Meeting the Lord in the air

Does 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 model an imperial imagery? Or does it promise a glorious rapture-ascension ?

Charles V. Jenson is the pastor of Chapel Oaks Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kansas City, Kansas.

A study by Robert H. Gundry on the eschatology of Paul's epistle to the Thessalonians1 has posed an interesting challenge to the traditional Seventh-day Adventist under standing of Christ's return and the rapture-ascension2 of the saints to heaven.

According to Gundry, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 speaks of Christ returning in glory, being met in the clouds by His saints, and descending to the earth. Gundry believes that Paul adapted the words of Jesus in John 11:25, 26 concerning the resurrection to announce to the Thessalonians the return of Jesus.3 Gundry further holds that Paul "Hellenized" the teachings of Jesus for his Gentile readers. The apostle's use of words such as parousia (coming) and apantesis (meeting) and of trumpet fan fare leads Gundry to see in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 the return of Jesus along the lines of an ancient imperial approach to a city. In the imperial model, the citizens of the city would exit the gate, meet the imperial personage, and escort him back to the city. Gundry points out that the word apantesis is used in ancient literature for such a meeting and ceremonial entrance.4

The implications of Gundry's position are obvious: If Christ comes down to earth from the "meeting in the air" and establishes His earthly reign at that time, an ascension cannot be part of the complex of events at His return. While such an interpretation is commonly used to refute the dispensational "secret rapture" theory,5 the challenge to the traditional Adventist teaching is clear. Is Gundry right in so interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17? Is Adventism's teaching on rapture-ascension biblically correct?

This article will set forth biblical evidence that establishes the return of Christ and the rapture-ascension of the saints as taught by Seventh-day Adventists. We will first address two questions: (1) Does the Bible picture the saints as being in heaven at some future time? (2) Does the Bible speak clearly of a rapture-ascension? Then we will deal with 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and Gundry's challenge.

The saints in heaven

In the Old Testament the hope of God's saints was in a restored and beautified earth. References to this abound in the prophets (e.g., Isa. 11; 60-66; Hosea 1:10, 11; 14:4-9; Joel 3:18-21). Isaiah declares to the holy ones of Zion: "Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; they will see the land that is very far off" (Isa. 33:17).6 The prophet puts a question in the mouths of Zion's hypocrites and provides the divine answer: "Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, he who despises the gain of oppressions" (verses 14,15). Even though sinners ask the question, Isaiah places the righteous in God's eternal presence, defined as being "on high" (verse 5).

Turning to the New Testament, we find Jesus speaking of entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 19:23, 24); of obtaining the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3, 10); of the righteous shining forth as the sun in their Father's kingdom (Matt. 13:43); and of tax collectors and harlots entering God's kingdom (Matt. 21:31). Often Jesus' references to the heavenly kingdom had to do with the work of grace operating then and now upon the lives of sinners. Where the future aspect of the kingdom is prominent, the location is not clearly dis cussed.

Jesus assured the repentant thief on the cross that he would be with Him in Paradise (Luke 23:43).7 Here we have an intimation of the reward of the just. By comparing this passage with 2 Corinthians 12:4, where Paul's "acquaintance" was caught up into Paradise, and Revelation 2:7, where the overcomers have the promise of eating from the tree of life in the Paradise of God, it becomes clear that at some point in the future the righteous will be in Paradise.

Jesus' prayer in John 17 reveals our Lord's intention to have His disciples of all ages join Him in heaven. Notice the references to heaven in these: "Glorify Me together with Yourself (verse 5); "I am no longer in the world... and I come to You" (verse 11); "Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am" (verse 24).

Other New Testament passages point to heaven as the dwelling place of God's people. Hebrews 11:10 speaks of Abraham looking for "the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God." He and other patriarchs desired "a heavenly country" (verse 16). Ephesians 2:6, 7 pictures the prospect of sitting "together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace." Finally, the apostle John portrays a heavenly reward: "I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God" (Rev. 3:12); "I will grant [him] to sit with Me on My throne" (verse 21). John also saw a great multitude standing be fore the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-17), having come out of the great tribulation.

