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
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" (1 Cor. 15:23, NKJV).
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).
To Be Continued…
By John C. Whitcomb, Th.D.