Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Examination of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thess. 4:13-18: What does it tell us about the timing of the “rapture”?

13 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.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
16 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.
17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together ( harpagēsometha from the verb harpazō) with them in the clouds to meet (apantēsis) the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.

The context of this passage begins with Paul saying that “we,” meaning Paul, Silas and Timothy, did not want the Thessalonians to be uninformed over “those who are asleep” (v.13). The living believers seemed to have been worried about those who had already died, probably wondering if they were going to miss out at Christ’s coming. Leon Morris says that the question that occupies our attention is “What becomes of believers who die before the second coming?” and “Did this mean that they had lost their share in the events associated with that great day?”[1] Ernest Best in his commentary writes,

Some of the Thessalonian Christians have died and their friends and relations an are worried about their position when Christ returns: will their death place them at a disadvantage compared with those who are still alive? Paul’s primary purpose in writing is not to enunciate doctrine but to reassure them in respect of this; to do so he has however to tell them something more about the parousia: there is no need to worry for when Jesus comes he will have the dead with him (vv.13f); he confirms this with a saying of the Lord which includes a description of the parousia (vv. 15-17).[2]

Thomas R. Schreiner in his excellent book on Paul’s theology writes concerning 1 Thess. 4:13-18,

The inexperieced believers at Thessalonica were distressed because some of their believing loved ones had died before the coming of the Lord. Apparently there were persuaded that those who were deceased would suffer some disadvantage because they died before the second coming.[3]
Here is the key: Just because believers die before the second coming of Jesus, does not mean that they will miss out on that glorious event. Paul emphatically makes a point that they will rise first; then we who are alive will be caught up (raptured). As Morris points out, “It is their share in the events of that great day that is in view. It is best to understand the words to mean that Jesus will bring the faithful departed with him when he comes back. Their death does not mean that they will miss their share in the Parousia.”[4] This should have brought great comfort to the Thessalonians. Paul informed them so that they would not grieve as those who had no hope. Paul states that God will bring with Jesus “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (v.14). So far the text is just saying that deceased believers will come back with Jesus. Paul explains that we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, will not precede those who have already died (v.15). While trying to bring comfort (1 Thess. 4:18), Paul is telling them not to worry because those who have died will rise first (see the diagram at the end of this paper). When we die we are absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21-ff).

There is nothing in this passage about a pretribulation rapture. When Paul said, “we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep,” he uses the word parousia meaning “coming,” “arrival,” or “presence.”[5] There is no reason why they would not be thinking that this is the second coming in glory after the tribulation.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we find the disciples and Jesus using the same word for his second appearance. “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming (parousia) and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus said: “As the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27); “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:37); and after describing the life of the people before the flood who were unaware that anything would happen until the flood came and took them all away, Jesus adds, “That is how it will be at the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:39). In the context of Thessalonians, how else would they have understood the parousia? The parousia is mentioned two other times in 1 Thessalonians. In 1 Thess. 2:19-20 Paul asked a rhetorical question: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming (parousia)? Then 1 Thess. 3:13 says “…that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”

When Paul spoke of Jesus slaying the antichrist, saying the Lord will slay the lawless one with the breath of His mouth “and bring [him] to an end by the appearance of His coming (parousia)” (2 Thess. 2:8), he uses the Greek word parousivan (parousia). Everyone agrees that this passage is referring an event after the tribulation. There is no reason to split the second coming up into two different segments or to understand the 1 Thessalonian passage as teaching something happening before the tribulation. The burden of proof is on the pre-trib position to reveal just one scripture that place the parousia before the tribulation.[6]

1 Thess. 4:17 reads, “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together ( harpagēsometha) with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” The Greek word that Paul used was, harpagēsometha, from the verb harpazō. In the Latin translation of the Scriptures, where the words in English are “caught up together,” the Latin reads “rapio,” from which we get the English word rapture. The Greek verb harpazō is found at least thirteen times in the New Testament. It simple means “to grab or seize by force, with the purpose of removing and/or controlling - 'to seize, to snatch away, to take away.'”[7] Both Pretrib and Posttrib positions agree with the concept of literal rapture.

The “rapture” as described in 1 Thess. 4:17 is simply the catching up of believer’s to meet Christ in the air at his coming (parousia). 1 Thess. 4:13-18 fits quite well with a posttribulational understanding. Although this passage does not mention the tribulation, it is obvious that Paul says that the resurrection/rapture happens at the second coming (parousia) of Christ. Schreiner writes, “Since the Thessalonians were worried that their deceased loved ones would be at some disadvantage when Jesus returned, Paul emphasizes the order of events at Jesus’ coming (1 Thess 4:15-17). At Jesus’ coming dead believers will arise first, and then the living will be snatched up to join the Lord in the clouds. When Jesus returns, living saints will not precede those who have died.”[8] However, the pre-trib position will declare that the church is raptured seven years prior to the final earth shattering, end time consummation of the glorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are text that clearly put the parousia after the tribulation and the burden of proof is for the pre-trib position to show one verse that places the parousia before the tribulation. If the pre-trib view is correct, we will see later that the early church missed the teaching of a pre-trib rapture from their familiarity with the words of Paul and Jesus.

