1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:11

Christ has been returning at any moment for the past 2,000 years. Whenever there is a social or economic upheaval anywhere in the world, but particularly here in America, attention is drawn to the Second Coming. Sometimes the occupant of the White House is the determinative factor in when the Church thinks the Second Coming will occur. As always, time passes, the upheaval passes or becomes the “new normal,” and Christians stop thinking about Christ’s return.

We are living in a time when upheavals are taking place all around us. America’s stature in the world has been on the decline for the past few years, largely because of a lack of moral authority in our politicians. Our fellow citizens are losing confidence in institutions that have always seemed to be trustworthy, institutions including the Church. Our culture has become obsessed with any and all deviances. Generally speaking, many of the West have become self-absorbed and narcissistic. Many preachers have taken note of these conditions and concluded that Christ’s return is “just around the corner.”

But is it? The early Church believed Christ would return in their lifetime. This belief in the imminent return of the Lord caused some problems in some churches of that day. Some of these problems and misunderstandings needed to be addressed and it was up to Paul to set errant believers straight.

1. The nature of Christ’s coming, 1 Thessalonians 4:13—14

The dead in Christ, vs. 13—16

Some members of the Thessalonian church had grown restless as they waited for the Lord to return. Some had stopped working, believing they should withdraw from society and wait in patience for the Second Advent. But when He didn’t return, and when it seemed life as usual was going to continue for the foreseeable future, these believers became restless and disillusioned. They were expecting the Lord to return and take them away from their persecutions and poverty. His delay also caused these confused believers to wonder about the destiny of those who died waiting for the Lord to return. To Paul’s credit, it seems he had, in fact, already taught his friends about these matters, but for some reason the truth hadn’t been understood by many in the church.

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:5)

So this group of verses represents Paul’s attempt to clarify what he had already taught. To help them grasp what happens to a believer who dies before the Second Coming, Paul uses the metaphor of “those who fall asleep.” Naturally he is referring to those who have died, and Paul understood his readers would make the connection between those who are sleeping and those who have died. The connection is obvious: just as one who is asleep continues to exist, so the dead person continues to exist in spite of the fact that he is temporarily separated from his physical body. Sleep has its awakening, and death will have its resurrection. Because this is something every Christian should understand, any grief or mourning should also be temporary. Unbelievers wail and carry on when a loved one passes as though there was no hope. But believers, though they may mourn and grieve the death of a loved one, ought to understand that hope carries on; that their loved one is still alive, only their body is dead. Paul would teach his Corinthian friends and his friends in Philippi an encouraging theological fact:

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8)

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far… (Philippians 1:23)

So, death is certainly not the end nor is it to be feared by the Christian. And those who have died waiting for Christ’s return have no disadvantage; those who are alive when Christ returns will not be treated with any kind of priority. Those who have died will rise first to meet Jesus in the air. This represents a kind of resurrection of all those who died during this present age, since the day of Pentecost, as Christians—those “in Christ”—as opposed to believers from other times.

Those alive in Christ, vs. 17, 18

Next in order will be those who are alive in Christ. Those who are alive when “the shout” occurs and the “trumpet” sounds will then rise to meet Christ in the air. So we see an orderly event: the dead in Christ rise first, then the living in Christ will rise. This doctrine of the rapture, disputed by some in the Church, was revealed to Paul by the Lord Himself. We’re not sure when or how Paul received this teaching, but he did and it was something the apostle taught his congregations. Even though there are segments of the Church today that don’t believe in the rapture of the Church, almost all Christians believe in the soon coming Christ—His literal, physical, and visible return to earth. This belief, the true hope of all believers, should bring hope, encouragement, and peace to all segments of the Church. We have a hope beyond anything in the world.

