A First Century Picture of the Rapture
By Jonathan C. Brentner
Many in the room, including his wife Carol, believed he would not survive the night. Louis Talbot, the longtime president of Biola University and driving force behind the formation of Talbot Theological Seminary, lay in a hospital bed stricken with pneumonia. With both age and the illness working against him, it seemed likely he would not live much longer.
Seeing the tears stream down the face of his wife, Talbot responded, “What’s the matter with you? For this I was born. For this I’ve lived all my life—to see my Saviour face to face. It will be all glory. I can hardly wait.” He so longed to see Jesus that the thought of dying filled him with a joyous anticipation of meeting his Savior in person.
As followers of Jesus, our ultimate hope is also that of seeing our Savior “face to face.” This can happen either through death, as it was at a later time for Louis Talbot, or at the time of the rapture, which is Jesus’ return to take his church back to his “Father’s house” as he promised us in John 14:2-3.
However, many people today, even believers, cringe at the thought of the rapture.
What causes people to dread or even disdain it? Does the rapture’s future abrupt intrusion in their lives make some fear it? Perhaps many sense their dreams for this life will end too soon or perhaps fail to materialize. Why should anyone look forward to such a sudden and unexpected end to their current lives along with all their cherished aspirations?
I suspect many of us can identify with at least a few of the reasons above. At times, I have felt these apprehensions myself as I contemplated what might happen when Jesus suddenly catches me up to be with Him.
Does Scripture give us any insight that would enable us to look at the rapture in a more positive light? Is there a way look at Jesus’ appearing in the same way Louis Talbot looked forward to seeing Jesus?
I believe there is.
The Bible pictures the rapture as a bridegroom coming for his bride. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul, when referring to the rapture, used language that would have sparked images related to the first century AD Jewish wedding customs.
As we look at these ancient customs, we see a picture that washes away many of our apprehensions regarding the rapture.
The Marriage Covenant
Jewish marriages in the first century AD began with the groom entering into a covenant with his bride. This happened during a betrothal ceremony during which the groom and bride drank a cup of wine in the presence of the bride’s parents; this “sealed the covenant” that bound the couple together. After that, the groom paid a “bridal price” to the father, which signified his commitment to follow through on his promise to marry his daughter.
In the Upper Room before his crucifixion, Jesus’ drinking of wine and announcement of a new covenant would have brought to mind images of the Jewish marriage customs as well as Old Testament prophecies regarding the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). The cup represented Jesus’ very own blood, which he shed as a payment for our sins and by which he paid the bridal price to betroth us, the church, as His bride.
Joseph and Mary illustrate the binding aspect of the betrothal ceremony. Matthew tells us they were betrothed, but had not yet come together as a husband and wife (Matt. 1:18). When Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy, he sought to divorce her since he knew the child could not be his. Divorce was the only way to break the legally binding betrothal covenant.
Once the bridegroom confirmed the marriage covenant with his bride, he announced he was going to prepare a place for his bride in his father’s house. He would not see his bride again until he completed his work on this honeymoon chamber and returned to take her back to the place he had prepared for her.
Jesus’ words in John 14:2-3 echo the announcement of first century AD grooms, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
In Jesus’ day, the groom prepared one room for him and his future wife. Jesus, on the other hand, must prepare places for millions upon millions of followers who comprise his bride. Hence we have the reference to “many rooms.”
Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us! This is great news!
The Return of the Bridegroom
After the bridegroom finished work on the bridal chamber, he left to get his bride and bring her to the place he had prepared for the two of them.
When the bridegroom’s father deemed the wedding chamber ready, the father would tell the bridegroom that all was ready and to go get his bride. The bridegroom would abduct his bride secretly, like a thief at night, and take her to the wedding chamber. As the bridegroom approached the bride’s home, he would shout and blow the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) so that she had some warning to gather her belongings to take into the wedding chamber. The bridegroom and his friends would come into the bride’s house and get the bride and her bridesmaids.
