Let's not argue about Jesus' return; let's be encouraged by it.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul promptly dispelled concerns the church members had that death would keep their loved ones from enjoying Christ's imminent return. Not only would they be a part of it, but Christ would bring all of them together to be with Him forever. Don't let the modern debate about the "Rapture" derail the wonderful encouragement this promise gives.
Therefore encourage one another with these words. (4:18)
End Times Heads Up
This week, we are covering the one passage in the Bible that describes "The Rapture". Even though this passage covers so many unbelievably important truths, I want you to be prepared for some inevitable questions. That means that even though I talk a lot in this post about how the Bible describes the end times, that's not because I want you to! I just want everyone to have access to information that might come up during a discussion of the text.
That said, let's study a truly amazing passage.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Who Likes to Be Encouraged?
Let's start here: "What does it mean 'to encourage'?"
Well, literally, it means to give someone courage. But I think most of us have a distinct connotation for "encourage" from "courage". The basic dictionary definition is "give support, confidence, or hope to".
So, when do we need encouragement? (The Sunday School answer is "always", right?) Literal-me says that I need encouragement when I am discouraged, and that's not entirely unhelpful. What makes me discouraged? Personally, I tend to be discouraged by a lack of progress -- I'm slow to learn something; a project is taking longer than expected; someone I counted on for help isn't available; something breaks, causing a setback; or (the biggest one for me) the results I hoped for aren't happening. So, what about you -- what discourages you?
Next, think of a time you were discouraged and somebody encouraged you. What did it look like or sound like? I'm always amazed how a simple card or text picks me up -- "thanks for doing such-and-such" or "I'm behind you and we'll get 'em next time" or the like. But again, everybody's different; what tends to encourage you?
Finally, let's do some projecting -- do you think other people need encouragement? Probably, right? So, how good are you at giving it? Have a group discussion about ways you can encourage people -- (perhaps you can encourage one another to be encouraging, eh?).
Aside on the Specifics of Encouragement. I saw a poll in which 69% of Americans are concerned about the possibility of nuclear war (note for future readers: this is written during the Russia-Ukraine war). What would be most encouraging to those people would be an assurance from someone "in the know" that nuclear weapons are not going to be used. Similarly, for people discouraged about the economy, that the economy will improve. And so on. But when you can't give that kind of encouragement, what can you do?
What Is the Best Encouragement You've Ever Heard?
This is where I shift gears into the lesson. To me, the absolute most encouraging thing I can hear is truth. Things like:
But, hey! At least the gospel was presented.
But, hey! At least everyone came back in one piece.
But, hey! At least no one lost their salvation.
The Bible leans in to "encouragement-by-truth". Consider these verses:
11 For I want very much to see you, so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, 12 that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom 1)
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. (1 Cor 14)
22 I am sending him to you for this very reason, to let you know how we are and to encourage your hearts. (Eph 6; cf. Phil 2:19, Col 4:8)
2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ. (Col 2)
7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and affliction, we were encouraged about you through your faith. (1 Thess 3)
In other words, encouragement happens by learning the truth -- "God is at work", "your faith is growing", "we're doing okay", "Jesus died for you", or "this is the Word of God". Those are encouraging to me; how about you?
(Encouragement can also be directed at something specific:
encourage the young women to love their husbands and to love their children (Tit 2:4)
encourage the young men to be self-controlled (Tit 2:6)
How is that kind of encouragement different from the earlier passages?)
The Greek word used is parakaleo, a word which has five related meanings:
to call to one's side
to urge or encourage
to request or appeal to
to comfort or encourage
to console or conciliate
It's a word used to describe the Holy Spirit -- "The Paraklete" (which means advocate or helper). The implication is simple, that God's Spirit and God's Word encourage us.
To Paul, in our passage this week, the ultimate encouragement is that Jesus is coming back. And paired with that, Jesus saves.
How about you? What truths in the Bible encourage you the most?
Two Asides about Encouragement
The internet gives me no shortage of "things to think about", usually things I had not thought about before. And because this is my blog, that means I get to share it with you. Yay!
