Tag Archives: 1 Thessalonians 4:17

The Rapture in the early church fathers

1 Thessalonians 4:17 on the Rapture

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(image courtesy Pinterest)

By Spencer D Gear PhD

Do you think anyone in the Christian church could be so audacious to make this kind of statement about eschatology (end times)? ‘The Rapture doctrine is only taught in America. Hardly anyone outside the US believes in such things’.[1]

1. Misinformation re rapture teaching

I found this statement not only overconfident but also ignorant of what is going to happen at the time of Christ’s second coming that will end world history.

Therefore, my response was:[2]

Come across the Tasman from NZ (Angelina lives in NZ) and you’ll find lots of people in Australia who also teach the Rapture, especially in Dispensational circles. I was taught it in an Assemblies of God Bible College in Brisbane in the 1970s. You’ll find it among Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists, especially Christian Brethren (Gospel Hall), and other evangelicals. There is a large Open Brethren assembly 15 minutes from where I live that teaches the Rapture.

2. Who will teach the Rapture?

clip_image004Any promoters of premillennial, pre-, mid- or post-tribulation eschatology, will promote the Rapture. See some examples in this publication (image on left) that deals with three views of the rapture.

Anyone who accepts one of these eschatological views will promote a Rapture of the saints. Here we have Three Views of the Rapture (Gundry et al 1996) that could be taught in any country around the world.

If you read the beliefs of Northside Baptist Church, Perth WA, Australia, you’ll see the doctrine of the Rapture taught. Here’s a list of Christian Brethren assemblies in your own country of New Zealand that teach the Rapture doctrine.

The Rapture is certainly not a doctrine restricted to North America. One of the leading verses used by Bible teachers to proclaim the Rapture is …

2.1    Interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17

Therefore, how do we understand 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (ESV), ‘Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord’?

What does ‘caught up together’ mean? The catching/snatching up is into the clouds to meet the Lord. Should this be taken literally or is there some symbolic view here that shoots down literal interpretation?

Is the Rapture bunkum doctrine promoted for ecstatic, futuristic reasons? Is this an over-the-top brand of exuberant pre-mill, pre-trib fundamentalism that is designed to get a following of those looking for a way out of this wicked world?

This is the context of verse 17 in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (NABRE):[3]

13 We do not want you to be unaware, brothers [and sisters], about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together[4] with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.

To what is verse 17 referring? This is my:

2.1.1   Textual outline of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17

clip_image006(photo courtesy Rapture bombs’: Clothes at the end)

a. Be aware of the destiny of those who have died (fallen asleep) (v. 13).

b. Don’t grieve like those who have no hope (after death) (v. 13).

c. Belief in Jesus’ death & resurrection at death puts you in the group coming with Jesus when he returns (v. 14).

d. The Lord’s word is: Those alive when Jesus’ returns will not precede [rising before] those who have died (v. 15).

e. The Lord’s shout / trumpet will be blasted as he returns and the dead in Christ rise first (v. 16).

f. Those sill alive will be caught up (raptured) with the Lord and others in the air (v. 17).

g. Then all believers will be with the Lord always (v. 17).

Another on that Christian forum spoke up:

I have been to [a] couple of countries where protestant denominations teach Rapture. They did that even long before Iron Curtain came down and Americans got there.

The reason why Rapture was not taught until just a couple of centuries ago is because Christian doctrine was controlled by Catholic/Orthodox churches. In some countries Bibles in native languages were not even available until 18th century and few people were literate enough to read them.[5]

2.1.2  Exegesis of 1 Thess 4:17

The contentious verse 17 in the Greek can be read at SBLNT.

The key word causing controversy against the Rapture doctrine is harpagesometha. I need to get a little technical to parse this word and seek its meaning in lexicons and word studies. It is first person plural (i.e. ‘we’), future, passive, indicative of harpazw (will be caught up).

Harpazw means ‘I snatch or take away … in such a way that no resistance is offered’. Paul was ‘caught up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor 12:2). First Thess 4:17 is associated with this meaning of being snatched away with no way to resist (Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich 1957:108).

The church being ‘caught up’ or raptured was taught long before J N Darby (1800-1882).[6] Darby was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren denomination in the UK who promoted his dispensational theories, beginning in the Anglican church but he found no satisfaction there (see Graves 2007).

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In his word study of harpazw, Foerster (1964:472) gave the meaning as ‘to take something forcefully (firmly, quickly, or rapaciously)’.[7] It can mean ‘to steal’ (Josephus) and in the NT is is ‘used in parables to speak of conflict between the kingdom of God and that of Satan… It occurs at 2 Cor:12:2, 4 (vision); 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 12:5 (“to catch up or away”); Acts 8:39 – always expressing a mighty operation of God’.

