Turn to 1 Thessalonians, chapter 4, and verses 13 through 18. Let me read this to you and then we’ll make some comments about it and dig down a little bit into it. This will be a little bit more detailed look at the very specific event that is the resurrection of believers.
Verse 13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed,” – or ignorant – “brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
The details of what happens to Christians after they die were elusive in the early church, and the Thessalonians were worried about that subject: “Where do Christians go after they die? What happens to their souls? And, in particular, what happens to their bodies?” This set of questions troubled young believers in the church at Thessalonica, as we might assume, because they didn’t have the full revelation that we do in the New Testament. Their concern, however, was rather specific. Paul had been teaching them when he ministered to them about the fact that Jesus was going to return. And, in fact, he taught them as if it could happen in their lifetime.
If you go back to chapter 1, for example, the chapter ends with these words: “That they had, believers had turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” Paul talked about the coming of Christ as if it was going to happen in their lifetime, and they were waiting for that event.
In chapter 2, you also have reference to the return of Christ, verse 19, “Who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming?”
There are other references to His coming in this epistle. Over in chapter 5, “As to the times” – verse 1 – “and the seasons, or epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day will overtake you like a thief; for you’re all sons of light and sons of day. We’re not of night nor of darkness.”
They expected the coming of Christ. They also expected the judgment of God in an event called the day of the Lord, a very familiar Old Testament term. But they were living in the expectation that this could happen in their lifetime. And, actually, nothing is said by Paul in any of his writings about this, either here or in 1 Corinthians 15, that would lead them to believe that it couldn’t possibly happen in their lifetime.
So there is then an imminent event, the return of Christ in some way that could happen in their lifetime. That is what is behind the passage that I read to you. And the question they were asking is this: If this event is going to happen – this great event, the Lord is going to return, He’s going to be with us, we’re going to be with Him, we’re going to be in His presence – what happens to Christians who die before His return? That is the question. And it’s essentially posed in verse 13: “We do not want you to be of uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”
They were so worried about what was going to happen to Christians that died that they would therefore miss the great event of the coming of the Lord, that they were burdened by it, if not actually grieved by the thought that some of the folks they loved would miss this event. And what made it seem more grievous was persecution. Many of them perhaps had died or would die under persecution.
Back in chapter 3 and verse 3, Paul talks about the fact that “they shouldn’t be disturbed by afflictions. They should know that wee have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, and so you know.” So you’re headed for affliction, you’re headed for persecution. That, in some cases, will encompass death.
What’s going to happen to those people who have been persecuted? They would be the noblest of the noble they would assume. They would be entitled, I guess, to the best of any future event that God would bring to pass; and yet would they miss it if they had died?
And then what about the people who died by natural causes? Would they miss the great event of Christ’s return? Was their death then maybe a judgment on them? Was this kind of like 1 Corinthians 11:30, the believers who desecrated the Lord’s Table in some way had actually died because of that sin, they had been punished by the Lord? Would they then not participate in this great reunion and the subsequent gathering into heaven? Would they somehow remain simply living spirits but never have a body? Would they be considered somehow lesser saints because they didn’t participate in that great event? This whole matter produced in them a certain amount of grief, because they were marked by a very, very important virtue.
Go to chapter 4, verses 9 and 10: “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. The best we can do is urge you, brethren, to excel still more.”
They were marked by love. In fact, this is the only church that Paul ever wrote to that he didn’t drag out their sin and confront it. There isn’t anything like that in his letters to them. They were marked by a profound love for one another, and even for those outside their local fellowship all throughout Macedonia. This added to the grief in their minds, if someone died and was to miss the second coming, were they going to be a disembodied spirit? Were they going to be a lesser saint? Were they going to miss the great event? Were they somehow not going to experience the presence of the Lord?
So Paul writes to them on a more than theological level, on a very practical level to alleviate their angst and their grief about this. He writes to them, verse 123, about those who are asleep. He does not want them to be ignorant. It means those who have died. There is no sense in them being full of grief, no sense in them demonstrating a kind of hopelessness, he says in verse 13, that is legitimate for the rest.
