In Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians — which he mentioned at the end of chapter 3 — he said that he prayed to God that their love for each other and for everyone will increase and overflow; and that God would strengthen their hearts so that they will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when the Lord Jesus comes again. So, he prayed about their love for one another; he prayed about their holiness; and he prayed about the coming of the Lord Jesus. And in chapter 4, he takes each of those three topics and expands on them. So, in verses 1 to 8, he wrote to them about their sanctification, or about being holy. In particular, he made clear to them that it’s God’s will for them and for all believers that we should avoid all forms of sexual immorality. Then in verses 9 to 12, he wrote to them about loving one another. In particular, they were to love one another by leading a quiet life and by minding their own business and by working hard. And in today’s passage — verses 13 to 18 — he wrote to them about the coming of the Lord.
Now, Paul, when he was in Thessalonica, clearly taught them about the coming of the Lord. That’s obvious from what he’s already said about the Lord’s coming in this letter. For instance, at the end of chapter 1 he wrote that they had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to do what? To wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead. And then, in verse 19 of chapter 2, he again referred to the coming of the Lord. And he referred to the Lord’s coming in his prayer at the end of chapter 3. So, so far in this letter, he’s referred to the coming of the Lord at least three times, which tells us that the believers in Thessalonica were already familiar with this. When Paul was with them, he taught them that the Lord — who died for them and who was raised for them and who ascended to heaven for them — will one day come for them. He’s made that clear to them.
However, do you know the way it is sometimes when we hear someone teach us something? Perhaps it’s here in church; or it may be in school or college; or it’s something you hear at work; or perhaps it’s just something your neighbour said to you. And it seems very clear to you; and it makes sense to you; and you accept whatever it is. However, when you get home, or maybe you’re out for a walk, and you’re thinking about what you heard, and while it’s still clear and makes sense, nevertheless questions arise in you mind. What about this? Does that mean this? If that’s true, then what about this? Once we have time to reflect on what we’ve heard, we think of other things and other questions. And that seems to be the case here. Paul has taught the believers in Thessalonica about the coming of the Lord. And they believed everything he said about the Lord’s coming. But after Paul left, new questions began to arise in their mind. There are things they want to know relating to the coming of Christ. And so, Paul is writing to clear up at least one of the questions they had about the coming of the Lord.
Remember, of course: Paul sent Timothy to see how they were doing; and Timothy had returned to Paul with an encouraging report about their faith and love; and presumably he also reported to Paul that there was this one question they had about the coming of the Lord which they’d like Paul to clear up for them. And so, that’s what Paul is doing now. That’s obvious from what he says in verse 13, where he says to them:
I don’t want you to be ignorant about [this thing].
He’s saying that he doesn’t want them to be unformed about this question. They know some things about the coming of the Lord, but not everything. And Paul now wants to answer this question which has been worrying them.
And, of course, if you glance at verse 18 and to the conclusion of this passage, you’ll see that Paul wants them to be encouraged or comforted by these things. Paul is a pastor who loved the members of the church in Thessalonica; and he therefore wanted to encourage and comfort them. And the way to encourage and comfort one another is by directing each other to the word of God, where the Lord has made clear what he has already done for us and for our salvation; and what he will yet do for us and for our salvation. And so, as we turn to the word of God — and are reminded of who he is, and of what he has done for us, and what he promises to do for us — we are comforted and encouraged.
And the particular question that Paul is answering in these verses is about believers who died before the coming of the Lord. So, when Christ comes again, believers who are still alive will be transformed and brought into the presence of the Lord to be with him forever and forever in glory. But what about believers who died before the coming of the Lord? What will happen to them? Yes, they’ll be raised. They know that. They understand that. But will they be at some kind of disadvantage compared to those who are alive when he comes. Think of it this way: If you’re at a concert, you want to be at the front and not at the back. You want to be near the stage, so that you can see everything and not stuck at the back. Well, will those believers who died before the coming of the Lord, be stuck at the back? Will they miss out on some of the glory because they died before the Lord’s coming?
