The Rapture of the Church

1 Thessalonians

The Rapture of the Church

February 19th, 1984 @ 10:50 AM

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

2-19-84    10:50 a.m.


Welcome, the uncounted multitudes of you who are listening to this service on radio and are sharing it on television.  This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Rapture of the Church.  It is the second in the series of doctrinal messages on eschatology—on the end time, on the Second Coming of our Lord—The Rapture of the Church.

The reading of our passage is in 1 Thessalonians 4. 1 Thessalonians 4, beginning at verse 13.  1 Thessalonians chapter 4, beginning at verse 13:

But I would not have you to be without knowledge, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord

—it’s a revelation from God Himself—that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep.

For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.

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 so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Wherefore, parakaléō—“Paraclete”—a name for the Holy Spirit of God—comfort one another with these words.

[1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]

Every chapter of the First and the Second Thessalonian letters closes with a reference and a description of the second coming of Christ [1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:14-7, 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10, 2:1-14, 3:5].  And this chapter, the fourth of 1 Thessalonians, closes with a description of the rapture of the people of God, the church of our Lord, when He comes for His own.

A sarcastic half-infidel writing about the Bible will say to us, “There is no such word in the Bible as the ‘rapture.’”  Well, in the King James Version, that’s correct.  In the King James Version, there is no word “rapture” just as there is no word “Trinity” or many other of the great ecclesiastical descriptive nomenclatures of the faith. But Trinity is in the Bible though the word is not used.

For example, the Second Corinthian letter in 2 Corinthians chapter 13 and verse 14 closes with: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”—that’s one—“and the love of God”—that’s two—“and the communion of the Holy Spirit”—that’s three—“be with you all”: the Trinity [2 Corinthians 13:14].  It is a great fundamental revelation of the personality of God—the essence of God: three in one, Trinity, though the word [is] not used in the Bible ever.

So with the word “rapture”—the word “rapture” is not in the Bible.  But, it is a translation of this word in the passage I just read when the Apostle says there is a generation that will be living at the time the Lord descends from heaven, and these who remain alive unto the coming of the Lord shall be harpazō—harpazō [1 Thessalonians 4:17]What in the world does harpazō mean?  It is used here, and it is used in 2 Corinthians 12:4: harpazō.

Well, the word means “to snatch away.”  It means “to take suddenly away.”  I would translate it—it means “to kidnap”:  harpazō.  And it is used in 2 Corinthians 12:4 when Paul says, “I was harpazō up to paradise, up to the third heaven.”  And here He says this generation that will be alive in the earth at the coming of Christ will be harpazō [1 Thessalonians 4:17].

Now in the English, in the King James Version, it is translated “caught up.”  Paul says, “I was harpazō—I was caught up to God” [2 Corinthians 12:4].  And in this passage, this generation that will be alive when the Lord comes will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.

Now Jerome, in translating the Latin Vulgate, translated “rapture”—rapere, rapere, raptured, caught up to meet the Lord in the air.  And that’s where we get the word “rapture.”  It is as fine a theological term as you could ever discover in interpreting and understanding the depth of the glory of the word of the revelation of God.

Now he says here: “This we say unto you by the word of the Lord” [1 Thessalonians 4:15].  This is something that our Lord has revealed to us.  Now, it is very plain what he means when he says “by the word of the Lord”—this rapture of God’s people.  The Old Testament is filled from beginning to ending with marvelous prophecies of the coming of Messiah Christ, but they never saw but one coming.  In the same breath, in the same sentence, sometimes in the same clause, they would speak of the glorious coming of our Lord: a suffering Servant and a reigning King [Isaiah 9:6-7, 52:6-53:12].  They were never able to differentiate between the two phases of our Lord’s coming.

He was coming first, born of a virgin, to die for our sins, to redeem a fallen humanity [Isaiah 7:14, 53:10-11].  But, He was also coming to be King over all God’s creation: of the things in heaven, the hosts in glory, of the things in the earth and the things under the earth, in the abyss, in the netherworld, in the world of the dead.  He’s coming to be King and Lord over all [Isaiah 42:1-13; 60-66].

Now those prophets in the Old Testament who were constantly prophesying, prognosticating, foretelling the coming of this Lord Messiah, they never saw those two comings; and they never saw the interpolation, the parenthesis, the intermission in between the two.  In their minds, there was just one great coming.

