What Happens to Christians Who Die?
(1 Thessalonians 4:13–18)
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. 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. (4:13–18)
The study of the end times is the consuming passion of many in the church today. Sensational best-selling authors argue that current events fulfill their often dubious interpretations of biblical prophecy. Some claim to have figured out the secret that even Jesus in His Incarnation did not know—the time of the Second Coming (cf. Matt. 24:36). Tragically, some people get so caught up in the study of eschatology that they neglect the basic principles of spiritual growth and evangelism that the Second Coming is designed to motivate.
Of all the end-time events, the Rapture of the church seems to generate the most interest and discussion. The young church at Thessalonica also had questions about that event, so Paul addressed their concerns in this passage. But unlike most modern-day treatises on the subject, Paul’s concern was not just doctrinal, but pastoral. His intent was not to give a detailed description of the Rapture, but to comfort the Thessalonians. The intent of the other two passages in the New Testament that discuss the Rapture (John 14:1–3; 1 Cor. 15:51–58) is also to provide comfort and encouragement for believers, not to fuel their prophetic speculations.
When Paul penned this epistle, the Thessalonians had been in Christ only for a few months. The apostle had taught them about end-time events, such as Christ’s return to gather believers to Himself (e.g., 1:9–10; 2:19; 3:13). They also knew about the Day of the Lord (5:1–3), a time of coming judgment on the ungodly. But some issues about the details of their gathering to Christ troubled them. First, they seem to have been afraid that they had missed the Rapture, since the persecution they were suffering (3:3–4) caused some to fear they were in the Day of the Lord, which they obviously had not expected to experience (2 Thess. 2:1–2). Furthering that misconception were some false teachers, about whom Paul warned in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, “[Do] not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” But the persecution they were experiencing was not that associated with the Tribulation or the Day of the Lord. It was merely the persecution that all believers can expect (2 Tim. 3:12) and that Paul had warned the Thessalonians about (3:3–4).
The Thessalonians’ fears that they were in the Day of the Lord and thus had missed the Rapture imply that the Rapture precedes the Tribulation. If the Thessalonians knew that the Rapture came at the end of the Tribulation, persecution would not have caused them to fear they had missed it. Instead, that persecution would have been a cause for joy, not concern. If the Day of the Lord had arrived, and the Rapture was after the Tribulation, then that blessed event would have been drawing near.
But of gravest concern to the Thessalonians were those of their number who had died. Would they receive their resurrection bodies at the Rapture, or would they have to wait until after the Tribulation? Would they miss the Rapture altogether? Would they therefore be second-class citizens in heaven? Were their deaths chastisement for their sins (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30)? They loved each other so deeply (cf. 4:9–10) that those thoughts greatly disturbed them. Their concern for those who had died shows that the Thessalonians believed the return of Christ was imminent and could happen in their lifetime. Otherwise, there would have been no reason for their concern. The Thessalonians’ fear that their fellow believers who had died might miss the Rapture also implies that they believed in a pretribulational Rapture. If the Rapture precedes the Tribulation, they might have wondered when believers who died would receive their resurrection bodies. But there would have been no such confusion if the Rapture follows the Tribulation; all believers would then receive their resurrection bodies at the same time. Further, if they had been taught that they would go through the Tribulation, they would not have grieved for those who died, but rather would have been glad to see them spared from that horrible time.
Paul wrote this section of his epistle to alleviate the Thessalonians’ grief and confusion. He was concerned that they not … be uninformed … about those who are asleep and thus grieve as do the rest who have no hope. Since their grief was based on ignorance, Paul comforted them by giving them knowledge.
The phrase we do not want you to be uninformed or its equivalent frequently introduces a new topic in Paul’s epistles (cf. Rom. 1:13; 1 Cor. 10:1; 11:3; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:12; Col. 2:1). The conjunction but and the affectionate term brethren (cf. vv. 1, 10; 1:4; 2:1, 9, 14, 17; 3:7; 5:1, 4, 12, 14, 25) emphasize the change in subject and call attention to the new topic’s importance. In this case, Paul introduced not only a new subject but also new revelation he had received “by the word of the Lord” (v. 15).
Since it was their primary concern, Paul first addressed the question of those who are asleep. While koimaō (asleep) can be used of normal sleep (Matt. 28:13; Luke 22:45; Acts 12:6), it more often refers to believers who have died (vv. 13–15; Matt. 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 2 Peter 3:4). In verse 14 those who are asleep are identified as “the dead in Christ.” The present tense participle koimōmenōn (v. 13) refers to those who are continually falling asleep as a regular course of life in the church. They had grown increasingly concerned as their fellow believers continued to die.
It is important to remember that in the New Testament “sleep” applies only to the body, never to the soul. “Soul sleep,” the false teaching that the souls of the dead are in a state of unconscious existence in the afterlife, is foreign to Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul wrote that he “prefer[red] rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord,” while in Philippians 1:23 he expressed his “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” Those statements teach that believers go consciously into the Lord’s presence at death, for how could unconsciousness be “very much better” than conscious communion with Jesus Christ in this life? Jesus promised the repentant thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise [heaven; cf. 2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7]” (Luke 23:43). Moses’ and Elijah’s souls were not asleep, since they appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3), nor are those of the Tribulation martyrs in Revelation 6:9–11, who will be awake and able to speak to God. After death the redeemed go consciously into the presence of the Lord, while the unsaved go into conscious punishment (Luke 16:19–31).
Paul related this information to the Thessalonians so that they would not grieve. There is a normal sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, caused by the pain of separation and loneliness. Jesus grieved over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33, 35), and Paul exhorted the Romans to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). However, the apostle did not have that kind of grief in mind here, but grief like the rest who have no hope. In Ephesians 2:12 Paul described unbelievers as “having no hope and without God in the world.” There is an awful, terrifying, hopeless finality for unbelievers when a loved one dies, a sorrow unmitigated by any hope of reunion. Commenting on the hopeless despair of unbelievers in the ancient world, William Barclay writes,
In the face of death the pagan world stood in despair. They met it with grim resignation and bleak hopelessness. Aeschylus wrote, “Once a man dies there is no resurrection.” Theocritus wrote, “There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope.” Catullus wrote, “When once our brief light sets, there is one perpetual night through which we must sleep.” On their tombstones grim epitaphs were carved. “I was not; I became; I am not; I care not.” (The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, rev. ed. [Louisville: Westminster, 1975], 203)
Even those pagans who believed in life after death did not have that hope confirmed by the Holy Spirit; they merely clung to it without affirmation from God. But Christians do not experience the hopeless grief of nonbelievers, for whom death marks the permanent severing of relationships. Unlike them, Christians never say a final farewell to each other; there will be a “gathering together [of all believers] to Him” (2 Thess. 2:1). Partings in this life are only temporary.
The Thessalonians’ ignorance about the Rapture caused them to grieve. It was to give them hope and to comfort them that Paul discussed that momentous event, giving a fourfold description of it: its pillars, participants, plan, and profit.
The Pillars of the Rapture
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, (4:14–15a)
The blessed hope of the Rapture is not based on the shifting sands of philosophical speculation. Nor is it religious mythology, a fable concocted by well-meaning people to comfort those who grieve. The marvelous truth that the Lord Jesus Christ will return to gather believers to Himself is based on three unshakeable pillars: the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the revelation of Christ.
the death of christ
For if we believe that Jesus died (4:14a)
If does not suggest uncertainty or doubt, but rather logical sequence. Paul says “since,” or “based on the fact that” we believe that Jesus died certain things logically follow. The apostle’s simple statement summarizes all the richness of Christ’s atoning work, which provides the necessary foundation for the gathering of the church. His death satisfied the demands of God’s righteousness, holiness, and justice by paying in full the penalty for believers’ sins. By virtue of Christ’s substitutionary death, when God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21), Christians have been made acceptable to God and thus fit to be gathered into His presence.
Significantly, Paul did not use the metaphor of sleep to refer to Jesus, but says that He died. Jesus experienced the full fury of death in all its dimensions as He “bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). His death transformed death into sleep for believers. T. E. Wilson notes, “Death has been changed to sleep by the work of Christ. It is an apt metaphor in which the whole concept of death is transformed. ‘Christ made it the name for death in the dialect of the church (Acts 7:60) (Findlay)’ ” (What the Bible Teaches: 1 and 2 Thessalonians [Kilmarnock, Scotland: John Ritchie Ltd., 1983], 45). When believers die, their spirit goes immediately into conscious fellowship with the Lord, while their bodies temporarily sleep in the grave, awaiting the Rapture.
the resurrection of christ
and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (4:14b)
The resurrection of Christ indicates that the Father accepted His sacrifice, enabling Him to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Paul taught that truth to the Romans when he wrote that “[Christ] was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Christ’s resurrection proves that He conquered sin and death, and became the source of resurrection life for every Christian. I. Howard Marshall writes, “The death of believers does not take place apart from Jesus, and hence Paul can conclude that God will raise them up and bring them into the presence of Jesus at the parousia. God will treat those who died trusting in Jesus in the same way He treated Jesus Himself, namely by resurrecting them” (1 and 2 Thessalonians, The New Century Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 124).
The phrase even so links believers’ resurrections inextricably to the resurrection of Christ. In John 14:19 Jesus said, “Because I live, you will live also.” In the most detailed passage on the resurrection in Scripture, Paul wrote that “Christ [is] the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:23). Earlier in that same epistle, he stated plainly, “Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power” (1 Cor. 6:14). In his second inspired letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14).
To further assuage their fears, Paul reassured believers that God will bring with Him [Jesus] those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. Their fellow believers who died will not miss out on the Rapture but will return with Christ in glory. Some interpret the phrase God will bring to mean that the spirits of dead believers will come from heaven with Christ to meet their resurrected bodies. Others see in it the truth that at the Rapture, God will bring all believers, living and dead, back to heaven with Christ. While the first view is certainly true, the second one seems to be the emphasis of this passage.
What the passage does not teach is that the spirits of dead believers immediately return to earth with Christ for the establishing of the millennial kingdom. That view places the Rapture at the end of the Tribulation and essentially equates it with the Second Coming. It trivializes the Rapture into a meaningless sideshow that serves no purpose. Commenting on the pointlessness of a posttribulational Rapture, Thomas R. Edgar asks,
What can be the purpose for keeping a remnant alive through the tribulation so that some of the church survive and then take them out of their situation and make them the same as those who did not survive? Why keep them for this? [The] explanation that they provide an escort for Jesus does not hold up. Raptured living saints will be exactly the same as resurrected dead saints. Why cannot the dead believers fulfill this purpose? Why keep a remnant alive [through the Tribulation], then Rapture them and accomplish no more than by letting them die? There is no purpose or accomplishment in [such] a Rapture.…
With all the saints of all the ages past and the armies [of angels] in heaven available as escorts and the fact that [raptured] saints provide no different escort than if they had been killed, why permit the church to suffer immensely, most believers [to] be killed, and spare a few for a Rapture which has no apparent purpose, immediately before the [Tribulation] period ends?… Is this the promise? You will suffer, be killed, but I will keep a few alive, and take them out just before the good times come. Such reasoning, of course, calls for some explanation of the apparent lack of purpose for a posttribulational Rapture of any sort.
We can note the following:
(1) An unusual, portentous, one-time event such as the Rapture must have a specific purpose. God has purposes for his actions. This purpose must be one that can be accomplished only by such an unusual event as a Rapture of living saints.
(2) This purpose must agree with God’s general principles of operation.
(3) There is little or no apparent reason to Rapture believers when the Lord returns and just prior to setting up the long-awaited kingdom with all of its joyful prospects.
(4) There is good reason to deliver all who are already believers from the tribulation, where they would be special targets of persecution.
