Topic: Expository Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Rapture! | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Some of you have been waiting for this day. Today, we get into the eschatology sections of 1 Thessalonians. Do you know what the word “eschatology” means? It’s the study of the last things. Paul has already referred to eschatology several times throughout the book in 1:3, 10; 2:16, 19-20; and 3:13. But those passages only mention eschatology; this is the first passage that actually explains eschatology.
For the next two Sundays, we are going to study the Rapture. There are three clear Rapture passages in the New Testament–John 14:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Of those three, this one is the clearest.
So this is an important passage. It’s also a relatively simple, straightforward passage. There’s not much in it that’s difficult to understand. However, because the timing of the Rapture is so hotly debated, just about every square inch of this passage has been scrutinized for clues! On the one hand, it is somewhat unfortunate that this passage has often been approached that way. Because we can lose sight of the fact that Paul’s original intent was to comfort the Thessalonians! On the other hand, since this is the primary Rapture passage, it makes sense that we would want to assault this passage with questions in order to see what it says about the timing of these events.
That said, my primary purpose this morning is just to teach and apply this passage. However, I’m also going to do my best to explain the various Rapture positions and to give you a few of the pertinent arguments for those positions as we proceed through the text.
So what are the various positions about the timing of the Rapture? We need a point of reference, so let’s start with the Second Coming. Every orthodox Christian believes that Jesus is coming again. Also, as far as I can tell, all informed Christians believe in the Rapture, even if they don’t prefer that terminology. Many Christians believe that those two events are one-in-the-same. Does that make sense? Amillennialists, Postmillennialists, and Historic Premillennialists all believe that (although amillennialists and postmillennialists don’t believe in a literal Tribulation or Millennium, so that makes them a lot different).
Many other Christians believe that there are indications from the Scriptures that the coming of Christ will occur in two phases: the glorious Second Coming at the end of the Tribulation and the Rapture of the Church sometime prior to that. Some of those Christians believe that the Rapture will take place at the midpoint of the Tribulation. We call this the midtrib position. A close variant would be the prewrath position. Many other Christians believe that the Rapture will take place prior to the Tribulation. This is the view of our church. Are there any questions about that summary?
Before we go on, I want to make clear that this is not a gospel issue, nor is it even a liberal/conservative issue. Eschatology is a complicated topic about which good Christians differ. However, it’s also an important topic about which the Bible has a lot to say, so we don’t want to treat it like it doesn’t exist! We want to be diligent students of the Word.
I’ve been using a lot of propositional outlines lately; but this morning, I’d like to just walk you through the text. I think that will be the most helpful (1 Thess 4:13-18).
The first thing I want you to notice is the background of this passage.
- The Background of This Passage
Paul begins with the phrase “I do not want you to be ignorant.” Throughout 1 Thessalonians, Paul has used “reminder language” quite a bit. It shows up in 1:5; 2:1, 2, 5, 11; 3:3-4; 5:2. So Paul is quite comfortable reminding people about things they already know. But notice he does not do that in this passage. In this passage, Paul is addressing a “gap” in the Thessalonians’ theology. The question is, “What is that gap?” What are the Thessalonians ignorant or perhaps even mistaken about?
Paul tells us what their ignorance concerns in the very next phrase (v. 13a). The Thessalonians ignorance has something to do with those who have fallen asleep. What does it mean to “fall asleep” in this passage? (to die)
Be very careful not to read too much into that word “sleep.” Some people have done so and come up with a false doctrine known as “soul sleep.” Has anyone heard of that doctrine before? What does it teach? (People’s souls “sleep” or they are unconscious after death until the resurrection.) Is that a biblical doctrine? Can you think of any Bible verses right off the top of your head that debunk that theology? 2 Corinthians 5:8 teaches that “to be absent from the body” is “to be present with the Lord.” Also, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, both men are very much awake after death! So we know that when a believer dies, his spirit immediately goes to be with Jesus.
However, it’s an appropriate metaphor, isn’t it? Because we as Christians believe that death is not the end! It’s not the end for our spirits (as we’ve already talked about) nor is it the end for our bodies! On the authority of the Word of God, we believe that the bodies of all people, both believers and unbelievers, will be raised from the dead one day. Do you understand that? It’s not just that our spirits will live forever in heaven, but that our physical bodies will be raised. We will be given glorified bodies like Jesus had after His resurrection. That’s what this passage is about!
