I Thessalonians 4:13-18

There is a doctrine concerning our future I would like to study in this message.  That doctrine is the teaching of “the Rapture,” common today among many in the dispensational movement.   The idea of the Rapture is that Jesus Christ, before the seven years of the tribulation begin, suddenly catches away His people into the clouds to take them all back to heaven with Him.  This is supposed to take place with the sound of a trumpet, and in the “twinkling of an eye.”  This idea is based on two passages, I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  We will examine the first of these passages in this study.

13.  But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.

The Thessalonians were suffering.  They were going through a time of persecution.  We learn about this in I Thessalonians 2:14-16.

14.  For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans,
15.  who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men,
16.  forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.

Here, Paul credits the Thessalonians with going through the same kind of suffering that the believers in Judea had experienced previously.  We can read about these persecutions in Acts (for example, Stephen in Acts 7,) and learn that they included martyrs.  Thus, this persecution in Thessalonica probably included martyrs as well.  These had been put to sleep.  This was a figure for death, just as it was in the case of Stephen in Acts 7:60.

60.  Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

So, these Thessalonians saw their fellow believers “falling asleep” in the same way Stephen did: by dying a martyr’s death.  Thus, they were sorrowing, and well they should for the deaths of these worthy people.  But in their sorrow the Lord tells them that they should not sorrow as others who have no hope.  This is because they do have a hope.  They have an expectation.  We can read about it in the next verse.

14.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.

The Lord will resurrect these martyrs, who sleep in Jesus.  That is the hope the Thessalonians are to have, and that is the reason they are not to mourn as those who have no hope.  But what exactly is the comfort here?  Why does it say that God “will bring with Him” these people who sleep in Jesus?  Does this mean that they are already in heaven enjoying bliss with Him there, and that when this event occurs and Christ returns to earth, He will bring these deceased saints with Him?

I do not believe that this is what this passage is talking about.  We need to realize that the word “bring” here is the Greek word ago.  This is a very simple word, and means, in a simple English translation, “bring.”  And yet this word ago or “bring” can carry with it in Greek the idea of “lead.”  Jesus Christ Himself is “brought” in this way in John 19:4-5.

4.  Pilate then went out again, and said to them, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him.”
5.  Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, “Behold the Man!”

In Greek, the words “am bringing” in verse 4 is this word ago.  Pilate was bringing the Lord before them, and yet this had in it the idea that he was presenting Christ to them.  This word is used in this same way in Acts 9:26-27.

26.  And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.
27.  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.

Here, the word “brought” is the Greek word ago.  Barnabas brought Paul in the sense that he presented him or “led forth” him to the apostles for them to see him and make up their minds about him.

Thus, I believe this is the meaning, or at least the intimation, of ago in this passage.  It is not saying that all these believers are up in heaven, and that God will bring them with Jesus Christ when He returns to earth.  Rather, it means that God will lead forth or present to the world those who sleep in Jesus with Jesus Christ Himself.  When will God lead forth Jesus?  I believe we can find the answer to this in II Timothy 4:1.

1.  I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom:

When Jesus Christ “appears,” that is when He is led forth or presented to the world.  This word “appearing,” or epiphaneian in Greek, means to blaze forth to help or save.  It is the word that would be used for a lost ship under a cloudy sky suddenly coming upon a break in the clouds through which the stars blaze forth to reveal to the wayward vessel its location and give it a means of steering and returning to its course.  It has the idea of a favorable intervention by a revelation.  Thus, I believe it is the same thing as the “bringing” or presenting of Jesus Christ to the world.  And when He is revealed to the world, and when His Kingdom begins at last, then those who sleep in Jesus will likewise be presented to the world for their glorification and His.  That is what I believe this passage is saying.

