The Comfort of His Coming: An Amillennial Interpretation 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10, With a Critique of the Dispensational Interpretation of Dr. John MacArthur
Note: This essay is extracted from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2022).
The Apostle Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonian Christians contain some of the Bible’s richest veins of eschatological gold. Written from Corinth around AD 50-51, they reveal that the apostle’s early ministry to the European Gentiles was charged with a lively expectation of the Lord’s soon return (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19; 3:11-13; 2 Thess. 1-2; cf. Acts 17:16-21; 1 Cor. 15:1-58). However, they also reveal a problem: Paul’s Jewish opponents had forced him to flee the city quickly, 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 give us his efforts to clear up the misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, 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. Notably, they never speak of a future millennium (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:1-10; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2:1-12).
Let’s take a close look at two major (and very closely related) texts found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Of the three NT passages cited by dispensationalists in support of a pre-tribulation rapture, this is by far the most important (cf. John 14:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:51-52). Accordingly, I will first offer an amillennial exegesis of the text itself, and then carefully consider both the dispensational interpretation and the case made for it.
Our text begins in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, where Paul states his purpose for the remarks to follow. His goal is to give hope to Christians whose (believing) loved ones have recently “fallen asleep” (i.e., died in the Lord). He knows that some of the brethren 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 takes up this subject once again, so that they will no longer grieve as unbelievers do, but instead enjoy a lively hope of being reunited with their Christian family and friends—soon.
In verse 14 he succinctly states the healing truth; in the verses that follow he carefully explains. 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 Thessalonians’ pre-existing faith. They already believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead. But if they can believe that, surely they can also believe that he will raise their loved one(s). And, says Paul, that’s exactly what he will do: At the Parousia God will bring with Jesus the souls of all who have fallen asleep in him, so that they, just like their Lord, may rise from the dead and be reunited with the saints who are living on the earth at that time.
Importantly, Paul has already touched on this subject in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, where he prayed that God would establish their hearts “ . . . blameless in holiness in the presence of our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his holy ones.” Note the comprehensiveness of that final phrase. When Christ returns he will empty Heaven, bringing with him all the holy angels and the spirits of all the departed saints whom he has redemptively separated to himself. Thus will he set the stage for the Momentous Event: the Consummation of all things and the recreation of the world.
In verses 15-17 the apostle delves into the aspect of the Consummation that lies uppermost in the minds of his flock: the reunion of the departed saints with the living saints. In verse 15 he declares 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 of Christ himself (Matt. 13:37-43; 24:29-31). Possibly, it also includes further revelation specially vouchsafed to the apostle (1 Cor. 15:51-52). In any case, the Thessalonians can trust what he has to say, for it is the very Word of God.
Next, he affirms that “ . . . we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have fallen asleep.” He means that the living saints will not receive their glorified bodies before those who have died in the Lord. There is, then, a definite chronological 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—he will transform and glorify the bodies of the living saints. In days ahead, Paul will say much the same thing to the Corinthians: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we [who are alive and remain] will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:50-53).
Observe that all of this happens at “the Parousia of the Lord” (v. 15). There is only one of them. And according to every other Pauline text touching on this event, it has nothing 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.
In verses 16-17, which closely parallel Jesus’ own descriptions of the Consummation, Paul elaborates on what he has just said about the events surrounding the Parousia (Matt. 13:37-43; 24:29-31). He begins with this: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven.” This is Christ’s definitive descent to the earth, the descent that results in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, where he will live forever with his beloved Bride. In this descent the Lord is not leaving Heaven behind; rather, he is bringing it with him. In this descent he and the holy angels are coming home once and for all (Rev. 21:1-4)!
The cosmic homecoming will be accompanied by 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 this is indeed a shout, then it is a shout of (final) victory (Num. 23:21; Josh. 6:5; Ps. 47:5; Is. 42:13; Jer. 25:30; 1 Cor. 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 appointed tasks (Mark 13:27). Perhaps it is both.
Concerning the archangel, he is almost certainly Michael (Dan. 12:1; Jude v. 9) or Gabriel (Dan. 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19, 26). In either case, this angel, by definition, is a ruler over all the rest. His presence on the scene therefore implies what the NT explicitly unveils elsewhere: the presence of all the holy angels (Matt. 25:31). When the archangel raises his voice, it will likely be for the purpose of sending all the angels to their work of judicial and redemptive ingathering (Matt. 13:41; 24:31; Rev. 14:18).
