I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
How far into the future do you plan? Do you know what you will be doing tomorrow? Have you made plans for events that will take place next month? This summer? Some organizations make five year plans. Do we ever make plans for eternity?
If you are a Christian, you have made such plans because the gospel has implications that extend into all eternity. When the gospel is told, the message is not only “God has forgiven your sins” but also “and given you eternal life.” But how many of us live our lives with the steady awareness of that eternal life? Although we don’t always live with an awareness of the end, we have a lot of questions about it. We want to know, “When will Christ come?” “What will His coming be like?” “What hope does His coming give to people who die?” “What will happen in eternity?”
The people in the church in Thessalonica had heard the promises of the return of Christ and of the hope of eternal life, but they had questions and they needed to be taught more. So in I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, Paul teaches them some more. There are primarily two questions answered in this passage, but others are also examined. He deals in 4:13-18 with the question, “What about death?” and in 5:1-11 with the question, “When will He come?”
We also know these promises, but in the distractions that life brings they are often obscured. What hope, encouragement and challenges can we find in these verses? Let us read the text.
If you read the story about how the gospel came to Thessalonica in Acts 17, you will discover that Paul came to Thessalonica from Philippi where he had been persecuted for his proclamation of the gospel. He went to the synagogue and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” about Jesus. Some Jews and a large number of Greeks were persuaded, but other Jews became jealous and Paul was forced to leave. Paul had just begun to disciple the new believers in Thessalonica when he was suddenly torn from them without having been able to finish the work of teaching them everything Jesus had commanded. He had told them the promise of Christ’s return and they greatly rejoiced at the hope of eternal life. They believed the promises and were sure that soon Christ would come back to take them to their eternal home. But then something disturbing happened. Whether it was as a result of persecution that continued after Paul left or due to natural causes, some among them died. They became quite disturbed and began to wonder, “what has happened to the promises?” If people are dying, where is the resurrection? Where is the power of God? Are his promises still true? We can imagine that it must have been quite disconcerting and must have shaken their faith deeply.
Timothy had gone back to Thessalonica after Paul left and had reported back to Paul about this and other concerns and Paul replied to their concerns. He says, “we do not want you to be ignorant.” They simply did not know how the promises of God worked and did not understand how death fit into these promises but Paul would teach them.
We come at the question a little differently. We understand. We have perceived that death is not the end. We have heard that Christ will receive those who have died knowing Him. Understanding is not our problem. Our problem is trust. Our problem is, “do we really believe these promises.” When someone dies, we ask ourselves, “do I believe that what God has promised about eternal life will really happen.” When death threatens us, we have to make a decision about whether we are able to put ourselves into the hand of God and walk over the threshold to eternal life. We wonder, “Are these promises really true?”
There is an interesting thing that happens in these verses which helps us affirm the reality of these promises.
The word which is used to refer to death almost throughout this passage is the word “sleep.” For example, in verses 13, 14 & 15, Paul speaks about those who have “fallen asleep.”
Sleep as a euphemism for death is not uncommon. Even among pagans this term was used. In Homer’s Iliad there is a quote that says, “So there he fell, and slept a sleep of bronze, unhappy youth, far from his wedded wife.” The Greek word for “sleep” is behind our word “cemetery.”
However, in this passage, there is one significant exception to this way of speaking. One of the main times the word “died” is used in this passage is in reference to Christ. When Paul refers to Christ, he does not say he “fell asleep,” he says Christ “died.” This is significant because it helps us understand that the death of Jesus was a significant death. It tells us that Jesus actually experienced separation from God and, as the sinless one, took the guilt of sin entirely upon himself and was punished for that sin. When we think of that, we are reminded that He rose again from the dead and therefore, from that point on, it is entirely appropriate to speak about those who have died as having fallen asleep. It isn’t just a euphemism any more, because those who die in Christ will wake up again, this time to eternal life.
The answer to the question “what about those who have died” is that Jesus has opened the way to eternal life even for those who die.
Because Jesus has provided the way, Paul goes on to assure them that they do not need to fear that the promises of God are lost just because some have died. He assures them that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him. Since Jesus has provided the way, if we believe God, we can be fully assured that He will bring all those who are in Christ with Him to life eternal - whether they have died or are still alive.
