But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
The text of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is a key text in regards to understanding the things of the end. Many in our day are totally focused upon a secret rapture that divides the 2nd coming of the Lord Jesus into two separate events. The reality is that this text is addressing the resurrection of believers at the one event called the 2nd coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. I affirm that there is a “taking away” of the people of God but I would disagree that this event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is speaking of the taking away of the church for seven years and a precursor to the actual 2ndcoming of Christ. The second coming brings forth the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the wicked and the cosmic renewal of all things in a onetime event and not multiple proceedings.
The purpose of the text
The texts previously written and those after the text in question were written as a means of encouragement to the believers in Thessalonica especially as a guide as to how they “ought to walk and please God” (4:1) The text of 4:13-17 is no different in that he writes to the believers to exhort them to “not grieve as do the rest who have no hope”. Paul is going to comfort them by explaining the relationship between those who had died and those who were still alive during the coming of the Lord Jesus. Paul’s message was to encourage them regarding some believers who had passed on. It was not unnatural for them to grieve (John 11; Philippians 2:27) but his point was that they should not despair without hope as do the non-believers.
The hope they were blessed with was that “Jesus died and rose again”. This truth was their expectation since if He died and rose again then there is no reason for despair. Why so? It is because that meant that the Lord would be coming again with those who had passed on previously which are called those who had “fallen asleep in Jesus”. The inevitable result of believing that Jesus died and rose is the belief that God will raise and bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him.[i] Our life here in this age isn’t the end! This was what those who had no hope believed yet we are to have a hope in the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead. We have hope because the Lord Jesus is the firstborn of the dead (Colossian 1:18; Revelation 1:5). These scriptures are speaking of Christ’s supremacy over all things including death. Those who had fallen asleep will return with His coming hence there is no reason to grieve at all.
The 2nd coming
There are four main things that will happen at the return of the Lord Jesus:
- The dead will be raised
- Those alive will be transformed (1 Corinthians 15:35-54)
- All who are in Christ are caught up to meet the Lord in the air
- All will be with the Lord forever
The question that must be asked is does this resurrection occur at the end of history or as a precursor to what is called “the Great Tribulation”? One view sees that this text is speaking of the final resurrection where at the end of history when the Lord comes to separate the wheat and the tares/sheep and the goats yet another is this speaking of what is called the “Secret Rapture”.
A Secret Rapture?
I was once a believer in the Secret Rapture hence I held that the Lord will return to secretly take away His people without any notice. There would be a vanishing of believers while non-believers would be left behind to live through the seven year tribulation. This is a very unique understanding of this text by Dispensationalists who see the church taken away prior to the tribulation as mentioned above.[ii] I can appreciate why one would hold to this position which is consistent with their understanding of Daniel’s 70th week however I do not find it persuasive in light of the language utilize by Paul. Firstly we read that the descent of the Lord would be with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of the Lord. The language speaks of a great amount of noise that will precede the dead being raised. These expressions seem out of place if we are attempting to keep with the definition of a “secret” rapture. The trumpet of God is truly a study to itself. The trumpet was used in the OT to gather the dispersed people (Isaiah 27:13; Zechariah 9:14-16) and will be the means of doing so at the end of the age (1 Corinthians 15:52; Matthew 24:31). What should carefully be considered also is that the trumpet was used to announce the coming of the day of the Lord (Joel 2:1; Zephaniah 1:15-16). This sounding of the trumpet would certainly point to linking 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. Some have stated that these would only be heard by believers much like a divine dog whistle however the text does not give this impression and it misses Paul’s point. The resurrection would be seen as a victory of the people of God over their enemies. Are we to believe that this will be hidden? The return of the Lord in these texts gives no implicit or explicit evidence of anything secret hence it is the pretribulationist who carry the burden to prove his case. The scriptures tell us that His coming will be an “appearing” (Titus 2:14) not something secret and non-visible.
The parallel with Matthew 24[iii]
|Accompanied by Angels||4:16||24:31|
|With the trumpet of God||4:16||24:31|
|Believers gathered to Christ||4:17||24:31; 40-41|
|Comes like a thief||5:2,4||24:43|
|Unbelievers unaware of impending judgment||5:3||24:37-39|
|Judgment comes as pain upon an expectant mother||5:3||24:8|
|Believers are not deceived||5:4-5||24:43|
|Believers are to be watchful||5:6||24:37-39|
|Warning against Drunkenness||5:7||24:49|
“Meeting the Lord”
The expression in v.17 “we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” should be considered in light of its usage in other portions of scripture. The term “apantesis” was used by the Hellenistic Greeks to express the idea of an individual meeting another to escort them on the final leg of their trip. It was a term…to refer to a welcoming party leaving a city or a house in order to go down the road to meet an honoured guest, visiting dignitary, or triumphant military leader and form an escort party to accompany the person back to his home or town.[iv] There was a great honour bestowed upon those who had the privilege to meet the honoured official that was coming to a city. What is remarkable is that all the people, both the dead and the living, will participate in this glorious event.
There are two usages of this term in scripture that substantiate this definition mainly in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15 both demonstrate that the return of the dignitary or the important person was not similar to what the secret rapture theology desires us to believe. Nowhere do we read of apantesis as having any association with turning around and going back.
The question that must be raised is where are we told that we are caught up and then ushered to heaven for a period of seven years? We are not told what happens when we meet the Lord except that we will be with Him forever. If we keep with the normal usage of the language (apantesis) then we would have to conclude that the Lord returns with His people right away.
Are the events of 4:14-17 completely separate from 5:1-11?
There seems to be a link between these two sections in the first Thessalonians letter. Firstly, the text is speaking of three important subjects that are all interrelated: (1) The coming of the “Day of the Lord” (2) The believers being prepared for that day (3) The basis of their hope. The Day of the Lord will be like a thief in the night for the unbeliever because he will not be ready for when that time comes. He will be absorbed with “peace and safety” and much like a victim of a burglary he will be caught by surprise. Paul explains this further in vs. 4-8 where he contrasts these unbelievers with the Thessalonians in that those who are of the night are also those who get drunk at night while those who are the sons of light and day are those who would be “sober”. In other words the believers would not be caught off guard or surprised by the Day of the Lord since they would be prepared by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and a helmet, the hope of salvation.
Another point worth mentioning is that if the Day of the Lord is a completely different event from this “rapture” then why exhort these believers in Thessalonica to be alert and sober if they are already raptured? Both instances, Paul addresses “the Brethren” in his remarks!
Lastly I am not convinced of a complete separation between chap. 4 and chap. 5 because we read in v. 10 that the Lord Jesus died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. This passage is completely parallel with what was being said in chap. 4 when we read: For we believe Jesus died and rose again…the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them…so we shall always be with the Lord. Paul never disassociates the events of chap.4 and chap.5 because they are all one event. When the Lord returns, the dead will be raised, those alive will be transformed and all these will be taken up to meet Him and come back with Him for the judgment day.
[i] 1-2 Thessalonians, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, G.K. Beale, InterVarsity Press, Pages 134-135
[ii] The overarching reason for insisting that this is the rapture of the church is due to the dispensationalists radical separation of National Israel and the church. It is argued that God will one day deal with National Israel again to fulfill His Old Covenant promises to them. In order for God to do this however, the church must get out of the way and so they are “raptured” secretly while the tribulation goes on. I am not convinced that anyone who does not approach this text with these presuppositions would ever get a “secret rapture” of the church from these texts but the final resurrection and judgment.
[iii] 1-2 Thessalonians, IVP NTC, G.K. Beale, P. 137
[iv] A Case for Historic Premillennialism, Craig Bloomberg, Baker Academic, Page79