In preparation to teach on 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, I read John Chrysostom’s Homily on the passage. There were lots of interesting insights, but I want to point out only one that I think has significant value for contemporary readers.
John Chrysostom, for those unfamiliar, is one of great “Doctors of the Church” in the East who lived from around 347–407 CE. He was made Bishop of Constantinople against his will in 398 and worked tirelessly to preach the Scriptures to reform the nominally Christian culture in which he found himself. His most enduring legacy is found in his many sermons and exegetical writings. Thankfully, we have a number of writings on Paul’s letters, including a collection of homilies on 1 Thessalonians.
Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17, in his eighth homily in 1 Thessalonians, Chrysostom asks an important question: “If he [Christ] is about to descend, for what reason will we be caught up?” Many modern readers fail to ask this question and simply assume that believers “go to heaven.” The imagery here, however, is not of “rapture” (of the Left Behind sort), or final departure to the pie in the sky, but a welcome party for the arrival of Jesus. Chrysostom’s answer to his question about why Jesus comes down and we rise up is quite helpful:
“The reason is honor. For when a king enters a city those in honor go out to meet him, but those condemned remain inside for judgment. When a loving father comes, the children, and those worthy to be children, go out on a chariot in order to see and kiss him, but those having offended him remain in the house.”The “meeting” that occurs as Jesus comes down and believers go up is a welcome party for Jesus that bestows vindicating honor on the saints. It refers to believers going up to meet Jesus, only to then return to earth for final judgment.
The word “meet” is used in precisely this same way elsewhere in the New Testament. In Acts 28 Paul journeys to Rome to await trial before the Emperor. When Roman Christians hear of Paul’s arrival they leave the city to meet him, with the obvious intention to return with him to Rome. In Jesus’ famous parable of the ten virgins there are five wise virgins who have enough oil in their lamps and five foolish ones who do not. The virgins are waiting to meet the bridegroom only to be taken to the ultimate destination of the wedding banquet.
Meeting Jesus in the air is, as Chrysostom points out, a vindication of those who know their king (cf. Josephus, JW 7.100–2). They celebrate his arrival by publicly meeting him on the journey down to welcome and honor him.