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.(1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, NASB)
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)
Ifdoes 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 solinks 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.
(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 meetnot 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).
Article above adapted from the commentary by John MacArthur. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Chicago: Moody Press, 2002, 123-138.
About the Author: Dr.John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. Grace Church has grown from 450 members in 1969, when MacArthur accepted the pastorate, to over 12,000 today. He is also the president of The Master’s College and Seminary in Newhall, California, a prolific author of more than two dozen books, and the speaker on the worldwide radio broadcast, Grace to You, heard over 700 times daily–every half hour, day and night, somewhere around the world. The primary emphasis of MacArthur’s ministry has always been the expository preaching and teaching of God’s Word through a verse-by-verse exposition of the Scripture. His studies pay particular attention to the historical and grammatical aspects of each biblical passage. MacArthur’s recently published book, How to Get the Most from God’s Word, released in conjunction with The MacArthur Study Bible, is designed to fill what he sees as “an increased hunger for the meat of the Word.” He assures the reader that the Bible is trustworthy and that an understanding of Scripture is available to everyone. He then provides guidance on how to study the Bible and how to discern the meaning of Scripture for oneself. Dr. MacArthur explains that the book and the Study Bible have been “in the works for 30 years…the product of 32 hours a week, 52 weeks a year…dedicated to the study of God’s Word.” He asserts that “God’s Word is the only thing that satisfies my appetite, but it also arouses an even deeper hunger for more.” Among MacArthur’s other books are The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series, The Gospel According to Jesus, The Master’s Plan for the Church, Saved Without a Doubt, The Glory of Heaven, Lord Teach Me to Pray, Unleashing God’s Word in Your Life, Safe in the Arms of God, The Second Coming, Why One Way?, and Truth for Today, and Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ. His books have been translated into Chinese, Czechoslovakian, French, Finnish, Hungarian, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Spanish, and several Indian languages. Though occasionally viewed by some groups as a controversial figure for strong critiques of freudian psychology, trends in the modern charismatic movement as well as the self-esteem movement, John MacArthur is seen by many as a champion of correcting many of the ills of evangelical Christianity. He is also a champion of helping believers grow stronger in their relationship with God through the committed study of the Word and personal commitment to the local church. MacArthur spent his first two years of college at Bob Jones University, completed his undergraduate work at Los Angeles Pacific College, and studied for the ministry at Talbot Theological Seminary. John and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California. They have four grown children — Matt, Marcy, Mark, and Melinda–and eight grandchildren.