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Lesson 14: Hope and Comfort in Christ’s Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

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October 30, 2016

We live in a time when many people lack hope. Those who battle depression usually lack hope and depression is one of the most prevalent emotional disorders in our society. Plenty of things fuel a lack of hope: Current world conditions, including the spread of Islamic terrorism; the increase of godlessness all around us; economic worries; disappointments in life; health concerns as we age; the loss of loved ones; and, our own approaching deaths.

But the Bible wants us as believers to stand out as people of hope in this hopeless world. In Romans 5:3-5, Paul explains: “… we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” In Romans 15:13, he prays, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Paul has already (1:3) commended the Thessalonians for their “steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He added (1 Thess. 1:10) that he had heard how they were waiting “for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” But when Timothy returned from his visit there, he told Paul that some in the church were grieving because they had expected Christ to return soon, but in the meanwhile, some of their loved ones had died. Did this mean that these loved ones would miss out on Christ’s glorious coming for His church? Would their resurrection be delayed until later? So Paul addresses this concern in our text. He shows us that …

The certainty of Christ’s glorious coming gives us hope and comfort in our grief.

Before we work through these verses, I need to mention that this text, along with John 14:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, forms the biblical basis for the pretribulation rapture of the church (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Moody Press], p. 124). John MacArthur (pp. 135-137) gives nine reasons why he thinks the rapture of the church will precede the tribulation and second coming. But, he admits (p. 135), “No solitary text of Scripture makes the entire case for the pretribulation Rapture.” In other words, it must be inferred by comparing these three texts with other references to Christ’s second coming.

While I greatly respect MacArthur as a godly man and a solid Bible teacher, as I explained last week, I find it difficult to believe that the Bible does not directly teach a major doctrine, such as a second “Second Coming” of Christ, but rather it must be inferred. I don’t have time to go through MacArthur’s nine reasons. But I think that his reasons for the pretribulation rapture are inferences based on assuming what he’s trying to prove. So at this point, my understanding is in line with historic premillennialism, namely, that Christ will come at the end of the tribulation to take us to be with Him before He establishes His millennial kingdom on earth. In short, our text is not explicitly teaching a pretribulation rapture of the church unless we read it into the text. Rather, it gives us hope and comfort through the promise of Christ’s glorious coming.

One other thing to say in advance is that Paul did not write these things so that we can draw elaborate prophecy charts or to satisfy our curiosity about future world events. Rather, his concern is pastoral: he wants us to experience hope and comfort in the Lord when we lose believing loved ones based upon the certain promise of His coming. Note these three main truths:

1. The promise of Christ’s coming is certain because He was raised from the dead and because we have His direct word on it.

1 Thess. 4:14-15a: “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 ….”

A. The promise of Christ’s coming is certain because He was raised from the dead.

When Paul states, “For if we believe,” he’s not implying any uncertainty. The Greek text implies, “since we believe” (ESV). Paul uses “Jesus,” the human name of our Lord (only used elsewhere in this letter in 1:10, also in connection with His resurrection), to show that our faith in Christ’s coming is based on the historical facts of His life, death, and resurrection. If Jesus was only a mythical figure, the embellishment of some legendary character who really didn’t do the things reported in the four gospels, then none of the apostles would have suffered and given their lives to proclaim Him as Lord and Savior. Paul’s point is that Jesus’ bodily return is just as certain as His physical death, burial, and resurrection, which are historically validated facts.

It’s interesting that Paul says that Jesus died, but Christians have fallen asleep (1 Thess. 4:13, 14, 15). While other ancient cultures used “sleep” as a euphemism for death, Paul seems deliberate when he contrasts Jesus’ death over against believers’ sleep. Jesus bore the full wrath of God for us, dying in our place (1 Cor. 15:3-4). If our trust is in Him to bear our sins, then physical death becomes not a curse, but more like sleep. This implies several things:

First, it does not imply “soul sleep.” The Seventh Day Adventists and some other groups teach that when we die, our soul sleeps until Christ’s second coming. But Paul said (2 Cor. 5:8) that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. He said that he wanted to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” When Stephen was stoned to death, he cried out (Acts 7:59, 60), “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” “Having said this, he fell asleep.” And, as Paul goes on to say (1 Thess. 5:10), “whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” Soul sleep is not biblical.

Second, sleep as a metaphor for death implies that death is only temporary. You wake up from sleep. Jesus used this term when He said, just prior to raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:11), “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” As far as we know, after death our souls will be in a disembodied state with the Lord until He returns. At that point, He will raise our bodies. In Daniel 12:2 the angel reveals to the prophet, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” It doesn’t matter whether our bodies have decayed in the ground, been eaten by vultures, exploded by a bomb, or cremated and the ashes scattered at sea. Death is only temporary for our bodies, which will be raised. But our souls go to be with the Lord the instant we die.