The fact that there were two was a secret that God kept in His heart.  Paul speaks of that.  He calls it a mustērion, “a mystery, a secret that was unrevealed” until it was revealed to His holy apostles [1 Corinthians 15:51-52].  And Jesus began to unfold it when He was here in the earth.

Now what those Old Testament prophets had spoken of, the coming of our Lord as a great and mighty and reigning King, was reflected and reiterated in the expectations of the apostles and the disciples of Christ.  They, reading the Old Testament Scriptures, naturally looked forward to the one great appearance of the Lord Messiah Christ.

So in the presence of the Lord Jesus, in His coming, in His presence, in His parousia, in His being there, they were looking for the fulfillment of all of those Old Testament prophecies then and there [Luke 24:19-21].  They were looking for the Lord Messiah Jesus to be reigning King over all God’s creation and over the earth.  They were expecting Him to break the power of the Roman yoke and set Israel free.  They were looking for Judah to be exalted among the tribes and in the nations of the world [Acts 1:6]. And they were expecting, in themselves, to be ministers of state in the great messianic, millennial kingdom of the Lord Christ Jesus.  One of them was going to sit on His right hand, and one of them was going to sit on His left hand [Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45].  One of them would be Chancellor of the Exchequer, and each one of them would have an assignment, a portfolio in the cabinet of the kingdom of God.  That’s what the apostles expected.

And when Jesus began to speak to them about His death, they could not understand, and they became infinitely discouraged [Matthew 16:21-23, 17:22-23; Mark 8:31-33, 9:31-34, 14:18-19; Luke 22:45, 24:21].  And when, finally, they saw the Lord Jesus slain and saw Him die, every hope they ever entertained for a messianic kingdom perished in the dust of the ground.  And in an abysmal despair in which we can hardly enter, they bowed their heads in ultimate and final and inglorious defeat [Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:43-52, 66-72, 16:9-11; Luke 22:54-62, John 20:3-10, 19].

But there was a new revelation, Paul says: “By the word of the Lord, I speak” [1 Thessalonians 4:15] There was something new.  The Old Testament never hinted it, and no prophet ever saw it.  In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Matthew, verse 18, Jesus speaks of the church.  That’s the first time the world or the Bible ever heard of a church:  “I will build My church.”

Then, in the sorrowing hearts of the disciples, when the Lord told them He was to be killed and was going away, in the fourteenth chapter of John and the third verse, Jesus said, “Don’t let your heart be troubled—don’t be defeated and discouraged and fallen in despair. If I go away to prepare a place for you in heaven, I will come again and receive you unto Myself.  I am coming back for you” [John 14:3].  And that’s what Paul means when he says: “by the word of the Lord.”

“If I go, I will come again and receive you unto Myself.”  That was the great mustērion, the secret God kept in His heart until He revealed it to His holy apostles.  And when the full revelation was made, there is to be the call of God from the sky, and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then there will be the transfiguration and the translation of the living saints who will rise with the sainted: raised from the grave, from the dead, to meet the Lord and to be with Him forever and forever [1 Corinthians 15:51-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17].

First, he says, there will be a resurrection.  There’s a word there that we translated into English it would be very accurate: e-k—Greek ek.  It means “out from among the dead.”  When the Christian resurrection is referred to, that’s the way the Bible will say it.  It is a resurrection out from among the dead.

It is only the saints in Christ that are ever described in the Bible as “asleep in Jesus.”  That’s never referred to of an unbeliever.  These who sleep in Jesus are those who have fallen in His kind and loving arms.  As the song says, we’re resting on the bosom of Jesus, in the arms of our Lord [“There’s Rest on the Bosom of Jesus,” Harriet M. Kimball, 1873].  They are asleep in Jesus.  They’re not dead.  They still live in a blessedness: in the presence of God in paradise.  And when you sleep, it’s temporary.  You sleep to wake, and the saint dies to be raised again [1 Thessalonians 4:13-17]; and in the Book of the Revelation, that is called the first resurrection.  It is a resurrection out from among the dead [Revelation 20:5-6].

The second resurrection, the final resurrection, is the unbelieving who are raised to be judged at the Great White Throne of God, who are judged according to their works and are sentenced forever into damnation and hell and the lake of fire [Revelation 20:10-15].  But, these in the first resurrection are raised out from among the dead, and they hear the call of God to come up higher to heaven itself.  If an unbelieving man doesn’t hear the call of God in this life, he won’t hear it when God calls to His saints to be raised out from among the dead.

