Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2023
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Commentary
No matter how strong Jesus’ friends’ faith is, the death of someone we love can be immensely difficult. Among other things, it sometimes forces survivors to make painful adjustments that may take many months, if not years. Death, however, also raises troubling questions about the fate of those who have died.
Such questions seemed to really bother the Thessalonian Christians to whom Paul wrote. After all, apparently they had assumed that the Lord would come back to take God people home to himself before any of them died.
Biblical scholars like John Stott (The Gospel and the End of Time, InterVarsity Press, 1991), from whom I borrowed a number of ideas for this commentary, suggest that Paul taught Thessalonica’s Christians that they must be ready for Jesus’ return at any time. Jesus’ followers there, however, seemed to infer from that that Christians would not die before Jesus returned.
So they wondered how dead Christians would fare when Jesus did finally return. Would they be at some kind of disadvantage at Christ’s Second Coming? Might those who died before Christ returned somehow even miss the blessing of that return?
Before he addresses those issues, however, Paul makes several points. First, he writes in verse 13, he doesn’t want us to be “ignorant” [agnoein]* about the fate of Christians who have died. The apostle seemed see understanding such things as the key to many blessings.
Secondly, Paul, while not condemning grief, according to verse 13 wants Christians to grieve [lypesthei] appropriately. The apostle rejects not all mourning, but what he calls in verse 13 mourning “like the rest of men, who have no hope [elpida].”
After all, some of Paul’s pagan contemporaries speculated about things like the soul’s immortality. But one could hardly call such conjecture a hopeful expectation of the resurrection to eternal life. Instead, in death’s face, ancient unbelievers were generally hopeless.
It’s interesting, however, that Paul refers, in verse 13, to the death which provoked such pagan hopelessness as “sleep [koimomenon].” Many scholars believe that “sleep” reflects death’s relative brevity for Christians. So today we might even use the word “nap” to describe the death of a Christian.
However, it’s hard to fully understand what it means to “sleep” or “nap” in the Lord. We know, after all, that by God’s grace, Christians who have died are “with the Lord.” However, they can’t enjoy the full blessing of eternal life in God’s glorious presence. Since God created us to be whole persons, disembodied dead Christians seem to be somehow less than complete.
Paul’s talk in verses 14-17 about that completion jumps around a bit. So preachers might consider proclaiming it in a sequence that flows more logically than Paul’s. The basis of our comfort lies in what the beginning of verse 14 says: “Jesus died and rose again.”
This is, of course, the throbbing heart of the gospel which the apostles preached and the Church believes. While Jesus Christ died on the cross in order to graciously save us, on the first Easter God raised him from death to life, conquering sin, Satan and death. What’s more, forty days later Christ also ascended back into the heavenly realm.
However, this crucified, resurrected and ascended Christ won’t remain in heaven forever. As Paul asserts in verse 16, “the Lord himself will come down [katabesetai] from heaven.” Christ, not one of his prophets or angels or other messengers, will return on the last day of measured time.
Not even the dead will be able to sleep through that return. Verse 16 goes on to assert that Christ will descend “with a loud command [keleusmati], with the voice of the archangel [phone arachangelou] and with the trumpet call of God [salpingi Theou].” Christ’s second coming, then, will be accompanied by loud and dramatic fanfare.
Paul goes on to insist that just as Jesus didn’t stay dead, so Christians haven’t stayed dead either. In fact, according to verse 14, precisely because God raised Jesus from the dead, when Jesus Christ returns to the earth, he’ll bring dead Christians with him.
Then just as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, so, Paul writes in verse 16, Christ will call Christians who have died out of their tombs at his return. At Christ’s second coming, “the dead in Christ [nekroi en Christo] will rise first.”
So Christians who have died will never be separated from the Christ who promised to be with them (and us) always. As Stott writes, they died in him, they now live with him and someday they’ll return with him.
As a result, Christians who are still living when Christ returns won’t have any advantage over those who have died in a faithful relationship with him. “We who are still alive,” Paul insists in verse 15, “who are left till the coming of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” In fact, as he goes on to write in verse 16, “The dead in Christ will rise first.” Christians whose bodies God resurrects will be the first to join the returning Christ.
