Author: The Apostle Paul
Date of Writing: AD 51 (Paul's earliest epistle)
Target Audience: Jewish and Greek believers who gather as a “church” in Thessalonica.
Theme: Living in view of the coming of Christ
DEATH, RAPTURE AND THE CHRISTIAN
HANDOUT: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 HANDOUT
INTO THE TOPIC (OPENING):
Who was the first family member that you recall dying? Who have you been closest to through their dying days? How did this affect you? What else has shaped your view of death and dying?
INTO THE WORD (STUDY):
- How would the Thessalonians have felt if they had remained ignorant of the Christian's resurrection and of Christ's return? How would Paul's words have encouraged them?
- What is the order of events mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17? What happens first? Last?
- Paul uses an idiom for death as "fallen to sleep." How is death like/unlike a sleep?
Think Q.U.E.S.T.: Do you still have a lingering QUESTION? What is particularly UNEASY for you or catches your attention? Is there an EXHORTATION or command in this passage? What is the SETTING (historical/cultural/linguistic context)? Is there a TRUTH to grasp?
INTO MY LIFE (APPLICATION):
1. When you think about dying and death, what fears and hopes emerge?
2. How do Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 comfort you?
As a result of my conversational study in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, I choose to pursue the following transformative life action:
- To no longer "grieve without hope" for my Christian friends and family who have died.
- To study deeper biblical doctrine on the "rapture" and/or Second Coming of Christ.
- To encourage someone I know who is dying and to invest my life into their final months, weeks or days.
HISTORICAL, CULTURAL AND BIBLICAL COMMENTARY
DEATH AND RESURRECTION (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. or we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
The nature of death in the Scriptures is an exhaustive topic with multiple terms that span thousands of years of history and two different languages (Hebrew and Greek). There are also two types of "death" to understand: physical (the death of the body) and spiritual (the death of the soul). Only the latter (spiritual) is promised eternal life. The physical body is "corruptible" and temporary.
In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, death was introduced to the world. Just like God cannot co-exist with sin, He also cannot live among the dying and dead. Adam's sin separated man from God and he was destined to die. His physical body had a shelf life because his soul was now dead. Adam and Eve were banned from Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22). In his epistles to the Romans and Corinthians, Paul revealed that all mankind is born under Adam's sin (Romans 5:12) and would not be fully released from this curse until Kingdom comes (I Corinthians 15:20-26). David penned, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5)." It's why no one can be "righteous" (Romans 3:9-18). We are born with a bent to sin and will eventually prove it. And, as Paul also revealed, the payment for sin is death (Romans 6:23). We are born "spiritually dead" and unless our souls are regenerated ("made alive in Christ") we will die completely. The physical body is but a temporary "tent" of existence that will eventually be "clothed" in a more "eternal house" (2 Corinthians 5:1-5):
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Paul revealed to these Corinthian believers the nature of this "glorified body" in 1 Corinthians 15. He explained our physical bodies are like plant seeds that must die in the ground in order to bloom, bud and blossom as a new spiritual body. Furthermore, he claimed our physical body is different from other bodies, whether in the animal, bird and fish kingdom or in the realm of outer space (sun, moon and stars). We are uniquely created to live forever. Adam was first formed as a physical being (eventually to die) until God breathed into him "life" and made him a "living being," Consequently, all mankind is engineered by our Creator (featuring a soul) to live forever. It's what makes mankind different from all other bodies, on earth or anywhere else.
In the resurrection of the dead, Paul clarified in 1 Corinthians 15:40-42, we are transformed from a physical (dying and dead reality) to a spiritual (everlasting reality): The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. In many ways, this is what Paul means when he states a Christian is "IN Christ Jesus." Like a seed, we are "planted" into His LIFE and guaranteed a resurrection just like his own. Jesus' resurrected body was different. Yes, it was recognizable (to his disciples at least) but not always. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until they dined together...and then he disappeared. When he appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, she did not recognize Jesus until he finally spoke her name. In John's resurrection account, Jesus suddenly appears in the room on two different occasions, behind locked doors, to prove he's alive by eating and showing off his scars. Jesus' resurrected body is different, but it's not fully "glorified" or translated until He ascends back into heaven.
That's because they physical reality cannot enter the spiritual reality. Listen to Paul's word in 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 as he explains "the mystery":
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 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. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
It's a simple equation. Because of Adam we are all cursed (born spiritually dead). We can choose to remain in this spiritual reality and live out our temporary physical reality until natural death happens...or we can choose to be "born again" (spiritually regenerated and made alive in Christ) to live forever. We do this by faith and through identifying with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection (baptism). Our natural (physical death) is nothing more than the "dead" seed dying and being buried in order to sprout, grow and blossom as a "new creation." Essentially, we can be born once (physically) and die twice (spiritually and physically) or we can be born twice (physically and spiritually) and die once (physically).
So what do we know about death? What do the Scriptures reveal?
Under the Old Testament or Covenant (before Jesus' own death to "paid" for our sins), all people went DOWN into a place called "Sheol" (Hebrew). One of the "grave" mistranslations of "Sheol" is to define it as the "grave." It's certainly not a tomb. Rather, it's a temporary holding place for the dead. It's also the destiny for both the wicked and the righteous (Deuteronomy 32:22; 2 Samuel 22:4-6; Job 7:9). Jacob believed his son Joseph went "down" to Sheol (Genesis 42:38) and that he would descend to this place too (Genesis 37:35; 44:29). In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul consults a medium to "bring up" someone from Sheol. Who does this witch bring "up" (because he went "down")? None other than the righteous Samuel (who tells Saul that he and his sons will "join him" in Sheol the next day [v. 19]). Wicked Israelites under Moses command were literally swallowed alive and went "down" into the Sheol (Numbers 16:30). David counseled Solomon to not let the murderous Joab go "down" into Sheol in peace (2 Kings 2:5-6).
In the Greek, this "land of the dead" is known as "Hades." The King James Version also greatly mistranslated this word as "Hell." However, Hell is an eternal punishment after the final judgment. In fact, Revelation 20:12-14 reveals Hades is also located "down" because it had to give its dead "up." Furthermore, it cannot be Hell because, after the judgment, Hades is cast into Hell forever. Can "Hell" be cast into Hell? Jesus also indicated Hades (a.k.a. Sheol) is located "down" (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15). In his story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus portrayed Hades as having two compartments: a place of torment (for the wicked) and a "bosom" of rest and comfort (for the righteous).
There were two Old Testament individuals that didn't go DOWN into Sheol/Hades at their deaths but were immediately "translated" into their heavenly (glorified) bodies. Essentially, these two men never experienced physical death! The first was a righteous man in Genesis known only as Enoch. He walked so faithfully with God that God just "took him away" (Genesis 5:24). The other man was Elijah. I 2 Kings 2, we read the story of his "translation" into heaven on a chariot of fire. It clearly says the direction is different: Elijah went UP into heaven. However, there is a third person that is also translated, according to Jewish legend, into heaven...and that's the great Law Giver Moses (who died, went DOWN into Sheol but was later raised up out of it and translated into heaven). This idea is not without some merit in the New Testament. In the Transfiguration story, Jesus is "changed" into his glorified body to enjoy a conversation with Elijah and Moses (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:1-3; Luke 9:28-36). The fact Moses is in his glorified (eternal) state--when the rest of the righteous one still wait in Sheol below--implies that indeed this legend might be true. Furthermore, in Jude 9, there's an odd reference to the archangel Michael fighting with Satan over the "body of Moses." This is clearly not his physical body (which decayed rapidly) but his spiritual body or "soul." Satan had some power or control over Sheol, evidently, and it took a fight by one of God's mightiest angels to release Moses' soul to be translated into Heaven.
In the New Testament, this "upward" place has its own name: the PARADISE of God. Jesus tells a lowly thief that he will be "with Jesus" after he dies IN PARADISE (Luke 23:43). John reveals the Tree of Life is in this "paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7). And Paul shows it's an "inexpressible" place that's UPWARD in direction. In 2 Corinthians 12:3-4, he penned (most likely about himself): "And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell." These are the only times "paradise" is mentioned. It's the place where God dwells. It's HIS HOME. It's a place being prepared by Jesus for those who believe in him (John 14:1-3). In the Revelation, John is "caught up" to this place to see the throne of God and other indescribable views (Revelation 4:1). In Revelation 6:9-11, a new group is added to those who are in heaven: the martyred. Evidently, this special class of Christian is also given access to paradise as they are "under the throne" and waiting (vs. 11).
