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THEOLOGY > Future > End of the Age > Rapture Question > What, not When      



I Thessalonians is probably the first epistle written by the Apostle Paul. In response to information Timothy brought regarding the Church in Thessalonica, Paul penned the epistle to the believers who were living there. Paul gives thanks to God for their “work of faith” and “labor of love” (1:3). Paul touches on the Second Coming of Christ in each of the five chapters (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23). Throughout the epistle, there is this eschatological thread that comes to prominence in the latter part of chapter four and the first part of chapter five.

I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is the classic passage describing the Rapture, accepted, almost without exception, as a detailed description of what will transpire when the Lord returns to be united with His people. The passage speaks of the Lord descending, the dead believers being raised, the living believers being changed, and both ascending to meet the Lord in the air. Paul adds that “we shall always be with the Lord” and that we are to “comfort one another with these words.” Following is the complete passage:

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. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep 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 of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 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. 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. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.

It is vital to point out that this passage teaches what will happen at the Rapture not when it will happen. The time of the Rapture is not mentioned, nor is the time of the Great Tribulation or the fact of the Great Tribulation. And the relationship of the Rapture to the Tribulation is not mentioned. In other words, the passage is descriptive of the Rapture, but does not establish a sequence or chronology of end-time events as does the Olivet Discourse. This is foundational to the consideration of this passage (see: The Sequence of End-Time Events and Harmonization of Scripture).

Nothing in these six verses indicates when the events of these verses will take place, before or after the Tribulation. They speak of “the coming of the Lord” but no time is specified, just the fact that He is coming. They teach that the dead will be raised, but again, just the fact is taught; no time is indicated. There is no reference either to the Great Tribulation or to the Millennium, thus providing a reference point for establishing the time of the resurrection. The verses affirm that the living believers will be changed; but we are not told when, only that the change will be after the dead are raised. These verses state that the raised dead-believers and the changed living-believers will rise together to meet the Lord in the air. But no indication is given of the time of the meeting in relationship to the Great Tribulation. It is affirmed that believers will always be with the Lord, but a specific time relative to the Tribulation is not stated. The Second Coming is clearly described in these verses, but it is not dated. Even a casual reading of the passage proves this to be true.

It is amazing that this passage is used by the Dispensationalists to support the Rapture before the Great Tribulation, when the Great Tribulation is not even mentioned in the passage. There is no reference to God’s wrath, to suffering, to plagues, to Antichrist, or to Armageddon. None of the events related to the Great Tribulation is even alluded to. If nothing related to the Tribulation is spoken of then it is impossible, based upon this passage alone, to date this passage before or after the Tribulation. The only reference to end-time events is to those events that are component parts of the Rapture itself. After careful evaluation of this passage, how can anyone use this passage to support the Rapture before the Great Tribulation? It is very evident that I Thessalonians 4:13-18 teaches what will happen at the Rapture not when it will happen.

Dispensationalists, however, constantly use this passage to affirm the Rapture before the Great Tribulation. When asked for a passage that supports their Pretribulation position, they will refer to I Thessalonians 4:13-18. Consider the following quotes:

Taken as a whole, I Thessalonians 4 is one of the strongest passages on the pretribulational interpretation and offers the least comfort to the posttribulational position (Walvoord, The Rapture Question, 210).

The rapture or catching up of believers described here involves both those who have died and those who are living when the Lord comes. His coming here is in the air, not to the earth, and will occur just prior to the beginning of the tribulation period. . . . That period will end with His coming to the earth (Ryrie Study Bible, 1702).

From these two quotes it is obvious the use that Dispensationalists make of this passage. But based upon this passage, there is no basis for so using it. It carefully describes what but does not state when. To teach that the Rapture will take place before the Great Tribulation and to use this passage to support that contention is an improper use of the passage. It is using the passage to support when, when the passage clearly teaches only what.

Since this passage is descriptive without establishing a sequence as to when the Rapture will take place, then other parts of Scripture must be consulted in order to establish a proper end-time sequence. In a previous article it has been shown that the Lord’s return is always spoken of in the singular, never in the plural; there will be one return not two (see: One Second Coming). Another article presents the end-time sequence established by the Lord Himself in the Olivet discourse: Antichrist, Great Tribulation, and Second Coming (see: The Sequence of End-Time Events). And an additional article affirms that the word “elect” used by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse refers to the same group throughout the rest of the New Testament, and that group is the Church (see: The “Elect” in the Olivet Discourse). Thus, the one-time coming of the Lord, when He returns to take His people to Himself, will be after the Tribulation. Therefore, when these facts are brought to bear on I Thessalonians 4:13-18, there is no option but to assert that this passage is a description of the Lord’s coming for the elect after the Great Tribulation. The various facts and passages of these other articles amazingly agree and harmonize with this passage (see: Harmonization of Scripture).

