The Clouds of the Aerial
QUESTION : "I am wondering how Christadelphians explain 1 Thes. 4:17."
"Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Th 4:17).
1 Thess. 4:13-18 is a source of great comfort to those who understand the Truth regarding what God has intended for the righteous. Paul, in concluding his remarks on the matter in vs. 18, said, "Comfort one another with these words." He was speaking to the faithful at Thessalonica to console them who were sorrowing because of the death of some of their number. Paul reminds them that while all others who sleep in death are without hope, their dead were buried in hope. And that hope, as he brings out in vs. 14, is in the resurrection from the dead. "If we believe that Jesus died and rose again (was resurrected), even so them also which sleep (are dead) in Jesus will God bring with him (ie. resurrect them as He resurrected Jesus)." This is exactly the same teaching that Paul elsewhere gives concerning the resurrection. Romans 6:5, for example --
"If we have been planted together in the likeness of his (Christ's) death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection." (See also 1 Cor. 15:12-18.)
Paul, in endeavouring to remind the sorrowers of the great joy laid up for them, goes on to further expound the events to occur at the return of Christ to the earth ("for," said the angel in Acts 1:11, "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"). He points out that at the return there will be some alive who have remained steadfast in the one true faith that Christ and the apostles taught in the Gospel message. He says (v. 15) --
"We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not go before them which are asleep. 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 (be resurrected) FIRST. THEN we which are alive and remain shall be caught together ("up" is not in the original) with them in clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we (the resurrected and those who were alive at his coming) ever be with the Lord."
Now, what are we to make of "clouds" and "the air" in this verse? Our best (rather, our only) recourse is the Bible for our enlightenment. What does God say in the Bible regarding the inheritance of the saints? Is it not the earth?
"For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth" (Psa 37:9).
If the inheritance of the saints is the earth, what are we to make of clouds and the air that Paul mentions? Since it is Paul using the term, let him define what he meant by it. The answer regarding clouds is provided by him in Hebrews 12:1. After speaking of the righteous in history (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.), Paul concludes the chapter saying in v. 39 --
"The meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace" (v. 11).
"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5).
"Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:10).
"These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received NOT the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they should not be made perfect without us."
-- and he continues in chapter 12:1:
"Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a CLOUD OF WITNESSES, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."
Paul refers to these particular faithful as a "cloud of witnesses." Other saints too numerous to mention ("for the time would fail me to tell of them" -- Heb. 11:32) will also constitute clouds of faithful witnesses. It is to these clouds of "the dead in Christ arisen FIRST" that the ones "which are alive and remain" will join themselves.
Paul's use of the term cloud to describe a multitude is not unique within the Scriptures. Ezekiel uses the metaphor in his description of the Russian host that will come against Israel just before Christ's revealing himself to the nations --
"Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, the prince of Rosh (Russia), Meshech (Moscow) and Tubal (Tobolsk, capital of Siberia) . . .. and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army . . . Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them . . . Gomer, and all his bands; the house of Togarmah of the north quarters, and all his bands: and many people with thee . . . In the latter years thou shalt come . . . against the mountains of Israel . . . Thou shalt ascend and come like a storm, thou shalt be like a CLOUD to cover the land, thou, and all thy bands, and many people with thee" (Eze. 38:3-9).
What then of "the air?" The answer, in light of the use of the symbolism of clouds, is simple: just as clouds symbolize the multitude of saints, "the air" (or, the aerial) symbolizes the position of the clouds, and the environment in which they dwell.
The "hope of the Gospel" is that God will set up a kingdom on earth --
"A kingdom which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever" (Dan. 2:44).
This kingdom must have rulers over the people, and thus it will have as its head Christ as the righteous king --
"The Lord shall be king over all the earth" (Zech. 14:9).
"Thou shalt call his name Jesus . . . and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob (ie. Israel, which kingdom was on earth) for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:31-33).
And the saints will form its aristocracy --
"Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:10).
In the symbology, as the clouds hover over the earth, so will the immortalized saints have the ascendancy over the mortal peoples of the earth.
Further again, let us examine Paul's usage of the word "air" elsewhere to see what he meant by it. In his letter to the Ephesians, 2:2, he reminded the saints of what they were as pagans before they obeyed the Truth of the Gospel. He said --
"In time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the ruling of the authority ('prince of the power') of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience."
Here, Paul describes the course of this world (or world order) as being under the ruling authority of "the spirit... of disobedience." The children of disobedience are therefore those who rule according to this ruling authority, which is nothing other than their own sinful, fleshly impulses, in rebellion against God. The air therefore refers to the spirit of disobedience (the "spirit of the times" we might say) incarnate in the authorities exercising dominion and power over the nations, with whom Paul and his co-labourers "wrestled." Thus he says in the same letter, Eph. 6:12 --
"The contest for us is not against blood and flesh, but with the sovereignties, with the authorities, with the world-rulers of the darkness of this Course with the spirituals of the wickedness, in the upper regions."
-- These upper regions are the "air," in which the rulers are positioned, being politically elevated over all the earth.
Now the revealed purpose of God is to change "the Air" -- to hurl the mighty from their thrones; exalt them of low degree, and to send the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-55, in light of Rom 4:17: "God ... calleth those things which be not as though they were"). When this is accomplished, the kingdoms of this world will have become those of the Father, and His Anointed, according to Rev. 11:15. The political air will then be abolished, and a new order will be substituted in their stead. This new order is styled in the prophets, "New Heavens, and a New Earth, in which dwelleth righteousness" (Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13). The course of THIS order, the ruling of the authority of this air, will be the Spirit that works in the sons of obedience.
Then, the "spirit of the times" will be purely of peace and righteousness, when the King of the earth, together with his clouds of saints, will reign from the throne of David in Zion. This is what the prophet Daniel foresaw in his seventh chapter (v. 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. 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."
Thus, in a few, yet very profound words, Paul reminds the sorrowers in Thessalonica of their great hope: resurrection from the dead, a "putting on incorruption and immortality" (see 1 Cor. 15:52-54) and a ruling place in a kingdom which will control all the earth. Heartened, may they not have opened the record of Scripture and read? --
"Fear before him, all the earth. Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously. Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof. Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth" (Psa. 96:9-13).