And so, Paul writes to reassure his readers that this is not the case: believers who died before the coming of the Lord will not be disadvantaged in any way. That’s what this passage is about.
And so, let’s look at it in more detail. And again, it’s always helpful to break a passage up into its parts. And these six verses can be divided into four parts. First, there’s verse 13 which is an opening statement. Second, there’s verse 14 where Paul gives one reason for the hope we have. Third, there’s verses 15 to 17 where Paul gives another reason for the hope we have. And fourth, we have Paul’s conclusion in verse 18.
So, here’s Paul’s opening statement in verse 13:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
So, their question for Paul concerns those who fall asleep before the coming of the Lord. Now, apparently ‘falling asleep’ was a common euphemism in those days for death. Just as people today will refer to death as ‘passing away’ or ‘passing on’, people in those days referred to death as ‘falling asleep’. And just as the person who refers to death as ‘passing away’ doesn’t imply anything by those words about the state of the dead, so those in the ancient world who referred to death as ‘falling asleep’ didn’t imply anything by those words about the state of the dead. And we’re certainly not to interpret this phrase to mean that the souls of those who have died are asleep or unconscious until the coming of the Lord. Some people teach that; but it’s without biblical warrant. Just think of what happened when the Lord and some of his disciples went up a mountain and the Lord was transfigured before them. And do remember that Moses and Elijah appeared? And they were clearly awake, because we’re told they talked with the Lord. Moreover, the Lord told the man who died beside him that today he would be with the Lord in paradise, which implies that he will not only be with the Lord, but will be aware of it. And in Revelation 7, John the Apostle received a vision when he saw into heaven; and he saw angels and saints who had died, worshipping God.
So, referring to death as ‘falling asleep’ doesn’t mean the souls of believers are asleep, because the Bible makes clear they’re awake and they’re worshipping the Lord Almighty and the Lord Jesus who died for them.
But that’s really an aside. The main thing is that Paul is referring to believers who have died; and he doesn’t want his readers to be uninformed about their future state when Christ comes again. And, he says, he doesn’t want his readers to grieve like the rest of men.
Now some well-meaning, but mistaken Christians interpret Paul’s words here to mean that it’s wrong for Christians to grieve. We shouldn’t be sad or sorrowful when a believer dies, they say. Instead we should rejoice and be glad, because we believe that Christians who die go to be with the Lord. And that, of course, is better by far than remaining here on the earth. So, Christians shouldn’t grieve, they say. It’s wrong to be sorrowful. We should rejoice.
But those who think that way forget that the Lord wept for Lazarus who died. And when people saw the Lord weeping, they said:
See how he loved him!
Weeping for a loved one who has died is a sign of our love for that person. Furthermore, Paul wrote in Philippians 2 how — if his fellow-worker Epaphroditus had died from an illness — he, Paul, would have suffered ‘sorrow upon sorrow’. And doesn’t Paul tell us in Romans 12 to weep with those who weep? Weeping, sorrow, sadness, these are all normal experiences in a person’s life; and it’s normal and appropriate for believers to grieve when their loved ones have died.
And so, Paul isn’t saying here that we mustn’t grieve. He’s saying we mustn’t grieve for believers who have died ‘like the rest of men, who have no hope’. And that’s the important bit, because Paul is saying that Christians grieve differently. We’re able to grieve for one another with hope. The rest of men, says Paul, grieve with no hope. Because they don’t believe, they have no hope of the resurrection and or of everlasting life in the presence of God to comfort and encourage them in the face of death. But Christians believe in the resurrection and in everlasting life. And so, when a believer dies, we grieve for them, because they’re gone; and we’ll miss them. But we’re able to grieve for them with hope, because we know that when Christ comes again, he will raise their bodies from the grave and they will be with the Lord forever and ever in glory.
And in the following verses, Paul gives two reasons for why Christians are able to grieve with hope for fellow believers.
And the first reason appears in verse 14 and it’s based on what the church confesses. What does the church confess? Look with me at verse 14:
We believe that Jesus died and rose again….
