Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I Thessalonians 4:13-18




            One of the great passages in the New Testament is I Thessalonians 4:13-18.  I probably read it at the graveside at 90% of the funerals in which I officiated.  It states the great hope of the resurrection and of the rapture and affirms the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

            Both I and II Thessalonians have a lot of material regarding last things.  I intend to deal with most if not all of that material.  I shall begin with this passage even though there is some relevant material early in the book.  I do so because it is such a key passage.  I shall deal with the additional material in I Thessalonians in another article.


            It is evident that Paul writes this passage to help the church at Thessalonica sort out some confusion and supply knowledge so that they would not be “uninformed.”  Pentecost maintains that this church would already be aware of the resurrection, but were not clear about the relationship between the resurrection and the rapture (Pentecost, 209).  I agree with him in general on this point, but not exactly on how he tries to leverage the point as evidence for the Pre-Tribulation Rapture: 

Paul writes, then, not to teach the fact of the resurrection, but rather the fact that at the rapture the living would not have an advantage over the dead in Christ.  If the Thessalonians had believed that the church would be going through the seventieth week they would have rejoiced that some of their brethren had missed this period of suffering and were with the Lord without experiencing the outpouring of wrath.  If the church were going through the tribulation it would be better to be with the Lord than to have to await the events of the seventieth week.  [quotation with lack of commas as in original] (Pentecost, 209)

            As I indicated above, I think Pentecost (and other authors) is on the right track in what the problem is that Paul is seeking to solve.  This passage has made me scratch my head because of verse 15:   “…we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”  (Scripture quotations from English Standard Version unless stated otherwise)  I have always wondered why it is a big deal whether or not those who are raptured go first.  The Greek word that is translated “precede” is “phthano.  This word is translated “come upon” or “succeed” or “attain” in other contexts.  For example the “kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28) and “Israel…did not succeed in reaching that law…” (Romans 9:31)  All translations that I consulted translate the word as “precede” in this one context.  However, the Amplified Bible supplies the alternative “have any advantage over.” 

            In Paul’s introduction (verse 13), he desires to inform his readers so “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  This was a serious issue for Paul and his readers.  It was not merely a technical issue of how the resurrection and the rapture would play out.  If we then note the detail that Paul uses to explain the issues, we can infer what the confusion may have been about.  Paul gives the following details:

·         God will bring the dead with Jesus when Jesus comes at His Parousia.

·         When Jesus descends, the dead will rise first.

·         Then the living will be caught up together with them.  The “together” is put early in the clause, indicating emphasis.

·         And so “we”—context indicating the raptured living and the resurrected dead—will be with the Lord forever.

From these details, I believe that the Thessalonians believed the rapture, resurrection, and Parousia of Jesus would result in a separation of those who had died from those who were living, in perhaps a permanent separation.  Whether this confusion was concerning the nature—or even fact—of the resurrection of the dead or the nature of the rapture or some other confusion, is not fully clear, but it was so serious that it would cause them to mourn as the pagans do who have no hope of being reunited with their loved ones.  So, verse 15 is a reassurance about what will happen to the two groups—the dead in Christ and those alive at the Parousia.  The latter will not “phthano” the former.  In the context, this would mean those alive at the Parousia will not experience something beyond what the dead in Christ will experience.  As we read on in the following verses, this is explained:  The dead will rise first and then the living will be caught up together with them.  Thus, they will all be together with the Lord forever. 

            If you had lost your mother to death and you anticipated the Parousia would be happening in a few years, then it would be crucial to know what that event would mean for yourself and for your mother.  If you thought that somehow the Rapture would be an experience that would unite you with Christ but not your loved one, then you may indeed mourn as a pagan would mourn—hopeless of ever seeing your mother.  So, this explanation of Paul helps you understand that the Resurrection and the Rapture would be an occasion of being reunited with your mother.  And so, Paul says, you can comfort one another with those words.

