15 For this we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we the living, who are left at the parousia of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep;
16 because the Lord himself with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the sound of the trumpet of God, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first,
17 then we the living, who are left, together with them shall be caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
This passage has traditionally been understood to describe an end-of-history coming of Jesus to take the church to heaven to be with God. It needs to be read, however, with a strong awareness of the historical setting, on the one hand, and of the nature of the prophetic language, on the other. If we take these two contextual elements into account, we hear Paul constructing a powerful and urgent narrative of hope for a community facing deadly opposition from the powers of Greek-Roman paganism.
The parousia of the Lord
We start, actually, not in the Old Testament but in the world of Roman imperial ideology. The word parousia was commonly used to signify the arrival of a ruler in a city. So, for example, coins bear the Latin inscription Adventus Aug(usti) Cor(inthi) and Adventus Augusti in reference to the parousia or arrival of Nero in Corinth and Patras. An inscription from Tegea refers to 'the sixty-ninth year of the first parousia of the god Hadrian'. The word which Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 for the 'meeting' (apantēsis) of the faithful with the Lord at his parousia derives from the same ideological context. As the ruler approaches, the citizens of the town go out to meet him. Cicero gets excited about Julius Caesar's tour of Italy in 49 BC: 'Imagine what apantēseis are being made from the towns, what honours' (Cicero, Ad Att. 8.16.2).
This suggests that when Paul speaks of the parousia of Christ in the not too distant future, he has in mind the displacement of wordly rulers, supremely of Caesar, from their position over the church. Christ will come to have the position of authority over the people of God that is currently still held by the oppressor.
The Lord himself... will descend from heaven
In the Old Testament the Lord descends from heaven either to speak with Moses (eg. Ex. 19:11, 20; 34:5; Num. 11:25; Deut. 31:15 LXX) or, notably in the prophetic writings, to fight against faithlessness in Israel or against Israel's enemies (eg. Is. 31:4-7; Mic. 1:3). The latter motif is most relevant for the interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:16. The important point to note is that it most naturally describes a specific historical intervention, not a final end-of-the-world event: when something is seriously wrong with Israel, YHWH descends from heaven to put things right.
With a cry of command... with the sound of the trumpet of God
In Isaiah 27:13 a 'great trumpet' is blown on the day when the 'guilt of Jacob will be expiated' and YHWH will gather his exiled people from among the nations. In Zechariah's prophecy about the coming of Israel's king to Jerusalem a trumpet is blown when the Lord goes out to fight against Israel's enemies. The use of the image in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, therefore, suggests a similar circumstance: it signals the moment when Israel's pagan enemy is defeated and the people are restored.
The 'cry of command' does not appear to have clear Old Testament antecedents, but Philo comments that God 'by one single word of command (heni keleusmati), could easily collect together men living on the very confines of the earth' (Philo, Praem. Poen. 117). It is a 'command' that initiates the gathering of scattered Jews into a restored Israel.
With the voice of an archangel
There are no 'archangels' as such in the Old Testament, but in Daniel 12:1 LXX Michael is the 'great angel' who stands over the people of Israel during a time of extreme 'tribulation' to deliver them from their enemies. In Jewish apocalyptic literature Michael is the chief of the archangels (cf. 1 Enoch 24:6). So again, Paul's language evokes a situation in which God rescues his people from political-religious oppression, such as the Thessalonian church was experiencing from its neighbours (cf. 1 Thess. 1:6).
The dead in Christ will rise first
According to Daniel 12:1-3, when Israel's 'guilt' is atoned for, when its suffering is brought to an end, when its enemies are overcome, 'many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt'. In Paul's constructed narrative of deliverance from persecution this becomes the resurrection of those who suffered and died because of their faith in Christ.
Caught up in clouds
The 'clouds' recall the clouds that accompany the Son of man in Daniel 7:13. The point is that the faithful community at the parousia, when Caesar is displaced, participates in the vindication of Jesus and with him receives the sovereignty over Israel that was taken from the pagan oppressor.
'Caught up' (harpagēsometha) has connotations of snatching someone from danger (cf. Acts 23:10; Jude 23; Rev. 12:5). The thought is of rescue from persecution. But the story of Daniel 12:1-3 is still in the background: on the day when Israel is delivered from oppression 'all the people whoever is found written in the book will be lifted up (hupsōthēsetai), and many of those sleeping in the flatness of the earth will rise up...' (12:2-3 LXX). I would suggest that this distinction between those who are raised from the dead and those who are 'lifted up' has been transposed into Paul's vision as a distinction between the resurrection of the dead in Christ at the parousia and the snatching up of the living to participate in the vindication of the Son of man. The immediate historical realism of the vision is underlined by Paul's clear expectation that he might be alive at the parousia ('we the living, who are left').
The Old Testament allusions from which this passage has been constructed consistently point to an event within history that sees the deliverance of the people of God from persecution, the overthrow of the pagan oppressor, the vindication of those who have trusted in YHWH even to the extent of losing their lives, and the re-establishment of the people under the reign of the Son of man. Paul constructs this narrative for a historical community that faced severe and protracted opposition from a world-conquering pagan power. We can hardly escape the conclusion that this passage is meant to pre-describe in the prophetic language of the Old Testament the eventual vindication of the suffering church against its imperial enemy.