1 Thess 4:17 – “meet the Lord in the air” in the original Greek [Studies in Thessalonians]

Since the Rapture has made headlines lately, here are some observations.

The New Testament was written in Greek. Some argue that it was originally done in Hebrew, but they cannot provide ancient Hebrew (or Aramaic or Syriac) manuscripts to back that up. All of Paul’s churches used Greek as their principal language. Paul himself had grown up speaking a dialect of Greek known as koine. It is for this reason that many serious students of the Scriptures decide to study that language, just as many others study Hebrew.

Unfortunately, much of what we hear about Greek in books or from the pulpit is false or misleading. For example, some preach that the word agape means “divine love,” whereas phile means “human love or affection.” This is simply not the case, and the words are often interchangeable in the New Testament. I shudder every time I hear the words “I know that it says thus-and-such in your Bibles, but the Greek really says, etc.” Listen: English Bible versions – with a few exceptions – were carried out by leading experts in the field of the original languages, who have gone to great lengths to express the meaning of the original in English. You can trust your English Bible.

Yet, every once in a while there is a gem in the original Greek that is difficult to communicate in English. For example, the NIV of 1 Thess 4:17 has, “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The other versions are similar and equally reliable. In my forthcoming commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Zondervan) I opted to translate verse 17 as: “we who still live and remain will be taken up together with [those who were dead] in the clouds to welcome the Lord in the air.” “To meet,” a verb in most versions, represents a Greek preposition and noun, “for a meeting” (eis apantesin). Nevertheless, a verb in English captures the original Greek equally well.

But one might ask, what happens after the Christians meet the Lord in the air? Where do they go? Paul does not say, neither here or in the parallel in 1 Cor 15:52.

In some systems of eschatology, Christ comes close to the earth, to the atmosphere, to receive the saints and then take them back with him to heaven. Everyone else is “Left Behind.”

Another interpretation is that Christ comes back at the end of the tribulation, the saints go forth to meet him, and then they accompany him as he continues on to the earth.

Does Paul give any indication of what is to follow? Apparently so: the Greek “meeting” [1] is not simply going to encounter someone. Rather it refers to “the action of going out to meet an arrival, especially as a mark of honour.” [2] When a dignitary came to visit a city in those days, the inhabitants would pay him tribute by going out of the city to meet him at the proper time. They would then accompany him back to the city which he was planning to enter. This is what happens in John 12:13, where the crowd on Palm Sunday comes out of Jerusalem to meet Jesus (upantesis) and to accompany him back in to the city. Then too, the Olivet Discourse contains the metaphor of a ruler coming to the city, which he enters “when you see all these things: know that he is near, right at the gates” (Matt 24:33 NJB). [3] What makes Paul’s language unusual is that he turns the horizontal action of the dignitary’s approach, reception and entrance into a gated city into a vertical action: when Christ comes, he “descends” to his domain, and his subjects “ascend to the clouds, to the air,” as befits his honor and glory. [4]

What does this mean? Based on this conventional usage of “meeting” (apantesis), it may be concluded with a high degree of certainty that Jesus will come to the air; resurrected believers and then living ones will ascend to honor him; then they will immediately accompany him back to the earth. [5] This lies very close to the thought of 2 Thess 1:10 (GNB) – “when he comes on that Day to receive glory from all his people and honour from all who believe.”

Neither here or in any other verse does Paul speak of a Rapture where Christians go to heaven, with the world “left behind” to suffer the tribulation.

NOTES: We will confine the technical details to the Notes and use transliterated forms of the Greek for the ease of the reader.

[1]  The key word apantesis has a related word or cognate upantesis, a word that has the same general meaning. See the Matthean parable of the ten maidens (Matt 25:1-13), the ten apparently go forth in order to meet the groom and then walk back with him to the wedding feast, from which the girls had originally set out; however, we do not possess enough detailed information about wedding customs to make absolute claims. The language in the better manuscripts of that Matt 25:6, “to meet” (eis apantesin ) is identical to what Paul uses here – another tantalizing clue that Paul is working with the Matthean tradition. Notice that in Matt 25:1, upantesis is interchangeable with the apantesis of 25:6. In both verses, some manuscripts have the words switched.