(5) To deliver from a period of universal trial and physical destruction such as the tribulation requires a removal from the earth by death or Rapture. Death is not appropriate as a promise in Rev. 3:10.
(6) Deliverance from the tribulation before it starts agrees with God’s previous dealings with Noah and Lot and is directly stated as a principle of God’s action toward believers in 2 Pet. 2:9. (“Robert H. Gundry and Revelation 3:10,” Grace Theological Journal 3 [Spring 1982], 43–44)
The view that the raptured saints return to earth with Christ also contradicts John 14:1–3:
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.
The phrases “My Father’s house” and “where I am” clearly refer to heaven (cf. John 7:34). Jesus promised to take believers back to heaven with Him when He returns to gather His people. There has to be a time interval, then, between Christ’s return to gather His people (the Rapture) and His return to earth to establish the millennial kingdom (the Second Coming). During that interval between the Rapture and the Second Coming, the believers’ judgment takes place (1 Cor. 3:11–15; 2 Cor. 5:10); a posttribulational Rapture would leave no time for that event.
The phrase in Jesus is best understood as describing the circumstances in which the departed saints fell asleep. They died in the condition of being related to Jesus Christ. Paul used essentially the same phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:18 when he wrote of those “who have fallen asleep in Christ.”
By demonstrating God’s acceptance of His atoning sacrifice, the resurrection of Christ buttresses the first pillar on which the Rapture is based, the death of Christ.
the revelation of christ
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, (4:15a)
Paul’s teaching on the Rapture was not his own speculation but direct revelation from God. The phrase this we say to you by the word of the Lord has the authoritative tone of an inspired writer revealing what God has disclosed to him. Some argue that the word of the Lord was something Jesus said while He was here on earth. But there are no close parallels to the present passage in any of the Gospels. Nor is there any specific teaching in the Gospels to which Paul could be alluding. Although the Lord talked in the Gospels about a trumpet and the gathering of the elect, the differences between those passages and the present one outweigh the similarities, as Robert L. Thomas notes:
Similarities between this passage in 1 Thessalonians and the gospel accounts include a trumpet (Matt. 24:31), a resurrection (John 11:25, 26), and a gathering of the elect (Matt. 24:31).… Yet dissimilarities between it and the canonical sayings of Christ far outweigh the resemblances.… Some of the differences between Matthew 24:30, 31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 are as follows: (1) In Matthew the Son of Man is coming on the clouds, … in 1 Thessalonians ascending believers are in them. (2) In the former the angels gather, in the latter the Son does so personally. (3) In the former nothing is said about resurrection, while in the latter this is the main theme. (4) Matthew records nothing about the order of ascent, which is the principal lesson in Thessalonians. (“1, 2 Thessalonians,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979], 276–77)
Nor is it likely that Paul is referring to a saying of Jesus not recorded in the Gospels (cf. Acts 20:35); he does not state or imply that he is directly quoting Christ’s words. Further, in 1 Corinthians 15:51 Paul referred to the Rapture as a mystery; that is, a truth formerly hidden but now revealed. That indicates that Jesus did not disclose the details of the Rapture during His earthly ministry. (He referred to the Rapture in John 14:1–3 in a general, nonspecific sense.) Paul’s teaching on the Rapture was new revelation, possibly given by God through a prophet (such as Agabus; Acts 21:11) but more likely directly to Paul himself. The Thessalonians had apparently been informed about the Day of the Lord judgment (5:1–2), but not about the preceding event—the Rapture of the church—until the Holy Spirit through Paul revealed it to them. This was new revelation, unveiled mystery.
The Rapture, then, does not rest on the shaky foundation of whimsical theological speculation, but on the sure foundation of the death, resurrection, and revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Participants of the Rapture
we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. (4:15b)
Two groups of people will participate in the Rapture: those who are alive at the coming of the Lord and those who have fallen asleep. That Paul used the plural pronoun we indicates that he believed the Rapture could happen in his lifetime. He had a proper anticipation of and expectation for the Lord’s return, though unlike many throughout church history, the apostle did not predict a specific time for it. He accepted Christ’s words in Matthew 24:36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone,” and Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.” At the same time, Paul understood the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which illustrates the foolishness of not being constantly prepared for the Lord’s return (Matt. 25:1–13). The Lord expressed the point of that parable when He declared, “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13; cf. 24:45–51). Paul thus avoided both common errors regarding Christ’s return; he neither got involved in date setting, nor did he push the return of Christ into the distant, nebulous future.
Several other passages express Paul’s fervent hope and expectation that he himself might be among those who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord. In Romans 13:11 he wrote, “Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.” The salvation of which he wrote was the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23) that takes place when Christ returns. In verse 12 Paul added, “The night [of man’s sin and Satan’s rule] is almost gone, and the day [of Christ’s return] is near.” He wrote to the Corinthians, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Paul knew he was in the messianic age, the period between Christ’s first and second comings, the last days of human history. He likely had no idea that they would last as long as they have. Later in that epistle, Paul, as he does here in 1 Thessalonians, includes himself among those who might still be alive at the Rapture: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51–52). As he concluded that letter Paul wrote, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha” (1 Cor. 16:22). Maranatha comes from two Aramaic words that mean “Oh Lord, come!” and expresses Paul’s strong hope that the Lord would return soon. Earlier in this epistle, he commended the Thessalonians for waiting “for His Son from heaven” (1:10). He expressed his desire for them that God “may establish [their] hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (3:13). Pronouncing a final benediction as he concluded this letter, Paul wrote, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:23). The apostle wrote to Titus that he was “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).
On the other hand, Paul fully realized that he might die before the Rapture. In 1 Corinthians 6:14 he acknowledged that he might be among those resurrected at the Rapture: “Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.” He affirmed to the Philippians his desire that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). At the end of his life, sensing his imminent death, he wrote to Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6–7). While acknowledging both possibilities, Paul used we because when he wrote, it was still possible for the Lord to return in his lifetime. By so doing, he conveyed to the Thessalonians his own longing for Christ’s imminent return.
Paul lived in constant expectation of Christ’s return. But the apostle nevertheless reassured the Thessalonians that those of their number who had died would not miss the Rapture, which will also include those who have fallen asleep. Moreover, the living will not precede the dead. They will not take precedence over them or gain an advantage over them. Those who die before the Rapture will in no sense be inferior to those who are alive. All Christians will participate in the Rapture.
The Plan of the Rapture
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. (4:16–17)
Having reassured the Thessalonians that their departed loved ones will not miss out on the Rapture, Paul gave a step-by-step description of that event.
First, the Lord Himself will return for His church. He will not send angels for it, in contrast to the gathering of the elect that takes place at the Second Coming (Mark 13:26–27).
Second, Jesus will descend from heaven, where He has been since His ascension (Acts 1:9–11). Earlier in this epistle, Paul commended the Thessalonians because they were waiting “for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus” (1:10). At his trial before the Sanhedrin, Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). The writer of Hebrews said of Christ, “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).
Third, when Jesus comes down from heaven, He will do so with a shout. Keleusma (command) has a military ring to it, as if the Commander is calling His troops to fall in. The dead saints in their resurrected bodies will join the raptured living believers in the ranks. The Lord’s shout of command will be similar to His raising of Lazarus, when “He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth’ ” (John 11:43). This is the hour “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). The righteous dead of the church age will be the first to rise—a truth that must have greatly comforted the anxious Thessalonians.
Fourth, the voice of the archangel will sound. There is no definite article in the Greek text, which literally reads, “an archangel.” In Jude 9, the only other passage in Scripture that mentions an archangel, the archangel is Michael. Scripture does not say whether or not he is the only archangel (there were seven archangels according to Jewish tradition). Thus, it is impossible to say who the archangel whose voice will be heard at that Rapture is. Whoever he is, he adds his voice to the Lord’s shout of command.
Fifth, to the Lord’s command and the archangel’s voice will be added the sounding of the trumpet of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:52). Trumpets were used in Scripture for many reasons. They sounded at Israel’s feasts (Num. 10:10), celebrations (2 Sam. 6:15), and convocations (Lev. 23:24), to sound an alarm in time of war (Num. 10:9) or for any other reason it was necessary to gather a crowd (Num. 10:2; Judg. 6:34) or make an announcement (1 Sam. 13:3; 2 Sam. 15:10; 20:1; 1 Kings 1:34, 39, 41). The trumpet at the Rapture has no connection to the trumpets of judgment in Revelation 8–11. It seems to have a twofold purpose: to assemble God’s people (cf. Ex. 19:16–19) and to signal His deliverance of them (cf. Zech. 1:16; 9:14–16).
Sixth, the dead in Christ will rise first. As noted above, the dead saints will in no way be inferior to those alive at the Rapture. In fact, they will rise first, their glorified bodies joining with their glorified spirits to make them into the image of Christ, as the apostle John wrote: “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Those who were in Christ in life will be so in death; death cannot separate believers from God (Rom. 8:38): “therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).
Finally, those believers who are alive and remain will be caught up together with the dead saints in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Harpazō (caught up) refers to a strong, irresistible, even violent act. In Matthew 11:12 it describes the taking of the kingdom of heaven by force. In John 10:12 it describes a wolf snatching sheep; in John 10:28–29 it speaks of the impossibility of anyone’s snatching believers out of the hands of Jesus Christ and God the Father; in Acts 8:39 it speaks of Philip’s being snatched away from the Ethiopian eunuch; and in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4 it describes Paul’s being caught up into the third heaven. It is when living believers are caught up that they are transformed and receive their glorified bodies (Phil. 3:21). “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” believers “will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52), rescued from the grasp of Satan, the fallen flesh, the evil world system, and the coming wrath of God.
The time of the Rapture cannot be discerned from this passage alone. But when it is read with other Rapture texts (John 14:3; Rev. 3:10; cf. 1 Cor. 15:51–52; Phil. 3:2–21), and compared to judgment texts (Matt. 13:34–50; 24:29–44; Rev. 19:11–21), it is clear that there is no mention of judgment at all in the Rapture passages, whereas the others major on judgment. It is therefore necessary to conclude that the Rapture occurs at a time other than the judgment.
It is best, then, to separate the two events. That initiates the case for the Rapture to occur imminently, before the elements of judgment described in Scripture as leading up to the Second Coming in judgment.
Again, no solitary text of Scripture makes the entire case for the pretribulation Rapture. However, when one considers all the New Testament evidence, a very compelling case for the pretribulational position emerges, which answers more questions and solves more problems than any other Rapture position. The following arguments present a strong case in favor of the pretribulation Rapture.
First, the earthly kingdom of Christ promised in Revelation 6–18 does not mention the church as being on earth. Because Revelation 1–3 uses the Greek word for church nineteen times, one would reasonably assume that if the church were on earth rather than in heaven in chapters 6–18, they would use “church” with similar frequency, but such is not the case. Therefore, one can assume that the church is not present on the earth during the period of tribulation described in Revelation 6–18 and that therefore the Lord has removed it from the earth and relocated it to heaven by means of the Rapture.
Second, Revelation 19 does not mention a Rapture even though that is where a posttribulational Rapture (if true) would logically occur. Thus, one can conclude that the Rapture will have already occurred.
Third, a posttribulational Rapture renders the Rapture concept itself inconsequential. If God preserves the church during the Tribulation, as posttribulationists assert, then why have a Rapture at all? It makes no sense to Rapture believers from earth to heaven for no apparent purpose other than to return them immediately with Christ to earth. Further, a posttribulational Rapture makes the unique separation of the sheep (believers) from the goats (unbelievers) at the return of Christ in judgment redundant because a posttribulational Rapture would have already accomplished that.
