Brothers, We Do Not Want You To Be Ignorant
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians predated his letters to the Corinthians by several years. Paul was only in Thessalonica for about a month before he was forced to leave because of severe persecution. A month with the new believers in Thessalonica was probably too short a time to adequately cover the elementary teachings of the Gospel, which Paul called “spiritual milk.” Soon there developed confusion regarding the resurrection of believers and the Day of the Lord. In Paul’s first letter he addresses their concerns about those who have died in Christ and explains that they too will be gathered with the living at Christ’s return. Paul also reassures them that the Day of the Lord will not take them by surprise, as it will the unbelieving world. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul provides us with important insights into the return of the Lord and the end of the age. We will now look at excerpts from his first letter to the Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 1
In chapter one Paul commends the Thessalonian church for their faith and encourages them as they wait for Jesus Christ, who will come down from heaven and rescue them from the coming wrath of God.
wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
1 Thessalonians 2
Paul continues his encouragement as he tells the Church that their hope, their joy and crown will come when they glory in the presence of their Lord at His arrival.
For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes [parousia] (1 Thessalonians 2:19)?
“The crown” is a symbol of our reward, which we will receive at the Judgment Seat of Christ, when He returns from heaven. Notice that once again, Paul uses the Greek word parousia, signifying Christ’s arrival. In Paul’s letter to Titus, he again tells us that our hope is in Christ at His appearing.
while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing [epiphaneia] of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, (Titus 2:13)
The Greek word epiphaneia is translated “appearing” and means a manifestation, i.e. (specifically) the Advent of Christ (past or future): -appearing, brightness.3 Note that the Greek words parousia and epiphaneia are both used by Paul to express the physical and visible return of Christ. Paul makes it clear that our hope is in Christ. This blessed hope brings our deliverance, resurrection and reward.
1 Thessalonians 3
Paul encourages the Church to remain strong and persevere as we wait for the arrival of the Lord with His holy ones.
May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes [parousia] with all his holy ones (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
The “holy ones” in this context are most likely the angels which, as we have seen in Matthew 13:39 and Matthew 24:30-31, will gather all believers during the harvest. In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians he again refers to the angels as coming with the Lord when Christ is revealed from heaven.
… and give relief to you who are troubled and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed [apokalupsis] from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels (2 Thessalonians 1:7).
The Greek word apokalupsis is translated “revealed” in this verse. Apokalupsis means to be revealed, revealing, revelation.4 We now have seen that Paul uses three different Greek words to signify the physical and visible return of Jesus Christ. He uses parousia most often, but he also uses the Greek words, epiphaneia and apokalupsis, interchangeably as he describes the coming of the Lord with His mighty angels.
1 Thessalonians 4
One of the main issues that Paul addresses in this letter concerns those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Apparently the Thessalonians were not aware that those who died in Christ would also participate in the resurrection at Jesus’ return on the Day of the Lord. Paul reassures them that all believers, both living and dead, will be gathered together and that we will all meet the Lord in the air when Christ comes down from heaven. Let’s examine carefully this key passage on the resurrection of believers.
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 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 own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming [parousia] 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 [apentesis] the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
This passage vividly describes that the dead in Christ will be gathered together in the clouds with those who are still alive and left at the arrival of the Lord. The believers who are still alive at that time will be caught up (raptured) as they are gathered together to meet the Lord in the air. We have already examined this passage briefly when we studied the mystery of the last trumpet, however, I will now make a few additional observations.
Paul reassures the Thessalonians that those who have died will not be left out as he explains that the resurrection of the living and the dead will take place at the same time. In detailing the specific steps of the resurrection of believers the apostle says that the dead in Christ will rise first and then “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” In effect there seems to be no time difference between the catching up of the living and the gathering as we are caught up together. The dead rise and then the dead and the living are gathered together in the clouds. In 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52 Paul says, “we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye.” Therefore, it appears from what is written that the living and the dead in Christ will be changed in the resurrection so quickly that any difference in the timing will be indistinguishable.
The Lord comes down from heaven
In verse 16 Paul says the Lord will come down from heaven to gather together His elect. When the Lord left the earth at the end of His First Advent, He returned to heaven where He sits at the right hand of God the Father. He will remain in Heaven until it is time for Him to return to earth and set up the kingdom of God. When He returns he will come down from heaven with His angels just as prophesied in Scripture. Here are a few Old Testament passages which provide a clear picture of the event.
Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you," declares the LORD...Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:10, 13).
Part your heavens, O LORD, and come down; touch the mountains, so that they smoke (Psalm 144:5).
so the LORD Almighty will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights (Isaiah 31:4).
