Jesus is Coming for the Saints
There is great hope in the return of Jesus Christ. Are you ready? Join Dr. Marty Baker as we take a look at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 a dive into the doctrine and the implications of the second coming of Christ.
The Scriptures are clear that believers should eagerly await the arrival of Jesus. Paul’s words in Titus chapter 2 are illustrative of this premise:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; 14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. 15 These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you (Titus 2).
At His glorious, jaw-dropping ascension on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:10ff), the angels promised that would day Jesus would return to earth. This truth should, according to Paul, be met with a constant eagerness on the part of believers because His arrival will mark the definitive judgment of sin and sinners, the return of earth to its Edenic state (Rom. 8), the establishment of His Davidic empire of peace, true justice, and righteousness (Isa. 9:1-6), to name a few exciting concepts.
Are you excited about the Lord’s imminent arrival? Do you think about it quite often? Do you talk about it with other believers? Do you love to dig into the prophetic portions of the Word of God to understand God’s program more deeply? Do you look at the clouds as they pass by your window while you’re on a plane and contemplate what the day of His arrival will be like? Do you see God rays bursting through dark, ominous clouds and instantly see a correlation between this sight and His prophesied glorious coming?
I do. And the older I get, the more I find myself thinking about this eschatological truth.
In the meantime, what are we supposed to do? Paul’s words in Titus tell us. While we are getting pumped up for Christ’s soon appearance, we should also remember to work daily to drop sinful activity and pick up godly activity. How are you faring? Are you making appreciable spiritual gains? You should because none of us know the moment the Lord will appear, and we will have to give Him account for the level of devotion and discipline (1 Cor. 3:10ff; 2 Cor. 5:10).
Paul’s words about our blessed hope, or the return of Jesus, remind us of our responsibility to move from spiritual immaturity to maturity. His well-chosen words also remind us that we have a question that needs answering: Will Christ’s coming for His saints deliver us from His prophesied worldwide wrath against the wicked and Anti-christ (Isa. 24-27; Dan. 7:15-28; 11:36-12:3; Joel 3:1-17), or will we endure the seven-year Tribulation as prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 9:24-27) and live to see the Lord’s glorious revelation at the end of this period?
No text better answers that question than 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. That answer based on the context (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11) is clear:
Jesus Is Coming For Saints Before He Comes In Judgment (1 Thess. 4:13-18)
Several contextual lines of evidence validate this theological statement:
There Are Positions
Prophecy covers a large portion of the Bible; hence, it is not shocking that this plethora of evidence given to us by the Spirit over thousands of years is met with lively discussion, debate, and divergence. While I do not intend to do a comparative study between the significant views of the Lord’s arrival, replete with their strength and weaknesses, permit me to introduce you to them quickly.
The post-tribulational view states that the church will go through the Tribulation, be raptured at the end, and return immediately with Christ. According to this view, the Rapture and the Second Coming are one in the same event. This argument is developed based on Christ’s teaching in Matthew 24, where it appears he says the Rapture is preceded by clear signs (Matt. 24:29). The doctrine of imminency, which we discussed in our previous study, poses a real problem for this particular position. Also, the chart we discussed previously shows the inherent weaknesses of this position because the Rapture and the Second Coming are quite different events.
Dr. Norman Geisler’s contrastive chart is most illuminating:
|Meeting them in the air (1 Thess. 4:17)||Taking them to the earth (Zech. 14:4; Acts 1:11)|
|Taking believers to heaven (John 14:3)||Bringing believers back to earth (Rev. 19:14)|
|Coming for His saints (2 Thess. 2:1)||Coming with His saints (Jude 14)|
|Only believers see Him (1 Thess. 4:17)||All people see Him (Rev. 1:7)|
|No signs precede it (1 Thess. 5:1-3)||Many signs precede it (Matt. 24:3-30)|
|The Tribulation begins (2 Thess. 1:6-9)||The Millennium begins (Rev. 20:1-7)|
The mid-tribulational view says that the Church is raptured in the middle of the Tribulation, will remain in heaven for 3 ½ years, and then return with Jesus in the Second Coming. This view attempts to address the verses which speak about signs which must occur before the Lord’s arrival (i.e., 2 Thess. 2:3-4). Signs like this reference what happens during the Tribulation, not what has to occur before the Tribulation. Again, the doctrine of imminency poses thorny issues to this eschatological position. Proponents of this position also argue that based on Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 that the Church will not experience God’s wrath, this must mean they don’t experience the wrath which will be poured out in the last half the Tribulation. Scripture, on the contrary, especially Revelation chapters 6 through 9, which occur in the first half of the Tribulation, certainly qualifies as God’s divine wrath. Daniel’s 70th week is a time of divine judgment from beginning to end.
