A Certain Hope in Uncertain Days: 30 Days of Hope-filled Focus
Day 7: I’ll Fly Away
1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 has to do with what is commonly referred to as the “rapture.” The term “rapture” itself does not appear in the text but is from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Greek harpazo (translated “caught up” in verse 17). Harpazo means to “catch or snatch away” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). The verb is in the future tense and passive voice. At some point in the future the Lord will come and snatch away from earth all those who belong to Him. This “rapture” is imminent (i.e. it could happen at any time inasmuch as there is no other event in God’s prophetic timetable that must precede it).
The context of the passage indicates that the believers in Thessalonica had not been informed of this important truth (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13), Paul not previously having had the opportunity to instruct them about it (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:10). Some of their fellow believers had died and those still alive wondered about the status of their loved ones with respect to the Lord’s coming. Paul’s instruction regarding these matters was to alleviate their concerns.
The passage represents the ultimate basis for the hope of the believer in Christ. The “blessed hope” is the hope (“confident expectation”) of Christ’s return (Cf. Titus 2:13). It is that to which we are to “set our hope fully” (Cf. 1 Peter 1:13). Two separate groups of believers are referred to in the passage, the rapture applies to both. As the hymn puts it, “I know not when my Lord may come, At night or noonday fair, Nor if I’ll walk the vale with Him, Or ‘meet Him in the air’” (“I Know Whom I Have Believed”). There are those “church-age” believers who will have died previous to the time of Christ’s return. They are those who have walked “the vale with Him” (i.e. “those who are asleep;” 1 Thessalonians 4:13). And there are those who will “meet Him in the air” (i.e. “who are alive” at the time of His return; Cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:17). A great heavenly reunion of both groups will take place on that day—“so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
It is because of this truth that we as believers do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). That does not mean that we do not grieve. Jesus Himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Paul was spared from “sorrow upon sorrow” when God showed mercy towards Epaphroditus who was “ill, near to death” (Philippians 1:27). But there is a difference between the grief of those who possess no hope and the grief of those who do. In one way or the other the Lord will bring those who belong to Him “safely into his heavenly kingdom” (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:18). “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” and “neither death nor life” …” nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
There is a genuine and abiding reason for hope bound up in the glorious truth represented to us in this passage. There are troubles and trials in this life, but they quickly fade from view as the assembly of believers takes flight. As the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” puts it, “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away, to a land where joys shall never end.” No longer will they experience death or mourning or crying or pain or tears (Cf. Revelation 21:4). Face to face with Christ, He will then be “marveled at among all who believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:10; Cf. 1 John 3:2).
“Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). John Walvoord commented on the comfort we find (and can share) in the expectation of Christ’s coming: “Oh the prospect, the joy of looking forward to the coming of the Lord, and of resting in these precious truths! There are so many ills of life that nothing can heal except the Lord’s return. How many loved ones are on the other side and how many problems of this life, incurable diseases, pain, sorrow, difficulties will be made all right. As we face the duties and the challenges and the trials of life, God has given us this blessed hope, this hope of the Lord’s return. May we take it to our bosoms, may we live in its reality, and may our hearts be refreshed by this precious truth. This hope can be the certain prospect of anyone who will trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who loved us and died for us, who shed His blood that we might be saved, and who rose in victory that we might have hope.”