Some churches attempt to prove from this verse that heaven is the reward of the saved—that Christians will go to heaven and be there with Christ forever. But where did the idea that heaven is the reward of the saved originate? Does the Old Testament teach it? Did Jesus and His apostles teach it?
A perusal of various encyclopedia articles on "heaven" will show that this doctrine originated with the pagan, polytheistic Greeks and Romans. Their deified heroes and other favorites of their multiple gods were supposedly given admission to their "heaven," which they called "Elysium."
Various peoples evolved their own versions of Elysium. The Germans and Scandinavians had their Valhalla. The American Indians had their Happy Hunting Grounds. The eastern Buddhists have Nirvana, which offers the dubious promise of "the extinction of all desire and personality." Interestingly, the Western, professing Christian heaven is more similar to the original Greek concept.
The Old Testament shows clearly that when Jesus Christ returns to earth, it will be to set up the Kingdom of God—on earth, not in heaven.
Daniel 2:36-43 describes four major kingdoms, empires, or governmental systems that have ruled over the greater part of the civilized world: the Chaldean-Babylonian Empire (625 to 538 BC); the Medo-Persian Empire (538 to 330 BC); the Greco-Macedonian Empire (333 to 31 BC); and the the Roman Empire (Established 31 BC. The imagery suggests that it will exist in some form until the end of the age.) Clearly, these physical empires existed on earth. But verses 44-45 say that God's Kingdom will encompass all of these previous kingdoms—on earth! Daniel 7:17-18 says much the same.
Daniel 7:27 adds a vital piece of information to our understanding of where God's Kingdom is:
Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him.
God's everlasting Kingdom, then, shall not be in heaven but "under the whole heaven"!
Why then should we be surprised that God's Kingdom will be on earth? God tells us through Moses that ancient Israel was a type of God's Kingdom and, in fact, could have been His Kingdom had they obeyed Him (Exodus 19:5-6).
The very churches that misuse I Thessalonians 4:17 could better understand its meaning by studying the words of the so-called "Lord's Prayer": "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10; see Micah 4:8). Jesus instructs His people to pray for God's Kingdom to come—to earth—not to be taken away to it!
Obadiah 1:17, 21 tell us specifically where God's Kingdom will be set up. Likewise, Micah 4:1-2 shows that Jesus Christ will dwell on earth in Jerusalem, accessible to physical people and nations.
Matthew 24:3 shows that the disciples knew, and therefore were taught by Jesus Himself, that He would come back to this earth, when they asked Him, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"
In His reply, Jesus continually repeats that He will come back to this earth:
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west; so also will the coming of the Son of manbe. . . . Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. . . . But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Manbe. (verses 27, 30, 37; see also verses 39, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50)
Some might argue that, because Jesus went to be with God the Father in heaven after His death and resurrection, we must go to heaven to be with Him. However, in John 14:3, Jesus tells His disciples that He will come again to earth and will here receive them to Himself to be with Him: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also." If He wants us in heaven, why would He have to come here to get us? The Parable of the Minas or Pounds (see Luke 19:11-15) also makes this clear.
After all of Jesus' teaching, the disciples, although still limited in their knowledge and understanding, knew for sure that Jesus was to restore His Kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). In Acts 1:9-11, their understanding is greatly enhanced:
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."
He will come down from heaven, through the clouds, and will set down on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:4). He will be clearly visible to human eyes.
Christ reveals to the apostle John in Revelation 19:11-21 that He will not return meekly or unnoticed to this earth. His return will be witnessed by the whole world whose kings and armies (verse 19) will gather to battle against Him. No secret, quiet "rapture," whisking Christians off to heaven, but the most terrible battle in man's history.
Consider the context of I Thessalonians 4:17, and notice the previous verse: "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first" (verse 16). This clearly proves that the timeframe is that of the second coming of Jesus Christ, not the death of each Christian.
Notice also that Christ is descending from heaven. We will not meet Him in heaven but in the atmosphere of the earth as He is on His way down.
Now comes the central question of this matter. We have just met Christ in the air! Where do we go from here? Up to heaven or back down to earth? I Thessalonians 4:17 says that we are to be with the Lord forever, but where will the Lord be? Again, many scriptures give the clear answer, but Zechariah 14:4 gives a concise one:
And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south.
Could this be some "heavenly" Mount of Olives? No, it is the one "which faces Jerusalem on the east"! Could it be some "spiritual" Jerusalem? No, Jesus is going to split it in half!
He will have arrived on earth. Who will be with Him? The second half of verse 5 tells us: "Thus the LORD my God will come, and all the saints with You." All the resurrected saints or holy ones will be with Him.
Will He stay on earth? Notice verse 9: "And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be—'The LORD is one,' and His name one." Yes, He will stay. The Kingdom of God and the reward of the saved are on this earth! As Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew 5:5, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Jesus will come again to earth, this time with His saints and with His army of angels too. He will take His rightful place on His glorious, earthly throne and share power with His saints over the physical nations of the earth (Revelation 2:26-27). God tells us in Revelation 5:10: "And have made us [the saints; verse 9] kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth."
Is Heaven the Reward of the Saved?
Because Paul writes, "And thus we shall always be with the Lord," many assume that since Christ lives in heaven, the changed saints will too. But is this assumption valid?
They Bible shows that the reward of the saved is eternal life as kings and priests ruling and teaching here on earth (Matthew 5:5; Revelation 5:10). But where will the saints go at the moment of Christ's return? The clearest verses that show Christians immediately returning with our King to the earth are Zechariah 14:3-5, 9:
Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. . . . Thus the Lord my God will come, and all the saints with You [Him, margin]. . . . And the Lord shall be King over all the earth. (See I Thessalonians 3:13.)
