Back to the Basics: The Return of the King (1 Thess. 4:13-18)
Well, I guess all good things must come to an end (except eternal life). Our yearlong series, “Back to the Basics: Knowing why you believe what you believe,” going over our doctrinal statement, will end today. Hope it was a fruitful journey for you as it has been for me, to consider the basics of why we follow Christ. I want to look point 12 as we close this series:
12. That in the last day, as the consummation of redemption, Christ will come again personally and visibly to the earth to judge the living and the dead; that there will be a bodily resurrection of the dead, of the believers through the Holy Spirit unto the inheritance of eternal life, and the unbelievers unto condemnation; and that a new heaven and a new earth will be ushered in.
As you can see, there are a lot of topics within this point we could discuss (like all the other points), but we are just going over the basics. Again, we will simply go over one passage and draw out as much as we can for now.
I don’t know any other topic than the end times, or eschatology, that divides Christians. My point here today is not to throw endless charts and graphs at you (though it might be interesting one day to study), but that the Lord would cause our hearts to have a soul-shaking longing to be with the One for whom our hearts were made for. Just like that C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, says, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We were made for another world. We are waiting for home. The saying goes that “home is where the heart is.” Home is where you can be you. And we are not home yet, our citizenship is in Heaven (Phil. 3:21). Lewis adds that every blessing that God gives us is a shadow, a copy or mirage of the true thing waiting for us. So he urges, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of my life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”
But in our sin and blindness, we make good things the ultimate things. We hug the shadows and chase the mirages all of our life. So what consumes our hearts? What do we long for? Do we long for Christ to come back? Do we wake up in the morning thinking that day might be the day? Most people have hope, but their main hope is that they will get married, or climb the corporate ladder, or hope that they win the lottery or buy that dream house or car.
Lewis says in another work, the Weight of Glory, that “…it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Sometimes we get so caught up with the burdens of this earthly life, we forget that this is not all there is. God reminds us sometimes when a loved one dies of this truth. Other times when we are collapsing under the weight of this broken world, we find in ourselves a longing. Yet other times, we notice that everything in life has an expiration date on it. New clothes wear down. Our body starts to hurt. Sports championships and celebrities are forgotten. New presidents are elected and old ones are gone. The grass withers, the flowers fail (1 Pet. 1:24). We said that God’s glory was all that was real, permanent and important, compared to everything else. His glory will last forever. So all of this to say that today I hope the Lord would help us refocus, arouse again and keep alive within our hearts for the true country, for which we are preparing and Jesus died for, where we will celebrate God’s glory forever.
The church at Thessalonica loved the teaching of the Lord’s return. You may remember when we talked about the early church that I said if I had to pick a church to be part of in the 1st century, I would have picked the Thessalonian church. They faced persecution, but they truly did love the Lord and was a growing community that Paul felt real joy for them (1 Thess. 2:20). However, they did have some questions. There was an inscription in Thessalonica, which read: “After death, no reviving, after the grave, no meeting again.” Their culture was telling them that once their Christian loved ones died, that was the end. They knew Jesus was coming. The Kingdom was coming, probably in their lifetime. But they wondered, will our dead brothers and sisters in Christ experience it too? So Paul had correct their way of thinking. In addition, though the believers properly longed for Jesus’ return, some of them felt they did not need to work anymore as a result, so they became lazy and were busybodies (1 Thess. 4:11; 5:14; cf. 2 Thess. 3:6, 7, 11). Paul calls that out as well.
The hard thing about the epistles is that we only have one side of the conversation. It’s like watching a person talking on the phone with someone and trying to figure out what the whole conversation is about. And if there is one letter I wished we could have heard both sides, it would be 1 Thessalonians because there is a lot of mention of the end times in Paul’s letters to them and perhaps a lot of the confusion we get in our circles today would have been avoided. Regardless, most Christians agree on some of the big things regarding end times and death, and that is what I want to focus on. For example,
I. The death of a believer is a temporary separation, so we grieve with hope (v.13)
Paul begins by wanting to clear up two things. John Stott explains, “He wanted them neither to be ignorant about the Christian dead, nor to grieve over them in hopelessness.” The first issue is about Christians who have died. What happens to them? Notice the word used as a euphemism for death: sleep. The NT often uses “sleep” as a way to talk about Christian death (Mark 5:35, John 11:11).
