Meeting Jesus in the Air

Paul reassured the Thessalonians regarding the participation of dead saints in the arrival of Jesus from heaven – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Cloudscape - Photo by Kaushik Panchal on Unsplash
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reassured the congregation about the participation of fellow saints who die before the “
arrival” of Jesus in the glories of that day.  BOTH dead and living saints will assemble to “meet” him, and thereafter both will be with him “forevermore.” Dead believers will be resurrected, and together with those still alive, all will meet the Lord as he descends from heaven - [Cloudscape - Photo by Kaushik Panchal on Unsplash].

In making his case, the Apostle provided one of his more detailed descriptions of the “coming” of Jesus and how it will affect believers:
  • (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest you sorrow even as the rest also, who are without hope; for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For this, we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first, after that we, the living who are left, together with them will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and in this manner, we will evermore be with the Lord. So then be consoling one another with these words.”
In the first half of the chapter, Paul exhorts believers to walk in holiness, to abstain from sexual immorality, to refrain from transgressing against fellow believers, to continue in love, and to attend to their own business. In such ways, they become proper witnesses of the gospel to the outside community.

In the second half, Paul reassures the church about the full participation of dead saints in the “parousia” of Jesus. Whether dead or alive that day, no believer will be shortchanged. And after dead and living Christians are reunited and meet Jesus as he descends from heaven, all his saints will be “together with the Lord forevermore.” Paul’s words were meant to comfort the Thessalonians.

Threaded through the fourth chapter of the letter is the theme of attaining holiness, especially in consideration of the coming return of Jesus.  Believers achieve holiness by proper conduct, exercising love, and remaining faithful through tribulations.

The description of these final events begins with the clause, “now…concerning” (deperi), a phrase Paul often uses to introduce new subjects. The Thessalonians are not ignorant about the “arrival” of Jesus, but about the relationship of dead believers to it.  This is made clear by his statement, “we would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are falling asleep.”

Paul is addressing a real concern that could impact an entire congregation. An incorrect understanding might easily turn Christian grief into hopelessness (“that you may not grieve even as the rest who have no hope”). Again, his purpose is to reassure and comfort grieving saints (“comfort one another with these words”).

He does not criticize the Thessalonians for their grief. Christians experience grief when loved ones die, but they are not without hope.  But he did not want them to grieve in the same way as unbelievers do, for they are without hope because they do not possess the knowledge that God will resurrect the righteous dead. In contrast, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, “so also He will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.”

And thus, Paul anchored the resurrection hope of believers in the past death and resurrection of Jesus. As described elsewhere in the New Testament, his resurrection is the guarantee of the future resurrection of believers (John 14:19, Acts 26:23, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5).

Participation on 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, either at the time of death or the moment of Christ’s arrival.  This is made clear by the phrase - “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus” - which indicates that believers in a right relationship with Jesus when they die will be resurrected - (e.g., “Those who have fallen asleep in Christ.” Also, 1 Corinthians 15:18).

Paul’s description draws on sayings of Jesus from his ‘Olivet Discourse.’ On the last day, the Son of Man will “descend from heaven” accompanied by an “archangel.” The trumpet will sound, and believers will be gathered to him as he arrives “in the clouds”:
  • (Matthew 24:30-31) - “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and he will come on the clouds… he will send out his angels to gather his elect…a loud trumpet.”
There is also a verbal parallel in Paul’s description with the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.  The bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. They were awakened by “a shout” and the command to go out “to meet” the bridegroom as he arrived.  They “rose” and “went with him” to the wedding feast. Likewise in Thessalonians, the issue is the state and participation of believers that have “fallen asleep” - (Matthew 25:1-13).

So, also, when Jesus arrives, he will be accompanied by “shout” and the voice of the “archangel.”  Then those who have fallen asleep will “rise” first and be caught up with living saints “to meet the Lord and to be with him forevermore.”

The Greek noun rendered “meet” or apantêsis is the same term used in Matthew when the “bridesmaids” went out to “meet” the bridegroom. The bridesmaids did not die but “fell asleep.” But this occurred over time as the bridegroom “tarried.” So, also, in Thessalonica, some “fell asleep” or died while waiting for the return of Jesus.

Falling asleep” is metaphorical for death, and this becomes clear when Paul labels this group the “dead in Christ.” Here he uses the Greek adjective nekroi, which refers to dead persons and not to the abstract state of death. Since they still are waiting for resurrection, they have yet to receive their full salvation.

Cemetery Sun - Photo by Simeon Muller on Unsplash
Photo by Simeon Muller on Unsplash

We, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord.”  This demonstrates Paul’s belief that Christians will still be alive on the earth at the time of the parousia of Jesus - (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 commonly rendered “coming” is parousia, which means “arrival, coming, presence.” In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul applies this term in all but one instance to the future “coming” of Jesus. Once he uses it to refer to a “arrival” of the “man of lawlessness” - (1 Thessalonians 2:193:13: 4:15: 5:23: 2 Thessalonians 2:1: 2:8, 2 Thessalonians 2:9).

The dead in Christ will rise first.”  This is the “new” information introduced by Paul in this paragraph: Dead believers will rise first even before those saints who remain alive on that day are transformed. This knowledge is provided to comfort the Thessalonians concerning their dead brothers and sisters.

Paul describes three audible features that will occur on that day: the “shout,” the voice of an “archangel,” and the “trumpet of God.” He did not state to whom the “shout” will be directed. One possibility is that Jesus will summon the dead to rise from their graves – (John 5:25 - “An hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God: and those who hear will live”).

Archangel” does not have a definite article or “the.” Paul does not identify a specific angel. His emphasis is on its “voice.” The reference to the “trumpet of God” parallels other scriptures that associate trumpet blasts with the “Day of the Lord” - (Isaiah 27:13, Joel 2:11, Zechariah 9:14, 1 Corinthians 15:52).

In Greek-speaking communities, the term parousia was often used for the “arrival” of royal dignitaries to a city. When that person approached the city, its leading citizens went out to “meet” him with pomp and ceremony, then they escorted him into the city. For such “meetings,” the Greek term apantêsis was used, the same word applied to believers when they “meet the Lord in the air.”

In this Greek society, it was illegal to bury the dead within the city’s walls. Commonly, approach roads to a city were lined with graves. If Paul was using apantêsis and parousia with this background in mind, the picture becomes clear. The righteous dead are raised first, then together with those remaining alive, they “meet” Jesus as he approaches from heaven. After that, they accompany him as he continues his descent to the earth.

Those “caught up” to the clouds.  This rendering can be misleading. The Greek verb harpazō means “snatch, to seize.” By itself, it includes no information regarding direction; that is, there is no notion of upwards motion - (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).

Elsewhere, “clouds” are associated 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 meeting the Lord “in the air,” believers will remain with him “forevermore.” Precisely where this will occur is not stated - whether Jesus returns with his saints to heaven, they accompany him as he descends to the earth, or the entire company remains suspended in midair for eternity. Paul simply does not address this question in the passage.

Thus, Paul has reassured the Thessalonians regarding the participation of dead saints in the events of that final day. Dead believers will be resurrected and reunited with those still alive, and all together will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven. No true believer will be excluded or shortchanged on the glories of that day. In this way, all the elect will be gathered to the Lord and remain forevermore in his presence.



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