Part 2: I Corinthians 15:50-58

In our last message, we took up a study of “the Rapture,” a common teaching today among many in the dispensational movement.   We studied the idea as it occurs in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, and found what the Bible says there and what we can conclude about the topic from that passage.  Yet a study of the idea of the “rapture” would be incomplete without also looking at the truth contained in I Corinthians 15:50-58.

50.  Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.

Many make false claims based on this verse.  They divorce the phrase “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” from the context in which it appears, and use it to claim that we must be spirits in the resurrection and have no physical bodies, because, they say, then flesh and blood would be inheriting the kingdom of God.  Others claim that our blood will be replaced with spirit in the resurrection, that spirit will run in our veins rather than blood, and that this is why flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom.  Yet if we look at this passage closely, and in context, we will see that the way that one comes into the kingdom of God is not by becoming a spirit, or by having spirit substituted into the veins instead of blood.  Rather, it is by being changed from our current, corruptible bodies into incorruptible bodies.  Thus, “flesh and blood” in this context means what we are naturally, or our natural, sinful selves, which is what we are currently.  Flesh and blood, the way we are now, will not inherit the kingdom of God, but flesh and blood the way we will be after we are changed will be able to inherit that kingdom.  That is the point of this verse, not that we will not have physical bodies.

51.  Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—

Now Paul is about to reveal a mystery.  Yet we need to understand that, in Greek, a mystery is not something mysterious, or a puzzle that needs to be figured out, which is what this word means in English.  This word in Greek is the word musterion, and what our translators have done is to just change the “u” to a “y” (for “u” and “y” are the same letter in Greek,) and change the “ion” ending, which is a Greek ending, to the English ending “y.”  Thus, this word “mystery” has not been translated–just transliterated, and then modified into an English word.  If we were to try to translate the Greek word musterion, however, we would find out that it does not mean what we mean when we use the English word “mystery.”  Instead, it means more along the lines of the word “secret.”  A mystery in Greek is a secret that had not previously been revealed, and yet has now been made manifest.  When Paul speaks of the truths that he calls “mysteries,” he is revealing truths that were nowhere else and at no other time in the Bible revealed.

Now it had been revealed by God that, in the words of Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,” or, as Martha said of Lazarus in John 11:24, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  However, some who thought about this might have realized a difficulty with the concept.  And that is, what about those who are alive at the time when the resurrection occurs?  Will they have to wait until they die, and then be resurrected at a later point?  Will God cause them to die instantaneously, so that they can then be resurrected?  What will happen to these people?  This was a question that those who understood about the resurrection from the Old Testament might have wondered about.  Yet now, God through Paul is revealing what will happen to these people.  And what He reveals is a staggering fact: that not everyone will have to die!  Rather, He reveals that those who are alive at the time of the resurrection will be changed without ever dying.  This was a concept that had not been revealed in the Old Testament, nor had it been revealed by Christ or any New Testament writer until it was here revealed by the apostle Paul.  That is why it was called a “mystery,” and that is what Paul was revealing for the first time here.

Now notice here that Paul and his co-author, Sosthenes, again use the pronoun “we” to describe this company of people.  I took considerable time in discussing I Thessalonians 4:15 to make the point that the word “we” there meant that Paul and his co-authors expected to be those who would be alive and remaining at the parousia of the Lord.  Yet what of the use of the word “we” here?  Is Paul in this passage likewise indicating that he and Sosthenes would be among those who will not sleep and yet who will be changed?  For if this is so, then either Paul and Sosthenes must still be alive somewhere and somehow, or else the event described here must have happened in Paul’s lifetime, perhaps shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, as some amillenialists claim.

Yet I think if we examine this passage more closely, we will see that what it is saying is not at all the same thing as what was said in I Thessalonians 4:15.  There, Paul positively identified himself as one of those who would be alive and remaining by the words “we” to describe those who are alive and remain and “them” to describe those who will be raised from the dead.  Yet that is not what is done here, for here it is stated that “we” shall not ALL sleep.  And though it is stated that “we” will all be changed, whether or not Paul and Sosthenes will be changed without sleeping is not clearly stated.  They could die and be changed after they are “raised incorruptible,” or they could be alive and be changed without sleeping, but either way what happened to them would fit the pronouns used here.  Thus, though two thousand years have passed and both Paul and Sosthenes are dead, they will both be changed in this upcoming resurrection, and at the same time some who never slept will likewise be changed.  Thus, I believe that this passage is talking about a resurrection prior to that in I Thessalonians 4:15, and is the reason that Paul will be alive already when that resurrection occurs to be one of those alive and remaining at that time.