If you were sleeping over at my house tonight and I said good night to you, what I’m saying is “it’s been good hanging out with you, but we shall be temporarily separated and we will soon hang out again.” But when the Bible talks about death as a sleep, it means it is only the body that sleeps, not the soul. Some groups teach “soul sleep” that when believers die they go into a state of unconscious existence, and the next thing that they are conscious of will be when Christ returns and raises them to eternal life. This is incorrect!
Jot these other references down. When Paul thinks about death he says, "We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. He also says that his desire is "to depart and be with Christ for that is far better" (Phil. 1:23). And Jesus said to the thief who was dying on the cross next to him, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). He didn’t say, “after thousands of years of sleeping, I’ll see you then.” The author of Hebrews says that when Christians come together to worship they come not only into the presence of God in heaven, but also into the presence of "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb. 12:23). However, unbelievers do not go to sleep either. They are in a temporary hell, called Hades (Luke 16:22, 23). They will be raised up on the last day to account for their sins (Rev. 20:11-15). So no, everyone doesn’t go to a better place, according to the Word of God. Pastor and Author Tim Keller says, “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself.” So to be clear, the moment you die, if you truly have been saved in Christ, your body will make its bed in the grave, but your spirit or soul will go to be with Christ in Heaven, both waiting for the Rapture.
Notice Paul does not say do not grieve at all. He says do not grieve as others who do not have hope. Christians grieve. Paul is saying that he does not want us to grieve like the unbelievers. So it is not wrong to feel sorrow when a loved one dies. It would be unnatural if we didn’t! But it is NOT a sign of the lack of faith when we do grieve. Look at Acts 8:2, which records the death of Stephen. There was a “great lamentation.” Also, Jesus “wept”: literally “burst out into tears” in John 11:35, even knowing that He was about to raise Lazarus. We grieve because we love (a good reason for not “grieving” the Holy Spirit in Eph. 4:30). So if you are faced with the death of a loved one, you will grieve. But if he/she was a believer in Christ, you will grieve, but with hope.
The late preacher, Donald Grey Barnhouse, whose first wife died, was driving his kids from the funeral. One of the kids said, “Daddy, I don’t understand, where did Mommy go? I don’t understand what it means that she died.” Barnhouse was trying to figure out how to explain death to his kids when, just then, a truck passed by and cast a shadow over the car. He looked back at the kids and said, “Kids, would you have rather been hit by the truck or hit by the shadow?” Well, of course, they would have rather been hit by the shadow because the shadow doesn’t hurt. It just darkens things for a moment. Then in his own wisdom, Barnhouse said these words, “Kids, when you die without Christ, you are hit by the truck. When you die with Christ, you are only hit by the shadow. The shadow is all you get.”
If you have put your faith in Christ today, you will know that the truck already hit Jesus. Death is a shadow for us. The Psalmist David says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Ps. 23:4). What is your hope set on today? What is hope anyway? When we looked at 1 Peter, we said hope is the confident expectation that God will do good to me and fulfill all of the promises He has made. If faith is trusting God in the present, hope is future faith, trusting God for what is to come. Right now we put our hope in a lot of things and often we don’t get what we put our hope in. Indeed, “hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12). But I am thankful with Christ, those who put their hope in His finished work, will find what they have always wanted in the end: Him. Do you know Him? Have you truly experienced Him saving you? Do you have Him in your heart? If not, upon death, the next thing you will know is judgment.
So the death of a believer is a temporary separation, so we can grieve, but always with hope. Secondly,
II. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our hope, so we believe with certainty (v.14)
Look at the next verse in 1 Thess. 4:14. Why can we grieve with hope? A lot of people might tell us when things are rough to “look up” or “cheer up.” However, only God can tell us to do those things with certainty. Paul makes a statement of faith. God has given us assurance of the past because Jesus died and rose again. Because of the past, we have hope for the future that, “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Notice that Christ “died,” but we “sleep.” The text doesn’t say when Christ died, that He “slept.” Christ tasted death and transformed death to sleep for us. He truly endured total separation from the Father for our sins, so we only have to experience temporary separation in physical death. When believers die, their spirit goes immediately into conscious fellowship with the Lord, while their bodies temporarily sleep in the grave (their bed), awaiting the Rapture. THOSE WHO DIED “THROUGH JESUS” WILL COME BACK WITH JESUS. Jesus is bringing the dead in Christ WITH HIM. God didn’t abandon Jesus to death, he will not abandon the Christian dead either. On the contrary, he will raise them as he raised him, and he will then bring them with him, so that when he comes, they will come too.
