In view of the Apostle's statement of the order of events in the day of the Lord's presence; namely that "The dead in Christ shall rise first, then we which are alive and remain shall be caught away together with them in clouds to a meeting of the Lord in the air," it may be asked, Does not the view presented above, namely, that since 1878 the dead in Christ have been raised spiritual beings, and that since then those who are alive are "changed," each at the moment of his death—does not this view conflict with the apostle's statement?
We answer no; though at first glance it may appear to do so. We should remember that the apostles were not only expounders of the prophetic utterances of holy men of old whom God moved upon by his Spirit to declare things to come in figures and dark sayings, but they were themselves prophets also, and in foretelling events not then due, they also used figures, symbols, and dark sayings, to be understood by the Church when they would become meat in due season. This was true also of Jesus' teaching. He not only expounded the prophets, but he opened his mouth in parables, prophecies and dark sayings.—Matt. 13:34,35; Psa. 78:2; Matt. 24.
Among the prophecies by the apostles clothed in figurative or symbolic language, is that of James 5 relating to the present time, verses 2 and 3 are highly figurative. Peter's prophecy covering the same period is even more strikingly figurative. (2 Pet. 3:7,10,13.) John's prophecy, the book of Revelations, is full of symbols. And in considering the apostle Paul's writings, we should expect that prophetic references to this notable "Day of the Lord" would be more or less symbolic also. Peter assures us that it is so; and that Paul's writings are liable to be misunderstood by some.—See 2 Pet. 3:16.
As a matter of fact in this very portion of Paul's prophecy touching the events of the Day of the Lord (1 Thes. 4:16,17), we find the same symbols used by the others. Paul introduces these symbols but does not interpret them, leaving that for the Spirit of truth to do for those of the Church who may be watching and searching at the due time.
Paul's "shout" and "trumpet" of verse 16 corresponds in every way with those used by John (Rev. 11:15), and the same even in Daniel's prophecy (12:1) is called the standing up of the arch-angel Michael; for the same results are described as following, viz., the angry nations and time of trouble which Peter and Zephaniah and Paul call the melting of the earth [the social fabric] and flaming fire.—Compare 2 Pet. 3:10; Psa. 97:5; Zeph. 3:8; Rev. 11:17; and 2 Thes. 1:8.
Paul's "clouds" (verse 17) in which the living are to be caught away, coincide exactly with the "clouds and thick darkness" of trouble, by which all the prophets so often represent the troubles of this Day of the Lord. And the "air" into which they are caught, and in which they are to ever be with the Lord, we apprehend to be no less a symbol than the others. A symbol of what?—Of power and dominion. And if we are to be "changed" and are to enter into and share this dominion, how appropriate to say in symbol that we will be caught into the "air" power, and be forever in it, with the Lord.
Thus the same word is used elsewhere by the same apostle. In Eph. 2:2, he speaks of the "power of the air," and declares that Satan now holds that "power" which the "air" symbolizes. And when we remember that "sea" in symbol represents the lawless and unruly classes of men, that "earth" represents organized society, and that "mountains" represent earthly governments, what is more reasonable than that the "air" or "heavens" should be used to symbolize the invisible yet all-pervading power and influence of spirit beings.
And if "air" is thus used to represent the present evil spiritual control, how appropriate that the same symbol should be used in describing the new spiritual empire of the Prince of light who becomes the new Prince of the air, and deposes and binds the present usurper.
As to the word "caught away in clouds together"; we should remember that all prophecies looking down to this little period called the "Day of the Lord" and the "Day of Trouble," state the many great events of this time as though they would all take place together; and so they do, for nothing intervenes to break the chain of events; link follows link, and they go all together, clouds of trouble follow one another closely, the one fading away where the next is beginning. Like the cars in a train, they all go together, and yet one is first and another is last. So likewise the living will be caught away in these clouds to the new power of the air, together—just as when a school is dismissed the pupils leave it together, yet they do not all pass through the doorway at once.
Paul explaining the same matter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 15:51,52), calls it a mystery—a matter not yet made fully plain and clear of which he could only give them a glimpse. And he declares of the living, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, AT [Greek en, during, or in] the last trump." Here the symbolic trumpet is again introduced, which covers the period of forty years called The Day of the Lord; and it is during, or in this time, that the dead saints shall be raised and the living members "changed." For the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed. While, therefore, all must be changed, and the change of each will be "in a moment," all will not be raised and changed in the same moment—the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we—continuously, without interruption or anything to prevent, together will be caught with them into the power of the air.