COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 4:17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words." NKJV
(1 Thessalonians 4:17-18)
There is a revealed perspective to life in Christ Jesus. If this perspective is lost, life cannot be lived in a truly profitable manner. This is the outlook that makes life worth living. It casts the mantel of hope over the entirety of life, lightening the weight of care, and brightening the horizon of the future. This is a viewpoint held by faith, and will sustain the soul in the midst of the most grievous trials. Even harsh persecution cannot diminish the power of this outlook. What is even more, it is intended for every person who is in Christ Jesus. I am speaking of the "one hope" (Eph 4:4), by which we are saved (Rom 8:24). This the "living hope" to which we are "begotten again" through the "abundant mercy" of our God (1 Pet 1:3). It is the anchor that keeps the soul (Heb 6:19). It is the reason why we have fled to the Lord for refuge-"to lay hold upon the hope set before us" (Heb 6:18). Our text focuses on one aspect of that hope, affirming it is of sufficient strength to "comfort" the people of God, even under the stress of opposition and hardship. Those who put the people of God in remembrance of what awaits them, are faithful ministers, indeed. They assist believers in removing the emphasis from life in this world, confirming it is only temporary, and will soon conclude for them in a burst of unparalleled glory.
CAUGHT UP TOGETHER WITH THEM
" 4:17a Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds . . . " NKJV The teaching of this verse has a two-fold purpose. First, it corrects some misapprehensions among the Thessalonians concerning those who had died. Second, it became a source of comfort and encouragement to the saints. Both of these are essential aspects of "sound doctrine." When possible, the people of God must be left with correct views and encouraged hearts. Where these are not joined, true help has not been given.
THEN. The word "then"means AFTER the "dead in Christ" have been raised. Thus, the NIV reads, "After that . . . " Among other things, this confirms the priority of the resurrection. This is a pivotal aspect of Apostolic doctrine, and must not be neglected. It may appear as though it has no immediate relevance, but nothing could be further from the truth. One of the heresies held by the Sadducees was that "there is no resurrection" (Matt 22:23). Jesus taught of the difference the resurrection will make (Matt 22:30), and of certain recompense at "the resurrection of the just" (Lk 14:14). He referred to the resurrection of believers as "the resurrection of life" (John 5:29). Paul even preached "the resurrection" to the Athenian philosophers, and they stumbled at his word (Acts 17:18,32). Paul referred to his hope as "the hope and resurrection of the dead" (Acts 23:6), affirming his aim was to "attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil 3:11). Hymenaeus and Philetus, false teachers of the first century, are said to have "overthrown the faith of some" by teaching that "the resurrection is already past" (2 Tim 2:17-18). Suffice it to say, it is a most critical omission when the resurrection of the dead is not taught. In the case of the Thessalonians, their change from corruption to incorruption required the resurrection of the dead. Only "then" would they be forever joined to the Lord.
ALIVE AND REMAIN. This is the second time this precise phrase has been used: "we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord" (vs 15 and 17). The expression emphasizes the centrality of the "second" coming of the Lord. Our aim is to be "found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless" in that day (2 Pet 3:10-14). Who is able to measure the "exceeding joy" that will be experienced by the saints "when His glory shall be revealed" (1 Pet 4:13). Believers should make much of the possibility of being alive and remaining when the Lord is revealed in all of His glory.
CAUGHT UP TOGETHER. The living and remaining believers will be "caught up together" with the "dead in Christ" who are raised. This is one of the primary texts used to teach a secret "rapture" of the saints. Nothing in this text remotely suggests secrecy. The words "caught up" are unusually strong. They speak of being snatched away from the domain of trouble, and the wrath of God. More specifically, they depict the Lord receiving us to Himself, as He promised He would (John 14:3). This is "our gathering togther unto Him" (2 Thess 2:1). From the viewpoint of the angels, it is when "they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matt 14:31). It is when they "shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven" (Mark 13:27).
Then all saints will "appear with Him in glory" (Col 3:4). They will be stripped of every vestige of the curse, and clothed with immortality. Although it will all happen "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," this will be on such a large and unprecedented scale our minds are not able to take it in. It will include "a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues" (Rev 7:9). Every child of God from the dawn of history to its consummation will suddenly be glorified, and together, in one grand and rejoicing company, they will all be "caught up" by Divine power to be eternally joined to the Lord, in whom they trusted, and for whom they lived. This is when the Lord will "come to be glorified in His saints, and to be admired in all them that believe" (2 Thess 1:10).
