Q&A: The Rapture and a Thousand Years (1 Thess. 4:16)

The Rapture and a Thousand Years (1 Thess. 4:16)

Question

Doesn't this teach that first those in Christ shall rise (the rapture) and then later on everyone else will rise? Doesn’t this imply the 1000-year period in Revelation? 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

Answer

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 (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

There is no secret rapture. The second coming of the Lord will be unmistakable and one of loudest ("cry," "voice" and "trumpet" – compare, Deut. 5:22; Dan. 10:6; Rev. 1:15) in the history of mankind. It will be a very audible and public final coming — so loud that it even wakes up the dead from every age in redemptive history!

In this verse Paul is only speaking of believers. He is comparing living believers with those believers who have already passed away or, in Paul’s words, "fallen asleep" in the Lord. Unbelievers are not a topic in this verse. There is no mention of a thousand-year interval, and no implication of it.

When the Lord comes for the final time, some believers will still be alive. The concern of some of the Thessalonians was about those who had already died. What about these? Will the Lord take care of them too? Paul assures the Thessalonians, and us as well, that "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thess. 4:15). This means that the physical bodies of those dead in Christ — such as Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and John and numerous others — will have risen, and then those still alive in the Lord will be raised (1 Thess. 4:15, 16, 17). "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" we shall all be changed and all the elect will dwell with the Lord forever (cf. 1 Cor. 15:52).

As regards a thousand years, mention of this seen in Revelation 20:2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, but it is not even hinted at in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. But let’s briefly look at that part of Revelation 20.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while (Revelation 20:1-3).

These verses speak of the binding of Satan. Being bound doesn’t mean having no power at all. Rather, Satan is like a mafia boss in prison who directs his outside forces from within his jail cell, but with certain limitations. And these limitations are mentioned in the Scripture – “from deceiving the nations” (Rev. 20:8) and all this entails. But make no mistake here. He still has power in his prison cell (Rev. 12:12; cf. Jas. 4:7; 2 Pet. 5:8), so in a manner of speaking, he can still order hits and jobs (cf. Eph. 6:10-18) like a mafia boss. But this period of partial confinement is for an ideal period of time (a thousand years), which began with the Lord’s first coming.

Biblical evidence for this binding is found in various places in the New Testament. For instance, Jesus himself spoke of the binding of the strong man in Matthew 12:29. The same Greek root word (deo) for "binds" in Matthew 12:29 is used for "bound" in Revelation 20:2. The binding of the Devil is witnessed in various events in Jesus’ ministry — when he triumphed over Satan in the wilderness temptations (Luke 4:1-12) and by his casting out demons(Matt. 8:16, 28-34) as well as by his disciples (cf. Mark 9:38; Luke 10:17-18). One of the most telling verses describing this binding is found in John 12:31-32 which says, "Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." The Greek word for "cast out" in John 12:31 is ekballo. It comes from the Greek word ballo which is translated "threw" in Revelation 20:3. Evidence that Satan is bound is also seen in the fact that in this same verse Christ is drawing all kinds of people to himself (John 12:32; Matt. 28:19). So, Christ is plundering the kingdom of darkness and rescuing souls (cf. Matt. 12:28-29; Mark 3:7). In the Great Commission, Jesus announced that he had "all power in heaven and earth" (Matt. 28:18). One would logically think this would include power over all demons — as evidenced after his ascension in Acts 8:7; 16:18; 19:11-20, etc. — which could not happen if Satan has not already been bound.

While Revelation 20:1-3 speaks about the binding of Satan, Revelation 20:4-6 speaks about the work of the saints during the same millennial period.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4-6).

One thousand years is not to be understood literally. Figurative language is being used: key, pit, chain, dragon, and mark on their foreheads or their hands. (Please see "Revelation 20 - Literal or Symbolic - Interpretation?" and "COVID-19 Vaccine and the Mark of the Beast" below). The word "thousand" is often used figuratively in Scripture. For instance, in Deuteronomy 7:9 the Lord is described as "the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations." Isn’t the Lord faithful to the 1001st generation as well? Of course, he is. The verse is just emphasizing a long period of time (cf. Psa. 84:10). Psalm 50:10-11 says, "The cattle on a thousand hills belong to the Lord." But don’t all cattle belong to the Lord? Of course! The Hebrew wording may mean either the cattle that roamed by thousands on the hills or the cattle on a vast number of hills. Nonetheless, God owns them all (cf. Psa. 24:1). Peter says, "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pet. 3:8; cf. Psa. 90:4). This is all figurative language and, likewise, this text in Revelation refers to a long or vast period of time, or an ideal period spanning the entire New Testament period from Christ’s first coming until his second and final coming.