Though there is no direct indication in the passage of when the Lord will return, there is subtle support for the Premillennial position in the word, “meet” (apantesis in the Gr.), which is found in verse 17. This word appears four times in the Greek New Testament and is translated “meet” each time in the NKJV.  Below are the four references:

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet (apantesis) the bridegroom (Matt. 25:1);

And at midnight a cry was heard: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet (apantesis) him!” (Matt. 25:6);

And from there, when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet (apantesis) us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns. When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage (Acts 28:15);

Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet (apantesis) the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (I Thess. 4:17).

The word apantesis indicates a meeting and a continuation on in the same direction that was being followed before the meeting; there is no indication of a change in direction subsequent to the meeting. This is the fundamental meaning of the word. It implies the “welcome of a great person on his arrival” (Expositor’s Greek Testament). The verses above illustrate this concept in the way the word is used in the verses.

In Matthew 25 the virgins “meet” (apantesis) the bridegroom and continue on with him to the wedding feast. The bridegroom’s direction is not changed by the meeting; he only is joined by the virgins. In Acts 28, the brethren “meet” (apantesis) Paul at Three Inns and continue with him on into the city. Before the meeting Paul was going toward Rome; after the meeting Paul was still journeying toward the Capital City, only now with the brethren who had met him. In I Thessalonians 4 the believers “meet” (apantesis) Jesus in the air and continue with him in His return to this earth. The meeting does not change the Lord’s direction. With the resurrected believers who have been gathered together to meet Him in the air, the Lord continues His descent to the earth.

Dispensationalists claim that the Lord will appear in the air, and believers will rise to meet Him. Together, Christ and His Church will return to heaven for seven years, the time of the Great Tribulation. In this scenario the Lord’s direction is reversed. Instead of continuing to earth, He returns to heaven after the meeting. This change of direction demanded by the Dispensationalist is inconsistent with the meaning and intent of the Greek word apantesis. The word implies meeting and continuing, not meeting and returning.

Various writers have commented on the significance of this word, confirming its meaning and intent. Consider the following quotes:

It seems that the special idea of the word was the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary (Moulton, Greek New Testament Grammar);

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 (F. F. Bruce);

Plainly, however, the saints do not rise at once to heaven, but return with the Lord to the scene of his final manifestation on earth (so Chrysost., Aug., etc.) (Expositor’s Greek Testament).

So, in a subtle but definite manner, Premillennialism is supported by this word. The Lord will be coming to this earth; and He will meet (apantesis) His people in the air, some who have been raised from the dead and some, the living, who have been changed. But all together they are ascending to meet Him in the air. With them He will be united and then the Lord and His bride will continue on to the earth to initiate His earthly reign, in which His people will rule and reign with Him. The scenario taught by Premillennialists is totally consistent with the meaning of the word, apantesis. The movement of events taught by Premillennialism reflects the intent of the word.

Apart from the subtle implication of this one word, it is clear that I Thessalonians 4 teaches what will happen at the Rapture, not when the Rapture will occur. Other Scriptures must determine the proper chronology. Therefore, what factor determines where the events of I Thessalonians 4 are placed in the sequence of end-time events? What is to be the place of the Rapture? The Scriptures should provide the answer, and they do. In the Olivet Discourse the Lord returns and the elect are gathered together after the Tribulation. This order is without question; the sequence is plain. So, the time of the Rapture described in I Thessalonians 4 is determined by the sequence of events outlined by Jesus in Matthew 24. The Rapture of I Thessalonians 4 must be after the Great Tribulation according to the chronology of Matthew 24 (see: The Sequence of End-Time Events). I Thessalonians 4:13-18 teaches what will happen at the Rapture not when it will happen.

So let us initially observe
that there is no reference to the tribulation in this rapture passage
nor to a secret, any-moment, coming of the Lord,
nor to our return to heaven after the rapture.
Arthur Katterjohn

It is very difficult to find a secret coming of Christ in these verses.
His coming will be attended with a shout,
with the voice of the archangel,
and with the heavenly trumpet.
Someone has said
that the shout and the trumpet sound will be loud enough to wake the dead!
George Ladd

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