Clarifying the Last Day (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
2nd to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 19, 2017
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Adapted from a sermon by Pastor Alexander Lange

13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
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 by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. (NKJV)
The Christians in Thessalonica were troubled. Some of their brothers and sisters had died. They were grieving. On top of that, they were also worried that their dearly departed would not see or fully enjoy the return of Jesus. So, St. Paul in this letter writes to address their concerns. Today we will closely examine this passage to see how it addresses the questions of the Thessalonians and how it addresses our own questions and concerns.
The first place Paul goes is to the heart of the Christian faith: that Jesus died and rose.  But that isn’t just a fact memorized from the creed.  It’s a reality for every Christian baptized into Him.  Because Jesus died and rose, so will all who believe in Him.  This gives hope in the face of death and all that leads up to it—grave illness, diseases that eat away at the body, and dementia.
This is contrasted with “others who have no hope.”  These others face the same bitter anguish and death.  They run into the same vanity that you can expend all your effort on life, building a career, raising a family, saving for retirement—all for it to be obliterated by death.   But for those without Jesus, death is a gloomy, final end.  Sure there’s a wish that death leads to somewhere or something better than what was experienced in life, but there’s no certainty; only fear.  So put death away, ignore it, dress it up, and avoid it as long as possible.
Paul knows that some of the Thessalonians have died. He knows that the rest of the Thessalonians are mourning, but he doesn’t want them to grieve without hope. So, he reminds them that Jesus once died … and he was raised from the dead!
The Thessalonians don’t need to despair as they lose loved ones and as they approach the grave… and neither do you, because your Lord has already been there. Your Lord was crucified and buried, but then he left behind his tomb. Jesus is alive and immortal. You are in Christ, and so, what happened to him must happen to you! You and all your brothers and sisters will be raised from the dead. Death is only temporary. The resurrection gives us an unshakable hope.
Then, Paul says to the Thessalonians: “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. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
The Thessalonians were grieving, because some of their brothers and sisters had died. They were a bit worried too. They knew that Jesus would return and that Jesus would raise their brothers and sisters, but they were not sure about the order of these events. Would Jesus raise them first and then come? Or would he come first and then raise the dead?
You might think, “Why does it matter?” Well, the Thessalonians were worried that the dead would not witness the glorious return of Jesus. They were worried that their dearly departed would miss something which the living would enjoy. Paul assures them that this will not be the case. He says that the living will not precede the dead, that the dead in Christ will rise first, that their dearly departed will not miss a thing.
Now, we may not share the same concerns as these Thessalonians. Nevertheless, we do have our own misunderstandings and concerns about the second coming, don’t we? For example, we have lots of neighbors who believe in Premillenial Dispensationalism.
They believe that the Lord will return in secret to take all believers into heaven. They imagine that “true” believers will be teleported away from earth without warning, leaving all the unbelievers behind. Then, there will be a period tribulation on the earth for 7 years, during which the Anti-Christ will appear. The temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.  Then after the time of tribulation, Jesus will come a third time and reign visibly on earth for 1,000 years. After the thousand year reign, Jesus will raise the dead and judge mankind.
This whole system was first thought up by John Nelson Darby in the 1830’s in England.  It was brought to America and popularized by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield who divided history into 7 dispensations, which in his own words describes: “These periods are marked off in Scripture by some change in God’s method of dealing with mankind, in respect to two questions: of sin, and of man’s responsibility…Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment—marking his utter failure in every dispensation.”
These Premillenial Dispensationalists can sound very convincing, because they pull lots of Bible verses (mostly from Daniel and Revelation) out of context to supposedly prove their theology.  However, our text from 1 Thessalonians exposes their doctrine as false. According to Paul, Jesus will not return in secret. He will “will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.” Everyone will know when Jesus returns. Immediately upon his return—with no pause or 1,000 year delay—Jesus will raise the dead and all believers will be caught up to him.
In biblical Christianity there are only two comings of Christ. First, Jesus came in humility to obey the Law in our place, to die as our substitute, and to rise from the dead. Jesus came to win forgiveness and eternal life for you. Then, Jesus will come in glory to destroy all evil including the devil and the sin and death that still remains in you. He will pronounce you righteous and make you immortal. There’s no need for a third or a fourth coming.  These two comings are all we need.  There’s no need for God to have a different way of dealing with Jews versus Gentiles, because of Christ, “who has made [Jews and Gentiles] both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”[1]
Finally, Paul says to the Thessalonians: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
Again, Paul is assuring the Thessalonians that the dead won’t miss out on anything. First, Jesus will raise the dead Christians, and then, all Christians will meet Jesus in the air and participate in his glorious descent. The dead won’t miss a thing.
Now, this is important. When Paul says that we will meet Jesus in the air, he is not saying that Jesus will take us to heaven. The Greek word ἀπάντησις (ah-PAN-tay-sis) is translated “to meet”, but it is also a word that refers to a special kind of journey. In the ancient world kings and governors would sometimes visit one of their colonies. The leading citizens of that colony were expected to meet him on the road and escort him back to the city. That was called an apantesis.[2]
Paul is saying that Jesus is our King and he will come to earth to judge the wicked and to set things right. Just as the leading citizens met their dignitaries on the road, we will meet our King in the air and we will escort him to earth. Then, Jesus will renew the earth, where we will live and work on it forever. Paul makes this clear in Romans chapter eight, where he says that Jesus will liberate creation from decay. John describes this renewal of creation in Revelation chapters 21 and 22. So, you see, this is not about believers going to heaven, but it’s about our King coming to fix his corrupt creation.
A new word instead of “rapture” -> Parousia
Matthew 24:27: For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
1 John 2:28: And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.
James 5: Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Paul concludes that we will be with our Lord forever and he tells the Thessalonians to comfort each other with these words. And boy, are these words comforting! Essentially, Paul is saying that Sin and Death will not sever us from our Lord. Just as the Lord lived with Adam on a beautiful world, the Lord will live with us in the new creation!  Take comfort in His trustworthy Word, and let not your hearts be troubled by deceptive and novel teachings about the End Times.  Amen.
[1] Ephesians 2:14-16
[2] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *