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27 February 2020

Meeting Jesus in the Air - (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

SynopsisPaul reassured the Thessalonians that both living and dead saints will participate in the arrival of Jesus from heaven. Dead believers will be resurrected before he arrives to be reunited with saints still alive at the time.

Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash
By Jakub Kriz on Unsplash
A key passage from the first letter by the Apostle Paul to the church at Thessalonica has become the main proof text for the doctrine of the “rapture,” the belief that near the end of the age Jesus will remove his church from the earth and transfer it to heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

According to this interpretation, Paul first revealed this “mystery” for the first time in his epistle to the Thessalonians. However, it ignores the literary context and the reason why the Apostle raised the subject matter (i.e., “What happens to believers who die before the return of Jesus?”). The solution he proposed was the resurrection of dead believers and their reunification with saints still alive on that day, not their removal from the planet. All saints, both the living and the dead, then meet Jesus as he descends from heaven.

A key problem with this popular view is that the passage never states whether Jesus returns to heaven accompanied by the saints or continues his descent to the earth after meeting them in the air. Furthermore, this view stands in tension with the other statements about the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus by the Apostle Paul.

(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest ye be sorrowing, even as the rest also, who are without hope; for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For this we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first, after that we, the living who are left, together with them will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord. So then be consoling one another with these words.”

In verses 1-12 of this chapter, Paul exhorts the Thessalonian Christians to walk in holiness, abstain from sexual immorality, refrain from transgressing against fellow believers, continue in love, and to attend to their own business. In such ways, they will become proper witnesses of the gospel to the outside community and, thereby, “please God.”
The purpose of the passage in verses 13-18 is to reassure the Thessalonians that believers who die prior to the “arrival” of Jesus will participate fully in that event. Dead and living Christians will be reunited with Jesus as he descends from heaven at a meeting “in the air.” From that point, they will be “together with the Lord forevermore.” The words are meant to comfort the Thessalonians. 

Threaded throughout the chapter is the theme of attaining holiness before God, especially in consideration of the future coming of Jesus.  This is achieved by proper conduct, exercising love, and by remaining faithful through tribulations. 

This paragraph begins with the clause, “now…concerning” (deperi), a phrase Paul uses elsewhere to introduce new subjects (see, 1 Thessalonians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 7:1, 7;25, 8:1, 12;1, 16:1).

Paul writes what follows because he does not wish his readers “to be ignorant” of the topic and how the coming of Jesus will affect both the living and dead believers on the day when it occurs (see, Romans 1:13, 1 Corinthians 10:1, 12:1, 2 Corinthians 1:8).

The Thessalonians are not ignorant of the coming of Jesus but about how it will affect dead Christians.  This is clarified by several statements made by Paul:

…We would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are asleep: that you may not grieve…God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep… we who are alive: who are left until the coming of the Lord: will not precede those who have fallen asleep… the dead in Christ will rise first… then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them… to meet the Lord…in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord…comfort one another with these words.”

Will believers who die before the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus participate in that event?  How this question came about is not stated in the letter.

The issue is not theological but functional. Paul addresses a real concern that could impact the entire community of believers. An incorrect understanding could turn Christian grief into hopelessness (“that you may not grieve even as the rest who have no hope”). Paul’s purpose is to reassure and comfort (“comfort one another with these words”).

The Apostle does not criticize the Thessalonian believers for their grief over dead loved ones. Christians experience grief but they are not without hope.  But he does not want them to grieve as those outside the church that have no hope because they do not possess the knowledge that God will resurrect the righteous dead.

The Thessalonians are concerned that fellow believers who die prior to the parousia might not experience the resurrection at the same time or in the same manner as Christians who are still alive on that day. The answer given by Paul is that, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, “so, also, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.”

At the outset of his explanation, Paul grounds the resurrection hope of the church in the past death and resurrection of Jesus. As elsewhere in the New Testament, his resurrection is presented as the guarantee of the future resurrection of all believers (seeJohn 14:19, Acts 26:23, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5).

Participation in the glorious events of that day is not based on whether one is dead or alive but on faith in what God has accomplished in Jesus (“for if we believe that Jesus has died and rose again…”). What counts is faith at the time of death or the moment of Christ’s arrival.  This is demonstrated by the phrase - “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” The last clause indicates that believers in the right relationship with Jesus at the time of their death will be resurrected (compare, “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” - 1 Corinthians 15:18). 

