1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 The Rapture of God’s People

Written by Paul J Bucknell on May, 05, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 The Rapture of God’s People

The Question

Does the Word of God use the word ‘rapture?’ Has the Bible ever described what people call the rapture? What is the Rapture?

The Word ‘rapture’ in the Bible

The word ‘rapture’ has taken a front seat in many theological discussions. Your questions on whether the Bible uses the word ‘rapture’ cuts right to the issue. There is lots to understand, but your question rightly frames such theological discussions. The word’s usage largely comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess 4:13-18)

You will not find the word ‘rapture’ in this key passage.

To do a more thorough study, I went to Bible Gateway and searched “rapture” in different versions. The NASB did not have any such words in the Scriptures but interestingly did bring up 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (see above in bold). The word ‘rapture,’ through our understanding of 1 Thessalonians 4, instructs us that upon Jesus’ return those living Christians (those who are alive) will “be caught up [i.e., rapture] together with them in the clouds” (1 Thes 4:17).

A dictionary relates that the word rapture, in its verb form, is in modern times coined by Christians. As a noun, it means intense pleasure or enthusiasm. This is not related. The Apple dictionary provides a connection to the adjective rapt (completely fascinated) in its archaic meaning: “having been carried away bodily or transported to heaven: he was rapt on high.” And so, it appears the verb ‘to rapture’ is a newly used verb among Christians. Perhaps, this is the reason it is not used in Bible translations!

I list some translations for 1 Thes 4:17 below. You can see for yourself how the phrase “caught up” is differently translated.
You will note that these versions represent the standard, literal translations (NASB, ESV) as well as the modern King James (New King James) based on a slightly different set of manuscripts. The list also includes the ancient translation (Wycliffe) as well as, most surprisingly, the Darby translation by John Darby who popularized the Premillennial pre-tribulation (shortened: pretrib) rapture concept. Not even he used ‘rapture’ in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

  • New Living Translation: “will be caught up in the clouds”
  • New King James Version: “shall be caught up together with them”
  • Wycliffe Bible: “shall be snatched (up) together”
  • Darby Translation: “shall be caught up together with them”
  • English Standard Version: “will be caught up together with them”

Although I did not look at every last version, we should see that no translation uses rapture. The verb came to popularity among Christians after the concept was popularized. And so, though the word ‘rapture’ is not in the Bible, it is commonly used among Christians. So we need to investigate what is the rapture and should we be using that word.

Is the rapture a biblical concept?

As noted above, the word rapture often is used in conversation instead of the commonly translated word “caught up.” Only the ancient Wycliffe translation uses another word—“snatched up,” which in modern English connotates ‘gathered by hand.’ The original Greek word (har-pad’-zo) means: to seize, take by force, or snatched. The NET2 translation has this note:

“Or “snatched up.” The Greek verb ἁρπάζω implies that the action is quick or forceful, so the translation supplied the adverb “suddenly” to make this implicit notion clear. (https://netbible.org/bible/1+Thessalonians+4)

From my understanding of the common usage among Christians, “rapture” means to be made to rise rapidly, which is not exactly the emphasis of the Greek word. The translations largely use the phrase “caught up,” which is a bit closer to the original Greek, clearly avoiding the use of rapture. The sense “caught up” is gained by the context rather than the Greek word, which means seized, taken by force, or snatched away. And, perhaps, we need to let the context remind us that this was a word of comfort (4:18). Perhaps, “seize” or “forced” capture the idea that nothing that is going on earth can stop Christ’s rescue of the living Christians upon His return. This same Greek verb is also used in Acts 8:39, where Philip was snatched away after evangelizing the Ethiopian eunuch and in 2 Corinthians 12:2 where Paul was caught up by the Lord to the third heaven.

Interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

Let me go one step further to give a brief explanation of the different ways this passage is understood. Christians tend to get right to the issue of the rapture and forget some basic facts.
One might conclude that the timing of Christ’s return here is obvious—upon Christ’s second return, but it far from widely accepted.

