The Comfort of His Coming: An Exposition of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10
Note: This essay is an excerpt from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate. In essence, it is a defense of the eschatology of the classic Reformation, according to which Christ will return once at the end of the age, to raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth. Here I argue that 1 Thessalonians 4-5 richly supports the traditional point of view, while posing insuperable problems for the Dispensational view with which we are so familiar. Your questions and comments are more than welcome.
Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians contain some of the New Testament’s richest veins of eschatological gold. Written from Corinth around AD 50-51, they reveal that the apostle’s early ministry to European Gentiles was charged with a lively expectation of Christ’s soon return (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:11-13; cf. Acts 17:16ff; 1 Cor. 15).
They also reveal a problem: Paul’s Jewish opponents had forced him quickly to flee Thessalonica, with the result that some of his converts were left confused (or ignorant) about his teaching on the afterlife and the Consummation (Acts 17:1-9). These two letters feature Paul’s painstaking efforts to clear up every such misunderstanding. As a result, they speak often and in great detail about the Last Things: the signs of Christ’s Parousia, the nature and purpose of the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Judgment, and the World to Come (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 5:1-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12, 2:1-13). They are a vast treasure-trove of eschatological truth!
In the pages ahead, we’ll be looking at three major texts from the Thessalonian letters. We begin here with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of three NT passages upon which our Dispensational brethren base their doctrine of a pretribulation Rapture (cf., John 14:1-3, 1 Cor. 15:50f). Accordingly, my approach in this section will be two-fold. First, I will offer a straightforward exegesis of the text itself, showing that it both presupposes and richly undergirds the traditional Reformation eschatology. And secondly, I will discuss the Dispensational interpretation, seeking to address all its main arguments for a secret, pretribulation Rapture.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Our text begins in verse 13, where Paul states his purpose for the remarks to follow. In essence, it is to give hope to Christians whose (believing) loved ones have recently “fallen asleep,” who have died. He knows that some them are troubled about this. Perhaps, they fear that their departed loved ones will not be included in Christ’s Kingdom when he comes again. Certainly they fear they will never see them again. Therefore, Paul writes to instruct them afresh in the truth, so that they will no longer grieve as unbelievers do, but awaken to a lively hope of being reunited with their Christian family and friends—soon!
In verse 14, Paul succinctly states the healing truth; then, in the verses that follow, he carefully explains it. In essence, it is this: “When Jesus comes again, he will bring your departed loved one(s) with him, and back to you!” Observe how Paul, in declaring this truth, builds on the Thessalonian’s pre-existing faith: They already believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead. But if they can believe that, surely it is no great stretch to believe that he can raise a departed loved one as well. And, says Paul, that is exactly what he has promised to do: At the Parousia, God will bring with Christ the souls of all who have fallen asleep in Jesus, so that they, just like their Lord, may rise from the dead, and then be reunited with the saints who are still living upon the earth at that time.
Importantly, Paul has already touched on this subject in 3:11-13, where he prayed that God would establish the Thessalonian’s hearts “ . . . unblameable in holiness before our God and Father at the Parousia of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” Note the comprehensiveness of that final phrase: When he comes again, Christ will empty heaven, bringing all the holy angels, and all the spirits of all the departed saints whom he has redemptively separated to himself. Thus will he set the stage for the cosmic history’s most Momentous Event!
In verses 15-17, the apostle now delves deeply into the Consummation, supplying a detailed description of that portion of it that bears uppermost in the mind of his flock: the reunion of the departed saints with the living saints. As we shall see in a moment, in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 he goes on to complete the picture, showing that throughout the entire discussion he does indeed have in mind, not a secret Rapture, but the Consummation of all things at the one Parousia of Christ.
In verse 15, Paul begins by declaring that the instruction he is about give is “the word of the Lord.” That is, it comes, at least in part, from the earthly teaching ministry of Christ himself (Matthew 13:37-43, 24:29-31, etc.). Possibly, it also includes some new, “mysterious” truth, vouchsafed to his apostle by special revelation (1 Corinthians 15:51f). In any case, the Thessalonians can trust what he is about to say implicitly, for it is God’s very own word.
Next, he affirms that “ . . . we who are alive and remain until the Parousia of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” As the subsequent verses make clear, he means here that the living saints will not precede those who have died in receiving their glorified bodies. In other words, there is a definite sequence in the glorification of the Church. First, Christ will join the souls of the departed saints to their new, resurrected, and glorified bodies; then, and only then, will he transform and glorify the bodies of the living saints. A little later in his teaching ministry, Paul will say much the same to the Corinthians: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we (who are alive and remain) shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).