We don’t need to grieve as do the rest of the world, meaning those who have no hope. No hope of what? No hope of seeing Christ and no hope of reunion. They were hopeful that all of them, all true believers in this bond of love would be reunited in the presence of the Lord when He came. Was that not going to happen? Were those who already died not going to be a part of that reunion? Were they going to be in another place under different circumstances?
Now remember, they didn’t have the full written revelation of the New Testament. This is very early in the life of the church, and these questions had not yet been answered. Clearly they hadn’t been answered by what Paul says here, because the same event is described, as we read in 1 Corinthians 15, as a mystery up to this point, which means it is something that has been hidden and is now finally revealed. Paul answers the distress and the confusion and ignorance with a clear description of a single event that will be the next event on the prophetic calendar. We call it the rapture, and that’s because of verse 17.
The verb “caught up, caught up,” harpazó. It means to snatch up, to seize and carry off by force. It is the sudden swoop of an irresistible force that pulls you away. So it is a violent snatching away.
The term “rapture” is simply a word to describe the snatching away, and that is exactly what verse 17 is saying. There will be a time when believers are snatched up by a sudden, divine, irresistible force. That’s what this text is about, it is about that event.
Now let me let you know, this is not when Christ comes back to earth. This is not that event when He comes and His feet touch the Mount of Olives, and He turns the desert into a garden, and He destroys the nations, and He establishes millennial reign. This is not that. This is not Christ coming to earth, because it clearly says He comes and meets them in the air.
We know this is also not judgment, because there’s no judgement here. There’ no judgment in this event. Well, whatever this event is, it is strictly a snatching away of believers into the air to meet the Lord. That is the next event.
Now as we think about this I want to just kind of tie it together by giving you a few things to think about. There are some foundations of this rapture. There are some pillars on which the truth of the rapture stands. Let me share those with you, starting in verse 14.
The Christian’s comfort about life after death does not rest on philosophical speculation. It does not rest on human opinion. It does not rest on the edict of some church council. It does not rest on some religious intuition. But rather, the truth of this rapture rests on historical fact. The foundation or the pillar for our hope is historical truth, and Paul breaks it into three parts.
First of all, the rapture is based on the death of Christ, verse 14: “For if we believe that Jesus died” – and we’ll stop at that point. If does not suggest any doubt, but only refers to the logical sequence of believing. If you start with believing that Jesus died, then you’re also going to come to the fact that He rose and subsequent things. The Thessalonians believed that Jesus died, but they didn’t grasp the full significance of that. It is this conditional clause that is the condition that will be fulfilled.
So he could translate it, “Since we believe that Jesus died, it is His death that fulfills all” – very important – “all necessary conditions to turn death into sleep.” And sleep is the term used when referring to believers, because death for them is reduced to sleep. Death is welcome the way sleep is welcome. Death has lost its sting, we found out in 1 Corinthians 15. And the reason death for the believer is only sleep is because He bore our sins in His own body, because He became sin for us, He died in our place. He took the wrath of God; He died our death. His perfect sacrifice paid the penalty for our sins.
By His death we are saved from death. By His death, in His death, we die. It says of Jesus, not that He slept, but that He died so that death for us is merely sleep. Christ entered into all that was involved in death, all that was involved in judgment on the cross, and we who trust in Him will never see death, but will merely sleep. And that not our souls, but only our bodies.
Death has been changed to sleep by the work of Christ. That is metaphor in which the whole concept of death is literally turned upside-down and transformed. Christ made the name for death sleep in the church, and that is why as we ended up in our study of 1 Corinthians 15, we read, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The victory over what? The victory over death. So the first pillar that our future resurrection and rapture is built on is the pillar of the death of Christ, that He died our death in our place, punished for our sins, thus turning death into sleep for us.
