The Coming of Christ
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 the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.1 Thessalonians 4:16-18
In the previous verses Paul comforts his readers by pointing to the day when the effects of death, the devastating results, and the sorrowful consequences will be removed. We must know what future the dead are heading for with the Lord Jesus Christ. They are on their way to the return of Christ, to the complete victory over death! It is in terms of this anticipated victory that the apostle Paul now depicts Christ’s return. For the Thessalonians the return of a victorious army conjured up a vivid picture in their mind. They would hear the command, and give their full attention! The trumpets would be blown as signal of victory. The whole town would be awakened by them, drawn away from their daily business.
This is how it will be when Christ returns. One of the archangels of God will blow the final trumpet call of God. That will be our sign that our King has returned. It will wake us all up. Yes, indeed, those who have fallen asleep in Christ will also hear the signal. Even though human voices could not reach them anymore, they will hear this signal. They will go the way of the Lord, the way from death to life, the way from the grave to their glorious resurrection. This is the first thing that will happen at the return of the King, before anything else. All the traces of death will be removed! They will arise, and they will go out to meet the victorious King.
The most vivid description of a triumphant entry will not suffice to imagine the reception that our Lord and King will receive. He will come in the greatest glory, riding on the clouds, surrounded by his hosts of angels. We, his people, will go out to Him to share in his glory, also riding on the clouds. The Spirit of Christ will catch us up, together with those who have fallen asleep. No longer will death separate us; no longer will death show in any way. This is what the apostle Paul holds up. Paul is not concerned with some kind of “rapture” of the congregation, which all of a sudden disappears from the earth. Paul doesn’t have some chiliastic or pre-millennial fantasies in mind about a people who run away with their Lord. No, Christ’s people will go out to welcome Him, the way the wise virgins went out at the cry announcing the coming of the bridegroom. A joyous people go out to share in his triumphal entry, then to come back with Him in glorious procession!
As you may be aware, many Christians use this passage as the basis for their expectation of a sudden “rapture” of the believers. Before a seven-year tribulation will be ushered in, the anti-Christ will be revealed, and a thousand-year reign of Christ will be established. Meanwhile, the church must be evacuated to heaven. Years ago, the books of Hal Lindsey, and more recently some novels by Tim LaHay (Left Behind and Tribulation Force) introduce this event in the most vivid description. Besides the most spectacular disappearances of believers from their cars, planes, offices, college halls, or bedrooms to be with Christ and spare them the tribulation, they predict a second chance for those who are left behind to repent and believe and be saved by the Lord. People who have neglected to take the Word seriously the first time around, but now see the evidence of its truth and the dramatic developments, are forced to take faith seriously. What an unscriptural notion that is! As if there will be a time that there will be no church on earth or that Christ won’t be gathering Himself a church till the end. Its fallacy is almost worse and more deceiving than the Roman Catholic theory of purgatory! However, these ideas are nothing new; neither are they fruit of careful exegesis of the Scriptures.
These verses in Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians are a case in point and clearly show how erroneous they are: we will see Christ come from above, descending from heaven. We will meet Him, but not to be caught up, abducted, or evacuated to heaven. No, believers, those who are raised from the dead together with those who are still alive, will go out to meet our victorious Saviour and then return to the earth together! It’s true, the passage doesn’t speak about the raising of the unbelievers; neither does Paul speak about the life that the believers who died in the Lord enjoy already with Christ (even though it is implied in the fact that God will bring them with Jesus, and in the expression that they had fallen asleep in Him). Those unbelievers do come into the picture though, namely in 5:3. Paul writes concerning them that they will not escape. Evidently, Paul is speaking about the last trumpet, of the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead, and of the triumphal entry into eternal glory!
These verses simply don’t include all the details regarding the end of time. Those details are not Paul’s primary concern in the comfort he proclaims to his readers. Paul’s message of comfort isn’t just about a heaven for the souls of those who are Christ’s, but it’s the gospel of the new world, for complete people with body and soul. He proclaims the return of the King, the ruler of life, who gives life perfectly without end! “And so we will be with the Lord forever.” We who are still alive and our loved ones who have passed away, together with all who love Him, will always be with the Lord. What a comfort that gives here and now, when there doesn’t seem to be anything else but that empty place, that nagging feeling of loss, and that constant pain of separation. Death does not have the last say; the grave is not the end! The day is coming, and it will be an everlasting day, in which there won’t be a trace of death! Therefore, encourage each other with these words!