Biblically, it's clear that everyone else (wicked and righteous) is still in Sheol/Hades...and also waiting.
What are they "waiting" for? They are waiting to be "raised" up and out of the Sheol/Hades. The wicked will be raised to judgment (and cast into Hell). Jesus taught “...a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned (John 5:28-29). This is a key point. A resurrection of LIFE is only promised to the righteous. The wicked are merely "raised" to be condemned in the last judgement.
The prophet Daniel helps us here. He prophesied about a RESURRECTION of "his people" (righteous Israelites) at the "time of the end":
“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered.Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.
This idea will be echoed by a grieving Martha to Jesus when her brother Lazarus passed away (John 11:1-43). Jesus reminded Martha that he would "rise again" And Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” That's when Jesus reveals His True Identity and claims "I AM the resurrection and the life" He then says something amazing! Jesus assures that if someone believes in Him they will LIVE, even if they die (physically) and if they live "believing in Jesus" they will never die. Essentially, our FAITH creates a righteousness that produces eternal LIFE now. We will all eventually shed this dying physical body but if we are IN CHRIST (resurrected to life), and remain IN CHRIST, we do not die. Our death is like waking up from a dream (or for some a painful nightmare). We AWAKE to reality...to REAL LIFE that's eternal. It's how God originally wanted it in the Garden with Adam and Eve. It's no wonder John penned "blessed are the dead who die IN THE LORD from now on" (Revelation 14:13).
The Apostle Paul tells us WHEN we pass from "death to life" in the Christian experience:
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
Our immersion (water baptism) into Christ is a picture of the "death to life" experience. Just as Jesus died, was buried and raised (by God) to life...so are we. When we are plunged under the water, we are already DEAD (spiritually). Because of Adam, we were born with dead souls. It's why we must be buried (physically alive) before we physically die (to be "born again"). In this water "Sheol/Hades" God raises us to LIFE. We come out of the water grave a "new creation." Throughout the New Testament, baptismal teaching connects regeneration, redemption, reconciliation and restoration to the act of baptism (Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 10:1-3; Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 2:11-13; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:19-22).
So what happens NOW when a person dies? Well it depends on what you believe about the "last day" resurrection.
Some believe the resurrection of those people (righteous and wicked) is yet to happen at the end of this world. Consequently, the righteous are "sleeping" (resting comfortably) while the wicked (like the rich man in Jesus' story) are experiencing some form of "torment."
Others believe that in Jesus' resurrection and ascension that he "set the captives free" by releasing all the righteous from Sheol/Hades into the Paradise. Consequently, we no longer go "down" at death but "up" into the Paradise with the rest of God's faithful. A variant of this view, argues the resurrection at the "time of the end" (prophesied by Daniel) refers to the end of the Old Covenant and is linked to the physical destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Daniel 12 introduces a 3.5 year timeline, the proponents of this view argue, that matches the exact time frame of the Jewish-Roman Wars (AD 66-70). With the destruction of Jerusalem, biblical Judaism was finished. No more temple. No more priesthood. No more sacrifices for sin.
The Hebrew writer, writing in the mid-60s AD, does seem to allude to such a "soon and coming" end event (Hebrews 8:6-13):
But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
Regardless of how you interpret the "end times" or the "time of the end" resurrection, it's safe to say the majority of Christians today believe that some resurrection (at least of the Old Testament faithful) has happened. It might be just a "spiritual" resurrection of their souls out of the Sheol/Hades but it's still a partial resurrection. What remains, for many Christians, is the physical reunion of the soul and body at the end of the world. This event is still in the future.
THE "RAPTURE" (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18)
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
It's one of the more divisive, provocative and speculative doctrines in the Scriptures. It's divisive because there are multiple interpretations for this end-time event that drives a wedge between Christians and even entire denominations. It's provocative because it concerns the future, the "end" and Jesus' second coming. Finally, it's speculative because it can easily lend itself to nonbiblical narratives and questionable ideas. Since the "rapture-ready" Jesus Movement of the 1970s and Hal Lindsay's best-selling book on "end times," numerous dates for the "rapture" and/or Jesus' return have been predicted...wrongly...in 1981, 1982, 1988, 1989, 1994, 1999, 2000, 2011, 2012 and 2020. The books and movies connected to the "Left Behind" novels have only added confusion. As a result, many Christians view the book of Revelation a mystery and are ambivalent, even apathetic to the study of eschatology (end-time theology).
