Special Note on 1 Thess 4:17: the “Rapture”

This note is supplemental to the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and, in particular, to Part 2 of the article on Paul’s eschatology in 1-2 Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:13-5:11). In 4:16-17, Paul vividly describes the coming of Jesus down to earth at the end-time Judgment, almost certainly drawing upon the same tradition of Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 13:26-27 par. It is, however, the specific image in 4:17, of believers being caught up (“seized”, vb a(rpa/zw) into clouds to meet Jesus in the air, that has especially captured the imagination of Christians, being referred to as “the rapture“, from Latin rapio—the Latin Vulgate translates the Greek a(rpaghso/meqa (“we will be seized”) with rapiemur. This idea of “the rapture” is so commonplace and well-established in modern eschatological discussion that many Christians today might be surprised to realize that it is scarcely to be found anywhere else in the New Testament. It does, of course, involve three distinct eschatological components, associated with the tradition of Jesus’ end-time return:

    • The gathering together of (all) believers—already featured as part of several key eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus (Mark 13:27 par; Matt 13:41-43, 49; 25:32-34ff, etc). Paul refers to this basic idea, generally, in a number of places (see esp. 2 Thess 2:1-2), but it is only described in any detail here in 1 Thess 4:16-17. He includes the idea of believers who have died being raised to join those living, but this likely only makes explicit what would have been assumed in the common tradition.
    • The motif of Jesus appearing in the clouds—this would seem to derive from the key Gospel traditions of Jesus’ Son of Man sayings in Mark 13:26 par and 14:62 par, and which are ultimately based on the language and imagery in Daniel 7:13-14. This same traditional imagery is utilized in the book of Revelation (esp. 1:7), and is implied in the narration of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts (1:9-11). Paul is drawing upon the same basic tradition.
    • The image of Jesus’ ascension—while this is described visually only in Acts 1:9ff, it would have been understood, as a common point of reference, by virtually all believers in the 1st century. Only in more recent times have Christians found difficulty in the concrete localization of heaven spatially as up in the sky. Moreover, there is an ideal of ascension for the righteous (while still alive) which is part of an important line of Israelite and Jewish tradition. The notice of Enoch in Gen 5:24, however brief and enigmatic, is usually understood as a living ascension to heaven, part of a more expansive Enoch tradition. Elijah’s is the most famous such ascension, described vividly in 2 Kings 2:11-12. Jesus’ own ascension would have served as a kind of pattern for believers—just as Jesus ascended alive to heaven, it was only natural for believers to see themselves, at the time his return, ascending in a similar manner.

However, if the specific detail of believers rising up in to the sky to meet Jesus was widespread as part of the early Christian expectation, it is surprising that there is no other clear evidence for it in the New Testament. In particular, in the book of Revelation, that treasury of eschatological tradition and imagery, we would well expect to find it. Yet there can be no doubt of the wide acceptance of the basic underlying idea—that believers will be gathered together to face/meet Jesus when he appears.

Unfortunately, the relatively simple notion of Christians meeting Jesus and being taken with him to heaven has been obscured by the use of the expression “the Rapture” as a kind of shorthand point of reference relating to a whole range of eschatological issues and speculation among Christians today. Some of this valuable and important, some idle and unhelpful, but nearly all of it, I should say, is rather far removed from the thought-world of the New Testament and 1st century Christian eschatology. In this series, I have tried to focus exclusively on the original context and background of the relevant New Testament passages—that is to say, on the eschatological expectation of the author and his audience in the 1st century A.D., as expressed in the text. It has been necessary, at times, to mention various modern-day theories and eschatological schema, but I have sought to keep this to a minimum. Here, however, it is worth pointing out several key aspects of much modern eschatological thought, relating to “the Rapture”, since they are so widely referenced, often without much regard to the soundness of their basis in Scripture. Three aspects, in particular, should be mentioned:

    • The question of when the “Rapture” will occur, in relation to other end-time events.
    • Whether it means that believers will be kept from the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) that is to come upon humankind, or will have to endure it, either in whole or in part.
    • According to some lines of interpretation, this “Rapture” will be secret—that is to say, it will not correspond with the general idea of Jesus coming to earth (visibly) to bring the Judgment. Rather, the visible return of Jesus will occur at a later time, following the period of distress on earth. Those who hold this view believe the “Rapture” will take place prior to the completion of the period of distress (i.e. pre- or mid-Tribulation Rapture view).