A T Robertson’s assessment was that harpazw was an ‘old verb to seize, to carry off like Latin rapio…. This rapture of the saints (both risen and changed) is a glorious climax to Paul’s argument of consolation’ (Robertson 1931:32). Vincent’s word studies (1887/1946:43) gives the meaning of ‘shall be caught up’ to include ‘by a swift, resistless, divine energy’ (cf. 2 Cor 12:2, 4; Acts 8:39).

Therefore, the meaning of ‘caught up’ in 1 Thess 4:17 is to be caught up or taken away forcefully by a mighty operation of God, called the Rapture.

The message of the Rapture in 1 Thess 4:17 harmonises with Jesus’ statements about his Second Coming in Matthew 24:36-44 (NLT):

36 “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself.[k] Only the Father knows.

37 “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. 38 In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. 39 People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.

40 “Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding flour at the mill; one will be taken, the other left.

42 “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. 43 Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. 44 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.

Christians don’t know the time of the Second Coming of Jesus and the Rapture of the church. Only God the Father knows that. However, those who love the Lord live in glorious expectation of meeting our Master and Saviour.

3. If you don’t know the information, use a logical fallacy

His reply was this sarcasm: ‘It is your opinion only. One of millions in at least a dozen of variations of beliefs on this topic. Go ahead and start a million first pre-post-mid-none trib topic’.[8] My rejoinder was, ‘It was NOT my opinion. I provided you with evidence from a church father to refute your view, but that’s not good enough’.[9]

Notice what he did. I provided the evidence so he erected a straw man logical fallacy. This happened when Skitnik ignored the evidence I presented and created his own distorted misrepresentation of what I stated. I provided evidence from Irenaeus that the rapture teaching was taught long before the last 2 centuries. His comeback was that it was my opinion. No, I provided the evidence that his statement was incorrect but he refused to accept that.

4.   Evidence from other early church fathers or literature

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The Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 150):[10]

You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then you prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and you spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly (Hermas, vision 4, ch 2, emphasis added).

Irenaeus (ca AD 130-202) wrote in his famous treatise, Against Heresies (5.29.1)

Those nations however, who did not of themselves raise up their eyes unto heaven, nor returned thanks to their Maker, nor wished to behold the light of truth, but who were like blind mice concealed in the depths of ignorance, the word justly reckons “as waste water from a sink, and as the turning-weight of a balance — in fact, as nothing;” (1) so far useful and serviceable to the just, as stubble conduces towards the growth of the wheat, and its straw, by means of combustion, serves for working gold. And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, “There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.” (2) For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption (emphasis added).

The church being ‘suddenly caught up’ is parallel with the language of 1 Thess 4:17.

Cyprian (ca. 200-258)[11] wrote in Treatise 7:

And this, as it ought always to be done by God’s servants, much more ought to be done now— now that the world is collapsing and is oppressed with the tempests of mischievous ills; in order that we who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. If in your dwelling the walls were shaking with age, the roofs above you were trembling, and the house, now worn out and wearied, were threatening an immediate destruction to its structure crumbling with age, would you not with all speed depart? If, when you were on a voyage, an angry and raging tempest, by the waves violently aroused, foretold the coming shipwreck, would you not quickly seek the harbour? Lo, the world is changing and passing away, and witnesses to its ruin not now by its age, but by the end of things. And do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an earlier departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? (Cyprian 7.25)

Ephraim (AD 306 – 373) was made a deacon in the church in Syria in 338 and later became the bishop of Nisibis. Although he was made a “saint” in the Roman Catholic Church, he was not involved in Catholicism and did not even live in the Roman Empire until the final years of his life. The book Pseudo Ephraim is one of his still existing works. It was called “Pseudo” because of later dispute over authorship. However the book’s one reference to the rapture is very compelling.

In his work, On The Last Times 2, he wrote:

We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled (consummated), and there is not other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of the Roman kingdom. Why therefore are we occupied with worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world? Believe you me, dearest brother, because the coming (advent) of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it is the very last time.

Or do you not believe unless you see with your eyes? See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares: “Woe to those who desire to see the day of the Lord!” For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins. And so, brothers most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of the world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their hands, awaiting the empire of the Lord. And we think that the earth exists with blind infidelity, arriving at its downfall early. Commotions are brought forth, wars of diverse peoples and battles and incursions of the barbarians threaten, and our regions shall be desolated, and we neither become very much afraid of the report nor of the appearance, in order that we may at least do penance; because they hurl fear at us, and we do not wish to be changed, although we at least stand in need of penance for our actions!’

