1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord”
Our text – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Our key verse – 1 Thessalonians 4:17
Our theme, “The promise of Jesus’ coming brings comfort for believers”
Do you remember the popular television program “Early Edition” in the 1990’s, which featured a young man who received the next day’s newspaper a day ahead of time? Because he always knew the future, his task in each episode was to save people from a tragedy or problem he had read about in tomorrow’s paper. So, if he knew a building was going to burn, he tried to keep people from entering it. Or if someone was going to be hurt by an act of violence or an accident he tried to prevent the encounter from taking place. If you own a Bible, you have an “early edition” of future events that God has clearly given to us. Thus, a marvelous and wonderful event awaits those who have accepted God’s Son, Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of their life. When Christ descends from heaven, He will draw all believers to Himself. Those who have died in the Lord and those who are alive at His appearing. The anticipation of that great event should thrill and stir the heart and soul of every person who knows Christ as Lord and Savior.
William J. Pettingill told of the time he visited a great steel factory. The owner was a devoted Christian man. Together they walked out into the scrap metal yard. Motioning to the operator of the huge electric crane, the owner instructed him to lower a huge magnet over a wide dirt road beaten hard by the traffic from trucks going in and out of the yard. He told me to watch as he gave the signal to turn on the current to the huge and powerful magnet. Up from the cracking road leaped pieces of metal, long covered and out of sight. They were caught up to meet that powerful magnet in the air! It attracted the metal having the same nature as itself. Pettingill knew that his friend was illustrating the truth found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, our key verse. The Lord Himself said, “I will come again and receive you to Myself” (John 14:3) and Matthew 12:40 tell us, “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” However, we must remember that only those who want to meet Christ in the air must first meet Him at the Cross.
The Lord’s Return
Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority”
Every generation, not excluding this one, has its prophecy buffs; that is people with a fondness for predictions. Yes, a study of end time events can be very fascinating, but trying to attach names and dates to future Bible prophecies (such as the return of Christ) can be distracting us from the spiritual warfare raging in our own community and keeping us from proclaiming the Gospel to a lost and dying world. Matthew 24:44 tell us to be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” A story has been told about a teacher who told his class he would be going away for several weeks, and he offered to give a prize to the student whose desk he found in the best order when he came back. However, he didn’t tell them what day he would be returning. Because the prize was big, each child was determined to get it, including a little girl whose desk was normally quite messy. Her classmates jeered, “Mary, you’ll never win. Your desk is never neat.” “Oh, I plan to clean it the first of every week from now on.” “But,” someone said, “Suppose he comes at the end of the week?” “Then I’ll clean it every morning.” “But,” another classmate persisted, “He may come at the end of the day.” For a brief moment the child was silent in thought. Then she said decidedly, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll just keep it clean!”
My brethren, if we want to receive our Lord’s approval at His return, we must always be ready. Jesus didn’t tell us to “get ready,” but rather to “be ready” (Matthew 24:44). We are to live constantly in a state of spiritual preparedness, anticipating the moment when He will appear and ask us to give an account of our stewardship. Thus, plan as if Christ’s return were years away but live as if it were today!
I. Paul’s Concern and the Circumstances of our HOPE
1 Thessalonians 4:13, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope”
If you have lived for any period of time, you have had to bury someone you love. You probably have felt the sting of regret, the sorrow of unfinished business, the paralyzing confusion and the emptiness of loss. With the loss a person most likely found their mind flooded with questions about life beyond the grave as with the Thessalonians. In today’s lesson we read the words of the apostle Paul as he addresses some of those concerns in the church at Thessalonica. The 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! With this verse the apostle Paul begins his answer to another problem he learned about when Timothy returned from his trip to Thessalonica. It concerned questions and a certain amount of anxiety some were having with regard to their loved ones who had died. They were expecting the return of the Lord at any time, but what about those loved ones who had died since trusting Christ? From the content of verses 13-18, it is clear they were asking how Christ’s return would affect these loved ones who had since died. Would their death hinder or handicap them in any way? Will those who are alive at His coming have an advantage over those who had died?