            I believe this is explanation takes into account the entire passage.  Notice that the idea of a Pre-Tribulation or Post-Tribulation Rapture is not relevant to the interpretation.  Pentecost believes the church would have rejoiced for the dead if they thought the Rapture would be after the Tribulation.  But that is not the issue.  The question is whether the living should mourn without hope (mourning over the death of a loved one is certainly not inappropriate—but a Christian, even in sadness, maintains hope).  Paul reassures them that the Parousia will be an occasion for the living and the dead to become one group who will forever be with the Lord.  Whether this takes place before or after the Tribulation is not dealt with—nor even implied—in this passage.


            Pentecost includes the present Scripture in a list that he says teaches “imminency.”  (Pentecost, 168ff)  I shall not discuss the other Scriptures in I Thessalonians, but will briefly consider the others in his list.

·         John 14:2-3:  “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”  This Scripture statement says something about the redeeming work of Jesus to prepare a place for His disciples in His Father’s house.  It says nothing about when He shall come again nor what will be involved in taking them to Himself.  Incidentally, I believe that this and other statements of Jesus in John 14-16 are somewhat misconstrued.  Keep in mind that the next event on the agenda is the cross.  I believe that, for Jesus to prepare a place for us, He went to the cross and then experienced the resurrection and then the ascension.  He did not simply go to heaven and rework the floor plan of heaven or refurbish some rooms.  At any rate, this statement says nothing that can explain the timing of the Rapture.

·         I Corinthians 1:7:  “so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ…”  Philippians 3:20-21:  “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body  to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”  Titus 2:13:  “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…”  Again, it is difficult to find any clue to the timing of the Rapture in these verses.  Pentecost, however, claims that the church is admonished not to look for signs, but, rather, to look for the Lord at His appearing (Pentecost, 203).  So, any verse, such as these, that mentions waiting, but does not mention a sign, is proof of his contention.  This argument from a negative is not very strong. 

·         Revelation 3:10:  “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”  This is an important verse that appears to support the Pre-Tribulation Rapture position.  However, it supports the idea that the church will not go through the Tribulation.  It does not support nor detract from the idea of the imminent Rapture of the church.   
Revelation 22:17-21:  “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book:  if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.  He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”  The words “coming soon” may be taken to support the idea of the imminent Rapture of the church.  However, the message that it conveys is that the Lord is coming soon.  Now if we consider the calculus of the entire scenario generally accepted by both Pre-Tribulation and Post-Tribulation Rapture theorists, then the idea of coming soon appears to convey that, shortly after the Revelation was written, the following events would take place—in some order:  Rapture/Revelation, rise of the Antichrist, Tribulation, Second Coming of Christ.  Pentecost, in arguing for the imminent return, is using this Scripture, among others, to support an “anytime” Rapture.  He is saying that the Rapture could have occurred at any time in history.   The corollary to this is that the Antichrist and all the political machinations that Pentecost believes will take place after the Rapture could also have taken place at any time in history since the departure of the Lord.  I cannot necessarily refute that notion, but I do think it is somewhat difficult to accept.  The second corollary to these ideas is that one has to explain “coming soon” in the light of the fact that it has been almost 2000 years since these words were written.  I think there is adequate explanation.  See II Peter 3:3-9.  This Scripture adequately explains that 2000 years is not that slow in God’s eyes.  The other part of that explanation is that “coming soon” does not necessarily mean imminent.  That is, if we can explain to the doubter what “coming soon” means, then we also can say that, in fact, what has happened in history has been necessary for the preparation for the “soon” coming of the Lord.