Secondly, in verse 14, “We believe that Jesus not only died, but we believe that He rose again.” The second pillar upon which this event is built is the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection proves this, that God was satisfied with the sacrifice of Christ. It proved that Jesus had indeed destroyed death, that He had paid in full for the sins of His people, and thus He had destroyed death.
He had taken the sting out of death, to borrow the language again of 1 Corinthians 15. And so death for us is merely the sleep of the body. The spirit goes immediately into the presence of the Lord, the body goes into sleep awaiting the resurrection. The death of believers does not take place apart from Jesus. The death of believers takes place in Jesus Christ; and as God raised Christ from the dead, which you saw depicted in baptism, so He raised us in Christ. Another way to say that is that God will treat those who died trusting in Jesus the same way He treated Jesus Himself, namely by raising them from the dead.
The resurrection of Christ is God’s stamp of approval on what He did on the cross. It’s more than that, it is our resurrection as well. So if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so – now there’s the link – even so, from Christ’s cross and resurrection, we are moved then to what happens to Christians at the rapture. Even so, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. That’s what they wanted to know.
What’s going to happen to those who had died? Their spirits have gone obviously to be with the Lord. They didn’t perhaps understand the fullness of that. But they would have understood that they would be with the Lord in some sense. They would understand that they would be in the possession of eternal life.
But what about the bodies? And would they be always incomplete? And would they be somehow less than those who experience the rapture? No, not at all. God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. This is the promise of resurrection. God raised Jesus and He will raise all who are in Jesus, even those who have died.
All of us are linked to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We saw that back in 1 Corinthians 15:23. The resurrection is this, “Each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming.” All who are Christ’s will rise. The fact that they have already died and their bodies are in the grave does not eliminate them from this great event.
Just extending that a little bit, go back to Romans, chapter 6. I want to emphasize the truth of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection just briefly. Romans 6:3, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized or immersed into Christ Jesus have been immersed into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death,” – this is not water baptism, this is a union with Christ – “we have been immersed into Christ into His death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life, we also being raised. If we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with Him.” That is what happened in His death and resurrection. We were in Christ. We were in Christ.
Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 6:14, “Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.” And in 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, another verse, verse 14, “Knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you.” So Paul has said, “Even if you are in the grave in your body, even if you have died and been buried, you will be raised. You will be raised as the Lord Jesus Himself was raised.”
And so back to our passage, verse 14 ends, “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” When God brings Jesus back into heavenly glory from this rendezvous with His people, He will bring back all the believers at the same time. You get that?
This event, when the Lord comes down into the air and gathers all the believers to Himself, God will bring all of them with Jesus back to heaven. And that is essentially what our Lord was saying in the 14th chapter of John in these very familiar verses: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
Did you get that, that there is an event coming when the Lord will come and take us where He has been. Where is He now? In heaven. So there is this event. The Lord will come and take us to the place He is, into the Father’s house, to rooms that have been made ready for us.
This, again, this is not the return of Christ to earth to judge the ungodly and establish His kingdom. There’s no judgment in 1 Corinthians 15. There’s no judgment in John 14. There’s no judgment in 1 Thessalonians 4. The Lord doesn’t come to the earth, He comes in the air. He collects by way of resurrection the believers and takes them with Him into the Father’s house and puts them in the rooms that He’s prepared for them.
Paul then, at the end of verse 14, is actually speaking to the concern in the hearts of these believers: What happens to those who have died already? Do they miss the Lord’s return? No, they have died in Jesus, and they will rise in Jesus.
How do you know this, Paul? How can you be sure? Here’s the third pillar: This truth of the rapture of the church – the gathering, the snatching – is based on the death of Christ and the resurrection of Christ in which we are involved. But it is also based on the revelation from Christ, verse 15: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord. This we say to you by the word of the Lord.” Where are you getting this information, Paul, “By the word of the Lord”? On the basis of divine revelation.
