Thoughts on 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – Part 2

In 1 Thess. 4:17 we read that “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air . . .” In a yesterday’s post I noted Jeffrey Weima’s comment on the Greek word harpazō. Today we’ll look at two more phrases: “in the clouds” and “in the air.” Weima comments that “in the clouds” should not be understood as the location but rather the means by which they will be caught up. He writes,

“A brief prepositional phrase describes the instrument used by God to take believers up: ‘by means of the clouds’ (en does not likely convey location, which is expressed at the end of the sentence by eis aera, ‘in the air’—but signifies means or instrument). In the OT, clouds are so frequently associated with a theophany, that is, the appearance of God (e.g., Exod. 13:21-22; 14:19, 20, 24; 16:10; 19:16-17; Lev. 16:2; Num. 9:15-22; 10:11-12; 1 Kings 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; Neh. 9:12, 19; Ps. 97:2; Isa. 19:1; Ezek. 1:4-28) that this means is naturally carried over to the NT (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34-35; 1 Cor. 10:1-2). Clouds as a sign of God’s presence become connected not only with the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:9; see also the ascension of the two witnesses in Rev. 11:12) but also with his future return (Matt. 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:21; Rev. 1:7; 14:14-16), and image that can be traced back ultimately to Daniel’s vision of ‘one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven’ (7:13). The reference to believers being snatched up ‘by means of the clouds,’ therefore, says less about the location of this gathering than it does about the presence of God and reassuring Paul’s readers about the active part that the Divine will play in ensuring the equal presence and participation of both living and deceased believers in Christ’s parousia.” (1-2 Thessalonians, pp. 332-33, Baker Academic)

In A New Heaven and a New Earth J. Richard Middleton (Baker Academic) offers a cautious interpretation regarding the phrase “in the air.”

“Note that ‘the air’ (where believers are to meet Christ) is not exactly equivalent to ‘heaven’ in contemporary Christian theology. Classical Greek authors often used the term aēr (which Paul uses here) to refer to the lower atmosphere (below the moon), characterized as dense and misty, in distinction from the aithēr (the pure upper region of the stars). While we cannot simply attribute this understanding of the air to Paul without further ado, the New Testament sometimes associates the air with the domain of Satan, who is called ‘the ruler of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), a phrase essentially synonymous with the Johannine expression ‘the ruler of this world’ (John 12:31; 14:30). Note also the association of birds (which inhabit the air) with the evil one/Satan/the devil in different versions of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:4, 19; Mark4:4, 15; Luke 8:5, 12). If any of these associations is relevant to 1 Thess. 4, Paul may be intending to say that redemption occurs on the devil’s ‘turf,’ and he is powerless to impede it.” (p. 222-23n.12)

Weima dismisses this interpretation saying “But though Paul would surely affirm Christ’s rule over the spiritual realm . . . that is not his concern here.” (p. 335)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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