1 Thess 4:13-18
On many occasions I have heard Christians say that they can’t understand how other people face life apart from faith in Jesus Christ. This is especially true when facing the death of a loved one or our own death. I too have wondered about this, and said it to others. How could you possibly face this without the hope of the risen Lord? Where do you find comfort and strength when you have no hope?
However, the truth of the matter is that most of the people around us do have a hope. And it is very interesting to observe the forms that hope takes. You hear people affirm that the person who has died “is looking down on them” or that at some point the dead person “must have been helping them.” It is not uncommon to hear talk that the dead person “has become an angel.” The affirmation is made that the person is still “alive in our hearts.” There is the belief that somehow the person “is still alive” if we are cherishing their memory. Related to this is the rather odd idea that a funeral is “a celebration of life” – when in fact it is only held because a person is most certainly dead.
In our text this morning, the apostle Paul is addressing the subject of Christians who have died before the return of Jesus Christ. He says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” No doubt Paul knows that he is overstating his case some. Like our modern contemporaries, people in the Greco-Roman world did have hopes for those who died. And like those of today, they tended to be rather wishy washy.
There was the idea from Greek mythology that they went to the Elysian Fields or that they went to be with the heroes. Some believed that death meant the escape of the soul from the prison of the body as it returned to the realm where it belonged. Some of the mystery cults, and deities such as Isis Serapis promised help for the individual after death.
There were hopes. But from the inscriptions found on burial sites you don’t get the impression that these were particularly solid. And of course, pagans took part in the cult of several different gods and goddesses as they tried to hedge their bets and cover as many bases as possible.
In the face of this, Christianity offers something very different. Paul had shared this when he proclaimed the Gospel at Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. The Thessalonians had believed in Jesus Christ despite the hardships they faced. In this letter Paul talks about how, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Paul had proclaimed that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God had provided rescue from his wrath against sin on the Last Day. The Thessalonians had received this word and believed it. And so Paul says in this letter that, “we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”
However, Paul had learned that they were troubled by a question about Jesus’ return. Christians had now died before Jesus’ return. What did this mean for them? Would they share in the resurrection? Would the outcome be different for them than for those who were still alive? Would they too be with the Lord?Paul’s answer is very clear. He says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” The apostle begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that all who die will be raised.
In fact, Paul wants us to know that those who have died are in no way at any disadvantage. He says, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Nobody gets a “head start” when it comes to the Last Day!
Paul tells us that the Last Day will be a dramatic event. There will be no doubt that this is it. He says in our text, “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.” The awesome arrival of the crucified and risen Son of God will bring about the resurrection of Christians who have died. They will be raised just as their Lord was raised.
Next Paul adds, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Now for 1800 years, nobody in Christianity believed that these words described anything except the second coming of Christ on the Last Day. It was only the Englishman John Darby who, in the nineteenth century, made up the idea that this was a description of “the rapture” – a sudden removal of Christians before the arrival of the Last Day. Spread by the Scofield Reference Bible at the beginning of the twentieth century, this idea has become a key belief for some Christians around us.
It is also total nonsense, as is the dispensational millennial scheme of which it is a part. Instead, the text uses a word for “meet” that indicated how residents of a city went out to meet a visiting dignitary, like the governor, in order to escort him back into the city. And Paul’s emphasis here is the fact that on the Last Day both those raised from the dead and those still alive will “always be with the Lord.” That is why Paul can write, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
But do we? The encouragement Paul offers here cannot be separated from the return of Jesus and the Last Day. This is something Christians often overlook. Instead, they short circuit Paul’s argument when they think and talk about those who have died in Christ as if they have already arrived – as if they already have it all. And while Paul affirms elsewhere that death can in no way separate us from Christ, his logic never changes. As he says in the next chapter, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” That wrath of God is poured out on the Last Day, and salvation is deliverance from that wrath on the day of judgment.
Perhaps we make the move of jumping to full blown salvation at death because we don’t want to think about God’s wrath. You see, God’s wrath has a very specific cause. It is a cause that we would rather not focus upon. It is caused by sin – your sin. Make no mistake, your sin does evoke God’s wrath. Each and every way you think, speak and act in a selfish fashion brings God’s wrath. Every way you don’t defend and promote your neighbor’s reputation; the ways you covet what you don’t have; the ways you fail to help your family members – they are all sins that bring God’s wrath.
As the holy God, God’s wrath must be poured out against sinners who commit sin. The question is whether you confess this sin and believe in Jesus Christ. If you do, then that wrath has already been poured out against your sin. It happened on Good Friday when Jesus died on the cross in your place. Because of baptism and faith you know that you are justified now and you have been rescued from it. God’s wrath against sin on the Last Day no longer threatens you.
Instead, the Last Day with the return of Jesus Christ is not an event of wrath, but instead one of resurrection and life. Jesus delivered us from the wrath to come through his death and resurrection. And now his resurrection means that we also will be raised. As Paul says in our text, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
The Last Day is the day when the Lord’s cry of command; when the voice of an archangel; when the sound of the trumpet of God will ring forth. It is the day when the dead in Christ will rise first. And it is the a day when those who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Forgiveness; resurrection and life with the Lord – there are indeed great reasons to encourage one another with these words as we look for our Lord’s return.
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