As we look at this passage, it’s important that we understand something of the beliefs of the pagan world from which these believers had been redeemed. As verse 13 states, the pagan world had no real hope of life after death. There was an inscription in Thessalonica which read: “After death, no reviving, after the grave, no meeting again.” Writing about this lack of hope, Wiersbe writes, “A typical inscription on a grave demonstrates this fact. ‘I was not, I became, I am not, and I care not.’ While some of the philosophers, such as Socrates, sought to prove happiness after death, the pagan world had no word of assurance. When Paul preached the doctrine of the resurrection to the Athenian philosophers, most of them mocked him (Acts 17:32, “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter”). To the Greeks, being rid of the body was their great hope. Why would any man want to have his body resurrected? How could his body be resurrected, when the elements of the body would decay and become a part of the earth? To them the doctrine of resurrection was foolish and impossible. Apart from the revelation of God in Christ and in the Bible, the world today still has no assurance of life after death. All the other leaders of the various religions and philosophies of the world still lie in their graves. Only one has come forth from the grave to validate His claims and prove that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
After discussing the believers’ holy living, Paul now deals with the state of the Thessalonian believers who had died (4:13). Here Paul promises us that if we have placed our faith in Christ, we will one day be resurrected. 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’s 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. Hope comes from knowing the truth. The first thing Paul says is that he does not want his readers to be “ignorant” concerning those who have “fallen asleep.” The Thessalonians’ believers were no doubt in need of this information. They had suffered much for their faith through persecution (2:14-16; 3:3-4). No doubt, many in the Lord had been taken from them, not only by natural death, but my murderous persecution. The apostle Paul uses a wonderful way of describing such believers, “asleep”. He uses the word for “death” to describe them in the light of their resurrection (v. 16), but refers to them as “asleep” in the light of their hope. When someone “sleeps”, they are eventually going to “wake up”; and so, this phrase emphasizes hope (Matthew 9:24; 27:52).
The apostle Paul didn’t want his Thessalonian brothers and sisters in Christ to be uninformed about this important matter. In fact, he wanted the grieving Thessalonians to mourn as those who have hope. Their grieving would be an excellent opportunity to be a testimony to the unbelievers around them. Evidently the Thessalonians thought that those who die before Jesus returns would miss out on Heaven. Paul wanted them to be informed so they would not grieve over the deaths of loved ones as though they had no hope for the future. The Thessalonians could grieve as those who knew that their loved ones would be resurrected and would be with Jesus forever. God provides hope in a hopeless world.
II. Paul’s Confidence
1 Thessalonians 4:14, “For 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 moved from his concern that the Thessalonians grieve as those who have hope to his confidence that God will resurrect the believers who die before Jesus returns. Paul’s confidence in the resurrection of believers was tied to his unwavering belief that Jesus both died and rose again (v. 14). When Jesus returns, He will bring with Him the believers who have died, and He will unite them with their resurrected bodies. When Paul used the word “sleep” to describe the state of the Thessalonian believers who had died, he was not suggesting that the dead are actually in a state of sleep somewhere, waiting to be awakened at the Rapture.
Rather, he was using the term to refer to the bodies of the deceased. Physically their bodies are no longer functioning. But their souls are “in Jesus,” and Christ will bring them with Him at the Rapture. Paul then introduced “the word of the Lord” to provide an additional reason for the Thessalonians to have nope (4:15). This phrase gave authority to Paul’s confidence. If Jesus returned during the Thessalonians’ lifetime, those who were alive and remaining on earth would not meet the Lord before those who had died. The believers who had died would not be at a disadvantage at Jesus’ return, “They would have equal standing with the living believers.” It would appear that Paul thought that he and some of the Thessalonians might be alive when Jesus returned (v. 15), but he wasn’t certain (5:10).
III. Paul’s Confirmation
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep 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”
The details of Jesus’ return confirmed Paul’s confidence that believers who die before Jesus returns will be resurrected. There are four events in the drama involving Jesus’ return. First, Jesus will descend from Heaven. Next, the dead in Christ will be raised. Then, those who are alive on the earth will be caught up with those who have been resurrected and will meet the Lord in the air. Finally, both groups will be in the presence of the Lord forever. Jesus Himself will begin the drama by descending from Heaven (v. 16). Jesus has been in Heaven since His resurrection and ascension (Mark 16:19; Acts 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; 1 Peter 3:21-22). However, He will leave Heaven to return for believers. Three sounds will accompany Christ’s return (4:16). There will be a shout, which is most likely, a cry of command; it implies authority and urgency. This cry will summon the believers who have died. There will also be the voice of an unnamed archangel and the trumpet of God. It is unclear whether the three will sound separately, or concurrently as one great shout.
Next, the dead in Christ shall rise first. “Dead in Christ” is another description of “them which are asleep.” So it seems that the phrase refers to believers’ bodies and the event, to their resurrection. Believers who have died have been in Heaven with Jesus since their deaths. When Jesus returns, they will come with Him to receive their resurrection bodies. Their resurrection will occur before the living saints are raptured. The dead in Christ will not miss out in any way in this event. Then those who are alive and remain on earth will be caught up (v. 17). This event is the rapture of the church. “Caught up: denotes a sudden, forceful seizure. It involves the ideas of suddenness and power. The Rapture will happen quickly. The living believers will be suddenly snatched up to meet the resurrected believers in the air. As a result of the return of Jesus, the resurrection of those who died, the rapture of those who are alive, and the reunion with Jesus, all believers will be with Christ Jesus forever. Return, resurrection, Rapture, and reunion is the order in which the events will unfold. Both the resurrected believers and the raptured believers will share a common destiny. Both will have enduring fellowship with Jesus.