By looking at what Paul says, we can conclude that some of the Thessalonian believers had died and that their deaths had had a profound impact on the others. Some have suggested that these believers had been martyred; there is no way of knowing that. What we do know is that the Thessalonians were sad (v. 13).
Paul was concerned about the manner in which the Thessalonians were grieving. So he says they should stop grieving period, right? No! He says that he doesn’t want them to grieve like unbelievers, or people who have no hope.
Remember that word “hope” is very important word in 1 Thessalonians. Hope is the confident expectation that God will make good on His promises! It is specifically forward-looking. We don’t hope in Christ’s death; we hope in His return. Paul says, “Don’t you mourn like people who have no hope!”
Have you noticed the difference between funerals for believers and funerals for unbelievers? At Christian funerals, we smile and even laugh! Why? Because we know there is a “happily ever after,” even beyond the grave! We know that we will see our loved one again someday. And it’s not that we just expect to be with them in spirit in some sort of mystical, ambiguous way. We expect to see their faces and to give them a great big hug. So we mourn differently.
So we know that the Thessalonians were sad. We can also assume that the Thessalonians were asking questions. This is implied by the phrase “we do not want you to be ignorant.” The death of a loved one can really make you think, can’t it? All of a sudden, you are asking questions you never thought to ask before. The Thessalonians are doing the same thing, and they are troubled by the best answers they have come up with. Paul becomes aware of this, and he writes to correct their misunderstanding. The question is, “What is their misunderstanding?”
Let me give you a couple of options. Maybe the Thessalonians are ignorant about the resurrection. What do you think–likely or unlikely? I would say impossible.
The Old Testament clearly teaches bodily resurrection. Job says in Job 19:25-27, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Also, Daniel 12:1-3 says, “At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; And there shall be a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation, Even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine Like the brightness of the firmament, And those who turn many to righteousness Like the stars forever and ever.” And these are just a couple of the Old Testament passages addressing resurrection; there are others.
Jesus also taught the resurrection. He said in John 5:28-29, “…the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” Jesus proved that He had this kind of power when He raised Lazarus from the dead in John 11, and He proved it again when He raised Himself up!
So we see that the Old Testament taught resurrection, and Jesus taught resurrection. Also, Paul taught resurrection. According to Acts 17:3, this was one of the doctrines Paul focused on when he came to Thessalonica. And when Paul brings up resurrection in this letter, he never explains it; he just assumes that they know what he means.
So they can’t be mistaken about the resurrection. They may need encouragement about the resurrection, but that can’t be the point of ignorance Paul mentions in v. 13.
Okay, how about this one. Maybe they are ignorant of the fact that Jesus is coming again. What do you think? Again, this is not just unlikely but impossible, since Paul refers to the coming of Jesus many times throughout the letter, and he never feels the need to explain himself!
Verse 15 explains what the Thessalonians were ignorant about (v. 15). What is the big assertion in this verse? (We won’t go before them.) And I think it’s safe to assume this is the point on which the Thessalonians were mistaken, because Paul goes out of his way to be emphatic. He says, “We are saying this by the word of the Lord” (which is probably a reference to direct revelation from Jesus because there is nothing quite like this that is found in the gospels). Also, Paul uses the Greek words ou me, which make up the strongest negation in Greek, translated in the NKJV as “by no means.” So the point of ignorance seems clearly to be the order in which Christians will rise.
Now why is that important? Well, it’s just one of those facts that we need to keep in the back of our minds while interpreting this passage. How do we account for that concern? Pretribualationists have suggested that the best way to account for it is to assume that the Thessalonians were expecting Jesus to rapture living believers before the Tribulation, but that dead believers would not be raptured until after the Tribulation, when the Old Testament indicates that Old Testament saints would be raptured. Now, we need to be careful not make dogmatic arguments based on what the Thessalonians were thinking, because the fact is, we don’t know for sure what they were thinking! But we do have some strong indications as to what they were thinking, so the argument is at least worth a consideration. (By the way, if you didn’t follow that argument, don’t worry about it. It will be online; you can review it later or ask me questions later if you’d like.)
So first, notice the background of the passage.Second, notice the resurrections in this passage.
- The Resurrections in This Passage (v. 14)
In this verse, Paul reaffirms that God will resurrect Christians who have died. But notice how he also connects their resurrection with that of Christ (v. 14)! If Jesus was raised, they will be raised!
Now the Greek word order in this verse gets a little confusing. I think the ESV translation is the best. It says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him [Jesus] those who have fallen asleep.” So Christians are raised through Jesus (He is the agent of their resurrection) and with Jesus (they are raised in the same way He was raised). Just like Jesus rose from the dead and was taken up into the clouds, Christians will rise from the dead and be taken up into the clouds! He is their model because (as Paul says in v. 16), they are in Christ.
