Today we are going to look at a passage where Paul predicts that we will be caught up together with the dead in Christ in the clouds to meet the Lord in the Air.
This is an important passage for telling us how Paul saw the second coming of Christ, so let’s have a good look at it today. This passage is all about people who have already died, and what will happen to them? Paul is wanting to say that at the end of time there is a special place for the dead in Christ.
When Paul was around generally people thought that Jesus was going to come back again soon. Paul noticed that people were really worried about their family members dying – and what would happen to them if they died before Jesus came back? Would they miss out? Paul spends a lot of time telling people – the dead will be OK. They will have new bodies. And they will not miss out!
Jesus’ first coming was when he came as a baby, born of the virgin Mary. He died, was buried, but he rose again, and then went up to heaven, and one day he will return. In Acts 1 we read how Jesus ascended into the clouds. I’ve never been sure if that was a metaphor, or an enacted metaphor. I don’t think that any of us believe that God lives up among the stars. So either Jesus disappeared, entered another dimension, and the writer of acts used a nice little flourish to explain it. Or Jesus literally went up into the clouds and disappeared, and God did that to physically symbolise Jesus’ unseen entry into heaven. What is certain is that Jesus is not in a near earth orbit waiting to come back down.
Christians believe that this world is not finished yet, that Jesus will come again and the world will change. The Bible continues to use this symbol of movement; Jesus will come down from the clouds. The second coming of Christ also marks a moral/spiritual change in life. Jesus will bring about the end of human freedom as we know it. The end of the freedom to sin. The beginning of the freedom not to sin. The end of sin.
So Paul is saying don’t worry about your friends and family who die; you don’t need to grieve like those who have no hope. He actually doesn’t say don’t grieve. He says don’t grieve like those who have no hope. If you have lost a Christian mother or father or friend or child – yes grieve, you’ve lost their nearer presence. But grieve as someone who knows you will see them again. Paul says Jesus died – and rose again, and will come again. He says Jesus said that those who are still living when I come again will not miss out, but they don’t get to jump the cue. The dead in Christ will be first to get resurrection bodies, and we who are alive will also have our bodies transformed. (1 Cor 15. 51) We will not all sleep but we will all be changed. The trumpet will sound. The dead will be raised, and we will be changed. In Thessalonians he picks up that same metaphor. The lord himself will come down from heaven (he doesn’t mean that Jesus is up on the moon – it’s symbolic) The trumpet will sound. And the dead in Christ will rise first. The dead rising up, Jesus returning down. The dead will rise, they will come alive and there is this image of levitation, and then the rest of us will be caught up with them, and meet the Lord in the air. On his way down. There is no suggestion that he is scooting past the earth, he is coming down from heaven to earth. And we are meeting him in the air on the way! So that we will be with the lord forever! Kind of exciting. Now here’s the key word apantēsis
Apantēsis. Meet the Lord in the air. It is not just a word of greeting. It is a technical type of greeting. It was what the Romans did when they went out to greet a leader on their way into a city. Like going out to the airport to meet the Olympic team coming home. Like running to the top of the Strand to welcome the athletes back to town. The word is also found in acts 28.15 where the Roman Christians go out of the city and welcome Paul, and come into the city with him. So this strange passage about Christians being caught up in the air is the intersection of two metaphors – the metaphor of the dead rising, and of Christ descending. These are real events that the New Testament witnesses towards; but you can see how the physical only reflects the spiritual. To rise from the dead means to come alive again. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is clear that we get new bodies, so you don’t have to worry about being cremated or buried, you don’t worry if you’ve lost a limb or you’ve lost your mind. Everything will be made new. And that is what Paul is talking about rising and returning.