A boy and his father were traveling in a car when a bee flew through the open window. The boy was so highly allergic to bee stings that both he and his father knew that his life was in danger. As the boy frantically jumped around and tried to avoid the agitated bee, the father calmly reached out and grabbed the bee. When he opened his hand, the bee began to fly again, terrorizing the boy once more. The father then said, “Look, son,” holding up a hand with an implanted stinger, “his stinger is gone; he can’t hurt you any longer.” As a bee loses its stinger when it stings, so death lost its sting when it stung Jesus.
This is why Paul says, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55). Jesus was stung with death so we can never die eternally under the sting of sin. This is our hope. Jesus died and then He lived, so those of us in Christ, even if we die, we too will live. So in this verse, the Apostle is saying, “Don’t worry that those who have died will miss out in the glory of the coming kingdom. God will bring them back with Jesus when the latter returns in power and great glory.” But how can Jesus bring those loved ones who believed in Him when their bodies are rotting in the grave? Here’s the last thing:
III. The reunion of believers with Christ will be everlasting, so we wait with anticipation (vv.15-18)
Paul then details what we are waiting for as Christians. In 1 Thess. 4:15, he says what he says is a “word from the Lord.” Jesus may have personally told Paul what is about to happen. So what Paul is saying here is not hearsay or some idea he conjured up. Stott adds that Paul here says, “In particular, there is no possibility that the Christian dead (about whom the Thessalonians were anxious) will be separated either from Christ (for they will come with him) or from the Christian living (for they will be joined by them). The apostle’s emphasis is on the unbreakable solidarity which the people of Christ enjoy with him and with each other, and which death is utterly unable to destroy.” But Paul assures the believers in 1 Thess. 4:15 that the Rapture will first bring the dead Christians back to life on earth. He then goes back and gives us the official order of events.
Whether we Christians live or die, we have nothing to fear because Jesus will come either with us or for us! We can separate the events of our coming blessed hope into four “R”s:
1 Thess. 4:16a: First, there is THE RETURN: This is a personal, visible return, accompanied with a divine proclamation, not local, but universal. It will happen in God’s timing. Pastor Ray Pritchard notes, “The emphasis in the Greek is very strong. It is the Lord himself who will descend. It will not be a substitute or a stand-in. It will not be a lookalike or an angel. It will not be a guest host or an Old Testament saint. Not a figment of our imagination or some ghostly religious figure. But the Lord himself will return.” He will return, not as a lamb to be slaughtered, but as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah to reign. He will return, not to be judged by men, but as judge of all men. He will return, not to be crucified, but to be crowned as Lord over all. He will return, not to be mocked as King, but to be worshipped as King. Eventually every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10). You might treat Him now like a curse word or something good for other people, but there will be a day where you will see that Jesus is truly Lord. I pray it will not lead to your judgment, but it will be the center of your celebration, because you truly knew Him!
Notice the “cry,” “voice” and “sound.” At creation, God spoke and it came to be (Gen. 1:1), and at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus called in a loud voice (John 11:43-44), so at this time the dead bodies will hear the creative, commanding voice of God and will obey (John 5:25-28). The Jews would understand the significance of this because trumpets were always blown to signal the start of great festivals and other extraordinary events (see Numbers 10:10). We are probably not meant to imagine three distinct noises, but rather to understand the variety and repetition as indicating the overwhelming, irresistible nature of the summons.
