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The Church's Great Escape

1Thessalonians 4:13-18

What is the thing that humans fear most? I think most of us would agree that our greatest fear is death. If you have never experienced the death of a loved one, you don’t fully appreciate the starkness and unfairness of death. My brother-in-law was killed in a small plane accident in the 1990s. He never got to see his three children grow up. Several years ago my mother-in-law passed away suddenly. She did not get to see the wedding of our middle son, or the subsequent birth of her three great grandchildren. And we miss our missed opportunities with those who have died as well. They are taken away. As humans we wonder: will I ever get to see them again or was that it? The ache we feel never really goes away, it merely dulls over time.

When it comes to the situation the Thessalonians found themselves in, there is an added element that makes a discussion of death more complicated. This group of believers experienced a severe persecution. The pressure was great. Their enemies wanted blood. They wanted suffering. So, to escape that pressure, death was a relief for some.

The complicated part is that Paul had already told them that victory was theirs over those that opposed them. All through Chapters 2 and 3 there is this theme of present suffering and future victory at the coming of the Lord:

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 (HCSB) 19 For who is our hope or joy or crown of boasting in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy!

But here’s the rub: By dying, some of the Thessalonian Christians had escaped the present. But did their death now mean they would miss the victory party later? The big question for them was: what happens to a Christian when they die; is that different from everyone else, and what does it mean in terms of the Lord’s return?

The latter half of Chapter 4 and the first half of Chapter 5 seek to answer those questions. Today we look at part 1 – The Church’s Great Escape.

13

Paul brings some new information to the Thessalonians so they are not “uninformed” when it comes to Christian death and the coming of the Lord. He uses the term “sleep” to describe Christian death. The term is a metaphor but an apt one. Someone who is asleep will rise up in the morning. So too, a Christian who dies will “rise up” in the resurrection when Jesus returns. Why does he want them to know these things? So they will not grieve like those who do not belong to Jesus. For them, death means the end. There is therefore no hope for them beyond the grave. Such is not the case for the Christian.

There really is nothing more tragic than a funeral for someone who steadfastly rejected the Lordship of Jesus and His sacrifice on their behalf. Either they believe that consciousness ceases at death (though I don’t think anyone really believes that) or it is as the writer of Hebrews says:

Hebrews 10:26-27 (HCSB) 26 For if we deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries.

Such is not the case for those who belong to Jesus.

14

This is really a key verse when understanding death and life as a Christian. First, this is all predicated on “belief”. “Since we believe” Paul says. It might go without saying but to have any hope after death you have to believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death means you have fallen short of God’s glory and need a Savior. His burial means He really died for your sins, but His resurrection means the sacrifice on your behalf took—God accepted it and you accept Him as your King.

Paul says that just as God raised Jesus, so too He will raise you. Paul describes this in detail in 1 Corinthians 15:35 and following. The nature of the resurrection is pictured in Jesus when He rose. You will have a body (though not like this one) which is indestructible and does not decay. It doesn’t necessarily follow all the laws of physics, but can be a part of this creation to do things such as consume food and drink (Jesus said He would drink the cup anew in His kingdom).

Paul describes death for a Christian as “sleep”. One question many have is: what happens immediately after death for a Christian? 2 Corinthians 5:8 says that when we leave this body we are “at home with the Lord” or “present with the Lord.” Some have argued that sleep means we are not conscious and at the time of the Lord’s return we all sort of “wake up” at the same time. Others suggest that we get some sort of interim body which is replaced by our new bodies at the Rapture.

Whichever it is, when Jesus returns to rule on Planet Earth, we return with Him. That’s the “will bring with Him” part of verse 14. Jude 1:14 says: “The Lord is coming with thousands of His holy ones.”

How that works exactly is next:

15

The first thing to point out from this verse is that Paul did not make this stuff up. We don’t know exactly how God told him, perhaps when He appeared to Him on the Road to Damascus or afterwards when he spent time in the desert. But the things in this verse and following are from God. They can be counted on.

