A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:17a. (iii) The Rapture: We who are still alive… will be caught up together with them
When I was a new convert, I used to imagine that ‘the Rapture’ referred to that moment when, seeing Christ fact to face, we would be ‘enraptured’ with his presence, in other words overwhelmed with ecstatic joy. And we do indeed use the work in this sense in some of our hymns:
Oh then what raptured greetings
On Canaan’s happy shore!
What knitting severed friendships up
Where partings are no more!
(Henry Alford, Ten thousand times ten thousand)
Great things he hat taught us, great things he hath done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer and higher and greater will be
Our rapture, our transport, when Jesus we see.
Fanny J. Crosby, To God be the glory)
Father of Jesus, love’s reward,
What rapture will it be,
Prostrate before thy throne to lie,
And gaze and gaze on thee.
(Frederick Willian Faber, My God how wonderful thou art)
In our text the meaing is different, however. The English word ‘rapture’ is derived from the Latin rapere, meaning to seize. It corresponds to the Greek verb harpanzo, which Paul uses here, and which expresses suddenness and violence, as when the centurion ordered his troops to take Paul by force in order to rescue him from possible lynching. (Acts 23:10) Just so those still alive at the Parousia will be ‘swept up’ (JBP) or ‘snatched up’ (Best, pp. 180, 197-199) together with them in th clouds. The parallel between versus 15b and verses 17 is impressive. According to verses 15b ‘we who are still alive, sho are left…’ will not precede the Christian dead. According to verse 17 ‘we who are still alive and are left’ will be caught up together with them. The negative and positive statements dovetail. So far from forestalling them, we shall join them. The purpose of this violent action (whose agency is not identified) will be not only to unite the Christian living with the Christian dead (together with them), but also to unite them with Christ (to meet the Lord). Once more Paul’s concern is revealed, namely that the living, the dead and the Lord will be together. The truth that the redeemed with meet the Lord is expressed by another technical term (apantesis). ‘When a gifnitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis.’ (Bruce, p. 102)
Many details of this heavenly ‘meeting’ are omitted. For example, there is no reference in verse 17 to the Christian living being ‘changed’ (as in 1 Cor. 15:51-52), any more than there was in verse 14 to the Christian dead being ‘raised’. Both are assumed. Further, it is not clear how literally we are to understand our being caught up…in the clouds. We know from Jesus himself that his coming will be personal, visible and glorious, but we also know from him that it will not be local (‘There he is!’ ‘Here he is!’) but universal (‘like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other’) (Lk. 17:23-24). Presumably, therefore, our going to meet him will also transcend space. As for the ‘the clouds’, they are to every Bible reader a familiar and easily recognized symbol of the immediate presence of God – a the Exodus(Ex. 13:21; 14:19), on Mount Sinai(Ex. 19:16; 24:15), filling the tabernacle(Ex. 40:34-35), during the wilderness wanderings(Ex. 40:36-38), at the transfiguration of Jesus(Mk. 9:7), at his ascension(Acts 1:9), and at his glorious appearing (Dn. 7:13; Mk. 13:26; 14:62; Rev. 1:7). The reference to ‘the air’ may be equally symbolic, for it was thought of as the dwelling-place of the devil and his demons (Cf.Eph. 2:2). ‘The fact that the Lord chooses to meet his saints there, on the demons’ home ground so to speak, shows something of his complete mastery over them’(Morris, NICNT, p.146)
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:17b. (iv) The Reunion: And wo we will be with the Lord forever.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.