Also, sleep implies relief from our bodily aches and pains and rest from our earthly labors. Heaven is the “Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). And, sleep is not harsh or fearful for believers. Paul longed to depart and be with Christ, which he said was much better than this world of suffering (Phil. 1:23).

Paul’s point in our text is that our resurrection depends on Christ’s resurrection. As Jesus told the disciples (John 14:19), “because I live, you will live also.” Or, as Paul also said (1 Cor. 6:14), “Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” is literally, “through Jesus.” The meaning seems to be that “just as Jesus’ death was in the hands of God, so is the death of saints in Jesus’ hands, and just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so Jesus will raise believers” (Marshall, cited by G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 134). Thus death does not separate us from Him. If we fall asleep through Jesus, just as certainly as He was raised from the dead, we will be raised when He comes.

B. The promise of Christ’s coming is certain because we have His direct word on it.

Paul adds (1 Thess. 4:15a), “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord ….” These words refer to what follows concerning the order of the resurrection when Christ returns. Scholars are divided over whether Paul is referring to Christ’s general teaching regarding His coming, to some saying of Christ that is not recorded in Scripture, to a revelation of a New Testament prophet, or to a direct revelation to Paul. While there are many parallels between Paul’s teaching here and Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse (Beale, p. 137), nothing Christ said in the gospels reveals the order of the second coming that Paul here reveals. In 1 Corinthians 15:51, Paul calls these truths “a mystery,” which means something not previously revealed. Thus I think that God revealed these things directly to Paul.

But, however we understand it, Paul is emphasizing that he was not speculating or offering his opinion here. Rather, he is relating to us the direct “word of the Lord.” This makes the promise of His coming and our being raised up with Him certain.

2. Christ’s glorious coming will reunite us with deceased loved ones in Christ, will give us all new resurrection bodies, and will bring us to be with the Lord forever.

1 Thess. 4:15-17: “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.”

John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], pp. 102-104) outlines verses 16-17 as: (1) the return; (2) the resurrection; (3) the rapture; (4) the reunion. I’ll follow his outline:

A. The return: Lord’s return will be in power and great glory.

There will be a shout, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. Leon Morris observes (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 145),

It is very hard to fit this into a secret rapture…. It may be that from this he intends us to understand that the rapture will take place secretly, and that no one except the saints themselves will know what is going on. But one would hardly gather this from his words. It is difficult to see how he could more plainly describe something that is open and public.

These verses parallel John’s description of the second coming (Rev. 1:7), “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him.” That’s a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, where the prophet sees one “like a Son of Man” coming with the clouds of heaven, and to Zechariah 12:10, where Israel will look on the Messiah whom they pierced and mourn.

F. F. Bruce (Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 104) notes that the Lord’s coming here “is described in terms associated with manifestations of the divine glory in the OT.” Clouds are a regular feature of biblical theophanies (appearances of the Lord; Bruce, 102; Stott, 104). There are supernatural phenomena here, because if Jesus appeared locally in the clouds over Jerusalem, He could only be seen in that vicinity. But this is a worldwide appearance in the sky, where every eye sees Him in His power and glory. The shout is probably a loud command from Christ, the commander of the heavenly host. The voice of the archangel may relay Christ’s command to the troops. The trumpet blast arouses the dead. It will be a truly awesome spectacle!

B. The resurrection: First, our deceased loved ones in Christ and then we will receive new resurrection bodies.

The spirits of departed saints are with the Lord now. He will bring them with Him when He returns, join their spirits to their resurrected bodies, and we will receive our resurrection bodies as we meet them in the air. This is the first resurrection; the unbelieving dead come to life at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:5).

Paul does not say here whether Old Testament saints will return with Christ and receive their resurrection bodies at this time, since he only mentions “the dead in Christ.” Those who hold to a pretribulation rapture believe that OT saints are not raised until Christ’s second coming at the end of the tribulation. But Paul is speaking here to new believers, assuring them that their departed loved ones who had believed in Christ would be resurrected before those who are living when Christ returns. So I don’t think that he was necessarily excluding OT saints when he says, “in Christ.” Against the pretribulation view is the implication (Rev. 20:4-5 & 1 Cor. 15:23) that there are two, not three, resurrections: the righteous when Christ returns and the ungodly at the end of the millennium. Amillennialists argue that Jesus (John 5:28-29) spoke of a single resurrection of all the righteous and wicked at His second coming. But Revelation 20:4-5 mentions two separate resurrections. Whatever view you hold, the certain point that all agree on is that both deceased and living saints will receive new, eternal resurrection bodies, not subject to disease or death, when Jesus returns.