Fourth, if God raptures and glorifies all believers just prior to the inauguration of the millennial kingdom (as a posttribulational Rapture demands), no one would be left to populate and propagate the earthly kingdom of Christ promised to Israel. It is not within the Lord’s plan and purpose to use glorified individuals to propagate the earth during the Millennium. Therefore, the Rapture needs to occur earlier so that after God has raptured all believers, He can save more souls—including Israel’s remnant—during the seven-year Tribulation. Those people can then enter the millennial kingdom in earthly form. The most reasonable possibility for this scenario is the pretribulational Rapture.
Fifth, the New Testament does not warn of an impending tribulation, such as is experienced during Daniel’s seventieth week, for church-age believers. It does warn of error and false prophets (Acts 20:29–30; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1–3), against ungodly living (Eph. 4:25–5:7; 1 Thess. 4:3–8; Heb. 12:1), and of present tribulation (1 Thess. 2:14–16; 2 Thess. 1:4; all of 2 Peter). Thus it is incongruous that the New Testament would be silent concerning such a traumatic change as Daniel’s seventieth week if posttribulationism were true.
Sixth, Paul’s instructions here to the Thessalonians demand a pretribulational Rapture because, if Paul were teaching them posttribulationism, one would expect them to rejoice that loved ones were home with the Lord and spared the horrors of the Tribulation. But, in actuality, the Thessalonians grieved. In addition, with a posttribulational teaching one would expect them to sorrow over their own impending trial and inquire about their future doom; however, they expressed no such dread or questioning. Further, one might expect Paul to instruct and exhort them concerning such a supreme test as the Tribulation, but Paul wrote only about the hope of the Rapture.
Seventh, the sequence of events at Christ’s coming following the Tribulation demands a pretribulational Rapture. A comparing and contrasting of Rapture passages with Second Coming passages yields strong indicators that the Rapture could not be posttribulational. For example: (a) at the Rapture, Christ gathers His own (vv. 16–17 of the present passage), but at the Second Coming, angels gather the elect (Matt. 24:31); (b) at the Rapture, resurrection is prominent (vv. 15–16 of the present passage), but regarding the Second Coming, Scripture does not mention the resurrection; (c) at the Rapture, Christ comes to reward believers (v. 17 of the present passage), but at the Second Coming, Christ comes to judge the earth (Matt. 25:31–46); (d) at the Rapture, the Lord snatches away true believers from the earth (vv. 15–17 of the present passage), but at the Second Coming, He takes away unbelievers (Matt. 24:37–41); (e) at the Rapture, unbelievers remain on the earth, whereas at the Second Coming, believers remain on the earth; (f) concerning the Rapture, Scripture does not mention the establishment of Christ’s kingdom, but at His second coming, Christ sets up His kingdom; and (g) at the Rapture, believers will receive glorified bodies, whereas at the Second Coming, no one will receive glorified bodies.
Eighth, certain of Jesus’ teachings demand a pretribulational Rapture. For instance, the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30) portrays the reapers (angels) removing the tares (unbelievers) from among the wheat (believers) in order to judge the tares, which demonstrates that at the Second Coming, the Lord has unbelievers removed from among believers. However, at the Rapture, He takes believers from among unbelievers. This is also true in the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47–50) and in the discussion of the days of Noah and the description of the nations’ judgment, both in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25).
Ninth, Revelation 3:10 teaches that the Lord will remove the church prior to the Tribulation. In the Greek, the phrase “I also will keep you from” can mean nothing other than “I will prevent you from entering into.” Jesus Christ will honor the church by preventing it from entering the hour of testing, namely Daniel’s seventieth week, which is about to come upon the entire world. Only a pretribulational Rapture can explain how this will happen.
Thus, the Rapture (being caught up) must be pretribulational, before the wrath of God described in the Tribulation (Rev. 6–19). At the Rapture, living believers will be caught up together with the believers raised from the dead as the church triumphant joins the church militant to become the church glorified. Clouds are often associated in Scripture with divine appearances. When God appeared at Mount Sinai, “The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days” (Ex. 24:16). Clouds marked God’s presence in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34), the temple (1 Kings 8:10), and at Christ’s transfiguration (Matt. 17:5). At His ascension Christ “was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
Some argue that the word meet suggests meeting a dignitary, king, or famous person and escorting him back to his city. They then argue that after the meeting described in this passage, believers will return to earth with Christ. But such an analogy is arbitrary and assumes a technical meaning for meet not required by either the word or the context. As noted earlier in this chapter, that explanation also renders the Rapture pointless; why have believers meet Christ in the air and immediately return to earth? Why should they not just meet Him when He gets here? Gleason L. Archer comments, “The most that can be said of such a ‘Rapture’ is that it is a rather secondary sideshow of minimal importance” (Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Paul D. Feinberg, Douglas J. Moo, and Richard Reiter, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 215). As was also noted earlier in this chapter, a posttribulational Rapture contradicts the teaching of Christ in John 14:1–3 that He will return to take believers to heaven, not immediately back to earth.
The final step in the plan of the Rapture is the blessed, comforting truth that after Christ returns to gather us (believers) to Himself, we shall always be with the Lord.
The Profit of the Rapture
Therefore comfort one another with these words. (4:18)
The benefit of understanding the Rapture is not to fill the gaps in one’s eschatological scheme. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, Paul’s goal in teaching the Thessalonians about the Rapture was to comfort them. The “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3) grants to all believers the encouraging comfort of knowing that Christ will one day return for them. At that monumental event, the dead in Christ will be raised, join with the living saints in experiencing a complete transformation of body and soul, and be with God forever. Therefore, there was no need for the Thessalonians to grieve or sorrow over their fellow believers who had died. No wonder Paul calls the return of Christ “the blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).
The Coming of The Lord
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thess. 4:16)
To be a Christian is to hold a particular understanding of history. This point was made by Augustine of Hippo in his great book The City of God. The Greco-Roman world in which Augustine lived viewed history as a circular process without end. Most non-Christians in the ancient world believed that the same things would happen over and over without any ultimate meaning. Augustine pointed out that the incarnation of God’s Son and his atoning death on the cross were nonrepeatable events showing that history moved forward according to God’s redemptive plan. Today, the secular humanist believes in “progress,” trusting man’s ingenuity to solve problems and open up new horizons of opportunity. Instead, the Bible-believer holds that history is racing toward the second coming of Jesus Christ, after which the Lord will judge the world and God’s eternal purposes of salvation will be fulfilled. These differing views of history produce different kinds of lives, a point that highlights the importance of biblical eschatology to the Christian.
Eschatology: Controversial but Important
The Greek word eschatos means “last,” so eschatology is simply the study of the last things. According to the Bible, believers need to know where history is going, in terms of both our personal histories beyond the grave and God’s plan for the future of the world. Geerhardus Vos asserted: “Ours is a religion whose centre of gravity lies beyond the grave in the world to come.” Christians are pulled forward, Paul said, by “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
The importance of understanding Christ’s return is seen in the example of the apostle Paul. It is evident that Paul highlighted teaching about Christ’s return during his short stay in Thessalonica. When news later reached the apostle that the new believers were confused on this subject, he provided extensive information in both of his letters to them. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers” (1 Thess. 4:13), Paul wrote. Likewise, there is no reason for believers today to be uninformed about Christ’s second coming.
The apparent difficulty in understanding the Bible’s eschatology, however, deters many Christians from even trying. In previous centuries, many commentators declined to write about the book of Revelation and similar portions of the Bible, considering them hopelessly obscure (Martin Luther and John Calvin are notable examples). Fifty years ago, Leon Morris expressed concern over “the comparative neglect of the doctrine” of Christ’s return.
Few observers would make the same claim today, especially as a result of a lucrative cottage industry of end-times fascination. Speculative and fictional books such as Left Behind have topped the best-seller charts. End-times fervor was especially high during the years leading up to the new millennium in the year 2000. When I was preparing to enter seminary in the early 1990s, one Christian friend tried to dissuade me, on the grounds that the world was certain to end within a few years—he employed impressive charts to prove this—and that I was going to waste my remaining time with my nose in books. More recently, Harold Camping predicted Christ’s return for October 21, 2011. When that date passed without the end of the world, the television news showed Camping’s dismayed followers, some of whom had sold their possessions to spread his false prophecy. In reaction to this kind of controversy, some believers are wearied by disputed details of Christ’s return and embarrassed by the hysteria so often associated with eschatology. As a result, they are accepting a relative ignorance on the subject and churches are once again neglecting to teach on Christ’s return.
Yet despite the error and hysteria sometimes attached to the subject, the coming of the Lord is a truth that Christians should labor to understand. Christ’s second coming is, as Cornelis P. Venema puts it, “the great centerpiece of biblical hope and expectation for the future.” Moreover, the Bible’s teaching is not as obscure on this subject as many would have it. Among our most important resources on Christ’s return are Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. His remarkably clear teaching touches on Christ’s return to earth, the rapture of the church, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment and eternal punishment in hell, the coming Antichrist, the millennial question, and the eternal age of glory. As we study the final section of 1 Thessalonians and then the first two chapters of 2 Thessalonians, we will consider each of these matters, as well as Paul’s applications on how our knowledge of future history should shape our present lives.
Christ’s Personal Return
At the heart of Paul’s eschatology are his statements regarding the “coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15). Focusing on the event itself, Paul highlights three features of the second coming. The first feature is the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth. Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven” (v. 16). Liberal scholars have viewed the personal return of Christ as “mythical” and “untenable” and have therefore recast the second coming as an existential symbol for the believer’s spiritual enlightenment. Yet the Bible teaches a literal, bodily return of the same Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, rose from the grave, and then ascended into heaven. Acts 1:9 relates that two angels appeared to the disciples who had watched Jesus ascend. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven,” they said, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Paul tells us that this promise will be fulfilled when Jesus physically returns on the clouds to the very world he departed.
The Greek word that Paul used for Christ’s coming is parousia, which describes the arrival of a person. The word is used about the coming of Paul’s helpers in 1 Corinthians 16:17 and even about the coming “lawless one” in 2 Thessalonians 2:9, but is most frequently employed for the return of Christ (sixteen times in the New Testament). When used with the definite article, the parousia is practically a technical term for “the great event anticipated by believers, when Christ the King returns to judge the living and the dead and complete his work of bringing all things into subjection to the Father.”
When we speak of Christ’s return, it is important to remember the important ways in which Christ is near to his people during this current age, even as we await his return. In other words, in anticipating Christ’s coming, we must avoid the mistake of neglecting Christ’s presence with us now. The very language of “second coming” stresses that Christ has come before, and the implications of his first coming are essential for Christians. In the final words of Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, the departing Jesus emphasized not his return but his abiding presence: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Question 47 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Then, is not Christ with us unto the end of the world?” The answer makes a careful distinction: “As a man, he is no longer on earth, but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit, he is never absent from us.”
How is Christ near to us, even after he has physically departed? Christ is with his people as his Spirit ministers through God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments so as to save us through faith. On the night of his arrest, Jesus promised Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to … sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32). As believers now face similar threats to our salvation, we may have the same comfort that Peter possessed in Christ’s saving presence. Jesus went so far as to tell his disciples that “it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7), since once in heaven our Lord would send his Holy Spirit to us.
Yet how much better it will be when Christ returns. If his departure did not impoverish his people, Christ’s return will enrich us even more. Therefore, while Christ’s first coming was an advancement in salvation and his ascension to heaven was a further improvement to our situation, his glorious return will complete our salvation and bring into our experience the fullness of our hope in Christ. Hebrews 9:28 tells us: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Jesus put it in comforting terms when addressing his disciples’ sadness over his looming departure: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).
Christ’s Visible, Glorious Return
Paul’s second emphasis regarding Christ’s return is the visible manifestation of his glory. He writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16).