From these it is seen that the righteous will at some point in the future, and for some duration, be in heaven.8

The rapture-ascension

Now to the second question: Does the Bible speak clearly of the saints being raptured and taken to heaven at Christ's return? Jesus spoke of angels at His coming gathering His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt. 24:31; see Ps. 50:1-5). Here is lateral motion and not necessarily upward motion.

In Paul's writings even that great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, says nothing about being taken to heaven. First Thessalonians 4:13-18 does not mention an ascension to heaven. The saints are "caught up" 9 in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Nothing is said of the direction of travel from that point on. Paul assures us that we will always be with the Lord (verse 7), but leaves the Lord and His beloved church suspended in the air.

John's Gospel, though, suggests an actual journey to heaven at Christ's re turn. In John 14:1-3 Jesus plainly declared that He was going to prepare rooms for His disciples in His Father's house. This is clearly in heaven, the Father's abode, where He had already said He would go (John 7:33). Jesus also clearly stated His intention to return "I will come again" (John 14:3). Jesus' plan to be reunited with His disciples is also clear from the words "receive you to Myself."

Does the verb "receive" imply a journey to heaven? Two observations are in order. First, the verb is a compound form of the simple lambano (to take), which means "to take to oneself," "to take along," or "to take with." I0 The use of the compound form paralambano certainly accommodates and in fact, strongly suggests the idea that Jesus takes His saints up to the rooms prepared for them.

Second, the context around the verb makes a rapture-ascension to heaven mandatory. Jesus is returning from heaven to take us to heaven.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

We now turn our attention to 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and look at several key elements in this passage.

It must be granted that the passage, as Gundry points out, has words evoking the imagery of an imperial visit. The words parousia (verse 15) and apantesis (verse 17) are associated with the heralding angel's shout and the trumpet blast. Christ in His position as imperial Lord descends. In 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20 Paul associates glory Joy, and a crown of exultation with Christ's parousia, thus heightening the event. Does this fact mean that Christ's return must correspond to the Hellenistic model in every respect? The answer is clearly no.

The word parousia (coming), though often used in the special sense described above,11 is also widely used in a common way. It occurs 24 times in the New Testament: six times in connection with the arrival of Paul or his associates, once involving the coming of the man of sin (2 Thess. 2:9), and the rest dealing with Christ's return. There are enough dis similarities between the imperial model and the many passages in which parousia announces Christ's return that one should be more tentative in making the two events exactly parallel. 12 Note, for ex ample, the special, predicted signs of Christ's parousia: the false signs and false messiahs, and the accompanying lightning and clouds (Matt. 24:24, 27, 29, 30; Rev. 1:7).

As to the word apantesis (meeting), a greater case might be made in Gundry's favor, considering the New Testament usage of the word. The word occurs in three other places: In Matthew 25:1, 6 the 10 virgins are called to go out to meet13 the bridegroom; the five wise ones meet the groom and then accompany him to the feast. In Acts 28:15 believers in Rome, hearing of Paul's approach as a prisoner, go out as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns to meet him and presumably escort him back to Rome.

However, the word apantesis in it self has nothing that demands such an interpretation. In each case the context must be the determining factor. Apantesis simply means "a meeting." The Septuagint also uses it in this sense (see 1 Sam. 15:12).

F. F. Bruce, commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4:17, cites examples of the imperial use of apantesis, and then concludes:

"These analogies [Matt. 25 and Acts 28] (especially in association with the term parousia}) suggests the possibility that the Lord is pictured here as escorted on the remainder of His journey to earth by His people... But there is nothing in the word [apantesis] or in this context which demands this interpretation; it cannot be determined from what is said here whether the Lord (with His people) continues His journey to earth or returns to heaven." 14

As is so often the case, one passage of Scripture considered alone might lead to one conclusion, but when placed in the context of all other passages on the given subject might lead to another conclusion. Paul may have indeed been influenced by imperial scenes as he penned 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, but such imagery pales in comparison with the scene he described. When informed by John 17 and 14:1-3, as well as other texts, it is clear that 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 may conform, if at all, to the Hellenistic model only in certain features.

