Last week I preached on Titus 2:11-15, which, as I wrote yesterday, is such an incredible passage you could preach it 8 different ways and still not exhaust its richness and depth. I wanted to spend some more time with some themes I touched on briefly, and perhaps put them a better, more understandable way.

According to the text, we live between two appearances: the past appearance of the grace of God, and the future appearance of the glory of God. Meaning, God has broken into our world in a significant way through the Incarnation of Christ, and his subsequent death and resurrection. This is the appearance of the grace of God. But God will also break into our world, again, in an equally significant, if not more magnificent, way when Jesus returns to judge the world and take his place as its rightful king. This is the appearance of the glory of God.

We live between these appearances, but that doesn’t mean that we’re just sitting around reminiscing about the past and waiting for the future. The middle isn’t empty–it’s full! Now is the only time and here is the only place we’ve been given to work out the past (the appearance of the grace of God) in the hope of the future (the appearance of the glory of God). It’s in the middle that we are transformed by the power of the Gospel, of Christ working in us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

So what do we do? We prepare for the return of the king by ruling and reigning in his name and according to his purposes. This means that we take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, not merely to bring salvation to all people, but also to extend the rule and reign of Jesus the King to every heart and home on earth. We’re not simply in the heaven-assurance business, we’re also heralds of a new kingdom–a kingdom that is crashing against the kingdoms of the world. We are the ambassadors of this kingdom, endowed with authority by the king, and commissioned with a message of good news for all mankind.

As ambassadors of the king, then, we must see to it that his rule and reign is extended to every corner of our own hearts and minds, and that it is evident in every aspect of our lives. Not only are we heralds and ambassadors, we are also citizens of this new kingdom, and our lives must reflect this new citizenship. So, in all things, we surrender to the King who surrendered the benefits of divinity to become like us in every way, dying for our sins, and rising again in power.

He is coming again, so don’t just wait around. The time between appearances is full of opportunity and challenge and adventure. I challenge you to orient your mind and heart between these appearances, and live accordingly, in the power of the Holy Spirit who is within you through faith in Christ.

This past week at church I talked about one of the ways that we tend to change the Gospel: We limit the Gospel by thinking it applies to everyone but us. “Sure,” we think, “Jesus died for everybody’s sins. Everybody but me. I still have to work my way back to God. God will only accept me today if I manage to commit little to no sin.”

Do you do this? I do it. Many of the great saints of the past did this. It’s easier to believe in God’s love and grace for others than for yourself. Maybe we think that’s humble, or noble. It’s not. It’s stupid.

You cannot earn the Gospel. The Gospel is a record of historical facts:

Christ Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.
He was buried.
He rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures.
He appeared to many.

You can no more earn the Gospel than you can earn the American Revolution. It already happened! All that you can do with the Gospel is receive it or reject it. You either receive it as it is or you reject it. Any twisting, limiting, changing, or adding to the Gospel is a rejection of the Gospel. It is disbelief.

The facts of what God has done in the past (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) indicate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God loves you right now. (Unless you go to Mark Driscoll’s church, in which case God hates you…at least according to Mark Driscoll.) So quit trying to be noble and self-sufficient, and quit feeling sorry for yourself. The Gospel has happened! Receive it, and let it be the defining story of your life.

I’ve written extensively about my disbelief in the rapture, so I don’t want to belabor the point too much. The only reason I’m writing about it again is because I mentioned my disbelief at church this past Sunday, and I know that alarmed some folks.

Here are two of the principles that guide me as I study and teach the Scriptures:

The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.
If we don’t understand the Scriptures in their historical context, we’ll never understand them at all.

God wrote the Scriptures when he did, through whom he did, for his own purposes and according to his sovereign choice. In other words, if Paul, John, Matthew and Jesus didn’t believe in a rapture, then there is no rapture. And if they did, then there will be. We don’t get to come along and change the meaning of any biblical text for any reason thousands of years after the fact. My contention is that there is no rapture in Scripture. So let’s look, briefly, at the relevant passages.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

This really seems to be the perfect description of the rapture, but as I’ve written here, a little bit of historical context will help us to understand what Paul is writing about here. In order for this to be the rapture as we popularly understand it, the second coming of Christ must pause halfway between heaven and earth, somewhere in the sky. Then, all believers will fly up to meet him and stay with him there, in the sky, for either 3 1/2 or 7 years. But Paul calls it “the coming of the Lord”, so we know that he won’t turn around and go back into heaven. He is coming here. There must be a better explanation.