Because of this promise, we also learn that we do not need to grieve like those who do not have hope. Does that mean, as some seem to imply, that a funeral should be a celebration and we should not be sad at a funeral? Of course not. Paul does not say that “we do not grieve.” He says that “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” There is a very great difference in these statements. When someone close to us dies, we grieve, we sorrow greatly. We understand that we will not see them again for a very long time. But, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We know that, since they know the Lord, they are OK. We know that since we know the Lord, we will see them again. I have sometimes wondered about the parting greeting we sometimes use, “see you” or “farewell ‘till we meet again.’” If we are with a person who does not know Christ, this may not be true. We may never see them again. But if we say this to a person who is a believer, even though we know that we will never see them on this earth, we will see them again. So even when a person dies, we can say to them “see you.” That is the hope that is ours, the reason why we do not need to grieve as those who have no hope.
Paul continues to answer their question about the problem of death. He assures them that those who have died will certainly not miss Christ’s return. In vs. 15, the phrase “certainly not” is expressed in Greek with two words that mean “not.” So if you would read it in Greek, you could read, “not, not” or, as it is translated, “certainly not.” There is no doubt that those who have died will not miss the resurrection. He explains how it will happen.
There is a day coming when the Lord will descend. The text says that there will be - “a loud command,” “the voice of the archangel,” “the trumpet call of God.” There will be enough noise to literally wake the dead. Paul’s word of comfort to these believers is that those who have died will not miss it. God will wake them from their sleep.
Then, when those who are asleep have been caught up to meet the Lord in the air, those who are still alive at that time, will also join those who have died. The mention of a meeting in the clouds reaches back to a rich Biblical background in which clouds represented the presence of God. The clouds intention was always to obscure the holy presence of God, but when we will be in the cloud, the intention seems to be that we become part of the glory of God, we see Him, as is promised in the Revelation, face to face.
So the knowledge is affirmed to the Thessalonians and the assurance is given to us. Death does not separate us from God. When the time comes for Christ to return, both those who have died and those who are alive will be caught up to meet the Lord.
There are a lot of questions which we have about this, but many of those questions are not answered. It does not say where we will proceed when the Lord returns. It does not say how quickly this process will happen. What it does tell us is enough for us to know that if we are in Christ, we will not miss it. Furthermore, the text gives us the marvellous promise that when that event takes place we will spend all of eternity with the Lord. Look at verse 17 - “we will be with the Lord forever.” What a marvellous hope this is! Of all the things that heaven will mean - being reunited with loved ones, golden streets, a mansion - surely the best is that we will be with the Lord forever. The longing for intimacy with the creator will be completely fulfilled.
Implicit in the question, “what happens to those who have died” was the question “when will Christ come?” Their first idea was that Jesus would return very soon, probably within a few weeks, perhaps years, but certainly within their life time. Now that some had died, they began to wonder. “How soon will he come?” Behind that question, is a question that we also often wonder about - “Will he come?” Paul goes on to answer that question.
In 1988, I received a booklet with the title “88 reasons why the rapture could be in 1988.” The beginning of the book acknowledges I Thessalonians 5:4, but ignores I Thessalonians 5:1 and goes on to rationalize why we can know when Jesus will come again. Of course, all the calculations the author made were wrong and we shouldn’t be surprised. I Thessalonians 5:1 and other Scriptures clearly indicate that we do not know the time of Christ’s return. We are told that suddenly that day will be here.
There is a powerful desire to go behind these words and discover what Jesus himself did not know when He was on earth, but we are not meant to do so. We need only know that Jesus’ coming will be sudden and could happen at any time. Have you ever begun a day thinking, “today could be the day Jesus will return.” I have heard some people declare such a hope when they were facing difficult circumstances and I have heard people wish it wasn’t so when they were looking forward to some special event. When I go to sleep, I don’t usually think, “I may not wake up in this bed in the morning.” When I wake up in the morning, I don’t usually think, “I may not go to bed here tonight.” Realistically, we can and should realize that today could be the day when Jesus will return.
How do we respond to this thought? For those in darkness and those who want to walk in the darkness, this is a warning. I Thessalonians 5:3 says, “while people are saying, ‘peace and safety’ destruction will come suddenly. People are, as one writer says, in “fancied safety.”
The understanding is that things will go on as they always have. And yet, even science warns us that this world will not always be as it is now. A few weeks ago, we visited Johnston’s Canyon, in Alberta with our family. There was a sign there, that indicated that the falls are receding by a few millimetres every year. When I read that sign, I thought - these falls will not be here forever. I also read somewhere recently that the sun is burning out and that there is only enough fuel left in it for a few more million years. These are signs that the world is decaying. Of course, people may realize this, but simply respond by saying, “by the time these things happen, I will be long gone.” What they don’t realize is that before the sun runs out of fuel, something else will end this world and that is the return of Christ.