The most common "rapture" passages are 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and Matthew 24:40-41 that states: Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Luke describes this event slightly differently (17:34-35): I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” Jesus' point is this event (his second coming) will be sudden, violent and lasting. Paul concurs in his writing to the Thessalonians. The message is clear: be ready because it can happen at any time.
It's why we cannot be ambivalent or apathetic to this event. If it was important for Jesus and Paul's disciples to understand and discern "end-time" events, then it's important to us too.
In some Christian circles--particularly of the evangelical stripe--the most critical end-time event is known as the "blessed hope" or "rapture." It's an event that forcibly removes only the Christians from this world, setting up seven years of "great tribulation" ruled by an antichrist and eventually a thousand year reign of Christ on earth. Again, this is the guiding narrative of the "Left Behind" books and movies. But even in this particular view, there are multiple, divisive interpretations. Does Jesus come before the tribulation (pre-trib), during the tribulation (mid-trib) or after the tribulation (post-trib)? A few end-time students even argue for multiple raptures during this seven-year period!
The irony? The word "rapture" isn't even in the Bible! It's not a Hebrew or Greek word, but rather Latin in origin. When the New Testament was translated from its original Greek into Latin, the translators used "rapio" for being "caught up." Rapio, by nature, is a forceable, even violent, word. It's where we get the English word "rape." It's also inherently means a "removal." When a person is "raptured" by something, it means they are "caught up" in the moment or "carried away" with an experience.
The Greek word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 for "caught up" is a derivative of harpazo. Literally, it means to seize by force, snatch, pluck or be carried away and it appears 14 times in the New Testament. For example, in Acts 8:39, it says that Philip the evangelist, after his conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, was "taken away." In the gospel of Matthew, harpazo appears three times and in each occurrence implies a violent theft: of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 11:12), of a strong man (Matthew 12:29) or of the gospel from a man's heart (Matthew 13:19). In John 10:12, harpazo is the word used to imply "attack" as in a wolf who raids a flock of sheep and scatters it. In Jude 23 it's used to describe how one saves a fellow believer by "snatching them from the fire." In an interesting parallel passage to 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul writes about an experience he had (2 Corinthians 12:2,4):
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up (harpagesometha) to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows...[but] was caught up (harpagesometha) to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
Basically, Paul himself experienced a "rapture" into the "paradise" of God that was either an actual "translation" (glorified body) or merely a spiritual (out of body) experience. Regardless, it was a "plucking" or "snatching" or "seizure" of Paul.
The real interpretive problem of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is the next phrase: "to meet the Lord in the air." The prepositional clause "in the air"--according to proponents of the "Left Behind" view who argue for a seizure or "flying away" into the highest atmosphere and eventually into heaven itself. This makes some sense because of the additional phrase of "in the clouds" that's attached to it. The clouds are pretty high in the air, right? The problem is the word "air" (Greek: aera) appears five times in the New Testament and in every other instance, contextually, it means the air that surrounds a person's face. For example, when Paul's testimony created a fury, Luke noted how his critics threw "dust into the air" (Acts 22:23). In 1 Corinthians 9:26, it's the "air" a boxer hits when he's shadow boxing ("beating the air"). Later, in 1 Corinthians 14:9, the word is used again to describe someone who is just "blowing smoke" with his words or "speaking into the air."