The Jewish groom of Jesus’ day enjoyed coming in the middle of the night to snatch away his bride and take her to his father’s house. His surprise arrival at the bride’s home came with much fanfare as his friends shouted and blew a shofar (similar to a trumpet) to announce his arrival. The bride looked forward to this unexpected reunion with joyous anticipation; she longed for the time her groom would snatch her away and take her to the bridal chamber he had prepared especially for their time together.
In 1 Thessalonians 414-17, Paul tells us that Jesus will come for his church with a shout, the “voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God” (v. 16). These terms resemble the raucous scene of a first century Jewish groom coming for his bride as well as Jesus’ return for us. Since many Jews lived in Thessalonica, the believers in city could likely relate to such noisy middle of the night interruptions.
The Father Determined the Timing
According to the Jewish marriage customs of Jesus’ day, the father of the bridegroom determined the timing of his son’s return to bring his bride back to the bridal chamber. He decided when his son had successfully completed his work after that sent his son to go get his bride.
In Matthew 24:36 Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father only.” Do you see how this also fits into the Jewish wedding customs? Just as the father of the groom set the timing for his son’s wedding celebration, so our Heavenly Father establishes such things through his sovereignty.
Once the groom and bride entered to the bridal chamber, they remained isolated there for seven days.
Once fetched, the two returned to the groom’s father’s house where they were secluded in a bridal chamber (huppah). While inside the chamber they consummated their marriage by entering into physical union for the first time. They remained secluded in the chamber for seven days while the wedding guests enjoyed the wedding feast at the groom’s father’s house.
This fits rather well with a pretribulation rapture, does it not? Rather than seven days, the church will spend seven years with the Lord while those left behind will go through the seven-year tribulation. It’s easy to make the comparison of seven days with the seven years of the coming tribulation.
By itself, this parallel does not prove Jesus’ will appear for us before this horrible time on earth and take us home before it starts; however, it certainly points us in that direction.
After the seven days in seclusion, the couple emerged for the marriage celebration. Jesus and his disciples attended such an occasion in Cana (John 2:1-12). Although few details of these feasts have survived down to this day, we know such marriage feasts could last an entire week.
Revelation 19:6-8 tells us about the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in heaven. Its place in the book suggests it occurs at the end of the seven year of tribulation similar to the first century AD marriage feast that occurred after the seven days of seclusion. The wedding celebrations of Jesus’ day could last an entire week. I believe our wedding feast in heaven will last much longer than that.
The Comforting Message for Us
The aspects of the first century AD wedding customs paint a comforting picture for us.
1. Jesus is preparing a place for us!
Jesus is preparing a place especially for us. We can be sure this place will be spectacular. He is designing and preparing it with our specific desires in mind just as did the first century grooms. It’s difficult to imagine this dwelling place will be like, but we can be sure our “rooms” will have many perks just for us.
2. The rapture is our groom returning for us, his bride!
While the element of surprise in the rapture alarms us, it helps to consider that this comprised the excitement and romance of Jewish weddings of the first century AD. The groom did not come to harm his bride, quite the contrary; he came to take her to a place he had lovingly and thoughtfully prepared for her.
If someone would have written a Jewish romance novel at this time, he or she would certainly describe the return of the groom for his bride in the middle of the night and recount the passion of the couple as they reunited and journeyed to their bridal chamber. It would have made great viewing on the Hallmark Channel, which of course they did not have.
3. The rapture will lead to celebration!
Once the bride and groom finished their seven days in seclusion, they celebrated! They, along with their attendants, friends, and invited guests came together for a feast that could last as long as a week.
This is in our future. Revelation 19:6-10 describes the “marriage supper of the lamb” that occurs in heaven before we return to earth with Jesus. This, too, will be a time of great merriment. We will be together with the saints of all the ages, including our family and friends who have died in Christ before us, celebrating with our Savior.
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