It’s human nature, whenever we have gotten ourselves in a tight spot, to look for an easy way out of our troubles. Some people, when they are down to their last dollar, will spend it on a lottery ticket, hoping to be magically rescued from their financial trouble. The real tragedy of this kind of escape is that the person who seeks such escape often misses opportunities to find happiness because they are simply waiting for their troubles to end. Some people look forward to “the Rapture” in a similar way. They expect that at any moment Christ will appear in the clouds and instantly whisk every believer out of the troubles they face in every day life, to be with Jesus up in the sky. While we may look forward to being with Jesus, it would be a shame if we missed the real presence of Jesus in our lives because we are expecting His coming to be a meteorological event.
What Kind of Kingdom?
When Jesus began His healing ministry, people gradually realized that He was the Messiah, and they hoped that He would set everything straight in their world. But when they tried to make Him a political king, He slipped away from them (John 6:15). They expected Christ to set up His kingdom in this world. When Jesus spoke of His kingdom, people assumed that he was going to be a political opponent of Caesar (Luke 23:2; John 19:12,15). Pilate asked him about this, and Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Jesus was not interested in fighting a political battle to gain a worldly kingdom, but He did fight a spiritual battle to establish a heavenly kingdom (John 6:15; Luke 22:49; Matthew 26:52). As Paul said later, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
In our normal language, we realize that “heaven” or “heavens” can mean either the sky we see above us or the place we will live after death. When we talk about the “birds in the heavens” or the “stars of the heavens” we generally mean the birds and stars in the sky we can see. But when we talk about “the kingdom of heaven” or “our Father in heaven” we are talking about a heaven that we cannot see—it is invisible to the eyes of our body but visible to the eyes of our spirit. So when Jesus spoke of His Coming, He told us not to expect to see it as a physical or political event. He said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20, 21). If the kingdom of heaven is within us, then where are the “clouds of heaven”?
The Clouds of Heaven
Jesus promised that His disciples would see Him coming in the clouds of heaven (Matthew 24:30, 26:64; Mark 14:6; Luke 21.27; Revelation 1:7; compare 2 Philippians 3:20; 2 Thessalonians 1:7). Some take this literally to mean that Jesus will appear up in the sky. When the Bible speaks of “the clouds of heaven” it sometimes means the clouds we see up in the sky. For example, when “heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” that came down on Ahab (2 Kings 18:44-45), we can picture the kind of storm many of us have experienced.
But in many other cases, “the heavens” and “the clouds of heaven” are meant as metaphors for things that are spiritual and heavenly, or things that are in our minds, not part of this physical universe. So when the Bible says that God is covered with a cloud, so that our prayer should not pass through (Lamentations 3:44), we shouldn’t think that physical clouds—mere droplets of water—could stop prayer. Rather, it refers to misunderstanding and confusion that “cloud” the mind and prevent us from knowing and relating to God.
When the Bible says that the king of Babylon thought he could “ascend above the heights of the clouds,” and “be like the most High” (Isaiah 14:14), it doesn’t mean that he literally went up into the clouds, but that he grasped too much power and was acting as if he were God. It is the same when Job says of a wicked person that “his haughtiness mounts up to the heavens, and his head reaches to the clouds” (Job 20:6).
This kind of metaphor is common in our everyday speech. If we say, “Joe has his head in the clouds, he’s building castles in the air,” or “Emily is walking on air, she’s on cloud nine,” no one would think of taking us literally. We know that we are not talking about a person’s body or appearance, but about their state of mind—about what’s going on inside them.
Jesus clearly stated that He was using parables and figurative language when speaking of the kingdom of heaven and His second coming (Matt 13:10,11,34; John 16:25). Unfortunately, some people think the Bible must be always taken completely literally—if it says “clouds” in means “clouds” and nothing more.
Actually, “clouds” are symbolic. The Bible says that the Lord’s mercy is in the heavens and His truth or faithfulness reaches to the clouds (Psalms 36:5; 57:10; 68:34; 85:11; 103:11; 108:4). These passages make a special connection between “clouds” and God’s truth. This is not referring to a physical location for His mercy and truth, but to how great they are. Mercy and truth are not physical objects, but spiritual qualities which exist in human hearts and in God’s heart and Word. Since “the clouds of heaven” means God’s Word, so is the rain that comes from those clouds: “As the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, … so shall My Word be that goes forth from My mouth: it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please” (Isaiah 55:10-11). “Let my teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, as raindrops on the tender herb, and as showers on the grass” (Deuteronomy 32:2).
Once we understand this clear connection between clouds and God’s truth, we can see why the people of Israel heard God’s voice coming from a cloud at Mt. Sinai when the Commandments were given, and the disciples heard a voice from the cloud at Jesus’ transfiguration (Exodus 19:16; Numbers 11:25; Deuteronomy 5:22; Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34-35).
What Is Rapture?
The Bible never uses the term “rapture,” but it may be an appropriate label for what Paul describes as being “caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Usually when we speak of a state of “rapture” it means ecstasy, or being emotionally caught up to a higher level, rather than being physically caught up into the sky. But some Christians think that Christ will come and literally take them up into the air. Some even have bumper stickers that say “In case of rapture, this car will be driverless.”
When the Bible says that a person’s head, heart or soul is “lifted up,” it often symbolizes and elated state of mind (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17:20; 2 Chronicles 17:6, 26:16, 32:25; Psalms 24:4, 27:6; Isaiah 2:12; Ezekiel 28:2, 5, 17, 31:10; Daniel 5:20, 23; Habakkuk 2:4). David describes himself as “lifted up on high” by God when he conquered his enemies (2 Samuel 22:49, 23:1; Psalms 30:1). In a similar way he felt that “his kingdom was lifted up on high” (1 Chronicles 14:2). No one would take this to mean that the country was literally taken up into the sky.
The Lord says that those who trust Him will “mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31), but this doesn’t mean they will literally go up in the sky. When the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, He said that He carried them up on eagle’s wings to be with Him (Exodus 19:4, Deuteronomy 32:11-12). Yet they never left the ground. They came from slavery to freedom, and found a new relationship with God, but nothing dramatic happened to their bodies. This idea of flying up to be with God is symbolic of their state of mind. We should not take it literally any more than we should take it literally when Solomon says that your money will sprout wings and “fly away like an eagle toward heaven” (Proverbs 23:5).
How We Are Caught Up to God
There is no doubt that Jesus wants to bring us all close to Him. He says, “Come to Me, all you who labor…and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), and He promises, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself” (John 12.32). We can experience this closeness if we only turn our minds to Him. “The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).
But we should realize that we don’t get any closer to God by changing our physical location, or even by making promises and confessing certain beliefs. There is no point in being like the people the Lord complains about who “draw near Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their heart far from Me” (Isaiah 29:13). It is our hearts that the Lord wants. “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded” (James 4:8). Jesus will come to us, and we can have our hearts and minds caught up to heaven to be with Him whenever we are willing to have our hearts made pure. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).