“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning 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. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall 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” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, RSV).
Although I have written other articles about ‘the last days’ and Jesus’ prophecy on the Mount of Olives (beginning with this one), I feel like it’s necessary to examine some of the Biblical passages about the ‘day of the Lord’ and the ‘second coming’ (besides the Olivet prophecy which I’ve already written about) in a little bit more detail. This is because we are so bombarded these days with the horrifying predictions of ‘prophecy experts’, claiming certain political and environmental events are ‘fulfillments of Biblical prophecy’, and warning of other terrible political and environmental events ‘just around the corner’ to us. Our political leaders are even warned that they need to adopt policies and take actions that will put us ‘on the right side’ when God’s ‘soon coming wrath’ is poured out on the world. Therefore, it becomes necessary to emphasize as much as possible the need to read the Bible in the light of the times in which it was written, the people who were being addressed, and the picturesque and poetic type of language used by the writers and speakers. When we lose sight of the fact of the historical setting, and imagine that the writers were writing to us in the 20th and 21st centuries rather than to 1st century believers, we set ourselves up for all sorts of absurd and speculative errors.
The above passage from 1 Thessalonians is no doubt one of the most frequently quoted passages to teach a ‘rapture’ of Christians, yet it is nevertheless one of the most misunderstood. These Thessalonians were for the most part ‘Gentile’ (non-Jewish) believers who had relatively recently turned from their idolatry to worship the One God. Acts 17 tells about Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica, and how he had to leave because of the violent opposition of Jews who opposed his preaching that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Chapters 2 and 3 of 1 Thessalonians tell of Paul’s constant concern for the welfare of the believers he had to leave behind; he finally was so concerned that he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to find out how things were going with the believers there. Timothy later returned to Paul with a very encouraging report about the believers’ steadfastness, love, and growing faith. However, it would seem that Timothy also said that at least some of the believers were despondent about friends and family who had died. They had accepted Paul’s good news that Jesus, God’s anointed, was soon to come in his kingdom and that they would reign with him at that time. But what did that mean for those who had died? They were surrounded by many who “had no hope” – both among Gentile idolaters, and Jewish Sadducees who denied the existence of angels, spirits, and the resurrection – and were apparently infected by this lack of hope. After all, many of them were formerly idolaters themselves, and had only recently embraced the good news Paul had proclaimed to them.
Paul’s first assurance to these Thessalonian believers was by telling them that the ones they worried about were only “sleeping”. Death seems so final; the body ceases to function, is buried, and begins to decompose. But as Paul later wrote to the Corinthian Christians (2 Corinthians 4:16-18): “That’s why we are not discouraged. No, even if our outer man is wearing out, our inner man is being renewed day by day. This light, temporary nature of our suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory, far beyond any comparison, because we do not look for things that can be seen but for things that cannot be seen. For things that can be seen are temporary, but things that cannot be seen are eternal” (International Standard Version). We not only have an “outer man” (the physical body) which perishes; we have an “inner man” (spiritual nature or body) which is “eternal” and “imperishable”, and it’s that inner man we view by faith. That inner man continues to live when the body fails; so while those who have died physically may be resting in ‘sleep’, they definitely haven’t died with their physical bodies. And since the believers acknowledged that Jesus had risen again after dying, they could be sure that he would bring their sleeping/resting loved ones with him when he came in his kingdom.
Paul then added to this assurance by reminding them that this was what their Lord, Jesus, had said. Paul wasn’t just asserting his own opinion. Many people today want us to believe that Paul never talked about Jesus’ teachings; he supposedly only proclaimed his own ‘revelations’, which they tell us are quite different from Jesus’ teachings. But this is one of the passages that refute such an opinion. Paul had not only proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had instructed them in what Jesus had taught. Now he reminds them of something that was an important part of Jesus’ own teaching: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord”. Not only would the dead not miss out on the coming and kingdom of Christ; they would actually be the first to join Jesus in his reign. “We who are alive and are left” would join Jesus and them later.
So where do we find this in the teachings of Jesus? Jesus taught a number of times about his coming and kingdom, but I can think of at least two passages in the Gospels that Paul was almost certainly referring to. In Matthew 16:27 and 28 he said this: “For the Son of man is to come with his angels [messengers] in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”. And in Matthew 24:30, 31, and 34 he had this to say: “…and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels [messengers] with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other…Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place.” Notice the correlations between these statements and what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians. The Lord (Son of man) comes in the clouds of the air with a loud trumpet call (a cry of command, the archangel’s call, and the trumpet of God) with his messengers (Paul says “those who have fallen asleep” will be brought with him when they rise from their sleep/rest). The prophecy of Daniel (7:26 and 27) had said that “the court shall sit in judgment” and “…the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High…” Matthew 16 says the “messengers” will come with the Son of man when he comes to judge and reward people. Matthew 24 says the “messengers” will gather God’s elect together. Paul said “those who had fallen asleep” or who had died would come with Jesus. Can there really be any doubt that Paul was referring to (and ‘interpreting’) those prophecies when he wrote to the Thessalonians? Paul is almost certainly teaching that the ‘messengers’ Jesus referred to were the resurrected believers (and is reminding the Christians that he had previously explained that to them), and they were the same ones that Daniel had referred to as “the people of the saints [holy ones] of the Most High” and “the court” which sits in judgment. These are the very same ones that Jude referred to when he quoted from the book of Enoch: “Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied about these people when he said, ‘Look! The Lord has come with countless thousands of his holy ones [saints]. He will execute judgment on all people and convict everyone of all the ungodly things that they have done in such an ungodly way, including all the harsh things that these ungodly sinners have said about him’” (verses 14 and 15, English Standard Version). Paul frequently called the believers in the churches “saints” (or “holy ones”), as in his opening statements to the churches of Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossi.