C. The rapture: We who are living will be caught up to meet the Lord and deceased saints in the clouds.

The word translated “caught up” means to snatch or seize by force. In Acts 8:39, it refers to the Spirit snatching Philip away from the Ethiopian eunuch after he led him to Christ. Paul uses the word to describe his experience of being caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). Many commentators point out that meeting the Lord in the air and returning with Him and all the saints to earth parallels the Hellenistic custom of going out to meet a visiting dignitary and escorting him back to the city. In Jesus’ parable about His second coming (Matt. 25:6), the bridal party goes out to meet the groom to escort him back to the banqueting hall. In Acts 28:15, Christians from Rome went out to meet Paul and escort him and his party back to the city.

When Paul includes himself and some of the Thessalonians among those who will be alive at Christ’s coming, he was not mistakenly asserting that they all would be alive at the second coming. He hoped that he would be alive, but he didn’t know for sure. Later (1 Thess. 5:10), Paul says that he and his readers could be either alive or dead when Christ returns. Years later, he indicated that he expected to die before the rapture (2 Tim. 4:6).

MacArthur (pp. 135-136) and other pretribulation rapture proponents argue that if the rapture is after the tribulation, there is no purpose for believers to be taken up to heaven, only to return immediately to earth. Rather, they say, Christ takes us to heaven to deliver us from the impending tribulation. But that’s an inference based on their presupposition. The Bible doesn’t need to give us a reason why we are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. It may be that by so doing, we share in His glory when He returns in front of the unbelieving world. And, it may be that since the air was often thought of as the abode of demons (Eph. 2:2), the Lord’s meeting His saints in the air shows something of His power over those evil powers (Morris, p. 146).

D. The reunion: We will be reunited with departed believing loved ones and we all will be forever with the Lord.

It will be wonderful to be reunited with all of our loved ones who have died in Christ and to be with all of the saints from the past. But the best part of Christ’s return is that we will always be with the Lord! He is with us now spiritually (Matt. 28:20), but then we shall see Him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Now, we fluctuate in our sense of His presence with us, but then we shall always and forever be aware of His glorious presence. As Jesus prayed (John 17:24), “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”

Even the apostle John, who knew Jesus intimately when He was on earth and who saw the amazing visions of the Revelation, did not know exactly what we will be like in heaven. He wrote (1 John 3:2), “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” The instant we see Jesus in His glory, we will be forever transformed into His likeness, free from all sin, sickness, and death. All of our loved ones in Christ will also be transformed. Any conflicts or bad experiences that we had with them on earth will either be forgotten or shrugged off as being of no consequence in light of the surpassing glory of being with Christ and being like Him. But all of this is not for speculation. Rather,

3. The practical value of Christ’s coming is hope and comfort now in times of grief.

Paul begins and ends with practical application (1 Thess. 4:13, 18): “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…. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

When Paul says, “we do not want you to be uninformed,” and he concludes, “comfort one another with these words,” he is saying that there is practical benefit in knowing biblical truth. As I said, Christ’s coming is not so that we can fill out prophecy charts, but rather so that we have real hope and comfort in the midst of life’s trials and losses.

I’ve been around Christians who suppress all tears when a loved one dies. They smile and try to turn a funeral into a celebration. But the Bible does not forbid all grief when we lose loved ones. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, even though He knew that He would shortly raise him from the dead. Paul tells us (Rom. 12:15) to “weep with those who weep.” Grieving is normal, but we are not to grieve as those in the world who have no hope in Christ.

Some may wonder, “But what if my loved one didn’t know Christ? How can I have any hope and not grieve if I know that my loved ones are in hell?” That’s hard, but we have to trust that the Lord will judge everyone fairly and justly. All of His judgments are righteous and true. Each person will get exactly what he or she deserves. Also, there are gradations of punishment in hell appropriate to the degree of light which the person rejected. And the Lord knows how people would have responded if they had been given more light (Matt. 11:20-24)! To the degree that we see Christ’s glory now our grief over the thought of unbelieving loved ones being in hell will be alleviated. That grief will vanish when we get the full view of His glory when He comes.

Conclusion

Often at the time of a loved one’s death unbelievers will say, “He’s in a better place now.” Or, “We’ll see him again in heaven.” But outside of Christ, such hope in the face of death is only wishful thinking. It has no foundation on the truth. But if Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead and is coming again to raise dead saints and transform living saints, we can have certain hope and comfort in Him in our grief.

Application Questions

  1. How can we know if our grief over the loss of loved ones is normal or like that of those who have no hope?
  2. What are some different practical ramifications for how we live now if the rapture is before or after the tribulation?
  3. How would you answer a skeptic who said, “Jesus hasn’t come back in 2,000 years; He’s not coming”? See 2 Pet. 3:3-10.
  4. Practically, how can we grow in the hope of His coming so that it affects our daily lives?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Comfort, Eschatology (Things to Come), Prophecy/Revelation

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