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What Is the Rapture? (1 Thessalonians 4)

Central to Paul’s argument are the words “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Although the resurrection of the believing dead receives frequent mention in the NT (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:23, 52; also Luke 14:14; Rev. 20:4–5), Jesus’ own eschatological teaching in the Gospels does not directly state that the resurrection of the dead occurs “first” (before the living go to meet the Lord). Perhaps Paul was meditating on Jesus’ statement that the angels “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:31; cf. Mark 13:27). Or perhaps Paul knew more from oral apostolic tradition or direct revelation.

Remaining Believers

After the believing dead have been raised, the story shifts to the believers who remain alive at the time of Jesus’ return. This verse has been the subject of much controversy, principally about what it means for living believers to be “caught up together with them in the clouds” and to “meet the Lord in the air.” Many contend this provides the exegetical basis for the theology of a future “rapture,” in which living believers are suddenly taken out of this world and are taken directly to heaven prior to the great tribulation that precedes a millennium believed to be yet in the future.

Many also suggest an analogy with those “taken” in the time of Noah (cf. Matt. 24:40–41). Yet this analogy is problematic, since those “taken” in the time of Noah were taken by drowning unto death and judgment, while those who were left behind (namely Noah and his family) experienced the salvation of God.

There are difficulties in 1 Thessalonians for the rapture theory. This interpretation would imply that Jesus’ glorious descent is only partial, stopping in the clouds/air briefly in order to meet the raptured Christians before returning to heaven with them. It seems more likely that Paul expects Jesus’ descent to continue from the heavens to the earth. Thus many have argued that the verb for “meet” in the phrase “meet the Lord in the air” is key to understanding these anticipated events. This Greek word for “meet” (apantēsis) appears in only two other NT texts. In the eschatological parable of Matthew 25:6, the virgins wait for the bridegroom, whom they “meet” and welcome back to the wedding feast. In Acts 28:15, Roman believers travel out to the Forum of Appius in order to welcome Paul and bring him back to Rome with them. In both Matthew 25 and Acts 28, the action of meeting involves going forth to greet an honored person, then promptly returning with the honored guest. Many instances of apantēsis in the Septuagint Greek OT follow a comparable pattern (e.g., Judg. 4:18; 11:31, 34; 19:3; 1 Sam. 13:10), and secular Greek writings use the word to speak of civic delegations going out to welcome a dignitary before returning in celebration to the city.

This would imply that, at Christ’s appearance, Paul expects the dead in Christ to be raised, followed by the lifting up of the living believers to welcome Jesus in the air, before Jesus descends to earth with his people in order to judge the world and establish fully his kingdom on earth. For Jesus’ arriving “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” again see Matthew 24:30 (quoting Dan. 7:13; also Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). Some have suggested that “in the air” metaphorically implies something like “out in the open,” perhaps in the midst of the clouds that have descended all the way to earth with Jesus. However, it is more probable that Paul intends the “air” and “clouds” to be used to designate a physical space between the earth and the heavens.

In addition to emphasizing the resurrection of the dead, it is important to stress Paul’s final clause in this verse. There, Paul expresses confidence in the eternal life of believers in the age to come: “and so we will always be with the Lord.”

Paul concludes this section with an imperative to encourage one another with this teaching. Believers in Thessalonica who were concerned about the fate of their dead brothers and sisters in the Lord should be comforted by Paul’s teaching. Jesus himself had revealed that the dead in Christ are to be raised—even raised before the living have the privilege of meeting Christ. Therefore, Christians need not grieve without hope.

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians—Philemon (Volume 11)edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

This post is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon  edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., Jay Sklar. The article originally appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.