Studies in First Thessalonians
Imagine being born again and then taught that Jesus is coming back. So far, so good. He talked a lot about His return before He left. But then along the way, you come under the impression that you must actually be alive at His return or you will miss out.
Since Paul has left Thessalonica, believing loved ones in the church have died. These new believers now have grief upon grief because they not only miss their loved one but they fear the deceased will miss the Lord’s coming for His church.
Remember, they don’t have a complete Bible, nor access to mature, knowledgeable Christians. There are no authentic prophets in their midst with Paul chased out by persecution.
It’s like the babies are in charge of the nursery.
Paul is so concerned for their spiritual well-being that he sends Timothy to check on them. “Praise the Lord, we have so many questions” they must have said upon Timothy’s arrival. One of their questions – what is the status of Christians who have died in light of the return of Christ?
Now, month’s later, Paul’s letter arrives with a definitive word from the Lord:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (I Thess. 4:13-18, NASB, 1995).
Paul begins this passage with his big idea: Christians should not grieve like non-Christians who have no valid hope.
Though this is the most famous of all rapture passages, this passage is not about the rapture per se, but rather the plight of those who sleep (euphemism for death) in light of a coming resurrection of the dead and rapture of the living.
Having laid out his main idea in v.13, Paul gives four reasons why believers are to grieve with hope and then concludes with a single command.
First, grieve with hope because God will bring sleeping Christians home to heaven (v.14). This future event is as certain as the past events of His death and resurrection. We grieve different because we believe different!
Loss always tests our belief and refines our faith like nothing else can. It forces us to ask, do we really believe Jesus rose again? You see, if it is true for our Representative, then it will be true for those represented!
Second, grieve with hope because when Jesus comes, sleeping Christians have priority over living Christians in the resurrection (vv. 15-16). The dead in Christ are not only not forgotten, they get priority seating! Paul is emphatic on this point. He believed this event could happen in his life. So should we. But if not, you move to priority boarding.
Jesus Himself will exit heaven. His personal, bodily descent will be accompanied by a shouted command or summons to awaken the sleepers, plus the voice of a chief angel (possibly Michael according to Jude 9), plus a trumpet blast like no other. It will be nothing short of a divine summons to the universal body of Christ, dead or alive.
Then what happens?
That brings us to the third reason to grieve with hope: because you will be together with your saved love one again (v.17a). Reunited to have personal interaction in glorified bodies, uninterrupted by sin or the limitations of this life. We will be caught up together “with them” …
“Caught up” comes from a Greek word that means snatched away, seized or stolen; to carry off by force. An example is when the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away and the eunuch no longer saw him or when the Temple guard moved in and snatched Paul away from the angry mob.
The end results of this end time snatching away is all church age saints will be instantly immortal, fitted for eternity, together at last and saved to sin no more!
That brings us to the final reason to grieve differently over the loss of a brother or sister in Christ: we (all believers) will be with the Lord forever (v.17b). It will be great to be reunited with saved loved ones, but the greatest part of heaven is “with the Lord”!
So what do we do with this? “Therefore comfort (console) one another with these words.”
Without setting dates and without shutting down your normal life of planning and work, cultivate a growing hope that you could be caught up in the air at any moment. We are waiting for His Son from heaven to rescue us from the wrath to come. (See I Thess. 1:10; also John 14:1-3 and I Cor. 15:50-52 for other NT “rapture” passages).
Often unbelievers don’t grieve at all, trying to suppress the reality of death. Or they try to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol or some other escape. Or they tell lies to one another like “she’s in a better place”, “his suffering is over”, “God needed him”, “she has become an angel” or “he’s with his friends now” and all of this of unconverted people.
But believers know death does not have the final word for someone who dies in Christ. Believers grieve in light of a future resurrection to life. Otherwise, what good is it to believe that Jesus died and rose again?
Unless otherwise noted, all posts are written by Pastor Chris McKnight