One of the big hang ups that I had with the post-trib view, was the idea of a great U-turn in the sky. It just did not make sense. However, I had the presupposition that the “Church” was not going to be in the tribulation; therefore I did not even try to understand the post-Trib position. 1 Thess.4:17 says that we will be “caught up (raptured) together to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” The Greek word for “meet” as F. F. Bruce has stated is used,

When a dignitary paid an official visit or parousia to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escorting him on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis; it is similarly used in Mt. 25:6; Acts 28:15. So the Lord is pictured as escorted to the earth by His people —those newly raised from death and those who have remained alive.[9]
The Greek word for “meet” (apantesis) is used this way twice in the New Testament. Luke used the word this way in Acts 28:14-16, “There we found some brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days; and thus we came to Rome. And the brethren, when they heard about us, came from there as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet (from the word apantesis) us; and when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage. When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.” The people went out to meet Paul only to return right back to Rome with him. It is true that this word does not always have this connotation with it. The 1 Thessalonian passage has all of the ingredients for apantesis to be used of believers meeting Jesus in the air only to return with him in his second coming glory. You have Jesus Christ returning on a white horse, which conquering kings would do. He is accompanied with his saints. Ladd comments that, “The ‘shout,’ ‘voice,’ and ‘trumpet’ have led some postribulationists to mock at a secret, pretribulational rapture by saying that this is the noisiest passage in the Bible.”[10] This all fits quite well with the words of Jesus in describing the posttribulational coming (Matt 24:29-31).

29 But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
Since Jesus will return to Jerusalem to set up his millennial kingdom[11], one can picture millions of Christians world wide (“from the four winds”) needing to be gathered together with the Lord in the air in order to accompany him as he lands in Jerusalem (correlating 1 Thess. 4:16-17; Matt. 24:29-31; Acts 1:9-12; Rev. 1:8; 19:11-16 and Zech. 14:1-11).

This author does not see a secret rapture in this Thessalonian text. Paul is addressing the Thessalonian’s concern about the believers missing out at the glorious second coming (parousia) of the Lord. There is no need to be concerned, the dead in Christ will be returning with Christ and will get their resurrected bodies first and then those alive at that great event will meet Christ in the air. As Michael Martin states in his commentary, “Ultimately, those who have died and those living at the parousia will join the Lord as a single great company.”[12] Martin does mention that there are some forms of premillennialism that see the church through out a seven year tribulation and those who hold to the view that the rapture of the church will be separate from the parousia by seven years.[13] Now, this author is going to quote a large section from Martin that directly follows his statement about the different views of the rapture and second coming because it demonstrates that there are able scholars that are not in line with your typical pretrib view. Martin writes:

Although we cannot settle such far-reacing matters in this context, we must note that our present passage does ot seem to present the event depicted in vv. 16-17 as one preceding a separate from the parousia, the day of the Lord (cf. 5:4-9). First, in v. 15 Paul explicitly termed the event he was describing the “coming” (parousia) of the Lord and linked the same term with final judgment (2 Thess 2:8; cf. 1 Thess 2:19). Since Paul did not predict two parousias, then the one event must encompass both the gathering of the church and final judgment. Second, v. 17 does not require the removal of the church from the world. It is in fact open-ended, describing nothing beyond the gathering of the church other than the fact of continuing in the presence of the Lord. Finally, vv. 15-17 seem to be cast in language and images depicting the arrival of a grand dignitary. The heralds announce his coming. The crowds surge out of their city to meet him and celebrate his arrival. At this point such a dignitary would not take the crowd with him and leave. Rather, the crowd would escort him into the city. In other words, the most likely way to complete the scenario Paul painted is by assuming that after assembling his people Christ would not leave but would proceed with his parousia. What our passage depicts is not the removal of the church but the early stages of the day of the Lord.[14]

[1] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 135.
[2] Ernest Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 180.
[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: a Pauline Theology (Downers Grove: Ill: InterVaristy, 2001), 459. Thomas Schreiner is professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
[4] Morris, 140.
[5] Bauer, Walter, Gingrich, F. Wilbur, and Danker, Frederick W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 635.
[6] There will be a later study of the word “parousia”.
[7] J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Louw-Nida Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains; 2nd ed, from BibleWorks version 6.0 (Big Fork MT: Hermeneutika Bible Research Software) CD-ROM.
[8] Schreiner, Paul, 460.
[9] Bruce, “1 Thessalonians,” in New Bible Commentary, ed. Donald Guthrie, et al. Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 1159
[10]George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 104.
[11] We will have to deal with this issue another time.
[12] Martin, 1 Thessalonians, 148.
[13] Ibid, 154.
[14] Ibid, 154-155. When this author, Kendall Adams, read commentaries like Martin’s, it fit like a glove to the text. Martin’s treatment of this passage laid a major blow to my pretrib understanding by solid Bible interpretation. I recommend that those who read this paper would study this text thoroughly and see if it is right. If it is not right, then please write a good response that deals with this text.