In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul writes that, "We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." Is this describing what some call a "rapture" or is there some other kind of event being depicted?
1 Thess. 4:14-18
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.
Taking just this as context, what can be gathered are the following:
- The event mentioned is in regard to the "Coming of the Lord" stated in a future tense.
- There is the inherent belief assumed in the resurrection of Jesus, and as an extension, the consolation that those who are sleeping (read dead) will also be resurrected at the aforementioned event.
- The Lord will be descending from heaven (in the same way He ascended), and this is when
a) The dead are resurrected
b) The remaining alive join with them and meet the Lord mid-air
In that order
- After the mid-air meeting, The Lord and the Church (i.e. people addressed) will not be separated again.
The entire purpose and tone of the message concentrates less on the event and more on the claim that:
Those who have died will not miss out on anything at all when The Lord comes back, in fact their turn would be first.
This passage was written more with the intent of consoling the people of the Church in that particular aspect and giving them hope more than describing what would happen on that particular day.
Now that is more or less the event described. You may choose to refer to it as the rapture, but as far as I am aware, the term is only used in popular culture and not one mentioned inside the Bible.
However, as far as any normal discussion is concerned; Yes, this is the passage describing the rapture incident as is popularly defined.
Rapture: The transporting of believers to heaven at the Second Coming of Christ
Also, as James Shewey mentioned, the origin of the word rapture might make it clearer as to why the incident is called so. Rapture comes from Latin and means something in the lines of being caught up or carried away or seizing, the word was also apparently partly influenced by the English word rapt
That being said, there are a few details in the event that are not very clear:
- Does the Church fly till they reach the Lord or is it instantaneous, like a teleportation of sorts:
unclear here but probably instantaneous, at least one translation uses rushed, but most probably the passage below is mentioning the same event, in which case it is instantaneous. However, if this is the same incident, then in the following verses, it is mentioned that the people (at least the Church) are changed (popularly believed to be the physical change of receiving a new body, as of a heavenly being) and become immortal in this process.
1 Cor. 51,52
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Does everyone go up or do they come back down immediately after?
not mentioned, and this is my assumption:
So all of them, after meeting mid air meeting come down and rule the world for the next 1000 years, following this millennial rule, following this all the remaining dead people will be resurrected (in the resurrection mentioned in the rapture, only the dead in Christ would be resurrected!)
taking cue from
5 But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
As for when this is supposed to happen, The Bible is very clear on this one aspect. No one knows the answer to that question but God, The Father,
Mathew 24:36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone..."
1 Thess. 5:1,2 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.
An extension of the previous point, It can be safely assumed from the initial verses of Chapter 5 (i.e. the verses just following the description of the event) that the day of the Lord is the same as the incident described, or at least is in the same time period; in which case there will some more incidents related to the time as is mentioned in Acts (quoted from Joel):
17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams;
18 Even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit And they shall prophesy.
19 ‘And I will grant wonders in the sky above And signs on the earth below, Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.
20 ‘The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood, Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.
Paul is ostensibly depicting the same event that Jesus does in Matthew 24:31. This event is the gathering of the elect or righteous. The following passage, as well as Pauls in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, gave rise to the much later rapture doctrine.
Matthew 24:31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
You really need to read the entire section to understand what is going on here, it is not important "how" it happens but that it "happens". The Thessalonians were worrying themselves about the believers that have already died. Paul is telling them not to grieve as the pagans do, that they should rejoice because Jesus will come again and raise the believers from the dead, and then take the living believers as well, that all those that believe will be with God that day regardless of whether they suffered physical death here on the earth or they are taken on the day that Christ returns.
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Throughout the Bible, Heaven has been above and Hell has been below, which means that when we go to Heaven, when Jesus calls the believers home, we will rise to Heaven and be brought back to fellowship with God. This means that it is a literal rising to Heaven.
The Rapture, is described by Wikipedia as
believers who have died will be raised and believers who are still alive and remain shall be caught up together with them (the resurrected dead believers) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
This is exactly what Paul is referring to here, he was telling the Thessalonians that they should not grieve for the dead as the pagans do, because all believers, alive and dead, are alive in Christ who has risen from the dead and is Alive.
This is exactly what some people refer to as "The Rapture" where Christ calls the Believers home.