If you have lived for any length of time, you have had to bury someone you love. You have felt the sting of regret, the sorrow of unfinished business, the paralyzing confusion and the emptiness of loss. You have probably also found your mind flooded with questions about life beyond the grave.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 we read the words of Paul as he addresses some of those concerns in the church at Thessalonica. The very first generation of Christians was beginning to die. Most of these people had believed that Jesus would return during their lifetime. Now, they had questions: Did death mean those who died would miss the Second Coming of Christ and His reign on the earth? Would these people miss all the glory that had been promised? This text answers some of those questions.
This passage is one of the most popular “Second Coming” texts in the Bible. It gives us a great picture of that day. However, the text really isn’t trying to teach up about the Second Coming so much as to help us understand the reason for our hope and to encourage us in that hope in the face of old age and death. We must be careful to not get distracted.
A BOLD ASSURANCE
13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
Paul contrasts two kinds of people: those who grieve without hope and those who grieve with hope. Notice, both groups grieve. There is nothing wrong with being sad about someone dying. It is a natural, normal and perfectly appropriate response to loss. There is never a reason to be embarrassed by tears or by wishing to have someone back who has died.
Paul refers to believers who die as those who sleep. Because of this some people have developed a doctrine called “soul sleep”. They believe that when we die we go into a state of something like “suspended animation”, somewhat of an unconscious state, until the return of Christ. At that time we awaken and are raised from the dead. I don’t believe this is what the Bible teaches.
In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul talked about being “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” He sees a distinction between the body that is buried and the soul that inhabited that body. In Philippians 1, Paul face his possible execution and struggle with whether it would be better to die and be with Jesus (which he said is better by far) or to remain alive to labor for the Lord on earth. If death results in soul sleep, the debate would be rather pointless! If we aren’t going to be with Christ any sooner whether we die now or later, then why not remain alive as long as you can? In Revelation 6 we read about the souls of the martyrs who cry out to the Lord during the time of Tribulation. They couldn’t do this if they were in soul-sleep. It seems evident that when we die our body is buried but our soul (who we really are) lives on.
Think of it this way: when you physically go to sleep your body rests but your mind continues to be active. You dream, you are still aware of sounds (like your alarm clock), you continue to hash over the problems of the day even as you sleep. Death is like that. The body is laid to rest but the soul remains very much alive. When the thief on the cross was dying, Jesus didn’t say, “Someday you will be with me in paradise.” He said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Those who die in Christ, go to be with Him immediately.
There will be many who say, “This is simply wishful thinking”. Paul says our confidence of these things comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because Christ died, our sin is paid for. We are forgiven. Because Christ was raised, we know that there is life beyond the grave. Jesus said, “He who believes in me, will live even though he die.” Our confidence in Heaven is based on the strong and reliable testimony of the God-man.
The Bible does not teach that everyone goes to Heaven! Paul said, “We believe God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (v. 14) These promises are only for believers; they are only for Christians. It is politically incorrect, but it is what Jesus taught.
A CLEAR DECLARATION
The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is going to return to earth. It is not a secondary doctrine but a central doctrine. Here are just a few of the passages that point to a return (or Second Coming) of Christ:
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:11]
“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. [Matthew 24:30, 31]
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. [2 Peter 3:8-10]
Add to these verses almost the entire Book of Revelation and the Old Testament prophetic passages that point to a future Day when Christ will reign and you see that the Second Coming is a cornerstone doctrine of the church.
Paul tells us he is passing on to us “the Lord’s own word” about what is going to take place. This word could have been from the teaching of Jesus during his lifetime (like from his teaching in Matthew 24) and the additional details in found here may have been things Jesus said but were not recorded in the gospels. It is also possible that this was a word that Paul received from another prophet or it was something that was revealed directly to Paul by the Lord.
15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
We learn at least four things from this text. First, those who are living at the time of the return of Christ will not precede those who have died. The great day of His coming is going to involve all the believers, those who have already died, and those still living on earth. No believer will be excluded.
Second, the Lord will come down from Heaven unmistakably. There will be “a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.” The picture is that of a bugler in the military summoning the troops. Or maybe a better picture for you is mom calling out that “dinner is ready”. In either case, people come running. Depending on how you read the text, these could be three different things (a loud command, a voice from the archangel, and a trumpet blast) or it could be one thing: (a loud command from the voice of the archangel that serves as the trumpet call of God.) I don’t think it matters.
Third, dead and the living believers will be “caught up together”. In the Latin the word for “caught up together” is rapto. It is from this phrase where we get the doctrine called the Rapture. All Bible believing Christians believe in the Rapture. In other words, they all believe that there will be a day when we will be “caught up together” with Christ.
There is division on how to understand this Rapture. I don’t want us to lose sight of the main context of the passage but I do believe you need to understand the term because it is so prominent in Christian discussions.
There are two primary beliefs about the Rapture. One group believes the Rapture will be a “secret” event. The Lord will come and suddenly take all believers from the earth leaving the rest of the world bewildered. The non-believers who are “left behind” will face a time of intense persecution called the Tribulation (a period clearly pointed to in Revelation). This will happen either before the Tribulation starts or midway through the Tribulation (depending on your viewpoint). This is the view proposed by the Left Behind books and many of the prophecy preachers on television.
