I Want to be Left Behind: Matthew 24 and the Return of Jesus

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I Want to be Left Behind: Matthew 24 from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

The video game taking Christian America by storm, apparently is called‘Left Behind: Eternal Forces’. Controversially it encourages players to kill anyone who resists conversion to Christianity. As Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft battle it out for domination of the electronic game world, the games’ creator anticipates a ready market among those who have already bought 63 million copies of the ‘Left Behind’ novels.

The game is set in New York City, a rather unusual venue for Armageddon you might think since New York doesn’t actually get a mention in the Bible. It is, however, the location of the United Nations headquarters and that is the clue. Never popular in some Christian circles, in Left Behind: Eternal Forces, the bad guys are the Global Community Peacekeepers, who are on a search and destroy mission in Manhattan. Their target is the remnant of newly converted Bible-believers, left behind when Christians were secretly raptured to heaven. These new believers, left on earth, form a Christian army called the Tribulation Force. Under the heading ‘Turn or Burn?’ a review by Focus on the Family asks,

How do peace and prayer go hand in hand with tanks, attack choppers and street battles? … Yes, you’re offered sniper rifles, gun turrets, even tanks and helicopters. And there are points at which a gun battle is necessary to avoid a massacre. It’s easier to convert a group of enemies than it is to shoot them. Still, post-Rapture warfare is integral to the game…books and movies.

In an interview, Tim LaHaye, the author justified the use of violence by Christians as the “self preservation instinct of the much-persecuted saints during the Tribulation.”[1] What a relief. It’s all right then. Christians can kill as long as its “self preservation” killing… in the name of Jesus. A rather more sceptical review by a Jewish website observes that,

The goals of the game are simple: Spread the gospel, and stay alive. But staying alive may sometimes lead to the taking of life — “fighting hellfire with hellfire”.  And that raises a knotty moral conundrum for any game designer who worships Jesus, the Prince of Peace.[2]

Sadly, the idea of a secret rapture and an end time apocalyptic war, has little or no biblical basis, but has been used to justify Western military intervention in the Middle East.  Confident that Christians will escape and witness the events from the grandstands of heaven, exponents describe in graphic detail the suffering that will soon take place there.  Charles Ryrie, for example predicts this will be, ‘the time of Israel’s greatest bloodbath.’[3] John Walvoord similarly predicts a holocaust in which at least 750 million people will perish.[4] Tim LaHaye warns that it will certainly be far worse than even the Holocaust of Adolf Hitler.’[5] John Hagee takes a more robust approach.

At the July 19th, 2006 Washington DC inaugural event for Christians United for Israel, after hearing recorded greeting from George W. Bush, and in the presence of US Senators and Israeli ambassador to the US, Hagee stated :

The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.[6]

The highly speculative interpretation of biblical prophecy has a deeply pessimistic, indeed fatalistic view of the future. With its prewritten script, it is inherently suspicious of anything international, anything ecumenical, anything to do with a peace process, involving the European Community or the United Nations.

What is the idea behind the “Rapture”?

The Rapture is the novel idea that Jesus will actually return twice. First of all, secretly to rescue true believers out of the world before, or mid-way through a seven year period of intense suffering known as the Tribulation, then visibly with his saints to judge the world.  So advocates claim Jesus will return secretly for his saints, then visibly with his saints.

Although now a dominant view in America, largely as a result of Tim LaHaye’s immensely popular Left Behind[7] series, the idea of a two-stage Rapture has been traced to the eccentric views of J.N. Darby and Cyrus Scofield.[8]

To the traditional hope of the visible return of Jesus they added the notion of a secret return associated with a time of great suffering and persecution for those left behind on earth.  Proponents believe that in one cataclysmic moment, millions of believers around the world will suddenly be caught up in the air to be with Jesus. Life will continue on earth for those who have ignored or rejected Jesus for 7 years. Tim LaHaye speculates:

Thrilling end-time adventure looks at life on Earth following the Rapture. In one cataclysmic moment, millions around the globe disappear, vehicles careen out of control, loved ones vanish before your eyes, global chaos ensues…. You’ll pick it up – but not put it down![9]

Somehow I would not describe global destruction as ‘thrilling’.

What does the Bible say about the Rapture?

The Bible actually teaches the opposite of what our Rapture experts promote. In Matthew 13, in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Jesus says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 28 ” ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 29 ” ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Notice the order in the story. Jesus explains that the weeds will be removed first and destroyed, then the wheat gathered.  When the servants ask, “Do you want us to go and pull the weeds up?” the master replies ‘no’ wait till the harvest, then the  weeds will be removed first. A little later, Jesus speaks again of his return, he says,

“That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:39-42)

So which one is taken first and which one left behind? Would Jesus teach one thing in one story and the opposite in another?

If there was any confusion in the disciples mind, Jesus explains the application,

“The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one,39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:38-43)

Jesus says then, his return will be associated both with destruction and deliverance, with condemnation and vindication but the order is significant. There is nothing in the Bible that teaches the idea that Jesus will return secretly to rescue believers then return visibly to judge the world. It is a piece of 19th century romantic fiction.

The most conclusive repudiation of the notion of a secret rapture, however, comes from Jesus himself in Matthew 24.

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will 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 trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)

Jesus is using vivid imagery from the Old Testament to describe his return. The great trumpet refers to the silver trumpets used to call God’s people to worship (Num. 10:1-10) and the four winds (Jeremiah 49:36; Zechariah 2:6) symbolise the entire world. In this way Jesus will gather his elect “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). The sequence in this passage is equally clear.

