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1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Let’s get this out of the way right up front. This text is not about “the Rapture.” Nothing could be farther from Paul’s mind than a scenario where people are suddenly and secretly snatched away—sans clothing—from their ordinary lives, their families, and their friends, leaving in their wake a trail of confusion and decimation. Rapture theology has developed from a deformed reading of this text, and has also caused us to read this text and other New Testament texts in ways that malform our theology and our eschatology (doctrine of the last things).[1] Rapture theology has caused us to read the Big Story of salvation in Scripture as about escape from the world or “going to heaven after we die,” when in fact the New Testament’s vision of salvation is precisely the opposite of this. Rapture thinking has shaped our theological imagination by giving us an “earth-to-heaven” eschatology. What this text from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and other New Testament texts invite us into is a “heaven-to-earth” eschatology.[2]

An earth-to-heaven theology sees God abandoning and destroying the world, while a heaven-to-earth theology sees God restoring and renewing the face of God’s good creation. An earth-to-heaven theology sees the earth as disposable,[3] while a heaven-to-earth theology sees humans as God’s co-caretakers of creation.[4] The soul’s escape from the body and material existence is an earth-to-heaven theology; the resurrection of the body is a heaven-to-earth theology. An earth-to-heaven theology imagines that God has surrendered the world and sees Christ’s return as pulling the redeemed out in an act of retreat. A heaven-to-earth theology sees the return of Christ as a “royal parade, a victorious king coming in great honor to a city.”[5]

Paul writes to shore up the hope of the Thessalonians. Since the time that he was with them some of the members have died and the Thessalonians are worried that those who have died will miss out on the benefits of Christ’s return. The deaths of the Thessalonian Christians may have been from natural causes or may have been from persecution, but we know the Thessalonian believers were under a tremendous amount of social pressure for following Christ (1:6; 2:14; 3:1-5). While it’s difficult to be precise about the nature of the Thessalonians’ grief, Paul’s answers to their concerns seem to suggest they worried that the dead would miss out on the benefits of the Lord’s return, that the dead would be disadvantaged in some way, or that the living would be unable to be together with their departed loved ones at the end of all things.

Paul doesn’t tell them not to grieve. It is not ungodly to grieve, even for those whose hope is in the Living God and the resurrected Lord. Christians should not eschew grief in the face of suffering and death, for even Jesus grieved at these things (John 11:33-38; Matt 14:13; 26:38). Grief in the Pauline mode is a refusal to make peace with death (1 Cor 15:26). Paul places their grief in the context of the death and resurrection and glorious return of Jesus the Messiah. This enables them to grieve differently than those around them. They can grieve and yet hope!

Paul, in discussing Jesus’ return and the church’s expectation of it, uses two words that when employed together are unmistakably political. It would be akin to hearing “Hail to the Chief” in the United States and knowing the president is about to be introduced, or the way that John Wiiliams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” evoke images and ideas of Olympic competition. When Paul talks about the parousia ( v. 15, coming) of Jesus and the church’s apantesis (v. 17, meeting) he is using imagery that referred to the arrival or visitation of a ruler or even the Caesar to a city. Upon seeing the ruler’s arrival in the distance, this welcoming party would go out to meet the ruler and escort them joyfully back into the city. The arrival of the ruler is good news and the meeting is the joyful acknowledgement of that good news of presence. Paul images Jesus’ return in this way, as a coming king arriving on earth in resurrection victory, with the accompanying sounds and trumpet fanfare of the Day of the Lord (Rev 5:1; 7:2; Isa 27:13; Joel 2:1, 15; Zeph 1:16-18; see also 1 Cor 15: 52).

Those who await this victorious visitation will be expecting him, will be “grasped” or “caught up” in his coming and go out to meet him, so that they can accompany him in the parade of resurrection and new creation. Paul wants the Thessalonians to know that the dead in Christ will certainly not miss out on this, in fact, they will be the first ones to participate in the welcoming party. Their suffering witness will not have been in vain, their dishonor in life (and death) will be met with honor as they are welcomed as participants in the risen Lord’s arrival. There is no sense of “secret rapture” here, the movement is clearly from heaven to earth, and the arrival of Jesus is not some furtive and fugitive movement, but instead a very public spectacle—Paul’s language suggests that it is something in which people may participate.[6] Paul’s pastoral comfort demonstrates that Christ, the dead, and the living will all be together “forever.” He urges the Thessalonians to comfort one another with the words of this revelation.Getting the eschatological framework and movement right is an important aspect of preaching this text. This is not an otherworldly escapist text, rather it boldly proclaims the Lordship of Jesus in this world of empires, and the politics of honor and shame, domination and exclusion. This is an image that describes something that should bring joy to the world because the earth is receiving her king. And this is precisely why Paul’s persistent message to the Thessalonians is about holiness. Holiness, as sole devotion to Jesus as King, is how one waits faithfully for the return of the risen Messiah, and how one participates in his arrival (1 Thes 1:9-10; 2:12, 19-20; 3:12-13; 4:1-8; 5:4-10, 23-24). Bearing faithful witness in the here and now is costly, it speaks to the hidden nature of glory and power in the present, the weakness and foolishness of the cross, but also the public and participatory nature of the coming of Christ. These poor and pressured day laborers in Thessaloniki, by virtue of their patient and persistent faithfulness, will be given places of honor in the victory parade of the crucified and risen Lord of the creation. This text is a powerful witness to the way of holiness that awaits the coming of the Lord, and it calls us to lives of faithfulness that refuse to get the politics of the Kingdom of God mixed up with the kingdom of idols (1:9-10). In a highly charged partisan political environment in the United States, people who would follow the crucified and risen Messiah need this text more than ever, for we’ve tended to get this backwards. We’ve exchanged visible power in the present for a hidden, private politics of the kingdom, present power grabs for a deferred and otherworldly kingdom presence. With Paul and the Thessalonians, we need to encourage one another that if we remain faithful to the holy way of Jesus, whether we live or die, whether we bear shame and marginalization within the idolatrous power plays of empire, we will participate in the welcoming committee of Jesus’ return and “be with the Lord forever.”


[1] The best treatment of this deformed reading and its historical development is Barbara R. Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

[2] See for example Mark 1:15; Luke 4:18-21; Matt 28:18-20; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Rev 21:1-5.

[3] The most recent disappointing and irresponsible statement about this is the recent comments by John MacArthur about the disposable nature of the earth.

[4] See Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About the Environment and Why It Matters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

[5] Andy Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 123.

[6] Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 123, 126.