Funerals are sober and inevitable realities in this sin-cursed world. And while the Scriptures teach us that it is actually better to visit the house of mourning than the house of mirth, our flesh often cries out otherwise (Eccl. 7:2-4). Think back to the occasions you have attended these solemn assemblies. Have you wanted to go? When you arrived, what have you said? Where did your thoughts go? When you have met with the bereaved, what words of comfort have you offered beyond expressing tender condolences?
How we respond to death, especially of those close to us, is very often a clear indicator of our spiritual condition. By the Lord’s kindness, grief and loss can be occasions of tremendous growth. On the other hand, Satan would seek to spoil these times, perverting them into seasons of doubt and hardness of the heart which leads away from the living God (Heb. 3:12).
The Apostle Paul provided the Thessalonian church directions for precisely this kind of occasion, a lesson that is as glorious and true today as it was when he authored the inspired words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. It appears that these believers had two questions. First, what were they to think about Christians who had died? Second, will departed saints suffer any disadvantage when Jesus returns?
Paul rests his answer in vv16-18 upon two pillars of absolute certainty. In v14 he directs our minds to God’s historical work through the Lord Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. As certainly as those events occurred, so also can we be assured that those who sleep in Jesus will come back again with Him. Then in v15 he reminds his audience that he is writing according to God’s inspired word received from the Lord Jesus Christ. These words are as true as the God who gave them.
While the comforting truths that we are about to explore rest upon the absolute certainty of God’s works and word, the Bible’s teaching here has been terribly and widely misunderstood, especially through recent Christian history. One would be hard-pressed to find a doctrine more skewed than the so-called rapture. Beyond the controversy that surrounds these disagreements, the most bitter fruit has been the theft of comfort from those for whom God gave these words. With God’s help, and by staying close to the text, let us see if we can recover some of the divine cordial He has given us in this passage.
Like all of God’s works and word, the focus here is most clearly upon the Savior Himself. No less than five times He is referred to as the Lord, twice as Jesus, once as Christ. It is His return, a Day that will magnify His glory, as He comes to gather His beloved saints to Himself. Remember this as we consider seven aspects that describe this grand event.
The Shout: Have you ever been in a stadium for a race featuring world-class sprinters? After the runners go to the starting blocks, they are instructed to take their marks. Silence descends on all gathered as the tension mounts. Everyone waits, bristling with anticipation for the sound that will commence the reason for everyone’s attendance. The time is drawing nearer when a shout far greater than any starting gun will shake the cosmos and initiate that for which creation groans (Rom. 8:22-23). Whose shout is this? While I cannot be definitive, it is tempting to connect this great cry of command with John 5:28, “for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice.” Whoever issues this cry, Jesus Himself or the archangel, the meaning is clear: this is a cry of finality and unanswerable victory that will usher in the close of this age.
The Voice of the Archangel: A glorious angelic host will accompany Jesus at His return, magnifying His glory (2 Thes. 1:7-8). At the head of those ministering spirits, burning in holy ardor to carry out the will of their King, will be the archangel. His identity is mysterious to us, but we know he will be wondrous to behold. What is certain is that the archangel cannot but long with holy desire for the arrival of this Day known to God alone.
The Trumpet of God: When God descended on Mount Sinai, the blaring trumpet heralded the presence of the One before whom all trembled (Ex. 19:16, 20:18). We find another instance of the trumpet sounding in Leviticus 25:9, marking the beginning of the Year of Jubilee. It was a time when captives would be freed, possessions returned to rightful owners, debts canceled, and a time of holy rest and reunion would begin. Were either or both of these images in Paul’s mind? Must we decide between the two? Whatever it may be, the Lord who has been described as going up in victory with the sound of a trumpet (Ps. 47:5) will return with the same sound to gather His elect form the four winds (Matt. 24:31).
The Descent: Most English translations mention the Lord’s descent first, but the original has the word for descent occur after the three preceding sounds. Speaking of sounds, some have held to a “secret rapture.” Based on what Paul has written, it is difficult to imagine an event that could be any louder. In addition to the thunderous voice(s) and the blasting trumpet, Jesus Himself said, “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27). The return of the Lord will be an unmistakably public, audio-visual event that no one can miss. Perhaps more significant is this: it will be the Lord Himself who returns, and that according to His promise. The angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Oh, for that Day when He who bears our flesh will return, and our eyes will see Him, coming on the clouds of glory.
The Resurrection: Paul states emphatically at the end of v16, “and the dead in Christ will rise first.” What an event this will be. Graves will break open, and the sea will give up its dead, as will Death and Hades (Rev. 20:13). This resurrection will be universal in scope, for all shall come forth, “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (Jn. 5:29). The books will be opened and all shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10, cf Rev 20:12). Dear reader, this Day is coming. It will be a time of vindication and rejoicing for the saints, but a time of terror and the evaporation of hope for the unrepentant. Be certain that you have found refuge in Jesus the redeemed, the only Mediator between God and man, and the only refuge on the Day of Wrath.
The Reception: I am not afraid to use the term rapture, but let me demonstrate why I would use reception. After the dead in Christ are raised, then those who are alive and remain experience two things. First, they will be caught up in the clouds. They are caught up like Philip was in Acts 8:39, and Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. It is a supernatural act, one that we simply do not understand everything about, but are certain will take place. Are the clouds the same as those upon which He will return (Rev. 1:7)? Second, they will meet the Lord in the air. In Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins, He said, “And at midnight a cry (!) was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’” (Matt. 25:6). Those who were ready rushed out to meet the bridegroom, not to remain with him at the place of their meeting, but to go “in with him to the wedding” (Matt. 26:10, cf Acts 28:15). What is the point here? When the saints are caught up to the Lord in the clouds, it will not be to float around in the stratosphere for eternity, but to reign with Jesus Christ on a renewed earth for eternity. God’s gracious and glorious design is for the people to share with Jesus in His triumphant return!
Reunion: The sounds, the sights, the events attending the return of Christ will all contribute to the unparalleled majesty of the event. With this in mind, Paul reiterates his pastoral burden in answer to the Thessalonian question. The point of what he is writing is this: “and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” All the saints, those who have died and those alive at the Lord’s coming, will be gathered together in the presence of the Triune God, forever. This will be the final answer to Jesus’ prayer, “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). The realization of that prayer is far greater than simply me seeing Jesus, as wondrous as it will be. Neither is it realized merely by all the glorified saints reuniting with their lost loved ones. The glory—and the comfort—of that day consists in all these being everlastingly present together, and that in the New Heavens and the New Earth (2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1).
A biblical account of “the rapture” is a help to the grieving, burdened Christian. It removes the bitterness from tears and fills the despondent heart with hope. The next time you go to grieve a Christian’s death—and grieve we must—find comfort by meditating upon the coming of Jesus Christ with all His saints. While the funeral may not be the most suitable place and time to set all these thoughts before a recent widow or bereaved parents, now is the time to furnish your own hearts with these certainties. Encourage the hearts of your brethren also, so that when it comes time for us to shed those tears, we can do so with great consolation. That is why Paul ends this section by tenderly writing, “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes 4:18).