Meeting Jesus in the Air

SYNOPSIS - Paul reassured the Thessalonians that both living and dead saints will participate in the festivities at the arrival of Jesus from heaven - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

Dawn Clouds - Photo by kazuend on Unsplash
By kazuend on Unsplash
A passage from the first letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica has become the main proof text for the doctrine of the “Rapture” - The belief that just prior to the end of the age Jesus will appear in the sky to remove his church from the earth and transfer it to heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

According to this view, Paul first revealed this “mystery” in his epistle to the Thessalonians. However, the interpretation ignores the literary context and the reason why he raised the subject matter (“What happens to believers who die before the return of Jesus?”). The solution Paul proposed was that dead believers would be resurrected when Jesus appeared and reunited with the saints still alive at the time, then both together would meet Jesus "in the air" as he descends toward the earth, but not the removal of the saints from the planet to heaven to escape tribulation. All saints, the living and the dead meet Jesus at his "arrival" or parousia.
  • (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest ye be sorrowing, even as the rest also, who are without hope; for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For this we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first, after that we, the living who are left, together with them will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord. So then be consoling one another with these words.”
A key problem with this reading of the passage is that it never states whether Jesus returns to heaven accompanied by the saints or, instead, continues his descent to the earth after meeting the church "in the air." Furthermore, this view stands in tension with the other statements about the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus by the Apostle Paul.

In verses 1-12 of Chapter 4, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to walk in holiness, abstain from sexual immorality, refrain from transgressing against fellow believers, continue in love, and attend to their own business. In such ways, they would become proper witnesses of the gospel to the outside community and, thereby, “please God.”
The purpose of the passage is to reassure the Thessalonian saints that believers who die prior to the “arrival” of Jesus will participate fully in the event. Dead and living Christians will be reunited with him as he descends from heaven. From that point forward, they will be “together with the Lord forevermore.” The words are meant to comfort the Thessalonians.
Threaded through the chapter is the theme of attaining holiness before God, especially in consideration of the future coming of Jesus.  This is achieved by proper conduct, exercising love, and remaining faithful through tribulations.

The paragraph begins with the clause - “Now…concerning” (deperi), a phrase Paul uses elsewhere to introduce new subjects (see1 Thessalonians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 7:1, 7;25, 8:1, 12;1, 16:1).

Paul writes what follows because he does not wish his readers “to be ignorant” of the topic and how the coming of Jesus impacts both living and dead believers on the day of his "arrival" (seeRomans 1:13, 1 Corinthians 10:1, 12:1, 2 Corinthians 1:8).

The Thessalonians were not ignorant of the coming of Jesus but about what it would mean for dead Christians.  This is clarified by several statements made by Paul:
  • …We would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are asleep: that you may not grieve…God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep… we who are alive: who are left until the coming of the Lord: will not precede those who have fallen asleep… the dead in Christ will rise first… then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them… to meet the Lord…in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord…comfort one another with these words.”
Will believers who die before the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus participate in that event?  How this question came about is not stated in the letter.

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

Church Cemetery Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash
By Einar Storsul on Unsplash

The Apostle did not criticize the Thessalonian believers for their grief over dead loved ones. Christians do experience grief but are not without hope.  But he did not want them to grieve as unbelievers do who have no hope because they do not possess the knowledge about the promises of God, especially regarding the resurrection of the dead.

The Thessalonian saints were concerned that fellow believers who die prior to the parousia would not experience the resurrection at the same time or in the same manner as Christians remaining alive on that day. The answer Paul gave was that, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, “so, also, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.”
At the outset of his explanation, Paul grounded the resurrection hope of the church in the past death and resurrection of Jesus. As elsewhere in the New Testament, his resurrection is presented as the guarantee of the future resurrection of all believers (seeJohn 14:19, Acts 26:23, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5).
Participation in the events of that day is not based on whether one is dead or alive but on faith in what God has accomplished in Jesus (“For if we believe that Jesus has died and rose again…”). What counts is faith at the time of death or the moment of his "arrival."  This is demonstrated by the phrase - “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” The last clause indicates that believers in the right relationship with Jesus when they die will be resurrected at his return (compare, “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” - 1 Corinthians 15:18).

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

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

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

The Greek noun rendered “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 (apantêsis) is the same one used in the Parable of the bridesmaids. The only other New Testament verse where it occurs is Acts 28:15. The bridesmaids “fell asleep” because the bridegroom tarried. Likewise, in Thessalonica, some believers “fell asleep” or died over the passage of time while waiting for the arrival of Jesus. The “word of the Lord,” therefore, most likely refers to this or similar sayings of the Christ - (Matthew 25:6).

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

Paul s more explicit when he calls those who are asleep the “dead in Christ.” He used the Greek adjective nekroi, which refers to dead personsNOT to the abstract state of death. The reference to dead saints suggests they have yet to receive their full salvation - Dead believers and those still alive still wait to be resurrected (and transformed), then united with Jesus. Thus, our salvation remains incomplete until his parousia.

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

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

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

In his two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul applied parousia in all but one instance to the “coming” of Jesus. Once he referred to a “coming” or parousia of the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9).  He uses parousia for the coming of Jesus only once outside of the two Thessalonian letters (1 Thessalonians 2:193:13, 4:15, 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2:81 Corinthians 15:23).

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

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

The Apostle used a double negative for emphasis in the Greek sentence of Verse 15: “No, not precede them who have fallen asleep”. Those still alive would “certainly not” precede the dead in Christ in meeting the Lord.  The emphasis was to reassure the Thessalonians regarding their dead compatriots - They would be raised “first” before the transformation of saints still alive on that day.

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

The dead in Christ will rise first.”  This is the key “new” piece of information that Paul introduced.  He had taught the future resurrection previously; however, what he divulged in this letter was that the dead rise first before those remaining alive. This bit of information served to comfort the grieving Thessalonians over the fate of their dead loved ones. Paul also described three audible features that will be heard at the parousia of Jesus:
  1. A shout.
  2. The voice of an archangel.
  3. The trumpet of God.
The audible aspects indicate this will be a public event, not a secret one.  Verse 16 does not state to whom the shout is directed. One possibility is that it is the call of Jesus summoning the dead to rise from their graves.  This idea occurs also in John 5:25 (“An hour is coming and now is: when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God: and those who hear will live”).

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

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

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

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

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

Cemetary Road - Unsplash.com
Courtesy - Unsplash.com

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

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

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

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

Old Testament Allusions

The Lord will descend “from heaven WITH A SHOUT: with the ARCHANGEL'S CALL: and WITH THE SOUND OF A TRUMPET of God.” This alludes to Psalm 47:5, “God has ascended WITH A SHOUT: the LORD WITH THE SOUND OF A TRUMPET.”  This verbal echo is fitting since it is a celebration of God’s rule over the nations.  Yahweh was declared king over all the earth and all nations were subjugated under His feet.

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

Summary

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

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

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