Now what does he mean specifically? Does he mean that there are some sayings in the gospels where Jesus spoke about this? Is he referring to John 14 perhaps? That is a reference to the rapture, but doesn’t give us any kind of details or any kind of description for anything parallel to the detail of this text. Does He mean that there were things that Jesus said that weren’t written down like Acts 20:35, there were things He said that didn’t get written down, and maybe this is one of those? No. What he means is this, the Lord has personally revealed to Him. The reason we know that is because in 1 Corinthians 15:51, as I said earlier, calls it a mystery. Up to now, nobody knew this. Jesus didn’t give the details either in the Scripture or outside the Scripture, or it wouldn’t have been a mystery. Mystery is something that has been hidden and is now revealed.
Now the Thessalonians did know about Jesus coming. As I pointed out earlier, they also knew about the day of the Lord. They knew that there was a time when Jesus would come and bring final judgment. They also knew that that final judgment was the culmination of a series of judgments in a cataclysmic event called the day of the Lord. It’s not a day in the sense of 24 hours, it’s a day in the sense of an era or an epic. Very familiar term in the Old Testament. They knew that there was coming a final day of the Lord, a time of judgment. But they didn’t know about the rapture.
The day of the Lord is all over the Old Testament. Sometimes it’s talking about a historical day of the Lord when the Lord comes in judgment. Sometimes it’s talking about that eschatological final day of the Lord that we’re talking about in 1 Thessalonians 5. But there’s nothing about the rapture in the Old Testament. It’s built on the death, the resurrection of Christ, and revelation from Christ that up to this point was a mystery. Now that’s a strong foundation, don’t you think? This is a truth based on the reality of Christ’s death, Christ’s resurrection, and His own revelation to the apostles – strong foundation. So you see the pillars of the rapture.
Secondly, the participants in the rapture, and this gets to the issue. Who’s going to be involved? Well, he says in verse 14, “God’s going to bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” The dead are not going to miss this. Obviously I remind you, their spirits are already with the Lord. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Far better to depart and be with Christ. No middle ground, no purgatory, no soul sleep; but the body sleeps.
But the ones who have fallen asleep will not miss this event. It says in verse 15, “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord.” The “we” interests me. We? Does this mean Paul thought it could happen in his lifetime? It does. It didn’t happen in his lifetime; it could have happened in his lifetime, because it is a signless event. It is a sudden cataclysmic snatching.
There are no indications in the Bible anywhere in the New Testament that there’s any precursor to this. When you see in the Olivet Discourse in the gospels Jesus laying out all of the things that precede His coming, those are events that precede His coming in judgment to establish His kingdom. This is not that, this is before that. “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
That answers the question. Not only will they all rise, but they’re going to rise ahead of us. Somebody said that’s because they have six feet further to go. I think probably not the point. He demonstrates by the word “we” the immanency of this.
I wrote a lot about this, a lot more about this in a book called The Second Coming. You can read about it there, or in any of the commentaries on 1 Thessalonians or the book of Revelation, or a book Because the Time is Near. But suffice it to say for us, the coming of the Lord to take His children to heaven to the rooms that have been prepared for them in the Father’s house is being described here.
Again, there’s no judgment here. Christ doesn’t even come all the way to earth. He doesn’t split the Mount of Olives. He doesn’t come to Armageddon. He doesn’t defeat His enemies. He doesn’t bring final judgment. He doesn’t separate the sheep and the goats. He doesn’t set up the millennial kingdom. All of that comes after the beginning of the day of the Lord, and it is the culmination of the day of the Lord which is a period of judgment. And by the way, the rapture occurs at the end of chapter 4, and the day of the Lord is described in chapter 5, and that’s the sequence.
Paul not only didn’t know when it was going to happen, but he also knew he couldn’t know. Certainly, he had become familiar with the words of our Lord, Matthew 24:36, that no one knew the time, season, not even the Son knew that. He must have known. He must have been told that in Acts when the disciple said, chapter 1, “Is this the time You’re going to bring the kingdom?” that Jesus said, “It’s not for you to know the times and the seasons. This is going to happen in an hour you think not.” He couldn’t have known, and he knew that he couldn’t know.
