Reclaiming the 1st Thessalonians Rapture Narrative [Part-1]

Chapter 13 of Reclaiming The Rapture : Reclaiming the 1st Thessalonians Rapture Narrative [Part-1]

Paul stated in First Corinthians 15; 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. 1 Cor. 15:51, 52 This passage on the resurrection and “change” is the big sister to the rapture narrative found in First Thessalonians Chapter Four. 

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

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. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words. 1 Thess. 4:13-18. 

This passage is proof of the rapture. But the details of these verses have, unfortunately, been overlooked by Pre-Tribulation rapture theologians, authors, and movie-makers. 

In accordance with basic (inductive) Bible interpretation guidelines, the very first step in determining the meaning of this passage is to establish its single main theme. If these verses above were to be bound as a stand-alone booklet, what would it be called? What was Paul’s primary motive for conveying these thoughts? 

The first and last verses are focused on giving comfort to those who had lost their loved ones. The first verse also implies that the bereaved would be less grieved and more hopeful if they were more informed about the things that Paul is about to share with them. Paul didn’t want those who had lost their loved ones to think that they had perished and would miss out on the Lord’s return. It also brings to mind the remorse of Mary and Martha; “Lord, if you had been here, our brother Lazarus would not have died.” The overall objective of the Thessalonians citation is comfort. Comfort through education. An appropriate title might be something like, “Paul’s Words of Comfort to the Bereaved.” 

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 1 Thess. 4:13 

This verse takes the form of an “if – then” statement. “If” we believe that Jesus died and rose again; then (even so), or (thus) – “God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” The independent conditional statement is that “one believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” If we believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, even so we should also believe what Jesus has promised to His followers; “because I live, you will live also.” John 5:25 says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” The dead will hear the voice of Jesus and rise. First Thessalonians 4:14 ties these two resurrections together. We believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus; and even so, we believe that God will raise those who have fallen asleep. 

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. 1 Thess. 4:15 

“by the word of the Lord.” 

We have already demonstrated by citing numerous Scriptures (the word of the Lord) that the resurrection will precede the gathering. According to Paul’s statement, the resurrection of the dead must occur before the rapture of the living. Stated from the other perspective, the rapture cannot occur before the resurrection. 

“By no means” is formed by two negative Greek words. In English this would be a double negative. But in the Greek it has the meaning, “It absolutely won’t happen.” This fact, expressed in the Greek’s most emphatic negative expression, implies that the living cannot possibly experience the rapture at the Lord’s return in advance of the resurrection of the dead. 

The Coming of the Lord 

“Until the coming of the Lord.” 

Notice that it does not say, “Until a calling from the Lord.” This distinction will be amplified further in the next verse. 

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. 1 Thess. 4:16 

This verse contains so many important elements that we need to examine each phrase individually. The first phrase identifies three different arguments which would persuade the Thessalonians that Paul was describing the second coming of Christ. 

“For the Lord Himself” 

There is an additional Greek word in the original texts. The Greek word – hoti51 (that) appears before “Himself.” The Online Interlinear translation of this verse captures the meaning of this phrase as, “For that same Lord.”52 Another good translation would be, “For that self-same Lord.” By using these words, anyone familiar with the Book of Acts would tend to associate them with “that same Jesus” from Luke’s record of the ascension in Acts 1:9-11. 

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” 

Because Paul has just mentioned “the coming of the Lord,” it would appear that Paul is deliberately calling to mind the mental image of the Lord’s bodily return. Although this may not provide conclusive evidence that this “coming” is the bodily second coming of Christ; please consider the next two phrases as further supporting evidence. 

“Will descend” 

The Lord – that same Lord, will descend; katabesetai53 (will descend). This exact word is used in Romans 10:7 asking the question, “Who will descend into the abyss?” Katabas54 is usually translated “come down,” as in the Gospel of John where Jesus referred to Himself as the one who “comes down from heaven,” and, “the bread that came down from heaven.” Paul first referred to this event as “the coming of the Lord” in verse 15. Verse 16 reinforces the fact that Jesus is “coming,” and that He’s “coming down” – “descending.” 

“From heaven” 

Here the operative word is “from.” This is a common word in the Greek pronounced “apa.”55 The point in examining this word is to differentiate what this preposition is not saying. It does not mean “in,” or “near,” or “around.” The Greek has other words that mean those things. Apa (from), conveys a separation between two positions. Just like its use in English, “from” generally implies departure and distance. An object was there, and now is here; the object came from its former position. 