Observe carefully that all this happens at “the Parousia of the Lord” (15). There is only one of them. And according to every other Pauline text touching on this event, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ secretly removing his Church to heaven for seven years; rather, it has everything to do with his raising (all) the dead, judging the world in righteousness, and bringing in the completed Kingdom of God (Romans 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 50-58; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12, 2:1-12 cf; 2 Peter 3:1-13). More on this in a moment.
In verses 16-17—which closely parallel his Master’s own descriptions of the Consummation (Matthew 13:37-43, 24:29-31)—Paul now elaborates on what he has just said about the sequence of events surrounding the Parousia. He begins with this: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven.” The view of the Dispensationalists notwithstanding, I would argue, on the strength of the Pauline texts just cited above, that this is Christ’s definitive descent to the earth; the descent that results in the final glorification of the cosmos; the descent that therefore effectively joins heaven and earth, bringing Christ and the Church, once and for all, to their eternal home (Revelation 21:1f).
When the Lord thus descends, it will be with three great sounds: A shout (or cry of command), the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. I take it that the shout emanates from the lips of Christ himself. If it is indeed a shout, it is a shout of (final) victory (Numbers 23:21; Joshua 6:5; Psalm 47:5; Isaiah 42:13; Jeremiah 25:30; 1 Corinthians 15:54). If, as seems more likely, it is a cry of command, it is the voice of Christ summoning the dead from their graves (John 5:25, 11:43), and/or sending the holy angels to their work (Mark 13:27). Perhaps it is both.
As for the archangel (Jude 9), by definition he is a ruler over the other angels. Therefore, his presence on the scene appears to connote the presence of all the holy angels (Matthew 25:31); and when he raises his voice, it is likely for the purpose of sending those angels to their great work of judicial and redemptive ingathering (Matthew 13:41, 24:31; Revelation 14:18).
Finally, there is the trumpet of God, whose blast signals the final destruction of the evil world-system (Joshua 6:15-21), but also the summoning of God’s people to their full, New Covenant inheritance; to their enjoyment of eternal life in the glorious “holy mountain” that is the new heavens and the new earth (Exodus 19:1ff; Matthew 24:31). This line of interpretation accords well with the apostle’s word in 1 Corinthians 15:52: The trumpet that will raise the dead is the last trumpet, the trumpet that will consummate the purposes of God and bring in the World to Come.
Considering the character of these two verses, it is marvelous indeed that anyone could find here a “secret” eschatological event, devolving exclusively upon the saints, who alone see and hear it! Quite to the contrary, the data cry out, over and again, that this is a hugely public event, precisely because it devolves, not simply upon the Church, but upon the whole created cosmos. Just as every eye will see, so too every ear will hear: Christ’s shout, the archangel’s voice, and the final blast of the trumpet of God (Matthew 26:64; John 5:28; Philemon 2:9-11; Revelation 1:7).
In verse 16b, Paul reiterates the basic message of verse 15: When the Lord returns, the dead in Christ will rise first. Then, in verse 17, he explains what will happen after that, so that the reunion of separated loved ones may be accomplished once and for all. To understand his thought here, we must read our text with 1 Corinthians 15:50ff in mind. When we do, a very clear picture emerges: Immediately following the resurrection of the dead, the living saints—“we who are alive and remain”—will be changed, glorified (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Then the entire company “ . . . will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The Greek for “caught up” (arpazo) is perhaps best translated to seize. It connotes taking (or being taken) suddenly and with great force, whether urgently to obtain (Matthew 11:12, NIV), maliciously to abduct (Matthew 13:19; John 6:15, 10:12), or benevolently to help or rescue (Acts 8:39; 2 Corinthians 12:2; Jude 23). Here, it is used in the latter sense, since the Lord, with great zeal, and with power to match, swiftly gathers his Bride to himself, even as he rescues her from fiery judgment falling on the earth below (2 Peter 3:8-13).
How exactly will Christ catch up his Church? As we have seen, it will be at the hands of the holy angels (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27; Revelation 14:14-16). Carrying the saints into (and through?) the spiritual “clouds” by which God and Christ will visibly manifest their presence, power, and glory, they will bring them to meet the Lord in the air (Luke 9:34; Acts 1:9). This last detail is important, signaling as it does that when Christ comes again he will draw very near to the earth, which, according to Scripture, is the center of the cosmos, the apple of God’s eye, and the home of Christ himself in the eternal World to Come (Matthew 17:5, 24:30; Luke 9:34-5, 21:27; Revelation 21:1f).