He also knew that it would be a long time. If he followed the parables of Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25, in one of the parables we are reminded that our Lord says, “The Master is not coming for a long time.” And in the parable of the virgins, the bridegroom is delaying. So he didn’t know when. He was caught between the fact that it could happen in his lifetime, and still it could be a long time.
What is the point of that kind of immanency? The point of that kind of immanency is preparedness. If we don’t know, then we need to be prepared at all times; He’s coming in an hour when you think not.
I think all the early Christians lived with that sense of immanence. It comes through so many places in the New Testament. Romans 13:11, “Do this,” – that is love and do no wrong to your neighbor – “do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep;” – spiritual sleep – “for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let’s behave properly as in the day, not carousing, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, sensuality, strife, jealousy. Better get your act together, because we are nearer than we’ve ever been to the final aspect of our salvation.”
This appears in many places. I don’t want to take time to read all of them to you, but there are a couple I think that are instructive. First Corinthians 16, the very end of 1 Corinthians, the last chapter and down at the very end is verse 22, really interesting verse: “If anyone doesn’t love the Lord, he is to be accursed.” And then you have this word “Maranatha,” an untranslated word that basically means, “O Lord, come. O Lord, come.” This is the cry of the heart of the apostle Paul. It’s like John at the end of Revelation, “Even so, come Lord Jesus.” They lived in hope of Christ’s return. That’s why, again, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, they were waiting for His Son from heaven. They were consciously, eagerly waiting for Christ to return.
Chapter 3 of 1 Thessalonians, verse 13, it says, “so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” They lived in the light of that, and it had a purifying effect on them.
In the last chapter of 1 Thessalonians in verse 23, chapter 5, there’s a benediction: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And he’s talking to them: “You need to think about the coming of Christ. You need to be godly, virtuous, holy, pure. Christ is coming,” and it’s as if it could happen in their lifetime.
Paul writes to Timothy, chapter 6, verse 13, in his first letter and says, “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment, Timothy, without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Timothy, keep your life pure until Jesus comes,” – as if to say – “He could come in your lifetime.”
In fact, you could sum it up in Titus, chapter 2, verse 13, where we read this: “Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” What’s before that? “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires to live sensibly, righteously, godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Every one of us ought to be living as if Christ could come at any moment. That’s how they lived; that’s how we are to live.
In Philippians we read, chapter 3, verse 20, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re all waiting for the Savior to come, because, “He will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” – His resurrection body – “by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
Did Paul think he might die? Sure. Sure. First Thessalonians 5:9, “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” He thought He might die. He thought Christ might come, but He didn’t know. He might live until Christ comes, he might die; didn’t know.
He said to the Philippians in chapter 1, “Christ shall be exalted in my body whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain. Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, that’s very much better.” And toward the end of his life and that wonderful, final, triumphant testimony in 2 Timothy 4:6, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I kept the faith; in the future there’s laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will aware to me on that day; and not only to me, but to all who have loved His appearing.” What a great statement.
Paul says, “I’m at the end of my life, I know that.” Surely he had hoped that Jesus would come in his lifetime; didn’t happen, hadn’t happened. But all along he had loved His appearing. Do you live like that? Do you love His appearing? Are you anticipating that? Are you saying, “Even so, come Lord Jesus,” or are you so caught up in the foolishness of this life that you’ve lost that perspective? “Whether I live or die,” – Paul says – “I belong to the Lord. It would be better to leave here now. But it might be more needful for me to stay. I don’t know if Christ is coming during my lifetime, but He could. And if I believe that and if I love His appearing, that has a holy affect on me.” So they lived in the light of this promise, this reality.
Now go back to the text and verse 15 again: “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Will not go before. We’re not going to have any advantage, that’s the idea. It’s no advantage to be alive at the rapture, no advantage. All Christians alive or dead when Jesus comes to gather us and take us to the place that He’s prepared for us in the Father’s house, all of us will be gathered, no one will be left out. So the pillars of the rapture event, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the revelation of Christ, the participants – all believers dead or alive – all will be gathered up. No one will miss that event.