Christ, according to Paul, will return and rapture His waiting saints. The rapture places the Lord's beloved with Him in the clouds in the air. It is left to Jesus, in John's Gospel, to complete the picture. The saints then ascend to the Father's house and the Father's throne.

A final word about Gundry's imperial model. Is it possible that the Hellenistic imagery is completely reversed in the Bible? After all, it is God's church in all ages that has prevailed and overcome and been victorious over Satan (Rev. 12:11), and each victor will sit on the throne (Rev. 3:21). Once the conflict is over, Christ throws open the gates of the heavenly city, then with the angelic host leaves the New Jerusalem and descends to meet and escort His victorious saints to the eternal city. "And thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17).

1 Robert H. Gundry, "The Hellenization of
Dominical Tradition and Christianization of Jewish
Tradition in the Eschatology of 1-2
Thessalonians" New Testament Studies 33 (1987):
161-178.

2 Thus designated so as to distinguish the
event from that envisioned by "secret rapture"
proponents, who often refer to the secret rapture
as only the rapture.

3 There is a bewildering array of opinions as to
what Paul means in saying "For this we say to you
by the word of the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:15). Is Paul
reinterpreting something Christ said during His
earthly mission? Did Paul receive this informa
tion directly from the Lord? Efforts to solve this
problem will no doubt remain fruitless. It is enough
for those of faith to simply accept this passage as
"of the Lord."

4 Gundry, pp. 162-166.

5 Among dispensationalists there are several
schools of thought on the secret rapture. We make
no attempt here to distinguish among them. By
secret rapture we refer to the doctrine that Christ
would return in secret, seen only by believers, to
It is God's church in all ages that has prevailed and overcome
and been victorious over Satan, and each victor will sit on the
throne, rapture the church quietly and mysteriously into
the clouds and on to heaven, there to remain for
seven years. After this period Christ returns in
glory with His saints.

6 All Scripture passages in this article are from
the New King James Version.

7 The popular idea that the repentant thief
departed that day for Paradise is unwarranted and
flies in the face of the clear Biblical teaching of the
nature of man and death. The Bible portrays death
as an unconscious state, a condition of "sleep."
Jesus, on the cross, gave the repentant thief the
immediate assurance, "today," that he would, fol
lowing the resurrection, be with Jesus in Paradise.

8 Seventh-day Adventists teach that the Second
Coming and rapture-ascension inaugurates
the millennium and that the saints will spend the
1,000 years of Revelation 20 in heaven. At the end
of this period the New Jerusalem descends, the
final judgment takes place, and the earth is re
stored to Edenic beauty to become the eternal
home of the blessed.

9 From the Greek word harpazo, from which
we get the word harpoon. It means "to seize," "to
steal," "to carry off." See F. W. Gingrich, Shorter
Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 28.
The Latin translation of harpadzo here is
rapio from which we get the English word "rapture."
Technically, the rapture gets the saints only
as far as the clouds (see 1 Thess. 4:17). Thus, we
have added the word "ascension" to complete the
journey heavenward.

10 Gingrich, pp. 161, 162.

11 Gundry, pp. 162, 163.

12 Commonly, the New Testament writers
employed Greek words and imagery, but invested
them with distinct Christian meaning.

13 Interestingly, several Bible versions, including
ing the KJV and the NKJV, translate the noun
apantesis, as an infinitive in each of its four occurences.

14 F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, in David
A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds., Word
Biblical Commentary (Waco, Tex.: Word Books,
1982), vol. 45, pp. 102, 103.


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Charles V. Jenson is the pastor of Chapel Oaks Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kansas City, Kansas.

February 1993

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