1 Thessalonians 4v13-18 are often used by opposing sides of the “secret rapture” debate among believers. However, to focus in on that one point is to miss the main point of this passage, which is to encourage the church because members have died before Christ’s coming.
As Christians how should we respond when fellow believers die? How should we face our own death?
The video is below, followed by some notes.
Quite early on in my time as pastor someone in the church died of cancer. People had been praying, especially the family, who were having weekly prayer meetings. There was great shock and sadness when he died. A number of us said “we lost that battle.” “It will be different next time.” Of course there have been several next times and, while some people got better, others also died. Should we treat these things as defeat? Have we failed? Has God failed?
These are real questions. They are questions that we face today. Some of the congregation have had close brushes with death. It is very difficult. But is death really a defeat? Are we somehow missing out?
And for those of us who have lost loved ones recently, whether through Covid or any other reason. How do we respond? We have lost their company on earth, but is this it?
I) The concern (v13)
This, or something similar, appears to be the worry of the church at Thessalonica. People had died (as Paul says, fallen asleep). What happened to them? Were they lost? Had they failed? Would they miss out on the coming of Christ?
But also, this follows on from the previous section (4v1, 12), the Christian’s response to death is part of what it means to “please God” (v1) and it is part of “walking properly with outsiders” (v12). How we are in the face of death affects our witness.
Paul, uses the word “sleep” as a euphemism for death. It was used by the world around, much as if we would say “passed away”.
But the way Paul uses it in his writing implies that he is using the word to show that death for the believer is a temporary condition. When he talks about Jesus, he uses the word “death” not “sleep”. Jesus truly died in the sense of separation from the Father’s love on the cross, as He suffered the penalty for our sins. Physical death for the Christian is not separation from the love of God. There is no separation from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
So the physical death of the Christian is temporary.
This reference to sleep is not about the whole being, but about the body. We do not cease to have consciousness until the resurrection. Phil 1:21 says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” If Paul’s spirit slept also, death would not be gain. No, death is only for the body. The spirit lives on and, for the believer, goes to be with the Lord forever.
II) The answer (v13)
Not being “uninformed” – he doesn’t want them to be ignorant. Not knowing the word of God leads us to error and shakes our faith. Ignorance is not bliss. So, when we’re not sure of something, our answer has to be to go to the word of God. Our answer for the reality of death and what happens is the word of God.
This is made explicit in v15, where Paul reveals the authority for what he teaches – “by a word from the Lord.” It is scripture, not human reason or wisdom, that is our authority.
The Lord might not tell us everything that we might want to speculate about, but He does tell us what we need to know. And what He tells us is glorious, as we shall see.
III) The result of receiving truth (v13b)
In addressing their ignorance, Paul is seeking to help them in their response to death: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
- grief. It is real. It needs to be embraced. But it is a very different kind of grief than the world. It is not the grief of a permanent end but a temporary parting because –
- but not as “others” (the rest) who have no hope. The unbeliever has no hope, no expectation of eternity, no certain hope of seeing their loved one again. But the Christian does.
It should be pointed out that this passage is not given as an end-time chronology. It has been used to prove or disprove various different views of the second coming, but it is not written for that purpose – it is written to bring hope (a confident expectation). It is written to bring encouragement in grief. It is written to bring assurance to those concerned about the death of others and their own death.
IV) The foundation of our hope (v14-15)
We have hope because of the resurrection of Christ (v14). This verse is structured in a way that the second half necessarily follows the first. “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.”
Or, a better translation would be, “those that sleep through Jesus.” In other words, the believer is united to Christ His death and resurrection. In death, the believer’s spirit is with Christ; the second coming the believer’s body is resurrected (v16) to be with Christ.
V15 describes those who are still alive when Christ returns. “We who are left (remain)”: this shows us that the living and the dead in Christ are His. We remain on earth (but we are still His) and those who are dead are also the Lord’s. When the Lord comes, we do not have precedence (we do not come before) over those who have died. There is no disadvantage in dying.
Contrary to popular belief, even among professing Christians, staying alive is not the goal – staying faithful unto death is.
V) The fulfillment of our hope (v16-17a)
v16: “The Lord Himself” – this is the personal return of Christ. He is coming back Himself. This is not an invisible, secret return.
“Descend” (come down). He is returning to earth. This is a real return.
“from heaven.” Assures us of Christ’s position now ahead of His coming. He is reigning. Our Saviour is in glory. And that is where the dead are now until the resurrection.
The coming of Jesus is loud:
- “cry of command” – a commanding shout, like a cry to an army. This shows His authority.
- “the voice of the archangel” – this shows that all of heaven is under His authority.
- “the trumpet call of God” – used for the announcement of God’s coming. See Joel 2:1.
The coming of Jesus brings the resurrection of the dead in Christ (rise, v16 is the same as “rose” v14, linking His people’s resurrection to His own). This is the hope into which every believer dies. With Christ now, which is better by far, but awaiting the glorious resurrection when Christ returns. Death is not defeat. For those who are in Christ, death does not break the union with Him.
But it is for “the dead in Christ.” Other scriptures tell us that those outside of Christ will also rise, but they will rise to judgement. We need to heed the warning – have you put your trust in Christ alone?
V17 speaks about those who are alive when Christ returns. We will be
“caught up.” This suggests great force. No-one will be able to stop us being transformed and caught up with Christ. All the hosts of hell cannot stop it.
The hope of the Christian is Christ’s return, but the joy of Christ’s return is increased further by reunion with those who have gone before us into glory – we “will be caught up together with them.”
“In the clouds”, which is symbolic of the immediate presence of the Lord.
“Meet” – word used elsewhere for the meeting of an important official who is coming to a place. The citizens of the city would go out and meet him and escort him back to the city. It is something of that imagery here – we will be caught up to meet the king of glory and to have the privilege of honouring and recognising Him in front of all of creation.
VI) The destination of our hope (v17b)
“Together… we will always be with the Lord.” This togetherness reminds us that we are now one body. Now we are imperfect but, in glory, all the divisions caused by error and by ethnicity and language will be removed. The people that we have disagreed with, we will be truly one without any division or bitterness.
“…always with the Lord.” This is the ultimate glory. We will be with the Saviour, we will see Him face to face. There will be no separation, no sin or evil can touch us there. The sorrows of this life, even the pain of grief, will fade away in the light of His glory.
“Therefore encourage one another (come alongside to stir up and strengthen) with these words.” Be built up by using the word of God. It is the truth of the word that brings encouragement.
Notice it is not just “be encouraged” but “encourage one another”. How much do we talk about the coming of Christ? These glorious truths bring us encouragement in trouble and we need to help each other by speaking about these things.
And in this way, we stand in the face of the greatest enemy. It marks us out from the world. And the joy of what is to come brings us joy today.