Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians is considered by many to be the earliest of his canonical letters. This correspondence contains the only biblical reference to what has become known as “the rapture”. Paul informs that Jesus, not an emissary, will return and meet believers “in the air” (I Thessalonians 4:17).
Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:17 NASB)Paul affirms that both living and deceased believers will meet “in the clouds...in the air”.
In the Bible, clouds are commonly connected to the visible presence of God (Exodus 13:21, 14:19, 19:16, 24:15, 40:34-28; I Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 1:4, 28; Mark 9:7; Acts 1:9)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) interjects:
“Clouds”—not simply because clouds suggested themselves as convenient vehicles for transportation through space but because clouds are a regular feature of biblical theophanies; the divine glory is veiled in clouds, shines forth from them and retreats into them. Cf. the thick cloud of Sinai when Yahweh came down to impart the law to his people (Exodus 19:16) and when Moses went up to receive the revelation (Exodus 24:15-18), or the cloud that enveloped the divine presence in the wilderness tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and in Solomon’s temple (I Kings 8:10, 11; cf. Psalm 97:2). Specially relevant to the New Testament background are the “clouds of heaven” with which “one like a son of man” came to be presented before the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13 (cf. Mark 13:26...Mark 14:62...Revelation 1:7). Similar theophanic imagery appears in the narrative of the transfiguration (Mark 9:7)...and ascension (Acts 1:9): the “cloud” which received Jesus out of the disciples’ sight on the latter occasion has a bearing on the angelic assurance that he would come “in the same way” as they had seen him go (Acts 1:11). (Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Word Biblical Commentary), 102)Believers will meet Jesus in the “air” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “sky” (CEV). The Greek aer conveys the atmosphere, the space between the heavens and earth in Jewish cosmology.
Gene L. Green (b. 1951) defines:
The place of this meeting is in the air. At times this expression (eis aera) means simply “up” (Achilles Tatius 7.15.3; Josephus [37-100], Antiquitates 7.327 [7.13.3]), and it may be that the apostle has nothing more in mind here. On the other hand, the air was understood as the habitation of malignant supernatural powers (Ephesians 2:2), and, according to the common conception of the day, the air was “filled with gods and spirits” (Plutarch [46-120], Moralia 274B). But there does not appear to be any connection between this statement and that belief. It was also believed that the air was filled with “souls” (Diogenes Laertius 8.31-32), and by way of contrast the extraordinary affirmation of the apostle was that the resurrected and the living believers, and not simply their souls, will meet the Lord in the air. Paul does not elaborate on how this could happen, but we know from his other writings that he expects a transformation of the mortal human body to state of immortality (Philippians 3:20-21; I Corinthians 15:35-37). (Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 228)Ernest Best (1917-2004) concurs:
The meeting with the Lord takes place in (εἰς can hardly have the sense of direction here but is equivalent to ἐν; these prepositions are often confused in the papyri) the air. The Lord comes down; the risen and the surviving are snatched up; the air therefore lies between heaven and earth. It is the area of the planets and the stars, the dwelling place of evil spirits and supernatural powers (Ephesians 2:2). (Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (Black’s New Testament Commentary), 199)This detail is striking to the uninitiated and is irregular even by Biblical standards. Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) informs:
The more surprising element in this description is the final phrase “in the air.” Although, for those familiar with the passage this seems like a natural thing to say, the fact is that this is the only occurrence in Paul’s letters of this word with its proper first meaning, referring to “the atmosphere immediately above the earth’s surface” (BDAG) — although it is also used in a negative sense to refer to the abode of the present powers of darkness (Ephesians 2:2). But this is “surprising” to us only because Paul has no reason elsewhere to speak of this “space” at all. His reason for doing so here has altogether to do with the present imagery. The Lord himself is descending “from heaven,” and those who are being caught up to meet him are “from earth.” Hence their place of meeting is “in the air,” thus referring to the space between heaven and earth. (Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 181)Despite the anomaly, there are some parallels in Jewish tradition. Victor Paul Furnish (b. 1931) examines:
