Lord’s Day Exhortation for June 12, 2011.
OT reading: Joel 2:1-11
NT reading: 1 Cor 15: 35-58
Sermon Text: 1Thes 4:13-18; 5:1-11
I like continuity, as I believe most of us do. So, to tie the wedding yesterday to today’s exhortation on death and the end of the world, I offer an old story. Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mother, “Why is the bride dressed in white?” To which the mother replies, “Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life.” The child thought about this for a moment, then asked, “So why is the groom wearing black?” I’m leaving it there.
One should rarely preach from the headlines. Preaching should come from pages of Scripture rather than the Washington Post. However, sometimes the headlines purport to come from the pages of Scripture. We saw a case in point recently with prediction of the so-called “secret rapture” having come and gone on May 21st. Harold Camping once again treated us to his wild speculations, which of course failed in 1994 and again a few weeks ago. As we know, rather than admit to his errors, Camping changed his story and now predicts the end on Oct 21st. Is it three strikes and you’re out like baseball? While all this makes for interesting radio theater and billboards, what should we in the church think of all this?
Good exegesis and interpretation of individual passages requires that we analyze them in light of the whole counsel of Scripture within the context of God’s redemptive plan in history. In this case, Jesus explicitly told us in Mt 24:36 that no one knows the day or the hour of the end, not the angles and not even Jesus, only the Father. How is it, then, that some believe they know more about the subject than our Savior and our Lord? Hard to say.
But how should we understand passages like our Scripture text today? First, let’s go the Word, and read just 1 Thes 4:13-18 for now:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
We will look at this passage from three aspects today. First, what does Paul intent to convey to his readers in these verses? Second, what does the text actually say? We’ll conclude by considering how we should we live in the context of this passage.
So, what does Paul intent to convey to his readers in these verses? For that, we must look at the broader context of these verses. The Thessalonians apparently had serious questions about the Christ’s return. The Thessalonians thought that the continued deaths of many amongst them plus their ongoing persecution meant that they were not true believers. They thought that the Day of the Lord had come and gone, leaving them behind. These concerns apparently caused the saints of Thessalonica to unnecessarily doubt and fear for their salvation.
As we can see through Paul’s preaching to the Athenians in Acts 17, he typically emphasized the coming judgment when addressing the gentiles. He preached that God had placed responsibility for that judgment in none other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The comfort of having our Savior also be our judge must have been as a soothing balm to believers in that day as even to us here and now. He who lived, died, and rose again for our salvation will one day come to judge the living and the dead. What a comforting truth!
Paul, accordingly, provides the Thessalonians (and us) assurance that God has made gracious provision for us. As we’ll see shortly, Paul tells us that the Day of the Lord will not be a secret that anyone could possibly miss. It will be the most public and visible event since the global flood of Noah’s time. As we see from verse 16, that day will include shouted heavenly commands, the voices of angels, and the blast of heavenly trumpets – all in all a rather loud and visible event.
As we read from Joel earlier, the Day of the Lord comes as a cosmic event with dark and gloom, stars, sun, and the moon darkening, and heaven and earth shaking. Joel says that the Day of the Lord will be “great and very awesome”. Does anyone really think that we won’t notice? Neither Joel, Paul, Daniel, nor anyone else in Scripture leaves open the possibility that unbelievers will be looking around at a bunch of empty cars and houses and wondering where everyone went. By God’s own design, there’s nothing secret about the future return of our Lord and Savior. Paul offers this as assurance to the believers in Thessalonica, that they haven’t missed the Lord’s return.
So Paul’s purpose in these verses isn’t to provide a play-by-play account of the coming Day of the Lord, but to provide comfort to the saints in Thessalonica, and through the ages since, that God has a glorious plan for our salvation and for the consummation of creation to its full, intended glory. Yet, people still try to find such a play-by-play account and a secret return of the Lord for His flock in this passage. So, let’s take a look at the passage in some detail to analyze what Paul actually says.
What does the text say? Please follow me through this in your Bibles.
