“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 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 in the town 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 and disposition 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 had died before Christ returned. So, in verses 14-17 Paul explains the logistics of the coming of Christ to gather His believers to Himself– those Christians who have died and those who are alive on the earth:
- Those Christians who are alive when Christ returns to gather His people shall not precede those Christians who are dead.
- In fact, 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. Many Christians call this event “the Rapture.”
- 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 in this great gathering because “the dead in Christ will rise first…after that, we who are still alive” (vs. 16-17).
As Christ descends to the earth the believers who are still alive on the earth at that time will be “caught up” or raptured to meet Christ in the air. (The term “rapture” is taken from the Latin rapio for the two words “caught up” used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.)
In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 (NIV) Paul explains specifically how this rapturing of God’s people–the alive and the dead–will occur: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
A great transformation takes place when we are raptured to meet Christ in the air. When Christ comes to gather His people, both the dead and the alive believers will be changed into imperishable or immortal beings: “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53, NIV).
There are differing views of when the Rapture occurs–pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation, pre-millenial, post-millenial. Regardless of what apocalyptic events are yet to occur, Christ will return to gather His people to Himself whether they be alive or dead when He comes.
Yes, all Christians are going to be raptured. All Christians, dead or alive, will share the common experience of being caught up to meet Christ in the air when He returns. And, then their common destiny will begin as they will all forever be in His presence.
But, Paul didn’t intend for these explanations of the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture to provide the Thessalonians with an apocalyptic timeline. He meant for this teaching to provide them with an assurance of their eternal well-being: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (I Thessalonians 4:18, NIV).
And, the same spirit of the anticipation of Christ’s imminent return that characterized the Thessalonians should be present with Christians today to ignite a transcending hope 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)
I look forward to your emails. Have you written about the verses that speak of being present with Jesus when we die?
I checked and haven’t written in much detail about heaven or what happens when we die. Perhaps, I should give it a try. Paul does give us more information, however, about how millions of alive and dead Christians can be “raptured” and I will write about that in Raptured-Part 2. Thanks for reading and sharing!