Second thing about it: he says here that there is to be a generation who shall be transfigured—translated, immortalized—after these who have been raised from the dead.  These who are still living when the Lord comes will be caught up, harpazō, rapere, “raptured” to meet the Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:17].

And that, Paul says, is another mystery.  In the 1 Corinthians letter, chapter 15, verse 51:

Behold, I show you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep—we’re not all going to die—but we shall all be changed.

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we, we shall all be changed.

[1 Corinthians 15:51-52]

There is to be a generation—this is the mystery revealed here, kept in the heart of God, the secret—there is to be a generation who will never taste of death.  They’ll never sorrow.  They’ll never cry.  They will be wafted up to glory. Oh, dear, like that song:

Oh, joy! Oh, delight!

Should we go without dying.

No sickness, no sadness,

No dread, and no crying.

Caught up through the clouds

To meet our Lord in the air,

When Jesus comes for His own.

[H.L. Turner, “Christ Returneth”]

That is the second great mystery.  We are going to be caught up—“raptured” to meet the Lord in the air.  Then, Paul writes, there will be the descent of our Lord from heaven.  And he uses three “en”s here, translated “with”: “with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, with the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ shall rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the air—forever to be with our Lord” [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].

So, he says, when the Lord descends, He is coming with a shout: keleuō.  The actual translation of that word is “with a shout of command,” and always it means just that: with a shout of command.  It’s a classical Greek word, and you find it often in classical Greek literature.  A general will keleuō as he addresses his army: a command.  An admiral will address his men on the fleet—keleuō—with a shout of command.  A charioteer driving his horses will keleuō.  He will, with a shout of command, drive those steeds in a chariot race.  That’s the word that is used here exactly.  The Lord is coming with a shout of authority and command—Lord over all, over all.

Did you ever think about this?  In the eleventh chapter of the Book of John, when the Lord Jesus stands in the cemetery, I tell you verily, had He not named Lazarus when He said “Come forth,” the whole cemetery would have come forth to meet Jesus—the whole cemetery [John 11:43-44].  With a shout of command, the Lord shall speak when He descends from heaven and the dead in Christ shall rise first.

Did you notice the second one: “in the voice of the archangel”?  There’s one archangel in the Bible: Michael—Michael.  And Michael is always depicted as the great foe of Satan who has the power of death.  When Moses died, it was Michael who disputed with Satan concerning the body of Moses [Jude 1:9].  What did Satan want with the body of Moses?  To display it: “This is the great friend of God who talked to the Lord God face to face as a man would to his friend.  Look at Him!  Look at Him!  He’s dead!  The power of death I have,” says Satan. And Michael was disputing with him.

In the book of the prophet Daniel, the statesman Daniel, when the Babylonians and when the Persians sought to destroy God’s people, it was Michael who was their great defender and champion [Daniel 10:12-13]. And in the twelfth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, there is war in heaven.  Michael and his angels are fighting Satan—the dragon—and his angels, and Satan prevailed not [Revelation 12:7-9].  And Michael, winning the battle, cries out of heaven and over the earth and in the netherworld: “Satan is defeated!  He that has the power of death and the grave is forever destroyed.”  That’s the voice of the archangel Michael.  “We’ve won.  We’ve won.  We’re triumphant!”

“And with the trumpet of God—with the trumpet of God.”  That’s where I started working on David, about the trumpets of God.  All through the Bible, you’ll find the trumpets.  They blew the trumpet when they were going around Jericho and the walls fell down, blowing the trumpets [Joshua 6:20].  They blew the trumpet at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, the feast of the blowing of the trumpets [Leviticus 23:23-25, Numbers 29:1].  And they blew the trumpets at the Jubilee, every Jubilee—every fiftieth year, after seven times seven, after the forty-ninth, Jubilee year.  It was introduced with the blowing of the trumpets [Leviticus 25:8-9].

In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Matthew, and the first and the fourth chapter of the Revelation, the majesty and glory of God is heralded with the blowing of the trumpets [Matthew 24:30-31; Revelation 1:10-11; Revelation 4:1-11].

And in the Bible, there are two great trumpet sounds, trumpet calls—two of them.  One you will find in the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah when God shall blow the trumpet for the re-gathering of all of Israel into their holy land at which time all Israel will be saved [Isaiah 27:13].  The second great blowing of the trumpet for the re-gathering of His people is here: when God blows the trumpet and it’s the time for God’s people to rise from the dead, to be transfigured and translated and to be forever with their Lord [1 Corinthians 15:51-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:16].