Thessalonica was a Roman colony at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Christians there. Whenever a high-ranking Roman official, or even the emperor himself, visited a colony or a city, the inhabitants of that city would go out to meet him and escort him back into the town. In other words, they didn’t wait until the emperor got to the city walls to throw open the gates. They’re not going to make him ring the doorbell. How much more will we do the same for Jesus, when he returns from heaven? Surely we will go up to meet him (which means we’ll be able to fly! Awesome!) and escort him back to earth, where he will take his place as the rightful king of creation. This, not a rapture or a half-return, is what Paul has in mind in this passage.

Matthew 24:36-41

Okay, this one is obvious, right? Well, as I’ve explained here, no. In this passage, the controlling metaphor is the great flood, where all who suffered the judgment of God were “taken away”. As it was in the flood, so will it be at the return of Christ. In fact, it may not even be a literal “taking away”; Jesus may just be using the language of the flood to talk about the punishment of the judgment of God. Regardless, being taken away is not being rescued from tribulation, but being fully judged by God apart from the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

John 14:2-3

I never thought of this passage in John as a rapture passage, but a friend of mine did, so I commented on it here. It’s a bit too complicated to break down briefly, but I highly recommend you read that post to get a sense for what is going on in this passage.

I believe that I’ve demonstrated that there is no rapture in the Bible. This was an unfamiliar concept to every NT author. In fact, each one of them was intimately familiar to suffering within the various tribulations of their lives. You might even say that suffering, not escape from it, was one of God’s most assured promises.

So much of what drives our belief in the rapture is fear. We are terrified of the Great Tribulation, and we want desperately to escape it. So when someone offers us a rapture out of suffering, we greatly rejoice. But we are not promised escape from troubles. Jesus didn’t get it. Paul didn’t get it. Millions of Christians today aren’t getting it. The power of Christ is most clearly seen in us when we persevere through the suffering caused by trials and tribulations.

Now let me say a word about the book of Revelation.

The book of Revelation is not simply about the future; it is about the past, the present, and the future. Let me put it this way: There have been thousands of antichrists and Great Tribulations, there are presently thousands of antichrists and Great Tribulations, and there will be thousands of antichrists and Great Tribulations. The book of Revelation is about the Great Tribulation that Rome inflicted on the Church, but it is also about every tribulation and persecution that has been waged against the Church because it presents Christ Jesus as Cosmic Victor and us, his Church and Bride, as victorious in him. The book of Revelation was written to encourage all persecuted believers, in every place and in every time, to persevere under the weight of their persecution because, in Christ, we are eternally victorious over the forces of Satan and his antichrists.

You’re not meant to be taken out of the arena; you’re meant to win the fight, kill the beasts, and overcome your opponents because that is what Christ has already done, and what he will do fully when he returns. A rapture would undermine everything. A rapture would surrender the earth to Satan. God has no intention of giving any ground to hell.

I hope that what I’ve presented here both reassures and encourages you. Whether you’re convinced or not doesn’t matter much to me. This is my view. Ember Church takes no official stance on this issue. People of all eschatological persuasions are welcome! But whether you believe in the rapture or not, I want you to hear this: Do not fear the end. The end is glorious. The end is victory for all who are in Christ. The end is bliss. Make sure you get there. Don’t try to escape your trials, but persevere through them.

I’ve been working my way through Scot McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel, here on the blog for the past couple of days. I want to recap what I’ve learned in the first four chapters.

[list]
  • We evangelicals have mistaken the Plan of Salvation for the Gospel.
  • We have traded in a gospel culture for a salvation culture.
  • Our evangelism focuses exclusively on bringing people to a point of decision.
  • As a result, we do a poor job of making genuine disciples of Jesus.
  • The biblical gospel is the Story of Jesus, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
[/list]

What is most impressive about this book is how clearly and concisely Scot paint the American evangelical landscape. His putting his finger on some things that have been brooding beneath the surface for a long time. So how did we get here?

Chapter 5: How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel?

