God to incite the church to do right when all the rest of the world does wrong.

Like many of us, the disciples had a hard time understanding that—so, Jesus repeated the lesson. It appears that after His ascension into the clouds, they remained awestruck and dumbstruck—staring up at the empty sky. Thus two angelic messengers were dispatched to rebuke them with the now familiar Olivet theme: Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? (Acts 1:11 NKJV).

Jesus had given them a job to do. But there they were, paralyzed with wonder. Jesus had called them to evangelize the world. But they were loitering in recalcitrance. Jesus had promised them power and unction. But they were frozen in the grips of pessimism. Jesus had commanded them to “occupy” the earth until He returned. But they were occupied only with their own remorseful resignation.

Today many Christians are still “looking steadfastly into the clouds” (Acts 1:9). Instead of fulfilling their mandate to win the world with justice, mercy, and humility, they are consumed with rapture fever.

Once again Christ’s Olivet message rings loud and clear:

No need to fret. No need to fear. No need to get caught up in feverish speculation. And no need to resign ourselves to a dismal future of progressive decline. Rather, a genuine understanding of biblical prophecy is but an encouragement to plunge ahead with confidence—to do what God has called us to do—and to be what God has called us to be.