With a sense of urgency and strong warning, Ephraim writes that the end times are upon this world and could start at any moment. This text very clearly states the saints and elect of God, all born again believers in The Lord Jesus Christ, will be “taken to the Lord” before the Great Tribulation. Ephraim also identifies the Old Testament Day of The Lord and the end times Great tribulation as the same event (in line with the teachings of the Beginning and End Rapture Series). Ephraim quotes Amos 5:18 which says: “Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! to what end is it for you? the day of the LORD is darkness, and not light” (source).

5.   John Gill on the Rapture [12]

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clip_image012Dr. John Gill, a famous eighteenth-century Baptist theologian, published his commentary on the New Testament in 1748. He is considered a serious Calvinistic scholar who wrote many volumes on theology. In his commentary on I Thessalonians 4:15-17, Gill pointed out that Paul is teaching a doctrine that is ‘something new and extraordinary’. Gill calls the imminent translation of the saints ‘the rapture’ and calls for watchfulness because ‘it will be sudden, and unknown before-hand, and when least thought of and expected’. This is a clear, detailed 1748 teaching on the imminent pre-tribulation rapture (80 years prior to John Darby in 1830).

To summarise Dr. Gill’s 1748 pre-Tribulation Rapture teaching about the sequence of prophetic events it is vital to note that he declared: to all.

1. The Lord will descend in the air.
2. The saints will be raptured in the air to meet Him.
3. Here Christ will stop in the air and will be visible.
4. As yet, He will not descend on earth, because it is not fit to receive Him.
5. He’ll take up the saints with Him into the third heaven, till the general conflagration and burning of the world is over.
6. He will preserve them from it.
7. And then shall all the elect of God descend from heaven to earth with Christ.

Gill then summarised the sequence:

1) They shall be with Him, wherever He is; first in the air, where they shall meet Him, then Him; then
2) In the third heaven, where they shall go up with
3) On earth, where they shall descend and reign with Him a thousand years.

6.   Philip Schaff: The Earliest Church Fathers Were Premillennial[13]

Without question, premillennialism was the earliest and most widely held view by leading teachers in the earliest centuries of the church. The dean of church historians, Philip Schaff wrote, ‘The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene Age [A.D. 100-325] is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism,… a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papia, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius’ (Schaff 1884:2.614).

German historian Adolph Harnack wrote,

First in point of time came the faith in the nearness of Christ’s second advent and the establishing of His reign of glory on the earth. Indeed it appears so early that it might be questioned as an essential part of the Christian religion…. It must be admitted that this expectation was a prominent feature in the earliest proclamation of the gospel, and materially contributed to its success. If the primitive churches had been under the necessity of framing a “Confession of Faith,” it would certainly have embraced those pictures by means of which the near future was distinctly realized.[14]

7. The Rapture – Not Historic Christian Teaching?

clip_image014This (to the left) is Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris’s caricature of a raptured person[15]

His theology is:

In this brief article, Fr. Anthony expresses with clarity the truth of the false teaching known as the “Rapture” and how much it distorts the teachings of the Lord in the Holy Scriptures.

As I was driving one day I encountered a bumper sticker admonishing me:

“WARNING! In the event of Rapture, this car will be driverless.”

The strange belief in the Rapture teaches that some day (sooner rather than later), without warning, born-again Christians will begin to float up from the freeway, abandoned vehicles careening wildly. There will be airliners in the sky suddenly with no one at the controls! Presumably, God is removing these favored ones from earth to spare them the tribulation of the Anti-Christ which the rest of us will have to endure.

Unfortunately the Rapture has been promoted widely by the Left Behind series of books that have sold over 70 million copies.

The Rapture represents a radical misinterpretation of Scripture. I remember watching “Sixty Minutes”a year ago and was appalled to hear the announcer say that “the Rapture is an unmistakenly Christian doctrine”. It is not!

It is a serious distortion of Scripture.

It is astonishing that a belief so contrary to Scripture and the tradition of the Church could be propagated by so-called “Christians”.[16]

That was Father Coniaris’s view. It is not mine. As long as 1 Thess 4:16 is in the Bible, it will announce that there will be no secret Rapture:

‘For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first’ (NABRE).

8. No secret Rapture

Confusion enters this discussion when pre-tribulation promoters claim that Christians will be whisked away before the tribulation. It will be a secret rapture of the saints, they claim. Erickson (1985:1187) notes the biblical emphasis: ‘While the fact of the second coming is very emphatically and clearly asserted in Scripture, the time is not. Indeed, the Bible makes it clear that we do not know and cannot ascertain the exact time when Jesus will return’. See Mark 13:32-33, 35 (ESV) where ti states,

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come…. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or in the morning.

