It started out as words of comfort. Paul’s intention was to soothe anxieties, tamp down sorrows, answer some hard questions that the Thessalonians were asking. That’s how it started. Over time, though, these words in 1 Thessalonians 4—coupled with some further talk on similar themes in the next chapter—have become a source of unending speculation, divisions in the church, and fierce arguments. “The Rapture” as it has become known spins out of these words if you interpret them a certain way. Or it’s not so much that people disagree about the rapture. That we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air when he returns is clearly taught here and if you want to call that the rapture, that’s fine.
Where the disagreements begin is the larger end-times time line and where this rapture fits. Dispensationalist Christians teach it will be a secret coming of Christ, hidden from the unbelievers in the world. Believers will just disappear from the earth, thus the bumper stickers on cars saying, “When the Rapture Comes, Take the Wheel!”). What will follow will be a long period of tribulation and war in a battle for world dominance. This will go on for a long time before Christ makes a more decisive, public return after which he will rule the world for 1,000 years (the Millennium) from a throne in Jerusalem. And only THEN will the final judgment take place and God will fully usher in his kingdom on this earth.
Others see it much more simply: when Christ returns and gathers his people as depicted in 1 Thessalonians 4, that will be a public event and it will swiftly set off an immediate string of events that will culminate quite soon in the final sorting out of humanity and its history before the dwelling of God descends from heaven to make its home on earth. No period of tribulation, no millennial reign on earth as it is.
This seems unlikely to be resolved among varying groups of believers anytime soon. But because it is the first thing most people think of when they read Paul’s words, we tend to miss the real pastoral import of them. These were not meant to be fighting words. These sentences were not intended to be parsed and interpreted and hashed over to within an inch of their life over many centuries. These were words of pastoral comfort.
It seems that in Thessalonica—as perhaps in many places in the earliest days in the church—the belief arose that since Christ had won the victory over death by rising again from the dead, believers would now not die themselves. Or they would remain alive until Christ came back, which would entail of course that he would be coming back very soon and within the lifetime of all of the Christians who were alive at the time of having converted to Christ. Probably the Thessalonians did not know Jesus’ words from John 11, but if they could hear Jesus telling Martha that “anyone who believes in me will never die,” they would have heard that as confirming this idea that being a Christian meant not dying. Ever.
And then members of the church started dying. Funerals were being held after all. A cloud of painful questions arose: were these people not Christians after all? Had they had inadequate faith? If so, how can any of us be sure we are good and faithful enough? Paul had said it was all faith, all grace, all Jesus. But is it? Or, far more darkly, was Paul just wrong? Is the Gospel a hoax? Is there no true victory of life over death?
It takes little imagination to envision how terrifying this was, how gut-wrenching and tear-drenched it was. So they sent word to Paul, and he undertakes to close out his letter with as much reassurance as he can muster. No, the dead are not lost. They did not die because they had fallen away from Christ or had not been strong enough. The dead are still in Christ’s hands and when he returns, those dearly departed sisters and brothers will be first in line to be raised back to new life and before you know it, those of us still alive when that happens will be reunited with them, too. Who knows how long it would be before that dramatic reappearance of Jesus would happen (and it was likely that even Paul suspected it would be sooner rather than later—one wonders what he would make of the now 2,000 years that have passed). But it will happen and when it does, we will see that all is well with the souls of our cherished dead.
“Encourage one another with these words” Paul writes in the end. Encouragement in the face of death: has there ever been a moment in human history when we did not need this? Have the ultimate questions about life and its meaning dried up in even the modern era in the face of death? Hardly. There are very few people to whom we preach—the very young probably excepted—who do not come to church every week with some variation of these ultimate questions banging around in their hearts and minds.
We all die twice they say. First there is that moment when our hearts stop and our brains go silent. Then second there is that time somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we die again after the last person who knew us and could recall us or talk about us also dies. And then we are really and truly gone from the earth. Few well-functioning people can escape the force of the question “And then what? Is this all that there is? Did I never matter? Will I never be heard from again?”
Encouragement in the face of that is a primal need. And the Gospel gives it. Once we are in Christ, we will never die. Not finally. Maybe our bodies give out. Eventually those who remember us are also gone. But we will never die finally. We can’t. We are in Christ. He remembers us. And he has a future for us.
Encourage one another with these words. And do it often.
In one of my Pauline Epistles classes, my professor Andrew Bandstra, had just completed a rigorous and thorough defense of the Reformed position of amillenialism, the denial of most of the complex timelines for end-time events associated with Dispensationalist theology. The class finished and as we students were stuffing our books and notes back into our backpacks, Professor Bandstra said, “Then again, if the Lord Jesus returns and you meet him in the air and he starts talking about setting up a 1,000-year kingdom headquartered in Jerusalem, well . . . go along with it!”
In truth we none of us can fully envision what the end will be. But if it’s Jesus and if we are with him, neither do we or will we have a blessed thing to worry about!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2017
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Commentary