Ready or not, here He comes! (1 Thess. 4:13-18)
I don’t remember if it was while we were attending Harvest Bible Chapel or if it was at Moody Bible Institute, but I heard Dr. Joe Stowell speak one day about his father. He said his father was deeply convicted of the fact that once a year he should preach about the return of the Lord Jesus. He said it was a neglected message in the church and should be preached more often.
Well, I said to myself that if I ever become a pastor, I want to do that as well once a year, preferably at the beginning of the year. However, I will not be here next Sunday, so I thought to preach it today! The other motivating factor for this message is because a year and a few months ago, a friend of mine died in a hit-and-run accident. I was surprised to find that many in the church he attended, even believers, were unsure about the believer’s hope and the life after this. So again I was convinced that we as believers need to know more about what we are waiting for, or better yet, who we are waiting for.
So the title of the message today is, “Ready or not, here He comes!” and it from 1 Thess. 4:13-18.
As you think about 2009, do you have certain hopes? I bet some of you are hoping to graduate this year. Perhaps some are waiting for the special someone to walk into his/her life. Maybe you are hoping this year business will pick up or you will get that raise you have been waiting for. Others of you maybe are hoping for an addition to your family. Others are excited about college. It is not wrong to hope in these things, but the number one thing the Bible tells us to hope for is the return of Jesus Christ. Besides perhaps 2009 is the year He will return? Or perhaps 2009 is the year that any one of us may leave to be with the Lord, if we have truly known Him. My intention is not to sound morbid, but to be realistic as possible. 2008 is almost over and we are one year closer to seeing Jesus!
For the Christian, Titus calls this our blessed hope (Titus 2:13). It is not wishful thinking, like, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” No, biblical hope is an absolute, confident, deep-seeded assurance of what God has promised. He said it, I believe it and that settles it!
Every once in a while, I hear people talking about the fact that churches now need to be like an early church. This is a noble desire and I know what they mean, but sometimes they say this forgetting that the early churches all had their problems. But if I had to pick an early church to be a part of, I would pick Thessalonica. All of the churches had problems, but one thing I love about this church is that they were a people who longed for Christ’s coming. They did abused this doctrine by just sitting around and not working and Paul rebukes them for that, but nevertheless, they had a longing to be with Christ again.
What an example for our churches! I feel we have lost that passion. Do we long for Christ to come back? Do we wake up in the morning thinking that day might be the day? Most people have hope, but this hope is that they will get married, or climb the corporate ladder, or hope that they win the lottery or buy that dream house or car. But biblical hope as CS Lewis said, is “a continual looking forward to the eternal world.”
In Thessalonica, a young church had many questions about the future. Paul had taught them when he was with them of the glorious kingdom that God was going to establish. They expected Christ to return in their lifetime (Paul uses “we” a lot here). However, what about believers who died? Will they experience the Kingdom too? To correct some misunderstanding, Paul teaches them some things about the matter. His primary objective was to comfort them as well as to teach them about end times. Firstly,
I. The death of a Christian is a temporary separation, so we grieve with hope (1 Thess. 4:13)
Paul begins this section with an announcement of something very important. He says he does not want us to be ignorant or uninformed about what he is about to say. In other words, pay attention. The issue is about Christians who have died. Notice the word used as a euphemism for death: sleep.
If you were sleeping over at my house tonight and I said good night to you, what I’m saying is “it’s been good hanging out with you, but we shall be temporarily separated and we will soon hang out again.” But when it talks about sleep, it is only the body that sleeps, not the soul. Some groups teach “soul sleep” that when believers die they go into a state of unconscious existence, and the next thing that they are conscious of will be when Christ returns and raises them to eternal life. This is incorrect!
Jot these other references down. When Paul thinks about death he says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. He also says that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). And Jesus said to the thief who was dying on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). He didn’t say, “after thousands of years of sleeping, I’ll see you then.”
The author of Hebrews says that when Christians come together to worship they come not only into the presence of God in heaven, but also into the presence of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). So as one pastor said at my friend’s wake, “we don’t say goodbye to Binil, but we say good night.” We say “see you later” in other words. However, unbelievers do not go to sleep either. They are in a temporary hell, called Hades (Luke 16:22, 23). They will be raised up on the last day to account for their sins (Rev. 20:11-15).
