Bible Word Study on Harpazo

Last Updated: October 27, 2022

Introduction

One of the many ongoing theological debates in the early part of the 21st century is the rapture. Is it biblical? When will it happen? Does it carry the sense of meeting a dignitary? The goal of this word study is to analyze the occurrences of harpazo (ἁρπάζω), the Greek term behind the Latin rapio (“rapture”), in the New Testament as a starting point for further study on the rapture.

Basic Meaning of Harpazo

The basic meaning of harpazo is “to seize, carry off by force.”[1] Strong traces its meaning to haireomai (αἱρέομαι), meaning “to choose.”[2] The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek agrees, suggesting the meanings “to snatch, wrench, carry off (by force).”[3] Danker concurs, offering the meanings “to make off w. someone’s property … to grab or seize suddenly.”[4] The basic sense of harpazo, then, is a quick and forceful taking, esp. of physical persons or property.

Occurrences of Harpazo in the New Testament

The word harpazo occurs at least 13 times in 13 verses in the New Testament. There is a 14th occurrence in Matthew 12:29 in some manuscripts. These occurrences are as follows:

VerseTextNotes
Matt 11:12And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.The “violent” do … to the “kingdom of heaven.” Whether “violence” should be taken in physical or symbolic terms and whether it is opposing or advancing the Kingdom (c.f., Luke 16:16) is debated.
Matt 12:29Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.Debatable occurrence, διαρπάζω in some MSS. The “one” does … to the strong man, physically taking away the goods.
Matt 13:19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.The “wicked one” (Satan) does … to the seed that was sown in the heart of the person who “hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it” (v. 18), taking the seed away from their hearts.
John 6:15Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.Jesus knew that “those men” (v. 14) intended to do … to Him, taking Him with the purpose of crowning Him their king.
John 10:12But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.The “wolf” does … to the Christ’s sheep (believers, c.f. 10:28), taking them from Him and causing them to be scattered away from Christ’s watchful protection.
John 10:28And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.Jesus prohibits “anyone” from doing … to His sheep (believers) and taking them away from Him by granting them eternal life with Him.
John 10:29My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.Jesus protects His sheep (believers) whom the Father has given to Him, with the result that “no one” does … to His sheep, taking them away from Him.
Acts 8:39Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.The “Spirit of the Lord” does … to Philip, taking him away from the eunuch he had just baptized to Azotus and he continued preaching the gospel in all the cities on his way to Caesarea (v. 40).
Acts 23:10Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.The “soldiers” do … to Paul, taking him from among the chaos of the council to the safety of the barracks.
2 Cor 12:2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.God (divine passive) does … to Paul (writing in the 3rd person), taking him (whether bodily or in spirit only is unknown, v. 3) from earth into “the third heaven.”
2 Cor 12:4how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.As before, where God does … to Paul, taking him from earth into “Paradise” where Paul hears words he says people ought not to utter.
1 Thess 4:17Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.God (divine passive) does … to “we who are alive,” taking them from earth to “the clouds” where they meet Christ and they will from this time forward remain with Him.
Jude 23but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.Jude commands that his readers do … to others (who have followed after the false teachers), taking them “out of the fire” (final judgment) that they may receive salvation.
Rev 12:5She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne.God (divine passive) does … to the Child of the pregnant woman, taking the Child from earth (v. 4) to heaven, referring to the ascension of Christ.

Themes of Harpazo in the New Testament

The New Testament occurrences of harpazo are grouped into five major themes below based on the nature of the subject, the action, and the object.

Twice, harpazo is performed on ideas: the kingdom of heaven (Matt 11:12) and the word of the kingdom (Matt 13:19).

Twice, harpazo is performed on non-human things: goods (Matt 12:29) and sheep (John 10:12).

Twice, harpazo is performed by humans physically toward other humans: when the crowds sought to make Jesus king (John 6:15) and when Paul was taken from the council (Acts 23:10).

Three times, harpazo is performed spiritually by persons who are not God toward humans: Jesus twice says no one can take believers from him (John 10:28, 29; including Satan and spiritual beings) and Jude tells believers to save others by pulling them from the fire (Jude 23).

Five times, harpazo is performed by God toward humans: once by the Spirit on Philip (Acts 8:39), twice when God took Paul into the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2, 4), once when believers meet Christ in the air (1 Thess 4:17), and once describing the ascension of Christ (Rev 12:5).

Six occurrences involve attempted or actual physical relocation (Matt 12:29; John 6:15; 10:12; Acts 8:39; 23:10; Rev 12:5). Three occurrences are spiritual, referring to either losing or gaining salvation (John 10:28, 29; Jude 23). The physical/spiritual nature of three occurrences is unclear—Paul’s experience (2 Cor 12:2, 4) and the rapture (1 Thess 4:17).

Occurrences of Harpazo in the Septuagint (LXX)

The word harpazo occurs 39 times in 38 verses in the Septuagint (LXX).[5] All but two involve physical relocation. One of the two exceptions is Psalm 7:3, a symbolic depiction of death as a snatching of the soul: 

lest he snatch my soul as a lion 
            while there is no one to redeem nor to save.

The second exception is Judith 16:9, a symbolic depiction of the fall of Assyria (16:3):

Her sandal ravished his eye,
            and her beauty captured his soul;
            the sword went through his neck.

Regarding the themes of harpazo previously mentioned, the LXX supports the generally physical sense of harpazo, which may be used in a plain-sense fashion or metaphorically.

