Questions From Readers
● What does 1 Thessalonians 4:17 mean when it says, ‘We the living who are surviving will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air’?—U.S.A.
The reference here is to the joint heirs of Jesus Christ who are living at the time of his presence in Kingdom power.
The particular verse in question is best understood in the light of the subject the apostle Paul was discussing when writing to the Thessalonians. We read: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who are sleeping in death; that you may not sorrow just as the rest also do who have no hope. For if our faith is that Jesus died and rose again, so, too, those who have fallen asleep in death through Jesus God will bring with him. For this is what we tell you by Jehovah’s word, that we the living who survive to the presence of the Lord shall in no way precede those who have fallen asleep in death; because the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet, and those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first. Afterward we the living who are surviving will, together with them, be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Consequently keep comforting one another with these words.”—1 Thess. 4:13-18.
It can be seen that the point under consideration is the resurrection of Christ’s joint heirs. All his joint heirs who died before his presence in Kingdom power remained asleep in death. After the start of his presence, however, all these dead ones would be raised to immortal, spirit life, to be united with their Lord. What a comforting thought this was for Christians at Thessalonica in view of the tribulations they were experiencing!—1 Thess. 1:6.
But there is no Scriptural reason for us to conclude that Jesus was to descend from heaven literally and that the resurrection and glorification of those sleeping in death would be visible to humans on earth. Why not? Because Jesus Christ, as a spirit person in heaven, “dwells in unapproachable light.” “Not one of men has seen or can see” him as such. (1 Tim. 6:16) His situation is therefore comparable to that of his heavenly Father. (Heb. 1:2, 3) So Jesus Christ ‘descends’ or ‘comes down’ in the same sense that the Bible speaks of Jehovah God as doing so. For example, the Holy Scriptures say about Jehovah: “He proceeded to bend the heavens down and to descend; and thick gloom was beneath his feet.” (2 Sam. 22:10) “Look! Jehovah is going forth from his place, and he will certainly come down and tread upon earth’s high places.” (Mic. 1:3) Manifestly, God did not literally leave his dwelling place in the invisible heavens, but he turned his attention to humans on earth, demonstrating his power toward them. Similarly, at his presence, as the apostle Paul indicated, Jesus Christ would turn his attention downward to this earth and exercise his power to resurrect his joint heirs sleeping in death.
Was their resurrection to be visible to human eyes? This simply could not be. Why not? Because they are ‘united with Jesus Christ in the likeness of his resurrection.’ (Rom. 6:5) They experience a resurrection like his. And of Jesus’ resurrection, the Scriptures tell us that he was “made alive in the spirit.” (1 Pet. 3:18) To be seen by his disciples, Jesus had to materialize a body of flesh. This served to prove to them that he had indeed been made alive. (Acts 1:3) His resurrection, though, was invisible to human eyes. The watchmen at Jesus’ tomb “trembled and became as dead men,” not on account of seeing Jesus resurrected, but on account of the angel that rolled the stone away from the tomb.—Matt. 28:3, 4.
Likewise, the resurrection of the joint heirs of Jesus Christ is invisible. In their case, however, the Scriptures give no indication that they will remain in the vicinity of the earth and immediately after their resurrection reveal themselves to be alive to fellow believers.
Against this background, we can appreciate that the reference to the living being “caught away” could not mean that their bodies of flesh and blood will begin floating upward to meet the Lord Jesus Christ in what some people speak of as “the rapture.” He will not be in the literal air on a literal cloud, for he “dwells in unapproachable light” in the highest heavens, the invisible spirit realm. Nevertheless, the being “caught away” must relate to something that actually happens in connection with the resurrection.
Could this relate to their being “caught away” from the doomed world of mankind? Could it refer to their being elevated, ‘seated in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus’ because of having been assigned with him to the heavenly inheritance? (Eph. 1:3; 2:6) No, this was not what Paul was discussing in his letter to the Thessalonians.
The reference to being “caught away” was a point that Christians at Thessalonica could use to comfort one another when Jesus’ joint heirs would die. Obviously, the fact that the joint heirs are now separated from the doomed world is not the real source of comfort when there is a death in the congregation of God’s people. Then, too, being separated in this way and united with Jesus in a spiritual sense simply could not mean being ‘always with the Lord.’ Once Christ’s joint heirs finish their earthly course, that condition is no more, as they will then at resurrection be personally with their Lord and that forever. And, of course, the doomed world will also pass away. Furthermore, a person might now on earth be separated from the world for a time but later lose out on the reward of being with the Lord Jesus Christ because of unfaithfulness.—Rev. 2:10.
Accordingly, Paul’s words to the Thessalonians point out that there is something different about the resurrection of those dying before Christ’s presence in Kingdom power and those completing their earthly course and dying during that presence. This difference may be discerned from Revelation 14:13, where we read: “Happy are the dead who die in union with the Lord from this time onward [that is, since his coming in Kingdom glory]. Yes, says the spirit, let them rest from their labors, for the things they did go right with them.” While Christ’s joint heirs dying before his presence had to sleep in death, those who finish their earthly course during that presence do not have to do so. They are immediately raised to heavenly life. They cease from their earthly labors and enter right into heavenly service. As invisible spirit persons, they are “caught away,” as if in clouds (a symbol of invisibility), to be forever with their invisible Lord. This is also in harmony with the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “We shall not all fall asleep in death [that is, remaining in the death state while awaiting a resurrection in the future], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”—1 Cor. 15:51, 52.
Thus, what Paul wrote at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 was, essentially, this encouraging message: Anointed Christians who die before the presence of the Lord sleep in death. When that awaited presence begins, they are raised to heavenly life as immortal spirit creatures. Anointed Christians alive during that presence, however, do not sleep in death. At death they are immediately changed, being taken to heaven to be with Christ forever.