Look at 1 Thess. 4:16b: Next, there will be THE RESURRECTION. So Jesus returns with the souls of those who have died knowing Him, pre-cross and post-cross. Those who have died in Christ will never be separated from Christ. They died “through him” (1 Thess. 4:14); their bodies sleep “in” him (1 Thess. 4:16) and will rise “with” him; and they will come “with” him too (1 Thess. 4:14). The souls of the believers coming with Christ will be joined by their new glorified bodies. Pastor Warren Wiersbe points out that “the resurrection of the human body is like the growing of a plant from a seed. The flower is not the identical seed that was planted, yet there is continuity from seed to plant. Christians shall receive glorified bodies, like the glorified body of Christ (Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Cor. 15:47–58). The dead body is the “seed” that is planted in the ground; the resurrection body is the “flower” that comes from that seed.”
So when Jesus Christ returns in the air, He will issue the “shout of command” and the “dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thes. 4:16). By the way, unbelievers who died are not raised here (as some, including myself, see it). They are raised up later in a final judgment, called the Great White Throne Judgment, to be judged and sentenced to hell (Rev. 20:11-14). Whether you agree with the timing of that or not, there will be a resurrection of everybody at some point. How will he resurrect the dead bodies of believers? Well, this does not mean that He will put the elements of the body together again, for resurrection is not “reconstruction.” Paul argued for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. Whether a person was cremated or died at sea or had parts amputated or died of cancer or whatever, God will raise each believer up and give them their glorified body. You will see all believers from all time…whether they died thousands of years before or just a few minutes before the Rapture! They will be raised indestructible with brand-new bodies, clothed with immorality, healed, restored, put in their right minds, raised to live forever and raised to die no more!
Next, there will be in 1 Thess. 4:17a: THE RAPTURE. Notice the word “caught up” there. The Latin equivalent of that word is where we get the word “rapture.” The purpose of the rapture is to unite the Christian living with the Christian dead and to unite them with Christ. So if I took some iron filings and sprinkled them in a pile of sawdust, then passed a magnet over the pile, what happens? The force of the magnet pulls the iron filings from the pile. Like a magnet attracts iron filings, even so the Lord knows those who are His. He will literally lift us off the earth to meet him in the air.
Neither the grave nor gravity will keep the believer from being reunited with the Lord and with each other. The living, the dead and the Lord will be together forever. Several key words are used here. The word “meet” is often used when an important person visited a city, the citizens would meet come out to meet him. “Clouds” are always a symbol of the presence of God (Ex. 13:21; 14:19; 19:16; 24:15; 40:34-38; Mark 9:7 Transfiguration; Acts 1:9; His ascension). Lastly, the word “air” implies the dwelling place of the devil and his demons (Eph. 2:2). Eric Sauer notes, “For the air is the very base of operations of the Enemy. It is from the air that the world is at present ruled by demon powers…But now exactly in the region of his power, at the very headquarters of the conquered foe, there takes place the meeting of the Conqueror, and His victorious hosts. The triumph cannot be greater; a more glorious festival of victory cannot be. Christ has conquered completely. His church had overcome absolutely. The fact that the Lord chooses to meet his saints there, on the demons’ home ground so to speak, shows something of his complete mastery over them.
Lastly, in 1 Thess. 4:17b: THE REUNION. Momentary encounter leads to everlasting fellowship. Notice the three-fold repetition of “with” (1 Thess. 4:14, 17a, 17b). What do we do with Christ in the air? We will have the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:1-10, 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 1 Cor. 4:5). The Lord will take our good works and put it through the fire. This is not to send us to hell, but for rewards. The Lord will judge each believer according to the motives of our heart and quality of our work.
In 1 Cor. 4:5, Paul says, “each one will receive his commendation from God.” For the longest time, I thought it said, “condemnation,” but it says, “commendation.” The Lord on that day will find only things to commend you for. Perhaps you did things with mixed motives. The Lord, who knows your heart, will find that pure part of you and commend you for it! That is major encouragement for me! Christ already took my condemnation and gives me His commendation. He will crown each believer and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” And we will cast that crown before His feet knowing we did not walk this far, but that He carried us all the way; grace has truly brought us safely home! We did not earn this crown, because really it is His crown that He places on our head, when He exchanged it for our crown of thorns.
