Revelation 4:1, John's Ascension and The Rapture?
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Interpreting Revelation 4:1 within Its Context
Some dispensationalists interpret John's ascension to heaven as a picture of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church since John ascends to heaven after the Lord has given him a message for each of the seven churches in Asia Minor (which they interpret to represent church age) and before the events of the great tribulation begin. Moreover, these interpreters also point out that the word church does not appear again in the book of Revelation until the great tribulation is over.
A picture of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church John's ascension may very well be, but it is certainly not the immediate interpretation of the passage.
To arrive to this conclusion, that John's ascension represents the rapture of the church, one must first impose one's own view of the rapture on the passage at hand, unless one has direct revelation from God: because there is nothing in Revelation 4:1-2 that would cause the reader to think that John's ascension to heaven should be interpreted as the entire church ascending to heaven.
For although Paul interprets the struggle between Ishmael and Isaac as an allegory, despite the fact that nothing in Genesis would indicate that their struggle was an allegory, Paul had divine revelation to back him up. Matthew 2:15 also interprets Hosea 11:1 as a typology of Christ, but once again Matthew can appeal to divine revelation.
But I do not think we should teach that Revelation 4:1 teaches the rapture, for that teaches others to interpret the Scripture allegorically instead of teaching them to interpret the Scriptures in the light of their grammatical and historical contexts.
The very first verse of Revelation establishes that John is a servant of the Lord, an individual unto whom the Lord sent his angel to give him revelation. In the fourth verse of chapter 1, John identifies himself as the author and the seven churches as his audience. Then on verse 9, John begins to write in first person.
Clearly, John and the seven churches (which represent the universal church) are distinguished one from another. Why then should we assume that in Revelation 4:1 the entire church, not John only, is being described? If we are to make any sense of the book of Revelation, we must consistent in how we interpret it: as he did in chapter one, John is again talking about his own experiences.
Comparing Revelation 4:1 with The Rapture
Let us now compare Revelation 4:1 to the Scriptures that clearly teach the rapture, of which there is really only one.
Paul clearly teaches the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In order to comfort Christian believers over those Christian believers who have died, Paul teaches the Thessalonians that God will resurrect all Christian believers who are dead just as He resurrected Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ will descend from heaven with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God. When he calls for them, the dead in Christ will be resurrected first, and then those who have been resurrected and those who are still alive will be caught up in clouds (similar to the Lord’s ascension) to meet the Lord in the air.
Another Scripture that is often associated with the rapture is 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. While defending the doctrine of the resurrection, Paul reveals a mystery to the church, something that was hidden before: all believers, whether dead or alive, will be transformed. The transformation will occur at the last trumpet, and it will occur in the blink of an eye. When the trumpet sounds, the dead believers will rise from the dead with glorified bodies, and then the bodies of those that are alive will be transformed. Notice, however, that the rapture is not actually taught in this Scripture.
The Apostle John himself may have been speaking of an event associated with the rapture in 1 John 3:2, where he states that when we believers finally see Christ we shall be like him, and what we shall be will be made manifest. Nevertheless, the rapture is not mentioned in this Scripture either.
Another Scripture that is sometimes associated with the rapture is Matthew 24:31. When Jesus returns, he will sound the trumpet and send his angels to gather his elect from all the Earth. Nevertheless, the Lord was not talking unto the church, but unto “this generation,” the people of Israel (Matthew 24:34). This then is not the rapture of the church, but the gathering of faithful Israel (Isaiah 43:5-7).
Other Scriptures that are sometimes associated with the rapture are Matthew 24:40-41 and Luke 17:34-37. Nevertheless, these are not talking about the rapture of the church, which is unto salvation, but about judgment. Those who are taken away are taken away like those who were removed from the Earth during the flood, like carcasses are taken away and devoured by birds of prey. Once again, these verses do not speak of the rapture of the church.
Thus, the only clear Scripture on the rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Revelation 4:1 is very different from it (and it is even more different from the other Scriptures I discussed above). When the church is raptured in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the rapture occurs together with the resurrection of the dead believers, and the entire church is caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air, so we can be forever with him.
The only similarity between Revelation 4:1 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is really the ascension and voice of a trumpet. But even 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 does not mention heaven.
In Revelation 4:1, there is no mention of a resurrection or of clouds; there is only the mention of a door in heaven; and John does not meet the Lord to be forever with him, but to be shown things that will take place afterwards (future events). It is difficult to see a clear connection between the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and John’s ascension in Revelation 4:1.
Comparing Revelation 4:1 to the Visions in Which Heaven Was Open
In Revelation 4:1, John says that he looked up and that he saw an open door in heaven. Then, the trumpet-like voice of Christ called him to go up. Christ then told John he would show him things that would take place after these.
The door open in heaven reminds us of the Lord's own experiences in the synoptic gospels after he was baptized. According to the synoptic gospels, when the Lord emerged from the water, he saw the heaven open and the Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:21). The opening of heaven enabled Jesus to see that heaven was open and that the Spirit was coming on him.
The door open in heaven reminds us also for Stephen's experience. When Stephen was about to die, he saw heaven open; and because heaven was open, he saw the Lord Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).
Peter also saw heaven open, and this enabled him to see a vision in which a vessel with all kinds of creatures was lowered from heaven (Acts 10:11).
Moreover, the Lord also told Nathaniel that he would see haven open and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:51).
Ezekiel also writes that he saw heaven open and visions of God (Ezekiel 1:1).
Consistent with all these experiences, John sees a door open in heaven, and he is told that he will be shown things that will happen next. John adds a detail that the other Scriptures do not add: John saw a door open in heaven. Nevertheless, his experience is very similar and consistent with the other instances mentioned above.
John is also invited to go up to heaven. This is very similar to the experience that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. There, Paul tells of a man who was caught up to the third heaven and Paradise, where that man heard words he was not allowed to repeat (compare to Revelation 10:4).
John's experience is also reminiscent of Ezekiel's experience. Although Ezekiel was not invited up to heaven, he was lifted by the Spirit and translated from one place to another (Ezekiel 3:14, 8:3).
It is easy to see a connection between other instances in the Bible when heaven was open and Revelation 4:1, and between other instances in the Bible when men were caught up to be shown vision or to hear words. It is easier to see how Revelation 4:1 relates to these passages because than it is to see how it relates to the rapture. Why? Because in Revelation 4:1 John is describing his own experience, what enabled him to see the visions that he was about to see: heaven was open, and he was taken up to heaven to be shown all these vision that he wrote about in the book of Revelation. That is the point of Revelation 4:1
Invitation to the Reader
I would like to invite you to share your thoughts, questions, and insights on the comments section below. I also would like to invite you to click on the links below to read the other devotionals I have written on the book of Revelation.
© 2019 Marcelo Carcach