The early creeds were the Church’s attempt to work out the Story of Jesus, the Gospel. They served to create a gospel culture that survived, though didn’t always thrive, until the Reformation. “The singular contribution of the Reformation…was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility. …The Reformation said, in effect, that the ‘gospel’ must lead to personal salvation.” (71)

The Reformation did not create this salvation culture immediately, but it set into action processes by which the old gospel culture was discarded, and the new salvation culture was embraced. “The Story of…Jesus became the System of Salvation.” (72) Now we have a Christian culture that is obsessed with salvation, which is merely one of the many benefits of the gospel. The fact that we can go to heaven when we die is good news, but it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, it comes to those who believe the gospel, and in that belief, order their lives by it.

My next post on the book will cover the final two chapters, with a particular emphasis on how we create a gospel culture today. I’m skipping the intervening chapters, not because they aren’t any good, but because I feel as though I ought to leave something for you to discover when you read the book.

Yesterday I began writing about Scot McKnight’s excellent new book, The King Jesus Gospel. I covered the prologue and first 3 chapters, and I’ve written his basic thesis this way: The Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, and by mistaking the former for the latter we have created a salvation culture that misses the deep truths of the gospel, emphasizes decision over discipleship, and, as a result, fails to make true disciples of Jesus. This insight is crucial for us to understand, and we evangelicals need to make the switch from a salvation culture to a gospel culture if we want to fulfill the Great Commission, which was to “make disciples”, not “make converts”. Because of the way we (mis)understand the gospel, and the methods we use to present it, we are doing an excellent job of making converts, but we are no better than the Catholic Church at making disciples.

Before I get into the content of the next chapter, I’d like to give some of my own reflections on his book thus far. I believe that we evangelicals have created a salvation culture because we undervalue (or even disdain) life on earth. The temporal pales in significance to the eternal, we say, as though the two were pitted against one another. But this life and the life to come are intimately bound up together within the life of God, which is both infinite and eternal. The life we live on earth is a small but significant part of eternity. The temporal is within the eternal. Salvation is not merely for then; salvation is for now.

We are also simultaneously terrified of and fascinated by hell. Though the most common biblical command is, “Fear not”, we use fear as a motivator to get people saved. So much of our evangelistic strategies are built on the motivation to escape hell, and we certainly prey on people’s fears of eternal damnation. There may be a time when that is appropriate, but the fear of hell is not what drives the Gospel.

Perhaps both of these lines of thinking could be fleshed out more, but this post is supposed to be about Scot McKnight’s book. So on to chapter 4 and a definition of the Gospel.

Chapter 4: The Apostolic Gospel of Paul

If the Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, then what is? How do we define it? The natural place to begin would be in the Bible. But where do we look? The answer might surprise you. We don’t start in Matthew, or Mark, or Luke or John. We start with Paul, and we go to 1 Corinthians 15.

1 Corinthians was probably written before any of the Gospels were written–sometime around 53 AD or so. What we find at the beginning of chapter 15 is “the oral tradition about the gospel that every New Testament apostle received and then passed on. …This passage is the apostolic gospel tradition.” (46) Scot breaks the relevant portions of chapter 15 into three parts: v. 1-2; v. 3-5; v. 20-28. The fundamental gospel, though, is found in the second part:

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

This is the Gospel. “If we begin here, we take the first step in creating a gospel culture.” (48) This was the Gospel that drove the early church, but we have forgotten it.

The authentic apostolic gospel, the gospel Paul received and passed on…concerns these events in the life of Jesus:
     that Christ died,
that Christ was buried,
that Christ was raised,
and that Christ appeared.

The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ. Instead of “four spiritual laws,” which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four “events”…in the life of Jesus Christ. (49)

The Gospel is not, first and foremost, about getting to heaven (or escaping hell). It’s not driven by fear. In fact, it’s not even a proposition that can be driven by anything. It’s the Story of Jesus–his death (for our sins), his burial, his resurrection, and his appearances. The Gospel is not the Plan of Salvation. “Salvation–the robust salvation of God–is the intended result of the gospel story about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament.” (51)

So what? What’s the big deal? Isn’t it more important that people go to heaven when they die than that we understand what the Gospel is or isn’t? No, it’s not. Jesus didn’t die so you could go to heaven when you die. He died for your sins–the ones that plague you in the here and now and turn your world, at times, into a living hell for yourself and those around you. Here’s the warning:

When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off [from] the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation. (62)

We are not saved by a plan. We are not saved within a system. We are saved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

How have we gotten where we are? How have we replaced the gospel culture with our salvation culture? More on that tomorrow…

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