Observe carefully that Paul says nothing at all about the Lord removing his Church to heaven. The apostle leaves her—and us—in the air. What, then, will happen after this happy reunion? Here, Paul does not say. However, what he does say suggests an interpretation far superior to the Dispensational. It is this: “And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” Note the finality—the ultimacy—of that phrase. When the Lord returns, we shall always be together: together with him, and together with one other! Thus, the wording strongly suggests that Paul has in mind the ultimate goal of Salvation History: Life together, with Christ, in the new heavens and the new earth. Admittedly, he makes no explicit mention of this, of where the saints will ever be with the Lord. But that is simply because his present focus is elsewhere, upon the reunion of separated loved ones at the Parousia. We have already seen, however, that in other eschatological texts Paul unfailingly associates the Resurrection with the final renewal of all creation (Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3:20-21). So then, Paul’s thought here is that a glorious reunion awaits all the saints; and after that, a glorious life together in the World to Come! In every generation, let the saints comfort one another with these astonishing words of promise (18)!
I Thessalonians 5:1-10
This brings us to the second part of our text, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10. Here, it is helpful to remember that the Greek NT does not contain chapters or verses. There is no new chapter, and—in the broadest sense—there is no new theme. Paul is still dealing with the Parousia and the Consummation.
Here, however, he does turn to another facet of the Consummation, and in so doing from comfort to exhortation. For now, having given the Thessalonians a tiny glimpse of the joys of eternal life together in the World to Come (17), he desires to prepare them for yet another element of the Consummation, through which they must safely pass if they hope to enter that world: the Judgment. It too will occur at the Parousia, for in that Day Christ will not only raise the dead, transform the living, and catch up his glorified Bride into the sky above the earth, but he will also judge the whole world in righteousness. As ever, Paul has a single, unified Consummation in view.
He opens by saying, “Now as to the times and the seasons, brethren . . . “ (5:1). Here, a question immediately arises: The times and seasons of what? The answer is obvious: the times and seasons of the Parousia he has just been speaking of. Now, however, he refers to it as “The Day of the Lord” (5:2, 4). Why so? Because now his focus is upon judgment and retribution, themes that appear prominently in all the Day of the LORD passages found in the OT (e.g., Isaiah 2; Joel 2; Amos 5; Zephaniah 1; Malachi 1). More particularly, his focus is upon what the Lord Jesus will do at his Parousia and immediately after the general Resurrection: He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31).
To read the rest of the text is to understand the reasons for Paul’s lengthy exhortation. When the Lord returns, he will come as a thief in the night (v. 2). At that time, he will wreak sudden destruction upon a world-system completely unprepared for his Coming; a world deluded, it would appear, by the false assurances of the Antichrist (v. 3, 2 Thessalonians 2). What will this destruction look like? Here, Paul does not say, though other NT texts tell us that it will be with fire, and that it will involve the holy angels catching up the (resurrected or transformed) wicked: first, it would appear, to the Judgment Seat of Christ (in the air), and ultimately to Gehenna, or the Lake of Fire, where they will endure eternal punishment (Matthew 13:37-43; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Peter 3; Revelation 20:11:15f).
But it will not be so with the saints. They are not in darkness: neither in intellectual darkness about the times, seasons, and events of the Consummation, nor in the moral darkness for which the world-system will then be destroyed (4-5). However, in order to escape the Judgment, they must maintain all due diligence (Matthew 24:32-25:30). They must remain spiritually alert and sober. They must walk as good soldiers of Christ. They must clothe themselves with the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, they must put on the hope (i.e., assurance) of salvation (vv. 6-8).
Happily, they are well able to do so, since the sovereign God has not destined them for the outpouring of his wrath that will occur on the Day of the Lord Jesus (v. 2; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12, 2:1-12). Rather, he has destined them for full and final salvation, which Christ will bestow upon his own when he comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Philippians 3:20-21, etc.).
Observe, in verse 10, how Paul concludes this section by reverting to the theme with which he opened his mediation in 4:13-18. The Lord has died for us, so that whether we are awake (i.e., alive on earth), or asleep (i.e., living in heaven as a departed spirit), we can live: together with him now, and together with each other in the World that he will create for us when he comes again! Our text is indeed a unit, exploring different facets of the one Consummation to occur at the Parousia of the Lord.