Elements of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition are...evident in the reference to believers being “caught up in the clouds...to meet the Lord in the air” (I Thessalonians 4:17a). The notion of a “rapture” to heaven of certain righteous individuals is found in various Jewish texts, both canonical and noncanonical (e.g., of Enoch: Genesis 5:24; Wisdom of Solomon 4:11; I Enoch 71:1, 5, 14-17; II Enoch 67:2 [A]; of Ezra: 4 Ezra 14:9), and clouds are associated both with divine appearances (e.g., Exodus 19:16; Ezekiel 10:3-4) and travel between heaven and earth (note especially the descent of the Son of man, Daniel 7:13; Mark 13:26...and the ascent to heaven of two faithful witnesses, Revelation 11:12). According to the present scenario, however, the meeting with the Lord is to take place “in the air,” the region which, according to ancient cosmology, is just above the earth (II Enoch 29:4, 5). (Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 103)Believers do not fly to meet Jesus in the air, but rather are “caught up” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). The Greek harpazo implies force; “snatched” is not an unreasonable translation. The verb is in the passive voice implying that God is the one taking the action.
Charles A. Wanamaker (b. 1949) surveys:
The verb ἁρπάζειν is used in Genesis 5:24 (LXX) for the taking up of Enoch to heaven and by Paul in II Corinthians 12:2 and II Corinthians 12:4 to refer to his own ascent into the third heaven. In these instances, as in I Thessalonians 4:17, it implies that the ascent is brought about by a force outside the individual. (Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 175)The same term is also used of Philip’s relocation to Azotus (Acts 8:39).
Though the term “rapture” does not appear in the Bible, it originates from the Latin translation of the Greek verb rendered “caught up”: rapiemur, the first person plural future indicative passive form of rapio. The cognate rapturo is the dative/ablative singular form of the future participle of the same verb.
Jeffrey A.D. Weima (b. 1960) comments:
This verse contains the one explicit reference in the New Testament to the “rapture”—the sudden removal of believers from earth and their reunion with Jesus in the air at the Second Coming. The word “rapture” does not actually occur here but originates from the Latin translation in the Vulgate of the Greek verb harpazō. Elsewhere, this latter term refers to the violent action of being “taken by force” or “snatched away,” usually to the benefit of the one being taken. (Clinton E. Arnold, Romans to Philemon (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 422)Dispensational eschatology has developed its concept of the rapture from this passage. Charles E. Hill (b. 1956) traces:
Clement of Alexandria [150-215] curiously referred Paul’s statements to the experience of the believer at the time of death, but the association with the Parousia is evident in the text and is recognized by the great majority of interpreters...J.N. Darby [1800-1882] popularized, though evidently did not originate, the notion of a “secret rapture” to come without warning or accompaniment, leaving the world bereft of Christians to face the antichrist, seven years of tribulation, and the wrath of God. All this would precede Christ’s return to earth and the ensuing millennial reign. Darby’s understanding has become a hallmark of dispensational premillennialism. (David Noel Freedman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1111)James H. Grant, Jr. (b. 1976) surveys:
Dispensationalists...argue that other passages describe the details of the second coming of Jesus, in Daniel and Revelation and Ezekiel. They also construct a theology of pretribulational rapture from other passages, but then they argue that...I Thessalonians 4:17, is the description of that event. For the other dominant views of Christ’s second coming, there is no distinction regarding the timing of the event. The rapture takes place during the time of Christ’s second coming. But in this particular view called dispensationalism, the event described in I Thessalonians 4:16, 17 is a unique event that is called “the rapture,” and it is different from the event described in Matthew 24:29-31 or any other passage that describes the second coming. (Grant, 1 & 2 Thessalonians: The Hope of Salvation (Preaching the Word), 124-25)Leon Morris (1914-2006) responds:
It may be from this he [Paul] intends us to understand that the rapture will take place secretly, and that no one except the saints themselves will know what is going on. But one would hardly gather this from his words. It is difficult to see how he could more plainly describe something that is open and public. (Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians: Revised Edition (New International Commentary on the New Testament, 145)Speculation as to the purpose of this meeting has developed from the word translated “meet” which developed into a technical term, whether it is intended here or not. If so, it would entail a welcoming party for a visiting dignitary.