Unless we interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:17's use of "air" differently, the most common interpretation is the "air" space around our faces. In fact, had Paul wanted to actually mean being "caught up" into the atmospheric space beyond where the clouds form, he could've used a more descriptive literary term for his audience: "second heaven." Or had he desired to clearly tell the Thessalonians this "rapture" would take them into heaven itself, he could've more specifically employed the term "third heaven." Paul obviously uses this literary language in 2 Corinthians 12:2 when he alludes to his personal "rapture" into the "third heaven" or paradise of God. He wants to be very clear to his audience the place where he was taken was heaven itself. After all, the Greeks used a three "heaven" idea to explain their world. The earth and sky (including the clouds) were known as the "first heaven" (terrestrial). The "second heaven" referred to outer space where the sun, moon, stars resided (telestial). And the "third heaven," as we've learned, was where the gods dwelled (celestial). In 1 Corinthians 15:39-41, Paul indeed demarcated this difference:
Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another (terrestrial or "first heaven"). There are also heavenly bodies (telestial) and there are earthly bodies (terrestrial); but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind (telestial), and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another (terrestrial). The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
This is why 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is divisive. Does Paul mean we are being "raptured" (seized, plucked, snatched) away into the literal clouds and eventually into God's presence (as the "Left Behind" view believes) or can it mean something entirely different? A common interpretive problem is reading ancient, middle-eastern ideas through modern, western perspectives. Every language has its idioms and the phrase "in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" might be such an example. Could it be more figurative than literal?
Furthermore, the specific Greek clause "in the clouds" (nephelais) only appears twice in the New Testament. In our text (1 Thessalonians 4:17) and in Mark 13:26 where it states: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." This latter connection to the second coming of Christ is noteworthy. After all, Daniel prophesied about a "cloud coming" by Jesus the "son of man" and his coming eternal kingdom:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
The idea of "coming with (or in) the clouds" can also mean Divine Presence, Authority and Power. While many modern interpreters view this phrase literally as real "clouds" (atmospheric), the middle-eastern ancient Israelite likely viewed this statement more figuratively, harkening back to their exodus out of Egypt. After all, it was a "pillar of clouds" that guided their desert wandering (Exodus 13:20-22). This same cloud pillar also protected the Israelites (Exodus 14:18-20). The Lord God appeared to them "in the cloud" (Exodus 16:10, 19:9,16). A cloud covered the "tent of meeting" and the earthly tabernacle (Exodus 33:10; Numbers 9:15-16). The Ten Commandments were given "in the cloud" (Exodus 34:4-6). Numbers 11:25 says "the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with [Moses]." And whenever the Lord came "in the clouds" to his people, they gathered to him. It was a place of Divine meeting to commune. It should also be noted that whenever literal (atmospheric) clouds are mentioned in Scripture, the context is also clear because rain, for example, is connected to their presence (Genesis 9:12-14; Judges 5:4; 1 Kings 18:44).
Consequently, this passage might not be saying at all that Christians are whisked away into the atmosphere to "meet Jesus" and go up into heaven. Rather, the focus is more upon Jesus "coming DOWN" just a God "came down" to meet His people HERE. We've already established that "in the air" is the space around your face so a person doesn't even have to leave planet earth to "meet the Lord coming (down) in the air." This idea of the Kingdom coming down is reinforced by John in Revelation 21:1-3:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
It's why many interpret this "rapture" passage to be a RESURRECTION and RESTORATION text, with a twist. At Jesus' second coming the "dead in Christ" (righteous persons who have died) are resurrected into their glorified (spiritual) bodies. Those physically alive at this coming are transformed or changed in a "twinkling of an eye" and we ALL gather to meet God (and Jesus) in His DESCENSION to restore the Garden experience (Revelation 22:1-5) here on earth. The point, from the beginning, has been for God to dwell DOWN HERE, on earth, with His People. That's how it was originally with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). It's how God worked with Abram and Moses. It's why He descended "in a cloud" over the tabernacle and later in the temple. Jesus, himself, incarnated and "came down" to earth. What if eternity is a restoration of the earthly Garden where we all live as God originally intended us to live? It's a different way of looking at eternity and "heaven" but it's not an unbiblical idea at all.
With that in mind, let's get back to this "rapture" doctrine.
The most serious problem, biblically, with the popular "Left Behind" (pre-trib) rapture idea is its order and who's really "taken." The common idea is the "dead in Christ" rise first, then Christians "raptured" into heaven and the wicked "left behind" on earth. This is a problem because the Scriptures teach repeatedly the wicked are the ones removed first. The righteous stand firm and win the day. When Christ comes, it's the righteous who are "left" or "alive" at Christ's coming; they are the last ones. Even Paul suggests this idea in 1 Thessalonians 4:15: According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. It's Christians who are "left behind" (the last ones impacted, transformed or changed).