Finally, there is the trumpet of God. Its blast signals not only the final destruction of the evil world-system (Josh. 6:15-21; Rev. 18:2), but also the summoning of God’s people to their full inheritance: to the enjoyment of eternal life upon the glorious “holy mountain” that is the new heavens and the new earth (Ex. 19:16-17; Is. 11:9; Matt. 24:31; Rev. 14:1). This interpretation accords well with the teaching of 1 Cor. 15:52: The trumpet that raises the dead will be the last trumpet, the trumpet that signals the consummation of the purposes of God and the advent of 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 a small band of saints who alone can see and hear it. Quite to the contrary, the actual data cry out, over and again, that this is a hugely public event, precisely because it devolves, not simply upon the Church, but also upon the entire created universe. Just as every eye will see, so too every ear will hear: whether Christ’s shout, the archangel’s voice, or the final blast of the trumpet of God (Matt. 26:64; John 5:28; Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 1:7).
In verse 16b Paul reiterates the basic message of verse 15: When the Lord returns, the dead in Christ will rise first. In verse 17 he explains what will happen afterwards, such that separated loved ones are reunited once and for all. To understand his thought here we must keep 1 Cor. 15:50-58 in mind. When we do, a clear picture emerges: Immediately following the Resurrection of the Dead, the living saints (i.e., “we who are alive and remain”) will be changed—glorified (1 Cor. 15:51-52). Then the entire company of the saints “. . . will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The Greek word for “caught up” (arpazo) denotes taking (or being taken) suddenly and with great force, whether urgently to obtain (Matt. 11:12), maliciously to abduct (Matt. 13:19; John 6:15; 10:12), or benevolently to help or rescue (Acts 8:39; 2 Cor. 12:2; Jude v. 23). Here it is used in the latter sense, since at his return the Lord Jesus—with great zeal and power to match—will swiftly gather his Bride to himself, even as he rescues her from her human enemies and the fiery judgment that will consume the earth below (2 Peter 3:8-13; Rev. 11:11-13).
How exactly will Christ catch up his Church? As we have seen, it will be at the hands of the holy angels (Matt. 24:31; Mark 13:27; Rev. 14:14-16). Carrying the saints into (and perhaps through) the spiritual “clouds” by which God and Christ are visibly manifesting their divine presence, power, and glory, the angels will bring them to meet the Lord in the air (Luke 9:34; Acts 1:9). This detail is important, signaling that when Christ comes again he will draw very near to the earth, which, according to Scripture, is the center of the physical universe, the apple of God’s eye, and the future home of Christ and his Bride (Matt. 17:5; 24:30; Luke 9:34-35; 21:27; Rev. 21:1-4).
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 take place after this happy reunion? Here, Paul does not say. However, what he does say suggests an interpretation far richer than that of the dispensationalists. Paul writes, “And as a result of these things, 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, Paul’s exact wording strongly suggests that he 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 where the saints will be with the Lord. But that is simply because his present focus is elsewhere: the reunion of separated loved ones at the Parousia. We have already seen, however, that in his other eschatological writings Paul uniformly associates the Resurrection with the final renewal of all creation (Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 50-57; Phil. 3:20-21). Thus, his message here is that a glorious reunion awaits all the saints, and immediately following that a glorious life together in the eternal World to Come.
In every generation let the saints comfort one another with this astonishing promise of God (v. 18).
1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
Our second text is 1 Thess. 5:1-10. Here we do well 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 subject. Paul is still dealing with events surrounding the Consummation at the Parousia of Christ.
He does, however, address a new facet of the Consummation, and in so doing turns from comfort to exhortation. For now, having given the Thessalonians a tiny glimpse of life together in the World to Come (4:17), he wants to prepare them for yet another element of the Consummation, through which they all must safely pass if they hope to enter that World: the Judgment. It too will occur at the Parousia, for when Christ returns he will not only catch up his glorified Bride into the sky, but will also judge the world in righteousness.
He opens by saying, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren . . .” (v. 1, NKJV). We cannot help but ask: The times and seasons of what? But the answer is obvious: the times and seasons of the Parousia he has just been talking about. Here, however, he refers to it as the Day of the Lord (vv. 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., Is. 2; Joel 2; Amos 5; Zeph. 1; Mal. 1). But again, in the Didactic New Testament (DNT: the teaching portions of the NT) the Day of the LORD becomes the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, then, Paul’s focus is upon what Christ will do after the Resurrection, Transformation, and Catching Up of the saints: He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31).