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) analyzes:
The meeting place is said to take place in the clouds or in the air, not in heaven...A royal visit to a city would be announced by a herald (see Psalm 24:7-10) and might well also be announced by a trumpet blast meant to alert those in the city that the king was coming...This imagery is pursued further in I Thessalonians 4:17 with the use of the term apantesin. For example, Cicero [106-43 BCE] says of Julius Caesar [100-44 BCE]’s victory tour through Italy in 49 B.C.: “Just imagine what a meeting/royal welcome (apantesis) he is receiving from the towns, what honors are paid to him” (Ad. Atticus 8.16.2; cf. 16.11.6 of Augustus [g6 BCE-14 CE]: “the municipalities are showing the boy remarkable favor...Wonderful apantesis and encouragement”). The word refers, then, to the actions of the greeting committee as it goes forth from the city to escort the royal person or dignitary into the city for his official visit. “These analogies (especially in association with the term parousia) suggest that the Lord is pictured here as escorted the remainder of the journey to earth by his people — both those newly raised from the dead and those remaining alive.” (Witherington, 1 and 2 Thesssalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 138)Earl J. Richard (b. 1940) adds:
It is generally admitted that the term for the meeting, apantēsis, became in the Hellenistic world a technical expression for the public, civic welcome accorded important visitors (TDNT 1:380-81). Such processions of leading citizens going out of the city walls to welcome and accompany an approaching visitor would have been common in Hellenistic times (Berliner griechische Urkunden 2.362.7.17; Polybius [200-118 BCE], History 5.26.8; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities of the Jews 11:8:4; Cicero [106-43 BCE], Letters to Atticus 8.16.2; 16.11.6; Chrysostom [347-407, Thessalonians: Homily 8.62.440) and would have been used by Paul to describe the triumphal meeting of believers and their Lord at the end-time. A second avenue of research points to Jewish background for this term, for in the Septuagint it is used for meetings with Abraham and David (Genesis 14:17; II Samuel 19:16) and for the Israelites’ encounter with God at Sinai (Exodus 19:17). So it has been suggested that Paul was influenced by such usage, especially theophanic imagery, in formulating his thought. It is thus possible that a double influence is at work here. Regardless, whether Paul thinks of Septuagint language or Hellenistic custom, the readers, whose acquaintance with Jewish scriptural background would have been weak, would certainly have understood Paul’s suggestive imagery. (Richard, First and Second Thessalonians (Sacra Pagina), 246-47)The living believers ascend while Jesus descends. The glad reunion occurs in the air, the midpoint between both parties. Since the believers cannot get there without help they are “caught up.” The imagery epitomizes the partnership between God and humanity as God takes the necessary action to meet humanity in the middle. In this way, God allows the believers the privilege of participating in uniting with Jesus.
How do you envision this scene? Why do the believers not simply wait for Jesus to reach the earth? What is the meaning of this meeting? What happens next?
Presumably the believers and Jesus will not remain suspended in the air indefinitely. The next logical stop is a voyage either to earth or heaven.
David J. Williams (1933-2008) speculates:
We are not told what will follow that meeting in the air, but the imagery suggested by apantēsis...points to the earth as their final destination (the citizens who had gone out to meet him, escorting the new arrival back to their city). Paul, however, is not concerned to answer our questions as to what will follow, except to say that the saints will be with [syn] the Lord forever (cf. II Corinthians 13:4; Philippians 1:23 for the same use of syn to mark our eternal companionship with Christ). (Williams, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (New International Biblical Commentary), 85)Jon A. Weatherly (b. 1958) concludes:
Speculation is rife as to whether the Lord leads his people to heaven or back to earth after this meeting. It must suffice to make two observations at this point: (1) nothing in this text expresses or implies anything on the subject; (2) the point which Paul does stress here is not where these events will conclude but with whom, as the next sentence indicates. (Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (The College Press NIV Commentary, 161)Paul’s emphasis is that there will be no subsequent parting: “We shall always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:17).