            The Greek word “Parousia” is used in I Thessalonians 4:15:  “…we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord…”  The word “coming” is a translation of “Parousia.”  I have discussed this word in a previous article.  The issue is this:  Is this word a technical term that is referring to the same event each time it is used?  Walvoord, as quoted in Pentecost, maintains it is not a technical term (Pentecost, 157).  His justification is that sometimes it is obvious that the Rapture is referred to and sometimes the second coming of Christ is referred to.  However, the reasoning is circular.  He cannot rule out that the second coming is referred to by the term “Parousia” in the present passage, for example.  Nor can he rule out that the Rapture is referred to in Matthew 24:31 by the phrase “gather his elect.”  In fact, he simply forces his scheme of Pre-Tribulation Rapture on these Scriptures without allowing them to speak for themselves.


            There is quite an argument among various scholars about trumpets.  Pentecost argues that the trumpet of I Thessalonians 4:16 and I Corinthians 15:52—which is associated with the Rapture—cannot be the same as two other mentions of a trumpet in association with the Second Coming—in Matthew 24:31 and Revelation 11:15 (Pentecost, 190-191).  Gundry discusses the issues from the Post-Tribulational position (Gundry, 147-151).  Some of the arguments are as follows:

·         The “last” trumpet would seem to be the last in time, must either be the seventh of the seven trumpets in Revelation or after those seven. 

·         He contends the trumpet in I Corinthians 15 is before the wrath of God, but I find no evidence for that in the context. 

·         He objects that the trumpet of the Rapture is the trumpet of God and not of an angel, but there is no reason an angel could not blow the Lord’s trumpet. 

·         He contends the trumpet of the Rapture is singular, but it is called the “last” trumpet, which would imply there are other trumpets. 

·         He contends that the voice from heaven associated with the trumpet of the Rapture is before the Rapture, but that the trumpet of Revelation 11:15 is after the resurrection (of Old Testament saints, he would argue).  There is no evidence for this.  He refers to the resurrection of the two witnesses as a resurrection that occurs before the trumpet of 11:15, but he himself recognizes that this event is not the resurrection referred to in 11:15-19.  There is not exact time-table of events in 11:15-19.  Especially, there is not a specific mention of a resurrection of saints.  Rather, the rewarding of the saints is referred to, and that reference implies a previous resurrection, which could very well occur at the seventh trumpet.

·         He claims that the seventh trumpet of Revelation “issues in judgment,” whereas the trumpet of the Rapture “issues in blessing…”  However, the seventh trumpet is an occasion also for “rewarding your servants…”  In fact, throughout Scripture judgment and blessing usually go hand in hand, because God’s intervention manifests a separation of the righteous and the unrighteous. 

·         He claims that the trumpet of the Rapture will be in the twinkling of an eye, whereas the seventh trumpet will be over an extended period of time.  This is an empty argument from both ends.  The Rapture will take place in the twinkling of an eye, but there is nothing said about how long the trumpet blast will be.  He bases his second conclusion on Revelation 10:7.  However, the best translation of this is not “…in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound…” (King James Version) but rather “in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he is about to sound…”  (New American Standard Version).  The latter translation gives no warrant to understand that the trumpet blast lasts for days. 

·         In another case of circular reasoning, Pentecost says that the seventh trumpet must deal with Israel since it is in or at the end of the Tribulation period and could not be for the church. 

·         Pentecost refers to an earthquake in Revelation 11:13 and says the “believing remnant” is struck with fear.  He says the Rapture accounts of I Thessalonians and I Corinthians do not mention an earthquake.  He also says that “there will be no believing remnant left behind to experience the fear of Revelation 11:13.  This is a very confusing argument that seems to ignore the context of Revelation 11.  The earthquake occurs before the seventh trumpet.  Moreover, the persons who fear are identified as “survivors” and not as a “believing remnant. 

·         His final argument is that the rewards that are mentioned in Revelation 11:18 must be different from the rewards that are given to the church.  He says the rewards in Revelation are on earth, but offers no proof of that.  He says the rewards that are given to the church are “in the air.”  He has discusses this in other places, but never really proves that contention.


