The Rapture—It’s a topic that some get very excited about, others dismiss or mock, or others just ignore or don’t give much attention to. I was raised and taught the pre-tribulational rapture. This position holds that the church will be taken out of the world to be with the Lord forever before a time of judgment on the earth preceding the premillennial return of Jesus. Over the past several years, I have been more certain about the concept of premillennialism and its validity than I was about the pretribulation rapture, though not rejecting the it. As I have been studying Thessalonians over the past several months, I have looked forward to reaching a key passage regarding the Rapture and studying it, namely Ch. 4:13-18. Today I offer an explanation of what it teaches. I will begin by saying that if pre-tribulationism is true, it definitely makes a difference in how we live our day to day lives. However, it does remain to be seen whether this passage itself really speaks to the timing of the Rapture.
The Text of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
With that, lets dive in by reading the passage (translation mine):
But we do not want you to be ignorant, bretheren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, in order that you not be sad as even the others who don’t have hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, in this manner even God will bring with him those who are sleeping through Jesus. And so this we say to you by the word of the Lord that we who are living and left behind until the coming of the Lord will certainly not move ahead of those who are sleeping; Because the Lord himself will come down from heaven in a command, in the sound of the archangel and in the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living [and] left behind will be snatched up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so in this manner we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another in these words.
Outline of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The passage consisting in 6 verses divides into 3 sections. First, we have the introduction of a new topic of Paul, namely the Thessalonians sorrow (vv13-14). Second, we have Paul’s message of the truth about the experience of the second coming of Christ for believers (vv15-17). Third, we have a concluding exhortation of Paul to the Thessalonians based on his message (v18)
Introduction: Paul’s Topic and Motive (4:13-14)
In the introduction section, we find the background to Paul’s primary message and some initial comments on which Paul builds his primary message. We find first that Paul is concerned that they would not be ignorant about those who had already died in Christ (“fallen asleep”) or sad as “others who don’t have hope.” The situation seems to be one in which some in the church had died, and the Thessalonians were concerned about the ultimate end for these people. I will return to this later on. The author makes an initial statement that at some point in the future God will bring with Him those who had died. There is a noteworthy mention of Christ’s resurrection as a basis for this future for the dead in Christ, tieing the future for Christians to Jesus’ own resurrection. There is a legitimate question here on how can it be understood that “God” brings the dead believers with him, but this can be addressed in the next section.
Paul’s Message: “The Dead in Christ Will Rise First” (vv15-17)
The main instruction section here is vv15-17, affirming that the dead in Christ will resurrect first followed by the Rapture of living believers. Paul began by an affirmation of his own authority for what he is teaching them, because He is speaking “by the Word of the Lord.” There is an echo here of what Paul previously said about his word being God’s Word (see previous post on 1 Thess. 2:13), and thus the point is that his message about the dead in Christ and the future for living believers is rooted in God’s authority. He then summarizes his message by stating that those living will not “move ahead of those who are sleeping.” The implication is that they will be resurrected, but Paul is telling them that they are not going to even be resurrected until God’s plan for the dead in Christ takes place. This is, as previously noted, intended to comfort these living believers. Instead, Paul outlines I believe three events.
First, He describes the great descent from heaven by the Lord Jesus Himself. His descent is described as being accompanied by three things, a command like a military order, a “sound of an archangel,” and a “trumpet of God”. These are great signs that accompany this return. Whether they are literal and audible, to be seen by the world, seems attractive. However, I would hesitate to be dogmatic at this time. Second, it affirms that indeed the “dead in Christ will rise first.” The key is that they rise first. This is a reference to the resurrection of the dead, and the imagery of their rising certainly lends us to understanding that their dead bodies are raised from the dead. As pointed out earlier, it seems that these believers do come with the Lord or with God the Father in this descent. It seems reasonable that we see this as a reunion of their spirits with their resurrected physical bodies. Third, those living are raptured (“snatched up”) into the clouds to meet their Lord and those who have come with him. If indeed 1 Cor. 15:50ff is a parallel passage describing this same event, it would be clear that the living will also experience the same kind of physical transformation that the dead will have experienced.
Paul summarizes his message with the statement “in this manner we will always be with the Lord.” There is no time after the Rapture in which those living will be apart from their Lord again. It is also implied that they will never be apart from those who have died before them either. They are all resurrected and caught up. This too would lend some support to that the living also experience the same kind of resurrection change, since the dead and the living are united forever from here on out.
Paul’s Conclusion: Exhort Each Other (v18)
The passage concludes by exhorting us on the basis of all of this to “comfort one another in [or by] these words.” (v18) In this, Paul shows the full circle of this message. He began by indicating that he didn’t want them to be ignorant about the future of those who had already died so that they didn’t sorrow like others, and he concludes by telling them that they should not only hear and believe this message but that they should exhort each other with these words. Perhaps we can apply this idea even to how we receive the messages from our pastors. It might feel redundant to repeat what we all have just heard in church, but Paul seems to imply that we should exhort each other with what we have already heard.
Conclusion and Next Study
In conclusion, I will just say that this is a two part study of the Rapture. The reason is that (1) there does seem to be a connection between this passage and what follows it in 1 Thessalonains 5 and (2) The issue of the timing of the Rapture does not appear to be directly explained in 1 Thess. 4. My study is still in process of 1 Thess. 5, but I think there is more to be said on this topic. Thanks for reading! Feel free to share any thoughts in the comments which are open for a few weeks after the date of publication.