Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Writing to a congregation of Gentile converts not long after he introduced them to the faith, Paul clarifies his teachings on a few points where the Thessalonians still remained cloudy.
These include issues of eschatology, or what happens at the end of life and at the end of time. It seems that, since Paul’s departure, some among their community of believers had died.
He hadn’t covered that particular situation since he believed that Jesus’ return was rather imminent. Now he has to assure them that their friends and loved ones haven’t missed out on the great event they are all anticipating, the return of the Lord (1:3, 10; 2:19; 3:13).
Unlike others around them, the Thessalonians should not be grieving deaths in their community without hope. Gentile culture, while varied in its beliefs on the afterlife, not only balked at bodily resurrection but also lacked hope for any kind of meaningful and lasting reunion once a friend or family member died. If this life is all one has, its end in death produces considerable grief. Not so for followers of Jesus, Paul says. This is not to say that any grieving is inappropriate, for Jesus provides the example (John 11:35). Nevertheless, that grief should not have the final word.
Paul says that if you believe that Jesus died and was raised (the basic Christian affirmation the Thessalonians had accepted), then you can also believe that God will raise our loved ones. How will that be possible? Here you get a sense of Paul’s grasping of ideas with the multiple prepositions he employs: it will be through Jesus and also with Jesus.
The sleeping loved ones who also believed in the death and resurrection of Christ are caught up into his eternal life. Paul’s assertions here resonate with his arguments in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8. Believing in Jesus’ resurrection entails within it a belief in the resurrection of his followers (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:12-13). Easter Sunday is not a one-time event, but the beginning of a universal restoration.
Paul’s confidence on this matter rests on a word of the Lord, a prophetic phrase that in this instance seems to refer to the words of Jesus. The closest “word of the Lord” is that preserved in Mark 13:26–27 and its parallel Matthew 24:30-31. There Jesus describes the Son of Man returning in the clouds and the angels gathering the elect from the four corners of the earth to meet him.
What isn’t specified in the gospel account is that the dead believers precede the living ones, so Paul seems to be referring to a general discussion of Jesus some details of which he knows and presents to his congregation, either because those details were not recorded in the gospel accounts or because they were directly revealed to Paul.
Rhetorically, the fact that the Lord made this pronouncement makes it even more comforting.1 It is not just I who have spoken on this issue, Paul is saying, but the Lord himself. The echoes of the gospel writers continue with Paul’s assertion that Jesus will return with the sound of trumpets (Matthew 24:31), descending from heaven (Acts 1:11).
It is verse 17 that has birthed such vivid reflection on the end. Being caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air has taken on the name “The Rapture,” as artfully described by leading proponents like J. N. Darby, Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye. Popularized in Christian imagination by The Thief in the Night series for one generation and The Left Behind films for another, the rapture has become one of the key pieces in the often complex debates between different millennial views.
Paul actually uses the term arpadzw, which means “to snatch away.” Typically in the New Testament it has the negative connotation of being taken by force (Matthew 11:12; 12:29; 13:19; John 6:15; 10:12, 28–29; Acts 8:39; 23:10; Revelation 12:5), but in a few instances, including this one, conveys a more positive picture of being taken up into something good or out of something bad (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; Jude 1:23). Jerome, in his Latin translation used the word rapere, from which our English “rapture” comes. Like its Greek counterpart, rapture conveys the idea of being carried away, but in modern parlance leans toward the positive connotations as in being enthusiastically ecstatic, or being “enraptured.”
It is important to note that here Paul’s assertion that believers will meet the Lord in the air involves no intricate timelines or charts; those have been imported from other passages. Instead, his claim offers three assurances. First, no one is left behind. This is the point of talking about this topic at all. Those who are alive will be caught up together with the Lord, and those who have already died will actually beat them to this ethereal encounter.
Here, at least, Paul does not get into a discussion of what happens to those who are not believers. That is because — and this is the second assurance — Paul is writing this in order to encourage his readers. “Therefore, encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:18).” Anyone who uses the discussion of the “rapture” to scare people into faith applies eschatology in a way that Paul (and John!) does not. Jesus’ return should be a thing to anticipate and celebrate, not fear if you happen to return home one day and find no one there.
Finally, this hoped for event is especially encouraging because those who meet the Lord will dwell with him forever. This is not an escapist theology because while Paul says that believers will dwell with the Lord, he doesn’t say that the dwelling will always be in the air. Other passages affirm (Romans 8:21; Revelation 21:1-4) that the dwelling will be on a renewed earth.
The biblical text is not crystal clear on all the details, but it offers the bold hope that all those in Christ — living and dead — will be there on the day when he will come again in glory and then dwell with him forever.
1 Ben Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Eerdmans, 2006, 137.