While we bog down in complicated arguments about it, rapture seems to operate on a simple theme.
Some folks like growing their own vegetables. Personally, I prefer my tomatoes from a Prego jar. But I get it. Home grown produce tastes fresh, and sometimes it’s therapeutic working the ground, waiting, and watching. Sources say a tomato plant will start yielding at forty days. But imagine a guy with an OCD who sees that number and counts forty days on the calendar from the moment he plants. He puts a red ‘x’ on the fortieth day. Then he goes out on that day to pick those tomatoes even though most are still unripe.
Who does that? Nobody.
The Rapture is often thought of this way—as a purely calendar-driven event. That is, God picked a particular day for it to happen no matter what stage of spiritual growth anyone would be in. The idea of rapture is based on 1st Thessalonians 4:17, where, when the Lord comes back, the dead will arise, and those of us who are alive will be seized, or, taken up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. But we’re preoccupied with timing, which is why, in discussions about the rapture, immediately we identify with positions related to when—pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib.¹
But rather than engage in arguments over timing issues, let me introduce a further way of thinking about it. The hints are in verse 4, where John uses the word “firstfruit.” Then in verse 15, he uses the word “harvest.”
These two words are agricultural.
When God thinks about rapture—the taking of His saints—He thinks about growth, maturity, ripeness. This is not to say He hasn’t assigned a time for the rapture in advance (He has), but God didn’t assign that date arbitrarily. He planned it according to when he knew and determined we would reach a certain ripeness.
This kind of maturity is a blessed state related to victory and celebration.
1 Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps,
At the end of chapter 12, the devil stood on the sand of the seashore. But these believers stand with the lamb on a rock, on a mountain, a billion cubic tons of Rock. Remember the cautionary parable Jesus told about the man who built on the sand, and the one who built on the rock? The image here in chapter 14 takes that parable to its furthest extent. That’s victory.
Not only so, but these believers have the name of Christ and his Father written on their foreheads, not the mark of the beast. Again, that’s victory. The celebratory voice (singular), so profound and powerful, sounds like harpists (plural), suggesting unity joined in the same joy. It’s like 144,000 Davids psalming.
This is a picture of rapture, complete joy with no one wondering when the next shoe will drop. The number 144,000 is perhaps a literal number, but for sure, a figurative one. It is based on 12, the number of eternal completion, times 12, times 1000—completion times completion times 1000. This joy has no shortcoming.
I remember the night of my kindergarten graduation in 1967. We had gowns and caps and little fake diplomas we used for sword fighting. The parents were excited, and took pictures. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but went along with it. Besides, there were snacks. You could say I had some joy, but it was clueless joy. Twelve years later I graduated high school. I threw my mortar board up in the air and before it even came down, I was thinking, Now what? It was joy, but an incomplete joy.
Remember when you graduated college? Before you made it off that platform, you were wondering who was going to hire you, with your bachelor’s in Russian Folk Music. It was joy, but an apprehensive joy. And then later you finished grad school, probably in the midst of already working. You wondered, Am I even going to get a raise? It was joy, but a cynical joy. Each milestone of human maturity seems to have a joyful component to it, but somehow gets diluted. It is short of grand completion.
Right now, potentially anything in your life gets in the way of your joy and your victory. You are easily moved. Mostly the things outside of you are not to blame. The problem comes from within. From something called immaturity. That’s why it takes almost nothing to move you into a negative mood. You are one offense away from dropping out of church, two away from dropping out of the Christian life.
It’s not always something bad that happens to you, but something good that doesn’t happen to you—something you feel you deserve and don’t get. Christian writer John Ortberg said, the mark of maturity is learning to live in stillness with unfulfilled desires. Today we must mature into the joy of Christ’s presence in our living rooms, so that one day we will have it in total on Mount Zion.
How does this maturity come about? We’ll get a hint by looking at the description of raptured people in verses 3 through 5.
3 and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.
First of all, these people had something nobody else had—a song learned at heart level. This was like the Psalms of the Bible. David didn’t start out by saying, “I want to have a music ministry,” and then cranking out music. These psalms were outcomes of learning, as he entered every mood and situation with God. They reflect deep lows and lofty highs in and with the Spirit. Other people can memorize, and parrot those words, but not all have learned the song. It must emerge from experience before it can translate into maturity.
4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.