Paul goes on to say that he does not want us to grieve like the unbelievers. By the way, it is not wrong to feel sorrow. It is NOT a sign of the lack of faith. Look at Acts 8:2, which records the death of Stephen. There was a “great lamentation.” Also, Jesus “wept”: literally “burst out into tears” in John 11:35. We grieve because we love (a good reason for not “grieving” the Holy Spirit in Eph 4:30). So if you are faced with the death of a believer, you will grieve. Take time to do so. Grab your Bible, a journal and go somewhere to think and write. Meet with other believers and reminisce. Memorize Scripture. Send a card or email to the family. Visit them.
What is the basis of this hope? Secondly,
II. The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our hope, so we believe with certainty (1 Thess. 4:14).
Look at the next verse. Paul makes a statement of faith. God has given us assurance of the past because Jesus died and rose again. Because of the past, we have hope for the future that, “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Notice that Christ “died,” but we “sleep.” Christ tasted death and transformed death to sleep for us.
When believers die, their spirit goes immediately into conscious fellowship with the Lord, while their bodies temporarily sleep in the grave, awaiting the Rapture. THOSE WHO DIED “THROUGH JESUS” WILL COME BACK WITH JESUS. Jesus is bringing the dead in Christ WITH THEM.
God didn’t abandon Jesus to death, he will not abandon the Christian dead either. On the contrary, he will raise them as he raised him, and he will then bring them with him, so that when he comes, they will come too.
Illus: A boy and his father were traveling in a car when a bee flew through the open window. The boy was so highly allergic to bee stings that both he and his father knew that his life was in danger. As the boy frantically jumped around and tried to avoid the agitated bee, the father calmly reached out and grabbed the bee. When he opened his hand, the bee began to fly again, terrorizing the boy once more. The father then said, “Look, son,” holding up a hand with an implanted stinger, “his stinger is gone; he can’t hurt you any longer.” As a bee loses its stinger when it stings, so death lost its sting when it stung Jesus.
III. The reunion is coming, so we wait with anticipation (1 Thess. 4:15-18).
Paul then details what we are waiting for as Christians. In 1 Thess. 4:15, he says what he says is a “word from the Lord.” Jesus may have personally told Paul what is about to happen. But Paul assures the believers that the Rapture will first bring the dead Christians back to life on earth. He then gives us the order of events.
THE FOUR ‘R’s RE: OUR BLESSED HOPE
Whether we Christians live or die, we have nothing to fear because Jesus will come either with us or for us! We can separate the events of our coming blessed hope into four “R”s:
1 Thess. 4:16a: First, there is THE RETURN: This is a personal, visible return, accompanied with a divine proclamation, not local, but universal. It will happen in God’s timing. The emphasis in the Greek is very strong. It is the Lord himself who will descend. It will not be a substitute or a stand-in. It will not be a lookalike or an angel. It will not be a guest host or an Old Testament saint. Not a figment of our imagination or some ghostly religious figure. But the Lord himself will return.
At creation, God spoke and it came to be (Gen. 1:1), and at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus called in a loud voice (John 11:43-44), so at this time the dead will hear the creative, commanding voice of God and will obey (John 5:25-28). The Jews would understand the significance of this because trumpets were always blown to signal the start of great festivals and other extraordinary events (see Numbers 10:10). We are probably not meant to imagine three distinct noises, but rather to understand the variety and repetition as indicating the overwhelming, irresistible nature of the summons.
1 Thess. 4:16b: Next, there will be THE RESURRECTION. Those who have died in Christ will never be separated from Christ. They died “through him” (1 Thess. 4:14); they sleep “in” him (1 Thess. 4:16); they will rise “with” him; and they will come “with” him too (1 Thess. 4:14). The souls of the believers coming with Christ will be joined by their new glorified bodies. Illus: Warren Wiersbe points out that the resurrection of the human body is like the growing of a plant from a seed. The flower is not the identical seed that was planted, yet there is continuity from seed to plant. Christians shall receive glorified bodies, like the glorified body of Christ (Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Cor. 15:47–58). The dead body is the “seed” that is planted in the ground; the resurrection body is the “flower” that comes from that seed.
