“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“
Verse fifteen explains verse fourteen. “Since Jesus died and rose, it follows that God will….” Paul, building on the two great facts of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, does not present some novel analysis of his own about the Rapture. Rather, he makes these statements on the authority of Christ.
this we say to you by the word of the Lord,
Paul’s authority for making statements came personally from the Lord Jesus by direct revelation. Jesus made no such statements when He was on earth. The Lord gave to Paul special revelation about the church (Ephesians 3:1ff) and the Rapture (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Nowhere in all the history of Israel or the teachings of Jesus was there any information on the Rapture until this special revelation to Paul.
Paul’s special revelation included two things: 1) there will be a special resurrection of departed saints in the church prior to the Tribulation period, and 2) Jesus will rapture the church to Heaven.
This is the first time the New Testament explains the Rapture of the church in writing. This is brand new truth. The Lord alluded to the Rapture in John 14:1-3, but this is the first formal presentation of the Rapture in writing (John wrote long after 1 Thessalonians).
that we who are alive
First, Paul deals with the special resurrection of all church saints prior to the Tribulation period. Those who “are alive” here are believers still alive when Jesus comes again. They never experienced death.
The idea of resurrection was not new. The Old Testament taught about resurrection and so did Jesus. The Old Testament consistently associates the resurrection of Israel with the Tribulation, particularly at the end in connection with the millennial kingdom (Isaiah 26:19 with 16-18, 20-21; 27:1; also 26:1-15 for Millennium; Daniel 12:1-2). Martha knew that there would be a resurrection of Israel when the Messiah returned to set up His earthly kingdom (John 11:24). This is a resurrection of Israel at the Second Coming [in distinction from the Rapture] at the end of the Tribulation.
Paul includes himself in those he named as living and remaining at Christ’s return, because he was not at all certain whether he might die first. He believed the Lord’s return could occur at any moment in his lifetime. He was disappointed, but not mistaken. The Rapture is a signless, timeless event that is always imminent. Jesus can come at any time. Each generation of Christians have justification to expect the Lord to come in their generation.
The word “remain” means be left behind, survive. These are those who survive bodily until Christ comes back. No Christian will leave until God wants them to leave. None of us can stay here if God wants us to go and none of us can go if God wants us to stay.
until the coming of the Lord
The second component God uniquely revealed to Paul was the Rapture. The idea that the Messiah would come to earth and raise the dead saints of Israel in the Old Testament was not unique to New Testament Christians. However, the idea of a Rapture was unique because there is no hint of this concept from Genesis to Malachi.
The word “coming” means a presence. It comes from two words: with and being. The coming of the Lord will be the time He will be with us. He will arrive and we will stand in His presence. Paul uses this term for His presence in contrast to His bodily absence.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” (Philippians 2:12).
When the New Testament uses “presence” for the Rapture of the church, it signifies not merely the momentary coming of Christ, but His presence until He manifests Himself to the world. It is a reference to His advent, arrival. Jesus at that time will be at hand in person.
There are three Greek words for Christ’s coming. The New Testament uses both terms for the Rapture and for the Second Coming (when He comes to earth on the Mount of Olives). Only the context can determine whether it is the Rapture or Second Coming.
There is an important distinction between the Rapture and the Second Coming. The Rapture is a private coming for the church, whereas the Second Coming is a public coming where every eye will see Him. The Rapture is for the church only. In the Rapture, Jesus will come in the clouds to catch away the church. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is no longer in the church. At the Rapture, God changes the believer’s body into a body like the resurrected body of Christ. In the Second Coming, Jesus will come to earth to establish His millennial kingdom on earth (Zechariah 14:1-4). Satan no longer is loose on earth. At the Second Coming, the desert will blossom like the rose.
The Rapture is a New Testament revelation.
The blessed future of the church is the Rapture. The church will not enter the Tribulation.
“…looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” (Titus 2:13).