(1) There's a raging debate about the difference between "praise" and "encouragement". If you are an educator, you are probably more familiar with it than I am. The little digging that I did gave me a lot to think about. Here are three representative charts of the debate.
I don't expect you to do anything with this; I just wanted to share.
(2) The internet seems to confuse encouragement with inspiration. If you Google "examples of encouragement", you'll find a hall of fame of self-help quotes, like:
“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” — Theodore Roosevelt
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” — Albert Einstein
“Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” — J.K. Rowling
“Try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” — Maya Angelou
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” — Nelson Mandela
“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.” — H. G. Wells
Those are cat posters, right? If I'm completely honest, something Helen Keller or Ghandi or whoever said years ago doesn't really encourage me. But, a few years ago someone(s) decorated the hall next to my office with a bunch of similar statements. And I loved it -- there's still one on a door that I walk by all the time. What's the difference? I know that was written to encourage me, whereas these other phrases from historical figures were just sown to the wind. But what about you -- does the person who encourages you make a difference? Or the reason for the encouragement? (As an aside to my aside, I don't personally care if the encouraging phrase has been plagiarized -- I just care that someone was trying to encourage me. 😊)
This Week's Big Idea: We've Got a Live One
This week's passage is about Christ's return. Why didn't I make that my opening "things to think about"? Because the reason Paul shared what he shared was to encourage the Christians, not start a debate!
I just want to present the applicable biblical data and draw some broad conclusions. Then if any of this comes up when you study this week's passage, you'll have a quick reference.
Matthew 24: 6 You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. ... 29 Immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
John 6: 40 For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
1 Corinthians 15: 23 But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be abolished is death. ...
1 Corinthians 15: 51 Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.
1 Thessalonians 4: 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
2 Thessalonians 2: 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one now restraining will do so until he is out of the way, 8 and then the lawless one will be revealed. The Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of his mouth and will bring him to nothing at the appearance of his coming.
(Note: we will talk more about the Matthew 24 passage in a couple of weeks when Paul tells the Thessalonians that Jesus will return "like a thief in the night".)
And then we have what John saw in his Revelation.
In chapter 14, there are all kinds of angel shouts in heaven, and John sees the Son of Man seated on a cloud, calling for the Bowl Judgments.
In chapter 19, John sees a rider on a white horse ("King of kings and Lord of lords") leading the armies of heaven against the armies of the beast.
In chapter 20, John sees the martyred raised to reign with Christ during "The Millennium". "4 They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection."
Later in chapter 20, after The Millennium, Satan raises one last army to be defeated by Jesus, after which he is destroyed, followed by "The Great White Throne Judgment". "12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. ... 15 And anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."
Finally, in chapter 21, John sees a new heaven and a new earth. "2 I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband."
We have three perspectives: from Jesus, from Paul, and from John. They are difficult to harmonize. Critics, as you can imagine, use these passages to say that we can't trust the Bible. I, as you can imagine, come to the opposite conclusion -- the difficulties of these passages make me trust the Bible all the more. Is the end of the universe supposed to be something easy to explain?
There are some clear commonalities between the accounts:
Christ's return is preceded by catastrophic conflict on earth.
Christ's return is announced by signs and trumpets.
Christ gathers Christians alive and dead (resurrected) to Himself.
Christ defeats all of His enemies.
If we accomplish nothing else during this lesson, let's realize that we completely agree about these basic points.
The difficulties can be categorized in three ways:
details that appear in one account but not another
questions about the exact order of events
questions about the length of time between events
Much like the Gospel accounts of Jesus' Resurrection (hey -- we're going to study that next week!), the differences between the accounts of Jesus' Return can certainly be harmonized. BUT -- that doesn't mean that every Christian will agree.
But let's be honest. It doesn't matter what we think is going to happen; God has a plan for Christ's return, and it will happen the way God wants it to happen.
[Note: if you want to learn more about things like "Premillennial vs. Postmillennial vs. Amillennial", I'll cover that at the very end.]