Norman Geisler summarised the Pretribulationism of Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord & Dwight Pentecost:

Pretribulationism holds that the Rapture of the church occurs before the Tribulation, during which the church, Christ’s bride, will be in heaven, standing before His judgment seat (2 Cor. 5:10) and preparing for His return to earth. Pretribulationism holds that Christ’s coming for His saints will be in the air and before the Tribulation; after the Tribulation, Christ will come with His saints and to earth to reign for a thousand years (Geisler 2005:612).

To address further aspects of this eschatology, see my articles,

clip_image016 Is the rapture of the church hogwash?
clip_image016[1] A pre-millennial, post-tribulation end times understanding

clip_image016[2] What is the origin of the pre-tribulation rapture of Christians?

9.   Conclusion

If people take the Scriptures seriously, they will confirm a Rapture according to 1 Thess 4:17. However, there is no unanimity on when it will happen. It could be pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation.

To deny the Rapture is to deny the Scripture and the content of 1 Thess 4:17. I find it best to conclude with Norman Geisler: ‘Only believers who have received the power of the Holy Spirit are in Christ’s body (Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 12:13), so only those who have this power will be raptured (1 Thess. 4:16-17)’ [Geisler 2005:548].

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(image courtesy Pinterest)

10. Works consulted

Bauer, W (transl, 4th rev, & aug ed), Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W, 1957, A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament, trans. & adapt. of Bauer, W, The University of Chicago Press (limited edition, Zondervan Publishing House), Chicago.

Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the Centuries, rev ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Coniaris, A M n.d. The Rapture – not historic Christian teaching. Orthocath (online). Available at: https://orthocath.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/the-rapture-not-historic-christian-teaching/ (Accessed 15 September 2016).

Erickson, M J 1985. Christian theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Foester, W 1964. harpazw, in Kittel, G (ed) Theological dictionary of the New Testament, vol 1, 372-373. Tr and ed by G W Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Geisler, N 2005. Systematic theology: Church, last things, vol 4. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House.

Graves, D 2007. John Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. Christian History (online), April. Available at: https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/john-darby-of-the-plymouth-brethren-11630602.html (Accessed 28 February 2019).

Gundry, S N; Archer Jr., G L; Feinberg, P D; Moo, D J & Reiter, R R 1984,1996. Three views on the rapture: pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Harnack, A 1883. Millennium. The Encyclopedia Britannica, XVI, 9th ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Jeffrey, G n.d. Three fascinating discoveries! Rapture Ready (online). Available at: http://www.raptureme.com/terry/james27.html (Accessed 6 June 2016).

Robertson, A T 1931. Word pictures in the New Testament: The epistles of Paul, vol 4. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.

Schaff, P 1884. History of the Christian church, vol 2. New York: Scribner.

Showers, R E 1990. There really is a difference! A comparison of covenant and dispensational theology. Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.

Vincent, M R 1887/1946. Word Studies in the New Testament, vol 4. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

11.  Notes

[1] Christianity Board, Intense dreams, I need answers (online), Angelina#3. Available at: http://www.christianityboard.com/topic/22150-intense-dreams-i-need-answers/#entry276105 (Accessed 2 April 2016).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen#9.

[3] This translation is the New American Bible (Revised edition), which is not to be confused with the New American Standard Bible. The NABRE is a Roman Catholic version.

[4] The footnote here in the NABRE was: ‘Literally, snatched up, carried off; cf. 2 Cor 12:2; Rev 12:5. From the Latin verb here used, rapiemur, has come the idea of “the rapture,” when believers will be transported away from the woes of the world; this construction combines this verse with Mt 24:40–41 (see note there) // Lk 17:34–35 and passages from Revelation in a scheme of millennial dispensationalism.

[5] Christianity Board op. cit., Skitnik#8.

[6] Ibid., OzSpen#10. Darby’s lifespan dates are from Christian History: John Nelson Darby. Available at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html (Accessed 1 November 2016).

[7] Oxford Living Dictionaries (online) gives the meaning of ‘rapacious’ as: ‘Aggressively greedy or grasping’ (2019. s.v. rapacious).

[8] Christianity Board op cit., Skitnik#12.

[9] Ibid., OzSpen#13.

[10] Date is from Cairns (1981:76).

[11] Lifespan from Cairns (1981:113).

[12] I gleaned this information about John Gill from Grant Jeffrey (n d).

[13] See: http://biblocality.com/forums/showthread.php?5663-The-Earliest-Church-Fathers-Were-Premillennial&s=a101604c8cc517077ef721ad4f042da4

[14] Adolph Harnack (1883:XVI, 314-315, in Showers (1990:117).

[15] Coniaris (n.d.).

[16] Ibid.

Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 2 March 2019.

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