Paul compares it to a woman who is pregnant. When labour pains begin, the birth is not far behind. When Christ returns, the destruction that will come upon those in darkness is certain and irreversible.
But that is not all. In these verses there is a strong “us/them” perspective. On the one hand we read of darkness, destruction and night. On the other hand, we read about light and day. In contrast to the destruction that will surprise those who are in the darkness, we rejoice in the promise of hope that will come upon those who are in the light.
The words of verse 4, “you…are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you,” do not mean, as some think, that we can know the day. We have already learned that we do not know the day. The reason for this statement is that we, who are in the light, will not be surprised by the day because we have been expecting it all along.
We once had a neighbour who was very jumpy. If she was out in her garden and we walked across the road to greet her, we always made lots of noise. If we didn’t, and we got close before she noticed us, she would jump in surprise and clutch at her heart when we approached - as if to say, “I wasn’t expecting you.” That is how it will be for those who are in darkness. For those in the light it will be more like the time when I came home and couldn’t find Carla. I knew she was home, but I didn’t know where she was until I came around a corner just as she came around the corner from the other side and I was surprised, but it was more like, “Oh, there you are.” Jesus will come and then we who are in the light will say in our hearts, “Oh, there you are.”
When that day comes, we will rejoice at the completion of what we have put our hope in, what we have longed for and worked towards all our life. In the book The Sacred Romance by John Eldredge and Brent Curtis, they quote C.S. Lewis who said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” They go on to describe the wonder of the hope we are anticipating. What will heaven be like? They suggest it will fulfill our desire for intimacy, beauty and adventure. Jesus promises in John 14:2, “I go to prepare a place for you.” By saying that, he is reminding us of the hope that in heaven, we will be included, we will be loved and we will belong. They go on to point to Revelation 4 and the amazing picture of heaven found there. We read, “…before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian…before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” “The beauty cannot be captured, only alluded to by the most beautiful things on earth.” If we enjoy the beauty of earth, how much better will be the beauty of heaven. They also point out that heaven will be anything but boring. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 suggests that we will do something meaningful that suits us and gives us joy.
For those in the light, this great hope is ours. It will not be a day of wrath, but a day of salvation. Through Jesus, as he reinforces once again in verse 9, we will experience the wonder and glory of the fulfillment of our salvation hope.
But there is another aspect which is also included. In verses 5-10, there is not only a promise of hope, but also a strong moral overtone.
Because we belong to the day, because we are living with the constant expectation of the day when we will say, “Oh, there you are,” we must live in constant readiness.
There are quite a number of passages which speak about the return of Christ in the Bible. Most of them end with the exhortation to live daily and fully in the understanding of that expectation. One year when Carla and I were both in choir and our children were still too young to be in choir, some friends of ours brought their similarly aged children to our place and both couples went to choir. When we got back to our house we discovered water dripping everywhere in the basement and six children desperately trying to remove the evidence. A little squirt of water had turned into a huge water fight. Since we had come back a little earlier than they expected, they were not ready for us. Are we living every day ready for Him to come back?
Paul mentions several things about readiness. He says, “be alert.” This is what we have just talked about - the need to be constantly living in the awareness of his imminent return.
He also encourages self discipline when he says, “be self controlled.” It is easy to become engrossed in the self indulgence of the world. I recently read a little booklet with the title “The Treasure Principle.” This book encourages us to live with self control in the way we spend our money, because of the understanding that our treasure is not here on earth, but in heaven. Self control needs to be exercised in many areas recognizing our propensity to self indulgence, but also recognizing the reality of what is yet to come.
Furthermore, we once again encounter the triad - faith, love and hope - which is so familiar and which Paul has already spoken about in 1:3. Being ready for the coming of Christ means living in a steady faith that is confident in all the truth of the gospel. It is living in love in the church, with outsiders and in the family. It means holding on to the hope of Christ’s return even when things look dark. Trials often throw us for a loop, but through faith we can have hope and look beyond those trials to what is yet to come. This perspective encourages us along the way. “Hope is a helmet of salvation warding off blows that would otherwise be fatal.” The good news is that we can live like this because God’s intention towards us is not wrath, but salvation.
Sometimes we are afraid of talk about the end times. Some of the novels that have been written and some of the books that are out there present the truths about the end times with a great tone of fear. Fear is not the intent of this passage. Twice we are told that this information is for our encouragement. In fact, we are encouraged to use these truths to comfort and console one another. Notice that this is the conclusion and stated intention of each section of this passage: 4:18; 5:11.
So be encouraged and live in readiness. Encourage one another with the promise of Christ’s return.