So when Jesus Christ returns in the air, He will issue the “shout of command” and the “dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thes. 4:16). This does not mean that He will put the elements of the body together again, for resurrection is not “reconstruction.” Paul argued for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. Whether a person was cremated or died at sea or had parts amputated or died of cancer or whatever, God will raise each believer up and give them their glorified body. You will see all believers from all time…whether they died thousands of years before or just a few minutes before the Rapture! They will be raised indestructible with brand-new bodies, clothed with immorality, healed, restored, put in their right minds, raised to live forever, raised to die no more.
Next, there will be in 1 Thess. 4:17a: THE RAPTURE. Notice the word “caught up” there. The Latin equivalent of that word is where we get the word “rapture.” The purpose of the rapture is to unite the Christian living with the Christian dead and to unite them with Christ.
Illus: If I took some iron filings and sprinkled them in a pile of sawdust, then passed a magnet over the pile, what happens? The force of the magnet pulls the iron filings from the pile. Like a magnet attracts iron filings, even so the Lord knows those who are His. He will literally lift us off the earth to meet him in the air.
Neither the grave nor gravity will keep the believer from being reunited with the Lord and with each other. The living, the dead and the Lord will be together forever. Several key words are used here. The word “meet” is often used when an important person visited a city, the citizens would meet come out to meet him. “Clouds” are always a symbol of the presence of God (Ex. 13:21; 14:19; 19:16; 24:15; 40:34-38; Mark 9:7 Transfiguration; Acts 1:9; His ascension). Lastly, the word “air” implies the dwelling place of the devil and his demons (Eph 2:2). The fact that the Lord chooses to meet his saints there, on the demons’ home ground so to speak, shows something of his complete mastery over them.
Lastly, in 1 Thess. 4:17b: THE REUNION. Momentary encounter leads to everlasting fellowship. Notice the three-fold repetition of “with” (1 Thess. 4:14, 17a, 17b). What do we do with Christ in the air? We will have the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:1-10, 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 1 Cor. 4:5). The Lord will take our good works and put it through the fire. This is not to send us to hell, but for rewards. The Lord will judge each believer according to the motives of our heart and quality of our work.
Let’s take a look closer at 1 Cor. 4:1-5. Paul is talking about ministry. He says all he wants is to be a faithful servant (1 Cor. 4:1-2). He does not want to be in bondage to people pleasing (1 Cor. 4:3). He doesn’t even spend too much time trying to figure out his heart completely (1 Cor. 4:3-4). Because at the end of the day, the Lord is the One who sees his heart and his motives. We are not in position to judge anyone’s motives, because there comes a day when Jesus will judge us.
We hear the word “judge” and it freaks us out. We look at everything we have done for the Lord since we became a believer. Has there ever been a time we did something completely with the purest of motives? Before you hands your heads low, notice what the text says. In 1 Cor. 4:5, it says, “each one will receive his commendation from God.” For the longest time, I thought it said, “condemnation,” but it says, “commendation.”
The Lord on that day will find only things to commend you for. Perhaps you did things with mixed motives. The Lord, who knows your heart, will find that pure part of you and commend you for it! That is major encouragement for me! If that is the case, I want to take 2009 for the Lord. I don’t have to slow down, but instead accelerate further. I want to lean in instead of lay around. I want to pray more and give of myself more and invest more in my relationships and dig deeper in God’s Word. I don’t want to hang my head low and throw a pity party saying, “Man, I’m terrible. I can’t do anything for the Lord. My motives aren’t pure. I can’t get anything right.” There is a commendation waiting for me at the end of this! I am not giving us an excuse to sin or live anything short of a radical life for Jesus Christ. I am trying to change our view that we may have of God that He’s always shaking his head and his fist at us! Instead, He’s the one rooting for us! Here’s the other thing. With every commendation, we know it was never because of us. Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). All the glory will go to Him.
There was a woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. So as she was getting her things “in order”, she contacted her pastor and had him come to her house to discuss certain aspects of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at the service, what scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. The woman also requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the woman suddenly remembered something very important to her. “Wait, there’s one more thing,” she said excitedly. “What’s that?” came the pastor’s reply. “This is very important,” the woman continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say. “That surprises you, doesn’t it?”, the woman asked. “Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request,” said the pastor. The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main courses were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, “Keep your fork”. It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming…like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, and with substance! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder “What’s with the fork?” Then I want you to tell them: “Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.
Barton, B. B., & Osborne, G. R. (1999). 1 & 2 Thessalonians : Life Application Commentary.(68). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.