This study seems mundane except that it is necessary in order to express the precision of the original Greek text. “From heaven” means that Jesus has distanced Himself from heaven. He was in heaven, and now he has separated Himself from heaven. He’s not merely coming in heaven, or descending in heaven. He’s going to descend from heaven. He’s not going to get up from His throne and walk a few steps – and call to the church. No. He is, once again, going to depart from His place in heaven and descend

“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven.” 

What Paul has written affirms that the same Jesus who has ascended will also come down from heaven – “in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” “In like manner” means that the same processes will recur; except that they will occur in a reverse manner. When Jesus was taken up to heaven he ascended from the earth. When Jesus returns from heaven, he will descend to earth. When Jesus ascended into heaven he disappeared from sight. When Jesus descends He will reappear; and this is the blessed hope. Looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. Titus 2:13 

Let’s put this all together now. From verse 15: “the coming of the Lord.” From verse 16: “the self-same Lord,” “will come down,” “from heaven.” Let’s take a closer look at these observations about the station of Lord Jesus: 

  1. He is coming / will come down. 
  1. He is the same Lord. (Himself, or self-same) 
  1. He is descending. 

He is coming. He is no longer seated in heaven – He is not merely calling or commanding the saints to rise and join Him in heaven. He is coming. 

For the Lord Himself. Paul is not being redundant. Jesus is, “the self-same Lord.” Once again this points to a physical second coming, as foretold by the angels in the Book of Acts. As He ascended, He will descend. In what manner? In bodily form. 

He is Descending. Jesus cannot be sitting and descending at the same time. He is either sitting at the Father’s right hand or He is descending. Paul says He is descending. 

“With a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.” 

The Bible describes a truly glorious appearing at Christ’s return – which every eye will witness. This celebration, once again, lends itself to the conclusion that Paul is describing the bodily return of Jesus. 

These verses are primarily given as counsel to the living regarding their dead. They’re going to burst forth from their graves. They’re not going to miss out on anything. So you don’t have to sorrow as those who have no hope. Isn’t it interesting that verse 17 (the part about the rapture) is presented in books and movies without a depiction of the resurrection of the dead? Images portray the saints as though they were ascending straight into heaven with no appearing of the Lord. In most cases there are no voices, no trumpets, and no descending Christ; and certainly no graphic imagery of the resurrection of the dead. The authors and screenwriters have studied these verses. They know exactly what they’re doing. But they don’t want the audience to think about the fact that the resurrection of the dead occurs first – even though that information is presented in the text three times. 

This concealment is most certainly made because the Bible places the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, after the time of the Great Tribulation. People who are trying to force the idea of the Pre-Tribulation rapture of the church either can’t use this verse (which is the only verse in the English Bible that actually refers to this meeting in the air as the rapture); or, they must strip it of its context and show the rapture scene by itself. If they present the rapture verse in its context, it becomes obvious that it’s not a Pre- Tribulation rapture at all. It’s a rapture following the resurrection of the dead. 

And the dead in Christ will rise first 

The dead in Christ will include all who have died in faith. There is only one faith. Whether these who died in Christ were baptized in the name of the Trinity, baptized in the sea, or baptized into that Rock which was Christ; there is only one baptism. As stated earlier, and based on Paul’s qualification here, this resurrection immediately preceding the rapture appears to be what is called the resurrection of the righteous, also known as the resurrection of the just. 

Now we come to verse 17 of First  Thessalonians Four – the rapture verse. Here we will slow down and take a word-by-word approach based on our hypothesis that the rapture is comprised of three distinct events; the resurrection, the rapture, and the gathering. 

The precision of the Greek words used by Paul will allow us to examine the rapture sequence on the microscopic level. This will also provide the opportunity to apply all of the ontological concepts employed by Paul in his other epistles. 

There are no textual variants in verse 17 in any of the Greek texts from which major English Bible versions are translated. Each Greek letter of each word is consistent throughout the sea of ancient Greek manuscripts. The words are identical in the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Western, and majority text-types. The Greek words presented below are used as the base text in the King James56, New King James57, New International58, American Standard(s)59, and other modern paraphrased versions. The reader may be completely unfamiliar with the Greek language. Nevertheless, it is beneficial to view the 2,000 year-old Greek with one’s own eyes.