Now, what is most important in regard to the claims of the ‘prophecy experts’ which abound in our time, is that the apostle Paul (and the Thessalonian believers) clearly believed that “the day of the Lord” and the “coming of Christ” would occur within their lifetime. Twice in these few verses Paul spoke of “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord”. It was not “they who will be alive when the Lord comes” but WE. Why did he feel so certain about that? Was it just wishful thinking? Absolutely not! He believed in Jesus as God’s Messiah and the one whom He had appointed to be Lord, and it was this Lord who had said: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”; and “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place.” Paul’s confidence was based on the explicit statements of Jesus, his Lord. If Paul and the Christians were wrong in their expectation, then Jesus was wrong in his prophetic teaching! And if Jesus and Paul were wrong, we have no reason at all to believe that there ever will be a coming and kingdom of Christ, the Lord!
But Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24 (Mark 13, and Luke 21) were so accurate regarding the things which could be observed with the physical eyes –concerning wars, earthquakes, famines, apostasy, false prophets, the abomination which makes desolate (Jerusalem being surrounded by armies which make desolate) and the terrible tribulation of that period – that many modern ‘scholars’ think he couldn’t possibly have actually predicted them. The prophecies must have been written after the fall of Jerusalem and falsely put in Jesus’ mouth! Yet the fact that Paul was familiar with them and referred to them (with confidence of their coming fulfillment) when he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians around A.D. 51 or 52 proves quite conclusively that such a theory is simply not true (since Jerusalem was not destroyed until A.D. 70). If he was so accurate about the things which could be seen, we may have confidence that he was also accurate about the things which can’t be seen by physical eyes. The coming of Jesus Christ and his saints (holy ones) in their ‘resurrection bodies’ would no more be visible to the physical eye than was the angel who slew Herod Agrippa in Acts 12:23. Josephus records Agrippa’s death by a sudden and mysterious illness immediately following the speech Acts refers to, but he said nothing about an angel – because the angel was only apparent to the ‘eye of faith’. The coming of the Lord and his messengers would no more be visible to the physical eye than was the coming of the LORD in the clouds in judgment on Egypt as recorded in Isaiah 19:1 and 2 – “An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, every man against his brother and every man against his neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.” The ‘eye of faith’ would see the fulfillment of the prophetic statements of Jesus and his apostles, and would realize that those physically observable events were in reality the victorious judgment of Jesus, God’s anointed, and his believing ‘saints’. The ‘eye of faith’ realizes that as God’s human messengers proclaim the good news to every nation under heaven, and “God’s elect” are gathered together to God and His anointed by means of that gospel preaching, there is a ‘behind the scenes’ spiritual activity of Jesus and his ‘holy ones’ who have ‘risen’ from their restful ‘sleep’ which is working together with the physically alive human messengers. And the ‘eyes’ of those Jews (and Romans) who rebelled against Christ and the Christians, and who were killed in that ‘coming in judgment’, would certainly ‘literally’ see Jesus and his messengers. Even those like Josephus who were not Christians, and who were not killed, realized that the events surrounding the ‘Jewish war’ were the results of “God coming in judgment”. They could ‘see’ it, even though God didn’t ‘visibly’ come.
But what about the ‘rapture’ of those Christians who were alive and left when the Lord came with his saints? There is no recorded evidence of any large scale (or even small scale) disappearance of people at that time; nor any reports of people visibly rising up into the air. Doesn’t that disprove the idea that 1 Thessalonians 4 refers to a ‘coming of the Lord’ which happened in the first century A.D.? Not really. Paul wrote that “the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (verses 16 and 17). That word “then” is not a word of time, but of order. That is, it doesn’t mean “at that time” or “immediately”; but “next”, “later”, or “after that”. One example of this is in Galatians 1, where Paul said that after the Lord had appeared to him on his way to Damascus, “…I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then (there’s that word) after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas…” (verses 16-18). There were three years between one event and the other, though they were connected by the word ‘then’. So the statement could very well be (and almost certainly was) simply that those who were still alive when the Lord came would later (when they died) be “caught up” with Jesus and the risen believers who had been ‘asleep’, to rule and judge the nations from ‘heavenly places’ (the ‘clouds of the air’). This would be the same as what John wrote in the Revelation (14:13): “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” This was said in the context of “one like a son of man” who was sitting on a cloud, and who gathered the harvest of the earth; while another angel brought judgment and wrath from God on the wicked (the ‘grape harvest’ from the ‘vine of the land’ – those who claimed to be Jews, but were not the true ‘Israel of God’). Christ’s kingdom had its ‘grand opening’ in 70 A.D., but it is a kingdom whose ‘increase’ is without end. Those believers who were still alive at that time, and those who like them were and are ‘overcomers’ in the centuries since, join him in his kingdom and ‘court of judgment’ when they die.
The prophetic statements in 1 Thessalonians 4, like the prophecies of Jesus on which they were based, were fulfilled in the lifetime of those 1st century hearers and readers. They are not events which are still future to us (though they were still in the future at the time Paul wrote). Political, ecological and environmental events in our lifetime have no relation to those prophecies. There is no ‘rapture of the church’, ‘great tribulation’, rebuilding of the Temple of God, or ‘battle of Armageddon’ in our future. We don’t need to take sides with the nation of Israel against its ‘enemies’ in Iran or Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else. In God’s viewpoint there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Arab; God doesn’t show favoritism. And there shouldn’t be any distinction and favoritism in our viewpoint either! Eventually, through the ministry of Jesus Christ and his church (on earth and in ‘heaven’) everyone in ‘heaven’, on earth, and ‘under the earth’ will be brought into willing submission to God’s anointed, and the ‘salvation’ through the knowledge of God which that brings.