            In I Thessalonians 4, Paul identifies two groups who will participate in the Rapture/Resurrection that is described in verses 13-18.  He mentions those who are “dead in Christ” and also “we who are alive, who are left.”  In I Corinthians 15:22-23, Paul discusses the resurrection of the dead:  “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  Pentecost insists that the word “order” (Greek, tagma) suggests a military troop or rank.  From this he infers that there is to be a “resurrection parade” of a series of resurrections:  (a) Christ, (b) the church age saints, (c) the tribulation period saints together with the (d) Old Testament saints.  (Pentecost, 402-403, 411).

            In connection with these ideas, Pentecost discusses the terms “in Christ” (I Corinthians 15:22), “those who belong to Christ” (I Corinthians 15:23), and the “dead in Christ” (I Thessalonians 4:16).  Pentecost believes that the term, “those who belong to Christ,” refers to all who are redeemed, including Old Testament saints, church age saints, and Tribulation period saints.  On the other hand, the terms, “in Christ” and “dead in Christ,” refer to only the church-age saints.  His reason for this latter conclusion is that Israel did not experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit which places church age redeemed “in Christ.”  He bases this, I assume on I Corinthians 12:13. 

            I believe that Pentecost errs in most of these conclusions.  First, he has no warrant to divide up the resurrection into a series of resurrections.  In I Corinthians 15:22-23, Paul states that “in Christ” all will be made alive.  That process will occur so that each is “in his own order.”  The order is then given:  Christ is the first fruits, then come “those who belong to Christ.”  If Paul intended a military metaphor by his use of tagma, he immediately shifts to the familiar metaphor of the harvest.  The Old Testament worshipers brought the first fruits to the Lord as an offering in anticipation of the harvest to follow (Leviticus 23:9-14).  So, Christ was the first fruit of the resurrection harvest.  The order that is given consists solely of two parts—the first fruits and the harvest.  There is no warrant in this passage to break the order up into a series of resurrections.

            I believe that Pentecost ignores one piece of evidence as he discusses his distinction in the “dead in Christ” and “those who belong to Christ.”  The former expression is in I Thessalonians and the latter is in I Corinthians.  However, in I Corinthians 15:22 is the expression “in Christ.”  All will be made alive “in Christ.”  It is difficult to distinguish this expression from the group of people who are “dead in Christ.”  It seems to me that verse 22 and 23 of I Corinthians 15 cannot be separated.  The first verse gives the principle that resurrection takes place “in Christ.”  So, when Paul discusses the order in the following verse, he refers to those who belong to Christ and surely is equating them with those who are resurrected “in Christ.”  Since Pentecost already agrees that the second verse refers to all of the redeemed, then the first verse must also refer to all of the redeemed.  Surely, the “dead in Christ” in I Thessalonians also refers to all of the redeemed (in both passages, the details make clear that the living saints are raptured in conjunction with the resurrection of the redeemed).

            Another passage corroborates this conclusion.  Ephesians 2:11-22 describes how the Gentiles who “once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (verse 13)  The purpose of Christ was to “create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…”  This is New Testament “church age” theology that Pentecost no doubt would agree with.  However, note that this whole passage is in the perspective that the Gentiles needed to be brought into what was already there—God’s people that began in the Old Testament.  Note the closing paragraph of the passage:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

(Ephesians 2:19-22)

This passage, along with others, establishes that the People of God are in unity, whether they are Old Testament or New Testament or Tribulation saints.  They are all saved by grace through faith and through the cross of Jesus Christ. 

            Thus, there is strong evidence that the “dead in Christ” who are resurrected in the event described in I Thessalonians 13-18 will be both Old and New Testament saints.


Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09).  ESV Study Bible.  Good News Publishers.  Kindle Edition.

Gundry, Robert H.  The Church and the Tribulation.  A Biblical Examination of

            Posttribulationism.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Acadamie Books, Zondervan Publ. House. 


The Lockman Foundation.  New American Standard Bible.  (Through Bible Gateway website)


Pentecost, J. Dwight.  Things to Come.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publ. Co. 1958.


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