Can we just stop and imagine how incredible that will be? The bodies of millions of dead Christians will be reconstituted, rejoined with their souls, and received up into clouds! This isn’t science fiction, folks! It is clearly what the Bible teaches! And it will certainly happen someday. The resurrection of Jesus proves it.
So we’ve seen the background of the passage and the resurrections in the passage. Third, notice the order in this passage.
- The Order in this Passage
In vv. 16-17, Paul gives us a play-by-play synopsis of what will take place at the Rapture. So let’s go ahead and just list these events in order. What happens first?
- Jesus Descends from Heaven.
Several things accompany His descent….
First, there is a shout, or a “shout of command.” It may be the archangel who is giving this shout, although I would tend to associate it with Jesus Himself based on what Christ said in John 5.
Second, there is the voice of an archangel. The only angel called an archangel in the Bible is Michael, who is referred to that way in Jude 9. (According to Jewish tradition, there were seven archangels, but of course, that is not in the Bible.) So we should probably conclude this is Michael. And as I said earlier, it could be that the voice of the archangel is synonymous with the shout of command mentioned earlier. But I prefer to think that Michael and Jesus shout together. Of course, it is the voice of Jesus that brings the dead out of their graves.
Finally, the trumpet of God is blown. Now when you think of a trumpet, don’t necessarily think of a musical instrument! In those days, trumpets were used to get people’s attention and summon them to important events. Trumpets show up in many eschatology passages throughout the Bible, including 1 Corinthians 15:52, which is also a reference to the Rapture.
So first, Jesus descends from heaven. What happens next?
- The Dead in Christ Rise First.
We’ve already given some attention to this point, so let’s go ahead and move on. What happens after the dead in Christ are raised?
- Living Believers are Caught Up.
The Greek word for “caught up” can refer to being taken away violently. It can also refer to being caught up by God, sometimes into heaven, which is how it is used here. The Latin translation of the Greek word for “caught up” is where we get our English word “Rapture.” The word “rapture” comes from this verse.
So at this great event, not only are dead Christians resurrected and raised up into the clouds, but living Christians are also raised up! We know based on 1 Corinthians 15:51 that we also receive our glorified bodies at this time, even though we aren’t technically resurrected because we never died. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” We do not sleep–in other words we do not die–but we are changed. We receive our glorified bodies. When does this occur? At the last trumpet, at the same time when the dead are raised.
Did you notice Paul’s use of the word “we” in both 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4? Paul talks about “we who are alive and remain” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17. What does Paul’s use of that word imply? It implies that he expected to live till the Rapture! Now some commentators will dispute that point. They say that Paul is simply distinguishing between the dead and the living and that we shouldn’t read into that word the idea that Paul thought he would till the Rapture. But honestly, that seems like a pretty lame argument to me!
What we have here is an example of the proper Christian stance toward the Rapture. We should expect that it may occur in our lifetimes. In fact, I would argue that we should expect that it may occur today. Do you live with that sort of expectation? Jesus could come today! I might not even finish teaching this lesson! Do you believe that?
When I was a boy, sometimes my mom would go to the store and give us jobs to do before she got home. We never knew exactly how long Mom would be gone. But if we were wise, we would get our jobs done right away so that when she came back, we would be ready. I distinctly remember having a fear of Mom coming home and me being only half done. I didn’t want to get in trouble, nor did I want to disappoint her!
As Christians, we should have that exact same attitude. We don’t know when He’s coming back! So we better be always ready, doing what we’ve been told.
The idea that Christ’s return could occur at any time is called “immanence.” And the fact that the New Testament teaches immanence is an important argument for the pretribulational Rapture. If Christ isn’t coming till after the Tribulation, then the earliest He can come is February 24, 2026, because the Tribulation hasn’t started yet! Now, most posttribulationalists would define “immanence” differently than I just did. They would say that Christ is coming soon, even if He can’t come today. But if that is what you are going to believe, you really have to wrestle with the question, “Is that the way that the New Testament pictures immanence?”
Before going on, I want to point out that some interpreters have really highlighted the significance of the word “meet” in v. 17. There are many instances in which that word is used to describe a person or group of people going out of a city (or tent, etc.) to meet a person who was coming to visit them, and then accompanying that person the rest of the way into the city. For instance, Acts 28:15 says, “And from there, when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns. When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage.” And then verse 16 continues, “Now when we came to Rome….” So in this passage, some Christians travel a great distance in order to meet Paul thirty to forty miles from Rome and then escort him into the city. And I could reference a number of Old Testament passages in which the word “meet” is used that same way.