Now the apostle Paul—in this passage, he calls that “the last trumpet.”  We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall be raised incorruptible [1 Corinthians 15:52].

Now what does that mean: “the last trumpet?”  Well, I have read and read and read and read and read, and there are many, many, many, many projected, suggested interpretations of what that means: “when the last trumpet shall sound.”  But the one that appeals to me the most is this: it refers to the blowing of the trumpet by the Roman legionnaire.  The first trumpet, when it is sounded, the soldier is to get to his feet and to strike his tent.  That’s the first trumpet.  The second trumpet sounds when he’s to fall into line.  And the third trumpet sounds when he’s to march away.  That is the last trumpet.  It’s the call to God’s people.  It’s time to be up and away and be gone with the Lord.

Dear me!  The church is called an ekklēsia, a “called out.”  The word exactly means that.  The ones called out— ekklēsia, ek- kaleō—the ones called out.  The church is a called-out assembly of the Lord.  God has called to us salvation.  God has called to us to singing and rejoicing.  God has called us to joy and glory; and someday God shall call us to Himself, and we will be raptured up to be with the Lord forever and ever.  That’s the third and the last trumpet: when God shall call us out of the grave and from the earth to be with Him forever [1 Corinthians 15:52].

Now Paul writes, and he concludes the marvelous revelation with this word: “And so shall we ever be with the Lord.  Wherefore, comfort one another with these words” [1 Thessalonians 4:17-18].  Now, let me translate it as most people would read that: “Wherefore, scare one another with these words.  Dear me, all of this thing of death and of judgment and of the world to come frightens me to death.”  Oh, my brother: “Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.”

Partly that would refer to the fact that we shall live again [John 11:20-26].  We shall live again.  I suppose to someone who is so enmeshed in the business of the world, they don’t think about death; but, my brother, I live in that world and have ever since I was 17 years old when I began my pastoral work over 55 years ago.  I live in a world of death—had a big funeral yesterday—death.

“Comfort one another.”  Partly that refers to the revelation we shall live again.  Partly, maybe, it refers to the revelation that we shall be together again.  The separation of death is temporary.  The reunion is eternal and everlasting [1 Thessalonians 4:13-17].

“Comfort one another.”  Partly, I suppose, it is the heaven and the glory that shall be revealed in us for heaven is a many-sided and many-faceted glory [Revelation 21-22].  But mostly, I would suppose, it’s what Paul writes here: “We shall be forever with the Lord.  Wherefore, comfort one another with these words” [1 Thessalonians 4:17-18].  We’ll be with Jesus forever and ever—forever with the Lord.

You know, there are about fourteen different words in the Greek language translated “with.”  But one of them betokens—the overtones in it are close, intimate, affectionate association, and that’s the word translated “with” here.  In Greek, it’s sun. In combinations, it’s sun.

For example, the Greek word for suffering is pathospathos.  And when you put that word sun with it—sumpathos.  It comes out, when you spell it in English, “sympathy”—sympathy—somebody who is moved with the infirmity or the hurt that you experience: sympathy.  That’s the word here: sun , with our Lord—close association with Jesus.

I one time heard of a man who was wonderfully saved, just gloriously saved.  And in those days when I was boy growing up, they had testimony meetings on Wednesday night.  Always on Wednesday night we’d testify.  So this man, wonderfully converted, was saved.  And he testified, and he said, “When I die and when I go to heaven, the first one I want to see is my Lord.  I want to see Jesus.”

The days passed and his great, loving father died.  And they said, “You still want to see Jesus first?”

“Yes,” he said.

Then his mother died, whom he loved.  “You want to see Jesus first?”

“Yes,” he said.

Then his boy died—the dream and dear of his heart.  And they said, “You still want to see Jesus first?”

“Yes,” he said.

And then his wife died; been in his bosom all of the years of a long married life.  And they said to him, “You still want to see Jesus first?  You still want to see Jesus first?”

To somebody who has been wonderfully saved and who loves the Lord that sun, “with” the Lord, is everything precious and dear.  You see, the apostle is avowing that death doesn’t separate us from Him. The glorious climax of the eighth chapter of the Book of Romans is:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[Romans 8:38-39]

Death doesn’t separate us, and we’re not separated from Jesus in this life.  He says, “I will be with you”—there’s that “with you” again—“I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20].

