Tuesday, September 13, 2016

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and the Rapture (Part 1)


Numerous eschatological facts can be gleaned from the epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians. We shall begin by looking at a vital text in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. With regard to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, all Bible Presbyterians and Dispensationalists will agree that it refers to the rapture of the New Testament church.

Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Jeffrey Khoo writes: “The “live” saints will be raptured soon after “dead” saints have been “caught up.” How soon? The whole event will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52). It will all be over in a micro-second.”[1]

Rev Dr Jack Sin, previously the lecturer in Church History and Pastoral Ministry of Far Eastern Bible College, explains further:

“The second coming of Christ will be in two phases - first the Rapture, then the Second Advent. The Rapture, mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, is a special event when the Church will be caught up into heaven. At the Rapture, Jesus Christ will appear out of heaven and there will be a great shout followed by the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. . . . Both OT and NT saints will be caught up into the clouds to meet Jesus in the air (1 Thess 4:13-18). The Rapture delivers the Church from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10). So we should expect the Rapture to precede the period of wrath in the tribulation period (Matt 24:15, Rev 6:17).”[2]

Does 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 really teach a pretribulation rapture? We shall begin by examining the issues Paul was addressing in this portion of Scripture.

A Problem in the Thessalonian Church

In this passage, the Apostle Paul was dealing with certain questions raised by the young Thessalonian church. In order to understand this passage better, it is beneficial for us to ask ourselves, “What exactly were the Thessalonians worried about?” From 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 18 and 5:11, it is evident that Paul was comforting the Thessalonians concerning their loved ones who had passed away. The subject of “comfort” is noticeably the leitmotif of this passage of Scripture. Paul admonished them to “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).” Why, then, did the Thessalonians grieve as unbelievers when their loved ones died? What exactly was the Apostle Paul trying to convey to the Thessalonians? It is their misunderstanding concerning the resurrection of believers – both the living and the dead – that Paul is attempting to correct in this passage of the epistle. The Thessalonians had wrongly thought that the resurrection of living believers will precede (“prevent”) those that are “asleep.”

Paul emphasized his understanding of the resurrection in 1 Thessalonians 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.” He reassured the Thessalonians that the dead in Christ will not be left behind in the grave when Christ comes again. Those that “sleep in Jesus” have the confidence of eternal life with the Lord. Paul reiterated his teachings in 1 Thessalonians 5:10, that “whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” It is obvious that the Thessalonians had doubts concerning the resurrection of the dead in Christ. But Paul comforted the young church that whether believers are dead or alive, all will assuredly be with the Lord when He returns again. In fact, “the dead in Christ shall rise first (1 Thess. 4:16b)”; the living Christians will not “prevent” or precede those that are asleep.

Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4:15, D. Michael Martin writes:

“Paul stated emphatically that at the parousia the living “will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” This may indicate that the church feared that the dead would be raised at some time after the parousia and so miss the glories of that day. But it is far from certain that this was the problem in the church. It seems safer to find the emphasis in Paul’s words on his statement of the problem in v. 14 and his climactic statement in v. 17. In these verses the emphasis does not seem to fall on the sequence of the participation of the living and the dead but on the understanding that the dead will in fact participate in the parousia. This need not mean that Paul previously had not taught this in Thessalonica. The problem may well have been the difficulty of appropriating the doctrine of the resurrection into the way that enabled these Gentile believers to manage the trauma of death. Paul wanted to spare believers the sorrow of hopeless loss so common to the pagan world. He did so by reiterating truths in traditional language and applying them to immediate needs.”[3]

While the resurrection of the dead believers and the rapture of living Christians occur in a definite sequence, these events also occur “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:52).”

The Secret Silent Rapture

Is it true that the church will be raptured secretly and quietly? According to Pretribulationists, the Parousia of Christ to rapture the saints will be an invisible event; it is a coming that is concealed from the eyes of unbelievers. 1Thessalonians 4:16 tells us that “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God.” The word “shout” here, according to the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, means “an order, command, spec. [or specially] a stimulating cry, either that by which animals are roused and urged on by man, as horses by charioteers, hounds by hunters, etc., or that by which a signal is given to men, e.g. to rowers by the master of a ship, to soldiers by a commander (with a loud summons, a trumpet call).”[4]

Leon Morris writes,

“I do not doubt that, if he so chose, God could make the voice of the archangel, the shout, and the trumpet audible only to believers. But I very greatly doubt whether that is what Paul is saying.”[5]

The student of the Bible can consult any Greek lexicon available on the market, but he will not encounter a description of this word which even hints at a “silent, inaudible” shout. The “shout of command” given at Christ’s Parousia is inevitably an audible shout. The description by Paul of the “voice of the archangel” and “the trump of God” adds to the conclusion that Christ’s return is not meant to be a secret, silent event. Can Paul’s language be any plainer?