The Dispensational Interpretation
I have argued that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10 not only accommodates, but positively teaches, a single Consummation set to occur at the Parousia. Our Dispensational brethren disagree. John MacArthur writes, “This passage, along with John 14:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, forms the biblical basis for the ‘Rapture’ of the Church, which takes place when Jesus comes to collect his redeemed and take them back to heaven.” In commenting further, MacArthur argues that the Rapture will occur seven years prior to the Day of the Lord; that the Day of the Lord is exclusively a Day of Judgment upon the unbelieving world; and that it (i.e., the Day of the Lord) “falls into two parts,” the first occurring throughout—but especially at the end of—the Great Tribulation, and the second at the end of the Millennium.
Needless to say, this interpretation is controversial. As MacArthur himself would freely admit, the text itself explicitly teaches none of these things. In particular, it says nothing about Christ taking his Church to heaven, nothing about a future millennium, nothing about the Day of the Lord being devoted exclusively to judgment, nothing about it “falling into two parts,” and nothing about the multiple resurrections required in order to make this complicated scenario work. Clearly, MacArthur is reading his eschatology into the text. The great question is: Has he done so successfully? What arguments does he offer? Are the arguments sound?” Let us turn to the notes of The MacArthur Study Bible in order to find out.
MacArthur opens his case by appealing to two other NT texts, John 14:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. The former, he says, “specifically explained” the mystery of the Rapture, the latter further illuminated it. Then, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Paul completes the revelation of this “mystery,” filling in all the “details”. We have seen, however, that in John 14:1-3, Christ did not “specifically explain” the Rapture; that his words could refer to his removing the Church to heaven; but that his words elsewhere (both in the Gospels and the epistles) rule out this interpretation, inviting us to embrace the traditional Reformation view, with which John 14:1-3 harmonizes quite well. As for 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, we have seen that it closely parallels 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, teaching nothing more or less than the sudden, supernatural transformation of the living saints. It makes no mention whatsoever of a secret Rapture into heaven. If, then, as MacArthur states, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is indeed the premiere NT text on the Rapture, in which Paul gives us the full “details” about this great eschatological mystery, certainly we would expect him at least to mention—and hopefully to fully explain—the removal of the Church to heaven for seven years? We have just seen, however, that he does neither.
Secondly, MacArthur points to various dissimilarities between the Rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the Parousia of Matthew 24 (and parallel Gospel texts), deducing from the dissimilarities that two distinct events are in view. Happily, he does indeed acknowledge the many similarities: a trumpet, a resurrection, glory clouds, and the ingathering of elect believers. However, he refuses to draw from these similarities the most natural conclusion: that Paul, with the benefit of fresh apostolic insight, is simply giving us further details about the same event; about the one Parousia that Christ will effect at the Consummation of all things.
MacArthur’s efforts to justify this distinction are not persuasive. For example, he points out that in Matthew we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds, but that in 1 Thessalonians we see believers ascending in them. But does this “dissimilarity” really require us to posit two separate events? Is it not far more reasonable to say that Christ, at his Parousia, first arrives on the clouds, then sends forth his angels to gather up his elect, and then brings them into the clouds and ultimately to his side?
Again, MacArthur says that in Matthew 24 we find the angels gathering up Christ’s “elect” (i.e., the tribulation saints), while in 1 Thessalonians 4 we see Christ himself personally gathering in a different elect (i.e., his Church). However, Paul does not say that Christ himself will gather his Church. Rather, he simply says that “we . . . will be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). So again, there is no real conflict between the two passages, since in both cases it is clearly Christ who does the “catching up” (of his same elect people, the Church) by means of angelic agency (Matthew 24:31).
Or again, MacArthur states that in Matthew 24 there is no mention of the resurrection, while with Paul it is his main theme. Given, however, the many similarities between the two passages, surely the most natural explanation of this minor difference is to say that in the Olivet Discourse (as elsewhere) Christ simply assumed a knowledge of the Resurrection on the part of his hearers (Matthew 13:37-43, 22:23-33)! Moreover, this explanation is abundantly confirmed by the many NT texts teaching that Christ himself will effect a single general resurrection at his Coming (John 5:21-19; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 50-58; Philippians 3:20-21).
Seeing, then, that MacArthur’s “dissimilarities” are easily explained, and seeing that many similarities are actually quite compelling, we conclude that his arguments for two distinct “comings” of Christ are forced and unnatural; that in truth they reflect a desire to shoehorn a secret rapture into a text that simply will not accommodate it; and that if accepted, these arguments will prevent us not only from receiving Paul’s precious additional light on the Parousia, but also from beholding the full glory of the one true Consummation.