Look! The LORD is coming from his dwelling place; he comes down and treads the high places of the earth (Micah 1:3).
We also find references to His coming down out of heaven as recorded by the apostles of the New Testament.
He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets (Act 3:21).
This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels (2 Thessalonians 1:7).
As we examine these verses we see that when the Lord returns to restore everything and establish the Kingdom on earth, he will leave heaven and return to earth.
With a loud command and trumpet call
In verse 16, Paul tells us that the Lord will come down from heaven with “a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.” The loud command most likely will come from Christ because, in the gospel of John, we are told we will hear the voice of God in relation to the resurrection.
I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live... Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned (John 5:25-29).
As for the trumpet call, we have already studied this in our examination of Matthew 24:31 and 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52. The trumpet call of God is the well-established signal found throughout Scripture in connection with the coming of the Lord. As we study the return of Christ we will find that the trumpet call is the signal for the gathering of His chosen ones at His return. The following verses represent a sample of Scripture on the topic of the trumpet call.
Then the LORD will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning. The Sovereign LORD will sound the trumpet; (Zechariah 9:14)
And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matthew 24:31).
We will be with the Lord forever
In verse 17, Paul says “[a]nd so we will be with the Lord forever,” telling us that from the time of Christ’s return the saints will be with Him. Christ tells us the same thing as recorded in the gospel of John.
In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:2, 3).
Let’s now summarize the key points from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. We have identified the following four aspects of the resurrection at the return of Christ:
1. The Lord Jesus Christ will come down from heaven.
2. The Lord will come with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call.
3. At the resurrection of the believers the living and the dead will be gathered together.
4. After the resurrection all believers will be with the Lord forever.
John F. Walvoord, who promoted the Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory, said in his book, End Times, “The major passage on the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.”5 Since 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is considered the major passage, for the Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory, we should expect to find support for that theory in that passage.
While this passage is a clear picture of the rapture, there is no reference to when the rapture will happen. There is no mention of Daniel’s 70th Week, the Great Tribulation or the time of the Antichrist. Since there is no indication of timing, this passage cannot provide support for a Pre-Tribulation Rapture.
It’s Greek to us
There are, however, other methods we can employ to examine this passage to gain understanding of God’s plan. The first method is to look to the Greek text from which the passage was translated. As we have seen before, studying the Greek can often help us gain insight and understanding into the true meaning of the passage.
We have already studied the Greek word parousia and we realize that it means the arrival or the physical and visible return of our Lord Jesus Christ to earth. There is an additional insight into the word parousia which will help us gain a deeper understanding to its meaning. First, let’s look at the passage again.
According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming [parousia] of the Lord, 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 [apentesis] the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Another view of the Greek word parousia, as it is used in the New Testament, will help our understanding of this passage. According to the writers of Vocabulary of the Greek Testament:
“What, however, more especially concerns us in connection with the NT usage of ‘parousia’ is the quasi-technical force of the word from Ptolemaic times onwards to denote the “visit” of a King, Emperor, or other person in authority, the official character of the “visit’ being further emphasized by the taxes or payments that were exacted to make preparation for it.”6
As we can see from the Vocabulary of the Greek Testament not only does the word parousia signify the event of an arrival, but, at that time in history parousia was used to indicate the arrival of a king or a person in authority. This of course is exactly what Paul is telling us in this passage. Here parousia indicates the arrival of Jesus Christ, the King of kings. This would, therefore, tend to support the position that the parousia of Christ occurs at the end of the Great Tribulation when Jesus Christ comes as King to establish His Kingdom on earth.
Another Greek word in this passage will also help us correctly understand what Paul is saying. The Greek word apantesis is translated as “meet.” Apantesis has a specific application and technical meaning. “The word apantesis seems to have been a kind of official welcome of a newly arriving dignitary – a usage which accords excellently with its NT usage.”7 As a matter of fact the meaning of apantesis is so special that it is used just four times in the entire Bible. Three, of the four, times it is used are in connection with the return of Christ - twice in the Gospel of Matthew and once here in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. First, let’s look at how apantesis is used in the Olivet Discourse.
At that time the Kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet [apantesis] the bridegroom… At midnight the cry rang out: Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet [apantesis] him! (Matthew 25:1, 6)
Here in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the virgins go out to meet the approaching bridegroom to join him as He arrives for the wedding banquet. This is the very same event that is being described by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The believers are the five wise virgins who will go out to meet the Lord in the air and then continue with Him to the wedding banquet. In both passages Jesus is on His way to the wedding feast on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, see Isaiah 25:6-8.
There is only one other occasion in Scripture in which apantesis is used. In Acts, when Luke describes the meeting between the believers from Rome and Paul as he arrives in the outskirts of the city. They meet him and continue with him to Rome.