Paul starts out chapter 4 by urging the saints at Thessalonica to live a life pleasing to God. He tells them (and us) in verses 1-8 that our ongoing sanctification by the Holy Spirit makes us different from non-believers, therefore our actions should display that difference. They/we must walk in holiness and sexual purity, not sinning against each other. Indeed, he compliments the Thessalonians in verses 9-12 for the love that they have for one another. Paul encourages them to live quiet and peaceful lives, providing a godly example to those around them while working at being financially self-sufficient.
Then Paul moves directly in verse 13 to comfort the saints at Thessalonica in light of these previous exhortations and compliments. He doesn’t want them or us to grieve unnecessarily for those who have died in the Lord. Note the contrast here: Paul sets the hope that they and we as saints have in eternal life with the Lord over against those all those who do not trust in Jesus and who die with no hope. That’s a powerful and life-altering contrast.
Let me be clear here: Paul is not telling us not to grieve at all. That idea is foreign to the text here and to Scripture at large. If we truly love each other, of course we will mourn. God created us as creatures with will and emotions, with the capacity to love. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death and mourned Jerusalem’s coming judgment. But our grief is tempered by the assurance through Jesus’ resurrection that this life is not all that there is. Although death is not good, those who die in Christ will be with Him awaiting our joining them, whether that’s in the normal course of events or at the last day. This is obviously not so for those who do not trust in Christ alone, and therefore Paul’s contrast in verse 13.
In verse 14, Paul sets our future death and resurrection firmly in the historical fact of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. This assurance of our future resurrection in Christ in turn gives us confidence that we will again see our loved ones who have died before us. The same power that raised Jesus from the tomb because of His perfect righteousness will raise us up together at the last day because of His perfect love for His sheep.
Creation and resurrection come by the same infinite power of Almighty God. Think about that just for a moment. Just by speaking God brought the universe into existence from nothing – creation ex nihilo. What awesome power! Everything that we know brought into existence simply by speaking. That same unimaginable power raised Christ from the dead and will raise His elect up at the last day – both the dead and the living. What of those buried at sea, cremated, or whose remains are otherwise scattered or destroyed? Take heart that nothing is too hard for Almighty God. The God who created the entire universe from nothing can effortlessly put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Therefore, neither the Thessalonians nor we should sorrow unnecessarily as those whom we love pass into the immediate presence of our Lord. We all who trust in Jesus Christ for our eternal salvation will be together again, worshiping the Almighty together forever. Thus, Paul explicitly includes those who have already died as being brought into the presence of our Lord at His return.
Paul reinforces this truth to the Thessalonians and us by appealing to a special word from God given directly to him – a direct revelation now recorded in Scripture for us in verse 15. Note that this direct revelation to Paul is perfectly consistent with the rest of Scripture, thus confirming its truth. Paul assures them and us that nothing can or will prevent God from raising our departed, saved loved ones at Jesus’ return. Indeed, we should live every day in expectation of Christ’s imminent return as Jesus taught in many parables, especially since we cannot know the day or the hour of His return. But the point here is that God has and will use the power to raise the dead in Christ to join those believers who remain alive on the earth in a glorious reunion with our Savior. Neither group will be favored, as according to 1 Cor 15:52 which we read earlier, we will rise in equal standing before our Lord.
Paul deepens the drama and destroys the possibility of a secret return in verse 16. All our senses will be engaged. Christ will visibly descend from heaven as the angel foretold in Act 1:11, just as Jesus visibly ascended. The Greek for the word ‘command’ used here means a “signal shout” and denotes a war cry such as soldiers when charging in battle. Christ’s victory shout will echo across the earth. The archangel, possibly Michael as hinted in Rev 12:7, will be heard as well. The trumpet of God has several connotations, including accompanying God’s manifestation in glory as in Ex 19:16 and to call God’s elect together in preparation for their glorification with Christ as in Mt 24:31 and 1Co 15:52. Certainly there’s no annotation here that God will be using a mute with that trumpet.
