(NOTE: All scripture quoted is from the King James Version unless otherwise noted. Red letters in brackets inserted into scripture are author remarks.)
Most Christians today believe the rapture described in 1 Thess 4:16-17 is a literal event that will take place in the future. After all, Acts 1:9-11 shows that Jesus literally ascended into a cloud that “received him”. And the angles indicated that Jesus will return “in like manner”.
Here are the verses:
Acts 1: 9-11 Jesus ascends into a cloud:
9) And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.
10) And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
11) Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
1 Thess 4:16-17 Jesus returns:
16) For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17) Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
Are these LITERAL events or are they somehow metaphoric or symbolic? As always, we must approach Bible study using the proper methods of Biblical interpretation. All scripture will interpret its meaning:
- In the Verse.
- In its Context through Narrative Development; that which is written immediately before of after the verse.
- Where it is Was Used Before. Verses must be in harmony with other verses on the same subject.
- The Time in Which it Was Written. This can also include figures of speech common during the time but either not in use now or misunderstood. There are 7 different administrations spanning over 6,000 years each having a unique set of rules.
- To Whom it Was Written. (Closely related to the time it was written.)
Let’s take a closer look at the use of the word “clouds” In this word study we’ll be looking for where it has been used before, figures of speech and translational errors.
Old Testament Scriptures on Clouds
Accepted by Jews in Jesus' Time
Clouds are for Guidance
Concerning the Hebrews exodus from Egypt, Exodus 13
21) And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:
22) He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.
Clouds are for Protection
19) And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:
20) And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.
Clouds are for Divine Communication via the “Glory of the Lord”
10) “And it came to pass, as Aaron spake unto the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and, behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
11) And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying…”
10) “…And the glory of the LORD appeared in the tabernacle of the congregation before all the children of Israel.
11) And the LORD said unto Moses…”
Glory of the Lord accepts Worthy Sacrifice
23) And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people.
24) And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.
The Glory of the Lord in Judgment and Punishment
Numbers 16 - Korah rebels against Moses’ authority
19) “And Korah gathered all the congregation against them unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the congregation.
20) And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
21) Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment. [skipping down to verse 35]
35) And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.”
41) “But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD.
42) And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared.
43) And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation.
44) And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
45) Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces.
46) And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the LORD; the plague is begun. [skipping down to verse 49]
49) Now they that died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside them that died about the matter of Korah.”
And there are many, many more verses we could study on this subject but the point should be quite clear. Essentially, clouds indicate the presence and the power of God carried out by His angels.
Let’s See where “Clouds” are Used
in the New Testament
Matt 26: 57-68
57) Those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together.
58) But Peter was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome.
59) Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death.
60) They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward,
61) and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’”
62) The high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?”
63) But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
64) Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.”
65) Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy;
66) What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.
67) Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands,
68) Saying, Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?”
Remember how God dealt with the usurper Korah and his wicked followers in Numbers 16? It was well known by the Jews what happens to the unrighteous who attempt to slay a righteous man, the penalty is death. Jesus is talking about judgment through the power of God AKA the Glory of the Lord via angles and that they will be put to death for their crimes against Jesus.
Jesus gave Caiaphas the answer he wanted: “…hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (v. 64). To some, this may not seem like a very direct response. However it was VERY clear to those attending the trial; they knew exactly what Jesus meant. Caiaphas knew what clouds meant from scripture, that’s why he went on a tirade tearing his clothes and had Jesus beat to a pulp. Then they all mocked him saying, “Prophesy to us, You Christ” (v. 68). They knew he was claiming to be the Messiah because he was identifying himself as “the Son of Man” who will return in judgment in the Glory of the Lord.
Jesus was probably referring to the prophecy concerning him in Daniel 7:
1) In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters. [skipping down to verse 9]
9) I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.
10) A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.
11) I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame.
12) As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time.
13) I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
14) And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Christ’s answer was “blasphemy” to the Jews because they knew that only God or the Messiah could be coming on clouds. But Jesus was not suggesting they would actually see him coming in the clouds literally; rather, he was simply prophetically identifying himself as the Messiah: the “Son of God”, and that after his death they will perceive him as such. This was the purpose of his slightly cryptic reply.
Some More New Testament References to Clouds:
Matthew 24:30 "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the CLOUDS of heaven with power and great glory."
Mark 13:26 "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the CLOUDS with great power and glory."
Mark 14:62 "And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the CLOUDS of heaven."
Luke 21:27 "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a CLOUD with power and great glory."
Revelation 1:7“Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him.”
Tribes refer to the 12 tribes of Israel. Earth is better translated “land”, especially in context of the tribes.