The Sequence to the Return of Jesus in Matthew 24

1. There will be a sign of Jesus appear in the sky (24:30)
2. Jesus himself will appear visibly (24:30)
3. The whole world will see him and mourn (24:30)
4. The event will be accompanied by loud sounds (24:31)
5. Then Jesus will send his angels to gather his elect (24:31)

So believers will be caught up to be with Jesus when he returns visibly, not before. The whole world will be watching and mourning. What is certain from this passage is that the rapture will not occur before Jesus returns; and that nothing relating to the return of Jesus will be secret.

The hype surrounding the Left Behind phenomenon is a tragic example of what happens when people major on minors and dogmatise on obscure verses. We must base our beliefs on the central truths of God’s word. I do not believe God has written off this beautiful world. Nor am I desperate to leave it. We have a mission to fulfil (Philippians 1:21-25). I am happy to be ‘left behind’, at least until Jesus does return.[10]

What does the Bible say about the return of Jesus?

Here are some promises from the New Testament to hold on to.

1. It will be a personal return (John 14:2-3).
2. It will be a visible return (Acts 1:9-11).
3. It will be an unmistakable return (Matthew 24:23-27, 30).

Jesus warns us against being ‘taken in’ by news that he has returned secretly or invisibly. His description should leave us in no doubt. “Just as the lightening comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Matthew 24:27) Further more, in Revelation 1:7, the Apostle John promises, “He is coming with the clouds and every eye shall see Him.”

So his return will be personal, visible and unmistakable.

4. It will be a sudden return (Mark 13:32-36)
Paul also emphasizes how sudden this event will be “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”  (1 Corinthians 15:52).

5. It will be an unexpected return (2 Peter 3:4, 10)
Peter also explains that some people will deny that Jesus is coming again. When Jesus came to earth the first time, he was not expected by the majority of people. It will be the same at his second coming. Jesus warned his disciples, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.” (Matthew 24:44). As for the unbelieving world, “While they are saying ‘Peace and safety’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly.” (I Thessalonians 5:3).
6. It will be a glorious return (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
Jesus will return with the clouds (Revelation 1:7); with great power (Mark 13:36) and with his glorious angels (Matthew 16:27). In stark contrast to his first advent when he came as a vulnerable baby, Jesus will return in the full manifestation of His power. Based on the New Testament there are six things we can be sure about concerning the return of Jesus. It will be personal, visible, unmistakable, sudden, unexpected and glorious.

How should we live in the light of Christ’s return?
While there will always remain an element of mystery concerning the timing and precise details of our Lord’s coming, he has told us enough to satisfy our faith, keep us watchful and assure us that he will return to take us to be with him where he reigns in glory. In Matthew 24, having explained that the hour of his return is unknown, Jesus challenges his followers to do three things.

Be Watchful

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42). This means we must be vigilant, constantly aware that Jesus may return at any moment. We must constantly review our priorities, our choices and our actions in the light of Jesus’ imminent return.

Be Faithful

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant” (Matthew 24:45). Jesus never commands us to be fruitful. He does command faithfulness. Faithfulness leads to fruitfulness. Faithful to what we already know of God’s will for our lives. Faithful to the one who has called us, who saved us and who gifted us.

Be Serving
It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” (Matthew 24:46). We are told to be watchful, faithful and serving. Instead of speculating about the Lord’s return, we have work to do – serving him according to the talents and gifts he has entrusted to us. Why? Because above all, Jesus has entrusted his mission to us. Which is? To make disciples – fully devoted followers of Jesus – of all nations. While we have time, let us use every opportunity God gives us to tell others how much God loves them. Jesus promises, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17). Nearing the end of his life, the apostle Paul looked back over his life, first as an enemy of Christ, then as his servant and expressed his hope for the future. “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8). Are you looking forward to the return of Jesus? Do you long for his appearing?  Is there unfinished business in your life? Then finish it quickly. Be ready before it is too late.

Is there anything more important than Jesus in your life? Then it is too important. Revise your values before he has to, to your shame. If you knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow would you change your priorities today? Then change them.
Live today as if it were your last. Live as if it were yesterday that Christ died, as if He rose from the dead today, and as if He is coming back tomorrow. Then you will not be ashamed at His appearing and you will not lose your reward.

Summary Points

1.  The Left Behind phenomenon has created a destructive culture of pessimism and fatalism in Western Christianity.

2.  This polarised and apocalyptic world view appears to be shaping US foreign policy in the Middle East and destabilising the peace process.

3.  The idea of a secret two-stage Rapture is a recent innovation without biblical foundation.

4.  The Signs of the return of Christ are intended to keep us watchful not tell us the time.

5.  Armageddon is not necessarily a reference to an apocalyptic nuclear holocaust but the cosmic battle between good and evil.

6.  Jesus Christ will return personally, visibly, unmistakably, suddenly, unexpectedly and gloriously.

7.  In the light of his imminent return we should be watchful and faithful servants doing his will.

Passages to Review

Matthew 24:23-31; Mark 13:32-36; Luke 21:25-28; John 14:1-6; Acts 1:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; 2 Peter 3:4-10; Revelation 3:11; 7:9-16; 14:17-20; 16:13-20; 20:1-6.

Questions for further study

1.  Why has the Left Behind craze gained such popularity?

2.  How would you refute the idea of a secret Rapture from Scripture?

3.  What are the ‘Signs of the Times’?

4.  How should we interpret them?

5.  How should we live in the light of the Lord’s return?