The Old Testament clearly teaches the wicked are the ones actually removed while the righteous of God will remain:
For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the unfaithful will be torn from it. (Proverbs 2:21-22)
The way of the Lord is a refuge for the blameless, but it is the ruin of those who do evil. The righteous will never be uprooted, but the wicked will not remain in the land. (Proverbs 10:29-30)
For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity...Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked. (Psalm 37:9-11, 37-38)
You reject all who stray from your decrees, for their delusions come to nothing. All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross; therefore I love your statutes. (Psalm 119:118-119)
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 4:1-3)
So do the teachings of Jesus and Paul concur with this idea?
In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus shares a powerful parable on "wheat and weeds" that clearly states who is really removed in the end:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
This parable created some confusion with Jesus' disciples and they inquired for more explanation. Jesus clarifies further in vv. 36-43 and concludes:
As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
It's clear now what (and who) Jesus is talking about. The righteous (wheat) will remain gloriously at the final "harvest." The wicked (weeds), however, will be "first collected" and then destroyed. Literally, they will be "weeded out" of God's Kingdom.
Just as it was in the days of Noah (righteous), so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People (wicked) were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah (righteous) entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them (wicked) all. It was the same in the days of Lot (righteous). People (wicked) were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot (righteous) left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them (wicked) all.
It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken (wicked) and the other (righteous) left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken (wicked) and the other left (righteous).
This passage is a classic example for how some Bible teachers "cherry pick" a verse to suit their own interpretations. In reality, this passage in full context, using two historical examples of Noah and Lot, tell us who is "taken" and who is "left behind." In both historical cases, it was the wicked who were "taken" and "destroyed." The reader can safely conclude the same thing is happening in Jesus' prophecy for His coming since Jesus states clearly "it will be just like (Noah and Lot) when the Son of Man is revealed" or comes. The disciples also want to know "where" these wicked ones are taken and Jesus says “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather (Luke 17:37).” In Proverbs 30:17 it's clear what will consume the wicked: “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns an aged mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures."
Essentially, first the wicked are removed to be destroyed while the righteous remain.
Obviously in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul doesn't even mention the removal of the wicked because his audience (Thessalonian Christians) were not questioning this part of the story (like Jesus' disciples did). They are more curious about what happens in this "Jesus coming" event for their dead Christian family and friends. Paul tells them that the "dead in Christ" will rise first and then "we" who "are left (behind)" will be gathered to meet Jesus and be with Him forever.
Among the Christians and righteous, first the dead are raised and then the living Christians are transformed "in a twinkling of an eye."
With that in mind, what is now described in Revelation 19 when Christ comes makes perfect sense:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True (Jesus the Christ). With justice he judges and wages war.His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords.
And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people (wicked), free and slave, great and small.”
Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds (vultures) gorged themselves on their flesh.
In this final Revelation "war," Jesus comes to collect his own people and to destroy the wicked, once and for all time. Note that in the end, it's the wicked who are destroyed in Hell and feasted upon by the birds (vultures).
So while there are many interpretations of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Scriptures are fairly clear about who is "removed" to be destroyed (the wicked) and who is "changed" (translated, transfigured) into their glorious, eternal bodies (the righteous). We also learn that after the wicked are removed and destroyed that the righteous dead will first be glorified, followed by those living Christian who "remain."
Paul tells the Corinthian church a similar "order of events" in regards to the resurrection of believers (1 Corinthians 15:22-26):
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
The last enemy to be destroyed is DEATH itself.
Because of Adam, we all are spiritually dead already. Consequently, our stay in this physical body is temporary and fleeting. Jesus is the "firstfruits" of our resurrection story. His resurrection is what guarantees our own. "When he comes" He will "come" only for "those who belong to him"--for those who have their name in the Lamb's Book of Life. It's why we need to get our business done with God now. On that day, it won't matter if you "knew" Jesus or not. The only thing that will matter is does Jesus know YOU. Jesus knows his sheep. His Coming will be for what belongs to Him alone.
And on that DAY, the Kingdom of God will reign.
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