52.  in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

This verse is used to propagate the idea that those who are caught up to meet the Lord in the air in I Thessalonians 4:17 will do so “in the twinkling of an eye.”  I have heard sermons preached on this wherein it is claimed that, if this event were to happen right now, that those of us who are true believers would immediately be caught up.  It wouldn’t matter if there was a roof above us: we would go right through it.  There have also been movies created about this instantaneous catching up that depict cars crashing after their drivers were “caught up” like this, planes suddenly without a pilot, frantic people suddenly left without their loved ones and no clue what had happened to them, and so forth.  It is supposed (and rightly so, I believe) that such a sudden catching away of all true believers would cause great turmoil and chaos and destruction upon the earth.  Yet this idea bothers me.  Would I really want to go up to heaven and be with the Lord, and yet know that, as I left, the car I had been driving caused a terrible crash wherein many people, maybe some of them children, were killed?  It seems to me that being caught up in this manner and knowing that I had left such an awful situation behind me would add somewhat of a bitter taste to what should be such an awesome and wonderful event.  Why should believers, who have always been a light to the world, cause such destruction and misery at what should be such a glorious time?

Yet if we examine this passage closely, I think we will see that this difficulty is not there in the Scriptures, but rather is created in the minds of those who teach the rapture idea.  For if we will look carefully at this verse, we will see that there is no mention of a catching away into the clouds in this verse.  This verse has been mashed together with I Thessalonians 4:17, and this unjustifiable union has resulted in the idea that the catching up will be in an instant, and will cause such pain and death.  Yet that is not at all what this verse is talking about, nor is any sort of catching away what is described as happening “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”

What is “the twinkling of an eye”?  We know what we mean when we say someone has a “twinkle in his eye,” but that is not what is meant here.  When we see, it looks to us as if our eyes are viewing things constantly, and there is no break in our vision.  Yet if we will do something like wave our hand in front of our eyes very quickly, we will start to see that this is not the case, for we will start seeing “snapshots” of our hand at different locations rather than one, smooth motion.  This might be hard to see, as our eyes tend to blur the images together, but we can see it if we try.  Thus, we see that our eyes do not see infinitely, but rather are seeing in frames, albeit so quickly that we cannot normally detect it.  Science has determined that we see in just under 30 frames per second.  If you have ever watched a VHS tape recorded at 30 frames per second, you might have noticed that things look slightly “jerky” on it sometimes.  That is because it is showing things at the same speed as your eyes, and thus can look “jerky” if the two aren’t right in sync.  Normal television or movies, however, show in 60 frames per second, which, being more than double what our eyes see, is fast enough that it looks silky smooth to us and we cannot detect the frames at all.  Now one of these pictures or frames that our eyes see is what is called “the twinkling of an eye.”  Since we see around 30 frames per second, that means that “the twinkling of an eye” would be about 1/30th of a second.  As far as our perception of time is concerned, that is just about instantaneous.

What would happen if someone was really caught up into the air in the twinkling of an eye?  From here to the clouds is a fairly long distance, and to travel it in less than 1/30th of a second would be a tremendous speed, far faster than any current rocket ship would move.  Now we know the friction that can be caused by a rocket, especially as it re-enters the earth’s gravity and is pulled down at incredible speeds.  This friction causes heat, and the danger for a returning ship is always that the heat will damage the craft to such an extent that it will no longer be able to resist the pressure.  But what would happen to an unprotected human body that was suddenly accelerated from here to the clouds in 1/30th of a second?  Ignoring the effects on the human body itself, which would be devastating (brains mashed to jelly against the skull, and so forth,) the mere friction caused by such rapid motion would cause those who arrived to meet the Lord in the air to arrive there as little more than a burnt crisp.  Are all those who meet the Lord going to be crispy fried when they get there?  Now some will argue that I am being silly, and that of course the Lord can suspend the laws of motion so that those who are thus caught up at such a speed are not instantly destroyed by it.  This is true, the Lord could do that.  The Lord could also do many things, like cause a giant teddy bear to appear in the northern sky.  The Lord can do anything, so this would be no problem for Him.  Yet the question is not “can He do it,” but rather, “will He do it?”  Has God really said that catching people up at such a tremendous rate is really what He is going to do?

Now what is it that happens “in the twinkling of an eye”?  What is it that is almost instantaneous?  It is not the catching up into the air of I Thessalonians 4:17.  Rather, it is the statement in I Corinthians 15:51, that “we shall be changed.”