The pretribulation view teaches the Church is raptured before the Tribulation, then remains in heaven for seven years, and finally returns in the Second Coming with Christ as denoted in Revelation 19. I am convinced this view best weaves together and represents the prophetic evidence the Lord has given us in the Holy Scriptures. I gave you some of my reasons for holding to this position in our last study, and more will be developed as we dig into what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Before we commence that study, it would be helpful to remind ourselves of the flow of prophecy as it pertains to God’s program. A chart will assist us. Moving from the various positions regarding the Lord’s coming, let us turn and consider what Paul teaches.
There Is A Problem (1 Thess. 4:13)
First, lets read the text:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
Apparently, the Thessalonians believers were concerned about saved loved ones who had died and whether this reality put them at a disadvantage concerning the Lord’s return. Paul puts their fears to rest in this enlightening, though highly intriguing passage. As a sidenote, I must say if Paul had taught the Thessalonians that believers would experience the Tribulation, then why are they worried about deceased loved ones missing the supposed arrival of Jesus at the end of the Tribulation? You would think they would have been comforted by these saints’ death and would be spared the future time of divine wrath against the wicked. The point Paul makes here implies that the saints were not taught that believers will endure the Tribulation but will be delivered from it.
On the contrary, Paul wants these saints to know what happens to those saints who “are asleep,” which is just a euphemism for death. When the Lord comes, they will not be forgotten or left out. They will not be in a disadvantaged state but will be, as we shall see, an integral part of Christ’s eschatological plan. Hence, Paul says there shouldn’t be any grief or worry about saints who have died before the Lord’s glorious and awesome arrival. They will be there. This is why Paul reminds saints that they have hope the wicked world does not have. For the world, they have a birth-day and death-day; in between, they live for themselves with no thought of the future beyond this life. On the other hand, the saint has a great, enduring hope when they stand next to the grave of a deceased loved one who loved Jesus. Why? They know they will see this saint again when the King of Kings arrives to resurrect them and translate us into His spectacular presence.
As a side note, Paul isn’t speaking here about the concept of soul sleep, or the viewpoint that the believer’s soul sleeps in an intermediate, unconscious state until the day of the resurrection. Numerous Scriptures attest to the fact that when we die, we are immediately with the Lord in some disembodied form that resembles us, but it is not the final resurrected body:
6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord-- 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight-- 8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5). What could be clearer? And what about Christ’s word to the repentant thief on the cross?
43 And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke. 23:43).
There is no room for soul sleep here. Moses and Elijah also appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, and they looked like themselves (Matt. 17:3). Again, there was no soul sleep here. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, for those who believe the gospel, then it is true that Jesus will make sure the believing dead will miss out on His arrival. And what is the gospel?
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor. 15).
Key here are the verbs: Jesus died for our sins, Jesus was buried, Jesus was raised on the third day, and Jesus appeared to many to prove He had defeated sin and death. When you, as a sinner, believe these truths to be true for you, you pass from spiritual death to life (Rom. 10:9). Additionally, whether you are dead or alive in the future, you will also experience the wonder and grandeur of Christ’s Rapture of His Church before the Tribulation.
Paul opens this concept up more in the ensuing verses:
There Is A Provision (1 Thess. 4:15)
The provision Paul started to develop in verse 14 is now showcased in the next verse:
15 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, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Paul’s opening statement here informs us these are not his words but the Lord’s words, His divine teaching as given to him. Far from being disadvantaged on resurrection day for saints, the dead in Christ will strategically rise to heaven first when Jesus appears, preceding those saints alive at the time. How will this occur if a saint was cremated? Jesus will reconstruct him instantaneously.
How will it occur if the saint was buried at sea like Liz’s father was by the U.S. Navy? Jesus will reconstruct him instantaneously. Nothing can thwart the Lord from giving all of His saints the resurrected bodies He promised them in heaven: not decay, not fire, not radiation, not time, or anything else. When the Lord comes for His saints, not one of them will miss out on His coming to resurrect and glorify their bodies and fit them for the wonders of heaven. And when He comes, the dead in Christ will rise first. This is some comforting teaching for those who wrongly supposed that deceased believers would somehow miss out on Christ’s appearance. As you might suppose of any event the Lord is responsible for . . .
There Is A Process (1 Thess. 4:16-17)
Again, let’s read the text and then reevaluate and offer some observations:
16 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 shall rise first.
17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.
The opening words, “for the Lord Himself,” underscores how emphatically personal the Lord’s return for the Church will be. He will personally be the one who causes it to occur. It will not be the job of an eager angel or two, but it will be His personal mission. He said He would do this, and here we see He holds true to His promise (John 14:1-6). How His coming unfolds is most instructive.