Where We Are in 1 Thessalonians
This is pretty simple. Last week, we started the "Q&A" part of the letter. Paul had some general comments for them about proper sexual behavior. This week, Paul moves on to a big question the church members had about the end times. He addresses the topic in two ways: first, an encouragement that believers who have died will still enjoy Christ's return (this week); second, a warning that Christ's imminent return means they need to stay vigilant in how they live (in two weeks).
Part 1: Hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
13 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
The background is pretty simple. Early Christians thought that Jesus was returning soon. Like, any day. (This turned some of the church members into lazy bums, but more about that in a few weeks.) And as you can imagine, they were pretty excited about Jesus returning. But while they waited, church members had started dying.
[Note that Paul uses "sleep" as a euphemism for death. It has been applied to the concept of "soul sleep" (see below), but that was not Paul's intention. Rather, people then (and now) saw death as permanent but sleep as temporary. Calling it "sleep" was how Paul tried to help change his churches' mindset about death. (See also John 11:13, Mark 5:39, Matt 27:52, and especially 1 Cor 15:20.) Paul actually says here "fallen asleep through Jesus", meaning "died as Christians" which implies that Jesus can "wake them up".]
Remember that in those days, people had very vague and contradictory opinions about death. A common idea was that death was "the end". This led the Christians to a very understandable question -- "Does this mean that the Christians who died miss out?"
I get excited about questions like that. It means that people are really trying to understand what they believe. If you think about it, we're still in the same boat as those believers -- we're still excited about Christ's return, but we still have questions about death and "the end". What are the questions you have about death and/or "the end"?
Paul believed that the truth was encouraging -- "No, believers who have died will not miss out on Christ's return" -- so he wanted the Christians to know the truth. But I want you to notice that Paul did not explain anything beyond what he knew.
[Aside on History: When we formulate answers that go beyond what God has revealed, that's when we get ourselves into trouble. A similar question in the early church led to a world of trouble: "What happens if my baby dies?" Again, a very reasonable and important question. But that early culture was biblically illiterate, and by trying to accommodate that illiteracy, some early bishops painted themselves into a corner.
Bishops: "Your baby goes to heaven."
Parents: "How do you know?"
Bishops: "The grace of Jesus."
Parents: "How did my baby get Jesus' grace if he was just a baby?"
Bishops: "The sacraments are visible signs of Jesus' grace." [conferring among themselves -- "maybe we should start baptizing infants"]
Parents: "But what if my baby died before being baptized?"
Bishops: "God will purify your baby's few sins and admit him to heaven."
Parents: "Cool. Does this work for adults, too?"
And before they knew it, bishops had started baptizing infants, created a sacramental system, invented purgatory, and started a system of prayers for the dead. Yes, it was more complicated than that. Side note: I believe the Bible does say that babies go to heaven, but my explanation is not "simple".]
Paul did not let the ignorance of his audience shape his response. Instead, he corrected his audience's ignorance, and then he answered their question: "Do you really think that death can stop Jesus from claiming His saints?"
Paul says two extremely profound things that now lie at the heart of my understanding of life in general:
Apart from Christ, there is no hope (in an eternal sense) for anyone.
If we believe God raised Jesus from the dead, why do we doubt any parts of the Bible?
The first comes up at every deathbed and in every funeral: "How do non-Christians handle these moments?" The answer is without hope. If they act like they have hope, they are deceiving themselves. If they believe that anything awaits them other than hell, they are deceiving themselves. Yes, that sounds harsh, but that's the urgency that Paul speaks with. We only have one chance at life; if someone dies without Jesus, only hell awaits him.
I recently read an interview with a non-Christian author who admitted that he struggled with the idea that humans were above animals. Well, yeah. If you don't believe in Jesus, then you have no reason to believe we are any different than animals. Not believing in Jesus necessarily puts people on a very dark path.