Jesus used “eyes” as a metaphor for the mind, and by “see” he meant “perceive, to understand”. Because what of the physically blind people who can’t see? What about when it's night time? If Christ returns on one side of the planet during the day, how can the other half of the world see him if its night and they’re sleeping?
When he told those present at his trial they would “see” him coming with clouds, he meant they would finally understand he was the Messiah. He meant the same thing in Rev. 1:7 and even mentioned “those who pierced Him,” a clear reference to his accusers known as a “time statement”. To stay on point, we’ll cover that in a separate article.
They and the mob who demanded his crucifixion were the ones ultimately guilty of his brutal murder (brutality that more than pierced his skin but completely shredded it) and not simply the Roman soldier who pierced his side to confirm he was dead.
Rev 1:7 more accurately translated: “Behold, he is coming with angels in the glory of the Lord, and everyone will perceive that Jesus is the Christ, even those guilty of his murder; and all the tribes of the land of Israel will mourn over Him.”
So now we have a decent understanding of the Biblical meaning of clouds. To reiterate, clouds indicate the presence and the power of God as conveyed though His angels in a multitude of ways: Judgment, acceptance, protection, guidance and communication.
In light of everything we’ve just learned, let’s revisit Acts 1: 9-11 where Jesus ascends into a cloud.
9) “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.”
This cloud is quite possibly the same type of cloud that sits in the tabernacle and accepts, or “receives” worthy sacrifices; this is probably not a cumulus nimbus cloud. Remember that clouds conceal God but reveal His glory. The whole ascension event was a symbolic gesture done specifically to drive the point home to the disciples. They totally understood what it all meant.
10) “And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven [not, up in the air, but “toward heaven” Greek word “ouranos” meaning heaven, the visible heavens: the atmosphere, the sky, the starry heavens, the spiritual heavens.] as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; [obviously angels, as angels are frequently known to be present around the Glory of the Lord]
11) Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.”
“In like manner”. Interesting phrase.
Let’s see if Christ’s return in 1 Thess 4:16 is “in like manner” of his departure in Acts 1:9
1 Thess 4:16-17
16) For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17) Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up [Greek better translation: caught away] together with them in the clouds [the Glory of the Lord as performed by angels; one cloud=one angel, clouds=angels], to meet the Lord in the air: [Greek word “aer”; the lower air we breathe on the ground at head level, not above the ground where birds fly or up in the literal clouds, that would be “ouranos” heaven, contrast with Acts 1:10] and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
This doesn’t seem to be “in like manner” to me. Sounds like a very different manner. Christ left in peace, he returns in judgment and wrath. He left quietly as a small group of men watched, he returns with great fanfare, in the Glory of the Lord (clouds), with angels. A shout, AKA a battle cry from the Archangel, and a trumpet blast signifying troops attacking in war.
Is this an apparent contradiction? Nope. “In like manner” refers to the cloud that received Jesus. And remember that the cloud conceals the messenger, only the glory is shown.
And the Dead in Christ Shall Rise First
The Apostle Paul explains this quite well in 1 Corinthians 15: 35-54 (NIV)
35) But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”
36) How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
37) When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
38) But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
39) All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.
40) There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.
41) The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
42) So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;
43) it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
44) it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
45) So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.
46) The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.
47) The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven.
48) As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.
49) And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
50) I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
51) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—
52) in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
53) For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
54) When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
The corruptible physical body you’re living in right now will die, and immediately, “in the twinkling of an eye”, you’ll be raised into a new incorruptible body just like Christ. If you have already died, and are “sleeping” waiting for his return, then you will be raised spiritually like Christ.
"…and so shall we ever be with the Lord": Both in the spirit with a new flesh like Christ, living simultaneously in the spiritual Kingdom of God with all the believers in Christ who went before us, and physically here on earth on the ground in the air that we breathe with angels ready for battle against evil and wickedness. In the “cloud” that is the Glory of God, the presence and power of the Lord, in all the ways in which God works: In judgment, in acceptance of worthy sacrifice, in protection, guidance and divine communication.
That is the true meaning of this passage according to the accuracy of scripture in the way in which it was intended to be understood. To whom it was written, in the time in which it was written. Like the apostle Paul concludes in 1 Thess 4:18, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
God bless you!
About the author, Minister Daniel Sweet: Daniel Sweet is the President and founder of God's Word First. He is an ordained Minister of Christ, biblical scholar, teacher of the holy spirit and the author of the Power of Leadership book series. He and his wife, Debbra Sweet have overseen the growth and development of multiple in home fellowships and have been instrumental in helping many people all over the world come to the knowledge and truth of God’s Word.