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!
The church which Paul (and later Apollos) established in Corinth had a special problem with the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Like all Greeks, they rejected this concept because they wanted to be free at last from all physical limitations in the afterlife. That is why we read of the Athenian philosophers: “When they heard [from Paul at the Areopagus] of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked” (NKJV, Acts 17:32).
So Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles (cf. Gal. 2:7-9), devoted a large section of his first letter to the Corinthians to the nature and reality of Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of all believers (1 Cor. 15:3-56).
But the climax of his entire discussion is the rapture of the church. “Behold, I tell you a mystery [Greek: mysterion—something previously unknown but now revealed]: We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
The night our Lord was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, He encouraged the remaining 11 disciples with these words: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-2).
Then the Savior made a spectacular promise: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). The disciples could not have fully understood at that time what the Lord Jesus was referring to. Would it be resurrection from physical death? Yes, this will be part of the event, but every true Jew knew this already (cf. John 11:24—“Martha said to Him, ‘I know that (my brother) will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ ”). Would it be entrance into the Kingdom at His second coming? No, for He will bring all glorified saints with Him from heaven on that great day (cf. Rev. 19:14).
What our Lord was referring to was much more than bodily resurrection, great though that will be. It will be the glorification of living Christians who will never experience physical death—a “blessed hope” for the true body and bride of Christ, the church, a hope which Israel never shared. It is born-again Christians who are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13).