Did you know that whenever the New Testament authors refer to the end times, they are more interested in our character than in us making a calendar? Notice even Paul, in our text, encouraging believers to work out their walk before he goes into talking about the end times (1 Thess. 4:1-12). Go over to 2 Pet. 3:8ff. Notice Peter doing the same thing. Flip over to 1 John 3:2-3. John says the same thing! Even in Rev. 1:3. The book of Revelation promises a blessing to those who keep or practice what is in the book!
All this to say that though I am not against us coming up with a view of end times, in the end, let’s remember that God is more interested that we are looking more like Jesus than how nice are charts are. So I have my view, but in the end, the biblical view is, “Jesus wins! And all those in Him win too!”
Let me close with this. What is the last word that Paul gives here? “…and so we will always be with the Lord.” I love that. It is awesome that dead saints and living saints will have new bodies. It is amazing that we will all be reunited. But it is absolutely glorious that we will be with Him forever. As the late great preacher Spurgeon says, “It is a great truth that you will rise again; it is a sweeter truth that you will be “ever with the Lord.” The Bible says, “in His presence there is fullness of joy and at His right hand, pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).
I get sick of this world a lot. But I also want another sickness. A lovesickness. A love sickness to be with Him. Do you have this sickness? Spurgeon adds, “Here is my message to Jesus: “Tell him — “ what? Do I want crowns and diadems? crowns and diadems are [nothing] to me. Do I want wealth, and health, and strength? they are all very well in their way. No — “Tell him, tell the beloved of my soul that I grieve after himself — his gifts are good — I ought to be more grateful for them than I am, but let me see his face; let me hear his voice. I am sick of love, and nothing but that can satisfy me, everything else is distasteful to me.” …what am I sick with love for? For the pearly gates? — No; but for the pearls that are in his wounds. What am I sick for? For the streets of gold? — No; but for his head which is as much fine gold. For the melody of the harps and angelic songs? — No, but for the melodious notes that come from his dear mouth…For the manna on which heavenly souls do feed? — No; but for himself, who is the meat and drink of his saints himself, himself — my soul pines to see him. Oh, what a heaven to gaze upon! What bliss to talk with the man, the God, crucified for me; to weep my heart out before him; to tell him how I love him, for he loved me and gave himself for me; to read my name written on his hands and on his side — yea, and to let him see that his name is written on my heart in [fixed] lines; to embrace him, oh! what an embrace when the creature shall embrace his God — to be for ever so close to him, that not a doubt, nor a fear, nor a wandering thought can come between my soul and him for ever —
“Forever to behold him shine,
Forevermore to call him mine,
And see him still before me;
For ever on his face to gaze,
And meet his full assembled rays,
While all the Father he displays
To all the saints in glory.”
Come Lord Jesus!
Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity (120). New York, NY: Macmillan.
Lewis, C.S (1962). The Weight of Glory (26). New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Keathley, Hampton J. “The Comfort of His Coming,” http://bible.org/seriespage/comfort-his-coming-413-18#P1355_311162 accessed 22 July 2011.
Stott, J. R. W. (1994). The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the end of time. The Bible Speaks Today (95). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press.
Keller, Tim (2008). The Reason for God (82). New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Evans, T. (2009). Tony Evans' Book of Illustrations: Stories, quotes, and anecdotes from more than 30 years of preaching and public speaking (72). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997). Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (1 Th 4:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Stott, J. R. W. (98).
Pritchard, Ray. “Will we see our loved ones again?” http://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/2007-11-20-Will-We-See-Our-Loved-Ones-Again/ accessed 23 July 2011.
Barton, B. B., & Osborne, G. R. (1999). 1 & 2 Thessalonians : Life Application Commentary.(68). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (1 Thess. 4:15). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
Pritchard, R. Ibid.
Ibid. (1 Thess. 4:17).
As quoted in Ryrie, C. C. (2001). First & Second Thessalonians. Everyman's Bible Commentary (65). Chicago: Moody Press.
Spurgeon, C. H. (1998). From the sermon “Forever with the Lord” Spurgeon's Sermons: Volume 23 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; Spurgeon's Sermons. Albany, OR: Ages Software.
Spurgeon, C. H. (1998). From the sermon, “Heavenly Love-sickness!” Spurgeon's Sermons: Volume 9 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; Spurgeon's Sermons. Albany, OR: Ages Software.