Looking at these two letters, we will begin with 1 Thessalonians 4 and study only those verses which contribute to our understanding of the second advent. Although the first three chapters of 1 Thessalonians contain isolated verses pertaining to Jesus' return, we will comment on them as we join them to the main doctrine of chapters 4 and 5. These isolated verses are 1:10, 2:12, and 3:13.
Pretribulationism rejects the belief that the Church will be present on earth during the Tribulation because that would mean that the Church will experience the wrath of God poured out on the world. The doctrine proposes that the Church must be "taken up" before that time, as Scripture is clear that we are destined not for wrath, but for salvation. It is true that when the victorious Lamb of God descends, God's wrath will be poured out on the world. So what about the Church? Later, we'll discuss in fine detail exactly why we won't experience God's wrath. But here we want to find out what does happen to the Church as Christ returns. To do so, let's look at some key words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
STUDY VERSE: 1:4:13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
In verse 13, Paul states the purpose of his letter. The reason Paul wrote this chapter was because of the ignorance of the Thessalonians as to when the dead would be raised. At some previous time (see 1 Thess. 5:1), Paul had told them about the glorious coming of the Lord and the signs that would signal that coming. Apparently he had either neglected to tell them about when the dead would be raised, or they didn't understand what he'd said. Now the Thessalonians had a question: would Christians who had already died miss out on this glorious Day that Paul had told them about? This concern had most likely filtered down to a depth of self-concern as well: if they themselves died before the Lord returned, would they be denied the opportunity to witness that return? Chapter 4 responds to this concern by giving necessary details about the resurrection of the dead saints. The Thessalonians had the hope of resurrection into glory, but they didn't know its timing. This lack of information was causing them grief.
STUDY VERSE: 1:4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
Paul tells the Church that if they believe as truth that Jesus died and rose, then they should also believe as truth what he is about to tell them: those who have died will return with Jesus at that time. Paul is differentiating here between the living and the dead who will return with Jesus; it is the spirits of "those who have fallen asleep" who will return with Him.
STUDY VERSE: 1:4:15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
Paul begins to tell the Thessalonians that not only will the dead saints take part in the glorious coming of Christ, but they will be raised from the dead just before the living saints are changed. Paul used the words of Jesus Himself as his authority to speak in this manner. "For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord" refers not to a current word given to him, but to words that Jesus Himself had spoken while on earth. He was most likely referring to what Jesus said in John 11:21-27.
In this chapter of John, Martha tells the Lord that if He had been there, her brother Lazarus would not have died. He replies, "Thy brother shall rise again." Martha answers, "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus' next words, scholars believe, are most likely the "word of the Lord" by which Paul was speaking. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." (To the dead saints, Jesus will come back as the Resurrection: "the dead in Christ shall rise first" - 1 Thess. 4:16.) Jesus continues, "And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." (To the living saints, Jesus comes back as the Life, changing the saints who remain alive on the earth until then.) " Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up [be changed, "never die"]" - 1 Thess. 4:17).
We should note that Martha knew Lazarus would be raised on "the last day," the day Jesus refers to when He calls Himself the Resurrection to the dead saints and the Life to those who remain until He comes. Now, the doctrine of pretribulationism teaches that the resurrection happens in four phases: the resurrection of Jesus (phase 1), the resurrection of the dead saints at the pretribulational rapture (phase 2), the resurrection of Lazarus and the rest of Israel occurring after the Tribulation (phase 3), and the resurrection of the unbelievers after the millennial reign (phase 4). But by referring to Jesus' own words, Paul places the raising of all the dead saints after the Tribulation on the last day of this age.
STUDY VERSE: 1:4:16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.
STUDY VERSE: 1:4:17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
This verse brings full comfort to the Thessalonians. When the dead are raised, then the saints who are alive, who are left, are caught up to be with them; not one member of the Church, be he dead or alive at the time, will miss the great Day of the Lord.
