1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 – The Return of Jesus Christ
Those no longer living when Jesus Christ returns will be at no disadvantage. They, along with believers still living, will meet him as he comes to earth.
This passage states its primary concern in 4:13--Paul does not want his readers to lose hope about their future with the Lord, simply because other believers have died ("fallen asleep"). Perhaps some Thessalonians thought that Christians would not die before Jesus returned. Paul reassures them that those who have died in Christ will be raised and will meet the Lord along with those who are still living when he comes.
This passage is highly symbolic. The images of loud calls, trumpets, and clouds recall Old Testament language that signals God's presence in the world. The passage hardly gives a complete, literal description of the sights and sounds of Jesus' return. Careful readers will also notice that Paul says nothing about people being taken out of the world and nothing about the punishment of others. The Greek vocabulary Paul uses implies that believers will meet the Lord "in the air" as a means of welcoming him back to the world, not as an act of departing from creation. Paul calls people to have hope and to be alert for the Lord's return.
Paul's mention, in 4:17, of living people being "caught up" has played an important role in some Christians' contention that in the future believers will be "raptured," miraculously scooped up from this world to protect them from the horrors that will afflict those "left behind" on the planet. The term rapture comes from the Latin verb rapio, which was used to translate this verse in a fourth-century translation of the Bible. Yet in this passage Paul is only emphasizing the suddenness of Christ's return and the suddenness of believers' encounter with him--human beings dead and alive will meet Christ first and be with him forever. To read this passage as providing specific details about this event and its aftermath is to make it say more than it does.
This passage employs language that its first audience might have readily associated with the political rhetoric of the Roman Empire. Jesus' "coming" (4:15) and our "meeting" (4:17) with him use terms that described political or military dignitaries making official visits. Warnings about false "peace and security" (5:3) echo Roman imperial slogans, suggesting that what the greatest powers of human society promise pale in comparison to what Christ will accomplish.