This passage is a tough one, especially for folk like me who reject modern day ideas of “rapture” and being “left behind”. Many who oppose these ideas stand on the fact that “the word ‘rapture’ isn’t in the Bible”. Okay, that’s true, but the concept is. It’s right here. So those of us who reject “rapture” theology don’t do ourselves any intellectual or argumentative favors by dismissing “rapture” because the word isn’t there, when Jesus is giving the concept about 15 verses right here. We have to deal with it more deeply that that.
That being said, there is something about the concept of “rapture” in the way that we understand it and the way we like to portray it in movies and books these days that doesn’t resonate with me; it doesn’t match up with the character of Christ I see in the gospels; and it doesn’t seem to fit in the grand biblical narrative for me. So I start first with why it doesn’t seem to work, but then I have to ask the question about this passage: “what, then, does it mean?”
First of all, as always, we have to look at the context of the passage before we start making broad conclusion about the end times. This all begins with a question from the Pharisees. Jesus answers it and then turns to the disciples. So those audiences matter. Beyond that, remember, Jesus has been in an ongoing battle with the Pharisees about their systemic pushing down of the poor and lifting up of themselves. Jesus has been reversing this since Mary was singing while carrying him in her womb (1:51-53). We cannot remove that context from what he says here in regards to the “days of the Son of Man”. This is not some cosmic abduction of the “faithful” who leave the earth and are saved in heaven. This is about (as verse 21 indicates) the Kingdom of God being in our midst and weather we’re going to participate in it or not. Are we going to join Jesus in this Kingdom, which is right here, but which also demands a reversal of the way in which the kingdoms of the world work?
Second, if we get past the weird abduction stuff, look at that to which Jesus is pointing here: He’s foretelling his own death and suffering: “For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation” (17:24-25). Then after some old testament references he comes in with the money verse of this passage: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”
I’m no scholar, and for the purposes of this blog, I do not have the time to do extensive study, but as I read this, wonder about it, and think about it, I wonder if what Jesus is doing with this passage is not warning humanity about a “rapture”, but warning his disciples that this is about to get really hard and really bad. Remember, he’s on his way to Jerusalem at this point. He’s gone to the outer margins of society to sweep in as many into the fold as he can, and now he’s headed back to Jerusalem. And he knows that when he enters Jerusalem, it will be like an entrance ramp to the cross.
With all of that in mind, he is warning his disciples that they will soon be faced with a choice: Protect your own life, or risk it for the kingdom. Because, you see, Jesus is going to be taken away by the authorities, and anyone who stands with him will be seen as an accessory to his treason. The Kingdom of God stands in stark opposition to any kingdom of the world (whether it’s Rome or the USA), and because of that Jesus (who IS the kingdom) will be torn down. The question for his disciples here is, will the run or will they stand?
I’ll be honest: It’s easy for me to say now that I would stand. Primarily I live in a context where I won’t be killed for that stand, but secondarily, I also know that resurrection will win out in the end. The disciples had neither of those things going for them, so I think if I were one of the 12 in those days and in that context, I might run. But what Jesus is getting at here is that if you stand- that is, if you take the risk of giving yourself to the Kingdom of God and that for which the Kingdom of God stands (which in Luke is good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed)- you will find life.
If we live in this world in mere self preservation, we will live in a kind of death. But if we die to ourselves by giving our lives fully to the Kingdom of God here in our midst, we will find a kind of life.