This description rules out any idea of a hidden or invisible return of Christ. In Paul’s clearest teaching of what is often called the rapture—a word that describes God’s people as being “caught up”—Christ’s return is anything but secret: “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). The visible nature of this event is amplified in related descriptions of Christ’s return. Revelation 1:7 explains, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him.” And Jesus taught: “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
Paul’s description in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 emphasizes not only the visible but also the audible nature of Christ’s coming: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” The last thing that could be said about this future event is that it will be secret! This opposes popular views of the rapture that predict Jesus’ coming to earth secretly to gather his people, only to depart with them for a tribulation period. It is clear in Paul’s description that when Christ comes to take his people forever (he concludes: “so we will always be with the Lord,” v. 17), this event involves the visible, audible display of Christ’s glory to all the earth. Jesus taught, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27).
Another word used to describe Christ’s coming is apocalypse, which means “the revealing of things hidden.” When Christ returns, the glory and majesty that were denied to him during his first coming will be fully manifest before all creation. Paul speaks this way in 2 Thessalonians 1:7, referring to the time “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.”
A third term that Paul uses is epiphaneia, which means “appearing.” In Titus 2:13, he speaks of “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” These ideas are present in Paul’s description of Christ as “descend[ing] … in the clouds” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). In his divine glory, the Son of Man will be revealed before all eyes, just as Jesus foretold his “coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26).
As the New Testament tells it, the problem with our present world is that it does not recognize the glory and majesty of Christ as God’s Son and our Savior. This is a problem that believers sometimes feel, since we perceive Christ’s glory and power only by faith, never by sight. Hebrews 2:7–9 addressed this problem. In his ascension, Christ was “crowned … with glory and honor,” with “everything in subjection under his feet.” The problem is that “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” It is not apparent or manifest in our outward experience that Christ is Lord over all, though by faith we know that he is “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” When Jesus returns, however, what was disclosed only to faith will be made manifest to all by sight. Then, Paul foretells, “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).
Christ’s History-Concluding Return
It is clear from Paul’s teaching that Christ’s return will conclude and culminate all of history. In addition to being a personal, visibly glorious return, the second coming will be Christ’s history-concluding return.
In this respect, we should note that the coming and appearing of Christ in glory is not an event that precedes the final episode of God’s plan for history but is rather an event that brings about the end of history. This rules out, again, an idea of the rapture in which Christ returns only to depart so that more history can be played out, since the return that Paul describes actually ends history. It also rules out the premillennial view of eschatology, the view that there will be a thousand-year period after Christ returns, during which God fulfills his purpose for the people of Israel, and after which occurs the final crisis of history. Instead, the return of Christ is the final crisis of history and the last day of which Scripture so frequently speaks. The return of Christ does not usher in additional phases of history, but is simultaneously the end of this present age and the consummation of the eternal age that is to come.
Consider, for instance, how Paul unites the visible return of Christ with the resurrection of the dead: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16). In 2 Thessalonians, Paul joins Christ’s return with the final judgment: “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,” he will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7–8; cf. vv. 9–10). So the same event in which Christ gathers his people, who “meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17), is also the event that includes the resurrection and final judgment. This agrees completely with Jesus’ description in Matthew 25:31–32: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” According to Jesus, the sheep are then summoned to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). In this same vein, Paul concludes 1 Thessalonians 4:17 by assuring his readers that Christ’s coming will bring them into the eternal glory for which they have been waiting: “and so we will always be with the Lord.” These statements make it plain that Christ’s return concludes this present age. Venema comments on the significance of this realization:
When believers today expectantly look to the future, anticipating the return of Christ, they should do so as those who are convinced this will mark the end of the present period of history and inaugurate the final state. All that believers hope for in respect to the future finds its focus in this consummating event, an event that will fulfill all the promises of God that have their “yes” and “amen” in Christ.
What are the final results of history that are brought about by the coming of the Lord? The first is the judgment of all people who have ever lived. We confess this in the Apostles’ Creed: Christ “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Paul’s description of Christ’s return includes a summons to this judgment, as the Lord descends “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God,” as Christ appears “in the clouds” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). These phenomena—angel cries, trumpet blasts, and clouds of glory—frequently occur in the Bible in the context of God’s judgment. When God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, he came to a mountain sheathed in clouds and shaking with trumpet blasts (Ex. 19:16–19). Christ the Lord will return to judge the nations according to that same law. Revelation chapters 8–10 pictures mighty angels coming to earth, wrapped in clouds and blowing trumpets, signaling God’s wrath upon the earth. G. C. Berkouwer comments that the coming of Christ “is the hour of giving account (1 Pet. 4:5).… It is the day that will disclose everything: ‘each man’s work will become manifest’ (1 Cor. 3:13). It is the Lord in His coming, ‘who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’ (1 Cor. 4:5).”
The second result of Christ’s return may be regarded as the reverse side of the final judgment, namely, the deliverance and vindication of those made righteous in Christ. The blowing of trumpets in the Bible signals not only God’s judgment but also the gathering of God’s people for salvation. William Hendriksen notes how the prophets spoke of blasting trumpets “as a signal of Jehovah’s coming to rescue his people from hostile oppression (Zeph. 1:16; Zech. 9:14).” Just as Leviticus 25 called for the sounding of trumpets on the Day of Jubilee, signaling release from bondage and liberty for God’s people, “so also this final trumpet-blast, the signal for the dead to arise, for the living to be changed, and for all the elect to be gathered from the four winds (Matt. 24:31) to meet the Lord …, proclaim[s] liberty throughout the universe for all the children of God.”
Third, Christ’s return culminates history by fulfilling God’s sovereign purpose in the eternal kingdom of Christ. This purpose was revealed to Daniel when he saw Christ as “a son of man” who came “with the clouds of heaven” to the “Ancient of Days” in order to receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom.” The angel told Daniel that this begins an eternal reign: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13–14). The same purpose for history is revealed in Revelation 11:15: “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ ” In Revelation 19:6–7, an angel assembles the guests for the marriage feast of the Lamb of God. That feast involved a festal chorus: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.” As Christians live in a world that flouts the rule of Christ’s gospel reign, how glorious is our knowledge that his return will bring the fulfillment of God’s purpose to exalt his Son as sovereign over all. When he comes, Paul wrote to the Philippians, every knee will bow and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).
Christ’s Comforting, Imploring Return
The purpose of this study has been to introduce Paul’s teaching on Christ’s second coming in his letters to the Thessalonians, which we will examine in greater detail as we continue working through the apostle’s text. Paul will make his own applications to the particular situation of his readers, starting with their need to understand the death of believers in light of Christ’s coming. In concluding this introductory study, however, we can make a few applications that flow generally from Paul’s teaching on the second coming of Christ.
The first application is that we should receive and teach the second coming as a message of comfort for all who have trusted in Jesus for salvation. It is true that when our Lord returns, there will be a final judgment of all sin. But having trusted in Christ for our forgiveness and justification, we rejoice that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). The Lord who comes in glory is the Savior who first came in humiliation and made atonement for our sins by his death. Christ’s nail-scarred hands will hold the royal scepter, and his justice will demand our justification on the basis of his redeeming work. Berkouwer writes: “The believer knows of the ultimate revelation before the judgment seat, and he does not fear it. The wonderful message of the gospel of the parousia removes the possibility of sudden terror, and preaches instead a confidence for the last day. This is indeed a message of comfort.”
For this reason, Christ’s return should not be taught to frighten Christians but to comfort us regarding the glorious salvation that will soon arrive in the coming of the One who loves us. The second coming should not be spoken of to our children in order to “scare them straight.” The fear of being “left behind” should not cause believers to dread Christ’s return. Rather, Paul says, in the trials and struggles of this present life of faith, we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). It is true that the New Testament warns believers to be awake and ready, but Paul asserts that by trusting in Christ, all believers can be confident in the day of his coming: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thess. 5:9–10). Instead of dreading Christ’s return, as so many believers have been made to do in recent years, we should take up the plea of the first Christians: “Come, Lord Jesus!”—to which our Savior answers, “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20).
Second, since the coming of Christ will bring us into his presence in order to share his glory, Christians should begin glorying in Jesus now. One of the chief problems with so much end-times fervor today is that attention is devoted to practically everything except to Christ himself. Eschatologically speculative Christians rack their brains searching the newspapers for signs of the end instead of directing our hearts to our Lord, who will soon come and take us into his glory. Paul sums up his message of Christ’s return with these words: “and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:17–18). Encouraged with the thought of being with Christ, let us treasure our present communion with him, the One who is near to his people in his Word, in the secret place of prayer, and at the communion table of his covenant meal. Let Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit be the glory of our church and our dearest treasure while we await the greater glory of his coming with the clouds.
Third, the return of Christ calls Christians to readiness in the midst of this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Hebrews 4:3 warns us that there is no salvation apart from following Christ, since only “we who have believed [will] enter that rest.” Meanwhile, believers who might be tempted to despair because of persecution, or led astray by the temptations of sin, or distracted by the siren songs of this world, “are encouraged by the prospect of Christ’s return, when he will grant them relief from their present distress and victory over their enemies, who are also his.” Believers know that Christ is returning to receive us into his love forever, so we anxiously await that day, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
Finally, the coming of the Lord presents a fearful prospect of judgment and condemnation for all whose sins have not been forgiven through the blood of Christ. The Lord will return, Paul warns, “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8).
Knowing this, Christ’s people urgently pray and tell others the good news of salvation from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. We declare the return of the great Judge, whose sword is sharp and whose books document every deed. We hold forth the grace and mercy of Christ for all who repent and believe, declaring his own words that “whoever … believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Therefore, we appeal to all who have not believed and thus face the prospect of eternal judgment in the coming of the Lord. Paul wrote: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.… We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.… Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 5:19–6:2).
Grieving with Hope
1 Thessalonians 4:13–14
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess. 4:13–14)
In 1899, two prominent men died. The first was Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, for whom the Ingersoll lectures on immortality at Harvard University are named, and who gave his brilliant mind to the refutation of Christianity. Ingersoll died suddenly that year, leaving his unprepared family utterly devastated. So grief-stricken was his wife that she would not allow his body to be taken from their home until the health of the family required its removal. His remains were cremated, and his funeral service was such a scene of dismay and despair that even the newspapers of the day commented on it.
The other man who died that year was Dwight L. Moody, the great Christian evangelist. He had been declining for some time, and his family had gathered around his bed. On his last morning, his son heard him exclaim, “Earth is receding; heaven is opening; God is calling.” “You are dreaming, Father,” said his son. But Moody replied, “No, Will, this is no dream. I have been within the gates. I have seen the children’s faces.” Moody seemed to revive but then started to slip away again. “Is this death?” he was heard to say. “This is not bad; there is no valley. This is bliss. This is glorious.” By now his daughter had come, and she began to pray for him to recover. “No, no, Emma,” he said. “Don’t pray for that. God is calling. This is my coronation day. I have been looking forward to it.” After Moody died, his funeral was a scene of triumph and joy. Those in attendance sang hymns of praise to God. “Where, O death, is your victory,” they exclaimed through faith in Jesus Christ. “Where, O death, is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:55).
In writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul expressed concern that they did not possess full confidence in victory over death. He therefore wrote to them: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
Scholars explain the Thessalonian problem in various ways. One version states that they were concerned that believers who had died would not be able to participate in the joyous reception of Christ when he returned. Another version holds that the believers thought that the dead who missed Christ’s return would have their resurrection delayed. The dispensational view holds that Paul’s readers feared that they had all missed the rapture, since they associated their sufferings with the tribulation that dispensationalism says will occur after the removal of all Christians. The weakness of these views is that they cannot explain Paul’s concern that the Thessalonians should not grieve their dead with the same hopelessness as unbelievers. The problem was not fears regarding the joy of witnessing Christ’s return, the timing of the resurrection, or the sequence of the rapture, but rather the fear that only those who were alive when Christ returned would finally be saved. Being uninformed about the situation of Christians who have died, they were tempted to grieve for them without hope.
