NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 27b-28: “It will be like lightning flashing in the sky that can be seen everywhere. It’s like looking for a dead body. You will find it where the vultures are circling above.”
Jesus does not say there will be lightning, but that the appearance of the Son of Man will be like a lightning bolt suddenly flashing across the sky. In other words, it will catch people unaware that a storm is brewing. The use of lightning and vultures are symbolic and not to be taken literally. Our Lord was just trying to illustrate how when the Son of Man does return, it will be quick, but it will also be at a time when everyone is looking for Him because they see some signs that point to His being near. Then, a new period will be ushered in.
Early church bishop Theodore of Heraclea had his own version of how this lightning illustrates our Lord’s sudden appearance. He writes: “For it is much the same with lightning. Lightning is figuratively compared with truth. It is likened to the coming of the Son of man, which is explained in every Scripture, whether it concerns the law, prophecy, the gospel or apostolic testimony. It flashes out from the east, the region of principalities and spiritual powers, and shines all the way to the west, the realm of darkness and Satan, in the time of the Passion. Note that if the law is rising in the east, the end of the law is setting in the west. But from Jesus Christ to Paul is a rising and setting. He was revealed to Paul last of all as ‘to one abnormally born.‘1”2
This is another way of saying that some may not see the actual event, but all the signs will point to it as having taken place. You don’t have to see firecrackers to know they are going off. It’s not necessary to see the fire but the smoke in the air will tell you there is one. There’s no reason to see the fire in the furnace because the heat coming out of the vent tells you it’s roaring. I was taught as a child that when you see a flash of lightning you count off the seconds until you hear the thunder and you’ll know how far away the storm center is. So, Jesus says, while everyone may not be able to time the arrival of this sudden event, there will be ample evidence for believers to know it is about to take place.
Apollinaris, an early church bishop, makes this point: “Jesus spoke in a kind of comparison, as in the form of an illustration and example. For, He says, the appearing of the Son of man will be much the same as when vultures and other flesh-eating birds spot a carcass and dead body lying on the ground. They secretly and unnoticed carry them to the heights and by doing so will provide food for themselves. In the same way, He will appear again on the earth a second and glorious time to judge the world. Ranks of angels will be seen serving as an escort with all the saints rising up ‘in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye,’3 according to the last trumpet.… But some attempted to explain this text as teaching that at the second coming of the Lord all who conducted themselves uprightly, corresponding with eagles in their lofty and spiritual outlook, will leave paradise behind and be gathered to that place where the fall of Adam occurred. This is the place where Adam violated the commandment and through his disobedience fell into sin.”4
Here the Bishop of Laodicea touches on a belief already apparent in his day during the middle of the 4th century, that this return of Jesus is taken by some as a form of rapture, while others see it as the day of judgment. The word “rapture” does not appear anywhere in the English Bible. It is thought that in a work written in 500 AD by a writer called “Pseudo-Dionysius,” such a word appears in Greek that could be translated that way.
The idea of a rapture comes from the words of the apostle Paul in his letter on the return of Christ and the resurrection of those who died in the faith to the church in Thessalonica where he says: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”5 The Greek word translated as “caught up” is harpazó: meaning to seize, catch up, snatch away.
It was not until 1830 that the word “rapture” appeared in English writings concerning this event Paul talks about. This has led some to question why, if the doctrine was so clearly stated in Scripture, did no one refer to it before the 19th century. One answer is that from early church days up through the Reformation, the return of Christ was considered an event over which no one but God had control; and with prophecy being such a hit and miss prognostication, that the leaders of these movement felt it was best to concentrate on salvation by faith rather than working to get everyone ready when He returns.
