Return to Sermon Archive
Left Behind - For a Reason
February 25, 2001
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
By Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 and follow along as I read verses 51-58. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
51 Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have 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 thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
No one heard the trumpet sound, but in the twinkling of an eye, life changed irretrievably and stunningly across the entire expanse of the planet Earth.
Over the Atlantic Ocean in a Boeing 747 en route from O'Hare to Heathrow, Captain Rayford Steele opened the cockpit door for a wee-hours stroll down the aisle to check on his passengers and flirt with his senior flight attendant. But he almost crashed into that flight attendant, the lovely Hattie Durham, on her way in to deliver to him a staggering news flash:
"People are missing."
"What do you m-?"
"A whole bunch of people, just gone! I have been everywhere. I am telling you, dozens of people are missing. Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind. These people are gone!"
An elderly woman in first class, looking more than bleary-eyed, held her husband's sweater and pants in her arms. "What in the world?" she said. "Harold?" Harold was gone. Evaporated into thin air. Or something.
That is the beginning of the most dramatic scene in the Christian thriller Left Behind, which tells the amazing story of The Rapture. Enjoying immense popularity, Left Behind is a series that will eventually include thirteen volumes - eight are already in print. But unlike Harry Potter's creator, J.K. Rowling, Jerry B. Jenkins, one of the Left Behind authors, calls himself "the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." His novels about the last days of the earth, with research contributed by evangelical author Tim LeHaye, have sold over 12 million copies since the first Left Behind book hit the stores in 1995. A complementary series for kids has sold 3 million. All told, 18 million Left Behind products have been purchased. The Indwelling, number seven out of a planned 13 novels, had an initial print run of 2 million and appeared on The New York Times bestseller list the Sunday after it is released. About a month ago, the movie based on the first novel in the series appeared on videotape. Promoters hope this movie will cross over into the mainstream culture, sparking conversation - if not conversion - over the issue of the Second Coming of Christ.
The success of the Left Behind series indicates that the authors have struck a nerve. A Newsweek poll found that 40 percent of American adults believe that the world will one day end, as Revelation describes, in the Battle of Armageddon. Every choir that sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or "Onward, Christian Soldiers" resurrects martial images and themes from Christian prophecy. Among academics, studies of the apocalyptic tradition have produced dozens of new books. "Over the past 30 years," says Bernard McGinn, a medieval specialist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, "more scholarship has been devoted to apocalypticism than in the last 300." [-Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek, November 1, 1999, 68.]
The movie "Left Behind" brings suspense, some little romance, and a hefty dose of apocalyptic fervor to its audience. The colorful main characters include the 747 Capt. Rayford Steele and the flight attendant Hattie Durham, joined by a skeptical Stanford undergraduate, a journalist at a Newsweek-like magazine, an up-and-coming politician named The Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine, and the associate pastor of Captain Steele's wife's church - a pastor who had been left behind because his faith was more intellectual than real prior to The Rapture.
As friends and enemies, the cast of Left Behind live out The Tribulation with twists, turns and a writer's creative license. The movie has some interesting ideas. For example, those left behind receive a second chance to accept Christ during the years of tribulation. I had not previously heard that, but it seems fair enough.
Of course, to those of you with long memories, all of this has a familiar ring. The best-selling book of the 1970s was a religious title, Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth. It told of how the birth of modern Israel signaled that we were in the "end times," that the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic portions of Scripture predicted that the Antichrist's arrival was imminent, that Christians would soon be raptured (taken up to heaven by Jesus) before all the bad stuff started happening, but after seven years of "tribulation", Jesus Christ would return to Earth and usher in a millennial reign of justice and peace. I guess the most disappointing thing that I remember about Lindseys book is that 30 years later, nothing that he said was going to happen has happened. But one should note that unlike Lindseys book, the Left Behind series is fiction.