Paul next refers to a “word of the Lord” that authenticates this hope.  He does not state whether this “word” is a pre- or post-resurrection saying of Jesus.  Elsewhere in his writings, he demonstrates his familiarity with many of the sayings of Jesus (compare, 1 Corinthians 7:10-12Matthew 5:32, 10:10, 19:6-9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18).

The picture of the parousia painted by Paul draws on sayings from the so-called ‘Olivet Discourse’ of Jesus. He describes how Jesus will “descend from heaven” accompanied by an “archangel.”  A trumpet will sound and believers will be gathered to him “in the clouds” (see, Matthew 24:30-31, “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and he will come on the clouds…he will send out his angels to gather his elect…a loud trumpet.”

Another verbal parallel is found in the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13).  The bridesmaids fall asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. They are awakened by “a shout” and a command to go out “to meet” the bridegroom as he arrives.  They “rose” and “went with him” into the wedding feast. Likewise, in Thessalonians, the issue is the participation of believers that “have fallen asleep.” Likewise, when Jesus arrives, he will be accompanied by “shout” and the voice of the archangel.  Then the dead, those who have fallen asleep, “rise” first and are caught up with living saints “to meet the Lord and to be with him forever.”

The Greek noun rendered “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 (apantêsis) is the same one used in Matthew25:6. The only other New Testament verse where it occurs is Acts 28:15. The bridesmaids do not die but “fall asleep.” However, this occurs over time because the bridegroom tarries. Likewise, in Thessalonica, some “fell asleep” or died over the passage of time while waiting for the arrival of Jesus. The “word of the Lord,” therefore, most likely refers to these sayings of the historical Jesus.

Sleep was a common euphemism for death in Greco-Roman society and Paul uses it to depict the state of dead Christians. His language is metaphorical, not literal. One should not press the image of sleep to determine whether the dead are at present conscious or unconscious. That issue is not under discussion in the passage.

Paul is more explicit when he calls those who are asleep the “dead in Christ.” He uses the Greek adjective nekroi. This refers to dead persons, not to the abstract state of death. The reference to dead saints suggests that they have yet to receive their full salvation; dead believers and those still alive are waiting to be resurrected and united with Jesus; thus, their salvation remains incomplete until is parousia.  

If the Thessalonians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, then “God will bring those who fell asleep through Jesus with him.”  The phrase is like the usage by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:18 (“Those who fell asleep in Christ”).  Most likely, this phrase refers to Christians who die while in a proper relationship with Jesus. “Him” refers to Jesus. This is comparable to verse 17: “In this manner we will be evermore with the Lord.”

Paul states that “we, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord.”  This demonstrates that Christians will be alive on the earth at the time when Jesus arrives (compare, 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “We will not all sleep: but we will all be changed: and the dead will be raised imperishable: and we will be changed”).

The Greek noun rendered “coming” in many versions of 1 Thessalonians 4:15 is Parousia. The term means “arrival, coming, presence.”  Its most frequent use in the New Testament is with the sense of “arrival.” Thus, for example, in 1 Corinthians 16:17, Paul rejoices at the “arrival of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus.”  In 2 Corinthians 7:6, he was “comforted by the arrival of Titus.”

In his letters to the Thessalonians Paul applies parousia in all but one instance to the “coming” of Jesus. Once he refers to a “coming” or parousia of the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9).  He uses parousia for the coming of Jesus only once outside of the two Thessalonian letters (1 Thessalonians 2:193:13, 4:15, 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2:8, 1 Corinthians 15:23).

Elsewhere in his writings, the Apostle uses different Greek terms for the “coming” or return of Jesus; for example, “appearing” in Titus 2:13Parousia is used for the coming of Jesus also in Matthew 24:324:2724:37-39James 5:82 Peter 1:163:4, and 1 John 2:28.

Paul consistently applies the term parousia to Christ’s coming in his first letter to the Thessalonians, therefore, it is more than probable that each time he refers to the same event.  If so, then associated with the event is the sanctification of the saints before God, the resurrection of dead saints, the arrival of Jesus “from heaven,” the sound of a trumpet, the voice of an archangel, the gathering of both resurrected and live saints, the “meeting” with the Lord in the air, the destruction of the man of lawlessness, and the “Day of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:13, 4:15, 5:1-2, 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-9).

The Apostle uses a double negative for emphasis in the Greek sentence of Verse 15: “No, not precede them who have fallen asleep”. Those still alive will “certainly not” precede the dead in Christ in meeting the Lord.  The emphasis is to reassure the Thessalonians regarding their dead compatriots; they will be raised “first” before the transformation of saints still alive at that time.

