1 Thessalonians 4: Stanly Community Church

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1 A Christian serves the Lord in anticipation of His glorious return. Indeed, Christ has promised His followers that He will again appear, establish His kingdom, and reward the faithful. Physical death in no way alters this reality a truth that should comfort all believers. The apostle Paul spent much of his time encouraging the Church to mature in the faith. His ministry was not only to spread the Gospel but to sanctify believers for Christian service. He understood the importance of the Church as the earthly representation of Christ s kingdom; he knew the sacrifice required on the part of each believer. Not wanting his brothers and sisters in the Lord to become discouraged by persecution, Paul frequently comforted them with the promise of Christ s Second Coming. For this event signals the end of suffering and the beginning of glory for the Church. In First Thessalonians 4:13-18, the apostle specifically notes the special role the Church plays in Jesus return. It is a reminder to us that suffering for His sake even to the point of death -- can in no way keep us from experiencing the full glory of His kingdom. In fact, as Paul will tell us, the Church will be the first to know when He returns. And we can have comfort in understanding how the Lord will overcome all obstacles and bring these things to pass. 1

2 In this passage, Paul comforts the Church by explaining the sequence of events which will unite all Church Age saints in the presence of Christ forever. This coming together involves both the resurrection and the rapture of the saints. The concerns of the Thessalonian saints are addressed as the apostle comforts them with what the Lord had revealed to him of the Church s future. The Future of the Church (4:13-18) The Concern of the Saints (vv ) Although they were new believers, the Thessalonian Christians were zealous to serve the Lord. During Paul s short ministry in that congregation, he had taught them many things before being run out of town by unbelieving Jews (Acts 17:1-9). His instruction included the doctrines pertaining to the imminent return of Jesus Christ. As true believers, they looked forward to the glory of the Lord s appearance to deliver His people from suffering. The Lord s call to be found faithful only established a sense of urgency for Christian service (Matt. 24:45-25:30). But Paul s sudden departure (and the persecution that followed) had confused them. Because the apostle taught that Jesus could return at any time, they were afraid that their departed brethren (perhaps killed at the hand of their persecutors) might somehow have missed the Second Coming. A lack of understanding regarding the physical death and resurrection of believers left the Thessalonians wondering. So Paul addresses their concerns. 2

3 The term used in verse 13 for physical death is fallen asleep. It is a euphemism commonly employed by the New Testament writers to describe the appearance of the physical body when it is no longer possessed by the human spirit (Jas. 2:26). The spirit of a person is always conscious and never ceases to exist. But when God requires a person to leave this world (cf. Lk. 12:20), the earthly body is left behind and returns to the basic elements from which it was created (Gen. 2:7; Gen. 3:19; Ec. 12:7). When we look at a dead body, it is inanimate, so a good description would be to say that it sleeps. But Paul has more in mind here. By saying that a departed believer s body slumbers, he is obviously implying that it will awaken at some point. If he meant that it would forever cease to exist, then the Holy Spirit would have inspired him to use different terminology. However, Paul knew God s purpose and plan. He understood that God has for a long time revealed His intention to resurrect the human body (e.g. Dan. 12:2-3, 13). And he likewise comprehended the Lord s purpose for mankind to exist eternally. For the unrepentant person, that means a resurrected body fit for the eternal torment of hell (Rev. 20:11-15). But for the believer, it means a glorified body fit for the joys of heaven (Ps. 16:9-11; 17:15; Rev. 20:6). 3

4 Even though the essence of our person is spiritual in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26), the Creator s purpose for mankind is to have a glorified, physical aspect. The physical death of this present body (which is the result of sin) will not alter God s purpose. He has graciously conquered sin and death Christians who are absent from the body are now present with the Lord; in their spirit they reside in the Paradise of heaven (2 Cor. 5:6-8; 12:4; Lk. 23:43). It is as real -- but far more glorious -- than being on Earth. These believers very much still exist and serve God, only in a different location. We who remain in the body are here only because the Lord has left us as His ambassadors to the world. When our designated time here is through, He will call us out of this temporary body into heaven to be with Him and other believers until the time of the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:1-8; 2 Tim. 4:6-8; cf. 2 Pet. 1:13). This concept is what the Thessalonians did not understand, and Paul wanted them to be informed with the truth. So he says in verse 13, I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. In other words, he did not want their concerns about departed believers to hinder their service to God. 4

5 Unlike the unbelieving world (i.e others ), the Thessalonian Christians had a certain and true hope of the return of their Lord and Savior. They had a joyous, eternal future with Him in His kingdom. Those who do not know the Lord live in fear of death and His righteous judgment, whether they admit it or not. When their loved ones die (or they themselves face death), they have sorrow and no real peace. Because they do not believe the sovereign God, they cannot have assurance of eternal life. However, the Christian has no need to sorrow as if there is nothing good in the future. We certainly grieve the loss of our believing loved ones, but knowing the Lord and trusting His promises keeps us from a hopeless sorrow. As Paul says in verse 14: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. That is the Lord s promise. Christians will be resurrected to glory with Christ just as He was resurrected and glorified. His resurrection and ours are inextricably linked together (1 Cor. 15). He is the first to be resurrected in full glory, and all who follow Him will share in resurrection life. For departed believers, this means they will accompany the Lord from heaven back to earth and receive their resurrected bodies. If you believe the Gospel that Christ died for your sins and rose victorious over death, then you should have no trouble believing that you also will be resurrected by His power. 5