Lastly in verse 16, Paul returns to the assurance that the dead in Christ will rise and join believers still living on the earth at that time. He ensures that the saints at Thessalonica and we do not lose focus on the underlying theme of this passage. The dead in Christ, both those Old Testament saints who lived and died before Jesus’ incarnation and also those who came after His first coming, will certainly rise from the grave just as Christ had, by the power of God the Father. The unrighteous are not in view in this passage, but for completeness I’ll refer you to Acts 24:15 where Scripture informs us that the unregenerate will also rise at the last day – in their case to everlasting punishment as John makes clear in Revelation.
Verse 17 brings this passage of Scripture to a crescendo. We, Christians from all of history, will together as one pure church, now invisible but then revealed, join with Christ. Those alive will be changed in an instant as Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15:51, 52 while the dead in Christ will be resurrected, all of us to perfect immortal bodies.
Again, I emphasize that this passage is not a play-by-play description of the end, but a pastoral assurance to a group of saints who thought that they missed Jesus’ second coming. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, assign a special meaning to the word underlying “caught up” in verse 17. The underlying Greek word is harpazo, which means to seize with force or snatch up violently. Its Latin translation is rapturo, from which of course we get ‘rapture’.The original Greek refers to an open and violent act, and is used this way 13 other times in the NT. In contrast, another Greek word, klepto, denotes a clever or sneaky stealing away. We get the word ‘kleptomaniac’ from that Greek root. If Paul had wanted to convey a secret “rapture”, he would have used klepto, not harpazo. Therefore, Paul is conveying that living believers will be abruptly and forcefully pulled up into the air to meet the Lord. In keeping with the underlying Greek, this won’t be secret but will be done openly. After all, how would it have assured the saints at Thessalonica if it WAS possible to miss Jesus’ return? It wouldn’t, hence Paul’s point.
The phrase “meet the Lord in the air” has a specific connotation as well. The Greek underlying the word “meet” here simply means to meet coming from a different direction. The same word is used in Mt 25:1 of the 10 virgins going out to meet the bridegroom who was coming in; and also in Acts 28:15 where a group of saints traveled out of the town to meet Paul on the road coming into town. Nothing mysterious about the phrase. Christ is coming down and we’re going up to meet him on the way. Again, there’s no language here that says we’re going secretly with Him into heaven. As we’ve already seen, this is a very visible and noisy affair. Rather, if the previous uses of the term “meet” provide any guide, we’ll accompany Jesus back to the earth to consummate creation, amongst other things.
The end of verse 17 and in verse 18 again we return to the theme of assurance. He tells the saints at Thessalonica and us that we will be with the Lord together forever. He says that we should encourage each other with these words. He doesn’t say that this passage is the comprehensive playbook for Day of the Lord so that we should go forth and figure out the day and the hour so we’ll be ready with billboards and radio broadcasts warning everyone.
Taken as a whole, 1 Thess 4:13-18 provided the saints at Thessolonica and still provides us great comfort as we see our loved ones dying around us. Dare I say that it provides that same comfort to us as we close our eyes for the last time? What we see around us is not all that there is. Paul uses brilliant imagery in this passage to reassure all saints down through the ages that our Lord will return for us whether we’re dead or alive, to provide glorified, immortal bodies for us to last an eternity worshiping and glorifying God. All this will be a very public, visible, and loud occurrence that no one will miss.
Just as important for our purposes here today is what Paul doesn’t say here. Paul doesn’t discuss events foretold elsewhere in Scripture concerning the Day of the Lord. They simply aren’t necessary to his purpose of assuring the saints in Thessalonica. Christ will certainly reign on earth with His saints as we’re told in 1 Cor 6:2,3 and He will finally judge the world and glorify His saints in the new heaven and earth as elaborated throughout Revelation and elsewhere. But Paul didn’t find it necessary to go into all that in this letter simply to assure the flock about their loved ones who had “fallen asleep”. We should go no further than the inspired author.
Lastly, we don’t have time to go through 1 Thes 5:1-11 which naturally flows from the section we just examined. Let’s read it and check out the highlights:
5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Here we see that Paul goes on to assure the saints at Thessalonica that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return. They are in the world but not of the world, therefore they are to again live holy lives (ref Ch 4) and have confidence concerning their salvation in Christ. Others will develop a false sense of security in their sin and brokenness, but not so for believers. Those trusting in Christ and His return should stand in faith and hope against the world, the flesh and the devil by the power of the Holy Spirit. They are to encourage each other that Christ has destined them for eternal glory, having saved them from God’s righteous wrath whether they are dead or alive at His return. Again we see the recurring theme of assurance rather than a play-by-play of the end times.