15.  For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.

Notice the word “for” that begins this verse.  We already had a “for” beginning verse 14.  I believe that this indicates that Paul is moving on from the resurrection of those who sleep in Jesus to another topic, equally magnificent.  This is the coming of the Lord.  But this word “coming” is the Greek word parousia, which indicates a personal and official presence because of who one is and what one does.  For example, every time I go into the fourth through sixth grade Sunday school class at my church, it is a parousia, because I am the teacher of that class and I am there to teach.  If I were to go into the seventh and eighth grade Sunday school class, however, it would not be a parousia, because I am not the teacher of that class, nor am I a seventh or eighth grade student.  I might be present, but it would not be an official presence because of who I am and what I do.

Thus, Jesus Christ’s parousia is not just Him being personally present on the earth.  His disciples asked Him what would be the sign of His parousia when He was already on earth present with them!  (Matthew 24:3)  Nor can it possibly mean that He pops into the clouds, calls a bunch of believers up into the sky, and then pops out back to heaven again.  This could be defined as a “coming” in English, but it would not at all qualify as the Greek word parousia.  Those who claim two Second Comings of Christ, or a two-part Second Coming of Christ, do not understand what the Greek word parousia means.

This passage, at least from verse 15 on, is talking about Christ’s future, official presence on earth when He comes “in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe.”  (II Thessalonians 1:10b)  This is the first blow against the idea that this sets forth a “rapture of the church” that takes place sometime before the tribulation.  For it is without a doubt revealed in Scripture that the tribulation takes place before Christ’s parousia!  “Immediately after the tribulation of those days … they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”  Matthew 24:29-31.  Here, the word is actually the Greek word for “coming” and not parousia, but that this is the parousia is confirmed in verse 37, where the word “coming” is parousia.  The parousia occurs after the tribulation.  There can be no doubt about this once one has honestly defined the word parousia and examined its occurrences in Scripture.  Christ’s parousia can only happen once.  It is not a word that could apply to His first coming, or to Him popping briefly into the clouds.  It can only mean His official presence on the earth to rule.

Then we come to a very interesting statement by the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul.  That is a fact we must keep in mind: that this is not just Paul speaking, but it is the Holy Spirit speaking through him.  Paul uses the word “we” to describe those who will be alive and remaining until the coming of the Lord.  Paul and the Holy Spirit were not in any way forced to use this pronoun.  “Those who are alive and remain” would have been a perfectly acceptable alternative.  Moreover, Paul knew that he had many enemies who were constantly attempting to put him to death and bring an end to his ministry.  So far, the Lord had delivered him from all such, and had allowed him to continue among the living.  Yet for Paul to assume groundlessly that He would continue to do so would have been nothing short of arrogant presumption on his part.  Being an apostle hadn’t stopped James’ martyrdom (Acts 12:2,) and so Paul had no reason to just assume that he would not be killed eventually.  Therefore, I see no reason why Paul would have used the pronoun “we” for those who will be alive and remaining when the Lord’s parousia occurs unless the Lord Himself had assured Paul that he would be one of those among the living when this event occurs!  The fact that we believe in the inspiration of Scripture only seals this idea…if the Holy Spirit had Paul use the pronoun “we,” then He clearly meant to indicate that Paul would be one of those living at this time.  Yet the problem arises when we realize that Paul has been dead for over 1,900 years, and yet the parousia of the Lord still has not occurred.  Did the Holy Spirit lie to or deceive Paul?  Can it be that the word of the Lord did not take place?

Some, who reject the inspiration of Scripture, have suggested that Paul expected these things to happen in his lifetime, and died disappointed and proved wrong.  Others, hoping to retain the inspiration of Scripture and yet explain the difficulty, have suggested that Paul was just living out the example of expecting the Lord’s return at any moment, even if he did not know when He would actually return.  Others point to the many times in Scripture when a prophecy of a far-future event is spoken as if it was about to happen in the lifetimes of those hearing the prophecy.  We can see this all the way back in Genesis 3:15, where it must have sounded to Adam and his wife as if their first child would be the “Seed” that would deliver them from the mess the devil had gotten them into.  Eve’s statement in Genesis 4:1 shows this is what she believed…she thought the Lord had given her Cain to be the Seed He had promised!  Yet that promise would wait almost four thousand years and seventy generations (according to Christ’s lineage) to be fulfilled.