[2] So say Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, “apantesis.” See also Moulton and Milligan; the Hellenistic references show that this is not a Semiticism.

[3] So the Matt 24:33 (NJB); the NRSV and ESV also have “gates,” which preserves the metaphor – the Son of Man comes as a king to the gates of his city. See the synoptic parallel in Mark 13:29. The alternative translation, which is not so strong a possibility, is that this refers to the door of a habitation; indeed, several metaphors of the synoptic apocalypse speak of the lord of the household and his servants.

[4] So E. Peterson, “apantesis,” in TDNT 1:380-81. Among other authors, this is one of those cases where one side errs by reading too much meaning into a word, and the other side refutes what is in effect a straw man. For example, John Chrysostom, First Thessalonians 10 (NPNF 1 13:356) states that such a coming by a king by definition includes the giving rewards for the faithful subjects and the immediate judgment of the city’s rebels; the type of expanded meaning of the concept is approved by Lucien Cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul (trans. Geoffrey Webb and Adrian Walker; New York: Herder and Herder, 1959), 39-42. A better way forward is shown by M. R. Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of APANTHSIS in 1 Thessalonians 4:17,” BBR 4 (1994): 15-34. He demonstrates that the word does not necessarily carry all the baggage that is sometimes attributed to its meaning (citizens prepare the reception; the offering sacrifices; judgment of rebels who are jailed within the city). Nevertheless the word can be shown to generally describe “a loose pattern to play against when describing the coming of a heavenly king” (15). Similarly Malherbe, Letters to the Thessalonians, 277; Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 102-03. Doubtful is the theory of N. T. Wright, that it was Paul who originally combined “meeting” with Parousia in order to pit Christ against the earthly usurper, the emperor. See N. T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005), 74. The easiest refutation of Wright’s point is that, it was not Paul who first applied these terms to the second coming: he found them in the gospel tradition (parousia: Matt 24:47; see too Jas 5:8; “meeting” [apantesis], see our analysis above).

[5] So p. 331 in S. Turner, “The Interim, Earthly Messianic Kingdom in Paul,” JSNT 25 (2003): 323-42. See also the essay by Douglas J. Moo, defending the post-tribulationist view timing of the rapture, in Reiter, Three Views on the Rapture, 169-211. Wanamaker, Thessalonians, 169-70, states that the reference to the clouds means that they accompany Christ back to heaven.

Related posts:

Studies in Thessalonians series

1 Thess 4:17 – “meet the Lord in the air” in the original Greek, by Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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27 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Can’t ‘air’ as used in that scripture, also be interpreted as Pnuema, or, the vital spirit?

    • It is the word for air, in fact, rather than spirit (pneuma). Blessings, Gary

  2. DANIEL 11.32-35. 32. And such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries: but the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits.33. And they that understand among the people shall instruct many: yet they shall fall by the sword, and by flame, by captivity, and by spoil, many days. 34. Now when they shall fall, they shall be holpen with a little help: but many shall cleave to them with flatteries. 35. And some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end: because it is yet for the time appointed. Christians are dying by all of what these verses say they will. But we shall be strong and do exploits. How do you make someone white ? By the blood of JESUS CHRIST, so Christians will be teaching about the truth of the gospel of JESUS CHRIST, even to the time of the end: or when JESUS returns to his temple in Jerusalem ! MATTHEW 24.44-47. 44. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. 45. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made him ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? 46. Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. 47. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. How do you make meat for the Son of man ( JESUS CHRIST ,) at his coming ? By working, teaching the truth of the gospel of JESUS CHRIST !!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 When JESUS returns at the seventh trumpet we shall all be changed in a twinkling of an eye into our Spiritual bodies, for this earthly body can’t see JESUS in his spiritual body. We are corrupted . 1st CORINTHIANS 15.53,54. 53. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. GOD IS BIGGER !!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. “Apantesis” is not a technical term. Apparently even a post-tribulationist discounts this very weak argument.

    • Hi Gary.

      Sorry, as I stipulate in my blog rules, I normally don’t publish links to other sites.

      Your logic is a bit fuzzy here, along the lines that “if a post-tribulationist, who stands to benefit from the idea, doesn’t take apantesis as technical, therefore it cannot be so.”

