The rapture and the second coming of Christ are often confused. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a scripture verse is referring to the rapture or the second coming. However, in studying end-times Bible prophecy, it is very important to differentiate between the two.
The rapture is when Jesus Christ returns to remove the church (all believers in Christ) from the earth. The rapture is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. Believers who have died will have their bodies resurrected and, along with believers who are still living, will meet the Lord in the air. This will all occur in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye. The second coming is when Jesus returns to defeat the Antichrist, destroy evil, and establish His millennial kingdom. The second coming is described in Revelation 19:11-16.
To understand fully the scriptures that deal with the rapture of the church, there will be two separate Bible studies. In Part 1 we will study and meditate on 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; and in Part 2, we will be studying and meditating on 1 Corinthians 15: 50-54.
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
The Thessalonians were wondering why many of their fellow believers had fallen asleep (died) and what would happen to them when Christ returned. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand that death is not the end of the story. When Christ returns, all believers – dead and alive – will be reunited, never to suffer or die again.
"fallen asleep": This is a metaphor for dying. Though Paul had taught the Thessalonians about Christ’s return when he was there, apparently Timothy had encountered further questions on the subject, possibly arising from the death of some of the new converts. In answer to these questions, Paul stated that he wanted them to be informed, and also to be comforted by the hope of seeing their loved ones again. This was a hope their pagan neighbors did not have.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
This hope ((1 Thess. 4:13) for the dead Christians was as certain as the fact of the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul says that God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. Some have inferred from this statement that departed Christians are unconscious until the Second Coming. But the Bible indicates that to be absent from our present body is to be present with the Lord Jesus ((1 Thess. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). Accordingly when a Christian dies, it is the body that sleeps; the soul goes to heaven.
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 by no means precede those who are asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
What does Paul mean when he says, “by the word of the Lord?” Either this was something that the Lord had revealed directly to Paul, or it was a teaching of Jesus that had been passed along orally by the apostles and other Christians.
Paul believed that Christ could come in his lifetime, and so did the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:10). "precede those who are asleep": Evidently the Thessalonians were concerned that believers who had died would miss the glory associated with the Second Coming. Paul answers their question by affirming that actually those who were dead would go before (1 Thess. 4:16) those living on earth.
Knowing exactly when the dead will be raised, in relation to the other events at the second coming, is not as important as knowing why Paul wrote these words – to challenge believers to comfort and encourage one another when loved ones die. This passage can be a great comfort when any believer dies. The same love that should unite believers in this life (1 Thess. 4:9) will unite believers when Christ returns and reigns for eternity.
Because Jesus Christ came back to life, so will all believers. All Christians, including those living when Christ returns, will live with Christ forever. Therefore, we need not despair when loved ones die or world events take a tragic turn. God will turn our tragedies to triumphs, or poverty to riches, our pain to glory, and our defeat to victory. All believers throughout history will stand re-united in God’s very presence, safe and secure. As Paul comforted the Thessalonians with the promise of the resurrection, so we should comfort and reassure each other with this great hope.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
Accompanying the descent of Christ from heaven will be the voice of an archangel, perhaps Michael, who is portrayed as the leader of the army of God (Dan. 10:13, 21; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7–9). The only other angel named in Scripture is Gabriel, who is given a prominent role as a messenger of God (Dan. 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19, 26). The archangel’s voice will be one of triumph because of the great victory at the coming of Christ, culminating thousands of years of spiritual conflict with Satan. The final signal will be the trumpet of God. The three elements consisting of the shout of the Lord Himself, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God will perhaps be separate events occurring in rapid succession.
The doctrine of the resurrection is a central doctrine of the Christian faith, including as it does the resurrection of Christ and, ultimately, the resurrection of all people. The answer to the question as to how the dead can be raised when the remains of their bodies are in some cases totally scattered is not a problem for a supernatural God who created the world. Clearly the resurrection will be a physical resurrection in which bodily existence will be restored, as confirmed in 1 Cor. 15:51–53. The resurrected bodies of Christians will be like that of Christ (1 John 3:2), incorruptible and immortal, and yet they will be bodies of flesh and bone (Luke 24:39, 40; John 20:20, 25, 27). They all will be recognizable, as was the resurrected body of Christ.
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4: 17-18)
Living Christians will be caught up together with the other believers in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. In the clouds probably refers to atmospheric clouds that also will attend the Second Coming (Rev. 1:7), or it may be the resurrected multitudes who are referred to as a cloud (Heb. 12:1). In the Bible, the Lord is often accompanied by clouds, signifying His glory (Ps. 68:4; 97:2). The important result is that we shall always be with the Lord.
The word "rapture" comes from Paul's "caught up" remark in verse 17. The words "caught up" are translated from the Greek word harpazo, which means "to carry off," "snatch up," or "grasp hastily." The translation from harpazo to "rapture" involved two steps: first, harpazo became the Latin word raptus; second, raptus became the English word "rapture."
The wonderful truth described (1 Thess. 4:13-17) is to be a comfort to the Thessalonians and to all Christians. They had mistakenly thought that only those who were alive at the time of the coming of Christ would witness and share in the glory of it. The fact is that Christians who have died will be raised first and so go before the living to the gathering in the sky. Observe that Paul expects a practical, immediate response to this great doctrinal teaching of the Second Coming. The Thessalonians should remind one another of this truth as a source of comfort in the face of death. The sentence is in the present tense, indicating that it should be a constant comfort to us to think each day that the Lord may come.
References: NKJV Holy Bible, Life Application Bible (NIV), the Nelson Study Bible.