Pretribulationists picture Jesus descending in the clouds, meeting the saints in the air, and returning with them to heaven for seven years (the time of Tribulation on earth.) But what is crucial to the posttribulational point of view is knowing where Christ's descent takes Him. We open this discussion with a quote from Bob Gundry:
"Other things being equal, the word 'descend' . . . indicates a complete, uninterrupted descent, like that of the Spirit at Christ's baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32,33) and that of Christ in His first advent (John 3:13; 6:33,38,41,42,50,51,58). Where a reversal from downward to upward motion comes into view, a specific statement to that effect appears, as in Acts 10:11, 16 ('a certain object coming down, . . . and immediately the object was taken up into the sky'). In the absence of a statement indicating a halt or a sudden reversal of direction, we naturally infer a complete descent to the earth, such as will take place only at the posttribulational advent" (1).
Let's look at two of Gundry's scripture references: Matthew 3:16 and Acts 10:11,16:
16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, . . . the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him (Matt. 3).
There is no mention of the Spirit reversing direction. Therefore He descended all the way down to the earth. We know that after He descended, He remained to empower Jesus' ministry.
In Acts 10:11,16 we read of Peter's seeing a sheet descend from heaven:
11 And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth. . . . This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven (Acts 10).
If Luke did not specifically state that the sheet was immediately taken up into the sky, we could infer that it remained. The words "let down" (same as "descend" in the Greek) and "received up again" in this verse clarify that there was a change of direction.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, there is nothing to indicate that Jesus reverses direction in His descent, or that He returns to heaven, or that He stops half way down, or that He stays in the air for seven years. The Lord will "descend" - meaning all the way down to the earth. As we will see in the next verse, the word "meet" will give ample support to this interpretation of the word "descend." But some teachers, such as Hal Lindsey, would not agree. He wrote,
"It's obvious from these verses [1 Thess. 4:15-17] and from others that Paul predicts a time when Jesus will raise the bodies of dead believers and simultaneously change living believers to immortals. The word for 'caught up' actually means to 'snatch up,' and that's why I like to call this marvelous coming event 'The Great Snatch'! It's usually referred to as the 'Rapture,' from the Latin word rapare, which means to 'take away' or 'snatch out.'
"Why would Jesus promise that a special group of His people would be taken from earth to heaven without first dying as millions of other believers have done? The simple, wonderful answer is that they will be alive when God's striving with rebellious men turns into an avalanche of judgement upon the Christ-rejecting world and Satan himself - a judgement so terrible that God isn't going to let His Church go through it. This Tribulation isn't for God's people, but for those who have rejected His salvation" (2).
However, the words Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4 show our immediate destination is not heaven, but elsewhere. Scripture always states the place one is "caught up" to. For example, after being baptized by Philip, "the eunuch saw him no more" because "the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip [caught up]" and "Philip was found at Azotus" (Acts 8:38-40).
In another example, Scripture again names the destination of the one "caught up." Paul said he "knew a man in Christ [who was] caught up to the third heaven", and this man "was caught up into paradise" (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
The same Greek word for "caught up" is used in all three instances, and the destination in each case is stated; Gundry says the Greek language demands it. So what is the destination named for the raised and caught up saints in verse 17? Remembering that "descend" infers Jesus' total descent to the earth, we make these three points:
1. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does not name heaven as our destination after we meet the Lord in the air.
2. However, it does tell us where we are caught up to: "Then we . . . shall be caught up together with them [the raised saints] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air . . ." (1 Thess. 4:17).
3. Air: "signifies the atmosphere. . . I Thess. 4:17" (3).
As Christ descends, the saints who are alive will be changed and caught up with the raised saints. Their destination at this point is not heaven or earth, but the clouds in the air. All the saints are now being either raised or changed, and then caught up together in the clouds where they all meet the Lord in the air. This description of Jesus' coming on the clouds of the sky is seen elsewhere in Scripture:
9: And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. 10: And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11: Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.(Acts 1).
30 They shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory (Mt. 24).
7: Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him (Rev. 1).
So after being caught up, our immediate destination is the clouds of this earth's atmosphere, not heaven or earth. But then where do we go? Remembering that the word "descend" indicates Jesus' total descent to the earth, "meet" shows that we immediately return to the earth with the Lord as He completes His descent. How do we arrive at this as Jesus' destination? By the meaning of the Greek word translated "meet", the word being found in only three instances in Scripture, thus clarifying the true meaning of the word. It means this:
"When a dignitary paid an official visit or parousia to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escorting him on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis" (4).