We find that in the middle 1820’s a religious environment began among a few Christians in London, England which proved to be the catalyst from which the doctrine of the Rapture emerged. Expectations of the soon coming of our Lord were being voiced. This was no new thing, but what was unusual was the teaching by a Presbyterian minister named Edward Irving that there had to be a restoration of the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14 just before Christ’s Second Advent. To Irving, the time had come for those spiritual manifestations to occur. Among the expected gifts was the renewal of speaking in tongues and of prophetic utterances motivated by the spirit.6
We also learn that it was more than just one individual through whom this revelation came that initiated the movement that carried the concept of the rapture forward. We also read:
On one particular evening, the power of the Holy Spirit was said to have rested on a Miss Margaret Macdonald while she was ill at home. She was dangerously sick and thought she was dying. In spite of this (or perhaps because she is supposed to have come under the “power” of the spirit) for several successive hours, she experienced manifestations of “mingled prophecy and vision.” She found her mind in an altered state and began to experience considerable visionary activity.
The message she received during this prophetic vision convinced her that Christ was going to appear in two stages at His Second Advent, and not a single occasion as most all people formerly believed. The spirit emanation revealed that Christ would first come in glory to those who look for Him, and again later in a final stage when every eye would see Him. This visionary experience of Miss Macdonald represented the prime source of the modern Rapture doctrine as the historical evidence compiled by Mr. MacPherson reveals.
Many people have thought that John Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, was the originator of the Rapture doctrine. This is not the case. Darby was a brilliant theologian with outstanding scholarly abilities. Even those who disagreed with his teachings admit that he, and many associated with him, helped cause a revival in biblical learning throughout the evangelical world which has perpetuated down to the present day. All who love biblical research ought to be thankful for what Darby and especially his associates accomplished for biblical scholarship. These early men helped pave the way particularly for the renewal of modern lexical studies in the biblical languages.
This renewal of language studies was not the only thing they produced. The doctrine of “dispensationalism” was also a teaching they brought to the attention of the Protestant world. And then, there was this new doctrine termed the “Rapture.” While many Christians long thought the Rapture doctrine originated with John Darby, it is now known that this was not true. Darby did popularize it. C. I. Scofield and others took it over. But Darby provided the intellectual mantle that helped make it respectable. Many of those in the evangelical sphere of Christianity today are so certain of its veracity that it is accepted as the absolute truth of God. The fact is, however, John Darby received the knowledge of the doctrine from someone else. His source was Margaret Macdonald.
The studies of Mr. MacPherson show that her sickness during which she received her visions and revelations occurred sometime between February 1 and April 14, 1830. By late spring and early summer of 1830, her belief in the two phases of Christ’s coming was mentioned in praise and prayer meetings in several towns of western Scotland. In these meetings some people were speaking in “tongues” and other charismatic occurrences were in evidence. Modern “Pentecostalism” had its birth.
These extraordinary and strange events so attracted John Darby that he made a trip to the area to witness what was going on. Though he did not approve of the ecstatic episodes that he witnessed, it is nonetheless significant that Darby, after returning from Scotland, began to teach that Christ’s Advent would occur in two phases. MacPherson shows good evidence that Darby even visited Miss Macdonald in her home. There can hardly be any doubt that the visions and spiritual experiences of Miss Macdonald are the sources of the modern doctrine. But belief in such paranormal experiences is dangerous, especially when they are contrary to scriptural teachings.7
So, just like the word “trinity” does not appear in the English Bible, so the word “rapture” was coined to explain the belief of the sudden appearing of Christ in the sky to resurrect His followers who have died over the centuries and to transform those still living so they could all meet Him in the air and be taken to His Father’s estate where many finished mansions are awaiting them. At this point, it is quite normal for any believer to ask why our Lord did not make this plain and simple while He was here. The truth is, had He designated a specific time, sinners would not have heeded the call to salvation until that time drew near. Jesus wanted His return to remain in the sphere of spiritual faith, not reduced to the level of human logic.
1 I Corinthians 15:8
2 Theodore of Heraclea: Commentary fragment 124-25
3 1 Corinthians 15:52
4 Apollinaris: Commentary fragment 126
5 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
6 Associates For Scriptural Knowledge: Essentials of N. T. Doctrine, The Rapture Theory – Its Surprising Origin, Ch. 17