Well, this is fundamental to the Christian faith; and all true believers confess that the Lord Jesus died on the cross; and that, on the third day, he rose again, victorious from the grave, to live for ever and ever. Every true believer believes that.
But Paul doesn’t stop there, does he? He adds more to this creedal statement:
We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
So, the church not only confesses something about the Lord who died and rose again, but it confesses something about believers who have died. The church confesses that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. Now, a slightly better translation of Paul’s words is that:
through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
In other words, it is through the Lord Jesus and his resurrection, or it is because of the Lord Jesus and his resurrection, that believers who died will be restored to life at his coming. His resurrection guarantees their resurrection. And so, a result of his resurrection, they will be with him — with Jesus — when he comes again.
Now, I’ve already said that some of the believers in Thessalonica were worried that believers who died before the Lord’s coming will be disadvantaged. Yes, they’ll be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, but perhaps they’ll not experience the same privileges and blessings as believers who are alive at his coming? Yes, they’ll be raised from the dead, but perhaps only after the living have been transformed? But here’s Paul making clear in this verse that when the Lord comes again, believers who died will come ‘with him’. So, we can grieve for them with hope, because we know that when Christ comes again, believers who died will come with him, which means they will share equally with believers who are alive at his coming. They won’t miss out on the glory to come; they won’t experience less glory than others; they won’t — in a sense — be stuck at the back. When the Lord comes again, he will bring them ‘with him’.
Verses 15 to 17
So, that’s the first reason we’re able to grieve with hope. The second reason appears in verses 15 to 17 and this time Paul refers to a word from the Lord. So, his first reason was based on something the church says. The second reason is based on something the Lord said.
So, what is this word from the Lord? It’s this: those believers who are alive at the coming of the Lord will certainly not precede those believers who died before his coming. So, they won’t be at a disadvantage; and they won’t be stuck at the back so that they miss out on the glory to come, because, in fact, believers who are alive will not precede those who died. Believers who are alive will not be at the front when Christ comes again.
And so, Paul describes what will happen when the Lord comes. And there are three stages. First of all, the Lord himself will come down from heaven. That’s where he is right now. After he died and was raised, he ascended to heaven, to sit at God’s right hand and to rule over all things for the sake of his people. That’s where he is now; but the day is coming, when he will come again. And when he comes, there will be a loud command. Paul doesn’t say what this loud command will be, but in John 5 the Lord said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
So, it’s possible that the loud command which Paul refers to here is the voice of the Lord, commanding the dead to rise from their graves. Paul says there will also be the voice of an archangel and the trumpet call of God. In the gospels, the Lord spoke about sending his angels to gather his people from the corners of the earth. And in the Old Testament, trumpets were used by the Levites to call the people of Israel together. And so, Paul anticipates a day when the trumpet of God will sound in order to gather his people together from around the world.
That’s the first stage. The second stage is that the dead in Christ will rise. So, when Christ comes again, and commands the dead to rise, all those who belong to him and who are in their graves will rise from the dead. And the important word for what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians is the word ‘first’. So, before anything else happens, the dead in Christ will rise. They won’t be at the back, because when the Lord comes again, he’ll give his attention first of all to those believers who were in their graves.
That’s the second stage. The third and final stage is that believers who are alive at his coming will be caught up ‘together with them’ in the clouds. Clouds in the Bible are associated with the presence of the Lord. So, by mentioning the clouds, Paul is referring to the coming of the Lord. And again, the important words for the Thessalonians are the words ‘together with them’. So, believers who are alive at Christ’s coming and believers who were dead, but who have been raised, will together and at the same time be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. So, living believers will not be first and have an advantage over believers who have died. Believers who died will not be stuck at the back, while the others are at the front. They will meet the Lord together and at the same time.
