The pagan Gentiles of Paul’s day believed that everything ended at the grave. To the Greeks, there was no life after death. There was no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a prophetic passage that speaks of “the coming of the Lord” (v. 15), and is intended to give “hope” (v. 13) and “comfort” (v. 13, 18) to God’s people.
The Thessalonians were confused about Christ’s Second Coming. They knew that Jesus was returning and that the return was imminent, but as time passed, persecution increased, and Christians perished, it seems likely that some were wondering, “What happens to believers who die before Jesus comes back? Will those who are alive at His coming somehow have and advantage over the dead?”
Paul answers their questions, and his answer is based on six foundational facts.
#1 – Revelation – 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 15a
Mankind has always been intrigued about the future and the afterlife. Philosophers routinely address this question. Spiritualists try to communicate with the dead. Even scientists have investigated experiences of those who claim to have died and returned to life. But there is no need for doubt, concern, or anxiety concerning this life or the next because we have God’s truth on the matter! Verse 15a says, “For this we say unto you be the word of the Lord”! Beloved, God has spoken, and He has given us His complete revelation about the future. Do not consider human speculation when there is divine revelation?
#2 – Return – 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15
Make no mistake about this: Christ is coming again! The return of Christ is a prominent theme of the Bible; in fact, it is the single most mentioned event in the NT, and the OT speaks of it more often than does the NT! The return of Christ is especially emphasized in this first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians.
- In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 Christ’s return is related to salvation.
- In 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 it is related to service.
- In 1 Thessalonians 3:13 it is related to stability.
- In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 it is related to sorrow (not in a negative but in a positive sense!)
Here is what the theologian A.J. Gordon wrote about the scriptural prominence of the Second Coming:
Whatever doctrine I pursue, whatever precept I enforce, I found it terminating in the hope of the Lord’s second coming. Is watchfulness amid the allurements of the world enjoined? The exhortation is “Watch therefore for ye know not the hour your Lord doth come” (Matthew 24:42). Is patience under trial counseled? The Word says, “Be patient therefore brethren unto the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7). Is holy living urged? The Bible says “Denying ungodliness and worldly lusts we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and the Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). All paths of obedience and service lead to the return of Christ. Our command to service bids us “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13). In observing the Lord’s Supper we show “the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). We are told to “keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:14).
Christ’s Second Coming is not only a prominent theme in scripture, but it is also separated into two phases. Phase 1 takes place “in the air” (4:17). Phase 2 takes place on the earth (Zechariah 14:1-5). Phase 1 emphasizes the trumpet (4:16; Revelation 4:1-2; 1 Corinthians 15:51); Phase 2 the throne (Revelation 20:4-5). Phase 1 takes place before the Tribulation. Paul’s use of the word “we” (vv. 15, 17) is an indicator that he expected Christ’s return to be imminent – that it might take place at any moment). Phase 2 takes place after the time of Tribulation.
This passage is about that first phase of Christ’s return.
#3 – Resurrection – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16
The fact of the Resurrection is clearly stated in this passage (v. 14; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 4:14). The fact that Jesus died and rose again means that Christians who die will also rise again (v. 16). The impact of the Resurrection is that of hope and comfort for Christians here and now.
#4 – Rapture – 1 Thessalonians4:17
The fourth foundational fact is the Rapture, that living believers will be “caught up together” at the return of Christ. Those who deny that the Bible teaches a rapture (postmillennialists and amillennialists) point out that the Bible never uses the word “rapture”. Although the actual word is never used, the idea is often expressed in scripture. The word rapture means “caught up” or “caught away.” Verse 17 uses that phrase. The Greek word is “har-pad-zo”. It is used in Acts 8:39 to express the idea of being caught away speedily. It is used in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4 to describe Paul’s experience of being taken to heaven. It is used in Acts 23:10 to express the idea of being rescued from danger.
The Bible explicitly states in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 that what happened to Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) and John (Revelation 4:1-2) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Enoch (Genesis 5:24) will happen to all Christians who are alive when the trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ are raised.
#5 – Reunion – 1 Thessalonians 4:17
One of the toughest things in life, if not the toughest thing in life, is parting – goodbyes. Whether it’s a kid’s first day in Kindergarten or their first day at college; whether it’s waving goodbye at the airport or from the end of the driveway, and definitely as you look into the eyes of a dear one who is not long for this world; parting with ones you love and care for is not “sweet sorrow”, it’s just sorrow. Well, one of the glorious aspects of the truth taught in this passage is this: there is going to be a reunion in the air!
The Bible speaks here of this reunion on two levels. First, Paul says that we will “be caught up together with them in the clouds.” We are going to be together, reunited with Christian family and friends who have gone on before. I’m sure that there are some particular people with which you are longing to be reunited. On earth our circle grows smaller, but in heaven, it just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.
Further, and even better than being together, v. 17 says that we will “be with the Lord forever!” Now, that’s a great reunion! This is the ultimate culmination of which everything is building, and it gives us great hope about our future.
#6 – Responsibility – 1 Thessalonians 4:18
“Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” These foundational facts should compel us to strengthen one another; that is the responsibility which accompanies this truth. Be strengthened! Take heart! Cling to this certain hope; Jesus is coming again. There’s going to be a meeting in the air, and we shall ever more be with the Lord! Encourage one another to love and good works, because Jesus is coming again!
This is not cause to be braggadocios. This marvelous truth should not stir within your heart foolish pride and boasting. I heard a preacher on the radio who said that at that meeting in the air he is going to look at the world and shout “Told you so!” I don’t think that’s the kind of attitude we’re to have; a sophomoric “nah, nah, nah, nah, you’re about to be judged” posture. That is so far removed from the Biblical standard it makes me even wonder if such a one will be at that meeting in the air.
No, beloved, the responsibility of this awesome truth is this: to the believer it is a call to watchfulness, to purity, and to evangelism. To the unbeliever it is a summons to repentance and faith
“Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31).