      I can assure you that I spent many, many hours in my own study of the noun and its cognates, both in the lexica and in my own searches in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae before coming to my conclusions. I spell these out in my Thessalonians commentary.

      You misunderstand, as does Thomas Ice, the conclusions of the Erik Peterson article, which I studied as well and in part reject, and also the Cosby rebuttal. Peterson had created this elaborate technical meaning that involved meeting a dignitary, escorting him back to the city, giving him gifts, the dignitary judging his subjects, etc, etc. Peterson was wrong and should have said that the word was sometimes applied in that way, but in other contexts had a more general meeting of going forth in order to honor a visitor and escort him back to the city, period. If you read the Cosby article you will see what I mean.

      And I don’t belive that apantesis is a technical term, but semi-technical, which is a big difference. Same with parousia and thipsis.

  4. I preach a snatching away, being caught up or rapture theory according to 1 Thess. 4:14-17 and 5:9 also 1 corinthians 15:51-53 also Rev. 3:10 also Romans 59, 1 Thess. 1:9,10. I preach that also we as Christians is not mentioned at all after Rev. 4 when the saints are snatched away.

    • Hi James, and thanks for your participation.

      I’ve studied all these verses, and done extensive research for commentaries I wrote on 1-2 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, and Romans, and can say without hesitation that in none of the texts you mention is there any hint of a rapture before the final tribulation. Rev. 4 does not speak of it either.

      If someone wishes to say that there are no Christians in the world after Rev. 4, then I have two objections: first, that by the same light, neither are there any “Christians” mentioned in Rev. 1-3; by your standard, neither are their any Christians mentioned anywhere in the NT with the exception of Acts 11:26 and 1 Pet 4:16. Second, who are all those people who “come out of” the tribulation in Rev. 7, and who are martyred for their faith in Christ in Rev. 20:4, to name just two passages?

      And who, if not followers of Christ, is preaching the gospel to the whole world in Matt 24:14, during the tribulation, if not believers?

  5. (Posts a link to a tribulation survival site, which I erased)

    • Hi Ashton, I don’t permit links to other sites. Besides which, I regard that sort of thing as “tabloid Christianity”, far removed from God’s inspired Word. I’d counsel you to study your Bible, especially Matt 24-25, instead of this sort of material.

  6. Gary,
    I have recently been studying Mr Van Kampen’s “The Rapture Question Answered,Plain & Simple”. I obtained a copy from my friends at the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony.

    On page 182 he writes, regarding 1 Thessalonians 4.15 &17.

    “In verses 15 and 17, what the Greek really says is “we, the living, the remaining.” At the coming (parousia) of Christ, when the church is raptured, the dead in Christ will be raised first, and then we the living-the surviving will join the “dead in Christ” in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. But why add “the remaining” to the phrase “the living”? For emphasis? It seems redundant-until you check out the meaning of the word in the Greek. As mentioned earlier, the Greek word is perileipomenoi. Strong’s concordance says the word means “to leave all around, i.e. survive.” In other words, this critical rapture passage, written for the church, is saying that at the coming of Christ, the dead in Christ will be raised first, and then we the living, the surviving, will be caught up together with them-the dead-in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air!
    “Survivors of what?” We may ask. In the context of the Rapture passage given in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul had been discussing the affliction the church of Thessalonica was undergoing (see 1 Thess. 3.3-5, 7, 13). But in the last days, when the faithful are raptured out from the midst of the great tribulation, the living who are raptured at the Pariousia of Christ will be those who have survived Antichrist’s persecution! Thus, a little word used only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in this classic Rapture passage, gives more clarity to the text.”

    I would appreciate your thoughts on Van Kampen’s commentary, when you have time.

    God bless you.

    • Hi Colin, thanks!

      The BDAG dictionary, which is really the authoritative tool of choice, defines perileipomai as “remain, be left behind.” It does not carry all the baggage of “surviving [as from a tribulation]”.

