Believers will one day be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air. Advocates of the rapture camp on 1 Thess. 4:17 as a major supporting verse for their view. Jeffrey Weima in his new commentary, 1-2 Thessalonians (Baker Academic), has some intriguing thoughts on Paul’s use of a very distinctive word in the passage: harpazō.
“Paul’s choice of harpazō was intended not to teach a ‘secret rapture of the church’ but rather to make a possible wordplay, since this term was often used by non-Christian writers to speak of life or the living being ‘snatched away’ by death. Plutarch, for example, a close contemporary of the apostle, used harpazō and its compounds to refer to those who die an early death such that they are ‘snatched away’ from ‘the advantages of life, such as marriage, education, manhood, citizenship, and public office’. Funerary inscriptions speak of how Fate has ‘snatched away’ the living to the place of Hades. Lucian uses a synonym of harpazō in the speech of a grieving father who cries out to his deceased son: ‘Dearest child, you are gone from me, dead, snatched away [anēpasthēs} before your time, leaving me behind alone and wretched’. The Latin synonyms rapio and eripio are also frequently used in letters of consolation in the context of death. Seneca, for example, repeatedly refers to how Fortune has ‘snatched away’ the deceased’s wealth, friends, reputation, health, and breath. . . . Paul, therefore, may be cleverly inverting a common use of harpazō in referring to death: rather than the expected picture of death or fate ‘snatching away’ to hades those who are living, the living ‘will be snatched up’ so that they do not face the last enemy, death.” (pp. 331-32)
In a footnote he quotes A.J. Malherbe. “Malherbe concludes that Paul’s deliberate choice of the verb ἁρπάζω in 4:17 involves a ‘neat twist’: ‘Whereas the word usually denoted the separation from the living, Paul uses it to describe a snatching to association with the Lord and other Christians.’ In his later commentary, Malherbe again refers to Paul’s verb choice as a ‘neat twist’ that also involves irony: ‘The dead in Christ will rise, and their separation from those who were left is overcome, as ironically, they are snatched up together with them.’” (p. 332n.16)