The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet [apantesis] us. At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged (Acts 28:15).
Therefore, each of the four uses of apantesis in Scripture are consistent with it meaning in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. While the text does not directly tell us the timing of Christ return, it should be clear that Paul is describing Christ’s return as the King of kings. Christ is coming to earth to hold the wedding feast and establish the Kingdom on earth which is exactly what Jesus is describing in the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
Context, context, context
There is still one more test we can apply to this passage to confirm that the resurrection of believers occurs after the Great Tribulation. Since, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 does not directly reveal the timing of the resurrection of believers we must to look to the context, the rest of Paul’s letter, to determine if the timing is indicated in the context of the letter. Our understanding must be guided by following the three rules of proper interpretation: “Context, Context and Context.”
As we look at the entire letter we find that the return of Christ is mentioned in all five chapters. In chapter one Jesus returns from heaven to rescue us from the coming wrath, placing His return and our rescue prior to the seven bowls of God’s wrath.8 In chapter two the arrival [parousia] of the Lord is connected with the receiving of our crowns, which we receive at our judgment, Revelation 11:18. In Thessalonians 2, 3 and 4, the Greek word parousia is used in reference to the arrival of the Lord. Paul’s use of the Greek word parousia is strong evidence for the position that this whole letter is referring to the arrival of Christ at the end of the age.
1 Thessalonians 5
In the final chapter we gain even more confirmation into the timing of the return of Jesus Christ. Once again Paul connects the return of Christ with the Day of the Lord.
No surprise for believers!
Paul tells us that the coming of the Lord will not surprise the true believers, but it will catch the unbelieving world off guard.
Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-5).
Paul first reminds the Thessalonians that he has already instructed them about the timing of the Day of the Lord. He tells them “the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” It is very important that we are clear about this expression. Many people mistakenly think that believers cannot know the general time of Christ’s return. However, just because Paul is writing this to the Church does not mean he is writing this about the Church. This is written about the unbelievers, not the believers.
Look carefully at what Paul has written. When he says, “the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” he is referring to “people,” “them,” and “they,” Paul is making a distinction between the believers and the unbelievers. Consider what Paul says to the believers in verse four - “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” He is telling them that the Day of the Lord will not come on believers like a thief, because they are sons of the light. On the other hand, it will surprise the unbelieving world.
Jesus said the same thing, in Matthew 24:37, when He told us it will be “[a]s it was in the days of Noah” before the Day of the Lord.
Tribulation is tribulation
Let’s look at I Thessalonians 5 as Paul reassures us that God has not appointed us to suffer His wrath.
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9)
God Himself will rescue us from His coming wrath. This is a spiritual principle that is well established throughout Scripture. The people of God have never come under the wrath of God, recall Sodom, Gomorrah and the Flood. God repeatedly assures us that we will not suffer His wrath when it comes on the Day of the Lord.
There is a spiritual principle in Scripture which we need to understand. The principle is that believers will suffer tribulation, distress and persecution and even physical death. Jesus clearly tells us that we will be persecuted when He says, “[i]f they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).
It has become popular, in these last days, to confuse tribulation with wrath and treat them as the same thing. Jesus has told us that after the Great Tribulation He will appear in the clouds of the sky and gather His elect (Matthew 24:29-31). C. I. Scofield, in his popular study Bible, says Jesus will come before Daniel’s 70th Week and the Great Tribulation.9 His theory places the Wrath of God during the tribulation. Simply stated what Jesus says is tribulation (Matthew 24:15-29), Scofield says is the wrath of God. Once again if we hope to have a correct understanding of the Word of Truth we must not go beyond what is written. When Jesus says tribulation He means tribulation not something else.
There is only one Second Coming of Christ and it occurs on the Day of the Lord. Each of the five chapters of this letter refers to this one event. Compare these two passages to see the similarities.
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. Therefore encourage each other with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:17, 18).
He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing (1 Thessalonians 5:10, 11).
It should be clear, Paul is writing about the same thing in each of these passages. Would Paul use such similar language to describe two different events? No! The Bible is clear there is only one Second Coming of Christ. It occurs immediately after the Great Tribulation on the Day of the Lord. Therefore,
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Richard H Perry
3 Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries – epiphaneia, G2015
4 Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, apokalupsis G605
5 John F. Walvoord, End Times, Word Publishing, 1998, page 21
6 Vocabulary of the Greek Testament by J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, Hendrickson Publishers 1997 - parousia, # 3952
7 Vocabulary of the Greek Testament by J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, Hendrickson
Publishers 1997 – apantesis, #529
8 Revelation 16
9 The New Scofield Study Bible (NIV), Oxford Publishers 1998