With what rapture

Sun, 04/12/2016 - 15:26 -- James Oakley
Image Credit: phtorxp

It's Advent, which traditionally has two focii.

The season is about preparing for the coming of Christ. The more obvious half of that is preparing to celebrate Christmas. The other side to it is about the final return of Christ to this world, when he comes to judge the living and the dead, to usher in the new heavens and the new earth, and to free the cosmos from its bondage to decay. What we, slightly mistakenly, call the "second coming". We remind ourselves that it's coming, and we prepare ourselves for it.

It gives us a choice to sing Charles Wesley's fine hymn, 'Lo he comes with clouds descending'

Here's verse 3:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshippers:
with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

As we sang that last Sunday, I found myself thinking about those words. What do they mean? And as you ponder, you realise they're really quite wonderful.

We can make two mistakes about the return of Jesus. Both erode that most precious thing - our hope as Christians. One mistake is over-use of our imagination - we dream up all kinds of details that are mostly just guesswork. Deep down we know we're just guessing, so we don't believe any of it anymore. Our hope is eroded.

The other mistake is to under-use our imagination. We need to take what God has told us, and chew it over, until sinks somewhere very deep inside us. Until it permeates the way we see the world, the way we feel, the people we are. That requires imagination, but it's imagination to digest what God's told us, not to fill the vacuum you get when we ignore what God's told us.

Wesley's hymn will help us to use our imaginations in a good way. Let's look at this:

Dazzling Body

When Jesus returns, it will not be in humility and obscurity, but in power and great glory. Already, after his resurrection, there was something different about his body. He could pass through locked doors, to say nothing of a sealed tomb. Paul would say that Jesus is the firstfruits of all who have fallen asleep in him, a second Adam, the first of a glorious new humanity. His body, before death, was of an earthly kind, but his body post-resurrection is of a heavenly kind, and we will undergo the same kind of glorious transformation.

No Christian who loves Jesus could possibly fail to be drawn by this image. One day we will get to see the risen Christ for ourselves. A friend of mine said that he was recently less than 10 metres from two future kings of England. How glorious to be a matter of feet from the king of the universe! And how wonderful to be just feet from him, in all his risen, glorious, dazzling splendour!

Dear Tokens

But then Wesley wrote this: "Those dear tokens of his Passion still his dazzling body bears."

Again, this is biblical. When he rose from death, he still had the nailmarks in his hands and feet, and the hole from the spear in his side. He invited Thomas to place his hand there, to help him believe Jesus really was physically back.

The book of Revelation depicts the glorified Jesus in a number of ways, but a prominent one is "a lamb, looking as though it had been slain." That lamb sits on a throne. He reigns in splendour. Yet he looks like a lamb that's been slain. You can still see that he's been through death.

The verse holds those two thoughts together in what may appear to be an oxymoron: "glorious scars". That couplet is the most beautiful juxtaposition in time or eternity.

Devoted Gaze

But what it will be like, feel like to be there on that day as a believer? (Verse 2 gives you the other side of the coin).

For that, we need the second half of the verse:

cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshippers:
with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

The "tokens of his passion" will be a cause of endless exultation. "Exultation" means rejoicing. "Endless" means it goes on forever. It is precisely because we are his ransomed worshippers that the tokens of his passion will be the cause of our joy. Just as the glorified Jesus will still look slain, so we who have been brought near in worship will never forget that we are only there because Jesus' death paid a very costly ransom. So as we worship, it is the marks on his body that bring us the greatest joy.

Similarly, we gaze on his "glorious scars" with "rapture". This has nothing to do with some pre-millenial concept of a rapture before a millenial rule of Christ. I could comment on that view, but right now I don't want to get sidetracked by it. What is described here is after all of those events have completed, whatever view you take on eschatology. This is right at the very end, when Jesus and his worshippers are glorified.

No, this is the more straight-forward use of the word "rapture". We gaze on those scars, but we do so enraptured. We can't take our eyes off them. We're totally captivated, awe-struck.

There is the beautiful picture of what it will be like.

Picture the Scene

Just take yourself there, in your mind's eye, for a moment. There's Jesus, surrounded by people who have waited all their lives for this moment. Suddenly, he's face to face in front of you. It's your turn to say something. He breaks the ice - he remembers you're English, and holds his hand out for you to shake. But suddenly you forget you're English. Much as you might notice a prominent birthmark, you can't help noticing the hole right through the middle of his hands, about 8mm across.

You can't just shake that hand, can you? It's not just that it's clearly a healed wound. It's that suddenly your heart and your head are spinning. That hole was made by a nail that held that hand to a wooden cross. That was the three hours when he carried all of your sins as if they were his own, punished for iniquities he did not commit. That was the moment when the burden was taken from your own shoulders, and you were truly free, fully innocent, acquitted. He paid that, and this is one of the holes that was made as he did so.

Cautiously, you look at him. "May I shake that hand? Can I, … touch, …" You don't need to finish the sentence, as he cuts in. "Yes, you can," he says. And you take his hand and shake it, and look him firmly in the eye, and as you do so tears stream down your face. Only tears of joy, as the other kind have long been wiped away. And you never want that moment to end, as you think over and over what that hole symbolises, what it achieved. And whilst there are countless other people, ten thousand times ten thousand (symbolically) you have all eternity to live that moment. (The mathematician in me would point out that dividing eternity by a myriad is still eternity). That moment doesn't need to end.

“… with what rapture …”

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