Sexual defilement is a huge problem in our culture right now, and has a terrible effect both spiritually and psychologically. This verse however, like the rest in its immediate grouping, has an even more figurative understanding than a literal one. For instance, the word “virgin” may call us beyond a strictly biological definition. In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly used “virgin” to describe one’s single-minded love, fidelity, and obedience to God. Paul also used the term in 2nd Corinthians chapter 11, when he told the church, “I have espoused you as a pure virgin to Christ.” Any time a believer finds himself or herself torn between Christ and something else—when it becomes hard to decide which to prioritize, follow, love–then virginity is in question. Maturation occurs when believers find the grace of God to overcome such times of confusion.
It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
We could easily belabor the details of following Jesus—the who, what when, where, how—while overlooking the plain, directional template He has already established. For instance, the first direction the Lamb ever took was down, from heaven to Earth. This deep step of humility eventually led to Him kneeling and washing dust off the feet of a nobody fisherman. He challenged His followers to do the same.
But it wasn’t over. He went even lower, to the Cross. As He went, He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). Then He spent days in a darkened tomb, where He had fallen into the ground to germinate before His rise to glory. The maturation process in a believer does not depend on more degrees, or foreign adventures, multiplied ministries, or expanded influence. It depends on following the Lamb into a relational process that doesn’t stop until it reaches Mount Zion.
These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb,
Far from any self-pleasure or self-glory, these first fruits, who have ripened earlier than others, are for God and the Lamb. When Israelite fields began to ripen in Old Testament times, the Law commanded that the first fruits be gathered and offered to God (Lev. 23). This was to acknowledge God’s grace and instrumentality in the growing season. The people were celebrating His goodness, not their achievements.
Certain religious groups that have designated themselves as God’s best, as the 144,000, and other forms of proud presumption, are self-fixated. They have effectively disqualified themselves from this glorious company, for their boast is in themselves, and not the Lamb. True maturity is for God’s personal satisfaction.
5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34). Since in this case there is no lie in the mouth, that must mean there is no lie in the heart, only truth. Where else could they have gotten this truth except from the Word of God? Spiritual maturity always has a strong distaste for the lie, and a powerful hunger for divine reality.
This is all a composite of the maturity found in the rapture.
I was in a convenience store a while back, and a guy walked in with a shirt that said, “Just relax. Everybody’s going to hell anyway.” Unfortunately I see a similar cynicism in the Twitter feeds and in various forums. They say, “The church is broken, Christians everywhere are hypocrites.” No they’re not. The verses in Revelation 14 show us that somebody got it. You may respond, saying, “Yeah, but only a hundred forty-four thousand. What is that out of the hundreds of millions of believers on planet earth?” But just remember, you don’t know how literal you’re supposed to take that number.
Yes, we all have a way to go. Nobody right now can say they have achieved Mount Zion level maturity. But I see glimmers of these things in myself, just enough to remind me that I’m headed somewhere. I see them in the people in my church. I hear about them in other believers out there. Every time there’s a difficult decision made for Christ, a little extra appetite for truth, a willingness unto more humble service, a fight for purity, a growing attraction to the glory of God, it’s clearly an indication of something happening.
Some of the tomatoes are becoming a little less green.
¹As you may already know, the rapture has a number of associated theological positions. These include Pre-tribulation, mid-trib, post-trib, and partial rapture/overcomer theories. Each have sincere, godly proponents who, given the floor, will make a persuasive case for their view. I’ve participated in more than a few of these, myself. But laying out one’s position is too often like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, only to find a handful of pieces don’t fit. These “uncooperative” pieces are verses that refuse to fit the given theory. And every theory has them. As a younger man I remember trying to hammer troublesome verses in to mine, and force them to fit. But these aren’t puzzle pieces; they are God’s truth. As such, we humbly admit that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). And if Paul said, “I know in part,” even more we should be ready to confess the same for ourselves.
When it comes to eschatology (the study of the end times), I have never encountered any non-canonical writing so airtight it answered all questions. In fact, the more any specific view insists upon itself as “the” position of the faithful, the more suspicious I become of those making such claims.
In the meantime, I study and pray, just like (hopefully) all the other church leaders who teach. We can’t be overly ambivalent; eventually some position must emerge. But it is all about our attitude in holding that position, and all about how we act toward those who don’t hold ours. As for me, I live and labor as though the partial rapture/overcomer/mid trib/post-trib rapture is true, but I certainly won’t be disappointed if there is a pre-trib rapture.