IN THE CLOUDS. I gather these are the "clouds" in which the glorified Christ will be seen, when "every eye" will "see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt 24:30). Jesus affirmed men would see Him "on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven" (Matt 26:64). What an extraordinary circumstance! The clouds ordinarily obscure, but in this case they reveal! When the pillar of cloud stood between Israel and the Egyptians, it was a "cloud of darkness" to the Egyptians, but a source of light to the Israelites (Ex 14:20). But when Jesus comes "in the clouds," He will be seen by "every eye." In fact, the ONLY time in the entire Bible where the phrase "every eye" is used, is in reference to the coming of the Lord with the clouds. "Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen." (Rev 1:7). This, then, declares the public nature of His glorious return.
WE WILL BE ALWAYS WITH THE LORD
" 17b . . . to meet the Lord in the air: And thus we shall always be with the Lord. NKJV Notice how the emphasis is not placed on leaving, but on meeting the Lord! Almost without exception, the emphasis of the secret rapture theory is the leaving of the saints. But our text puts the emphasis on meeting the Lord, and that is where our emphasis should be placed. After all, the "rich man" left the earth when he died, but it was certainly not an advantage for him. It is written, "the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments" (Lk 16:23). It is good to learn how to stress the right thing. Most of the division among professed believers on the coming of the Lord is over where the stress is placed. It might surprise many to see what marvelous effects are found in our teaching simply by emphasizing the right thing.
MEET THE LORD. The Lord will "descend from heaven," and the saints will rise from their former battleground to meet Him. What a meeting that is going to be! It will be "face to face," a phrase denoting the absence of all confusion and mystery concerning Christ (1 Cor 13:12). It will be a productive meeting, not one of mere gazing. When God was with Moses "face to face," the circumstance was described "as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex 33:11). That was only a faint glimmer of the joyous revelation that will attend us meeting the Lord.
Without laboring the point, note that we are "caught up to meet the Lord," not to disappear. The mythical rapture doctrine almost always emphasizes the disappearance of the saints. Our text places the stress on meeting the Lord.
We will not meet Him for the first time, but in the fullest sense. Now, salvation is preparing us for that meeting. By faith, we confront the Lord now, and are actually joined to Him (1 Cor 6:17). Now, in a very definite sense, Jesus meets with us. He proclaimed, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matt 18:20). Such meetings are undetected apart from faith. But when we meet the Lord, it will be a public and undeniable affair. All of the saved will be instantly made known by their meeting with the Lord. Immediately, their real status will be revealed.
IN THE AIR. In this world, "the air" is associated with Satan, who is called "the prince of the power of the air" (Eph 2:2). In this world, the air is "darkened" by the smoke that ascends from the "bottomless pit" (Rev 9:2). It is, in some sense, an area where we encounter opposition, and in which we must do battle (Eph 6:12). But when Jesus comes, Satan will no longer be prominent in the domain of the air. The "last enemy," death, shall then be destroyed(1 Cor 15:26). Consequently, because the last bastion of his power shall have been decimated, we will have no more trouble with our present "adversary" (1 Pet 5:8).
The air will be filled with the glory of Jesus, the glory of the Father, and the glory of the angels. Teeming multitudes of angels from heaven will descend with Jesus. The "spirits of just men made perfect" will be brought back by Jesus. The earth will "cast out her dead" (Isa 26:19), the living and remaining will be "changed," and the whole body of the redeemed will rise to meet the Lord in the very realm once dominated by Satan. A day of victory, indeed!
ALWAYS. This will commence a period without interruption - "always," or "ever." KJV There will be no more seasons of hunger and thirst (Psa 63:1; Matt 5:6). Never again will our souls be "cast down" (Psa 42:6). We will never confront fear (2 Cor 7:5) or despair (2 Cor 1:8). There will never again be a single occurrence where we are troubled on every side, perplexed, persecuted, or cast down (2 Cor 4:8-9).