Also, the Greek word for “coming” in v. 15 (which is parousia in the Greek) sometimes referred to the coming of a king or some other high-ranking official to a city. And as you can imagine, in instances like that, people would often come out of the city to greet the king or official and then of course proceed back into the city with the king or official later on.
You can probably see why this is important to the posttribulational argument. Posttribulationalists believe that when Jesus comes down in the Rapture, we go up to meet Him in the clouds, and then we all proceed back down to earth together after that. And the use of the word “meet” elsewhere would fit well with that scenario. However, it’s been pointed out that many posttribulationalists have oversold this argument. Although the word for “meeting” can be used that way, it does not have to be used that way, nor is it a technical term for this sort of thing, as some people have claimed, but recent scholarship has disputed. (Again, if you didn’t follow that argument, that’s fine; you can go back and read it again later.)
So we’ve seen the background of the passage and the resurrections in the passage. We’ve also seen the order in the passage. Finally, let’s look at the destination in the passage.
- The Destination in the Passage
Verse 17 teaches that we are caught up into the clouds to meet Jesus. But where do we go after that? That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? If Jesus comes back down to earth with us, then the Rapture takes place after the Tribulation. But if we go back up to heaven with Him, it takes place prior to the Tribulation. Does that make sense? So where does Paul say we will go? He doesn’t say! He leaves us hanging–literally! We’re in midair there in the clouds, and that’s where he leaves us!
I think it’s significant that Paul leaves it that way. Our primary concern as it relates to this topic is often, “Where are we going?” But for Paul, our destination is this passage is not a location; it’s a person. Location is not the main thing! This isn’t primarily about whether we are in heaven or on earth during the Tribulation! It’s about being with Jesus!!
I want you to see what Paul says at the end of v. 17. “And thus we shall… what’s that next word? “…ALWAYS be with the Lord.” There should be an exclamation point at the end of that sentence! Christian, do you recognize the significance of that statement? Christ came to be with us at the incarnation. He lived a perfect life, He died on the cross for our sins, and He rose again from the dead. But then He went back up into heaven. Now, He’s given us His Holy Spirit to be with us, but Jesus Himself is no longer physically present on this earth, and in that sense, He is no longer with us. But after the Rapture, believer, you will never be separated from Jesus, ever again! You’ll be with Him on that day. And you’ll still be with Him seven years later, and a thousand years after that, and a million years after that, and a billion years after that!
Heaven for the believer is all about Jesus. Paul said, “I count all things but loss that I may gain Him and know Him!” He said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”–which means, it’s more Christ!
Not only will we be with Him forever, but we will be with Him forever together. This is that point at which all the ransomed Church of God be saved to sin no more! Now, there are still Tribulation saints getting saved after this point, and people are getting saved throughout the Millennium, but at the Rapture, the Church as an institution that started at Pentecost is done! And we’ll all be together after that.
The destination in this passage is not a location, it’s a person, and that person is Jesus.
However, we do want to do our best to answer the location question, so let’s see if we can do that next.
Many studious, godly Christians believe that the Rapture will take place in conjunction with the Second Coming at the end of the seven-year Tribulation so that after meeting Jesus in the clouds, we will all return together to the earth for the Battle of Armageddon. You say, where would they get that? Turn with me to Matthew 24:29-31. Matthew 24 is an extremely important chapter as it relates to eschatology. In it, Jesus is answering a couple of very pointed questions that were raised by His disciples. Also, there are very clear allusions to Old Testament prophecies throughout this chapter. For instance, in v. 15, Christ makes explicit reference to the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel, which is set up by Antichrist at the midpoint of the Tribulation. Look now at v. 29 (Mat 24:29-31). Matthew 24:29-31 certainly describe a coming of Jesus that takes place after the Tribulation. Do you see that? Also, many of the same items that show up in this passage also show up in 1 Thessalonians 4. For instance, there are the clouds, a trumpet, angels, some kind of a gathering of the elect, etc. So many interpreters look at those things along with the usage of the word “meet” like we discussed earlier and conclude that these two passages are talking about the same event. Is that an illogical assumption? No, it actually makes a lot of sense! In fact, unless the Bible indicates otherwise, we would have to assume that there is only one coming of Jesus. Right? It’s like Occam’s razor: go with the simplest solution unless the pieces don’t all fit.