  • When: Upon Christ’s return in the clouds
  • Who: Genuine Christians alone are referenced
  • Who: It is only applicable to living Christians
  • Who: The other group of Christians mentions those who have already died and are with Christ
  • Where: These Christians will be brought up into Christ’s presence and evidently merged together as one.

Billy Graham explains,

“There are many Christians who believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ will be in two phases. First, He will come for believers, both living and dead, in the “rapture” (read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). In this view, the rapture—which is the transformation and catching up of all Christians, dead or alive, to meet Christ in the air—will be secret, for it will be unknown to the world of unbelievers at the time of its happening.”

This two-phase coming of Jesus Christ does not have a long history. Briefly, Darby taught it in Britain and Scoffield’s Bible in America has popularized the pre-tribulation rapture articulating a partial return—Jesus comes partway (in the clouds and not to the earth).

I remember quite clearly hearing all this talk about the rapture back in the 1970s. But when I looked carefully at the actual verses that they referred, I surprisingly found many missing details! They hold to a quasi-coming of Christ before His final coming.

The premillennialists hold to complicated positions and interpretations to force this understanding upon this passage. For example, why is it that they are convinced that Jesus first comes and takes His people up in the cloud so that they miss the tribulation period? Does this passage teach that? They hold to a literal seven-year tribulation and that the rapture to come before the seven years start (and even be one of the igniting points of the tribulation). But they are not agreed, and so we have several kinds of premillennialists including the mid-tribulationists who believe the rapture happens during the middle (3 ½ years in) of the seven-year tribulation period. At the same time, the post-tribulationists conclude that this event is not a special event different from Christ’s return but the same. Again, being steeped in their understanding of the last times, ‘pre-tribbers’ refer to many verses to create this pre-trib scheme. I don’t find this pre-return biblical. Please read my study in Revelation that refutes how the premillennialists justify their two-phase coming interpretation in Revelation 3-4.

Another possibility

One speaker stated that the idea of a rapture was something totally new and introduced by Paul in our text (and 1 Cor 15). They want to distinguish between calling the saints in the air from Christ’s rule on earth at His second coming. But when we look at Jesus’ words, we do see the same teaching of calling the saints into the air upon His return. “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Mat 24:31). This, Jesus states, is one sign of His return. The saints will be gathered “from one end of the sky to the other.” Instead of insisting what Paul said was a new revelation in the area of eschatology, it’s much more normal to see the “rapture” as timed at Jesus’ return—just as Jesus clearly states.

A Conclusion

For me, the most crucial danger is the associated doctrine, separating Jesus’ catching up the living saints different from His grand coming. The 1 Thessalonians 4 passage makes it look final. The sound of the trumpet ushers in the judgment. I know, Premillennialists differentiate varying trumpets, etc., but the apparent meaning is different from what the ‘pretribbers’ state. This specialized interpretation doesn’t matter except some people have used this understanding and redefined God’s love and plan. They say (for example, Lahaye’s ‘Left Behind’ series) that God loves us and will not let His people go through the tribulation. This message, even if they do not state it, has affected many people’s understanding of God and His love. As a result, they are unprepared for severe tribulation, naively saying to themselves, “God loves us and will never allow us to go through the tribulation.” The message of Revelation is not to promise Christians that they will not go through the tribulation but to prepare them for enduring it.

Study Questions for the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

  1. Study only the text of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and list the facts one can draw just from this passage.
  2. What does the verb ‘to rapture’ mean?
  3. What does the original Greek word for rapture mean?
  4. Is the word ‘rapture’ used in the Bible?
  5. Does it make a difference if the word ‘rapture’ is in the Bible?
  6. Pre-tribulationists believe in how many phases of Christ return? Explain them.
  7. How does Matthew 24:31 fit in with the concept with the rapture? Why do people (i.e., pretrib rapturists separate the two)?
  8. Where do they get their support for this interpretation?
  9. What do you believe about the ‘rapture’?
  10. What is the danger the author highlights regarding the adoption of the pre-tribulation rapture?


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