It might seem odd to focus on a passage from Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica in the middle of a study and series about ideas from St. John's Revelation, but here we are.
Whether you are a believer in the doctrine of the Rapture or not, this passage is the biblical foundation of that doctrine. Studying Revelation does show offer us some insight into God's ultimate plan for restoring all of creation and its people, but we don't see direct references to the idea that believers will disappear from this world before that happens when we do. We find those references here. And like our Nativity scenes sometimes feature the Wise Men even though they probably didn't visit Jesus until several months or even a couple of years later, we have connected the Rapture to the visions John saw on Patmos.
Now, the interesting thing is that even though Paul wrote more from a logical understanding of what he knew about Jesus and John wrote from a supernatural vision, they had similar purposes: Offer hope to confused, worried and perhaps even frightened people.
Paul wrote this letter, we believe, sometime in the 50s or 60s, between 20 and 30 years after Easter. The people who follow Jesus know he told his first disciples that he would return -- some of them believe that will happen within their lifetimes and some of them just figure that no matter when it happens, they should be making themselves and the world around them ready for him. But all of these believers wonder about loved ones who followed Jesus but who themselves died before his return. What happened to them? What will happen to us if we pass away before he returns?
Paul reassures these people. Yes, if Jesus was going to return and set up a kingdom like Caesar had or like any other ordinary mortal king, those people wouldn't participate because they are already dead. But Jesus is no mortal king, and his return will bring about a kingdom nothing like anything that goes on in the world around them. They shouldn't worry about those who have died -- in fact, those people will be with the returning Christ before anyone else! Then the believers still living will meet their coming Lord in the air and take part in his return to Earth, joyously reunited with him.
Through John's vision, God offers hope to another group of his people in their own time of worry and wonder. Signs of persecution have appeared by the time we believe the Book of Revelation to have been wrtten, sometime in the last decades of that first century. Roman rulers and officials distrust this new religion and its people, who don't recognize Caesar as a god or even pay a token attention to the Roman state religion. Although the persecution will get worse, it's already harassing enough to worry churches and their members, especially in the larger cities of the Empire.
John's vision, though, does two things. One, it points out that people who follow Christ will always be at odds with people who follow the powers of this world. Even when everyone gets along and nobody's picking on each other, their differences from the cultures around them will divide them from other people. Sometimes, those differences will mean people in power will persecute the Christians who they feel threaten that power.
It is, he says, beginning now and it will keep going on and might get much much worse. The forces that work against Jesus' teaching will be desperate to defeat it, because Jesus and his work mean the end of their power. But even in dark times, when it seems like these forces have in fact won because their power and control have overcome the message Jesus and his followers proclaim, those followers should not lose hope, John says. Because God is coming, God wins, and Jesus will return to seal that victory and restore all of creation to the glory for which God always intended it.
In the mid-60s, Sam Moore and David Prater released their first major hit, a rousing soul anthem called "Hold On, I'm Coming!" In it, the duo say that whatever problems the person they're addressing may face, that person should not worry, because they're on their way: "When the day comes, and you're down/In a river of trouble, and about to drown/Just hold on! I'm coming! Hold on! I'm coming!" Although Sam and Dave may not have intended any theological meaning, those words are the words of Jesus to his people, whether through Paul's logic or John's vision or the Holy Spirit's testimony to our own spirits.
Hold on, Jesus says. I'm coming.