“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”(1 Cor.15:52)
This verse, as well as a few others, is used to explain the Rapture Theory. You’ve seen the Left Behind movies, right? One moment, it’s business as usual, and the next, driver-less cars are crashing into each other, clothing is found on the floor (minus the wearer) phone calls are dropped, etc. Sounds like science fiction.
That’s because, largely, it is.
Is the Tim LaHaye dramatization of pre-millenial rapture a fair representation of what Paul is referencing here? What type of change could represent this idea in Jewish thought of the Second Temple period?
To understand this, we should consider how such ideas are represented in Jewish writings. Consider this passage, for instance:
“The sages taught a baraita which discusses the range of problems which arise with regard to the twilight period. Twilight is a period of uncertainty. It is uncertain whether it consists of both day and night, it is uncertain whether it is completely day, and it is uncertain whether it is completely night….And what is twilight? From when the sun sets, as long as the eastern face of the sky is reddened by the light of the sun. If the lower segment of the sky has lost its color, and the upper segment has not yet lost its color, that is the twilight period. If the upper segment has lost its color, and its color equals that of the lower one, it is night…” (Talmud, Shabbat 34b, Koren Steinsaltz edition).
What is this about? The discussion relates to the halachic rulings concerning candle lighting on Shabbat. In Jewish law, there is an acceptable time window in which to light the Sabbath candles. Not too early, and not too late. This is why the “twilight period” is important to distinguish, as it forms the transition between day and night. The passages continues…
“Twilight does not last for a quantifiable period of time; rather, it is like the blink of an eye: This, night, enters, and that, day, leaves, and it is impossible to calculate it due to its brevity.” (IBID)
So, the important ideas that we glean from this passage are:
1) The period of twilight is a period of transition from one domain to another (entering into the rest of Shabbat)
2) This transition has signs which indicate its arrival (the color of the sky).
3) The actual transition from one domain to the next is like “the blink of an eye”.
If we analyze Paul’s statement to the Corinthians in the light of the Jewish laws surrounding Sabbath, rather than in the light of 20th Century Church teaching on “Rapture“, we arrive at a much more coherent and rich understanding.
It turns out that the concept of Sabbath, and the domain that it represents, is central to understanding the apostolic teachings on the World to Come, and specifically, the Messianic Age.
Consider this important passage from Hebrews concerning entering God’s “rest”:
“…Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called “Today”…for we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me…For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this passage, “They shall not enter my rest.” Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, “Today”, saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Heb.3:13-15, 4:4-7)
Of course, the context of the passage in 1 Corinthians is not talking at all about Tim LaHaye’s rapture fantasy, but in fact is discussing the Resurrection of the Righteous Dead, which is a Pharisaic doctrine endorsed and taught by Yeshua and his followers and reiterated in the writings preserved as the New Testament. In the passage in Hebrews cited above, the concept of what constitutes “day” is implied to be in contrast to what constitutes “night”. In Jewish law, it is a sin to attempt to light the Sabbath light after the time has passed for this act, since kindling fire after Shabbat begins is prohibited.
The application, in regards to the gospel, is that you must accept the Messiah while you still have time, and before night has fallen. But does this “night” mean the period after the “rapture”? Or could it mean something else?
This idea of the sudden, nearly imperceptible, change from twilight to night is so critical in the observance of Shabbat, that once we understand it from a Jewish perspective, we immediately begin to see the idea in other teachings as well.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt.5:13-16)
In traditional Jewish observance, salt is used during the Sabbath meal, at the time of the blessing of the bread. And the light of the Sabbath candle represents the World to Come, while Sabbath itself represents the “rest” promised to all of God’s children. Once Sabbath has begun, “works” cease, so it is important that whatever works are going to be done are done while it is still considered “day“.
In the context of the Lord’s words, it appears that he is aligning those who are his followers with those who have entered into the “rest” which has been promised to God’s people, since the kingdom of God (the period of supernatural rest and peace on earth) is “at hand.”
Further, there is, in the concept of Sabbath observance, a preparation for the event, and a drawing near to God through it, represented in the Sabbath candles and the light they emit:
“….everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (Jn.3:20-21)
Twilight represents the warning that those who are caught unawares will be left in darkness. It is a time to consider the signs of the times, and to repent, because when night falls, it will do so suddenly, in the “blink of an eye“, after which time no work can be done.