First, Jesus descends with a shout. This shout probably originates with Him. When He called Lazarus from the grave, He probably gave us a taste of the Rapture. Could it be all saints will individually hear their names? With God it is possible. Could He exclaim, “It’s time to come home?” Sure. We don’t know what He will say, only that He shouts something that gets our immediate attention, whether in heaven or on earth.
Second, a verbal statement from an unnamed archangel follows the divine shout. What is an archangel? We know angels are divided into ranks like a military. Michael is an archangel, meaning he ranks highly above other lesser angels. We see him in Revelation 12:7 leading God’s angelic forces to fight and kick the Devil out of the throne room of God, where he has wreaked havoc for millennia (Job 1). He might be a General, from our perspective, however, he is not the only one. We learn this much from Daniel 10:13, where he is classified as “one of the chief princes.” Since Michael biblically is pictured as the mighty angel assigned to Israel, it is possible he might be the one who gives the angelic shout at the Rapture because the time of Jacob’s trouble is about to commence. In the final analysis, however, we have no idea which angel gets the privilege of summoning the Church. Don’t you know this particular angel has looked forward to this moment for thousands of years? Indeed.
Third, a trumpet blast immediately follows the archangel’s booming voice. God prescribed silver trumpets in the OT to either call the Israelites to assembly or to gather them for a march across the desert sands of Sinai ((Num. 10:1-5). A ram’s horn, or a shophar, was used to call Israel’s troops to battle (Josh. 6:16-20; Jud. 3:27) and also to commemorate the extraordinary Year of Jubilee when every 50th-year debts were forgiven among Israelites, resulting in the society being rebooted to live anew (Lev. 25:9ff). Interestingly enough, a shophar horn was what God used when He descended on Mount Sinai to give the Israelites the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19:16ff). Could it be that this divine shophar will be used again? Most likely, and when it was played back then, everyone heard it as it slowly increased in volume (Ex. 19:19). If you are hard of hearing believer or if you are deaf, you are not going to miss the sound of this particular trumpet. It will arrest your attention completely.
Will non-Christians hear it? Good question. Thinking minds want to know, right? Remember when Paul encountered the glory of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians? His traveling partners heard Christ’s voice, but they couldn’t see Him (Acts 9:7. In Acts 22:9, Paul adds this, “9 And those who were with me beheld the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me (Acts 22). These men knew something profound was occurring, but God didn’t permit them to experience it fully but to only sense it to a limited degree. I think the grand event of the Rapture, which will trigger the Tribulation and the divine judgment of God Almighty, will be sensed by the lost to a degree. After all, when we are all gone, they will have to explain our instant disappearance, and perhaps their perception that something unusual happened globally will give them talking points.
Now, back to Paul’s discussion about the Rapture.
In verse 16, he says (again) that the dead in Christ will rise first into the heavens to meet Jesus. Ostensibly, this means their disembodied state in heaven will hear God’s voice, the archangel’s voice, and the trumpet, and they will immediately be transported from the dimension of heaven to the dimension of earth where they will reunite with their divinely reassembld, and now glorified, body. Wow. Can you imagine what this moment will be like in heaven when the Church saints vanish? Amazing.
The Lord honors deceased believers by giving them their resurrected bodies first and by causing them to rise, like He did in His ascension, from the earth. Shocking. Your resurrected body will be able to defy this planet’s laws and dimensionality. The statement, Up, up, and away, will take on new meaning. All of this also gives you a taste of the heavenly city where our homes are built on multiple levels inside a perfect cube which is 1,600 miles in each direction, according to John in Revelation 21. Moving up and down will not require elevators. No, with the new resurrected body, you can just fly and drop by a friend’s home for a quick visit.
Next up, the saints of the Church who are alive at the moment will not taste death but will instantly and immediately be given resurrected bodies fitted and suited for the grandeur of heaven. They, too, will fly up to meet Jesus in the clouds. The key here is the phrase “caught up.” The Greek word is harpazo (ἁρπάζω). According to Danker’s Greek lexicon, here is what it lexically denotes:
ἁρπάζω [etym. complex] ‘take away by seizure’, take away, seize – a. living entity J 6:15; 10:12, 28f; Ac 8:39; 23:10; 2 Cor 12:2, 4; 1 Th 4:17; Jd 23; Rv 12:5. – b. thing take, seize Mt 12:29; 13:19.
The Latin for harpazo is rapturo, from which we get our word rapture, but the Greek most intensively speaks of a divine seizure of His precious property, the Church.
