Two companies of saints respond to that great commanding shout in I Thessalonians 4:13-18: (A) The dead in Christ (hoi nekroi en Christo) shall rise first” (v16). The same verb used of Christ (v14) is used here of the resurrection of His own. The limiting phrase, “in Christ,” shows that this resurrection is confined to believers who have died from Pentecost, the incorporation of the Church. This limitation is supported by a number of Scriptural arguments. (a) The phrase “in Christ” is the NT term used only of believers in this gospel age. (b) The phrase “they that are Christ’s” (1Cor 15:23) is wider and includes believers of every age; but there are different “orders” or “ranks” in the resurrection unto life. Believers in the Church are just one of the ranks: “but every man in his own order.” (c) The resurrection of OT saints must be left where the OT places it in the divine timetable, at the close of the Tribulation period (Dan 12:1-2). Any interpretation that spiritualizes this resurrection to make it refer to the spiritual recovery of the nation of Israel stands self-condemned, misinterprets the passage, and misreads the context. This resurrection will include believers who have died in the Tribulation period (Rev 20:4-6).
(B) “We which are alive and remain” (hemeis hoi zontes perileipomenoi); living believers comprise the second company. Responding to that summons, their very bodies changing (1Cor 15:51-57), rising, they mingle and become one company (sun autois). Simultaneously, they are “caught up together.” The verb (harpazo) inherently has the idea of force in it: “take by force” (John 6:15) or “pluck away” (John 10:28); but “catch up or catch away” is a good translation. So translated on five other occasions in the AV (Matt 13:19; Acts 8:39; 2Cor 12:2, 4; Rev 12:5), it simply implies a swift, sudden removal of each believer by a superior force. In the Vulgate, the Latin word used by Jerome (345-420 BC) for harpazo is rapio, rapere, which translates into English as “to tear, to snatch, to carry off, to seize quickly.” It is by this Latin-based word that, in more recent times, believers have come to refer to this event as the Rapture. Such an endearing term delights our hearts.
First Thessalonians 4 deals with the problem of saints who have died before the Lord comes for the Church. In 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, the apostle has to consider a different angle – the problem posed by saints who are alive when the Lord comes. The dead saints, in this case, offer no problem. Their bodies, in rising from the grave, put on the incorruptible body patterned on Christ’s body. Since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v50), the bodies of living saints must be changed. Paul writes, “Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump” (v51). In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the same trumpet is mentioned. For living believers, it is the signal for being clothed upon with the new body fitted for the kingdom. Incorruptibility and immortality belong inherently to this body (Phil 3:20-21). The change takes place in an instant of time; so quickly it cannot be measured by human technology.
At His ascension “a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), and now the clouds receive the saints as they leave earth behind and move “to meet the Lord in the air” (1Thes 4:17). There is no suggestion in either passage that the clouds should be other than literal clouds, beyond which the saints have that special meeting with their Lord in the air. There is no obvious reason why air should not carry its normal NT meaning of “atmosphere,” so it will be behind the clouds in the atmosphere of the heavens, in its nearness to earth, and will thus be a testimony of the triumph of the power of Christ over Satanic power, calling away His Bride from earth. In Hellenistic Greek the word “meeting” carries the thought of a ceremonial presentation to a superior dignity but perhaps, in this context, Paul makes use of the basic meaning of the word “meeting,” as the Church, the Bride, meets her Lord as the Bridegroom. What a meeting that will be!
Paul does not tell us what follows the meeting in the air. For Paul, for the troubled Thessalonians, and for us, the ultimate comfort lies in the next sentence, “and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (v17). No believer needs anything beyond this absolute assurance. Here we rest. Eternity carries not the slightest fear.