1 Thessalonians: 4:16-18 (the Parousia)

map of greece[This is not greatly changed from a post I put up on Feb 22, 2016.]

The Parousia

(1 Thess. 4:16-18 ESV) 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

A large portion of the Protestant world believes in Rapture theology. Even many in the Churches of Christ believe in the Rapture; we just don’t call it that. Indeed, our hymn books often speak of meeting Jesus in the sky.

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Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away
To a land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away

Chorus:
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away
To a land where joy will never end, I’ll fly away

In fact, we in the Churches of Christ have two competing, inconsistent theologies of the afterlife.

Theology 1: When we die, our soul flies off to heaven, leaving our bodies behind. Hence, we go to heaven immediately upon our deaths and our “resurrection” is nothing like Jesus’ — as he left an empty grave.

Theology 2: When Jesus returns (the Second Coming or Parousia), we’ll arise from our graves with resurrection bodies and fly up to heaven to meet Jesus and then be taken to heaven, leaving this world behind.

Now, 1 and 2 are obviously very different, and yet both are taught, sometimes in the very same sermon. So we go to heaven both when we die and when Jesus returns.

The inconsistency is sometimes resolved by assuming that we fly away at death to a temporary waiting room in the sky, pending Judgment Day. The saved go to Paradise and the damned to Tartarus. This theory is based on a tract written about 100 years ago called “Where Are the Dead?” This tract was adopted by several denominations as biblical truth, and has been a very popular teaching in the Churches of Christ.

I’ve never bought the theory. After all, if the damned and saved wait in two different places for Judgment, well, they’ve obviously already been judged. The saved wait with the saints and martyrs in a well air-conditioned, luxuriant garden. The damned wait with Hitler and his ilk in an overly warm waiting room with nothing but daytime TV to watch for millennia. Surely those present know how Judgment Day is going to turn out for them — and yet Jesus pictures people being surprised when their verdict is announced (Matt 25:37, 44).

Of course, for premillennialists, the Rapture is not just the resurrection, but the resurrection of the saved with the damned left behind. And that’s just not found in the Bible. The Revelation doesn’t even mention a “Rapture.”

The key passage is 1 Thess. 4:16-17, quoted above. The question not directly answered by the passage is: what happens next? Do we then ascend with Jesus back to heaven? Or do we descend with Jesus down to earth? Or do we all stay in the air?

An impressive array of commentators agree with N. T. Wright that Paul is using the language associated with the visitation by an emperor or other dignitary to a city. The residents would go outside the city walls to meet the dignitary and escort him into the city. Thus, the saved will be transformed and receive their resurrection bodies, allowing them to meet Jesus in the air as he descends to be with his people. They will then descend with Jesus to the ground as the heavens and earth are joined as described in Rev 21.

Moulton and Milligan [authors of an important NT Greek lexicon] observe that “the word (apantēsis) seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignity” (p. 53; cf., e.g., Cicero, Ad Att. 8.16.2; 16.11.6; Matt. 25:6; Acts 28:15; the term used for the arrival was parousia; see disc. on 2:19). …

We are not told what will follow that meeting in the air, but the imagery suggested by apantēsis (see above) points to the earth as their final destination (the citizens, who had gone out to meet him, escorting the new arrival back to their city). Paul, however, is not concerned to answer our questions as to what will follow, except to say that the saints will be with [syn] the Lord forever (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 1:23 for the same use of syn to mark our eternal companionship with Christ).

David J. Williams, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 85.

The purpose of the catching away underlines this divine/human encounter, to meet the Lord in the air. To meet (eis apantēsin) was almost a technical term that described the custom of sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to town.

In Acts 28:15 Luke utilizes this word in his description of the way a delegation of Christians from Rome went out to receive Paul and his companions when he approached the imperial city, “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 us” (eis apantēsin). The customary procedure was for the delegation to return to the city with the visiting dignitaries (Acts 28:16; also Matt. 25:6).