This problem shows that the early believers expected Christ’s return at any moment. Perhaps Paul’s teaching on this and other subjects had been cut short by his hasty departure, so that there were still errors and doubts. In the meantime, some of their number had died, perhaps by violent persecution, and they feared that one had to be alive when Christ returned to experience the resurrection. Leon Morris writes: “What a calamity to be robbed of that great triumph by failing to live out the few years intervening, and this after having passed out of the darkness of heathendom into the light of the gospel!”
Paul’s response to this problem, as with other problems of Christian experience, is instructive. He expressed his desire that “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers” (1 Thess. 4:13). The answer to questions of doubt, confusion, or distress is the plain teaching of God’s Word. So many problems in the experience of believers today likewise stem from ignorance of biblical truth, so that the great need of God’s people is the careful teaching of Scripture. Weak believers may be attracted to worship that is as exciting as it is brief, but their true need is to benefit from a ministry like that of the apostle Paul, who declared “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and educated believers in the whole range of God’s truth. The way for Christians to be strong in faith was given by Peter at the end of his second epistle: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
The Christian Attitude to Death
Paul’s remarks in this passage summarize the Bible’s teaching on death. Twice he uses the analogy of sleep to describe believers who have died: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep.… God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13–14).
This is one of several places where the Bible describes the death of God’s people as sleep. The Old Testament spoke of believers’ “going to rest with your fathers” (Deut. 31:16 niv). Luke said that when the martyr Stephen died, “he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). The analogy primarily describes the appearance of the body in death, after the soul has departed. Anyone who has attended a funeral involving the viewing of the body understands why it is described as sleeping.
Yet sleep does speak to the Christian experience in death as well, distinguishing it from that death which truly is death. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Paul says that “Jesus died.” On the cross, Christ experienced all that death fully is under the wrath of God: he did not sleep but truly and fully died. But when Jesus spoke of Lazarus, who had died in Christ, his sins forgiven and his salvation assured, he declared: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11).
There are several ways in which sleep is a helpful description of Christian death. First, sleep does us no harm, and this can also be said about death in Christ. Psalm 121:7 declares, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” This is true for believers not only in life but also in death, since verse 8 proclaims that God keeps our lives “from this time forth and forevermore.” Paul said, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56). Christ satisfied the law by imputing his own righteousness to believers and took away the sting of sin by suffering sin’s punishment in our place. A. W. Pink explains: “He underwent the full horror that is death and in doing so transformed death, so that for his followers it is no more than sleep.”
Second, just as sleep is beneficial for the living, death also benefits the Christian. Sleep is often the best prescription for those ailing from sickness or fatigue. Sleep restores the body, and the sleep of death does more for the soul: it transforms us into glory, removing every vestige of sin and sorrow. John Owen explains: “When, at death, the soul departs from the body, it is immediately freed from all weakness, disability, darkness, doubts and fears … and being freed their souls flourish and expand to their fullest extent.” Matthew Henry adds:
Being still in union with [Christ,] they sleep in his arms and are under his special care and protection. Their souls are in his presence, and their dust is under his care and power; so that they are not lost, nor are they losers, but great gainers by death, and their removal out of this world is into a better.
This teaching refutes the idea of soul sleep, which claims that believers enter an unconscious state in death until Christ returns. Instead, the Bible teaches that our conscious selves will be awake in the glory of the Lord while our bodies sleep in the grave, awaiting their summons to resurrection. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains: “The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies” (WCF 32.1). This is why Paul wrote: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” adding, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:21–23). This expresses the present gain and blessing that comes to Christians through death. Eric Alexander suggests that believers should therefore not speak of “sudden death,” but rather of “sudden glory” for those who die trusting in Jesus.
Third, like sleep, the death of a Christian is temporary. Winston Churchill expressed this conviction through his funeral. It was a sad occasion for Britain, the end of an era. Many eyes were weeping at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London as the bugler sounded the slow, mournful notes of taps, evoking the sadness of death. But no sooner had the last note drifted away than the bugler played again. The tune was reveille, the notes with which soldiers are called to a new day. Churchill thus reminded his mourners that death leads to a new morning. Christians can likewise know that the sleep of our own deaths will end when a trumpet call summons us to greet our returning Lord.
Understanding the Bible’s teaching, however, does not completely spare Christians from the grief of death. Death remains a fearful enemy that has invaded God’s garden. Being informed of our hope keeps believers from grieving in ignorance, but it does not relieve all the suffering of grief over those who have departed from us. Here, Jesus’ example at the tomb of his friend Lazarus is instructive. Jesus knew the answer of his resurrection: in fact, Jesus knew that in just minutes he was going to call Lazarus back to life. Still, standing before the horror of the grave, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). So, too, believers grieve, often with great suffering over the presence of our enemy and the departure of those we love, even while we are sustained through faith in the life-giving promises of God’s Word.
This hope enables Christians to come alongside grieving friends not only with the truth of God’s Word but also with tears that flow from Christ’s heart. A notable example was provided by the famous Southern theologian Robert L. Dabney, who suffered grievously when his two young sons died, one after the other. Despite his faith, Dabney struggled emotionally over such great sorrow. Some years later, he visited a couple whose only child was sick and dying. “An eyewitness reported that Dabney gently walked through the house to the back parlor where the child was lying. The mother was on her knees near the child. Dabney … walked to the bed, knelt beside the mother, and gave way to a flood of tears. Then he offered a prayer for the parents and the boy—a prayer that could only have come from one capable of empathizing with the family’s affliction.” After the child had died and was buried, “the mother reported that Dr. Dabney’s visit did her more good than all the visits and prayers of all other friends.”
The Christian Hope in Death
If Christians do “not grieve as others do who have no hope,” how do unbelievers respond to the tragedy of death? Many answers are found in the inscriptions and writings of ancient pagan unbelievers. A popular inscription on Latin tombstones reflects the attitude of many today: “I was not; I became; I am not; I care not.” A letter has survived from a woman named Irene to grieving friends. It reads: “I was as sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for Didymas.… But nevertheless against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort ye one another.” Yet Irene had no comfort to give, believing that nothing could be done to overturn the tragedy of death. Geoffrey Wilson concludes: “The finality of death filled the heathen with a feeling of blank despair. It was a sorrow which was unrelieved by any hope of a future reunion with their loved one.” In contrast to countless unbelieving writings that speak of death as a final end, a Christian inscription in one ancient catacomb speaks for all believers: “Alexander is not dead, but he lives above the stars and his body rests in this tomb.”9
What are the biblical truths that give believers such hope in the face of death? Paul provides these truths in 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Christ performs three great works—two of which have already happened, and one for which we await—that give hope to believers in the grief of death.
The first cause for our hope is the sin-atoning death of Jesus Christ: “We believe that Jesus died” (1 Thess. 4:14). The source of our chief fear in death—God’s just judgment of our sin and the eternal punishment it deserves—has already been removed by Jesus, who bore that punishment in the place of all who believe in him. Jesus taught, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me … does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
The Bible teaches that the very Lord who will return to judge the living and the dead is the Savior who died on the cross for the sins of his people. When Jesus raises his hand in judicial authority over the assembled human race, believers will rejoice to see on his hands the marks by which their own sins were forgiven forever. Moreover, dying believers know that the grave into which their bodies must be laid has already been consecrated by the body that Jesus offered for us. Because “we believe that Jesus died,” we know that sinners are reconciled to God by the grace that sent Jesus to the grave on our behalf. Therefore, we know that the words of Psalm 116:15 will apply to us: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
The second cause for the Christian hope in death is the resurrection of Jesus Christ: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thess. 4:14). Christ has conquered death by his own resurrection, and in this way has guaranteed the resurrection of all who confess their sins and trust in him. The resurrection proves to believers that our Savior still lives and reigns with power to complete our salvation. Paul further stated in 1 Corinthians 15:20 that Christ’s resurrection is proof that all his people will likewise be raised from the dead: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This means that the future resurrection of all believers is the continuation of Christ’s resurrection conquest of death. His resurrection was the firstfruits, and the resurrection of all Christians will be the full harvest. “Each in his own order,” Paul wrote: “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (v. 23). Thomas Watson explained:
Christ did not rise from the dead as a private person, but as the public head of the church; and the head being raised, the rest of the body shall not always lie in the grave.… As the first-fruits is a sure evidence that the harvest is coming, so the resurrection of Christ is a sure evidence of the rising of our bodies from the grave. Christ cannot be perfect as he is Christ mystical, unless his members are raised with him.
Finally, and as the conclusion of his sequence, Paul asserts that Christ, having died and risen from the grave, will return with all the souls under his care: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14). Since the souls of sleeping believers are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), it follows that his return includes their return to earth. J. Philip Arthur thus writes that Christ’s return “will not be a solitary return; he will be escorted by an enormous multitude, for he ‘will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus.’ ” Therefore, when a fellow believer dies, Christians should never say, “We will never see him again!” Instead, Christians should rejoice in the certain hope that we will see beloved Christians when Christ returns, when together with Jesus all the people of God in heaven will join those on earth for the resurrection glory of the Lord.
There is some question about the precise meaning of the expression “through Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:14). Paul says that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” This suggests that it is the Father who ensures that believers who have died will come back for the resurrection, and that God accomplishes this “through Jesus” and his mighty saving work. Some commentators hold instead that believers return “with Jesus” or that the resurrection and rapture are accomplished “through Jesus” in his return. Whatever the precise arrangement of Paul’s argument, his main point is clearly made: believers who die in Christ through faith will return with Christ, by the Father’s will, to participate in his second coming and join their resurrected bodies in the glory of the Lord.
The comfort that Paul offers differs absolutely from the hopeless grief of the unbelieving world. Unlike the ancient Irene, who vainly urged comfort while admitting that nothing could be done, Paul urges the believers to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18). This encouragement rests on the solid foundation of what God has done and will yet do: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 14).
Hope Even in Grief
Our knowledge of the present glory of believers who have died and the future glory for all who believe in Jesus should shape our grief so that we are not overcome but are encouraged by hope.
Earlier, I mentioned the grief of Robert L. Dabney after the death of his sons. Dabney was a brilliant teacher of the very doctrines that Paul brought to the minds of the grieving Thessalonians. Yet he admitted that he struggled to apply them with complete comfort to his own sorrow-filled heart. Dabney wrestled over the death of his first son, Jimmy, in a poem entitled “Tried, but Comforted,” expressing both his struggle and the comfort that he ultimately received from the truth of God’s Word:
Five summers bright our noble boy
Was lent us for our household joy;
Then came the fated, wintry hour
Of death, and blighted our sweet flower.
They told me, “Weep not, for thy gem
Is fixed in Christ’s own diadem;
His speedy feet the race have run,
The foe have ’scaped, the goal have won.”
Then, thus I heard their anthem flow:
“Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
But how, I said, can this sad heart
In joyful praises bear its part?
It hath no joy; it naught can do
But mourn its loss and tell its woe.
And then I thought, What if thy lost
Is now among that heavenly host,
And with the angel choir doth sing,
“Glory to Thee, Eternal King”?
Oh! that for once mine ear might hear
That tiny voice, so high, so clear,
Singing Emmanuel’s name among
Those louder strains, that mightier throng.
Oh! that but once mine eyes could see
That smile which here was wont to be
The sunshine of my heart, made bright
With Jesus’ love, with Heaven’s light.
Then would my burdened heart, I know,
With none but tears of joy o’erflow.