But for the Christian, the corollary is life-giving -- with Jesus, we have hope. With Jesus, life eternal waits on the other side of death for every believer because God does love us, created us in His image, and made a way for us to be with Him for eternity. And it doesn't matter how, when, where, or why they died.
[Aside: this informs my very simple answer to two related questions -- "but what about cremation?" and "but what about suicide?" Do you think that a body cremated gives God any more "trouble" than a body decomposed, or a body eaten by wild animals, or a body burned at the stake? Of course not. And is the manner of death an unforgivable sin the Bible failed to tell us about? Of course not. If we are not to grieve like those who have no hope, then let's have hope.]
The second is my response to my liberal-leaning brethren who doubt the miracles of the Bible, like Noah's ark or Gideon's fleece or Hezekiah's shadow. If you believe that Jesus Christ rose from death -- the most incredible miracle in history -- what miracles do you doubt? And if you don't believe that Jesus Christ rose from death, then you aren't a Christian (see Rom 10:9) and your spiritual conclusions are meaningless.
Anyway. Profound, right?
Paul gives a lot more detail about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Please read it and as a group try to summarize what Paul teaches in such a way that you could explain it to someone who doesn't know the Bible. Spoilers: Christians will be raised in a perfect, physical body. And the resurrection of Christ is central to our faith.
Aside: What Is "Soul Sleep"?
You may have heard this term before. To make this simple, "soul sleep" is the belief that when someone dies, he/she "sleeps" until the final judgment. In other words, when a person dies, he/she doesn't immediately go to the presence of Jesus, but they "wait" until the final judgment. From their perspective, they close their eyes in death, and they open their eyes in the presence of Jesus; they are unaware of any passage of time.
Depending on how you interpret "the Millennium", or how you interpret the resurrection, soul sleep can help you reconcile the passages listed above, and also when Jesus says to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). ("Today" is from the thief's perspective, not actual time.)
Some Christians are strongly opposed to the idea of soul sleep, and I don't understand why. I've gone back and forth about this, and I don't think there is a problem with the belief in soul sleep, but I personally lean away from this belief.
Part 2: Return (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16)
15 For we say this to you by a word from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
First, note the word "we". I firmly believe that Paul believed Christ was returning in his lifetime. This doesn't mean that he was disappointed at the end of his life! Likewise, many Christians I have known in my time serving churches have also believed that Christ is coming back in their lifetime. Some of them have "fallen asleep". I hope they did not feel disappointment. I believe that Paul's perspective was healthy and appropriate. If we believe that Jesus is coming back soon, perhaps we will live with the kind of urgency He hinted at in His final parables. (But more on this in a couple of weeks.)
Elephant in the room #1: what "word from the Lord" is Paul talking about? The passages I noted above from Jesus don't have some of these details. I think Paul is talking about a prophecy given to him or another prophet by Jesus (much like John's Revelation). Perhaps God gave Paul this information precisely in response to this question from the church, to give them comfort that the dead in Christ would rise first. Paul does not throw the phrase "word from the Lord" around lightly, and if I have concerns about Paul's trustworthiness, then I have serious problems with the New Testament.
Before we get into the debate about "The Rapture", please note what Paul is trying to say: there will be no "unfair advantage" for believers who happen to be alive when Jesus returns; every believer will equally get to be with Jesus. That's all Paul is trying to say!
Why would it be important that the dead "go first"? I think it's because death is what the Bible calls "the last enemy"; God has a special comfort for those who have experienced it.
Elephant in the room #2: if the dead in Christ don't rise until Christ's return, but "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord", then what happens to us when we die? This is one of the attractions of the doctrine of "soul sleep" -- you just don't have to worry about this question. But I don't hold to that interpretation of the Bible. I believe that after death, our souls are temporarily taken to the presence of Jesus (this may be the great multitude John saw in Revelation 4) until God sends us "back" with Jesus to be united with our new, perfect bodies. But time is meaningless in heaven, so I don't get worked up about it. We covered this last year when we studied Luke:
Before we get to the "juicy stuff", let me give you your Palm Sunday tie-in. (Note for future readers: this Sunday is Palm Sunday.) The word used for "meet" (apantesin) is the word used for when people from a city go out to meet a coming dignitary and then follow him back into the city. It's essentially what happened with Jesus and the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday (although many of the palm-wavers followed Jesus in from outside of Jerusalem).