“You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time?” (Lk.12:56)
The idea of the suddenness of the transitions between the domain of life and death, day and night, is never more poignant than in the cryptic parable of the ten virgins:
“For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them…be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” (Matt.25:3,13)
In this instance, the teaching goes beyond the mere transition between day and night, but alludes to the Passover event, in which the death angel passed over Egypt at midnight, and all who were inside their dwellings, behind a threshold which had the blood of the Passover lamb applied to the doorposts, was spared.
Paul, in our base passage in Corinthians, is telling us that the “rest of the believer” is like the transition from day to night at the Sabbath table: Those who “draw near” to God and light the lamp at the appointed time will have entered into life when all the rest of the world is in darkness still. Further, this “rest” is related to the blast of the “last trumpet” (a concept we will look at again at the end of this essay). This is distinguished from those outside of this “rest“, as he says:
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Cor.15:51-52)
Perhaps the most important connection that Paul makes in regards to our “rest” in connection with Shabbat is in Colossians:
“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day – things which are a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col.2:16-17)
As I have written in my previous essay Working Out Salvation, this passage is usually rendered by Church interpretation in negative fashion, casting the Sabbath and dietary laws as things which have “passed away” from meaningful significance now that “the fullness of Christ has come”. Yet, notice that in this passage, Paul describes these things as “yet to come“, so it is inaccurate to assume that Christ has already fulfilled their meaning, since at the time of Paul’s writing to Colossians, he does not (in Paul’s mind at least) appear to have done so. Rather, what is being portrayed is that the entering into the Sabbath rest represents something glorious, which we celebrate in faith in anticipation of the fulfillment of this picture of “rest“.
Sabbath is traditionally a time where the finest dishes are put out, the best food, and the best wine and other strong drink are shared, since we are celebrating the rest of the Kingdom Age and the World to Come, pictured vividly by passing from day to twilight to nightfall, while the candle of God’s light of promise burns in our midst. What joy!
Paul consoles those who have faithfully anticipated this rest, but have died not having experienced its fulfillment:
“…We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. And we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thess.4:15-18)
As we will see, the idea of the living “not preceding the dead” is also in relation to the laws of Shabbat. In the verses which follow this passage (which the rapture theorists will commonly pluck out of their context) Paul goes on to invoke both Sabbath and Passover imagery, similar to the parables of the Lord, in his explanation of the significance of what he is saying:
“…For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night…But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.” (1 Thess.5:2,4-6)
This is why John the apostle echoes Paul’s words in his own writings:
“…God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 Jn.5-7)
To bring our discussion to a satisfactory conclusion, let’s circle back to the Talmud and consider the idea of twilight, the blink of an eye, and the “last trumpet”.
“With regard to the period of twilight, Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: When one can see one star in the evening sky, it is still day; two stars, twilight; three stars, night….The Sages taught in a baraita: They sound six blasts on Shabbat eve to announce that Shabbat is approaching…On a similar note, the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught in greater detail: Six blasts are sounded on Shabbat eve. When one begins sounding the first tekia, the people standing and working in the fields refrained from hoeing, and from plowing and from performing all labor in the fields. And those workers who work close to the city are not permitted to to enter the city until those who work farther away come, so that they will all enter together. Otherwise, people would suspect that the workers who came later continued to work after the blast…When he began sounding the third blast…the one charged with kindling the Shabbat lights lit….Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina, said: I heard that a person who was pressed for time and comes to light Shabbat lights after six blasts may light without concern, as even the moment of the sixth blast is not yet Shabbat…Rather, Shabbat began immediately after the final blast with no pause in between.” (Talmud, Shabbat 35b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
The Talmudic scholars explain that there is a rationale for rejecting halacha that does not include fixed parameters. This entire discussion in the Talmud concerned the preparation for Shabbat in relation to the length of twilight, which is a fixed parameter but which denotes a transition which occurs in a “blink of an eye“; a time frame that cannot be accurately measured.
This is why the concept of the Day of the Lord and the Resurrection of the dead cannot be determined specifically, since only God Himself knows the precise moment when this will transpire. It is for us to prepare, and to “cease from works and enter into the rest of the Lord.” This does not mean that we should stop obeying the commandments. Heaven forbid! But it does mean that we should draw near to God’s rest through His Messiah, and through the “shadows” which He has given us to remind us of this awesome truth.
For even our great Rabbi, our Master Yeshua, could not give us the precise moment when these things are to take place.
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matt.24:36)
Twilight is the transitory period between the “day” and the “night”, but the signs are available and the warnings are given. It is for the faithful to enter into the rest, for which we have a weekly reminder in the form of Sabbath. But don’t try to measure or determine the exact hour or moment when the Lord will return, because only God knows this time. He has called His people to Himself, to His table.
Will you and I come when the shofar sounds?