Having comforted himself with the hope of glory into which he had committed his dear, departed son, Dabney could embrace the challenge of faith during this present life. The poem concludes with words of advice to all Christians who grieve the bitterness of loss while looking with hope to the coming of Christ:
’Tis not for sight and sense to know
Those scenes of glory here below;
But be it ours to walk by faith
And credit what our Savior saith.
Let patience work till we be meet
To dwell in bliss at Jesus’ feet;
Then death, once dreaded, friendly come,
And bear us to our lost one’s home.
Then shall that glorious hour repay
The woes of all that dreary way,
And I shall hear forever more
My seraph boy his God adore.
Yea, he shall teach this voice to raise,
As angels taught him, Heaven’s lays;
And I, who once his steps did lead,
Shall follow him to Christ, our Head.
Alive in Christ
Everything that Paul wrote of our hope in death and that Robert Dabney gained for his comfort in grief is true only in the way that Paul insisted in 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “through Jesus.” It is only those who have “died to sin” (Rom. 6:2), confessing their guilt and turning to Jesus for forgiveness and new life, who now can be “alive to God in Christ” (v. 11), with the sure hope of a resurrection to come. It is Dwight L. Moody, who lived by faith in Christ, who was able to die in faith with hope and joy, in contrast to Robert Ingersoll, who did not live in faith and therefore could not find any hope in death. Since it is “through Jesus” that God brings souls back from heaven for a resurrection into glory, it is urgent that sinners come now to Jesus in faith to receive eternal life. To those who believe in him—and to these only—Jesus spoke words of consolation and hope: “I am the resurrection and the life,” adding, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Paul anticipates this resurrection life when he concludes: “And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). This is our hope as well, if only we come to Jesus for salvation now, humbling ourselves in faith and adoring him as Lord, seeking the eternal life he grants to all who call on his name and believe in him.
The Resurrection of the Dead
1 Thessalonians 4:14–17
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thess. 4:16)
Many recipes contain a secret ingredient without which the dish is not properly prepared. For instance, without oregano your spaghetti sauce isn’t really Italian. A chef can bake apples in a pie, but without cinnamon it isn’t apple pie. Put meat, tomatoes, and onions in a broth, but it still won’t be chili until you add the cumin.
In a similar way, the gospel contains a secret ingredient, apart from which our salvation falls short of the genuine article. All Christians know that Christ forgives our sin so that when we die, we go to heaven. But fewer Christians realize that “going to heaven when we die” is not our final blessing. For after believers have gone to heaven, the day will come when Christ returns to earth and his people will be raised in the glory of the final resurrection. According to Paul, this is the hope that sustains God’s people in the trials of this life. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” he writes. We wait now with hope for “the redemption of our bodies,” when we will finally “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:18–23). How bland the Christian hope must be—like apple pie without cinnamon—if we forget the resurrection of the dead!
The resurrection is absolutely necessary for our salvation. Without the resurrection of the body, Christians may be forgiven of our sins, but we are not delivered from the futility of our present mortal existence. If the dead are not raised, then despite our justification through faith in Christ, our sanctification will never be complete and we will remain eternally unfit for the glories of Christ’s kingdom. “I tell you this, brothers,” Paul wrote: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). This is why he was so determined to inform his readers of the resurrection, the knowledge of which brings spice to our present lives of faith: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).
Paul’s teaching on Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians 4 is an eschatological treasure trove. While addressing the salvation of believers who have died, Paul gives straightforward teaching about Christ’s return, life after death, the rapture, and the resurrection of the dead. Each of these topics is worthy of study from this vital passage. In considering the resurrection, we will ask a number of important questions, receiving answers that will not leave us uninformed (1 Thess. 4:13), but will encourage us with the apostle’s words (v. 18).
What Is the Resurrection of the Dead?
The first question to ask is: What is the resurrection of the dead? The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which comes from a verb that means “to raise up.” The resurrection, then, is the raising of our bodies after we have died. The Westminster Confession states that “the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other …, which shall be united again to their souls forever” (WCF 32.2).
It is important to note the bodily nature of the resurrection, because this truth has often been neglected or assailed. The ancient Greeks tended to view the body as ignoble and unworthy, so that in the ancient mystery religions, salvation involved an escape from the body. But the Bible values the body as God’s good creation, and Christian salvation positively affects our bodies, both now and forever. Christians are not to be radical ascetics who harmfully deny the body (1 Tim. 4:3–5) or libertines who sinfully misuse the body. Paul reasons: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit[?] … So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Cornelis P. Venema writes: “The same Lord who forgives all our sins is the One who ‘heals all our diseases’, including that sickness of body and soul that leads to death (Ps. 103:3). Thus no biblical picture of the believer’s future may fail to include as a central part the promise of the resurrection of the body.”
The Bible states many times that the final resurrection pertains to our bodies. David wrote in Psalm 16:9–10 that “my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” Job exclaimed in wonder: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25–26). Paul teaches that “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14). By even so, Paul means “in the same way,” so that Christ’s bodily resurrection was the forerunner of that resurrection for which believers hope.
There is a vital difference between the future resurrection and the way in which the dead were resuscitated during Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus called Lazarus back from the grave, for instance, Lazarus received his old body back to life, with all its flaws, limitations, and mortality. Before long, Lazarus would die again. But the future resurrection will involve the eternally glorious transformation of the bodies of Christ’s people. The prototype we have is the resurrected body of Jesus. It was a true body, capable of being touched and of eating and drinking (Luke 24:39–43), but also capable of appearing and disappearing and passing through locked doors (John 20:19), as well as shining with the glorious light of heaven (Acts 9:3). This is precisely the kind of body that believers will inherit in the resurrection, since Paul states that Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
In the future resurrection, our same bodies that lived and died will be raised. The body is not simply replaced with a new body but is changed into a glorified body suitable for the new heavens and new earth in which Christ will reign forever in glory. Geerhardus Vos writes: “There is not a simple return of what was lost in death; the organism is returned endowed and equipped with new powers[;] … there are added faculties and qualities which should be regarded as super-normal from the standpoint of the present state of existence.” Thus, we see that while we tend to look forward to the entry of our souls into heaven, the Bible emphasizes the resurrection as a greater blessing awaiting both the living and the dead with the return of Christ. N. T. Wright observes: “Resurrection is something new, something the dead do not presently enjoy; it will be life after ‘life after death.’ ”
Realizing that our bodies will be raised and glorified should transform how Christians think about our present lives. The resurrection conveys dignity to the most humble Christian soul and body, both of which are destined to “shine like the brightness of the sky above” (Dan. 12:3). Our bodies are holy to the Lord. Reminding us that our bodies are united with Christ “in a resurrection like his,” Paul urged, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom. 6:5, 12). The next time you are tempted to use your body to sin, remember that it is intended by God to be transformed for a holy eternal existence.
The resurrection of the dead is a great comfort to those who grieve the loss of loved ones, or who face the ravaging of their own bodies as death approaches. Ultimately sin and death will claim nothing from anyone who has trusted in Christ: the very body of every believer will be redeemed and brought to glory. What hope this gives as we grieve the loss of a father, whose voice once instructed us, knowing that we will hear that same voice singing praises to Christ in glory; or a mother, whose hands so tenderly ministered to our needs and will yet again clasp us in renewed strength. So Paul exulted, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Cor. 6:14).
Who Will Be Raised from the Dead?
A second question asks: Who will be raised from the dead? The Bible’s answer is that everyone who has ever lived will be raised in the body on the last day when Jesus returns. Paul speaks of the “dead in Christ” as rising when Jesus returns (1 Thess. 4:16), but the Bible elsewhere informs us that all will be resurrected to stand in their bodies before the final judgment, receiving either eternal punishment or reward. The angel spoke of this to Daniel in the Old Testament: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Jesus was even more emphatic, teaching that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).
It is clear in these statements that while believers and unbelievers will alike be raised, they will experience radically different results. Jesus taught that on the day of judgment he will “separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32). This indicates that there will be a tangible difference between the resurrection of the godly and the ungodly. To his justified people, on his right hand, Jesus will declare, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). It will be exactly the opposite for the ungodly: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ ” (v. 41).
The final judgment that immediately follows the resurrection should worry unbelievers greatly. God has told us in the Bible how history will end. In this present age, there is no outward difference between those who believe in Christ and those who deny him. And when the two are compared in this world, unbelievers often seem to come out ahead. Even Christians sometimes wonder what difference it makes to follow Christ, given how things often turn out in this world. Asaph felt this way in Psalm 73, “until,” he said, “I discerned their end” (Ps. 73:17). Then Asaph remembered that for the ungodly, despite whatever pleasures the present may hold, at the final judgment “they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” (v. 19).
The Bible declares a resurrection judgment to those who have not believed and therefore still bear the wrath of God for their sins. Samuel Waldron explains: “Though the unjust are raised, theirs is a very strange and paradoxical resurrection. Though they are raised physically, they are not raised to ‘life,’ but to ‘death.’ In the highest sense, theirs is not a resurrection—a restoration to true life—at all.” It is by God’s mercy that this warning is given now, so that we may turn in faith to Jesus Christ, who died for the forgiveness of sins. “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” the Bible says, “and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
The coming resurrection not only warns unbelievers to turn in faith to Christ, but also challenges believers in their attitude toward all other people. In his famous essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis urged us to remember the eternal significance of every person we will ever know:
The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.… It is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.… But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
When Will the Dead Be Raised?
If Paul tells us what the resurrection is and who will be raised, we necessarily wonder when the dead will be raised. His clear answer is that the resurrection of the dead will occur when Jesus returns from heaven to earth in all his glory: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).
Passage after passage in the Bible tells us that the resurrection will take place when Christ returns, as the immediate precursor to the final judgment of all mankind. Jesus combines these three events—return, resurrection, and judgment—in Matthew 25:31–32: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations.” Jesus said that “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28–29), a description echoed in Paul’s statement that Christ will return “with a cry of command” (1 Thess. 4:16). Elsewhere, Paul again joined Christ’s return with the resurrection: “each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23).
According to premillennialism, there will be two distinct resurrections: the raising of the godly before a literal thousand-year reign of Christ and then the resurrection of the ungodly after Christ’s millennial reign on earth. This is supposedly supported by Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 that “the dead in Christ will rise first.” The problem with this interpretation is that Paul is not comparing the resurrection of the just to that of the unjust, but rather is comparing the resurrection of the dead to the transformation of believers who are still living when Christ returns. We can see Paul’s point if we keep reading into verse 17: “And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them.” Paul is not describing, first, the believers’ resurrection and, second, the unbelievers’ resurrection. Rather, he speaks of those who are dead in Christ and then those believers who are still living.
As we have seen, the Bible clearly teaches that the resurrection is a single event involving both the just and the unjust at the time of Christ’s return. Revelation 20 informs us that at the end of the millennium, which is best understood as the present gospel age (a view known as amillennialism), all mankind—saved and unsaved—will stand before Jesus to be separated in the judgment. John saw this in his revelation of glory: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12). Here is fulfilled the scene prophesied in Daniel 12:2, in which the godly and the ungodly stand in one judgment. Two books are present in this judgment—one condemning sin and the other recording salvation—because of the two kinds of people who are raised: “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
How Will the Dead Be Raised?
A fourth question that we should ask about the resurrection is how the dead will be raised. This question may be approached in two ways: first, asking, “By what power does the resurrection take place?” Paul answers in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 by pointing to emblems of divine authority and power: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” Here, God’s sovereign power is symbolized in Christ’s return by the call of the archangel and the trumpet blast of God. Just as Jesus often used external signs to make obvious the divine nature of his miracles, Wilhelmus à Brakel explains: “This resurrection will not have a natural cause—as if those bodies could again be brought to life after a period of time by certain motions, changes, and transformations. This can neither be accomplished by an angel nor any other creature. Rather, this is a work of omnipotence and will therefore be performed by God, the Creator of heaven and earth.”