Verse 16 uses an intensive pronoun, autos; “the Lord himself will descend from heaven.” This emphasizes that Jesus will arrive in-person to reunite living and dead saints and to meet them together “in the air.” This is another small touch to reassure Christians regarding their dead fellow believers.

The dead in Christ will rise first.”  This is the key “new” piece of information that Paul now introduces.  He taught this previously, however, what he now divulges is that the dead rise first before those still alive at the time. This new information serves to comfort the Thessalonians concerning the fate of their dead brothers and sisters.

Paul describes three audible features that will be heard at the parousia of Jesus:
  1. A shout.
  2. The voice of an archangel.
  3. The trumpet of God.
The audible aspects indicate this will be a public event, not a secret one.  Verse 16 does not state to whom the shout is directed. One possibility is that it is the call of Jesus to summon the dead to rise from their graves.  This idea occurs also in John 5:25 (“An hour is coming and now is: when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God: and those who hear will live”).

Archangel” does not have a definite article or “the”; Paul does not identify a specific archangel.  The emphasis is on an archangel’s “voice.”

The reference to the “trumpet of God” is similar to other scriptures that associate trumpet blasts with the “Day of the Lord.” This fits well; in his second letter to the Thessalonians Paul identifies the parousia of Jesus with the “day of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2. See, Isaiah 27:13, Joel 2:11, Zechariah 9:14, 1 Corinthians 15:52).

The Greek word rendered “meet” is apantêsis, a noun found only here, Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. It means a “meeting.” With the preposition eis, as here, it has the sense, “We will be caught away on clouds for a meeting of the Lord in the air.”

In Greek-speaking communities, parousia often referred to as the “arrival” of a royal dignitary to a city or province. When an exalted personage approached the city, its leading citizens went out of the city walls to “meet” him with pomp and ceremony. Next, they would escort him back into the city. For such “meetings” the Greek term apantêsis was used, the same word employed for believers who will “meet the Lord in the air.”

In the cities of the Roman Empire, it was illegal to bury the dead within city walls.  The approach roads to a city were lined with graves. Likewise, the usage of apantêsis and parousia by Paul pictures the righteous dead being raised first as Jesus draws near. Then, together with those still alive, the reunited group meets the Lord as he descends and accompanies him as he completes his descent to the earth.

Verse 17 refers to believers being “caught up” to the clouds.  This rendering can be misleading. The Greek verb harpazō means “to snatch: to seize.” By itself, it contains no information regarding direction; no sense of “up” (compare, Matthew 11:12, 12:29, 13:19, John 6:15, 10:12, 10:28-29, Acts 8:39, 23:10, 2 Corinthians 12:2, 12:4, Jude 1:23, Revelation 12:5).

Clouds” are associated elsewhere in Scripture with the return of the Son of Man in glory at the end of the age (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Acts 1:9-11, Revelation 1:7).

After the meeting with the Lord, believers will be with him “always” or pantote. The term means “always,” “evermore,” “at all times.”  The point is that after this meeting believers will be with Jesus forevermore.  Precisely where this occurs is not provided. Some argue that Jesus then returns with his saints to heaven, but this is an assumption.  It is just as likely that the saints accompany him as he continues his descent to the earth.

The Thessalonians are to “comfort one another with these words.” This phrase concludes this passage, which is intended to comfort those grieving over the deaths of fellow believers. Christians who die before the coming of Jesus will not be deprived.

Old Testament Allusions

The Lord will descend “from heaven with a shout: with the archangel's call: and with the sound of a trumpet of God.” This alludes to Psalm 47:5, “God has ascended with a shout: the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.”  This verbal echo is fitting since it is a celebration of God’s rule over the nations.  Yahweh was declared king over all the earth and all nations were subjugated under His feet. 

The clause, “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord,” alludes to Daniel 7:13 (“and behold: with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming”).  In Daniel’s vision, all kingdoms come under the rule of the Son of Man and his saints.  This dominion takes place on the earth.  The reference to clouds also recalls other divine theophanies found in scripture (Exodus 19:16, 24:15-18, 40:34, 1 Kings 8:10-11, Psalm 97:2, Mark 13:26, 14:62).

Summary

The doctrine of the “rapture” is found in this verse only by reading it into it, whether the pre-, mid- or post-tribulation version. Nowhere does the passage state that believers are removed from the earth and transported to heaven. The question of how this event fits with the Great Tribulation is not raised. Such questions are not addressed by the passage.

The focus is on reassuring the Thessalonians regarding the full participation of saints who die before the return of Jesus in the events of that day. Dead believers will be resurrected and reunited with ones still alive, then together they will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven and, thus, be in his presence forevermore.

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