Bent Out Of Shape – 1 Thessalonians 4.17

If you do any kind of formal and academic Christian study, you are going to engage with the topic of eschatology, the study of the end times, or last things. There are going to be arguments about the millennial reign of Chris (Revelation 20), about the stages of bodily resurrection for all who have lived on earth (John 5.25-29), and about something called the rapture. Much debate stems from this verse, wielded like Excalibur by those who hold to a pre-tribulational rapture position:

“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord”. 

(1 Thessalonians 4.17)

I had always been told and taught this position: Jesus returns and kind of hovers in the air, then zaps up believers to Him (suddenly caught up) and then we all head off to heaven to watch as the world destroys itself. Then, when things look like they couldn’t get any worse, we all come back with the Lord and He puts all the wrongs right. Sounds pretty neat, right?

The problem is, that’s not what Paul said here. Paul says that when Jesus returns, believers who have died are raised (1 Thessalonians 4.16), then, we who are alive…Here is where we depart from tradition and the bending of Scripture and stay tight to the text.

Paul’s language, his choice of words, tells us a lot here. He says that we meet Jesus like a returning general, a returning King. This is how Romans, this is how the Thessalonians, this is how the people of the day, would describe the arrival of the Emperor to their city. 

Paul doesn’t write that we meet Jesus in the air and disappear with Him, it’s more of a meet and greet.

Jesus returns, personally and bodily from heaven. If 1 Thessalonians 4.17 is often bent out of shape to try and give believers comfort and encouragement, need we look further than this: Jesus returns, personally and bodily from heaven.

Paul here borrows images and uses language—from OT and the culture and politics of the day —to enhance his encouragement and the understanding of his readers. He is writing in a way he knows they will understand!

Paul gets a bit political now, and he chooses and uses very clever imagery given the culture to which he was writing. Thessalonica was under Roman rule, so the the language of an emperor visiting would have been instantly understood. We read 

“…to meet the Lord in the air.”

Now, in our English Bibles there’s nothing special about that is there?

“…to meet the Lord in the air.”

But, to the Thessalonians, this word, meet (ἀπάντησις) used in this way meant something very specific!

When the emperor visited a colony or province, when the ruler visited a place under his rule, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful for the Emperor or ruler to arrive at the gates of the city unescorted, as though nobody could be bothered to go and meet and greet him properly. When the people under his rule met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country together, or go back to where the Emperor had come from, they would escort him royally into the city itself where he would take up rule. 

When Paul writes of “meeting’ the Lord in the air”, the point is precisely not—as tradition might teach—that raised and alive believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, maybe return to heaven for a little while…The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, raised and alive believers will escort him royally into his Kingdom, on earth as in heaven…

Think about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the donkey – as rulers who came in peace did – on what we now call Palm Sunday: people led Jesus into town, didn’t they? They were singing Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…they didn’t meet and greet the Lord and say “Great, now let’s turn around and come back to where you’ve come from, Lord…let’s go away together for a while…

Paul writes that believers are

“…to meet the Lord in the air.”

and this should make us think the same. 1 Thessalonians 4.17 is a hugely encouraging verse, but not in the way often taught. 

The reality to which it refers is this: 

Jesus will return personally, those who died as believers will be raised, and the living Christians on earth when He does will be caught up, quickly, suddenly transformed, and will suddenly be together with [the resurrected believers] in the clouds to meet, greet, the Lord in the air, and escort Him to His kingdom on earth as in heaven. 

Take encouragement from that today!


 

For a deeper dive into the language of 1 Thessalonians 4.17, listen in here:

To hear this passage preached, listen in here:

Published by James Travis

Pastor of Saar Fellowship in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Married to Robyn and Dad to our two boys.

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