WITH THE LORD. This is being "with Christ, which is far better" than remaining in the body in this world (2 Cor 5:8). This is the consummate experience! Salvation prepares us for being "with the Lord." We are "buried with Him" (Rom 6:4), "crucified with Him" (Rom 6:6), and "suffer with Him" (Rom 6:17). We are "workers together with Him" (2 Cor 6:1), have been made "alive together with Him" (Col 2:13), and are "dead with Him" (2 Tim 2:11). No small wonder, therefore, that the promise of being "with the Lord" is so precious to us! We will "appear with Him in glory," never again to be separated from Him in any sense (Col 3:4). Whether we have died prior to His coming, or are alive and remain, we will "live together with Him" (1 Thess 5:10). We will "reign with Him" (2 Tim 2:12) without any competing or threatening influences.
A word should be said about the absurdity of the doctrine that teaches we will reign with Jesus for one thousand years, after which a period of confusion and anarchy will break out. Whatever one may think about that doctrine, it is firmly said of Christ's kingdom, "Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this" (Isa 9:7). Our text establishes the true view.
COMFORT ONE ANOTHER WITH THESE WORDS
" 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words." NKJV The concept of "comfort" is essential to a proper understanding of the great salvation of God. Some contemporary versions use the word "encourage." NIV,NRSV The word means to console, or to encourage and strengthen by consolation. It often involves exhortation and entreating. It is an aggressive activity, in which the difficulties of life are effectively addressed. The world chooses to "counsel" people encountering difficulty. The Scriptures speak of comforting them. Along these lines, God's desire was announced by Isaiah the Prophet: "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God" (Isa 40:1). Such comforting is aptly described by this exhortation: "Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him" (Isa 3:10).
ASSOCIATED WITH STRENGTH. This comfort is associated with strength, wherein the saints experience a renewal of spiritual energy, and are able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Again, Isaiah expresses the thought well: "Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, 'Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you'" (Isa 35:3-4). One of the primary ministries of Paul was "strengthening all the disciples" (Acts 18:23). He desired to know their condition and comfort their hearts (Col 4:8). Comfort plays a vital role in this process. It assists the believer to see the issues of life more clearly, and not be deceived by circumstance.
The very need for comfort accentuates the fierceness of the "good fight of faith" (1 Tim 6:12). It presumes "trouble," agitation, and aggressive opposition. Confirming this, Jeremiah once said, "They have heard that I sigh: there is none to comfort me: all mine enemies have heard of my trouble" (Lam 1:21). Elsewhere the Spirit speaks of the God of all comfort "who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor 1:4). Comfort is one of the appointed means by which believers in trouble regain their strength and spiritual perspective. The focus of the individual is adjusted, and renewal is experienced.
ONE ANOTHER. Here is an activity in which every member of the body takes place. While some may be especially gifted in the area of comfort, all can participate in the encouragement of God's people. It is tragic that many believer's are rarely exposed to any form of inspiration and stimulation. The religious offerings to which they are exposed are generally addressed to someone else, or deal with matters that are not common to all of the children of God. Those who are in such a situation must be willing to take up the cause for the saints, and be a minister of comfort to others. This is not an activity for specialists.
THESE WORDS. Here is a work that can be done without guesswork. Words have been supplied that can be spoken in the power of the Spirit: "THESE words." And what are "these WORDS?" These are the words that pertain to those who have died in the Lord. They are also the words about those "who alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord." When we pass from this life, we do not go into oblivion, nor do we pass into a realm of inactivity and hopelessness. Our hopes do not lie in this world, but with the coming of the Lord. When He comes, those who have lived by faith will never again experience restriction in any sense. Those who have died will be raised. Those who remain will be changed. The beneficial unity believers have always sought with one another will be experienced as we are all caught up to meet the Lord in the air. It will not be a brief respite from the toils of life, but a glorious conclusion to them all! It will not be a brief exposure to glory, but the beginning of an unending presence with the glorified Lord. We will meet the Lord "in the air," and it will not be troublesome. There will be no principalities and powers with which to wrestle. The devil will not be stalking about, seeking whom, he may devour. Death will be behind us. Trouble will be behind us. Nothing but glory and unfettered dominion will be before us. And, we will be with Jesus in the fullest sense of the word. There will be no veil between us, and a sense of solitude or aloneness will never again be experienced.
Let us speak of such times to one another. Let us remind one another that we are going to reign with Jesus. That is something that has been appointed, and it is only a matter of time until it is realized. The more we shine the light on "the day of the Lord," the lighter our troubles will become (2 Cor 4:17). When we consider our gathering together with Christ, the persecutions we endure for His name will become insignificant. When we comfort one another "with these words," we stir another on to "perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord," preparing for His return (2 Cor 7:1-2). That is a ministry that is most vital to all of the people of God!