Select References on Harpazo

New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis

In 1 Thess 4:13–17 Paul deals with the final rapture into the fellowship of the redeemed at the last day. It was not the sufferings of the church that caused Paul to make the statement, but the concern of some of its members about the fate of Christians who had already died. This concern is removed by the certainty of resurrection. When the Lord comes, those Christians who have died will rise first, and those who are still alive will not die but will be taken up directly into the fellowship of those who have already been raised, “as they leave the gates of the world to meet in the air the Christ acclaimed as Lord” (E. Petersen, Heis Theos [1926], 380).[6]

Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament

A special area in which the vb. is used is that of experiences of being carried off supernaturally (5 occurrences in the NT). Ἁρπάζω and its compounds (corresponding to Lat. rapio, rapior) are the Greek terms used earliest for such experiences, including such experiences within the earthly realm (Lohfink 42 provides examples). The latter is meant in Acts 8:39 when Philip is caught up by the Spirit of the Lord following his baptism of the eunuch. Paul speaks of an ecstatic experience of being “caught up to the third heaven,” “into Paradise” (2 Cor 12:2, 4; RSV vv. 2, 3) in the traditional formulas of the rapture and ascension texts of ancient and Jewish literature (cf. esp. 2 Enoch 8; further examples in H. Windisch, Der zweite Korintherbrief [KEK] 369–80; Lohfink 32–73). According to 1 Thess 4:17a those “who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with [those who have already died] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” with the goal of unending union “with (σύν) the Lord.”[7]

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

“To take something forcefully” (firmly, quickly or rapaciously). Thus a. “to steal” (Jos. Ant., 20, 214 of robbers), b. “To capture in war.” In the NT the word is used in parables which speak of the conflict between the kingdom of God and that of Satan: ἁ λύκος ἁρπάζει (steals) τὰ πρόβατα, Jn. 10:12; οὐχ ἁρπάσει (forcefully snatch) τις αὐτὰ ἐκ τῆς χειρός μου, Jn. 10:28, 29; Mt. 12:29 (the battle between the strong man and the stronger): τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ ἁρπάσαι. c. With the thought of speed: Jos. Ant., 6, 238: ἁρπάσας τὸ δόρυἀνεπήδησεν (Saul); also Jd. 23: to “snatch” out of the fire. d. “To take rapaciously”: Epict. Diss., IV, 7, 22: ἰσχαδοκάρυά τις διαρριπτεῖ· τὰ παιδία ἁρπάζει. e. “To take a man by force”: Chrys. Beat. Philog., VI, 2 (MPG, 48, 751): ἐκ μέσης τῆς ἀγορᾶς ἁρπασθείς, Jn. 6:15; Ac. 23:10. Similarly in Mt. 13:19: “to take away.” f. To denote the rapture of visions. In this sense it does not occur in the LXX, which instead uses αἴρειν at 3 Βασ‌. 18:12; Ez. 3:14 and ἀναλαμβάνειν at Ez. 3:12. It is found, however, in the pseudepigr.: Apc. Mos. 37; Apc. Esr. 5:7; Gr. Bar. passim. In the NT it occurs at 2 C. 12:2, 4 (vision); 1 Th. 4:17; Rev. 12:5 (“to catch up or away”); Ac. 8:39—always expressing the mighty operation of God.[8]

Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible

The “catching up” (from Lat. rapti.) of the saints to meet the Lord in the air, mentioned by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:17. Paul’s comments in 1 Thess. 4:14–18 are prompted by the expressions of excessive grief by some in the young congregation at the loss of loved ones. He comforts them by deepening their hope of resurrection, which he assures them will not disadvantage the deceased at all, but will mark the reunion of all believers and their permanent abiding with the Lord in resurrected glory.[9]

Conclusion

The basic meaning of harpazo (ἁρπάζω), the Greek term behind the Latin rapio (“rapture”), is a is a quick and forceful taking. Biblically, it is performed by God. living things, and ideas, to living things, objects, and ideas. It covers a variety of events, including plundering goods, relocating people, taking ideas, and altering a person’s eternal destiny.

As to God’s harpazo of humans, it involves relocating them, as in the cases of Philip (Acts 8:39), Paul (2 Cor 12:2–4), believers (1 Thess 4:17) and the ascension of Christ (Rev 12:5). It can certainly be physical, as in the cases of Philip and Christ’s ascension. Whether it may be purely spiritual is unclear (2 Cor 12:3).

Regarding whether the Rapture is biblical and who participates, it is a real event involving believers at the time when Christ descends from heaven into the air (1 Thess 4:17). It is primarily physical in the Bible, suggesting that the rapture involves the physical relocation of the human body of its participants.

Regarding the timing of the Rapture, where the participants go afterward, and its purpose, the word harpazo does notcarry a sense of timeframe, direction, or purpose. The timing of the rapture and the idea of meeting a dignitary require further study.


[1] James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995), s.v. “ἁρπάζω.” Logos Bible Software.

[2] Ibid., s.v. “αἱρέομαι.”

[3] Franco Montanari, “ἁρπάζω,” in The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, ed. Madeleine Goh and Chad Schroeder (Boston: Brill, 2015). Italics his. Logos Bible Software.

[4] Frederick William Danker, ed., “ἁρπάζω,” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rded. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 134. Logos Bible Software.

[5] Ken M. Penner, et al. The Lexham English Septuagint, 2nd Ed. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019. Logos Bible Software.

[6] Moisés Silva, ed., “ἁρπάζω,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 1:402–403. Logos Bible Software.

[7] Wolfgang Trilling, “ἁρπάζω,” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 1:157. Logos Bible Software.

[8] Werner Foerster, “Ἁρπάζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:472. Logos Bible Software.

[9] Charles E. Hill, “Rapture,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1111. Logos Bible Software.

Published by timn

Husband // Father // Jesus-Follower

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