Paul had a pastor’s heart and wrote this letter as pastor to a confused and hurting church. That’s the bottom line for this letter.
How then should we live?
I could have gone many ways and to many passages to exhort on the second coming of our Lord. Why this particular one? Several reasons.
First, this passage has historically been used to “support” and foment the myth of a “secret rapture” – the fairy tale behind the Left Behind books and so much more. My intent was to exegete and interpret this passage plainly and clearly within its immediate context of what precedes and follows it, as well as considering Paul’s original intention for the passage within the context of his letter. There’s no play-by-play guide for the end times here.
Second, in that exegetical process, I wanted you to see up close that the term translated by some as “rapture” does not refer to some secret event, but rather the Greek clearly speaks of an abrupt, even violent, very public removal of believers from the world at the last day. I also tried to show that Jesus’ return will not be secret, silent, or invisible. Neither Joel nor Paul expected that, either.
So, if someone suddenly disappears from a car driving down the road in front of you, you can safely conclude that they’ve been abducted by aliens before your very eyes. After all, Jesus said in John 10:16 that He had other sheep not of this fold which He had to bring also. OK, maybe he wasn’t talking about space aliens there. Personally, though, I’m more inclined to believe in space aliens than a “secret rapture” that’s explicitly excluded by the clear language of Scripture.
Lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to bring Paul’s assurances to you today. Our loved ones die. We miss them as we should. We grieve as even Jesus did at times. But God doesn’t want His dear children to grieve as those who have no hope. So, Paul here assures us that we’ll see our believing loved ones again in glory. We also pray that God will grant salvation to our unsaved family members. We evangelize them and our friends as God commanded us, knowing that we don’t save anyone but that salvation is of the Lord.
Could Jesus have returned for us on July 21 as Harold Camping guessed? Sure. Might he come on October 21 as Camping currently guesses? Sure. He can come whenever the Father’s purposes have been fulfilled for creation in its current fallen state. Jesus could even come before I finish this exhortation, for which some of you are probably praying right now. The point is that no one knows the day or the hour, not even the Son. That’s not my speculation, that was Jesus’ explicit statement, reiterated by Paul in our passage today. Are any of us smarter than the Son of God or know the mind of His Father better than He? If you’re not sure about the answer to that question, please check out Isa 55:8, 9.
So what do we think about folks who cannot resist playing with so-called Bible codes or numerology? We pray for them. Some have called Camping a false prophet, but he doesn’t fit the definition at least in this case. A false prophet is one who claims to have a revelation directly from God but it doesn’t come true. BTW, that would describe all would-be seers since the end of the apostolic age. No, Camping has merely interpreted the Scriptures imperfectly. That makes him wrong but not a false prophet. After all, lest we forget, we all exegete and interpret the Scriptures imperfectly.
In light of 1 Thes chapters 4 and 5, we are to live obedient and holy lives glorifying our Father in heaven and encouraging one another with the truth of the gospel – that Jesus condescended to take human form and walk among us, living the perfectly obedient life that we could never live. He voluntarily died on the cross to pay a sin debt that wasn’t His but that we could never pay, thus turning the Father’s holy and righteous wrath away from us. The Father vindicated Jesus’ perfect righteousness by raising Him on the third day, and by His grace credits Jesus’ prefect righteousness to those who will trust in Him alone for their salvation. Hence the great exchange of 2 Cor 5:21: Jesus gets our sin imputed to Him on the cross and we whom God chose before the foundation of the world get Jesus’ perfect righteousness imputed to us. Jesus did it all, all we contribute is our sin. Salvation is of the Lord.
Jesus will return for all His saints, whether dead or alive. At that time, we will be changed in an instant, given immortal resurrection bodies, and together with the currently invisible but then revealed pure church will worship and glorify God perfectly for all eternity.
Go and encourage each other with these words.