The OT texts where the verb is used are numerous, while in Greek and Roman culture the custom was well established, especially when persons of high political rank came to town. Polybius spoke of the great pomp of such occasions (5.26.8), and author after author described how not only certain officials but also all the population would file out of the city to meet the emperor in his parousia. Josephus, for example, tells how the citizens of Rome went out to meet Vespasian as their new emperor (who, by the way, had just come from leading the Roman troops in the battles to quell the Jewish rebellion that began in A.D. 66):

Amidst such feelings of universal goodwill, those of higher rank, impatient of awaiting him, hastened to a great distance from Rome to be the first to greet [hapantōn] him. Nor, indeed, could any of the rest endure the delay of meeting, but all poured forth in such crowds—for to all it seems simpler and easier to go than to remain—that the very city then for the first time experienced with satisfaction the paucity of inhabitants; for those who went outnumbered those who remained. But when he was reported to be approaching and those who had gone ahead were telling of the affability of his reception of each party, the whole remaining population, with wives and children, were by now waiting at the road-sides to receive him; and each group as he passed, in their delight at the spectacle and moved by the blandness of his appearance, gave vent to all manner of cries, hailing him as “benefactor,” “savior,” and “only worthy emperor of Rome.” The whole city, moreover, was filled, like a temple, with garlands and incense.

In this entourage, those who went out first to meet Vespasian were those of the highest rank, and we most likely hear an echo of this custom in vv. 16b–17a: “the dead in Christ rise first.” In formal receptions, the leaders of the city and all the population would go out, including the soldiers, the gymnasiarch and the students, and the priest with cultic objects, all dressed with special clothing and garlands. The city would greet the dignitary upon entry with songs, loud cries, and sacrifices. Cosby correctly observes that the characteristics of these receptions do not correspond one for one with the reception the Lord shall receive when the resurrected and the living are caught away to meet him. However, since the context of this formal reception is the time of the royal parousia of the Lord (v. 15), there remains little doubt that this custom formed the background of this teaching, although with some notable modifications (for example, the time of the day of the Lord is unknown—5:1–11).

Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002), 226–228.

It should be clear from the beginning of v. 16 that Christ is said to come down out of heaven and meet his followers somewhere else, in this case in the atmosphere, where there are clouds. There is likely an echo of Mic. 1:3 here: “For behold the LORD is coming forth out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.” Clouds are regularly said to accompany a theophany, when God comes down to the human level, not when humans are taken up into the presence of God in heaven (see Exod. 19:16; 40:34; 1 Kgs. 8:10–11; Ps. 97:2). Trumpet blasts also accompany theophanies (Exod. 19:16; Isa. 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zech. 9:14). The meeting does not take place in heaven, so there is no rapture into heaven here.

Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 141.

“Snatched into the air” does not mean into heaven. The Lord will descend to the earth (Job 19:25; Acts 1:11) where the judgment shall take place. It shall not take place in the air; nor shall the wicked, after being raised, be taken into the air. Revelation 21:1, 2 unites the new heaven and the new earth with the holy city; and the judgment will exclude the wicked from it. We read nowhere that the Lord will return to heaven after the Parousia, but rather that heaven and earth shall be one. Εἰς ἀπάντησιν is an idiom (it is also found in the papyri) that always occurs in this form and is like a compound preposition with the genitive, it is the German entgegen.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1937), 337.

The three stories which Paul is here bringing together start with the story of Moses coming down the mountain. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears and descends from the mountain to see what’s been going on in his absence.

Then there is the story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. This ‘raising up on the clouds’, which Jesus applies to himself in the gospels, is now applied by Paul to the Christians who are presently suffering persecution.

Putting these two stories together, in a typically outrageous mix of metaphors, enables Paul to bring in the third story, to which we have already alluded. When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him arrive at the gates as though they his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.

Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.

These two verses in 1 Thessalonians 4, then, have been grievously abused by those who have constructed out of them a big picture of a supposed ‘rapture’. This has had its effect not only on popular fundamentalism, but on a fair amount of New Testament scholarship, which has assumed that Paul really meant what the fundamentalists think he meant.