Bible Presbyterian scholars at Far Eastern Bible College should all the more accept the plain, literal meaning of these terms. To believe in a secret, pretribulation rapture is to understand that 1Thessalonians 16 speaks of an inaudible shout, a muffled voice of the archangel, and a trumpet of God that makes no noise. Unless heavenly beings suffer from severe bouts of laryngitis, with the added inconvenience of mechanical malfunctions of the trumpet, how else can we explain the silent “shout,” “voice,” and “trump?”

William Hendricksen observes,

“From all this it becomes abundantly clear that the Lord’s coming will be open, public, not only visible but also audible. There are, indeed, interpreters, who, in view of the fact that the Bible at times employs figurative language, take the position that we can know nothing about these eschatological events. To them these precious paragraphs in which the Holy Spirit reveals the future convey no meaning at all. But this is absurd. Scripture was written to be understood, and when it tells us that the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, with a voice of an archangel and a trumpet of God, it certainly must mean at least this: that in addition to the shouted command of our Lord (which might be compared with John 11:43) . . . a reverberating sound will actually pervade the universe.”[6]

Meeting with the Lord

Pretribulationists characteristically understand 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to mean that during the secret rapture, believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. The believers will subsequently return to heaven with the Lord. “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 (1 Thess. 4:17).”

It is interesting to consider the Greek word apantesis which is translated as “meet” in verse 17. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament comments that “the word ἀπάντησις (also ὑπάντησις, DG) is to be understood as a tech. [or technical] term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors. Similarly, when Christians leave the gates of the world, they will welcome Christ in the ἀήρ, acclaiming Him as κύριος.”[7]

Notice that this meeting (apantesis) is a customary welcome whereby citizens of the city escort the visitors back into the city itself. In this custom, the citizens do not accompany the visitor to his hometown or his country of origin. The same Greek word is used only in two other passages of New Testament Scripture.

In Acts 28:15, the preposition and noun εις απαντησιν are used to denote that the brethren went out “to meet” Paul. Ironically, dispensationalist Stanley D. Toussaint agrees that the noun apantēsin in Acts 28:15 refers to the customary “meeting” of an official or dignitary going into the city. Dr Toussaint writes,

“The Christians at Rome soon heard of Paul’s coming, so they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius (a market town 43 miles from Rome) and the Three Taverns (33 miles from Rome) to meet him and his companions. The noun apantēsin, translated as an infinitive “to meet,” was used in Greek literature of an entourage coming out of a city to meet an official going to the city.”[8]

In the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), the virgins were waiting to meet the bridegroom. They were to return with him to the marriage feast subsequently. Matthew 25:1 and 6 use the same noun apantēsin (απαντησιν). It should be obvious to the reader that the virgins were not planning to return with the bridegroom to where he came from, but back to the marriage feast.

Considering the usage of the Greek word apantesis in the New Testament, “to meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 would mean exactly the opposite of what the Pretribulationists would want it to mean. Believers, during the rapture, would meet the Lord in the air, and subsequently escort Him back to earth. The consistent usage and meaning of the word apantesis in the New Testament would, at the very least, be unsupportive of the pretribulation rapture theory.


[1] Jeffrey Khoo, 1 Thessalonians: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, n.d.), 21. These are printed course notes used in Far Eastern Bible College. Available from http://www.febc.edu.sg/assets/pdfs/studyresource/1%20Thessalonians.pdf; Internet; accessed 08 April 2006.
[2] Jack Sin, “The Judgement Seat of Christ,” The Burning Bush 6, no. 2 (2000): 313-314.
[3] D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians: The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1995), 149.
[4] Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (1996), s.v. “Κέλευσμα.
[5] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991), 145.
[6] William Hendricksen, Exposition of Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, (1955) 2002), 117.
[7] Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 380-381.
[8] Stanley D. Toussaint, “Acts” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 429-430. Dr Toussaint was at that time the Chairman and Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.

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