Will the saints return with Jesus? Some passages seem to teach Jesus will return with his saints. Others teach he will return with his angels. So, which is it? Will the saints return with Jesus or will the angels or will both return with him?
Understanding the scriptures must first rest on the bedrock of a proper biblical timetable of eschatological events. When does the Rapture happen? This is the key to understanding and making sense of prophetic scripture. If Jesus comes for the saints in a pre-trib. rapture prior to the 70th Week of Daniel, in a pre-wrath rapture prior to the Trumpet and Bowl Judgments, or after the 70th Week in a post-trib. rapture makes all the difference in how one reads the scriptures. But only one of these theories is biblically correct. And scripture will properally align with only one of them.
Let’s look at a few of the verses behind the controversy:
So that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming (PAROUSIA) of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. (1 Thess. 3:13)
This is a core proof of the pre-trib. rapture supporters. They point to this verse and say, “See, the saints return with Jesus at the Parousia in Matt. 24:31. They have already been in heaven for 7 years and return with him in glory as he defeats the Antichrist.”
Let’s examine this verse and their claims a bit more closely. As always this will involve looking at the context of the verse and the actual meaning of the Greek words.
May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father AT the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. (1 Thess. 3:12-13)
This context of 1 Thess. 3:13 makes zero sense if the word translated “saints” actually means “saints” . The verse is clearly addressed to the Thessalonians and by extension saints throughout the ages. It is a prayer that Jesus may establish their hearts (and ours) blameless on the earth at the coming of Jesus. If the saints were already in heaven, their hearts would already be blameless! There would be no need for establishing (the beginning) of making our hearts blameless. This is clearly something that happens at the rapture not at the physical second coming.
In 1 Thess. 3:13, the timing of Jesus’s coming is given as being at the parousia. This Greek word actually means “visit of a dignitary” or “visit of a king” and in the New Testament it usually refers to the return of Jesus. When referring to his return, it is always and specially in the SINGULAR and always in regard to the rapture. In the same epistle (1 Thess.) in the very next chapter, this event is described again:
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until THE coming (parousia) of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:15-17)
In this most famous of all rapture passages, we clearly see the Lord is accompanied by his archangel (and probably other angels) but the saints are still on the earth and resurrected and raptured at that point. No one argues that this event is rapture, but notice it is THE parousia; a singular event.
Also notice that the word parousia is not found in relation to Rev. 19:11-16, the only universally accepted New Testament passage describing the “physical second coming” when Jesus returns to fight Armageddon. This is NOT a parousia and not referred to as such in the Bible.
So when Paul says Jesus will come at the parousia with all his “saints,” it makes no sense. Jesus is not coming with his saints at the rapture.
So every reader should be suspicious of the word translated “saints” in verse 13 since logically it can’t be “saints.” The Greek word is hagious which literally means “holy ones.” In the New Testament, the Greek word hagios is translated “holy” (such as Holy Spirit or holy city) or “holy ones” more than 160 times. The same Greek word is also translated “saint” more than 70 times. It carries the idea of purity, consecration, and holiness. And it absolutely can mean saint or saints. It can also on occasion mean angels such as in the Septuagint in Psalm 89:5; Daniel 4:13; and 8:13. In fact 1 Thess. 3:13 is parallel to a similar verse in Luke:
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy (hagious) angels. (Mark 8:38).
In fact, Jesus coming with his angels is a very common theme in these other New Testament passages (Matt. 24:31, 2 Thess. 1:6-7, Luke 9:26, Matt. 13:41, Matt. 25:31, Mark 13:27).
In Jude, the original context of coming with his “holy ones” is found:
It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” (Jude 14-15)
We see that the apocryphal Book of Enoch is the original source of this quote and probably of Paul’s in 1 Thess. 3 as well. This phrase (thousands of his holy ones) is also used of angels in Deut. 33:2. In Zech. 14:5, the Lord is seen returning with his “holy ones” as well. In all these cases, the term should properly understood to be “angels.”
Also please notice these “Holy ones” execute judgment! This is not something the saints are doing, it is the task of angels.
So in conclusion, at the one and only parousia, Jesus returns with this holy angels. This only makes sense since all the saints are still on the earth (or their bodies are in the earth) at the rapture (Matt. 24:31) when his angels gather the elect.
What about the souls of the Righteous Dead?
Some claim these verses refer to the souls of righteous dead saints who return with Jesus at the resurrection to re-inhabit their new resurrection bodies. 1 Thess. 4:14 supports this view:
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (1 Thess. 4:14)
The souls of the dead are obviously body-less. They are souls waiting to re-inhabit a new resurrection body. That is why Paul in 1 Thess. 4:17 envisions the dead in Christ “rising” first. Exactly how this occurs is unknown. The dead souls are obviously in heaven now and will re-inhabit their bodies later.
What About the physical Second Coming?
One question now remains. “What about Rev. 19 and the physical Second Coming?” How do the saints raptured in Matt. 24:31 return to the earth?
In Rev. 19, we see two references to the the white garments worn by the saints:
It was given to her (bride of Jesus) to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. (Rev. 19:8)
And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. (Rev. 19:14)
These references clearly show that the saints do accompany Jesus back to the earth at the physical Second Coming. Might the armies also include angels? Of course.
So in summary, this is a complex topic, made more complex because of misunderstanding of when the Rapture happens and what verses refer to what event!!
IMO, angels accompany Jesus at the parousia (rapture) and gather together the elect. The elect then join Jesus and return to the earth at the physical “second coming”. Angels might return at that coming as well and I rather suspect they do.