Some believers take the words ‘caught up to meet the Lord in the air’ to refer to a secret rapture of believers. So, they will disappear from the earth and no one will know why. But Paul isn’t teaching anything like that. In those days, when an important official was visiting a city — the emperor, for instance, or the emperor’s governor — a delegation from the city would leave the city and go out to meet the visiting dignitary and escort him into the city. And Paul is likening the coming of the Lord to that, because he foresees how, when the Lord comes from heaven to earth, his people will come up from the earth to meet him in the space between heaven and earth. And then, together, we’ll escort him to the earth.
Paul doesn’t say what the Lord will do when he returns to earth with his people. But we know from elsewhere in the Bible that he will judge the world. And so, he will condemn all those who never believed in him in this life; and they will be sent away to suffer eternal punishment for their sins. On the other hand, he will acquit all who believed in him in this life; and they will be brought in to enjoy everlasting life in a renewed heaven and earth. And so, as Paul says at the end of verse 17, we believers will always be with the Lord.
And isn’t that wonderful? We love the Lord. We want to see him and be with him. For the time being, we can only read about him in the Bible. And, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we have little bits of bread and a little cup of drink to remember him. But we want more than that, don’t we? We want to see him and be with him. And the great hope that he gives to all his believing people is that he is coming again and we will see him with our own eyes and be with him forever and ever to worship him and to give thanks to God for him. And even though the Thessalonians were worried that believers who died will be at a disadvantage or will somehow be overlooked and stuck at the back, the truth is that they too will be with the Lord, enjoying his presence forever.
And so, we come to Paul’s conclusion which is there is verse 18:
Therefore encourage [or comfort] one another with these words.
This is a message which gives comfort and encouragement to believers. It’s a comfort to us as we think about loved ones who loved the Lord and who have died. And it’s a comfort to us as we think about our own death.
Unless the Lord comes again, we will all die; everyone in this building. Now, the Bible teaches that the souls of believers who die are immediately perfected in holiness and return to the Lord. But our bodies will be buried in a grave; or they might be cremated and our ashes will be buried. And that’s where our bodies will remain. But not forever. Not forever. Because the Lord will descend from heaven. And as he comes, he will issue that word of command to tell the dead to rise. And we will rise bodily from the grave, just as he rose bodily from the grave. Our bodies and souls will be reunited. And along with believers who are alive at the Lord’s coming, we will go out to meet the Lord our Saviour in the air. And what a day that will be, when at last we get to see our Saviour with our own eyes. And the thing is: we’ll never have to leave him. We’ll never have to go out of his presence. Paul says we will always be with the Lord.
So, right now, we come to church, where God promises to meet with us by his Spirit and to speak to us through his word. And we get to give thanks to him in our prayers and our praise. And from time to time, it’s wonderful, because it seems like heaven on earth; and it seems to us that the Lord spoke to us very personally from his word and helped us. It’s like heaven on earth; and we don’t want to leave. But we have to leave, because the service is over; and we still have to work; and there are other so many other things to attend to, so many things that take up our time and attention. But the day is coming, when we will come into the presence of the Lord in glory and we will never have to leave, but we’ll be there, enjoying his presence, for ever. And he’ll lead us to the river of the water of life so that we can drink from it. And there’s the tree of life with its fruit which is for the healing of the nations. There will be a great multitude of believers from every nation who will worship the Lord together. But most of all, most of all, the Lord Almighty and the Lord Jesus Christ will be there, in the midst of their people. And he’ll wipe the tears from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. They’ll be nothing to disturb us or hurt us or to keep us from enjoying the presence of the Lord.
You see, that’s our great hope. The rest of men, who have no hope, only have this life and this world. And so, they have to make the most of this life and this world, because there’s nothing else for them. And, of course, their life in this world — and this world itself — are destined to perish.
But Christ our Saviour has given us hope, because we know that beyond this life, there’s a better life; and beyond this world, there’s a better world. It’s a world of peace and rest and everlasting joy in the presence of our Saviour who loved us and who gave up his life to bring us to God. And there’s no difference whether we are alive at his coming, or whether we died before his coming, because when he comes, we will together meet the Lord in the air; and we will be with the Lord always.