So far in our study of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 we have talked about The Return and The Resurrection. Today we look at what some have called The Rapture. The word is taken from the Latin translation of the Greek word in our text for "caught up". Paul says that those Christians who are still alive when the Lord returns will be caught up together with those believers who have died to meet the Lord in the air. The resurrection of those believers who are "raptured" is implied in this text and stated clearly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52....
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.Will believers who are alive at the Second Coming really be caught up into the physical atmosphere surrounding the earth to meet the Lord literally in the air? I do not know. Certainly there is some symbolism at work here. In Scripture the "air" is the abode of Satan and his demons. Paul calls Satan "the ruler of the kingdom of the air" in Ephesians 2:2. Jesus' return in the air, just like his ascension in the air, shows his triumph over Satan and all his cohorts.
Some interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:17 as a secret rapture of the Church. They say that Christ will come back for his Church before the Great Tribulation (some say in the middle of the Tribulation) and that he will take believers out of the world so that they will not have to suffer through the Tribulation period. They say that then the Lord will return a second time at the end of the Tribulation to set up a thousand year reign on the earth. Then, in a sense, Jesus will come back a third time at the end of the millennium.
The problem with this teaching is that it does not fit the facts of this passage. And this is the only passage in Scripture that speaks explicitly about the Rapture. Paul says that "the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, and the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God." This hardly sounds like a secret rapture to me. It sounds like a very public spectacle.
Rather than suggesting that Jesus will come halfway back to earth, meet believers in the air, and then return to heaven, I think this passage suggests that Jesus will meet believers "in the air" (whatever that means) and then those same believers will accompany Jesus back to earth. The word in this passage for "meet" is a technical word used in Hellenistic times. F. F. Bruce has written,
When a dignitary paid an official visit (praise) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis."Apantesis" is the Greek word used here for "meeting". Thus, I believe the picture Paul gives us here is that Jesus will return "in the air" with the resurrected dead and that those believers who are alive on earth will be caught up to meet them "in the air" and accompany Jesus back to hearth where he will judge all of humanity and set up his eternal kingdom.
The most important point is what Paul ends with: "And so we will be with the Lord forever." How we get to this end point does not matter so much as the fact of this reunion itself. Imagine what that reunion will be like.
The following words come to us from an unknown author:
As a boy, I thought of heaven as a city with domes, spires, and beautiful streets, inhabited by angels. By and by my little brother died, and I thought of heaven much as before, but with one inhabitant that I knew. Then another died, and then some of my acquaintances, so in time I began to think of heaven as containing several people that I knew. But it was not until one of my own little children died that I began to think I had treasure in heaven myself. Afterward, another went, and yet another. By that time I had so many acquaintances and children in heaven that I no more thought of it as a city merely with streets of gold but as a place full of inhabitants. Now there are so many loved ones there I sometimes think I know more people in heaven than I do on earth.I can relate to that author's feelings. My father and three of my siblings are now in heaven. And I greatly look forward to our reunion, whether that reunion takes place in the temporary heaven that now exists, or whether that reunion takes place "in the air" of the new heavens and the new earth that God will one day recreate. (See the end of the book of Revelation.)
Paul concludes this part of 1 Thessalonians by saying, "Therefore, encourage each other with these words." The Second Coming of Christ offers hope to a weary world. There is a glorious future in store. Therefore, let us encourage each other with these words. "The best is yet to be..."