Now those who argue like this fail to take note of one important fact: that God’s statement to Eve could be fulfilled to the letter when Christ was born thousands of years after Cain.  God never said that Adam and Isha’s first child would be the Seed.  He just promised that there would be such a Seed.  Thus, His promise was fulfilled to the letter when Christ was born (although the final crushing of Satan’s head still waits for the future.)  Yet this is not at all true of the word “we” in I Thessalonians 4:15.  Just because there will be people alive and remaining until the coming of the Lord doesn’t make any of them Paul, Silvanus, or Timothy, the authors of the book of I Thessalonians.  This word cannot be true unless not just Paul, but also his co-authors, are alive and remaining when that event occurs!  And remember, the infallibility of the Word of God can stand or fall on a single word.  Perfection allows for no minor flaws.  If there can be no doubt that in the original Greek manuscripts and in the Greek language this passage said “we,” then either this must be true, or the Word of God must not be perfection.  There is just no other way to look at it.

Now I believe that the problem we face in this passage is not inherent in it, but is created by the theological assumptions of those who interpret this passage.  For there are two ways that Paul and his co-authors could be alive when the parousia of the Lord occurs: either by remaining alive until that event takes place, or else by being raised from the dead to live on the earth again until that great situation unfolds.  Since we know that Paul did not live until the parousia of Christ, but that instead that event will not occur until at the very least almost two millennia after his death, we know that it cannot be true that he was to live until that time.  (Those who claim that the destruction of Jerusalem was the parousia might claim that this event actually occurred around 70 AD, and some do.  If we understand the meaning of parousia properly, however, as I have explained above, we can quickly see that this explanation is impossible.)  If Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, then, are to be alive and remaining on the earth until the parousia of Jesus Christ, then there can be just one explanation for it: that they will be alive then because they were raised from the dead to live again on the earth at some point before that event.

Now I fully realize that there is no room in most theologian’s eschatology for any resurrection of these men to the earth before I Thessalonians 4:15.  Yet might I suggest that there could be such a resurrection in I Thessalonians 4:14, when Jesus Christ and those who sleep in Him are “brought” by God?  That this might precede the parousia of Jesus Christ, and that there might, indeed, be a resurrection of these great men to the earth before the return of Jesus Christ takes place?

16.  For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

This describes the Lord’s descent from heaven, and the resurrection that will occur because of it.  Here is a reference to a sounding of God’s trumpet, but there are no other facts given in this passage about this sounding except that it happens.

17.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

Again in this verse the authors, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, describe themselves as being among those who are alive and remain, not those who are dead.  As I said above, they could have easily used the word “those” in this passage instead of “we.”  That they did not, but used “we” instead, shows that they had an expectation, speaking through inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that this is the company they personally would be in.  This expectation is only emphasized by the comparison to “them,” that is, those who were dead and raised from the dead, showing that they did not expect to be in this company.  You can talk all you want about the rapture being “the next event to occur” in Biblical chronology, but unless you can satisfy me on this word “we,” I cannot believe it.  There must be another resurrection before this one.  The only other explanation is that the Word of God is wrong, and that is an explanation that I cannot accept.

Another blow to the “rapture” idea is the Greek word for “meet” here in the phrase, “meet the Lord in the air.”  The word is apantesin, and indicates going out to meet someone and accompany him back with you to his journey’s end.  It is the word used for the virgins meeting the bridegroom to accompany him back to the wedding in Matthew 25:1&6.  Scholars tell us that this word does not mean to meet someone to go back with him to where he came from, nor could it mean that.  As we should realize from the fact that this event is described as the parousia, the Lord will not be going back to heaven at this time, but will be coming to earth “to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe.”

18.  Therefore comfort one another with these words.

These words were meant to be a comfort because of the truth of resurrection they conveyed.

This completes our study of this passage, and yet a study of the idea of the “rapture” would be incomplete without also looking at the truth contained in I Corinthians 15:50-58.  We will take up a study of this truth in our next lesson.