Finally, MacArthur argues yet again that Paul has two separate events in mind, since the first part of our text (4:13-18) deals with the redemption of the Church, while the second part (5:1-10) deals with the judgment of the unbelieving world. In particular, he asserts that the Parousia of Christ mentioned in 4:15 devolves exclusively upon the Church, while the (first part of the) Day of the Lord devolves exclusively upon unbelievers during— but especially at the end of—a seven years season of Tribulation. In short, the Parousia (i.e., Rapture) is redemptive only, while the Day of the Lord is judicial only.
We have seen, however, from our journey thus far, that these distinctions are profoundly misguided.
For example, concerning our text itself, we have seen that it is a unit; that here Paul has in mind a single Momentous Event: the Day of the Lord Jesus (5:2), which will occur at the Parousia (4:15), and which has both redemptive (4:13-18) and judicial (or retributive) aspects (5:1-10).
Concerning the Parousia, we have seen that it most certainly does devolve judicially upon the unbelieving world, as well as redemptively upon the Church (Matthew 13:37-43, 24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; 2 Thessalonians 1-2).
Concerning the Day of the Lord, we have seen that it most certainly does devolve redemptively upon the Church, and not only judicially upon the unbelieving world. This is the testimony of the OT prophets (Isaiah 2:1-22; Ezekiel 38-39; Joel 2:28-32, 3:12-17; Obadiah 15-21; Nahum 1:12-15; Zephaniah 2:4-11, 3:8-13; Zechariah 12:1-9); and it is the testimony of the NT writers, as well (Matthew 7:21-23, 26:29; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 2 Timothy 1:12, 4:8; 2 Peter 3:10-13).
Furthermore, concerning Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, we will soon see that it quite powerfully represents the Day of Christ as being both redemptive and judicial (2 Thessalonians 1:2-10, 2:11-12).
For all of these reasons, MacArthur seriously errs when he states, “Believers have no part in the Day of the Lord;” and when he concludes, on the basis of this error, that the Rapture (i.e., the “Parousia” of 1 Thessalonians 4:15) and the Day of the Lord are two separate events.
Some Final Questions
Having addressed MacArthur’s arguments for a pretribulation Rapture, I want to conclude our study of this crucial text by asking a few questions of my Dispensational brethren.
If Paul really desired to distinguish between a Coming for the saints (4:15) and a Coming with the saints (13), why would he not introduce a new technical term for the former—a good, sturdy noun like appearing or revelation—so as to avoid confusion?
Why have you had to invent such a term (i.e., Rapture)? Why do you persist in using it, when it is does not appear here, in the “definitive” biblical text on the Rapture, or anywhere else in the NT?
Why, in all of Paul’s writings, would he repeatedly speak of the Coming of Christ, (1 Thessalonians 3:13, 4:15, 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1) or of “his Coming,” as though there were only one of them (1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Thessalonians 2:8)?
Why would he speak of the Resurrection, as though there were only one of them (Acts 17:18, 32; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 42; 2 Timothy 2:18)?
Why would he speak of the Judgment (Acts 24:25; Romans 2:2), or the Day of Judgment (Rom. 2:16), as though there were only one of them? Why would he speak of the Day of the Lord, as though it were but a single Day (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:3)? And why, if the Day of the Lord (and the Parousia) “falls into two parts,” would he not explain these crucial distinctions, whether here in the Thessalonian letters, or elsewhere in the NT?
Finally, is it not clear from all these questions that the Consummation is a single unified event, set to occur at the Parousia? And is it not clear that if this is true, then Dispensationalism, with its endless multiplication of eschatological acts and events, must be false?
We have seen that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10 is an eschatological unit. Here, as elsewhere in the corpus of his writings, Paul has in view a single Momentous Event. He is not looking for a secret, pretribulational Coming of Christ that removes the Church to heaven, followed by public, posttribulational Coming seven years later. Nor is he looking for a premillennial Coming of Christ, followed by a postmillennial Coming a thousand years later. We search in vain for the slightest hint of any such distinctions; the slightest hint of any such fracturing and fragmenting of the Church’s Blessed Hope.
Rather, the apostle is looking for a single, dramatic, powerful, and supremely public Consummation of all things; a Consummation to be effected by Christ at his Parousia; a Consummation that involves the general Resurrection of the dead, the glorification of the living saints, the “catching up” of the Church into the air, the Last Judgment of all men and angels before the throne of Christ, the final Restoration of universe, and the descent of Christ’s glorified Bride to her new home in the World to Come.
This was the eschatology of our Reformed fathers. Shall we honor them, and the truth of Scripture, by returning to it again?