1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – But we would not have you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 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. 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. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Question: How can the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 be the fulfillment of the prophesies of the coming of Jesus? When Jesus comes, aren’t we going to be raptured up and meet those who have died before us? Surely that didn’t happen when the Romans attacked the Holy City?
What situation was Paul addressing?
The people in Thessalonica were awaiting the Lord’s presence (or coming). However, many were concerned that those who had died before this event would miss out on its benefits. The verses following all address this problem. Paul is not (primarily) speaking about the coming of Jesus, but he is addressing the lot of those who would not be alive to witness it.
Verses 13, 14: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
Verse 18: Therefore comfort one another with these words.
An aside over the meaning of “God will bring with Him…” (verse 14)
The image of Jesus coming down to earth leading an army of resurrected Christians, I believe, is not the intention of verse 14. The words ‘bring with’ (Greek ago sun), imply something stronger than mere accompaniment. ‘Bring’ (ago, means lead or bring). ‘With’ (sun) denotes a closer relationship than one that would suggest leading in Jesus’ company. The usual word ‘with’ that would mean ‘in company with’ is meta. Examples of where it is used are Matt 5:41; 9:15; 15:30; 16:27.
In fact, the combined words sunago (Strong’s ref 4863) is used to mean gathering together into a unit, for example in John 11:52 – “…He might also (sunago) gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
In other words, those who had fallen asleep up until the time Paul speaks of, would be drawn or gathered together by God. It does not mean they would be led down to earth by God.
What was the Hope?
“…so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” (verse 13)
The ‘hope’ was the hope of the resurrection of the dead. The next verse contrasts those who have no hope with their own belief: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
Acts 24:15 – “I have a hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.” (Paul to the Roman governor)
Acts 26:6-8 – “And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain… And for this hope, O king, I am being accused by the Jews. Why is it considered incredible among you if God does raise the dead?”
Their hope was in the resurrection. For those who were worried about those who had “fallen asleep”, Paul reminded them their hope was their “sleeping” loved ones would not miss out on the resurrection.
So this is a passage about the resurrection?
Now, we ask ourselves, what is the resurrection? When we die, we go straight to heaven, right? Well, this certainly did not happen before Jesus’ work.
John 3:13 – No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. So, this was the case up to Jesus’ coming to earth.
Going up to heaven would happen after Jesus came in power.
It may be hard to agree on a time sequence in John’s Revelation, but at “the hour of judgement” in chapter 14, verse 7, the angel proclaiming this time is followed by a second angel who announces the fall of Babylon (v8), then a third angel proclaims God’s wrath on the beast, his image and his followers (v9-12). Then:
Revelation 14:13 – And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow with them.”
That is, at the time of the judgement, there is a sudden change:
Before that point of fulfillment of that part of Revelation, the dead were not yet to “rest from their labours”. In the sense that they were no longer burdened with life, they were, of course, resting. However in the sense of eternal rest – i.e. ‘Heaven’, see Hebrews 4 – they had yet to wait. At that point, the dead were raised. After that point, the dead would not have to wait.
So what is Paul saying? At the resurrection, the dead in Christ would be raised, to be with Jesus. They were not to be grieved over, because they were ‘blessed’ as participants of the first resurrection. “The dead in Christ will rise first.”
So what about ‘we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord’?
Verses 15-17: 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, shall 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 shall rise first. (17) Then 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.
First of all, look at the sense of verse 15 and 17. Is there any precedence in the Bible where this could possibly be talking about not ‘we’, but someone thousands of years in the future?
Secondly, look at verses 16 and 17 with a pencil in hand.
The key words in verse 17 are: then, caught up, clouds and air.
Take the passage at face value, but first pencil over some of the translated English words with a few alternatives.
Then – There are (at least) two words translated to ‘then’. One is eita, meaning ‘next’ as in next in a sequence of events, occurring shortly after the previous event.
John 19:26-27 – “He said to His mother … then (eita) He said to the disciple…”
The other word is epeita, that is, epi eita, or after then, or after that. It has the sense of some time after the previous event, or from then on.
Galatians 1:18 – Then (epieta) three years later I went up to Jerusalem…(at least 15 days)
Galatians 2:1 – Then (epieta) after an interval of fourteen years…
1 Thessalonians 4:17 uses epeita. So, it is not so much that immediately after the resurrection of the dead, we would be caught up. Rather, after that time, or from then on, or thereafter, we would be caught up. Just replace ‘then’ with ‘after that’.
