The Glorification of Dead Christians
The most detailed description of the rapture of the church is found in Paul’s first letter to the persecuted Christians whom he left in Thessalonica. He wrote this letter from Corinth, where he confronted much confusion about the personal destiny of believers. Some Christians in Thessalonica had already died (perhaps by martyrdom), and the saints there were concerned that their dead loved ones would miss out on the second coming of Christ.
But dead Christians will not be forgotten by God at the second coming. In fact, they will be the first humans to experience glorification since the Lord Jesus. Yes, Christ was “the firstfruits.” He is the first and only human ever to have been glorified. But “afterward”—nearly 2,000 years already—members of His body and bride, namely, “those who are Christ’s,” will share His glory “at His coming” (NKJV, 1 Cor. 15:23).
Now Paul was emphatic in his letter to the believers in Thessalonica on this one point: Dead Christians will be glorified even before living Christians!
“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. 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. 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 Thess. 4:15-18).
It is fascinating to behold the order in which transformations to glory occur: (1) our Lord first; (2) dead Christians next; (3) living Christians moments later; (4) the two witnesses three-and-a-half years later (Rev. 11:1-12); and (5) tribulation martyrs and all pre-Pentecost saints three-and-a-half years later still, at the second coming of Christ (Dan. 12:1-2; Rev. 20:4). Yes, “each one in his own order (Greek: tagma)” (1 Cor. 15:23), like a magnificent parade through the ages.
The Rapture of Living Christians
It is the third in this order of transformations that we must carefully examine now. After dead Christians are resurrected—hundreds of millions of them instantaneously all over the world—“Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds (perhaps glory clouds) to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
Watch that word—“caught up.” The Greek word chosen by the Holy Spirit is harpazo, meaning to snatch away.
“The dead in Christ…will be the first to share in the glory of his visit. Then the living among whom Paul still hoped to be (cf. ‘we’) will be suddenly snatched away (harpagesometha, ‘caught up’; cf. Acts 8:39; 2 Cor. 12:2, 4; Rev. 12:5). This term in Latin, raptus, is the source of the popular designation of this event as the ‘rapture.’ So sudden will it be that Paul likens it to a blinking of the eye (1 Cor. 15:52). In this rapid sequence the living will undergo an immediate change from mortality to immortality (1 Cor. 15:52, 53), after which they will be insusceptible to death” (Robert L. Thomas, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 11 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], p. 279).
It is frankly impossible to imagine such a spectacular scenario. Hundreds of millions of people will suddenly disappear from the earth—perhaps more than 50 million from China alone! Every single believer, even those who have known the Lord only for a few minutes—like the thief on the cross—will vanish.
It will not be a “partial rapture,” with only the most worthy Christians going up. If that is the qualification that God requires of us, then none of us can be raptured, for none of us is worthy. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9).
Just Before the Rapture
Four astounding things must happen before living Christians are raptured to heaven: (1) “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout;” (2) “the voice of an archangel” will be heard; (3) “the trumpet of God” will sound; and (4) “the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).
First, “the Lord Himself [not a mere angel] will descend from heaven with a shout” (1 Thess. 4:16). When the Son of God speaks—not to mention shouts—great things happen!
As a starter,
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.
For He spoke, and it was done;
He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psa. 33:6, 9)
One word from the Son of God and the universe began (cf. John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16). Ask Lazarus what happened when Jesus stood at the entrance of his tomb in Bethany, four days after he had died. “He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’” (John 11:43).
Someone has said that if our Lord had not specified Lazarus, every person who had ever died would have risen.
No one knows how many will hear His voice. Will it be the whole human race, or only dead and living believers? Our Lord explained (in John 5:25, 28, 29): “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live… Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (at the end of the 1,000-year kingdom—cf. 1 Cor. 15:23, 24; Rev. 20:5-15).
Second, “the voice of an archangel” will be heard (1 Thess. 4:16). There is only one archangel in the universe, and his name is Michael. God has appointed him to stand guard over the people of Israel against the attacks of Satan (cf. Dan. 12:1). When the nation rejected its Messiah, God broke it off from the tree of Abrahamic blessing (Rom. 11:17), and grafted in Gentile believers to become part of a new spiritual body, the church.
Thus, in a significant way, Michael too has been set aside during the church age. But when the true church disappears from the earth, Israel once again becomes God’s exclusive program for salvation, worship and service. Michael will be thrilled! We will hear his voice—and 42 months later he will be empowered by the Lord to cast Satan and his demonic armies out of the third heaven where he has been accusing God’s people for thousands of years (Rev. 12:7-10; cf. Job 1:8-11; 1 Chron. 21:1; Zech. 3:1-2).
(Some of Michael’s ministries on behalf of ancient Israel are described in Dan. 10:13, 21 and 12:1. See also his protection of the body of Moses in Jude 9.)
Third, “the trumpet of God” will sound (1 Thess. 4:16). Paul also referred to this in 1 Cor. 15:52 as occurring at the time of the rapture. William MacDonald explains: “It calls the saints to eternal blessing. It is not to be confused with the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15-18, which signals the final outpouring of judgment on the world during the Tribulation. The last trumpet here is the last for the church. The seventh trumpet of Revelation is the last for the unbelieving world (though it is never specifically called the ‘last trumpet’)” (Believers Bible Commentary: New Testament [Wichita, KS: A & O Press, 1989], p. 854).
The fourth event that precedes the rapture of living Christians will be taken up in our next study. But after these first three spectacular events, all dead and living Christians will experience physical glorification. And this could happen today!