“For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17, NIV).
Around 50 AD the Apostle Paul and Barnabas left Antioch and returned to the towns in Galatia and Pisidia where they had visited on their previous journey (Paul’s second missionary journey is described in Acts 16-18). They had an argument about whether to take John Mark with them again, and agreed to disagree and each went their separate way. Barnabas decided to re-visit the Jewish believers in Cyprus while Paul re-visited the Gentile believers in Galatia.
Paul and his missionary team of Silas and Timothy traveled through the Roman provinces of Galatia and Phrygia but the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching in the Roman province of Asia. One night Paul dreamed a man from Macedonia (in modern-day Greece) was begging him to come and help the people of Macedonia.
Paul’s team sailed across the Aegean Sea and began their journey through Greece. When they reached the city of Thessalonica, Paul and Silas preached in the Jewish synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths. But some of the Jews became jealous and incited some bad characters to form a mob and cause a riot. Paul and Silas were forced to escape from Thessalonica under the cover of night.
Paul moved on to Athens and then Corinth where he remained for about a year and a half. While at Corinth and possibly due to his abbreviated visit to Thessalonica, Paul wrote two letters to the church at Thessalonica. In the first letter he explained and clarified some of the theological positions of the gospel he had preached during his short stay in Thessalonica. Specifically, in these verses Paul addressed the state of the Christian dead.
Perhaps, the Thessalonian Christians were so convinced of the imminent return of Christ that they became concerned about the eternal outcome of their loved ones who died before Christ returned. So, in verses 14-17 Paul explains the logistics of the second coming of Christ for those Christians who have died and for those who are alive on the earth–what many Christians call the Rapture:
- Those who are alive when Christ returns shall not precede those who are dead.
- The dead in Christ will resurrect first.
- As Christ descends to the earth the living and the “resurrected dead” will be caught up together to meet Christ in the air.
- This meeting of Christ in the air is the beginning of the eternal destiny of believers.
Paul’s explanation is meant as a reassurance to the Thessalonians (and to us) that the dead in Christ are not forgotten by God when they die. In fact, according to Paul those who have already died in Christ appear to have first priority because “the dead in Christ will rise first…after that, we who are still alive.”
As Christ descends to the the earth the believers who are still alive on the earth at that time will be “caught up” or raptured to meet Christ up in the air. (The term “rapture” is taken from the Latin rapio for the two words “caught up” used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.)
There are differing views of when the Rapture occurs–pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation, pre-millenial, post-millenial. Regardless of these differing views, whether we be alive or dead when Christ returns, all Christians are going to be raptured. All Christians, dead or alive, are going to meet Christ in the air when He returns and then they will forever be in His presence.
In verse 18 Paul tells the Thessalonians to encourage one another with these words. The anticipation of Christ’s imminent return and the rapture of all Christians should surely stir up within us a hopefulness and sense of destiny that inspires us to live godly lives in this present world.
And to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:12-13, NIV)