The passive nature of the verb tells us the subject, viz., the Christian, is acted upon by an outside force or person. This underscores the fact that we are caught up in the Lord’s doing, not ours, and when He comes to seize us, we cannot stop this, nor would we even think of this. Think of a father in the 1900s in the Midwest who grabbed a son and ran with him to an underground shelter to keep them safe from a tornado, and you have the emphasis of the Rapture in mind. The Lord will seize us to keep us from harm’s way. Imagine, this will be the first time in history that the entire global and historical Church will be together for the first time, and we will be floating in the air among the magnificent clouds beholding the face of our dear Savior. What a day that will be.
Paul doesn’t tell us what happens after this, but we know from what Jesus said in John 14:1-6 that when He is finished constructing our heavenly homes, He will come for us. So, the implication is that at the Rapture, we head home, not to the Earth.
As a side note, meeting Jesus in the air is exciting. According to Ephesians 2:1-2, the Devil is the Prince and Power of the air. It is his domain. How fitting that we are floating in the Rapture on Satan’s turf. Talk about a bold move on the Lord’s part. Jesus is telling the Devil once again, “You lose, Satan. You couldn’t stop my arrival for my Church, and you certainly will not be able to stop my judgment which is now coming (Rev. 6-19).”
What is most comforting to saints concerning this Rapture? We will forever be with the Lord. We will have an eternal, intimate, personal relationship with Him, and nothing will ever thwart this truth.
How quick will the Rapture be? Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians:
49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. 50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 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. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15).
The last trump by no means there will be no more divine trumpets. We find seven divine trumpets in the book of Revelation that will direct divine judgment against the lost (Rev. 8-11). The final trumpet Paul speaks about is the one which calls the Church home before the time of divine wrath.
When that divine trumpet plays, we will instantly trade earthly flesh for heavenly flesh. It will occur, as Paul says, in the “twinkling of an eye.” How fast does your eye blink? You blink 15 to 20 times per minute; each blink is 1/10 of a second. The clock tick is one second, so 1 1/10 of a second is really fast. One moment you are on the earth, and the next, you are in a resurrected body flying upward to meet Jesus face to face. One moment you live here on earth, and the next, you ascend toward Jesus with a new body as the earth retreats into the background below your feet. You say you have acrophobia, which is an intense fear of heights. Say your fear has kept you off of ladders, and never in a million years would you think of parachuting out of a perfectly good aircraft, and you certainly wouldn’t go rock climbing without a rope, nor step onto a Ferris Wheel. On this grand day, the Lord will take your acrophobia from you as you fly upwards with no fear, only joy.
Imagine, on this day, you and I will be floating among those billowy white clouds we’ve only ever witnessed from the ground or in a jet. Who can even begin to describe the joy we will have? Oh, what a day that will be. Will you be there? Those who’ve trusted Christ as their Savior and Lord will enjoy this moment to the fullest. I trust you will be with us because you made the right decision about Jesus.
How do I know this Rapture occurs before the Tribulation? I gave you many reasons in our last study, but permit me to remind you of the one we mentioned earlier. Remember what Paul said at the beginning of this letter:
10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1).
“The wrath” specifically and biblically speaks of God’s worldwide wrath as foretold in the prophets (Zeph. 1:14-18). Paul reminds us that we will be delivered from this wrath. Concerning this word, I previously wrote:
The verb delivers, is from rhuomia ( ῥύσομαι), which connotes saving someone from acute peril and danger. Note: It does not denote keeping someone safe in or through a perilous, life-threatening situation. This is our first clue concerning identifying the Lord’s return mentioned here.
Hence, right before the Lord unleashes His prophesied wrath (Isa. 24-27; Rev. 6-19), He will pull His Church out so He can deal with the godless and finish His program with Israel. Remember, since Daniel’s first 69 prophetic weeks or 483 years dealt with Israel, it is logical to conclude that the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7) in that last prophetic week of seven years will be focused on Israel with great intensity. For this to occur, the Church will need to be removed, and it will be. How glorious will be this resurrection day? Quite glorious.
All of this excellent teaching moves Paul to make a final point:
There Is A Practicum (1 Thess. 4:18)
Yes, the study of prophecy is always practical. It always profoundly touches our lives, and this section of prophetic Scripture is no exception:
18 Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thess. 4).
Why should these words comfort you right now and into the future?
- Righteousness will trump unrighteousness.
- Death and disease will be replaced by perfection.
- Sorrow will be silenced by inexpressible joy.
- God’s indescribable dimension will replace this limited dimension.
- Our old, decaying bodies will be replaced with new, robust bodies.
- Our walk by faith will be replaced by a walk by sight as we see Jesus with our own eyes anytime we desire!
So, be comforted, you who are weary, worried, and worn out. King Jesus is a ‘comin, and He’s a ‘coming soon and very soon.
 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Church, Last Things, Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005), 623.