This passage is often used to support the idea of the Rapture, but it’s not really a very good fit for that. The idea of the Rapture is that towards the end of the world god will pluck faithful believers out of the world for a time before the final coming of Christ. I think there are serious questions to be asked about this whole doctrine. In popular culture the rapture is represented by movies and books like the “Left behind” series, they show the Rapture as suddenly Christians all over the place just disappearing and are taken up to heaven, resulting in bewilderment, car accidents and all sorts of amazing stories. I read an article by Dr Mark Keown recently on the topic and I think he asks another very good question? Who is left behind? Jesus tells a story about two men working in a field and one is taken and one is left behind. Mat 24.40 – Cate Talked about it last week. Rapture culture says the bad one is left behind and the good guy is taken. But in Jesus’ analogy it is the bad people in the time of Noah who are taken. MT 24.39. The people were drinking and partying, and knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them away. The people taken away are the bad ones. He’s not talking about the people in the ark being taken away, it’s the bad ones, who have no idea what is coming. Noah knew exactly what was going to happen. Have a look at Matt 24. 36-41 and ask your self – who is taken away, and who is left behind? And I think you will come up with the answer. The bad guys are taken away.
I want to finish with our 4 pictures of what the end of the world, or perhaps better the age to come looks like. The OT prophets believed in the present age and the age to come, and there was one change coming with the coming of the messiah. As Christians we believe that Jesus started the age to come, but it’s not yet fully here.
1. So what about Israel? The first way that people understood the age to come was that the Kingdom of Israel would be restored, an earthly kingdom, with a very physical resurrection of faithful people. That was the expectation of the Jews before Jesus’ first coming. The messiah would come and restore an earthly kingdom. After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 for hundreds of years that idea faded into the background. In fact, the Church adopted a theology called replacement theology – where the church replaced Israel in the plan of God. But then in 1948 the modern state of Israel was established and everyone remembered the prophesy. I don’t think that replacement theology is biblical but neither do I think that the modern state of Israel is a perfect match for the prophesies. I believe that the gentile church is grafted onto spiritual Israel it doesn’t replace Israel. However, I don’t believe that Jesus is optional for Jews, Jesus is the Messiah. I believe that a sign of the coming end would be to see a large number of Jews coming to follow Jesus. I don’t mean becoming Christian, because Christian is a very gentile way of being a follower of Jesus. To me the prophesy’s about Israel would be fulfilled if I saw a large number of Jews coming to believe in the messiah.
2. Jesus is the fulfilment of prophesy. I believe that Jesus’ first coming began to fulfil all prophesy about the end of the world. But sometimes people suggest that Jesus’s resurrection was the end and there is no more. Before world war one there was a theology common called process theology, that said the world would just continue to get better and better and then Jesus would come back. Advances in science, advances in every way would precede the second of Jesus. World war one destroyed that idea. In Jesus the age to come has begun, but it is not fully here. Hence his amazing miracles and healings, but also his suffering and death. Jesus said the Kingdom of God has come near, he was talking about himself. The age to come has started, but it’s not fully here. There is another distinct era of the world yet to come.
3. Is it all in the future? As Cate said last week, if we see the end of the world as a time of huge destruction and God plucking us out of the world; then we won’t care for God’s creation, we won’t care about climate change, we won’t care about the economy. It is biblical to believe that there is going to be a future second coming of Christ, but that Christ will renew rather than destroy his creation. We should remember the first command in the bible is to care for the earth
4. A few weeks ago Rob warned us against an over-realised eschatology. The belief that all the benefits of the future Kingdom of God, are fully available to Christians now. So the old age is all around us, but we can live fully in the age to come. There was a time of ‘name it and claim it’ Theology, where you just had to ‘believe hard enough’ and you could have whatever you asked for. If you’re not healed it’s because you don’t believe enough. If you’re not rich, it’s because you don’t give enough. These are examples of over promising. I believe that the benefits of God’s future are available to believers now, but only partially. Not everyone one will be healed, not every tear is wiped away. That’s still in the future. Some are healed, miraculous things do happen. But the new age is not fully here.
1 Thessalonians is Paul’s way of saying if your loved ones have died, don’t worry they won’t miss out when God remakes everything! In fact, they are in the cue ahead of us. Be careful of the doctrine of the Rapture, I think it stands on shaky foundations, and it encourages us to not work for justice and peace, to expect to escape from persecution, and to not care for our planet as God has commended.