It is unfortunate that teaching on the Rapture has something of a joke in contemporary media. Too many people have made silly predictions of when it will happen. Parodies of the Left Behind series are common, so much so that most people who think about “the rapture” are not thinking in biblical categories, but the rather goofy cartoon images that are replayed in the Media. When Homer Simpson tries to predict the rapture, then something is intensely wrong.
But the “catching away” which Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (and 1 Cor 15) is nothing like pop-media or apocalyptic Christians think it is. Paul did not predict the end of the world, nor did he use the doctrine of the Rapture to scare people into salvation, or to fleece the church of a few more dollars. Paul’s point in this text is to explain what was going to happen to those who had died in Christ before the coming of the Lord.
This event is described as the coming of the Lord. You might hear the word “parousia” (παρουσία) used (usually by someone trying to be pretentious). The word is used for the presence of a god in a cultic ceremony, or a king or dignitary coming to a city for a visit. In the Jewish world, the word was used for the coming of the Messiah, this is probably the most useful for understanding 1 Thessalonians.
When Jesus comes, he will gather his people to himself “in the air.” Paul uses several short descriptions here, all have to do with gathering people together. First, there will be a loud command, a military term for a shouted order. It is sometimes used for a charioteer calling to his horses, or a hunter to his hounds, or a ship master to his rowers. Second, the voice of the archangel will cry out, and third, there will be a trumpet call of God. Loud trumpets are also associated with the coming of a great king, “…when the emperor Claudius died the sound of the trumpets was so deafening that it was thought that the dead could hear them” (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 224).
After the Lord has descended, and the dead have been raised, the Lord will catch the living believers up into the clouds, consummating their hope in this life.
The purpose of this catching away is to “meet with Lord.” The word translated “to meet” (ἀπάντησις) is often used of a delegation sent from a city to greet a dignitary or king, usually in order to escort that important person into a city. The phrase appears 36 times in the LXX, frequently for meeting a king or military leader; sometimes it is used for going out to meet an army. For example, in 1 Kings 13:10, the LXX uses the exact same phrase for Saul going out “to meet” Samuel and greet him after the king had defeated the Amalakites. In 2 Chron 15:2 and 19:2 it is used to describe someone going out to meet a king.
In non-biblical Greek, the phrase is used by Polybius (Hist. 28:19.7) to describe two envoys sent out from Alexandria to meet Antiochus Epiphanes, who was at that time occupying Egypt. In 5.26.8 young men are sent out to meet Apelles, who desires to have an audience with Philip, the king of Macedon. In this text the young men go out, meet Apelles, and escort him back to Corinth “with great pomp.”
Polybius Hist. 5.26.8 On his arrival at Corinth, Leontius, Ptolemy and Megaleas, being commanders of the peltasts and the other chief divisions of the army, took great pains to incite the young men to go to meet him. He entered the town, therefore, with great pomp, owing to the number of officers and soldiers who went to meet him, and proceeded straight to the royal quarters.
Paul chose this word to describe the Rapture to highlight the glory of Jesus as he returns as the Messiah. Paul is intentionally describing the return of Jesus as the glorious return of the ultimate Sovereign Lord in a way which Greeks and Romans would understand. When the great king comes, his followers will be gathered to him in order to be a part of his great entourage escorting him back to the world he created.