Gundry adds this to the above comment:
"This connotation points toward our rising to meet Christ in order to escort Him immediately back to earth" (5).
W. E. Vine provides us with the following:
"It seems that the special idea of the word was the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary" (6).
In Acts 28:15-16, this word was used to describe Paul's arrival in Rome after being met by a group of Christians who'd gone out from there:
15: And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii forum, and The three taverns: . . . 16: And when we came to Rome, . . .(Acts 28).
On his way to Rome, Paul was met by brothers from Rome who'd heard he was drawing near to their city and gone out to meet him. After going out to "meet" Paul, they reversed their direction and personally escorted him into Rome. Notice that they did not escort Paul back to where he had come from; Paul did not reverse direction. The actions of the Roman Christians perfectly describes the meaning of the word translated "meet."
The second occurrence of this word is in the parables of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. We quote only verses 6-7,10-12:
6: And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. 7: Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. . . .10: And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut (Matt. 25).
The "cry" ["shout," NIV] in verse 6 parallels the shout announcing Jesus' coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. In the parable, the virgins are commanded to come out to "meet" the bridegroom. The wise virgins leave to meet Him as the unwise virgins go off to find oil. This same meaning of "meet" is seen in the wise virgins' returning with the bridegroom; they've escorted Him back to the place from which they came.
The last time this particular word translated "meet" is used is in our verse from Thessalonians. The entire body of Christ from both testaments meets the Lord in the air, reverses their direction and escorts Him back to earth to begin the millennial reign. By definition and example from Scripture, we now have a full picture of the meaning of this word. It can be summed up by this description:
1. A traveler is heading in a particular direction in order to arrive at a designated place.
2. The people residing in that place go out to meet him.
3. When they meet the traveler, they do not escort him back to the place he came from. They turn around and escort him back to where they came from.
Therefore, we could paraphrase verse 17 in this way:
"Then we who are changed shall be caught up in the clouds, together with those who were raised from the dead, to meet the Lord in the air, and as He continues His descent, we shall escort Him back to the earth from which we came, and thus we will always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4 paraphrase).
Returning to the last phrase of this verse, "and so shall we ever be with the Lord," we can ask ourselves, "Where will we ever be with the Lord? Is a particular place indicated here? If we return to heaven, will we ever be there with the Lord? If we stay in the air with the Lord, will we stay there forever? If we return to earth with the Lord, will we stay there forever?" We must see that Paul didn't intend to describe a particular eternal destination here. He meant only what he wrote: we will ever be with the Lord.
Looking for a moment at a related verse from chapter 3, notice how the sense of a posttribulation gathering is again supported:
13: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints (1 Thess. 3).
Pretribulationism ignores the context of this verse. It purports that the Church was raptured seven years earlier and therefore Jesus can now return "with all his saints" after the tribulation. If the verse is looked at carefully, we find two sets of saints:
2. The live saints on earth AT HIS COMING, who will then have their hearts stablished before the Father.
3. "With all his saints" refers only to the saints who have previously died, not a previosly rapytured Church. The saints who had died and return with Him WOULD HAVE ALREADY been established before God the father.
Some use this verse to assert that the entire Church must have been raptured prior to Jesus' coming, in order for it to return WITH Him as one body, but this isn't a valid point. Instead, we can now understand that Jesus returns WITH the spirits of the dead saints in order to raise their bodies, and He comes FOR the living saints, in order to establish His kingdom on earth. After being gathered, all the saints are in the clouds with Jesus, and can return WITH Him.
STUDY VERSE: 1:4:18: Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
In this final verse, Paul speaks from his strong conviction that the truth comforts. He's assured the Thessalonians that, living or dead, no one will miss out on the glorious end that the Lord has planned from the beginning. The Church now has the full picture of the events that will occur in the Day of the Lord; they are no longer ignorant about the resurrection and its place in that Day. Because they've heard the truth, they can accept that comfort and grow in it.
Gathering the results of our study to this point, we can see that at the one second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
1. Christ descends from heaven, having with Him the spirits of the dead saints.
2. As He descends, the dead saints are raised and the living saints changed, and He gathers all the saints to be with Him in the clouds.
3. The newly-raised saints and changed saints now turn around and all the saints escort Jesus back to the earth to begin His millennial reign.