Notice that John mentions the thrones before he speaks of those sitting on them (Rev. 20:4; cf. Dan. 7:9-10; Rev. 4:1-2). This indicates a heavenly scene. The word "throne" is used some 48 times in the book of Revelation (in the Greek, Rev. 1:4; 2:13; 3:21 [x2]; Rev. 4:2 [x2]; Rev. 4:3, 4 [x3]; Rev. 4:5 [x2]; Rev. 4:6 [x3]; Rev. 4:9, 10 [x2]; Rev. 5:1, 6, 7, 11, 13; 6:16; 7:9, 10, 11 [x2]; Rev. 7:15 [x2]; Rev. 7:17; 8:3; 11:16; 12:5; 13:2; 14:3, 5; 16:10, 17; 19:4, 5; 20:4, 11, 12; 21:3, 5; 22:1, 3). Only three of them refer to a place other than heaven (cf. Rev. 2:13; 13:2; 16:10). The remaining ones are all in heaven, and so consistent interpretation places the location of the thrones most likely in heaven itself. In addition, John mentions "souls." This is reminiscent of those "slain for the word of God" in Revelation 6:9 which were under the altar — in heaven. So, with the mention of "souls" (Gk. psychas), as opposed to "bodies" (Gk. soma), and these souls being under the altar in heaven, we understand that John sees in a vision what is happening in heaven and not on earth.

John mentions the "first resurrection" (Rev. 20:5, 6) and is referring to those who reigned with Christ for a thousand years or a vast ideal period of time (Rev. 20:4). While in some contexts the word "resurrection" may refer to a bodily resurrection (cf. Matt. 9:18; Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 13:4; Rev. 2:8), here it refers to those souls ruling and reigning with Christ in heaven (Rev. 20:4). This isn’t a bodily resurrection, as the raising of the body from the dead is mentioned later on as something entirely distinct (cf. Rev. 20:11-13).

John 5:24-25 clearly teaches that all believers have already crossed over from death unto life. Christians are already risen up together with Christ (cf. Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). This occurs at regeneration (i.e. when we are born again, John 3:7). This is the first resurrection. (Please see "How can I be seated with Christ in the heavenly places if I'm still sitting upon the earth?" below). Since elsewhere the Scripture tells us there is only one bodily resurrection of believers and unbelievers (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; cf. Dan. 12:2), the meaning here must be about the resurrection of believing souls (cf. Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). [1]

In Revelation 20:5-6 we see mention of "the rest of the dead" and the "second death." The "rest of the dead" refers to those unbelieving dead, which are distinct from the believing dead John has previously described. The unbelieving dead are Christ’s enemies who were never ruling and reigning with him (cf. Matt. 12:30; Luke 11:23). They reap the "second death" (Rev. 20:6), which is eternal death (Rev. 20:14) and everlasting punishment after the final resurrection of the unbeliever’s body. Those taking part in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:5) are blessed because they don’t take part in the second death (Rev. 20:6).

To the reader, I have here only barely touched the length, breadth, width and height of the aforementioned verses in any detail. I suggest reading, Revelation, A Shorter Commentary, by G.K. Beale, More Than Conquerors, by William Hendriksen, Triumph of the Lamb, by Dennis Johnson, The Book of Revelation, by Jonathan Menn, and the article, "They Came to Life and Reigned With Christ for a Thousand Years" by Kim Riddlebarger (below).

Footnote

[1] Notice the sequence of Eph. 2:1, 6. It’s identical to Rev. 20:4-6. Dr. Dennis Johnson, professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California, writes as follows:
Paul reminded Christians in Ephesus, who had been "dead in the trespasses and sins in which [they] once walked," that God "made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places" (Eph. 2:1, 6). The sequence is identical to Rev. 20:4-6: the dead come alive, are raised, and are enthroned in heaven to share Christ’s reign. Yet Paul is not describing believers’ future bodily resurrection, ascension, and enthronement. Rather, he speaks of grace received in our past and in our present, when God’s Holy Spirit applies to us the work of Christ: "by grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph. 2:8). Christians already share in Christ’s resurrection life and heavenly reign (Col. 3:1-4; Rom. 6:4), even as we await our Lord’s return, when our bodies, too, will be transformed by His resurrection life (Rom. 8:11; Phil. 3:10-11, 20-21)... But if the "first resurrection" is not bodily, what is it? As John 5 and Ephesians 2 show, the Scriptures do say that God raises spiritually dead people through His effectual call in the gospel. But Revelation 20:4 focuses on "souls," and those souls belong to people who died not through sin and unbelief but because of their faithful witness to Jesus. This points us in a different direction.
Please read, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, P&R Pub., (2001)

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They Came to Life and Reigned With Christ for a Thousand Years

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).