To read the remainder of our text is to see the reason for Paul’s 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 that is completely unprepared for his arrival: a world deluded by the dark presence, power, and promises of the Antichrist (v. 3; 2 Thess. 2:1-12). What will the destruction look like? Here, Paul does not say; however, other NT texts tell us that it will be with fire, and that it will involve the holy angels seizing the unrighteous and bringing them, first to the Judgment Seat of Christ (in the air), and then to Gehenna (i.e., the Lake of Fire), where they will suffer eternal punishment away from the presence of the Lord (Matt. 13:37-43; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Peter 3; Rev. 20:11-15).
But with the saints it shall not be so. 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 (vv. 4-5). However, in order to escape the Judgment they must maintain due diligence (Matt. 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., the confident assurance) of salvation (vv. 6-8). Happily, they are well able to do so, for the sovereign God has not destined them for the outpouring of his wrath that will occur on the Day of the Lord Jesus (v. 9; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2:1-12). Rather, he has destined them for full and final salvation, which Christ himself will bestow on all who belong to him when he comes again (Rom. 8:18-25; 2 Cor. 5:1-10; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 1:3-12).
Observe in verse 10 how Paul concludes this section by reverting to the theme with which he opened his meditation (1 Thess. 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 departed spirits while our bodies slumber in the dust of the earth), we can live: together with him now, and together with each other in the world that he will create for us at his return.
We find, then, that our two texts do indeed form a unit, a unit that illumines the different facets of the one Consummation set to occur at the one Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Dispensational Interpretation
I have argued that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10 not only accommodates, but actually assumes and teaches a single Consummation. 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 the Day of the Lord “falls into two parts,” with the first occurring throughout—but especially at the end of—the Great Tribulation, and the second occurring 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 to make this complicated scenario work. Clearly MacArthur is reading his eschatology into the text. The questions are: Has he done so successfully? What arguments does he advance? And are they sound?” Let us turn to the notes in his study Bible 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 illumined it. Here in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul (allegedly) goes on to complete the revelation of this mystery, giving us “the full details.”
We have seen, however, that in John 14:1-3 the Lord did not “specifically explain” the Rapture. Rather, we saw that his words could refer to Christ removing his Church to Heaven, but that the DNT rules out this interpretation, inviting us to embrace the traditional amillennial view, with which John 14:1-3 harmonizes extremely 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 at all of a secret rapture of the Church. If, then, as MacArthur states, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is indeed the “premiere” NT text on the Rapture—the text in which Paul gives us the “full details” about this great eschatological mystery—we would certainly expect him (Paul) to at least mention (and hopefully explain) the invisible removal of his Church to Heaven for seven years. We have just seen, however, that he does neither.
Secondly, MacArthur points to various dissimilarities between the “Catching Up” of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the Coming (Parousia) of Matthew 24. From these dissimilarities he deduces that two separate eschatological events are in view. Happily, he acknowledges the many similarities: a trumpet, a resurrection, glory clouds, and the ingathering of elect believers. Unhappily, he refuses to draw from them the most natural conclusion: that Paul, with the benefit of fresh apostolic insight, is simply providing further details about the same event: the one Parousia that Christ will effect at the Consummation of all things.
MacArthur’s case for distinguishing the Parousia of Matthew 24 from the Catching Up of 1 Thessalonians 4 is 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 simply to say that Christ, at his Parousia, first arrives on the clouds of Heaven, and then, by means of angelic agency, gathers his saints into (or through) those clouds to safety at his side (Luke 9:34)?
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 up a different elect (i.e., his Church). However, our text does not say that Christ himself will gather his Church. Rather, it simply says that “we . . . will be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17). So again, there is no real conflict between the two passages. In both cases it is clearly Christ who does the “Catching Up” by means of angelic agency (Matt. 24:31). And this, in turn, means that there is no need to distinguish between two different “elects” and two different events. Both texts deal with one and the same elect experiencing one and the same event. They deal with the Church—the called-out ones of all times and places—experiencing the one Consummation of all things.
Thirdly, 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 for this minor difference is to say that in the Olivet Discourse (as elsewhere) Christ presupposed on the part of his disciples a good understanding of the Resurrection (Matt. 13:37-43; 22:23-33). Certainly he had already taught them that the Parousia, the Resurrection, and the Judgment were essentially simultaneous events (John 5:19-29). Also, dispensationalists themselves teach that at the visible return of Christ following the Tribulation there will be a resurrection of the OT saints and those who died during the Tribulation. But if Jesus’ silence about a resurrection in Matthew 24 does not rule out a resurrection, who is to say that Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 are not parallel after all?