In verse 17, Paul uses the phrase “caught up,” to describe how the living in Christ will be snatched away. That phrase comes from a word meaning “to seize” or to “snatch.” We get the word “rapture” from the Latin translation of this verse. It refers to the miraculous transporting of the living to heaven. Paul used the same word to describe his own experience of being “caught up” to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2—4). The word also carries with it the idea of a sudden, hasty swooping away. One moment believers will be here, the next instant they will be gone.

Though the doctrine of the rapture is not seen in the Old Testament anywhere and nobody but Paul taught it in the New Testament, Jesus seemed to give His disciples a small hint in John 14:

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:3)

The rapture of the Church really is an amazing doctrine that deserves more discussion than is offered here. Consider some of the following: When the rapture occurs, for the first time ever the Church of all times and generations and all places will exist in complete unity and harmony—not on earth, but in the air! At that time, there will truly be ONE church, not many, fragmented churches. This will represent the ultimate triumph of the Church over the “prince of the air.” For the first time, the Church that has existed through the ages will truly be overcomers.

2. The suddenness of Christ’s coming, 1 Thessalonians 5:1—3

But when will all this happen? The Thessalonians obviously wanted to know, but Paul couldn’t give them a definitive answer. The time for the Second Coming remains a mystery even today, with wild speculation popping up every so often. Paul used two analogies to describe the suddenness of the Lord’s return:

  • Unexpected. The Lord will come like a “thief in the night.” A thief sneaks around; he doesn’t knock on the door or let you know he’s coming.

  • Sudden. The Lord will return in a moment, like the coming of labor pains. As every mother knows, once the labor pains start, there is no stopping the birth process! The ones who will be caught off guard when the Lord comes will be those who aren’t looking for Him.

3. Prepare for Christ’s coming, 1 Thessalonians 5:4—11

Now that the Thessalonians, and we, have the facts, how should believers live in light of those facts?

Be watchful, vs. 4—7

This does not mean quitting your job, withdrawing from society and moving to a mountain top retreat to await the Lord’s return. It does mean that we should live disciplined, godly lives, marked by an attitude of hope, love, and faith. Watching for the return of Jesus should motivate us to live the best lives we can, as suggested by these phrases:

  • be alert.” The word means to stay wide awake. Believers can’t afford to be caught watching the paint drying! In other words, we need to know what’s going on in our family, our community, our country. We need to be engaged so we can pray and show concern for the lost.

  • be self-controlled.” This word means “to be calm.” A person who is “calm” is not restless; his mind isn’t running a marathon all day. The “self-controlled” believer is one who is fully aware of who he is, to Whom he belongs, and what his role is in the kingdom of God.

Put on God’s armor, vs. 8—10

This is a favorite passage of Scripture that most of us learned in Sunday School, but its context is right living while waiting for the Lord’s return. The believer is to be alert, wide awake, busy and calm, but also he should be wearing special armor. Repeatedly in his letters, Paul compares Christians to soldiers, so the metaphor of “ armor” is a natural one.

Like in Ephesians 6, Christians need to be clothed in spiritual armor. The “breastplate” is “love and faith” and the “helmet” is the hope of salvation.

As we live in eager expectation of the Lord’s return, we are to love one another and the hope of salvation—our helmet—means that we realize the best part of salvation is yet to come! The assurance of this hope is the fact that God has only good things in store for us.

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. (vs. 9, 10)

God’s ultimate, everlasting purpose is two-fold:

  1. That we should not be lost. While we are all sinners and we were all lost, because we called on the name of the Lord for salvation and by faith accepted His terms, we will never again be counted as one of “the lost.” God has no more wrath planned for us.

  2. That we should be saved. God has prepared the Kingdom for us from the foundation of the world.

Knowing this to be true, we should be at peace no matter what our circumstances may be. God’s purpose (above) cannot be frustrated. No Christian should ever doubt their salvation. God’s will for you has been revealed to you, so why question it? God has made it crystal clear in His Word that it is His will that all human beings be saved. If anyone perishes in their sins, it is not because of some secret plan of God, it is because that lost one chose to go their own way, not God’s way.

(c)  2012 WitzEnd

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