Last week we talked about love and how it is supposed to work. We looked at the biblical definition of love and how love without action is not really love. Paul encouraged a strong work ethic so as not to be burdensome on others. Paul moves to another seemingly random topic.
Once again, get your Bible and read 1 Thes. 4:13-18.
If you’ve followed along with us you’ve got to ask, why now? Why would Paul address this issue at this point in his letter? That’s a good question. Why does Paul change up topics from work to death? From love to death? If you look closely, you’ll see that Paul has made a reference to the coming of our Lord in every chapter. It seems from the context that there was some confusion over death and the coming of Jesus. Before Paul describes what happens when you die, he takes the time to review some important truths.
He begins in v. 13 with the encouragement to not be ignorant. This is a recurring theme for Paul. In Acts 17:23, Paul told the Athenians they worshiped in ignorance. In Romans 1:13, Paul didn’t want the Romans to be unaware of his desire for them to grow. In Romans 2:4, they didn’t know the kindness that leads to repentance. In 1 Cor. 12, Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to be ignorant of spiritual gifts. In 2 Cor. 1, Paul didn’t want them to be unaware of his afflictions in Asia. Now Paul tells the Thessalonians he doesn’t want them to be unaware of what happens when someone dies.
Don’t be ignorant, “about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” Asleep or sleep refers to death. Obviously it can mean sleep as in slumber too. The meaning of the word depends on the context. Paul doesn’t want us to grieve the deaths of those we love like the rest do. The rest who have no hope would refer to those people who do not have a relationship with Christ. Paul reminds them of one of the most fundamental doctrinal truths: Jesus died and was raised again. Paul didn’t say “don’t grieve” he said don’t grieve like those who have no hope. Our hope is in the resurrection of Christ. Especially in light of recent event, we ought not grieve as those who have no hope.
I want to make one distinction. We’re talking about the dead in Christ; those who are asleep. The Bible is clear that when you die, it is your physical body that dies. In 2 Cor. 5:1-8, Paul explains that our body is simply a vessel to hold our soul. He refers to it as an earthly tent. He says, “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” Body and soul are not the same.
What is going to happen when the Lord comes? Paul is very clear that there is an order in the Lord’s coming and he sets it up in v. 15: “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.”Maybe the word of the Lord Paul refers to is Matthew 24:30-31 that says, “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” Paul includes himself in those that remain. There is speculation that Paul anticipated the Lord’s return in his lifetime. Paul elaborates on that point in his second letter to the Thessalonians. Basically he says that we need to eagerly anticipate His return, but be zealous to serve the Lord as though we won’t live to see His return. Those people that have a personal relationship with Christ who are alive when the Lord comes won’t precede those that are dead in Christ. In other words, there is no advantage to being alive when the Lord comes.
Verse 16 provides the plan. “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven.” Not an angel. Not a prophet. He’s leaving heaven again to come here. He’s coming, “With a shout.” It is a cry of encouragement. It is the cry of soldiers rushing into battle. “With the voice of the archangel.” The article “the” is not in the original Greek so this really means He’s coming with the voice of someone who’s in charge of others. Don’t get hung up on that because John 5:28 says, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice.” Jesus is the One who is leading the charge. He’s coming, “with the trumpet of God.” In the old days, Jewish assemblies were called together by the sound of the trumpet. That’s what the church bells were for in the colonial days – to call people together. Maybe there was a shortage of talented trumpet players. “The dead in Christ will rise first.” This can only mean Christians. First means first, the dead will rise. It’s the same word used for the resurrection of Christ.
The next step in the process happens in v. 17. After the dead in Christ rise, “Then we who are alive and remain.” The not dead in Christ; those that are left on the earth, that haven’t died. “Will be caught up.” It is a promise. Caught up means taken by force, or snatched away. Rapture comes from the Latin verb rapere which means to carry off. Rapture the noun is the Latin word rapio. After that, everyone will be together with them – the dead in Christ who rose first – to meet for the very first time, face to face, with the One who died for the sins of the world, the One who died for our sins. After that, “We shall always be with the Lord.” Paul encourages us to, “Comfort one another with these words.” There should be great comfort in that.
In 1 Cor. 15:52, Paul says this is going to happen, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Will there be time to react? An eye twinkling is pretty fast. It is the time it takes for light to reflect off someone’s retina and for your eye to see it. Mathematically, this twinkling has been calculated based on the speed of light and the size of an average person’s eye. The numbers crunch out to be 1.6 x 10-9 seconds. That’s essentially a billionth of a second. You can Google it for yourself and yes, someone really did take the time to calculate it.
What’s the point? There won’t be time to make a decision. This is supposed to be comforting. Those who have no hope are not comforted by this. Will you be snatched away, or left behind?