However, my question would be this: does a one-stage second coming account for all of the biblical data? If it does, then the pretribulational Rapture is false! However, after examining all of the puzzle pieces, many Bible interpreters have concluded that a one-stage second coming does not account for all of the biblical data. They maintain that there are clear statements and logical considerations that preclude that scenario. Again, some of those people think that the Rapture occurs in the middle of the Tribulation. But most of them believe that it occurs before the Tribulation.
According to the pretrib position, instead of Jesus coming to the earth with us after the Rapture, we will go back up into heaven with Him. We will be with Him in heaven during the seven-year Tribulation (during which time certain events will take place, such as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb and the Bema Seat Judgment), and then we will return with Him in the second stage of His coming after the Great Tribulation.
Let’s go back to that question of location. Paul leaves us up in the air, but I do believe that there is another passage other than Matthew 24 that tells us what happens next. Turn if you would to John 14. One of the things that I love about teaching and preaching is that the more you do it, the more connections you see between various passages of Scripture. We studied these verses in John a couple of years ago (John 14:1-3).
In these verses, Paul is talking to His disciples as representatives of the church on the night prior to His crucifixion. He has just told them that He’s leaving. Now, He’s told them this many times before now as well, but in John 14, it finally starts to sink in, and the disciples become very sad. But Jesus says in John 14:1, “Don’t be sad! You believe in God. Believe also in Me. I’m not deserting you! I’m just going to prepare a place for you!” If Jesus doesn’t go by means of His death, the disciples can’t come to be with Him forever in heaven because their sins would be unatoned for. So Jesus says, “I must go. But if I go to prepare a place for you”–in other words, if the very reason I’m going is to prepare a place for you– “don’t you think that I will come back for you?” Of course He will!
Now, notice a couple of similarities between this passage and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Both passages refer to a coming of Christ. So if the posttrib position is true, then this must be referring to the one and only coming, that is the Second Coming of Christ following the Tribulation. Also, this passage refers to Jesus receiving us, which makes it sound like we are going up to Him. That sounds a lot like being caught up into the clouds. But unlike 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which leaves our final location (whether in heaven or on earth) a mystery, this passage very clearly states where we will go after meeting Jesus in the clouds. Where is our final destination, according to this passage? It’s the Father’s House, where Jesus is getting ready to go in John 14! Now I ask you, can that be a reference to earth? No, it can’t. So what are we dealing with here? We are dealing with a coming of Jesus in which He takes us up to be with Him in heaven. The problem is, there’s no place for that in the posttribulational scheme.
There are lots of other arguments for a pretribulational Rapture. We are going to discover another one of these in two weeks when we study 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11. And of course, there are other arguments for a posttribulational Rapture, too. But hopefully that at least gives you a nice overview of the issues.
But finally, before we close, we need to discuss the purpose of this passage.
- The Purpose of This Passage
Like I said, it’s unfortunate that this passage is often referenced only to defend a position of eschatology. We need to remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of the passage is comfort (v. 18). My family visited Phoenix last week, and we extended our stay just a little bit because while we were there, my brother’s girlfriend’s dad passed away, and they did the funeral yesterday morning. He was forty-eight years old, and he died of cancer. In circumstances like that, we need passages like this that bring us comfort!
I hope that it is comforting to you to know that Jesus is coming again and that you will be with Him forever. I hope that it’s comforting to know that one day, both you and your deceased Christian loved ones will be given resurrection bodies.
However, notice that Paul doesn’t just say, “Be comforted with these words.” What does he say? He says, “Comfort one another with these words.” What words is Paul referring to? He’s referring to the words he just said–in other words, these truths about the Rapture!
I want to close with two applications. First, you need to be talking to one another about the Bible, especially during times of trial. It is not just for the pastor to call up the church member whose husband or wife passed away. That’s your job, too! And it’s not even just the pastor’s job to do the spiritual encouragement, while the rest of you care for the physical needs. All of us are to be comforting one another with the Scriptures!
That leads me to my second application. In order to comfort one another with these words, you have to understand them. That’s one of the reasons it makes sense for me to slow down and take extra time to teach through this passage! I mean, how are you going to use these words to comfort your fellow believers if you yourself don’t understand these words?
Some of you may need to do some more study on this topic. Maybe you could even pick up a book! (Come see me or Pastor Kit if you’re interested, and we will try to point you in the right direction.) But you take responsibility for your own growth in understanding these doctrines.