A second group would point out that the events that describe this gathering of saints (also Matthew 24 and 1 Cor. 15) give the impression that this event will be anything but secret (trumpets, shouts, etc.). These people believe the Rapture will take place after the Tribulation and will be concurrent with the actual Second Coming of Christ. They believe the saints will be “caught up” to be part of a massive welcoming party for the coming King. One scholar explains,
The words, “To meet” the Lord translates a term used only two other times in the New Testament. In the parable of the ten maidens the maidens are called out to “meet” the groom and join the marriage procession (Matt 25:6). Outside Rome some Christian brethren came to “meet” Paul and escort him back into the city (Acts 28:15). The word was a technical term for meeting a visiting dignitary. A delegation honored the visitor by going outside the city and meeting him and his entourage on the road. Together the entire party would then proceed back into the city with great pomp and fanfare.
In other words it will be something similar to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus. People came with Jesus from Bethany and some came out of Jerusalem when they heard He was coming to meet Him and welcome Him. This view of the Rapture sees the Tribulation period as a time of purifying the church; separating the true and false believers just as persecution has done in the past.
Be careful! People get pretty dogmatic about which view of the Rapture they hold. Churches have split and Christians have turned away from fellowshipping with each other simply over how this doctrine is understood. Personally, I think it is foolish to act this way. The important thing in my mind is that when we die we are caught up with Christ and we live beyond the grave. I encourage you to examine the evidence and draw your own conclusions. On this issue I am less concerned with being dogmatic and more concerned with remaining open to the truth.
Let’s get back to our context. Fourth don’t miss the most important words: “So we will be with the Lord forever.” This is the great prize. It is the ultimate goal. On this great day we will no longer have to search for God. We will no longer feel alone. We will never again feel like our prayers aren’t getting past the ceiling. We will never be afraid or feel lost because we will be with the Lord.
AN ABIDING COMFORT
These are encouraging words. Certainly we still have some questions. This idea of the souls of those who have died and the bodies of those who are still alive meeting together in the air is a little hard to grasp. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul explains a little more.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51,52)
It seems that at this “gathering of the saints” the dead will receive their imperishable bodies and those who are “caught up” from the earth will be transformed (or “changed”) into their new bodies instantly.
Surely someone will ask, “What kind of bodies will these bodies be? Will we be old or young? Will we be able to recognize our family and friends”? There has been endless debate and supposition on this issue. Based on what we know in the Bible, it seems that these new bodies will be ageless (they will not be worn down by disease, decay, and infirmities all of which are the effects of sin). In other words, they will be different from what we know or can even conceive. Paul likens this difference to the difference between the seed that is planted in the ground and what actually results from planting that seed. Our new bodies will be different from our current bodies.
If you have ever gone to a reunion you know that there are times when you don’t recognize people who at one time were close friends. We are all a little concerned that we will get to Heaven and won’t recognize family members, close friends, and the saints of old.
I think we are going to know each other in a deeper way. We will know the person rather than simply knowing each other by the form we inhabit. In other words, I believe I will recognize YOU, not your form. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul reflects on the future with these words, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
These things should encourage us. Think about it this way. When you are headed someplace you have never been before on your vacation, you can find yourself preoccupied looking for road signs, exit numbers, and landmarks. You get to your destination but you often miss the full joy of the journey. On the other hand, if you are traveling someplace you have been many times (or if you are the passenger) you tend notice what is around you. You see the sights, you enjoy the beauty, you notice the changes in terrain, and you see the people.
Paul wants us to understand that if we know where we are going when we die, we should find courage for life here and now. If we understand that death is not the end of the story but simply a turn on the road to our ultimate destination, death loses its bite. If we understand that Christ will one day return, we can spend less time trying not to die and more time actually living.
The critical question then is: Are you one who is “in” Him or are you living apart from Him? Perhaps you aren’t sure. Let me try to help you.
Have you ever recognized that you are a sinful person? Do you see that you have lied (making you a liar), you have taken things that weren’t yours (making you a thief), you have looked at and thought about people in a lustful way (making you an adulterer at heart); and you have made other things more important than God in your life (making you an idolater)?
Do you see that there is nothing that you can do to erase your sin? Doing what is right doesn’t erase the wrong you have done any more than doing your homework in school overcomes missed assignments. When we do what is good we are really just doing what is required. There is no way to undo the bad.
With this in mind, Do you see that the sacrifice of Jesus is your only hope to be right with God? Do you see that Jesus was God who became man to give His perfect life as a payment for the sin you committed? Having seen this, are you willing to put your trust and your confidence not in your goodness but in His gift? Are you willing to trust Him for the future and follow Him in the present? Have you done so? If you trust Him then you are His follower and can have absolute confidence that you will live even though you die.
But what about those who don’t turn to Christ? Here’s what Paul says in 2 Thessalonians,
when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.
There’s one more thing. After you have settled this issue in your heart, let others know. Tell your family. Tell your friends. Let them know that you are not afraid of death because you have put your trust in Christ. Do this so that when you die, we will not need to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.