Verse 16 has to be one of the most underrated dramatic sentences in history. We have Jesus descending from heaven, archangels shouting, God's trumpets, dead people rising. It's really quite overwhelming.
As I mentioned above, those elements are consistent in the different accounts of the end of all things. In Jesus' parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matt 25), the groom's return is announced with a shout. Just before that, Jesus said that He would send out His angels with a trumpet blast to gather His elect. In 1 Corinthians 15, the trumpet sounds just before the resurrection of the dead. There are lots of trumpets in Revelation.
Why doesn't Paul have all of the same details as in Revelation, or in Matthew 24? For one thing, God uniquely revealed details to John years later. If God revealed certain details to Paul (or one of Paul's friends) in response to this very question, then that's all he would know. But for another thing, remember that all Paul is trying to do is encourage the church members. Paul's just writing a letter, not an apocalyptic vision.
But let's hold off on further questions until the next verse. I'm really not sure why Lifeway chose to break the verses where they did.
Part 3: Reunion (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18)
17 Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Again, note Paul's expectant "we". As long as we truly believe that Christ could come back in our lifetime, we should always have that sense of urgency to do what Jesus commanded.
As I warned above, this passage is where we get the idea of "The Rapture", and for many of you, I think this will mean "The Secret Rapture of the Church". The word for "caught up" implies a quick and forceful action, like "snatched up". The word "rapture" comes from the Latin translation (rapio) of the Greek word (harpazo). This is the only place in the Bible this word is used this way. Other verses saying something similar are
3 If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also. (John 14)
51 Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (1 Cor 15)
There are three main ways "The Rapture" has been understood through history.
The historic view (posttribulation) has been that the Rapture occurs with the Second Coming. In other words, Christians are on earth during the Great Tribulation described in Revelation. (Remember when we recently studied Daniel, I pointed out that the Bible nowhere says that the Great Tribulation will last seven years.)
The dispensational view (pretribulation) that Christians will secretly be taken away before the Tribulation was invented in 1832 by John Nelson Darby. Darby's interpretation of the Bible (dispensationalism) required that certain prophecies could only be fulfilled by the Jews, which means that Christians had to be removed from the earth. "The Rapture" is how he created that scenario.
The midtribulation view, which says that Christians will be removed from the earth during the Tribulation but before The Great Tribulation was later invented as a compromise between the two above positions.
My guess is that many of you are going to be most familiar with the dispensational (pretribulation) view of the Rapture. Why? Well, media. If you haven't heard of the "Left Behind" series, I don't know what to say. The dispensational interpretation of Scripture lent itself to an exciting, fictional universe that people wanted to learn about.
The authors were dispensationalist (Jerry Jenkins went to Moody Bible Institute, a strongly dispensationalist school) and influenced by the movie "A Thief in the Night" (more about that in two weeks!). (And not to stir up nostalgia, but the book series was perfectly lined up with the rise of Christian bookstores.)
What is "dispensationalism"? One of these days I'll actually write an article summarizing and evaluating it. In the meantime, if you're interested, here are two neutral descriptions:
The only point I would want to make here is that this theological system is not actually widespread. The reason "The Secret Rapture of the Church" has caught on is media and marketing.
It does have a certain appeal -- primarily to the people who don't want to experience the Tribulation described in Revelation. "The Tribulation sounds pretty awful -- phew, God is gonna get us out of that." If you can't tell, I'm not too keen on that motivation. But again, we will talk about this more in two weeks.
There is one thing, and one thing only, I want to make clear from these verses (let me put them together to make this point easier):
16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
Note that I emphasized "then". There is nothing secret about the Rapture Paul describes. There will be no confusion as to "where the Christians have gone". When this not-secret Rapture takes place is a question I don't think you want to spend a whole lot of time debating. One, because it's not for us to know. But two, let's remember Paul's point:
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
With what words? What did Paul mean to be encouraging?