Jesus said that “the Father raises the dead and gives them life” (John 5:21). Realizing this divine cause for the resurrection should relieve any concerns over how bodies long decayed or otherwise damaged can ever be raised. To be sure, belief in the resurrection evokes respect for the bodies of the dead, which is why Christian faith has historically resulted in a strong preference for burial over cremation. But just as God created all things out of nothing, no barriers can thwart the Almighty in raising our bodies to glory on the last day.
A second way to approach the how of the resurrection concerns the nature of our transformation: How will believers be changed when our bodies are raised? This matter is most fully addressed by Paul in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians: “Someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ ” (1 Cor. 15:35). The apostle answers by outlining four dimensions to the transformation of the believer’s body in the resurrection.
First, the resurrected body is imperishable so as to partake forever in the reign of Christ: “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:42). Our current bodies are prone to disease and decay, our natural beauty fades over time, and ultimately the body gives way to death. But in the resurrection “the mortal puts on immortality,” so that “death is swallowed up in victory” (v. 54).
Second, the resurrection body is glorious: “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43). The term dishonor is usually used by Paul with reference to the disgrace of sin, to which our bodies have been corrupted in their present desires (see Rom. 1:26; 2 Cor. 6:8; 11:21). But in the resurrection, our bodies will shine in the glory of perfect holiness.
Third, the resurrection body is mighty: it “is sown in weakness” but “raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43). Unlike our current condition that so often falls short of what we desire, the resurrection body “serves God tirelessly and powerfully in the redeemed creation.”
Finally, whereas we presently inhabit “a natural body,” the resurrection body is spiritual in nature: “It is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). This statement does not mean that the resurrection body lacks material substance, but rather that it is ideally designed for the spiritual life in the age of glory with Christ. As an imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual body, the resurrection body will be, as John Owen writes, “a blessed instrument for the soul’s highest and most spiritual activities.”
Why Will the Dead Be Raised?
This study of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection leaves two vital questions unanswered. A fifth question is: Why will the dead be raised? The best answer for the why of salvation is always this: that God may be glorified in the mighty working of his grace. We see Christ glorified as he descends on the clouds before all the earth (1 Thess. 4:17). Describing a similar scene, when Christ ascended into heaven, Daniel said: “To him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14). Thoughts of Christ’s return should likewise expand our notions of the majesty of our Lord and the grandeur of his saving work. Responding to this same scene, the angelic powers in heaven “fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign’ ” (Rev. 11:16–17).
There is another reason why the dead are raised on the last day, a reason given by Paul at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “And so we will always be with the Lord.” The eternal age of glory is designed to fulfill the covenant purpose of God: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). God’s purpose in salvation is “to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). Yet we cannot be forever with the Lord unless we are first made like the Lord, at least as far as this is possible for mere creatures. Thus, the final stage and climax of God’s saving purpose in all of history is the resurrection of his people, who are vindicated in the final judgment and gathered into a perfect, eternal communion with Christ so that “we will always be with the Lord.”
According to Paul, knowing about our future glory in communion with God is the encouragement designed to keep us going through the hard times of this present life of faith. Paul never tells believers that God has promised to make us winners now, with everything going smoothly in a carefree present life. Instead, the apostle admits the tribulation of our present life of faith and points ahead for encouragement to the glory yet to be revealed: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). This is why Christians today need to be biblically informed about Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, so that our hope may be fulfilled in the promise of Christ’s return. This is how even a most afflicted saint such as Job could lift up his head rejoicing in the midst of great sorrows: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.… My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25–27).
How Do We Know That We Will Be Raised?
This leaves one last, vitally important question: How do we know that we will be raised? How can we be sure that there will be a resurrection of all the dead on the last day, the just into glory and the unjust into eternal death? Paul gives the answer in 1 Thessalonians 4:15: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.”
Paul does not seem to be referring to any statement of Christ’s that is known to us, so this is probably a revelation given directly by the risen Jesus to the apostle. What matters is Paul’s reminder that the Bible is God’s revealed Word of truth. Who else knows what God has planned for the future but God himself? Where else can we learn about life beyond the grave and the end to the history of the world than from the One who is the Alpha and Omega of all things? Why, then, should we appeal to the fancies of men or charlatan spiritualists, who cannot penetrate beyond the grave and do not know the future plans of God, when we have “a word from the Lord” to tell us the future? If the Bible is true, as it can be shown to be by its many proofs, then God’s Word is the message to which we must affix our hopes and commit our hearts in faith.
There is one last way to consider the resurrection. The vital question is not merely how I can know that there will be a future resurrection. The more important question is how I can know that in that resurrection I will be raised to the glory of eternal life, rather than to the condemnation of eternal punishment that I deserve for my sins. The answer to this vital question is found in our stance toward Jesus Christ now. According to Jesus, those who are raised for vindication in the final judgment are those who were chosen by God in sovereign grace and thus trusted in Christ for salvation. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out,” Jesus declared (John 6:37). “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (v. 39). Who are the people who were given to Jesus by the Father and will be received by him in glorious joy on the day of his coming? Jesus answered in a way that sets before our feet today the very matter that will decide our eternal destiny then: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (v. 40). Learning about the future from God’s Word, we have the ultimate application as it concerns our faith in Christ now. Paul stated the matter succinctly in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
Meeting the Lord in the Air
1 Thessalonians 4:16–18
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:17)
Since the 1970 publication of Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth, dramatic images of the rapture have dominated evangelical thinking. Lindsey described his idea of the rapture in the words of a fictional reporter: “There I was, driving down the freeway and all of a sudden the place went crazy[:] … cars going in all directions … and not one of them had a driver.” A sports journalist noted: “Only one minute to go and they fumbled—our quarterback recovered—he was about a yard from the goal when—zap—no more quarterback—completely gone, just like that!” A United Nations spokesman announced to “all peace-loving people of the world that we are making every human effort to assist those nations whose leaders have disappeared.” Images like these have been replayed in Christian novels and movies, depicting believers as suddenly vanishing without a trace. The moral is clearly stated in youth-camp and revival sermons: when Christ returns, don’t be left behind through sin or unbelief!
The term rapture comes from the Latin word rapio, which the Vulgate translation employed for the Greek word harpazo, which Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The apostle says that believers “will be caught up” to meet the Lord when he returns. Whereas allusions to the rapture may be seen in other Bible passages, the event is directly stated only in this verse, which explains that when Christ returns and “the dead in Christ” have been raised, then “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (vv. 16–17).
Evaluating the “Secret” Rapture
The understanding taught in Lindsey’s popular book and accepted by many evangelicals today is a view that was virtually unknown before the mid-nineteenth century. This doctrine, which is called the secret rapture, teaches that Christ’s second coming will take place in two stages, one before and one after a seven-year period of tribulation. The first stage of Christ’s return is a secret rapture because only believers are aware that it is happening (except for the cars that crash without drivers and athletes who disappear from football games!). The secret rapture removes all Christians so that they will not suffer the tribulation prophesied in the Bible. For this reason, the secret rapture is also called the pretribulation rapture, language that is a standard feature of dispensational premillennialism. This teaching holds that after the Christians are removed and a seven-year tribulation is completed, Christ will come in visible glory to judge his enemies and inaugurate a literal thousand-year reign on the earth, after which comes the final judgment and the eternal state.
Teachers of the pretribulation, secret rapture will usually admit that the key features of their doctrine are not found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the only verse in the Bible to describe the rapture directly. For instance, John MacArthur writes that “no solitary text of Scripture makes the entire case for the pretribulation Rapture.” This being true, advocates of this view make their case not on the direct teaching of any Bible passage but from inferences taken from Scripture on the basis of a presupposed system of doctrine.
On what basis, for instance, is it claimed that Christ’s return will take place in two or more events separated by many years? The primary reason is that dispensational teaching presumes that God has separate agendas for the people of Israel and the Christian church. Believing this, the church age is seen as ending with the rapture, after which God resumes his work for the saving of ethnic Israel. Hence, the separation of Israel and the church yields a two-stage return of Christ. Arguments are then marshaled to defend this scheme. Primary among them is the observation that some descriptions of Christ’s return include the judgment of the wicked, whereas others do not, which is taken to prove that there are two different stages in Christ’s return. Since Christ’s first return is not seen to involve a worldwide judgment, this rapture is described as secret. Presuming as well that Christians do not endure the end-times tribulation, this secret rapture occurs before the dreadful events that presage Christ’s final return.
Taken together, these assertions combine to form a unified system of teaching. It is not one, however, that can survive careful biblical scrutiny. For starters, the key supposition that Israel and the church represent different plans of God is contrary to the New Testament’s whole way of thinking. Over and over again, the New Testament uses Old Testament images for Israel in describing the church, thus identifying the old covenant and new covenant people of God as one people. In Romans 11, Paul describes Gentile Christians with the Old Testament symbol of Israel as an olive tree: “You, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17). This teaches not that Gentile Christians form a different work in God’s saving plan but rather that they have been organically joined to God’s redeeming work for Israel. Hebrews 12:22 appropriates Israel’s exodus imagery in describing the gathering of Christians for worship: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” One of the more potent proofs of the unity between Israel and the church is the cloud imagery that Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The glory cloud led Israel through the exodus into the Promised Land, and in Christ’s coming the same cloud will escort his people into the promised final glory. It is this kind of covenant theology that led Paul to write to Gentile Christians: “Peace and mercy … upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Just as the Bible does not separate Israel and the church, so also the two-stage return of Christ is not supported by Scripture. It is true that different versions of Christ’s return present different elements, for the simple reason that individual passages are making particular points. At the end of 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul addressed concerns regarding believers who have died, so his answer focuses on how Christ’s return involves their resurrection. There was no reason, in making this point, to mention the judgment of the ungodly. As Paul continues in chapter 5, however, he addresses a different question, one pertaining to the timing of Christ’s coming. Here, he does mention Christ’s judgment on the wicked: “Sudden destruction will come upon them” (1 Thess. 5:3). Remembering that the original manuscripts did not include chapter divisions, and reading the passage in its plain sense, we find no reason to take Paul as describing two different events, one without judgment and the other with judgment. Other key passages, such as Matthew 24:29–44, present Christ’s return as a single event featuring both the judgment of unbelievers (vv. 30, 38–39) and the gathering of Christ’s people (vv. 31, 40–41). The strong parallels between Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 indicate that Paul likewise envisions a single coming of the Lord in both judgment and salvation.
It is even more obvious that the coming of Christ as described by Paul is anything but a secret. In fact, it is mystifying how believers who claim a literal interpretation of the Bible, as dispensationalists do, can describe as secret an event that is announced “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). Leon Morris argues, “It is difficult to see how [Paul] could more plainly describe something that is open and public.” Kim Riddlebarger agrees: “The whole thrust of the three-fold announcement is that God himself will proclaim the return of Jesus Christ so loudly that the whole earth will hear.”5 The images in so much popular Christian literature of unbelievers’ searching for missing Christians with no idea that Christ has come are utterly contrary to the Bible’s depiction.
Moreover, the doctrine that Christians are raptured before the great tribulation is thoroughly refuted by any number of Bible verses that warn Christians to be prepared to endure these very trials. In his teaching on his return in Matthew 24, Jesus warns believers not to be deceived by false christs and then warns that “they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9). Jesus says nothing about believers’ being removed before this tribulation, but warns them instead to endure it without falling away: “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 13). Furthermore, Jesus’ statement that “for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (v. 22) makes little sense if his people have previously been removed from the earth. Only when a prior grid is presupposed can a natural reading of the New Testament yield a pretribulational removal of Christ’s people.