Seeing, then, that all of MacArthur’s “dissimilarities” are easily explained, and seeing that the many similarities are actually quite compelling, we conclude that these two texts are indeed parallel; that both passages teach and presuppose a single Parousia of Christ, at which time there will be a general resurrection and a general judgment. And as we saw in the previous chapter, every major eschatological text in the DNT confirms this conclusion.
In his final argument for a pre-tribulation Rapture, MacArthur invites us to draw a sharp distinction between the two parts of our text. He states that the first part (1 Thess. 4:13-18) deals with the redemption of the Church, whereas the second (1 Thess. 5:1-10) deals with the judgment of the unbelieving world. In particular, he asserts that the “Coming” of Christ mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 (i.e., the Rapture) exclusively affects the Church, while the Day of the Lord mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 exclusively affects unbelievers living at three different times: 1) the seven-year tribulation, 2) the Judgment at Christ’s Coming following the Tribulation, and 3) the Judgment at the end of the Millennium. In short, the “Coming” of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is redemptive only, while the (threefold) Day of the LORD of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10 is judicial only.
For many reasons this distinction (not to mention the complicated scenario built around it) is profoundly misguided.
Concerning the texts themselves, we have already seen that they are a unit—that throughout 1 Thessalonians Paul has in mind a single Momentous Event. It is the Day of the Lord Jesus (1 Thess. 5:2), which will occur at the Parousia (1 Thess. 4:15), and which has both redemptive (1 Thess. 4:13-18) and judicial (or retributive) aspects (1 Thess. 5:1-10).
Concerning the one Parousia, we have seen that it most certainly does involve judgment upon the unbelieving world, as well as (final) redemption for the Church (Matt. 13:37-43; 24-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; 2 Thess. 1-2). Concerning the one Day of the LORD, we have seen that it most certainly does involve redemption for the Church, and not simply judgment upon the unbelieving world. Indisputably, this is the united testimony of God’s OT prophets, Christ himself, and all his NT apostles (Is. 2; Ezek. 38-39; Joel 2:28-32; 3:12-17; Obad. vv. 15-21; Nah. 1:12-15; Zeph. 2:4-11; 3:8-13; Zech. 12:1-9; Matt. 7:21-23; 26:29; 2 Cor. 1:14; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:8; 2 Peter 3:10-13).
Finally, it is especially important to note that in his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul quite powerfully represents the Day of Christ as having both redemptive and judicial components (2 Thess. 1:3-10; 2:11-12). What does this tell us about his thinking in the first letter?
For all these reasons, then, MacArthur greatly errs when he states, “Believers have no part in the Day of the Lord.” And he also errs when he concludes from this false premise that the Catching Up of the saints (1 Thess. 4:15) and the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2) are two separate events.
Some Final Questions
Having addressed John MacArthur’s arguments for a pre-tribulation Rapture, I want to conclude our study of this crucial text by asking my dispensational brethren a few pointed questions.
If Paul really desired to distinguish between a coming of Christ for the saints (1 Thess. 4:15) and a coming with the saints (1 Thess. 4:13), why would he not have created and consistently used two different terms to describe these events, thereby making his meaning clear and avoiding all confusion?
Why, in all of Paul’s writings, would he repeatedly speak of the Coming of Christ (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1), or of “his Coming,” as though there were only one of them (1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Thess. 2:8)?
Why would he speak of the Resurrection as though there were only one of them (Acts 17:18, 32; 1 Cor. 15:21, 42; 2 Tim. 2:18)?
Why would he speak of the Judgment (Acts 24:25; Rom. 2:2), or the Day of Judgment (Rom. 2:16), or the Day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:3) as though there were only one of them?
And why—if the Parousia, the Resurrection, and the Day of the Lord are all fractured into sub-units and spread out on the timeline of Salvation History—would he not carefully explain such things, whether here in the highly eschatological Thessalonian letters, or elsewhere in the DNT?
Finally, is it not clear from all these questions that the great apostle—and all the other NT writers—viewed the Consummation as a single unified event set to occur at the Parousia of the Lord?
And if this is true, is it not time, and past time, for our dispensational brethren to retrace their steps, seat themselves afresh at the feet of the Teacher, and listen to him?