13 Now we don’t want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning the ones who are asleep, so that you won’t grieve as the rest who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose up, in this way also God will bring, through Jesus, the ones who have fallen asleep with him.
15 For we say this to you by the word of the Lord, that we, the ones who are living, the ones who are remaining, will certainly not precede the ones who have fallen asleep until the coming of the Lord; 16 because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a command by the voice of the Archangel and by the trumpet of God, and the dead in the Anointed One will rise up first, 17 then we, the ones who are living, the ones who remain, will be seized at the same time with them in the clouds for the meeting of the Lord in the air, and thus we will be with the Lord always. 18 Therefore, comfort one another with these words. (My Translation)
This is perhaps one of the most read and anticipated passages in the NT. It is also one of the most misinterpreted passages in the NT. We are going to look at a couple of phrases, namely the end of verse 16 and verse 17.
The final phrase in this verse is καὶ οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστήσονται πρῶτον (and the dead in Christ/the Anointed One will rise up first). The Greek verb here is ἀνίστημι and was also seen in verse 14 to refer to Jesus’ resurrection. Most people believe that “the dead in Christ” actually rise up into the air first, but that’s not what happens. The dead resurrect. ἀνίστημι is the cognate verb of ἀνάστασις which means “resurrection”. Perhaps better rendering would be “and the dead in Christ will resurrect first”.
After the dead are resurrected, they and the living are seized at the same time for the meeting of the Lord. Most translations render εἰς ἀπάντησιν τοῦ κυρίου as “to meet the Lord”, but this is a prepositional phrase as opposed to an infinitive verb. Therefore, the proper rendering of the prepositional phrase is “for the meeting of the Lord”. ἀπάντησις is only used here and in two other places in the NT; Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. Matthew 25:6 describes the meeting of the bridegroom and the ten wise and the ten foolish virgins. Acts 28:15, on the other hand, describes how the brothers and the sisters in the Roman Church went out to meet Paul in order to escort him into the city; ἦλθαν εἰς ἀπάντησιν (they came for the meeting).
In the Greek world, εἰς ἀπάντησιν was a technical term “for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors” (Kittel, Volume I, 380-381). Some scholars state that there is no indication that Paul is using that meaning here. But what is interesting is the fact that this phrase, εἰς ἀπάντησιν, is used in this technical way in both Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both passages, after the meeting, the both the bridegroom and Paul are escorted somewhere. The Bridegroom is escorted to the wedding hall which Paul is escorted into Rome. If Paul’s use of the phrase is the same, then that turns the idea of a “rapture” on its head as the living and the resurrected dead were to meet Jesus in the clouds and in the air in other to escort him back to earth! As Leon Morris says “It seems that the Lord proceeds to the earth with his people (cf. 1 Cor. 6:2)” (Morris, TNTC, 91).
The final phrase is καὶ οὕτως πάντοτε σὺν κυρίῳ ἐσόμεθα (and thus we will be with the Lord always/at all times). It should be noted that Paul doesn’t give us a geographical location (because it is inferred?) for where the living and the resurrected dead will be “with the Lord always”. The main reason for this has to do with why Paul wrote the teaching to the Thessalonians in the first place; to encourage them about their dead brothers and sisters.
With that said, perhaps we should look at the coming of Christ from the standpoint of the Thessalonians’ language and customs. There is no doubt that they would have understood the technical term εἰς ἀπάντησιν (for the meeting) as is was used constantly in their time. From my prospective, they would see this event as Jesus’ coming as he is, the King and the Lord. They would also understand that “the meeting” was for them to escort him back to earth. Therefore it is on earth where, “we will be with the Lord always”.