Returning to the movie, one thing you have to give the move credit for--it presents the gospel with a sense of urgency. We must come to faith now because we never know when Christ will return for the elect. The Rapture could occur at any hour, on any given day and "in the twinkling of an eye." The theology of the Left Behind series is what is called a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. Pre-tribulationists believe that no theological message is as crucial as this one: Jesus is coming again and we must be ready. We do not want to be left behind. Make your decision today for tomorrow you could be on a plane or asleep in your bed or watching the late show when suddenly believers simultaneously disappear in the twinkling of an eye. A scripture they cite is ICR15:52: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." However, if you read that verse carefully, it says that the dead are raised not in this body but in an immortal body, and that those who are alive at the last trump will be changed. It does not say anything about vanishing bodies. If we are going to heaven to receive a new incorruptible body, why would we take our old flesh-and-blood bodies with us? Why do the bodies disappear? But never mind that.
In the movie "Left Behind," as you might imagine, those left behind hold a plethora of theories to explain what happened to all those Christians who seemed to dematerialize into thin air. Some people believe that a confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, in conjunction with atomic ionization, caused an instantaneous vanishing of selected victims. Many, of course, blame aliens. But other characters who did not have enough faith to be included in the Rapture, but who intellectually know their Scripture, believe that the explanation can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, today's text.
They believe that Paul is describing here The Second Coming of Christ, and they are - at least partially - right.
In the Greek, v51 begins with "idou" which means "Listen," or "Behold." Listen, Paul says, for I am about to tell you a "musthrion." This "musthrion" or mystery is a secret truth that has been revealed to and through Paul about what is to happen at the second coming. This will happen in a "moment," the Greek word is "atomos," an indivisible fragment of time. At the last trumpet, a transformation occurs in the "twinkling of an eye," in a split-second.
The "last trumpet," was a familiar image from the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah 27:13 speaks of the trumpet blown for return of the exiles; Leviticus 23:24 describes the civil New Year being introduced by a blowing of a trumpet to usher in the penitential season that will conclude in the Day of Atonement. The last trumpet signals the End.
We are not given the details of the end, just that it will happen quickly. Mortal bodies will be changed, because while flesh and blood are appropriate for this world, they are inappropriate for the world to come. Once the believers are clothed in immortality, death can no longer touch them. Thus in vs54-55, Paul rejoices. These verses are a free rendering of two passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. "Death has been swallowed up in victory" is taken from Isaiah 25:7 and "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" is from Hosea 13:14.
The point of these verses is that Death and Sheol are invited to do their worst. Paul is mocking what have been our worst fears. "Death has been swallowed up." This is a taunt. To put it in modern terms, Paul says that Christ has punted death out of the stadium.
However, death remains an enemy--we still die--but death is now a disabled enemy. When Christians die, they are no longer prisoners of death. Now they have the certainty of the resurrection.
We should note here that first century Christians believed that Jesus was coming back in their lifetime. Paul certainly believed it. The Church described in the book of Acts believed it to the point that they sold their houses and everything in their houses without regret because they believed to their toenails that Jesus was coming back almost immediately to retrieve them. Who needed jewelry, silverware, and real estate if they were leaving to join Jesus in heaven in a matter of days or months or even years?
This was Paul's message to the first Christians in Corinth, Greece, in the first century. "We will not all die," he wrote in v51, "But we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet."
Eventually, of course, all those who first received Paul's letter did die. Jesus did not return in their lifetime. And while most of us are not making the assumption that Jesus will return today or tomorrow, there are many Christians - pre-millennialists - who urge us to consider that as a possibility. What if Jesus comes again in our lifetime, Are we ready? Should we sell our stuff, pound the pavement like good evangelists and warn the rest of the world? Certainly, we do not want to be left behind!
But Jesus has already left us behind once. Yes, that is what I said, we have already been left behind. When Jesus ascended to heaven from the mount of olives just before Pentecost, he left us behind, and for a reason. We were left behind once to await a second coming so that, and Paul spells it out in v58, we might be "steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (15:58).
