Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Meeting in the Air: Footnote on a Greek Word

In Paul’s famous “rapture” passage (though the word rapture comes from the Latin Vulgate, not the Greek text), he describes a “meeting in the air” (1 Th. 4:17). This word “meeting” (apantesis) acquired a somewhat technical nuance in the Greco-Roman world, where it was used to describe the ancient civic custom of a delegation going out to welcome important visitors to one’s city. One sees this usage in other New Testament passages, such as when Paul and his company were approaching Rome and the Christians in Rome sent out a delegation to escort him back into the city (Ac. 28:15-16). By analogy, Paul seems to use this word in 1 Thessalonians to describe the saints rising in the air to meet the descending Christ so that they might escort him back to the earth.

If this is what Paul intends, however, it undercuts a very popular image—the idea that the saints will rise to meet Christ, Christ will make a reverse turn, and they all will go back to heaven for the seven years of the Great Tribulation (this is the version, for instance, one finds in the popular “Left Behind” series of novels). In fact, what is envisioned is not Christ making a reverse turn and going back to heaven, but rather, the saints making a reverse turn as they meet Christ so that they might escort him back into their “city” (i.e., the earth).  Insofar as this imagery holds true, then it fits quite awkwardly with the notion of a preliminary coming of Christ before the end of the age, where Christians go to heaven while the rest of human history continues on for several additional years. It fits much better with the idea that at his second coming at the end of human history, Christ will descend to the earth as its reigning King. When he comes, both the living and the dead in Christ will be joined together, rising to welcome him to the earth, his rightful domain.


  1. The second coming of Christ is a foundational Christian belief shared “everywhere, always, and by all.” The Apostles Creed summarizes several Christian convictions regarding Christ and his return:

    On the third day He rose again from the dead.
    He ascended into heaven
    and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.
    From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

    In early Christianity, the second coming of Christ was universally understood as a single event in which the ascended Christ returns to the earth, triumphant over evil and its forces, and establishes his kingly reign.

    It was not until the mid-1800s that the now widely-held view that splits Christ’s second coming into two distinct events arose. John Nelson Darby, an Englishman, is the father of dispensational premillennialism – a big term that refers to the familiar timeline of future events that includes the “secret rapture” of the church, a seven-year period of great tribulation, and a literal reign of Christ on earth. This view sees the present Christian era as a parenthesis between two Jewish ages: the Hebrew law and the upcoming Jewish millennial kingdom.

    To fit his specific timeline, Darby “divided” the second coming of Jesus into two different events: Christ coming “for his saints” in the rapture of the church (I Thess. 4:17) and Christ coming “with his saints” at the great and final battle of Armageddon following a seven-year period of “hell on earth” tribulation (Rev. 19:11-16).

    Imposing this timeline on the books of Daniel and Revelation, along with a smattering of prophetic passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, the minor prophets, Matthew , and Luke, Darby outlines the familiar series of events that sell a lot of popular Christian books about the end of days. His followers – including the “Left Behind” series – have extended and elaborated on Darby’s views to the great delight – and profit – of some Christian booksellers.

    Darby’s ideas were brought to America – especially popular among evangelical Christians – through the revival preaching of Dwight L. Moody and the famous “notes” in the Scofield Reference Bible. Many conservative evangelicals know nothing of the history – and novelty – of these ideas and have come to think of Darby’s timeline – “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” Darby called it – as the historical and only valid interpretation of biblical prophecy.


    But there were most definitely Christians who believed in Christ’s second coming long before Darby’s time. If you want to know what the early Christians believed, don’t read Darby, Scofield's notes, Clarence Larkin, or the “Left Behind” series. Read the New Testament and the church fathers.

    And never let anyone tell you that you do not believe in Christ’s second coming simply because you do not share their extremely novel and extremely poor interpretation of the scriptures.

    Dan’s interpretation of I Thess. 4:17 is spot on. This passages speaks much more of a greeting in the air that a meeting in the air.

  2. Dan, bring more of this please. How about a "simple" timeline of the Revelation. Thanks.

  3. A timeline for the Revelation (and by this I assume you mean the Book of Revelation) is not so simple as it may seem, largely due to the question about when it was written. If it was written in the 60s, while the Jerusalem temple still was standing, then there is a reasonable case that the book is about the build-up leading to the 1st Jewish Revolt. References to the temple (chapter 11) would be to the 2nd temple which still was standing but soon to be destroyed in AD 70. The king who "now is" (chapter 17:10) would be Nero. This is the position of the preterist, and modern interpreters like R. C. Sproul follow such an approach. If, on the other hand, the book was written in the 90s, which seems to have been the conclusion of several of the ante-Nicene Fathers, then the 2nd temple already was destroyed and one must interpret temple references as symbols of something else. In this view, the king who "now is" would be Domitian. All futuristic readings of the Revelation accept this later date.