Only when we put together the several different things that he says on the same topic does the truth emerge. This is a typical piece of highly charged and multiply allusive rhetoric. The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed. That, as we shall now see, is pretty much what the rest of the New Testament says as well.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 144–146.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to 1 Thessalonians: 4:16-18 (the Parousia)

  1. JohnF says:

    Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, the saints wait “in the air” while the earth is “purged, purified” ala 2 Peter 3:12-13 . . . because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. NASU cf. Rev. 21:3

  2. Dwight says:

    Jay, Is there a pre-judgment, before the final judgment or is there a different judgment for the Hebrews as apart from the Christians, but there is room for not knowing and believing different ways.
    For one thing, while the story of the rich man and Lazarus seems to be a parable, it is an unlikely parable as while most parables take place on earth using real things, this one takes place somewhere else, so it might be a parable, but it is still relying on real things.
    Secondly, in the transfiguration we see Moses, Elijah and Jesus on the mountain, so was this really Moses and Elijah and if so, then why are they being represented as Holy people, before they are judged as that. So there seems to be room for not many possible and different thoughts.
    Third, did Jesus go to heaven to prepare a place for the saints as he states in John 14:2-3 ”
    In My Father’s house are many mansions; 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.”
    Jesus went to heaven, he says he will come again and then receive us, to where he was. This may be a Western way of thinking, but the text seems to convey Jesus in heaven, He will come, we will be where He has prepared a place for us, simply thinking.
    Having said that I don’t think I Thess.4:16-18 is intending to place forth a theological statement on the after life, but rather convey that Jesus is coming for us and we will go to meet Him, even if dead and buried. There will be a resurrection of all who served God. Where we go from there is anybody’s guess. I will be happy with a new earth or streets of gold in heaven. Beggars can’t be choosey and I am not picky.

  3. JohnF says:

    Dwight, As long as I am there, all will be well. I have put off doing a basic lesson for teaching on heaven since there is so little definitive information. “Heaven will be perfectly suited for you, whatever that is.” It may be different for different people — do we know? NO. There MAY be some things in common and some things different.

    1 Peter 1:10-12
    As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven — things into which angels long to look. NASU

    We, with the angels, may long to look into certain things, but must be content with what is certain. How does a new earth no longer have need of the sun — and no night? Does that mean that the new earth no longer spins on an axis? And that the glory of God, who is the light, surrounds all. Speculation, but certainty?

  4. Monty says:

    Jay said,

    “In fact, we in the Churches of Christ have two competing, inconsistent theologies of the afterlife.”

    It would also seem we have inconsistent theologies about if we can “know that we have eternal life”, this side of heaven. Some may be surprised about their eternal destiny, but Paul wasn’t one of them, nor was Stephen. Nor should a faithful Christian be. If that ruins judgment day “surprises”, then maybe we’re thinking of it all wrong.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    These two theories which you have presented are as foreign to the messages that I have listened to in the years I grew up in the CoC. Well, they are also foreign to sermons from other denominations. In fact these theories are neither one in complete context with the scriptures. I’ll give you a few thoughts as to why I believe this.
    Number 1 as I believe you have noted (denies any action resembling a resurrection). When Christ died it was only his physical body that was in the grave, Christ’s Spirit did not die, neither does ours. Abraham, Issac and Jacob are alive even though their bodies are still in a grave.
    It also denies that our bodies in the grave have to wait until Jesus’s return, it promotes the resurrection is at the same time as death, wrong, no scripture suggests that.
    Number 2 denies that Christ has already given us eternal life, teaching that we go out of existence while in the grave. Mentioning that we leave this world behind is correct with all Scripture. This world will be as many say (refined by fire) which is a different concept than is described in scripture. Scripture states that it will be dissolved, and then replaced by a new Earth. The refining or the renewal cannot be done while there is any Christians here on the Earth without them also being in the fire or dissolved. Therefore, all Christian bodies must leave this planet while this is in progress. When they return all their works and cities are gone, they will not be bringing the Lord back to their abode, all things are to be renewed.

    Theology 1: When we die, our soul flies off to heaven, leaving our bodies behind. Hence, we go to heaven immediately upon our deaths and our “resurrection” is nothing like Jesus’ — as he left an empty grave.

    Theology 2: When Jesus returns (the Second Coming or Parousia), we’ll arise from our graves with resurrection bodies and fly up to heaven to meet Jesus and then be taken to heaven, leaving this world behind.

    These two positions have been made up by individuals who are desiring to fight against sound teaching. I liken these to those who have created many rules which are not in scriptures to support their own theories. One of which is that each Christian does not have a spirit. They are trapped in a physical world.

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