It should be stressed that the secret rapture is believed almost exclusively by Christians who hold a high view of the Bible’s authority and are courageously devoted to Jesus. The point of assessing and critiquing their teaching is not to mock them but rightly to handle the Word of Truth. Riddlebarger’s summary is offered in this spirit of respectful disagreement: “The dispensational theory of the secret rapture cannot be justified from the Scriptures. The Bible teaches that though there are different aspects involved, they are all part of one event—the blessed hope—when Jesus Christ will come again on the last day to judge the world, raise the dead, and make all things new.”
The Triumphant Conqueror
The widespread prevalence of “secret rapture” teaching has made it necessary to critique its distortion of the Bible. But we have not yet answered this question: What is the rapture? If there are not two different events in Christ’s return, if it is not secret, and if it is not designed to remove Christians before a period of tribulation, then what does Paul teach about Christ’s coming to rapture his church?
One valuable clue to understanding Paul’s meaning is to recognize the cultural and political background in which he was writing. Scholars agree that the word parousia, which Paul uses for Christ’s “coming” (1 Thess. 4:15), was widely used in the Roman world to describe formal visitations of the emperor or other high officials to a city. This connection is strengthened by Paul’s use of the Greek word apantesin to say that believers will “meet” the Lord in the air (v. 17). Gene Green comments that this word “was almost a technical term that described the custom of sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to town.” There can be little question that Paul’s Thessalonian readers would have understood his terminology in this way, since their own recent history included visitations by prominent leaders such as Pompey the Great and Octavian Caesar. In his sermon on this text, the ancient preacher John Chrysostom understood Paul’s meaning in just this way: “For when a king drives into a city, those who are honorable go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within.”9
Understood this way, Paul depicts the return of Christ as the coming of a great king, a conquering emperor returning to his capital to celebrate a triumphal parade. The hero appeared outside the gate with his army, and his supporters joyously went out from the city to meet him. One custom was for loyal subjects to present the emperor with a crown to wear while in their city, an idea that Paul employed when he described the faithful believers as his “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (1 Thess. 2:19). Then, with all his loyal people around him, the triumphal ruler entered the city in order to take up his rule and bask in his people’s praise. When Julius Caesar returned from his victories in 49 b.c., Cicero wrote, “Just imagine what a royal welcome (apantesis) he is receiving from the towns, what honors are paid to him.” How much greater will be the glory of Christ when he comes, not to remove his adoring people from the earth but to bring them with him into the creation that he comes to reclaim and fill with his glory.
To Meet the Lord in the Air
If the imperial visitation provides a background for Paul’s description of Christ’s return, how should we understand the details of his rapture teaching? What does it mean for believers to be “caught up … in the clouds” and “to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17)?
Paul’s statement that believers will be “caught up” gives us the word rapture (Greek harpazo). Elsewhere this same Greek word is used of the taking of a kingdom by force (Matt. 11:12), a wolf’s snatching sheep (John 10:12), and the deacon Philip’s being torn away from the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:39). These examples make the point of the suddenness by which Christ draws his people in sovereign power. John MacArthur describes it as “a strong, irresistible, even violent act.… It is when living believers are caught up so that they are transformed and receive their glorified bodies.”
The question is raised as to whether Paul means for us to envision a literal lifting up of believers into the atmosphere. Critical scholars such as N. T. Wright bemoan the “astonishing literalness in popular fundamentalism” that sees Paul as envisaging “Christians flying around in mid-air on clouds.” It is true that Paul employs apocalyptic language here that is elsewhere meant symbolically, but it is also true that 1 Thessalonians is a letter that is otherwise taken in a straightforward, literal sense. The best way to understand Paul’s teaching, then, is to note the symbolism he employs and then to understand his description in as literal a manner as possible.
The worldwide nature of the rapture, which requires that “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7), seems to preclude us from thinking of Christ’s appearing over London, New York City, our own hometown, or any other localized area. At the same time, when Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples did see him rising up through the sky. The angels who appeared said that he would return “in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). There is undoubtedly great mystery about this event from our present perspective; it is a supernatural intervention beyond our previous experience. G. K. Beale writes: “The old-world reality will be ripped away, and the dimension of the new, eternal reality will appear along with Christ’s ‘presence.’ … Just as one can lay flat a map of the whole world and see it all at one glance, so Christ will appear and be able to behold humanity at one glance and they him.… A new dimension will break into the old physical dimension.… God and the Lamb will form a ‘tabernacling’ presence over all redeemed believers.”
The imagery of clouds has a rich background in the Bible. Elijah was translated to heaven in a cloud of glory, as Jesus was in his ascension. On the Mount of Transfiguration, “a cloud came” and overshadowed Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Luke 9:34), and when Solomon dedicated the temple of Mount Zion, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord” with the “glory of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10–11). As we noted earlier, the glory cloud led Israel through the exodus wilderness, and in the rapture that same cloud will reappear to escort Christ’s people into the final glory. Herman Ridderbos thus states that the cloud in Paul’s rapture vision “constitutes the manifestation of the glory of Christ, in which his own are permitted to participate.” Here biblical symbolism and literal interpretation meet, for while we should understand the symbolism of clouds as the Son of Man’s chariot, there is no reason for believers to doubt that in the supernatural cataclysm of Christ’s return we will literally see the shekinah glory and be caught up into it.
Just as the cloud has a symbolic significance, the same is true of the “air” where believers will meet the Lord. The air is the region between heaven and earth. It is significant that believers are not caught up to meet Christ in heaven but in the airy outskirts of earth, for Christ will have returned from heaven to redeem the earth in glory (Rom. 8:22–23). The air is sometimes compared to the realm of spiritual powers, as when Paul described Satan as “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). But evil will no longer hold sway in the air, for there Christ will be revealed as the triumphant Savior and Lord over all.
Furthermore, we should consider Paul’s statement that “we who are alive, who are left,” will experience the rapture (1 Thess. 4:17). This refers to Christians who are living when Christ returns, in contrast with “the dead in Christ” who are first raised (1 Thess. 4:16). It is worth noting that Paul’s language is exactly opposite of the “left behind” fantasy portrayals, in which it is the ungodly who are left behind. For Paul, it is “we who … are left.” This lines up with Jesus’ teaching on the second coming in Matthew 24, where he compares his return to Noah’s flood. In that earlier judgment, the wicked were swept away and believers were left behind on the earth, emerging from Noah’s ark into a new and cleansed world. Jesus said that something similar will happen in his second coming: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (Matt. 24:40–41). This does not depict a two-stage coming of Christ but rather two fates on the day of judgment. Paul employs the same language, in which those “left behind” are not the ones who miss out on the rapture, but rather are those left behind from the cleansing judgment in Christ’s return. Our fervent desire as Christians is to be left behind after Christ’s cataclysmic judgment so that we may “always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
Forever with the Lord
Paul’s teaching of the rapture has several implications, the first of which may be regarded as political. As Paul adapts the political customs of the Roman Empire in his rapture teaching, he makes a statement about worldly powers and the sovereignty of Christ.
We have noted how Paul’s terms parousia and apantesis had a political meaning in the Roman world. Another word was equally claimed by both Christ and Caesar: the word kurios, which means “lord.” We know from church history that the early Christians refused to ascribe ultimate lordship to the emperor, many of them suffering death rather than bowing to Caesar’s image and saying, “Caesar estin kurios,” “Caesar is Lord.” With his information about Christ’s appearing as Lord over all, Paul is challenging Caesar’s sovereignty and urging his converts not to grant ultimate allegiance to the secular state. To be sure, Paul taught believers to obey rulers placed over them (Rom. 13:1–5), but only with the clear understanding that the highest authority belongs to Christ. N. T. Wright has aptly expressed Paul’s intent: “Jesus was Lord … and Caesar was not.… Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus.”
Christians who face persecution today should remember, therefore, that history will end with Christ’s triumph, in which his glory will seize all the “air time” and his ultimate authority will be displayed for all to see. In America today, few Christians have been persecuted, yet an increasingly militant government makes growing claims on our consciences. Courts threaten Christians for refusing to permit sexual deviancy on their campuses or among their employees. Recently, a court case challenging the right of denominations to enforce the biblical morality of their ministers went all the way to the Supreme Court before being defeated. Most recently, the federal government has pressured Christian businesses and colleges to include abortion funding as part of their medical insurance. Must Christians yield to Caesar in the church and in matters of Christian conscience where Jesus alone should rule? Paul answers by showing us how history will end, with the power and authority of Christ placing all else under his feet. At his sovereign return, all who trusted him and obeyed his Word will meet him in the air, joining the triumphant Lord as he manifests his uncontested reign over the entire universe.
Paul’s vision not only shows the true power in the universe but also provides a vision of glory that should motivate us to persevere through tribulation. It is said that when a Roman conqueror rode through the capital city in his triumph, a slave was assigned to ride behind him on his chariot, both to hold a golden laurel wreath over his head and to whisper in his ear that all glory is fleeting. So it is for all the fame, fortune, and glory that men and women sell themselves to gain in this present world. But in the return of Christ, there will be a glory that is not fleeting. Then “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). Here is a glory beyond all imagining, providing us with ample incentive to persevere in the midst of earthly troubles, in the deadly persecutions that our Christian brothers and sisters are suffering now around the globe, and even in the great tribulation that is foretold before the coming of the Lord. As the exalted Jesus declared in Revelation 3:21: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
Finally, as Paul urges us to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18), we focus on his concluding statement: “and so we will always be with the Lord” (v. 17). The souls of Christians who die go immediately to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) in heaven. Those who have trusted Christ in this life, loved the Lord, and served his gospel “will be caught up together” (1 Thess. 4:17) and thus will be with the Lord forever. Death will bring no final loss to those of us who live in Christ now and reign with him then. We will together enjoy the perfect fellowship for which we have so longed in this life, each of us joined together in love by the great love of Christ that will be our all in all.
Encouraged by These Words
What an encouragement Christians receive now from the knowledge of Christ’s glorious, saving return. First, we have a strong incentive to live as followers of Christ. This world, with its temptations to sin, is seen passing swiftly away. The reality that is found in Christ will soon appear forever, so that wise believers are glad to live now for his sake. Second, we are greatly emboldened to witness the gospel of Christ to a lost and dying world. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18–19). Third, Christ’s coming encourages us to labor for building up the church and advancing the kingdom of Christ. Jesus urges us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (6:33). “Blessed is that servant,” he says, “whom his master will find [serving] when he comes” (Luke 12:43). Fourth, we are encouraged to love one another as Jesus has loved us, realizing that we will be caught up in order to be together forever with the Lord. The relationships that we forge now in Christian worship, fellowship, and service will literally last forever. And the most valuable thing that you and I will ever behold before seeing Jesus in glory is one another: precious saints purchased with the blood of Christ.
Finally, Paul’s teaching urges everyone to come to Christ in saving faith. The encouragement of which he spoke is valid only for those who have believed in Jesus. What will become of those who refuse Jesus now and thus remain guilty of their sins on the day of his coming? One hymn laments their fate: “The day of grace is past and gone; trembling they stand before the throne, all unprepared to meet him.” How much better to be forgiven of our sins now so as to anticipate Christ’s return with joy! Then we will sing with joy: “Beneath his cross I view the day when heav’n and earth shall pass away, and thus prepare to meet him.”
When Jesus returns, with heaven and earth passing away, those who are caught up in the air to meet him will return with him to the new heavens and the new earth. How many people close their hearts, fearing that they will lose the world if they put their faith in Christ! In the end, however, the very opposite will be true. Christians do, in many respects, lose this present world, especially its sinful pleasures, when they give their allegiance to Christ. But when he returns, they will be left when all others are taken away in judgment, to meet him in the splendor of his glory. Then, believers in Christ will gain the new world together with him. Trusting in his promise, we call to him now, together with all the rest of his adoring people, saying, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).