Paul often used the image of a race to refer to the life of a disciple of Jesus. He encouraged believers to run the race of faith with purpose, to run with endurance, and to finish well (1 Corinthians 9:24, Philippians 2:16, 2 Timothy 4:7). In our race of faith, the encouragement of our fellow runners can mean the difference between finishing well and giving up. Sometimes we have to run while carrying heavy burdens; sometimes we have to push through the pain. It is then that encouragement means the most.
Paul was a great encourager, and he wanted the believers in Thessalonica to follow his example. He told them to encourage their leaders as they served (5:12-13), to encourage the lazy to get busy, and to encourage those who were hurting or weak to have faith (5:14). Twice in this letter Paul told them to encourage each other by pointing to the finish line, the glorious end of the race of faith when Jesus comes again (see 4:18, 5:11).
The second coming of Jesus is one of Paul’s major teachings in this letter, and he used the classic term in Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments) to refer to it: “the day of the Lord” (5:2). The “day” does not mean a 24-hour period, but the sequence of events surrounding Christ’s return. The first event, known as the rapture of the church, is described in 4:13-17. (Note: at the end of this blog I have a few things to say about the use of the term “rapture”. If this interests you, please read the “RAPTURE” section at the end…unless you are raptured before you get there!)
At an unexpected moment, like a home invasion in the middle of the night (5:2), Jesus will descend from heaven, shouting a command for all believers (both dead and living) to rise and meet Him. It will be a jubilant moment as an archangel (possibly Michael, the only archangel mentioned in the New Testament) shouts (or sings?) and God’s trumpet blasts to announce the arrival of His Son and the ascension of His people (4:16). Believers who are alive on earth at that moment will rise to meet Jesus “in the air” (4:17; perhaps the stratosphere or the mesosphere). Immediately before living believers ascend, deceased believers will rise, and we will enjoy the glorious presence of Jesus and the great reunion of saints without end.
What an encouragement when we are tired, tempted, and struggling! What a motivation to be faithful as we run our race! Surely the finish line is not far away! Be encouraged, my fellow believer: “He who called you is faithful; He will surely do it” (5:24)!
RAPTURE: Some people have an aversion to using the word “rapture”, arguing that it is not found in Scripture (neither are the words “Bible” or “Trinity”). But the concept of the rapture is definitely there. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 says that we will be “caught up” to meet the Lord. That translates the Greek word harpazo, meaning to be seized, carried off, or stolen away. It refers to the snatching away of all believers who make up the church of Jesus Christ. If you were a literate Christian in the 5th Century, you would probably have read the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 would have been rapto (meaning “to drag forcefully off”). The word stuck, and we spell it “rapture” in English today. This word has been in the vocabulary of the church for sixteen centuries, and I intend to keep using it.