The third thing that I want you to see in verses 16 and 17 is the plan of the rapture. There are some details here that we don’t have in 1 Corinthians 15 or John 14. First, the Lord Himself will descend from heaven. This is fulfill the promise of John 14: “I will come. I will come. Don’t be troubled. Don’t let your heart be troubled. I’m going to prepare a place for you and I will come again and receive you to Myself.”
The Lord will descend from heaven. It’s the Lord. It’s not an angel, it’s not a host of angels, it’s the Lord Himself. This is not the Lord coming with 10,000 times 10,000 in judgment on the world and the establishment of His kingdom, this is the Lord coming personally, the Lord Himself. This is in contrast to Matthew 13 where in the coming of the Lord in judgment, the angels are the reapers. So that’s why Jesus says in Acts 1:11 to the disciples who are looking as Jesus ascends into heaven in the clouds, two angels in white clothing standing there, they said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go.” He’s gone away.
How did He go away? In the clouds. That’s exactly how He’ll come back. “You have seen Him go; you will see Him return; you will meet Him. He will descend from heaven.” That’s where He’s been, John 14. He’s coming down to take us there to be in heaven with Him.
Then some indications of the grandeur of the event: “The Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, keleusma, a word of command, authority, urgency. It’s actually kind of a military term. You would use it to suddenly and forcefully call the troops from being at ease to attention: “Back into your ranks. Get into position.” Luther translated it in German feldgeschrei which means a call to stand up and get in line. That is the call: “Get ready.”
In Psalm 47, which is a millennial psalm, we read, “God is gone up with a shout, the with the sound of a trumpet.” Here He comes down. This is the call to the dead to rise, sort of like, “Lazarus, come out.” Immediately all the souls in heaven are joined to the bodies – some from the grave, some from the sea. They’re all joined together. This is the power that Jesus claimed in John 5 when he says He has the power of life, the resurrection of life. This is the resurrection of life.
There is also the voice of an archangel actually. This is without a parallel in Scripture, by the way. The only mention of an archangel is here and in Jude 9 where it’s Michael. This is an archangel, it could be Michael, as he is identified with such a resurrection for Israel in Daniel 12, which comes later at the end of the day of the Lord. Whoever this angel is, he adds his voice to the voice of the Lord Himself. And then comes the trumpet of God.
If you go back into the Old Testament you know what the trumpets were, they were blown to assemble the people. There are many trumpets in the Old Testament. Whenever there was a festival, a celebration, a convocation; whenever there was some kind of triumph, some kind of judgment, a trumpet in Exodus 19 calls the people to meet with God, the trumpet of assembly it would be called. In Zephaniah, Zechariah, a trumpet is used as a signal of the Lord’s coming to rescue His people from wicked oppression. It’s a trumpet of deliverance.
And there are many trumpets associated with the end times, many; more of them with that period called the day of the Lord. This trumpet is the last trumpet in the sense that it ends the church age. It’s not said to be a judgment trumpet, as the trumpets in Revelation 8 to 11 are, it’s an assembly trumpet. And here we see the plan: the dead in Christ will rise first, the dead in Christ will rise first.
You might say, “Well, did the Jews in the Old Testament believe they were going to have a resurrection?” Absolutely, they believed they were going to be raised from the dead. You remember the book of Hebrews, chapter 6. The writer says, “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Messiah, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and faith toward God.” That’s Old Testament theology of instruction about washings, laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. Of course, the Old Testament saints believed in the resurrection of the dead. That was promised to them by God.
Job, chapter 19, verse 23, “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! That with an iron stylus and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes will see and not another.” He believed in resurrection.
Psalm 16 talks about God not letting His holy one see corruption. And then the passage I had mentioned earlier, Daniel, chapter 12, is the passage on resurrection, verse 1: “At that time” – and this is looking at the end of the day of the Lord – “Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time;” – that’s the time of tribulation, the period of the day of the Lord. It follows the rapture and comes before the final judgment – “at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” There will be a resurrection of the unjust and the saints as well. The Old Testament teaches the resurrection of the body, and so does the New, as we have found.
