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Meeting the Lord in the Air: Is This the Rapture?

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul is talking about the second coming of Christ. The whole context is this: "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (vv. 13-18).
What does it mean that "we who are 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"?
First, the Lord coming "in the clouds" draws upon the vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7, who also comes "in the clouds" (7:13). And, of course, clouds throughout the Bible are associated with theophanies, that is, appearances of God (e.g., Sinai, the Ascension, Transfiguration, etc.).
Second, the Greek expression "to meet" (lit. "for a meeting" [εἰς ἀπάντησιν]) is "to be understood as a technical term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors. Similarly, when Christians leave the gates of the world, they will welcome Christ in the ἀήρ [air], acclaiming Him as κύριος [Lord]" (Erik Peterson, ἀπάντησις, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:380–381). So, if Christ returns tomorrow, we who are still alive will rise in the air to meet him as Lord/Kyrios, just like if Caesar were to visit a city, the populace would meet him outside the gates of the city and then welcome him into their city.

But--this is crucial--just like the group welcoming Caesar does not stay outside the city, but escorts their lord inside, so we do not stay in the air with our Lord/Kyrios. No, we go with him, our returning and triumphant King, back to creation. Thus, we shall always be with the Lord. (Are we escorting him back to the old creation, soon to be replaced, or to the new creation? Paul does not say.)
By the way, this word for "meet" is only used 3x in the NT. Here in 1 Thess. 4:17 and in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In these latter two, there is a meeting (with the Bridegroom and Paul), then the one who is greeted is followed somewhere else. In other words, when you "meet" someone, you always escort them somewhere else. We will not stay "in the air." That is just the meeting takes place, between heaven and earth, as it were.
So, this is the biblical order of events:
1) Christ descends from heaven publicly and loudly (this is no secret "rapture" since there are trumpets blasting!).
2) Those already dead are resurrected first
3) We who are alive will join those just resurrected to greet the Kyrios, the King of kings, in the air.
4) We will always be with the Lord? Where? As Revelation makes clear, in the New Jerusalem, in the new heavens and new earth.

Written by Chad Bird, 1517 Scholar