I see two things. Yes, "being with the Lord" is absolutely encouraging, right? But I think Paul was actually more focused on the "together with them" fact. The church members were worried that their dead loved ones would miss out on Christ's return and reign. Well, not only will they not miss out, but we will get to enjoy Christ's reign with them. We will be together. Isn't that even more encouraging to you? Not only will you one day be in heaven with Jesus, but you will be there with your loved ones who also followed Jesus! Isn't that somehow even better than perfect?
Our loved ones will rise again to be with Jesus
We will be with Jesus
We will be with our loved ones
That's encouraging, right?
Let's not ruin this beautiful encouragement with arguments about "The Rapture". The when/what/how of the Rapture does not change how we are supposed to live today and plan for tomorrow. (All those arguments can do is sap the encouragement Paul was giving to this church.)
You probably know someone who needs this specific encouragement. You might need it yourself!
Yes, Christianity is all about Jesus, but Jesus has given us so many priceless gifts, like this promise that all Christians will be together with Jesus for eternity. Thank God for this gift, and let this encouragement help carry you through whatever difficulties you're facing this week.
God bless you.
Closing Thoughts: Understanding the Tribulation and the Millennium
This post has already gone too long, so I'm going to keep this frighteningly short.
When we say "Tribulation" and "Millennium", we're talking about events described in John's Revelation. Note that some people don't believe John meant those things literally, so they take a very different approach.
For example, one interpretation of Revelation, called "Amillennialism", believes that Revelation symbolically describes the ongoing conflict between Christians and Satan, and thus "The Millennium" is a symbol of heaven.
Another interpretation, called "Postmillennialism", believes that "The Tribulation" is already past and we are currently living in "The Millennium" as the church spreads around the world. This belief lost a lot of steam after WWII.
Most Baptists hold some form of "Premillennialism" which believes that Revelation's description of "The Tribulation" and "The Millennium" is to be understood literally. Of course, we've still found plenty to debate about.
Within Premillennialism, there are three main branches (I mentioned these above). The currently-famous one is dispensational premillennialism, the belief that Christ will come and secretly rapture the church before the Tribulation and then bring the church back after the Tribulation.
The historic view is posttribulation premillennialism, the belief that Jesus will return after the Tribulation to reign during the Millennium, meaning that Christians will go through the Tribulation trying to win people to salvation.
A compromise view has appeared, one which tries to address the concern that Christians can't suffer God's wrath as well as the strange reference to 42 months (Rev 13:5) -- that Jesus will rapture His church during the Tribulation but before "The Great Tribulation" (how they describe the final judgments in Revelation 16), i.e. midtribulationism.
I personally hold a variation of the historic (posttribulation) view.
Over the centuries, when Christians die, we go to the presence of Jesus; when non-Christians die, they go to await judgment. When Christ returns (after the Tribulation but before the Millennium, see Rev 19:11-20:6) in what we just read in 1 Thess 4, the Christians who have been with Him are sent to be united with new bodies and those Christians who survived the Tribulation are caught up with them in newly transformed bodies.
Here's where my question comes in -- Revelation 20:4 implies (to me) that only those Christians who were killed by the antichrist reign with Jesus during the Millennium. I'm not sure what to do with that.
Are all other Christians sent "back" waiting to descend to the earth in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2) (which is fine with me, but seems odd considering Paul just said that we would be forever with the Lord)? or
Do all Christians participate in the Millennium ("the rest of the dead" (20:5) refers to non-Christians who will be resurrected for judgment)?
I'm really not sure. I'm confident that the Bible does not describe a "Secret Rapture of the Church", and I'm also confident that Jesus only comes back once. And thus we come back around to the difficulties of duration and sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this post. And I'm okay with that.
What matters is that we will be with the Lord together with everyone who has longed for His appearing. The "how/when/where" of that is in the future, and the future is in God's hands.