Some years ago while making the movie Willow, a group of computer effects people had to figure out how to do an interesting effect over the course of the movie.  Within the story of the movie, there are several people or creatures who turn from one thing into another: from a bird to a goat or from a tiger to a woman and so forth.  This group of computer effects people had to come up with a way to do this so that it would look realistic.  What they came up with was a program that could do a technique that they called “morfing.”  This program would take two pictures and, starting with one of them, would create a number of intermediate forms that, when played one after the other, would make it look as if one object or creature would slowly change and shift and alter into another.  This was an amazing new effect, and was very popular when the movie came out.  Soon, this idea of “morfing” came into our culture, and now is something that everyone knows about.  For some reason, however, people couldn’t accept the idea that “morf” was spelled m-o-r-f, and instead wanted to spell it m-o-r-p-h.  Thus, the word that has come into our culture is “morphing,” and is something that most people know about now, even if they don’t know that it came from the movie Willow.

Keeping this idea of morphing in mind, what this passage is saying is that, when this great event occurs and those of us who are alive at that time are changed from our current, mortal bodies into our future, incorruptible ones, this change will not take place by us morphing from one body to another.  You will not be able to watch an armless man’s missing limb slowly grows out of the socket.  You will not be able to see someone’s wrinkles be gently smoothed away.  You will not see hair turn gradually from gray to colored, or hair sprouting out of a bald head.  This change, when it comes, will not come by our current bodies morphing into our future bodies.  Rather, one instant you will see someone standing there in his old, decrepit, wearing-out, broken down, sinful body; and the next instant, the next moment, the next twinkling of an eye, you will see that person standing there in his new, perfect, sinless, resurrection body.  There will be no morphing involved.  Rather, the change will be instantaneous from one body to the next.  Yet this passage says nothing about being caught up to the clouds in the twinkling of an eye.  That is just not there.

Now how will those who are caught up in I Thessalonians 4:17 be caught up?  With what speed will they rise?  There is no indication in the I Thessalonians passage that they will go up at the incredible rate suggested by the rapture theorist.  Then, since the speed at which they go up is not clearly stated, our only recourse is to appeal to Biblical precedent to try to determine how this will most likely be done, and how fast this will most likely occur.  And for a precedent, we need look no farther than the Lord’s own catching up into the clouds in Acts 1:9-11.

9.  Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
10.  And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel,
11.  who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

Now here we have an example of someone, Christ Himself, being caught up into the clouds.  Did Christ go up “in the twinkling of an eye”?  Did He go rocketing into the air at ludicrous speeds?  No, certainly not!  Rather, He went up at such a rate that the disciples were able to watch Him go up and eventually disappear into the clouds.  If you have ever let a helium balloon go, it probably went up much the same way.  At first it would seem to rise quickly away from you, but as it got smaller and smaller and further and further up it would seem to move more and more slowly, until finally you would see it disappear into the clouds where you could see it no more.  That is about how Christ must have gone up.  I imagine that He rose slowly and majestically.  The wind might have ruffled His hair a little, but that is about it.  He didn’t go shooting up like He was a living rocket.

With Christ as a precedent, then, I see no reason why the ascension in I Thessalonians 4:17 would be any different.  Those who rise then will no doubt rise at about the same speed He did.  And I also see no reason for such miraculous occurrences as people popping through ceilings or leaving driverless cars behind.  This passage states that this will occur at the sounding of the “trumpet of God.”  I imagine if I was alive at that time and was one of those who was going to go up, I would hear this trumpet, and the Holy Spirit would no doubt communicate to me that it was time for me to go.  But what then?  Would I go rocketing through the ceiling?  I don’t know why I should be in such a hurry!  If I was indoors, I could merely head for the nearest exit.  If I was in a large complex with no nearby door, I could just head for the roof, or perhaps for the nearest window…after all, I would be going up, not down!  If I was in a car, I could pull it over to the side of the road, get out, and go…no reason to cause a terrible wreck!  This would result in different people going up at slightly different times, but what is wrong with that?  The sky would be dotted with different people at different stages of rising into the air…a glorious sight indeed!  Isn’t that part of the whole point…that this will be a spectacular presentation to honor the Lord’s arrival?  There is just no need for the chaos and destruction suggested by the muddled, modern idea of the rapture.  As I Corinthians 14:33 says, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

There is no better way to end a study of the rapture than to continue Paul’s commentary in I Corinthians 15.

53.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54.  So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55.  “O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
56.  The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
57.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58.  Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

Amen!  May that day and that victory come quickly.