IV. Paul’s Conclusion
1 Thessalonians 4:18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words”
Paul concludes this passage with this command, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” The return of Jesus Christ is sure, it’s wonderful, and it could happen anytime. It’s like a telephone answering machine that tells you, “I’m not home now, but when I return I will call you.” If the person we have called is reliable, we can expect a return call even though we don’t know whether it will be five minutes or five hours before it comes. Jesus is coming back! It could happen at any moment. Whatever you are going through right now, as painful as it may be, it is only temporary. We will be resurrected and reunited with Christ and our loved ones. In the midst of battles with sin, suffering, and Satan, God provides hope in a hopeless world. May we hope in this promise because it is our only hope?
There are a variety of opinions concerning when the rapture will occur. Some believe that it can happen at any moment and will precede a terrible event known as the Tribulation Period. Others believe that Christ will return for His saints sometime during the Tribulation. Still others believe that it will happen at the end. Though there is much that we don’t know about Christ’s return, there are many things that we do know, such as:
(1) We know that Christ will return.
We do know that this world is not all that there is for the believer. We do know that Christ has gone away to prepare a place for us and that at God’s divine moment, Christ will return and snatch us away from this earth. The Bible says that we should, “look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.” (Titus 2:14)
(2) We know that His appearance will come upon many as a thief.
That phrase may sound strange to some, but it was used by Paul, Peter and even the Lord Jesus to describe the suddenness and unexpectedness of Christ’s return. Jesus said, “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.” (Matthew 24:42-44)
(3) We know that the forewarning of His return is meant to motivate us to live holy lives.
The early Christians lived with the expectation that Christ could return at any moment. Many might think that there expectation was foolish seeing that two thousand years have passed and Christ still hasn’t come. Yet their sense of expectancy caused them to live in such a way that they would not be ashamed when their Master returned. Perhaps many of them still remembered the night that they had let their Lord down by falling asleep in the garden. They promised Jesus that they would stay true, even if it meant death; yet they could not watch with Him for even one hour. If God would help them, they would never again make that mistake. The Apostle John wrote, “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.” (1 John 2:28)
(4) We know that the reason the Lord has delayed is to give people the opportunity to be saved.
Peter wrote – “And remember, the Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved.” The only reason Christ did not return yesterday was to give someone the opportunity to be saved today. Yet one day that opportunity will come to an end. One day the Lord will return as a thief in the night and many will be caught sleeping. One day their opportunity will be snatched away and they will have to face the Judge of the universe. The knowledge of the Lord’s return is extremely important. The knowledge of His first coming teaches us how to be saved. The knowledge of His second coming teaches us that we must be saved. For many of us, nothing would please us more than for the Lord to return today. Yet who would we leave behind? Who would be left to go through the Tribulation Period and to be lost forever? There’s a lot we do not know about Christ’s return, but there’s even more that we do know. Today is the day to act upon our knowledge.
If Christ Came Today
I John 2:28, “… abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed”
Revelation 22:20, “Surely I am coming quickly.” Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
Donald Grey Barnhouse told of a story he read in a London newspaper about a divorce case heard in the courts of that city. A wealthy young man had gone away to war soon after he was married. His new bride wrote him of the demanding schedule she had to keep as a nurse in a certain hospital. Apologizing for her infrequent writing, she explained that she was spending a great deal of time with the wounded. Several months later when the man was scheduled for leave, a friend suggested, “Don’t announce your coming. Slip in quietly.” Arriving in London, the young man went directly to the hospital, but his wife was not there. He then went to their house, where he was told by the servants, “Oh, she will probably be at the tea dance at the Ritz.” Going there, he found her in the company of another man. How shocked and ashamed she was at her husband’s appearing! In the above text Jesus said, “I am coming quickly.”
Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus said, “I am coming quickly.” Since then, some have wrongly tried to predict when He will return. Others have scoffed. Was Jesus wrong? Did something happen that He didn’t foresee? Of course not! We view time from the perspective of our own brief life span. But to the eternal God, “One day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Jesus told His disciples that god had not given them specific information about “times and seasons” (Acts 1:7). He wanted them, as He wants us, to live in an attitude of expectation. Paul echoed this when he spoke of Christ’s return as “the blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). But how do we live expectantly? Jesus instructed the disciples to be witnesses to all the world (Acts 1:8). Paul said, “Watch and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6) and love other believers (vv. 12-15). John urged us to walk in close fellowship with Jesus (1 John 2:28-3:3) and to purify ourselves so that we will “not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (2:28). My friend, the Lord’s any-moment return is no cause for date setting but for watchful expectation. When our Lord does return, we don’t want to be found flirting and preoccupied with the things of this world. So, we must ask ourselves:
(1) What if He came for us today?
(2) Would we be ready for His return?
May I live so that I shall be ready
With joy my Savior to meet,
And feel no alarm at His coming,
But hasten His heralds to greet – Anon
Jesus could come at any time – so be ready all the time!