13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV
In an effort to prepare His disciples for His coming death in Jerusalem, Jesus provided them with some encouraging news:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” – John 14:1-3 ESV
Jesus had repeatedly emphasized that His death was inevitable and unavoidable. It was part of God’s redemptive plan and, as an obedient son, Jesus was obligated to carry out the will of His Father. It was the reason behind His incarnation, a point that Jesus made perfectly clear when He said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT).
Without Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, the sin debt owed by mankind would remain unpaid and a sentence of death would still hang over the heads of each and every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. But Jesus did die. He was buried. He rose again and was see in His resurrected state by hundreds of His followers. Paul emphasized these facts in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen… – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 NLT
But the story of redemption didn’t stop there. We know from the gospel accounts that after Jesus appeared in His resurrected form to His disciples, He commissioned them to take the gospel message to the nations. And then He ascended back into heaven, right before their eyes. Luke gives us a glimpse of that moment in the book of Acts.
…he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. – Acts 1:9 NLT
Jesus returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But the redemptive story doesn’t end there. As the disciples stood staring up into the sky, two angels appeared and gave them some very important words of encouragement.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” – Acts 1:12 NLT
Jesus died. He was buried. He rose again. He appeared. He ascended. And, one day, He will return. This is the very event to which Paul refers in this section of 1 Thessalonians 4. He reminds His audience that there is another important event that looms on the horizon of redemptive history. The return of Christ for His bride, the church. This is the event commonly referred to as the Rapture. This word, while not actually in the Bible, is derived from the Latin translation of the Greek word, harpazō, translated as “caught up” in verse 17. In the Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament, this word became raptura, from which we get the term, Rapture.
The Rapture, while often confused with the Second Coming, is a completely separate end times event. It refers to the return of Christ for His bride, the church, and it will take place at the end of what is called the church age – a period of undisclosed length that includes the time in which we live. It began with the coming of Jesus and will end with His return for the church, when He takes all those who have believed in Him to join Him in His Father’s house in heaven.
All of this fits into the wedding imagery that Jesus used concerning He and the church. He is the groom and we are His bride. Technically, according to the traditional Jewish concept of marriage, we are the betrothed on Jesus. The marriage has yet to be consummated, but we are legally bound to Him, having been given to Him by His Father, just as in a traditional Jewish wedding (John 17:12). During the betrothal period, the bride and groom are legally married, but remain separated from one another. It is only just before the actual wedding itself that the groom returns for His bride and takes her to his father’s house, where the wedding ceremony and feast are held. Jesus, having returned to His Father’s house, is preparing a place for He and His bride. Then, when the time is right, he will return for her and take her to His Father’s house, where the ceremony and the celebration will take place.
That is the event to which Paul is referring and he appears to be bringing it up because there was confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They had all be longing for and eagerly waiting on the Parousia or coming of Christ. The early church lived with a sense of immediacy and imminence when it came to Christ’s return. They expected it to happen any day. And Paul and the other apostles encouraged this outlook. Paul to the believers in Corinth:
But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT
But the Thessalonians were beginning to have second thoughts. Some of their fellow believers had died and Jesus had not yet returned. That raised some significant questions in their minds: Where did their deceased friends and relatives go? What was their eternal fate? Was Jesus ever coming back?
And Paul addresses these concerns by providing them with much-needed assurance of the coming of Christ. For Paul, the deaths of their friends and relatives was cause for mourning, but not despair. Sadness is a natural human reaction to loss but, for believers, our loss is to be accompanied with hope. Because we have the resurrection of Jesus as a constant reminder of our future destiny. Jesus’ death was followed by His resurrection and, by virtue of our faith in Him, we have the same outcome awaiting us. Paul told the believers in Rome:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:5 ESV
And he told the believers in Corinth:
It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. – 1 Corinthians 15:52 NLT
Notice what Paul says here. Those who have died will be raised to live forever. And those who are living when Jesus returns for the church will also be transformed. That is the very same message Paul is delivering to the Thessalonians. The dead have not missed the boat. Their souls have gone to be with Jesus in heaven. Just as Jesus told the criminal on the cross, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NLT). Those believers who die prior to the Rapture go to be with Him. But the day is coming when they will return with Him and receive their new resurrected, glorified bodies. Again, Paul addressed the reality of this incredible promise in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
…our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! – 1 Corinthians 15:50-51 NLT
As Dr. Thomas L. Constable so aptly puts it: “the translation of living Christians and the resurrection of dead Christians will take place at the same time.” It is at the Rapture that all those in Christ, the living and the dead, will receive their glorified bodies, custom-made for the eternal state. As Paul puts it, “our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).
Paul wanted the Thessalonians to maintain their hope, even in the face of loss. Their loved ones were not gone, they had simply gone on ahead. And the day is coming when all believers, those who have died and gone to be with the Lord and those who are still living, will be reunited and will received their resurrected, glorified bodies. And the apostle John provides us with further words of encouragement regarding that day.
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT
With this fantastic news in mind, encourage one another with these words.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).