Some Christians still hang on to the first-century notion that, if Jesus could return at any moment, we may as well sell our possessions to those faithless folks who will need them after we are enraptured up to heaven with the Lord.
This is not the whole story! Jesus is coming again. I may have some questions about a pre-tribulation rapture, but I do not think that there is any question about that. The NT clearly teaches that Jesus is coming again, but it does not clearly give us any details about that coming. We do not have much in the way of biblical clues about when or how it will happen, and in spite of all the interesting predictions we might glean from biblical prophecy, Scripture repeatedly warns us that no one knows exactly when Jesus will return (see Mark 13:32). Our imaginations might be sparked by the descriptions of the transfiguration of Jesus, but ours is a God of boundless creativity, and there are countless ways God could dazzle us with the sight of our glorious Savior.
Actually, if the second coming follows the pattern of the first coming, it will be what we do not expect. The Jews of the first century had great expectations about the Messiah. He would overthrow the Roman Empire and reestablish some sort of glorified Davidic empire based on Jerusalem. The Jews believed this so firmly that beginning in the late sixties of the first century they launched a series of rebellions that were designed to bring in this messianic kingdom. This belief failed so completely that it almost resulted in the extinction of Judaism. The messiah did come, but the messiah was not what they expected. So what about the second coming? Well, if I tell you and you expect it, then it will not be that. Forgive me, that is my bad sense of humor. My family tells me that I have the worst sense of humor on the planet.
Let me make the point that Paul makes in the scripture. We were left behind 2000 years ago, not to scare each other about The End Times, not to judge each other, but to serve in the likeness of Christ. Jesus left us with several warnings about watchfulness, and about readiness. He left us with many instructions, and those instructions and those instructions include not only listening to God's living Word through Jesus Christ, but living that Word ourselves and sharing the Good News with others.
Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LeHaye estimate that approximately 2000 souls have been saved as a result of reading their Left Behind books. Certainly, that is easy to understand. One reads these apocalyptic tomes and cannot help wondering, "Do I have enough faith? Would I be left behind?" Unfortunately, for Christians and non-Christians alike, if we are brutally honest with ourselves, the clear concern of too many these days is not "Will I be left behind by God?" but "Will I be left behind by the world?" Will I be left behind professionally while my colleagues reach greater heights? Will I be left behind materially as everyone seems to be increasingly able to buy bigger and cooler stuff? Will I be left behind socially as friends couple off and settle down and move up in the world with other up-and-coming couples? In other words, Will I be left behind in my own miserable little world to live out my own private tribulation?
Even the characters of the Left Behind books seem to be consumed by a love for worldly and material things. The heroes drive a Range Rover loaded with glitzy features. The journalist is identified as an Ivy League man more than once and another character appears "as if he had come off the cover of a Fortune 500 edition of GQ." Everyone is hip, sharp, and wealthy enough to bankroll their globe-trotting, technologically hot lifestyles.
One reviewer of the series accuses the Christian characters of being so envious of worldly status - in spite of their declarations of committing their lives wholly to heavenly work - that it "fairly oozes from every page of these books." All the main characters of this "Christian drama" are amazingly attractive, intelligent, financially successful and unapologetically "with it."
What is so Christian about that? The first time Jesus came to Earth, he spent most of his time with the least attractive people on the planet - the ones who had nothing, the folks with no power, no bankroll, no assets. Jesus brought hope to people who had lost all hope. He granted peace to those living nightmares. He loved the unlovable. This is the message of the God who came the first time. The Second Coming will involve judgment of those who do not love as Jesus loves.
Christians are the left-behind-ones. We have been left behindfor a reason. And there are no secrets here. Scriptures tells us the reason.
ICR15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. That is the reason. So it is time for us to be steadfast in the faith, to be immovable in the Word, to rejoice in the work of the Lord because such work, when done by left-behinders, is not in vain. Amen.
Gross, Michael Joseph. "The Trials of the
Tribulation." The Atlantic Monthly,
January 2000, 127.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 02/26/01