I love this term, “The dead in Christ shall rise first.” Even though they’re dead they’re still in Christ. Nothing can separate them from Christ, Romans 8. First Corinthians 15:23 identifies believers as “those that are Christ’s, those that are in Christ.” Death does not separate them from Christ.
“So it is the dead in Christ who rise first, then” – verse 17 – “we who are alive and remain” – still alive on earth – “will be snatched up together with them in the clouds.” You remember Acts 1? “You saw Him go in the clouds, you’ll see Him come back in the clouds.” And we’re all snatched up in the clouds. The bodies meet, the spirits of saints already in glory. The rest on earth who are alive are transformed on the way up. And we know how fast that is.
Did I tell you last week how fast it is? Yeah, as fast as it takes light to flash on the eye, in a minute portion of a nanosecond we’re changed on the way up. This is the rapture. We’re all snatched up by this divine, irresistible force. This is an interesting word, this word harpazó. It’s used in Matthew 11 of taking a kingdom by forced. It’s used in John 10 of a wolf snatching a sheep. It’s used in John 10 where our Lord says that nothing can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.
It’s used in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul was snatched up into the third heaven. It’s used in Acts 8 where Philip was caught up and disappeared, remember, when he was talking to the eunuch. Most importantly, it’s used in 1 Corinthians 15:51 and 52, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. The trumpet will sound, the dead in Christ will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed,” snatched up, transformed into our eternal condition like the risen resurrected Christ; and we will be joined together with the dead who receive their glorified bodies – and I love this – “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” There will be a reunion.
Don’t worry about those who’ve died. They’re not going to be second-class saints, they’re not going to be floating spirits while you have a glorified body. We’re all going to be together. There is reunion, no one left out. We’ll all be in that glorious final form. And, again, clouds are associated with this; we meet the Lord in the air. Again, this is not the second coming. He’s not coming to earth, we meet Him in the air, we meet Him in the air.
Meeting the Lord is a common Old Testament idea, and here it’s the experience of believers. And He gathers us and takes us to the rooms He’s prepared for us in the Father’s house, and we will always be with the Lord. Never after that will we be separated. At the end of the day of the Lord, when He comes back in judgment, we come back with Him. When He sets up His kingdom on earth, we reign with Him on earth through the thousand years; and then in the new heaven and the new earth, we dwell with Him forever, never to be separated from the Lord.
So the pillars of this event, the participants of this event, the plan. And, finally, what is the purpose of telling us this? Verse 18: “Therefore” – what? – “comfort one another with these words.” Nobody’s going to be left out. God who is the God of all comfort comforts His people, not with some kind of emotional warm and fuzzy experience; He comforts His people with truth, with truth.
I remember reading a story about a little girl who was five years old, and she was watching her older brother die. After he died she asked her mother where her brother went. Her mother replied, “He went to heaven to be with Jesus, and someday we’ll see him again.” Sometime later she overheard her mother weeping as she was telling a friend she had lost her son. Later, the little five-year-old said to her mommy, “Is someone lost when you know exactly where they are?” Never lost in the presence of the Lord.
Father, we thank You for such wonderful truth; gives us shining hope. Thank You that You have made such incalculable promises to us who are so unworthy. It’s just an almost incomprehensible kind of grace that saved us, and one day will snatch us out of this world. Lord, it could be at any time. We would say sooner the better, “Even so, come Lord Jesus, Maranatha.”
O Lord, come. We want to live in the light of that reality, and so at all times, knowing you could come anytime, we want to be found godly, faithful in our service to You. As the apostle John said, “He that has this hope in Him purifies himself.” Help us to live in the light of the coming rapture and the gathering of Your beloved church. For that promise, Lord, we offer our humble thanks, in Christ’s name. Amen.