Yet Paul also has good news for Christians who will still be alive when Christ comes back. We whom Christ promised never to abandon won’t somehow be left behind at his return. Once God has resurrected Christians’ bodies, Christians who are still alive will somehow rise to meet Christ and them. At that time God will reunite living and dead Christians and their Lord.
Obviously Paul chooses to omit some details of that glorious reunion. He says, for instance, nothing about whether reunited Christians will somehow recognize each other. We’re also not sure how to understand how we’ll be “caught up . . . in the clouds [harpagesometha en nephelais] to meet the Lord in the air” (17).
Yet no matter how this exactly happens, Christians believe that as soon as Christ returns we will be, as Paul writes in verse 17, “with the Lord forever [pantote syn Kyrio esometha].” This meeting in the air will lead to an everlasting fellowship in the new creation with both resurrected Christians and our Lord.
However, much about the end of measured time also remains a profound mystery. So sadly, some Christians like to turn the mystery of this reunion into a cause for theological debate. That’s why Christians always want to remember that Paul is primarily trying to comfort grieving Thessalonian Christians here.
After all, that comfort is desperately needed, both in Paul’s day and ours. It’s certainly in striking contrast to Paul’s contemporaries’ efforts to comfort each other. Stott quotes a letter a woman wrote to a grieving couple whose son had passed away.
She weeps over her friends’ lost son much like she’d recently wept of the loss of a loved one. This woman writes that she and her family have done everything they can under their difficult circumstances. “But nevertheless,” she despairingly concludes, “against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another.”
Some of our contemporaries have no more real hope for the dead than Paul’s contemporaries. So they sometimes comfort each other with reminders of what a good life the dead lived, death’s end of their suffering or our fond memories of them.
In contrast to this empty comfort, Paul invites Jesus’ followers to comfort each other on the basis of God’s promise to raise to life Christians who have died. Yet we always offer such comfort with care. Think of Job’s “comforters.” They began well by simply sitting with their friend in silent sympathy. When, however, Job’s friends finally spoke, they spoke unbiblically.
So their problem wasn’t that they talked. It was that Job’s friends talked foolishly. Words, after all, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can comfort people if they’re true, gentle and timely. Especially when we speak the Bible’s words, such as 1 Thessalonians 4, God can use God’s people to encourage Christians who mourn.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
T. Rees Shapiro’s obituary of Harold Camping in the December 17, 2013 issue of the New York Times reported that Camping had a “legion of devout followers and millions of listeners on his Family Radio network … He was a self-taught and self-described Bible scholar who ordained his world-ending prophecies through complex mathematical calculations and, he said, ‘clues sprinkled throughout the Bible.’
“‘It is going to happen,’ Mr. Camping told NPR in early May 2011. ‘There is no Plan B.’ He reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars to spread his doomsday message. His May 21 prediction was plastered on more than 5,000 billboards across the country. He had 100 million pamphlets printed in 61 languages, including some that read, ‘The End of the World is Almost Here!’
Camping “benefited from [his campaign] in a way that no other [doomsday predictors] previously had.’ Awaiting their salvation, many of Mr. Camping’s followers sold their homes, quit their jobs and depleted their savings accounts to help finance his end-of-the-world campaign.
“After May 21 came and went, Mr. Camping emerged from his California home in the following days ‘flabbergasted.’ He called May 21 an ‘invisible Judgment Day’ and said his calculations had been off by six months. The real Armageddon, he said, would come on Oct. 21, 2011.
“Did his wrong … prediction affect his reputation among followers? A moot point, he said. On ‘October 21 of this year, the whole world is going to be annihilated, and never be remembered. So what legacy am I going to leave to anybody?’ Mr. Camping told the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha in 2011. ‘The only thing is that I hope that there are people who are listening that will begin to plead with God and begin to cry out.’
“When that prediction did not come true, Mr. Camping retired from his radio work.”
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