Paul wants his Thessalonian brothers and sisters to know that just because you die before the Lord comes back doesn’t mean you are disadvantaged at all. Somehow it had gotten into their heads that the dead would miss out on the return of Jesus or something. Not true, says Paul. Next, he describes the events that will transpire upon the Lord’s return.

16 – 17

In Acts 1, Jesus ascends to heaven and disappears into a cloud. His disciples are standing there staring up, perhaps hoping He was going to come back down and set up His kingdom (as they had just asked Him about). Two angels suddenly stand there and say, “This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.”

The events leading up to His Second Coming involve the things that are recorded in the Book of the Revelation. A seven-year period described there is known as the Tribulation. It all really starts with the revelation of a man known as the Anti-Christ who promises peace but is really from the Devil himself. It is my belief that the church will not be present on earth for the Tribulation. There are many reasons for this opinion. I leave you with 2:

  1. The Tribulation is a time for God’s wrath on sinners (Revelation 6:16) but
  2. Christians are explicitly spared from God’s wrath through Jesus (Romans 5:9-10).

In 1 Corinthians 15:52 Paul says that a trumpet will sound and in a “moment, in the blink of an eye” we will be changed from corruptible to incorruptible. In 1 Thessalonians Paul describes it as a “shout” and as “the archangel’s voice” as well as “the trumpet of God.” Likely these are all the same thing. Some sound occurs as the Lord declares it is time. At that moment, all who have fallen asleep in Jesus will rise.

Perhaps nanoseconds later, all of us who are still alive will be “caught up” together in the clouds where we meet Jesus “in the air” and never leave Him again. That word: “caught up” is where we get the word “rapture.” The Greek word is “harpazo” and carries with it the idea of the snatching away suddenly of a ripe piece of fruit from a tree. Translated into Latin, the word Rapturo is used—and thus to English as “rapture.”

Whether the rapture will happen isn’t really a debate (although some believe that there will be no Tribulation or 2nd Coming or any of that – but that it happened in the 1st Century). The timing, however is hotly debated.

The three ideas are:

  1. Pre-Tribulation. This is the view where the Rapture actually signals the beginning of the 7-year Tribulation on earth. This is the view I subscribe to. Check out some of my studies on CalvaryNewberg.org for more on that.
  • Tribulation/Rapture Study
  1. Mid-Tribulation. This is where, 3 ½ years into the Tribulation, the saints are raptured away  before something called “The Great Tribulation”.
  2. Post-Tribulation. In this view, we all go through the Tribulation, are raptured, then return right away with the Lord. I call this the “boomerang” rapture – up, then right back down again.

There is an interesting Wikipedia article outlining the different perspectives.

18

Paul ends this section by saying that this should be a comfort. And indeed, it is. Taking folks who grieved over having either already missed the coming of the Lord, or thought that their loved ones would miss all the fun – Paul brings a dose of reality to them: no one will miss a thing!

Conclusions

Here are a couple of thoughts that arise from this portion of the chapter:

  • God tells us what we need to know.

Paul starts this section by saying “I don’t want you to be uninformed.” God knew what He was doing when he inspired men and women to write the Scriptures. Our problem is that 1) we try to add to what God said to fill in the holes of we want to know or 2) we try to read too much into what He has said. The purpose of His Word is to get us to trust in Jesus. Part of that purpose is to reveal that Jesus has a plan for us that includes all who trust in Him. Use that as a template or lens to view God’s Word—not as everything on the subject, just everything you need to know.

  • If you don’t know Him, you have no hope.

Not to be a downer – but there is no certainty of anything after death to those who do not have a relationship with Jesus. He is the only One who died and came back to tell us about it. I’m not talking near-death experiences here (there is a lot of question about the validity of those anyway). But if I were smart, I’d trust what He said, and trust Him with my eternity too!

  • If you know Him, you have hope.

The Thessalonians were going through hard times, just like you might be. Knowing how the movie ends should help you to make it through those dark scenes in your life. Oh, they won’t be easy, but perhaps they will be bearable.

 

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