He’s with us.  If you have ever gone on an errand, on a mission for Jesus, listen and you will hear the feet of our Lord walking close behind you.  If you have ever been blue and discouraged and crushed, you will feel the touch of His gentle hand on yours.  If you have ever sorrowed and been crushed, you will hear His voice saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” [Hebrews 13:5]. And when we face that last hour, it will be Jesus who will stand by us and strengthen us and comfort us.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me” [Psalm 23:4].

You know, I think many times, “Lord, when time comes for me to die, that will be my greatest opportunity to exhibit before the people to whom I’ve preached more than forty years—it’ll be my greatest opportunity to exhibit the faith of a soldier of Jesus, a child of God: to die triumphantly in the arms of Christ.  Oh, Lord!”  And He’ll be with me then.

And one other thing: “And so shall we ever be with the Lord”—we and He.  First John chapter 3, verse 2 says, “When He appears,” when the Lord appears, in this passage, when the Lord appears, “we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” [1 John 3:2].  We are going to be like Him, and He is like us; and we are together in the Lord; just the same, just the same, we like Him, and He like us.  And we’re together in Him.

In reading these pages of history, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, the family of Darius became prisoners of the great Greek military commander.  And he came to visit; he came to see in prison the family of Darius.  And when Alexander and his Hephaestion walked into the prison, the mother of Darius thought that Hephaestion was Alexander, and she bowed down in obeisance before him.

When she found her mistake, she apologized to Alexander, saying, “I thought he was you, and I beg your pardon.”  And Alexander replied, “Madam, you made no mistake, for Hephaestion is Alexander.”  He was Alexander’s other self, they were so close, such dear companions and friends.

Did you know an exact thing like that happened with John, the sainted apostle John?  In the twenty-second chapter, the last chapter of the Book of the Revelation, in verses 8 and 9, John says: “I fell down before the messenger of God to worship him… And he said to me, See thou do it not; for I am of thy brethren and of the prophets—I am also thy fellow servant” [Revelation 22:8-9]. The messenger was so like Jesus, so like the Lord that when John saw him and heard him, he fell down at his feet to worship him.

That is we, and He is we.  We are together in the Lord.  We’re like Him, and He’s like us.  “Preacher, how could such a thing be?” I’ll tell you exactly how.  Our Lord is a great shepherd, but He is no shepherd without us His sheep.  Our Lord is a great King, but He’s no King without us the kingdom of His subjects.  He is a great Savior, but He’s no Savior without us His saints.  He is a great bridegroom, but He’s no bridegroom without us His bride.  He is a great Redeemer, but He’s no great Redeemer without us the redeemed.  He is a coming King, but He’s no coming Lord without us for whom He comes.

It is meaningless.  We are His body.  We’re His fullness.  We’re His glory.  We’re His crown of joy: Jesus and me. Praise His name forever!

We’ll put a comma here until next Sunday.  Bless your heart.

In a moment, we’ll stand and sing our hymn of appeal. And a family you, to whom the Holy Spirit has spoken to put your life with us in the circle of this dear church, welcome, a thousand times welcome.  A one somebody you, openly, publicly confessing your faith in the Lord Jesus: “This day, I take Him as my Savior,”  come and welcome!  A couple you, a family you, “This day we are openly and publicly recommitting, re-consecrating our lives to the blessed Lord Jesus,” come. We will pray together.  As the Holy Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, make it now.  Now, let’s pray.

Our Lord, before it comes to pass, thank Thee for the sweet harvest You give us this precious hour.  O what a joy, infinite, indescribable, immeasurable, glorious, everlasting, eternal!  O God, what a glory it is to lean upon the kind arm of our Lord Jesus, who saves us from the penalty of our sins, who has provided for us a mansion in paradise, who is there waiting for our time to come.  And if we die, it’ll be His nail-pierced hands that open the doors of glory; and if we live to the coming of our Savior, we’ll meet Him in the air.  O God, what a promise, what a heaven, what a preciousness! We love Thee, Lord.

And to give our lives, and our homes, and our families, and our strength, and our prayers, and our every vision and hope to Thee is the sweetest joy we could ever possess.  Thank Thee, Lord, for blessing the invitation for these who come; in Thy dear saving and keeping name, amen.  While we stand and while we sing, and welcome.