6 God has revealed in Scripture all we need to give us assurance of the resurrection. So Paul further appeals to the Word of God to clarify what He just said. However, until this point, little was known about the resurrection of saints in the Church Age. Jesus had already promised to return for His followers and take us to the place He has prepared for us (Jn. 14:1-3). But He did not elaborate on the time frame. The Thessalonians did not understand how this related to the glorious appearing of Christ to establish His throne on Earth. It is at this point that Paul begins to comfort them with the truth from Christ regarding these events. The Comfort of the Saints (vv ) What we read in verse 15 is additional revelation given directly from Christ to the apostle Paul to be recorded in the New Testament (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-16). Here Paul says, 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 by no means precede those who are asleep. Yes, Jesus is coming to take us to heaven, but there is a preplanned order for this initial phase of His return. It involves both those who have died and those who are physically alive and remain in this world at that time. And it all takes place before He judges the earth in the Tribulation and establishes His Millennial Kingdom (cf. Matt. 24:3-51). 6

7 The Thessalonians did not comprehend that all Church Age saints must go to heaven first before they return with Christ to establish the kingdom. There the Church will be coronated with Christ in order to reign with Him at His glorious appearing (cf. Matt. 19:27-30; Titus 2:13; Rev. 1:6; 2:26; 3:21; 4:4; 20:4-6, etc.). These Christians thought that departed saints had missed the excitement of The Day of the Lord (5:1-11). But they would, in fact, all experience it together in glory. Departed believers would come back temporarily with Jesus to receive their resurrected bodies. They had not missed anything, but would actually be glorified before living believers albeit only by a moment. In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle says: Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. In other words, there will obviously be Christians alive when Jesus returns for the Church. But He is not coming at that time to stay. He is coming to glorify His Church and remove believers from the Earth before He brings the judgment of the Tribulation (Rev. 3:10). During this time, these saints will receive their place of authority in the kingdom of God. 7

8 Following the Great Tribulation, Jesus will return to rule the world from His throne in Jerusalem, and all His saints will rule with Him (Rev. 20:4-6). After His thousand year reign ends, He will bring final judgment on the ungodly, destroy the present creation and re-create a universe in which only righteousness will exist (cf. Rev. 20:7-22:5; 2 Pet. 3:10-13). But before all of this, the Lord will call the Church to heaven to be with Him forever and share in His glory (Jn. 17:24). This return of the Lord is what Paul talks about in the beginning of verse 16: For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. As Jesus promised, He Himself returns and will be accompanied by perhaps the archangel, Gabriel, who was sent by God to announce Jesus first advent to earth (Lk. 1:19, 26; cf. 2:10; Matt. 1:20-23). A trumpet will also be heard by the Church, calling us to our Savior (cf. Ex. 19:16-19; Zeph. 1:16; Zech. 9:14), and announcing this initial phase of His return. By the word of Christ Himself, we are resurrected and raptured The host of heaven affirms His glory, and the Father initiates the coronation of His Son and those whom He has given Him for eternity (cf. Jn. 6:37, 44). 8

9 But it is at this very moment that, the dead in Christ will rise first (v. 16b). As Paul told the Corinthians, we will all be changed (i.e. into a glorified condition fit for heaven), but that change will first come to those who have experienced physical death. The Lord evidently gives precedence to them in receiving glory, since their sufferings included the death of the body. They are no more deserving; it is simply the Lord s acknowledgement of the fact that they, like Himself, had suffered death. For that brief moment, the dead in Christ will be glorified before those who are alive and remain. Paul again uses this term to identify the Christians living at the time of the Rapture. Following the resurrection, these will then be caught up together with [resurrected Christians] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (v. 17). Instantaneously, all living believers will be translated from their weak, physical bodies into glorified bodies. And as quickly as they are changed, we will all be caught up with the Lord into the Earth s atmosphere ( clouds ) from where He called us. That moment marks the beginning of our unchanging, glorious eternity with our Lord Jesus Christ. We will all be with Him and with one another forever. 9

10 This is a tremendous reassurance for Christians It is why Paul concludes in verse 18 by saying, Therefore comfort one another with these words. There was no need to fear that departed believers had missed anything at all. Jesus had sent this truth to the Church through the apostle to comfort, encourage, and bring them through anything they faced. The glory of their Lord, whom they longed to see, was guaranteed to be experienced by every Christian from every generation. Christ Himself will call us, gather us together, glorify us, and take us home to heaven. And from there we will return with Him in glory to reign in the kingdom of heaven. What a day that will be It is a day which all believers should joyfully anticipate, and it is a day that death cannot prevent. It is that climatic event for the Church which should motivate us to faithful Christian living. Do you understand God s purpose and plan for the Church both now and for eternity? Do you have a hopeless sorrow about death or a confident assurance in God s promise of resurrection glory? 10

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