The text invites many other questions, queries that have persisted into the present. For instance, the passage reveals no indication of timing. This is because Paul does not include this statement to satisfy eschatological curiosity. His primary purpose is to assure the Thessalonians that the dead and living will be together; no believer is left behind.
This has proven problematic. Angus Paddison (b. 1979) records:
In The City of God, XX...Augustine [354-430] wrestles with the apparent problem–are those who will be found alive upon Jesus’ return never to experience death? Augustine considers the possibility that while we are being carried through the air, the living pass with ‘wondrous swiftness’ from death to immortality. (Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 124)The First Epistle to the Thessalonians is written very early and addresses the issue of what happens to believers who die before Christ’s return. There was a sense that the second coming (or Parousia) was imminent. Paul’s own hopes of living to that day are hinted at with his inclusion of himself among the living, “we who are alive” (I Thessalonians 4:17). As such, there was a very real concern that the deceased had truly missed out.
Paul Nadim Tarazi (b. 1943) cautions:
The New Testament generally and Paul’s epistles particularly are not comprehensive theological treatises divided in a series of well designed chapters. It is thus wrong to imagine that these two verses [I Thessalonians 4:16-17] contain the whole of the early church teaching on the coming of the Lord Jesus. The reason is that Paul is usually satisfied with the emphasis on the specific point of importance to his addressees. Now in this text the Thessalonians are not inquiring about the Lord’s coming as such, but rather about the fate of their deceased relatives and friends; consequently the Apostle’s answer is restricted to that. (Tarazi, 1 Thessalonians: A Commentary (Orthodox Biblical Studies), 149-50)Eschatology is actually an afterthought to this passage. The real issue is death and Paul’s objective is to provide assurance.
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) affirms:
Paul’s purpose here is not speculation, but comfort. We, for different days, may need to change the imagery to make the point. We may find it more intelligible to speak of Christ’s ‘appearing’ – as Paul himself does elsewhere – than his downward ‘descent’. But his point is that we can be confident in God’s future purposes for those Christians who have died. There will be grief, of course; but there is also hope. (Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians,126)David Luckensmeyer (b. 1974) pronounces:
I Thessalonians 4:17 contains the climax of the pericope and the strongest affirmation of the Jesus-followers in Thessalonica. When Paul employs the motifs of translation, meeting the Lord and of always being with him, he offers a basis for community identity and existence which transcends the current social disintegration — even death. (Luckensmeyer, The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, 268)Linda McKinnish Bridges (b. 1953) applies:
The scene Paul paints with literary energy and flair in I Thessalonians 4:16-17 is a dramatic reminder that God is present. God is present in the midst of the demonic world. God is present in the middle of death. God is present in the midst of loneliness and sorrow. God is present and powerful. The members of the community in Thessaloniki, therefore, need not be afraid. They will always be with the Lord; they will always be with their loved ones. This is the comfort that Paul provides. The highly dramatic metaphors and symbols help Paul to articulate that assurance—that God is always present, even in death. (Bridges, 1 & 2 Thessalonians: (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 127)Death separates, Christ reconciles. Deceased believers have not only not missed their reunion with Jesus but will also be reunited with living fellow believers.
Do you have faith that you will see your loved ones after they have died? If so, what is this assurance based upon?
“We want to reach the kingdom of God, but we don’t want to travel by way of death. And yet there stands Necessity saying: ‘This way, please.’ Do not hesitate, man, to go this way, when this is the way that God came to you.” - Augustine (354-430)