It must be pointed out that all three aspects are specifically a product of modern eschatology. I find little or no evidence to indicate that any of them were of real concern to believers in the 1st century. To begin with the third item above, the idea of a “secret” appearance by Jesus, for the purpose of gathering the Elect, which is separate from his coming to usher in the Judgment, runs contrary to all such references to Jesus’ return in the New Testament (cf. the various passages cited above). There is only one coming of Jesus, and it occurs at the moment of the end when the Judgment is realized. Believers are saved/rescued from this Judgment. The two-appearance scheme (and “secret” rapture) came to be introduced into modern eschatology, it would seem, out of the need to support the particular belief that believers would be rescued from the period of distress that precedes the Judgment.

However, early Christians appear to have taken for granted that they would have to endure the period of distress, which brings us to the second aspect mentioned above. We may note, in particular, the numerous passages expressing the view of believers in the first century, that they were already living in the “last days”, and that, as such, the suffering they were experiencing was part of this end-time period of distress. For example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, the persecution of Jesus’ disciples (believers) is set clearly within the period of distress that precedes the coming of the “Son of Man” (Mark 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). For other clear instances of this view, cf. Parts 1 and 2 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”, as well as in my current series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation.

Finally, with regard to modern views concerning the return of Jesus and coming of the Judgment, they are complicated by the (modern) tendency of attempting to assemble the various eschatological passages in the New Testament into a coherent and systematic framework. The book of Revelation is especially problematic, even though, on the surface at least, it may seem to provide the very framework needed to assemble the pieces. The sequence of visions, and vision-cycles, appear to describe a chronological order of events; however, as a careful reading and study of the book (being undertaken in the current series of daily notes) will show, the symbolism of the visions defies such systematization. Many, if not most, of the symbols are multivalent, with various possible associations and levels of meaning.

As it happens, there is one relatively clear and consistent eschatological framework in the New Testament—the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. For first-century Christians, this represented the closest thing to a systematic presentation of eschatology that we will find. The teaching goes back to the words of Jesus himself, but, in all likelihood, the “Discourse” as we have it reflects a traditional and literary arrangement of material. I have given a relatively simple outline of the chronology of the Discourse (in Part 4 of the prior article); here it may be worth presenting it again:

The Markan version is the shortest and simplest and may safely be considered as closer to the core Synoptic tradition and arrangement (generally followed by Matthew, though with development and inclusion of additional material):

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

    • A period of mission work (and persecution) for Jesus’ disciples prior to the destruction of the Temple [c. 35-65? A.D.] (vv. 12-19)
    • A period of distress for Judea and Jerusalem, characterized by warfare/uprising (i.e. in the Roman Empire), the appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs, as well as signs in heaven indicating the coming suffering. The central event of this period (c. 66-70) is the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and the Temple [70 A.D.] (vv. 8-11, 20-24)
    • (An intervening period during which Jerusalem is “trampled” by the Gentiles [Romans], i.e. the “times of the nations”, of unspecified length, v. 24)
    • A time of distress for all the Nations, again marked by signs in heaven, etc (vv. 25-26)
    • The coming of the Son of Man—the end of the current Age and the manifestation/realization of the Kingdom of God (vv. 27-28, 31)

The “Rapture” of 1 Thess 4:17 corresponds with the coming of the Son of Man (understood as the return of Jesus), and the gathering of the Elect (believers), at the conclusion of this chronology (Mk 13:27 par). The coming of the Son of Man (Jesus) also ushers in the final Judgment, though this is only implied in the Discourse (Mk 13:24-25, 32ff par); Matthew’s version expounds it more clearly (the parables in chap. 25, esp. verses 31-46), as does Paul in 2 Thess 1:6-10 (cf. Part 1).

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