Caught up – harpazo This does not mean ‘lifted up’ in any sense of the word. It means ‘snatched’. The sense is determined by the context.
Matt 13:19 – the evil one comes and snatches (harpazo) away what has been sown in his heart.
John 10:12 – the wolf snatches (harpazo) them…
John 10:28,9 – no one shall snatch (harpazo) them out of My hand, the Father’s hand
Jude 23 – snatching (harpazo) them out of the fire
The two places where it can mean ‘lifted up’ are:
2 Cor 12:2-4 – “I know a man [who]… was caught up to the third heaven… caught up into Paradise…” Here, the adverbs, ‘to’ (verse 2) and ‘into’ (verse 4) give it the suggestion of direction. Notice also that this person was snatched, but it does not necessarily mean that it had to be bodily. “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.” It is possible to be spiritually snatched as well!
Rev 12:5 – “her child was caught up to God and to His throne.” Again, the adverb pros (forward to, toward) gives it a sense of direction.
The adverb used in verse 15 is ‘in’, but this is never used as ‘into’ (en). In fact, according to Strong’s Concordance, there is never a suggestion of motion. The word is ‘in’ as in “In Jerusalem. It is also translated ‘within’, and generally means that.
So, we who are alive and remain will be snatched within the clouds. Just pencil ‘snatched… within’ over ‘caught up… in’.
The Clouds – These are representative of the presence of God. They are God’s chariot (Psalm 104:3). The term in the clouds is never used to mean ‘in the sky’. “In the clouds” simply means with God, or, in this case, with Jesus.
Except for Jude 1:12, the words ‘cloud’ or ‘clouds’ are never in the context of a simple meteorological feature. Up in the clouds is always the location of God or Jesus, whether His abode, or His ‘chariot’. If you look at every reference to the term, and then look at 1 Thessalonians 4:17, I believe it would be clear that ‘in the clouds’ would be the natural ‘place’ to meet with the Lord, but it is a spiritual place, and not in the physical sky.
The air – (aer) This again never means the sky. Two words are translated to ‘air’. The one meaning ‘sky’ (ouranos) is usually translated ‘heavens’, as in “The birds of the air (sky)”.
The ‘air’ in 1 Thess 4:17 (aer) means just that: the air around you. Always at low level, never in the ‘sky’.
Acts 22:23 – …and they were … tossing dust into the air.
Rev 22:23 – And the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air… (note that this was done by an angel standing on the earth, so the air was not in the sky).
Rev 9:2 – … and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by smoke from the pit.
1 Cor 14:9 – For you will be speaking into the air.
1 Cor 9:26 – Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air.
The “air” could possibly refer to the spirit realm. Paul, in Ephesians 2:2, refers to the devil as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience.” This use of “air” (aer) is the only other one in the New Testament.
I am reminded that the word for spirit is nearly the same: pneuma, meaning a current of air, or a breath. The spiritual powers of Ephesians 6:12 are pneumatika. For the Jews, blown air, or wind, or expired air was used to portray the ethereal, non-carnal, or spiritual.
Because of this, and the fact that it never means sky, I believe that meeting with the Lord in the air refers to a spiritual rather than physical meeting. I believe that the Thessalonians would have understood Paul’s words more like the following:
Verse 15 – After that (the resurrection of the dead), we who are alive and remain shall be snatched together with them in God’s presence, to meet the Lord in the spiritual realm.
How would they have been expected to understand this? The dead would be resurrected at the Lord’s coming, and the rest of us would eventually meet them in heaven.
Paul is not talking about a physical ‘rapture’. The concept of a rapture has no other support in the Bible, and I believe it has none in 1 Thessalonians 4, either. Paul is addressing the ‘first resurrection’, showing how it is not just the living at the time of Jesus’ return who would benefit. Rather, the dead in Jesus had simply been awaiting the time when they would be given access to heaven, and God’s presence.
The Thessalonians were not to grieve for the dead, as those who did not believe in the hope of the resurrection, but to be comforted.
There is no physical rapture. It is a spiritual event that occurs to each of us when we die, to meet with the Lord, “and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”