If our Savior is going to rule "over all the earth," the saints will have to settle for earth too!
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Caught Up in the Rapture
How did this teaching of the apostle Paul ever come to be called the Rapture? The answer lies in the word translated "shall be caught up" (Greek harpagésómetha). In Latin, this word is rapere, from which "rapture" is derived. Free of any arcane or mysterious interpretation, it simply means "to be caught up," "snatched," or "seized."
The trouble begins when people confuse this meaning with another definition of rapture that has nothing to do with the biblical concept: "a state or experience of being carried away by overwhelming emotion; a mystical experience in which the spirit is exalted to a knowledge of divine things." When people blur these meanings, a picture develops of a strange, otherworldly experience preached by fire-breathing preachers to compel sinners to repent before God's wrath burns them to cinders.
Those who teach the Rapture frequently begin with I Thessalonians 4:16-17, but soon afterward they move into areas unsupported in the Bible. They make assumptions that are suspect. Worst, they fail to consider the clear order of events presented in Revelation, pinpointing when this astounding miracle will occur.
What do they believe? They believe that at some point in the near future, Jesus Christ will return and "snatch away" all Christians on the earth. Those who "believe" in Jesus will rise to meet Him in the air, and He will whisk them off to heaven for a 3 ½-to-seven-year Marriage Supper. In the meantime here on earth, untold destruction occurs when professing "born-again Christians" suddenly vanish while at the controls of cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, heavy equipment, and the like. "Unsaved" relatives and friends will frantically and unsuccessfully search for their raptured loved ones. The media will provide 24-hour coverage of the mysterious disappearance of millions of people, speculating wildly on its cause—everything from a mass alien abduction to shifting dimensions and levels of consciousness.
On the other hand, the biblical teaching of the first resurrection is more straightforward. On the day Christ returns to earth to establish His Kingdom, the dead in Christ will rise first, and those who are alive and converted will follow. They will meet Him in the air and immediately return to earth as a vast army of spirit beings to defeat the Beast and False Prophet in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Revelation 19:14; Joel 3:1-2; Zechariah 14:1-5).
Notice two vast differences in these scenarios:
- The Protestant Rapture takes place either 3 ½ or seven years before Christ's return, while the Bible shows it will occur at His second coming. For this reason, the Protestant concept is often called the "Pre-tribulation Rapture."
- When believers are "caught up" in the air, Protestants believe, they will go immediately to heaven for a long, spectacular feast. The Bible shows, though, that the saints will return to earth to fight in Christ's heavenly army and to help establish God's Kingdom.
Succinctly, then, the two differences are in timing and destination.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Caught Up in the Rapture
Jesus' well-known Olivet Prophecy contains probably the most familiar description of Christ's return:
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30)
Other passages describing this event echo a common element. While some of these verses also speak of “power” and “glory,” the common element in all these descriptions is the mention of clouds.
This detail at first may not seem relevant, but it shows up repeatedly. Why did God consistently inspire the Bible's writers to include that little detail? We know that He does not inspire empty or superfluous words; everything about His revelation is deliberate and meaningful. What meaning do the clouds hold in the Bible? Why are they significant to the return of our Savior to the earth?
Consider what a cloud is and does. By way of definition, a cloud is “a visible mass of droplets of water or frozen crystals, suspended in the atmosphere.” Sometimes clouds bring rain, which can be either a blessing or a curse depending on the circumstances, but other times they pass by without sharing a drop. Nevertheless, there is one thing a cloud will always do, if it has any size at all: It will impede light, such as the light of the sun or the moon. Since it is clothing Jesus Christ, this cloud filters some of His breathtaking glorious radiance.
This is not the only way the Bible uses clouds. It also uses them to represent multitudes of people (Isaiah 60:8; Hebrews 12:1), the sins of men (Isaiah 44:22), or the impermanence of the wealth of the wicked (Hosea 6:4; 13:3). They can represent the empty words of false teachers (Jude 12; II Peter 2:17), the unfulfilled promises of faithless men (Proverbs 25:14), and a number of other things. But when the clouds surround God Himself, they are a covering that mercifully impedes His full brilliance. They represent the unsearchableness of God, His mysterious depths, and how futile it is for carnal men to try to understand His ways (II Samuel 22:12; Psalm 97:2; Ezekiel 1:4).
This covering is critical because the undimmed brightness of a God-being is lethal to mankind. Moses had to be hidden from the full glory of God in the cleft of a rock, or he would have died (Exodus 33:19-23). After that, the Israelites could not stand to look at Moses' face, and he had to use a veil—a cloud made of cloth, if you will—because even when the glory of God was reflected and vastly dimmed, it was too much to take (Exodus 34:29-35).
As already mentioned, Jesus Christ will be returning in glory, and that awesome glory has a terrible, lethal effect on sinful flesh. In particular, II Thessalonians 2:8 foretells that “the lawless one” will be “consume[d] with the breath of His mouth and destroy[ed] with the brightness of His coming.” Apparently, Christ will not always remain behind a cloud but will allow His full glory to show for the purpose of destroying unholy men.
We can thus see why being surrounded by clouds is an act of mercy on God's part: Mere men cannot abide the sight of One so pure and holy.
David C. Grabbe
'Behold, He is Coming with Clouds'
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing 1 Thessalonians 4:17:
1 Corinthians 15:23
1 Corinthians 15:50-53
1 Corinthians 15:50-52
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
1 Thessalonians 4:17
1 Thessalonians 4:17
1 Thessalonians 4:17
2 Timothy 3:15