In 1 Thessalonians, Paul describes the end-time appearance of Jesus: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven… and the dead in Messiah will rise first. 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” (4:16-17). It is popular to interpret this passage as Paul’s allusion to a “rapture,” but the apostle’s rhetoric and context do not fit the rapture schema [click here for details in a previous article]. For instance, while readers might assume that Paul’s description of meeting the Lord refers to the “rapture,” the language and broader New Testament context shows that the purpose of this meeting is not to remain in heaven, but rather to return to Yeshua’s kingdom on earth.
Two initial contextual points push the reader away from a “rapture” interpretation. Specifically, Paul says that Jesus will “descend from heaven” (4:16) and believers will meet him in the middle of his descent “in the air” (4:17)—not in “heaven.” Beyond this obvious directional issue, Paul’s language of meeting the Lord (4:17) does not describe taking up residence in heaven after a rapture. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul’s word for “meet” (ἀπάντησις; apántesis) always conveys an initial encounter after which a group of people escorts an individual to a final destination. In Paul’s context, when we “meet” the descending Lord in the air, we then escort the coming messianic king back down to earth.
The two other New Testament instances of ἀπάντησις (apántesis) appear in Acts and Matthew, and both contexts describe a group coming out to meet an individual and then leading him back in a procession. When Paul nears Rome at the end of Acts, Roman citizens meet him and then usher him back into the city: “We came to Rome, and the brothers and sisters there, when they heard about us, came to meet us (ἀπάντησιν ἡμῖν; apántesin humin)… [and] we came back into Rome” (Acts 28:14-16). Since Acts has the Romans come out to meet Paul and then escort him back to Rome, we should envision a similar meeting scene in 1 Thess 4:17: we are caught up to meet Jesus and then escort him back to earth.
Similarly, Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins notes that the virgins “went out to meet (ἀπάντησις; apántesis) the bridegroom” (Matt 25:1; cf. 25:6). However, the initial lamp-lit meeting in the darkness is not the final destination for either the virgins or the bridegroom; rather, the parabolic scene will be followed by a procession in which the virgins will accompany the marital couple to their home for the wedding banquet. The parable illustrates what 1 Thess 4:16-17 explicates: rather than revealing a “rapture,” the New Testament asserts that believers will meet Jesus and then accompany him to the messianic banquet, which will take place on a divinely renewed earth in the kingdom of God (cf. Isa 65-66; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21).