      In my commentary I translated the paragraph in this way:

      4:13-18
      13 Now – we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,
      concerning those who have died, that you might not be in distress, just like
      other people, who have no hope.
      14 If we believe that Jesus died and rose again…well, in the same way, God
      will gather together with [Jesus] those who have died in him.
      15 For we say this to you by an oracle from the Lord, that we who still live
      and remain here
      until the Lord’s coming will in no way go ahead of those
      who have died.
      16 Because the Lord himself, with the commanding shout of the archangel’s
      voice and with the [sound of the] trumpet of God, will come down from
      heaven, and the dead in Christ will first be resurrected.
      17 Next, we who still live and remain will be taken up together with [those
      who were dead] in the clouds to welcome the Lord in the air. And so we will
      always be with the Lord.
      18 So then, encourage one another with these words.

      I would unpack it as “we who are alive, that is, we who are still alive when the Lord comes”, that is, Paul or the Thessalonians might not still be alive.

      Strong’s Concordance is not very reliable, and I couldn’t recommend it for deep study. An author who relies on it for exegesis is raising a red flag.

      • Gary,
        Many thanks for that. I have noticed that many DO put great emphasis on Strong’s concordance, almost to the point that it is THE definitive authority? Certainly according to the late Van Kampen and many others? (I think you are the first that I am aware of to pour cold water on it!) Have you read any of his works?
        Yes, I have read your commentary on the passage in question.
        What is your opinion on the pre wrath Rapture doctrine and how close is it to the post tribulation, as I believe the Bible teaches?
        God bless you.

        • Hi Colin!

          Whoever who uses the Strong’s Concordance is probably a person who cannot work with the Hebrew or Greek languages. I am planning on writing a post on it shortly. It is certainly not the definitive authority, and as a dictionary is completely unreliable.

          Van Kampen clearly could not handle the languages.

          The pre-wrath rapture theory, which is only a few years old, has been held by no-one until our time. I find it a strained reading on Bible texts which, when correctly read, are proof of a post-trib rapture.

          I chose not to print out your long response about the Gap theory, since I don’t hold to it, and I don’t want to have to match you point for point.

          • LOL You are right! We need to learn the language and read it in the language not piecing together words. Think about if someone did that with the English language. It just wouldn’t work. I appreciate your article, you nailed it right on!

          • Thanks TJ, invite your friends to visit us!

  7. Cant agree with the interpretation of your rapture..theres a lot of missinformation here.
    I would rather The Holy Spirit define the truth.

    • Thank you for your note, Robert.

      I couldn’t agree more, the Holy Spirit is the one who guides us into all truth. I also would say that, the truth that he teaches is the truth that is evident from a careful study of the Bible.

      Would you care to point out, what parts you believe to be misinformation?

  8. I’ve never read 1 Thess 4:17 and thought of it meaning anything other than a heavenly destination. Very interesting Gary!!

    • Hey Brent! Thanks, obviously I’ve made different theological choices along the way!

  9. Gary: What is the projected publication date for your Th. commentary?

    • November, 2012. It will also be offered by Logos Bible software.

  10. Great post Gary, always enjoy your comments on original language – keep them coming…

  11. ¿John 14:1…4?

    • Hi Rob! I take it you mean, does Jesus speak of a Rapture to take Christians to heaven in John 14:1-4. Not that I can see. He says that he prepares dwellings in heaven and then “I will come again to receive you unto myself.” “Unto myself” does not necessarily mean “to heaven.”

      The verse can be better interpreted in one of two ways. One is that when Christ comes, he brings the heavenly inheritance with him. That is in fact the point of 1 Pet 1:4-5, “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” Another possibility, one which I lean toward lately, is that Christ is not speaking of his visible second coming at all, but of how his people will go to heaven when they die. That is precisely what the Lord had been speaking of in John 13, and we must remember that the chapter division was not in the original text but added later. John 13:36 – “Simon Peter asked him, ‘Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.’” That is: you will live for a while longer, but later (14:3) I will come again and receive you unto myself.

      This latter is not a popular interpretation, but it has been taught by a few students of John.

  12. Great post Gary! Thanks for putting some scholarship in a post which I can now link to. Too many articles written about the rapture which aren’t scholarly. Thanks!

    • Thanks, blessings! For a fuller treatment of the topic, I recommend Robert Gundry’s The Church and the Tribulation. Gary


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