There are not many passages of scripture that reveal what will happen when Christ comes a second time. However, you would think by the numerous books and movies about this topic that there were hundreds of passages that describe the second coming of Christ. People have such a fascination about Christ’s return. This desire to know about his coming is not misplaced because his return is to give us hope and change how we live our lives today. But the purpose of this paragraph in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is not to give a full discourse on the end times. The point is not to describe all the details or give a full treatment regarding Christ’s return. There is a specific concern these Christians have that Paul is answering for them. His concern is stated for us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
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. (1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV)
Now it is easy to misunderstand what the Thessalonians were concerned about if we do not know what the common thinking was about death and the afterlife in the Greco-Roman world. The Greco-Roman world believed in life after death. Immortality of the soul was widely believed. If you have had any exposure to Greek mythology then you are aware of this. But Hades was a joyless gloom for departed spirits. The spirits continued on in an afterlife, but there was no belief in a re-animation of the body. In fact, listen to what happened to the apostles Paul in his preaching in Athens.
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” (Acts 17:30–32 ESV)
Notice that when Paul spoke about resurrection, then caused the end for them listening to him. Some mocked him when he spoke about the body coming back to life. Others said they will listen to this again some other time. It is important to note that the issue is not about life after death. The Greco-Roman world believed the spirits continued to exist in some underworld or Hadean realm. Theocritus sums up the prevailing pagan attitude about death and afterlife, “Hopes are for the living, but the ones who die are without hope” (Idyll 4.42). Catullus states, “The sun can set and rise again. But once our brief light sets, there is one unending night to be slept through.” Pagan literature bemoans the fact that while even crops rise again and renew themselves, humans simply die. So nature mocks humans with its resilience. This may help us understand what Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 15 where the apostle notes that some were saying that, “There is no resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). The gospel message proclaimed something different, so startling that the Athenians would not listen any further. Resurrection is not the continuation of the spirit living beyond this body. Most believed in the continuing existence of the spirit. So what Paul is going to teach about the second coming of Christ is radically different than the common thinking in the Greco-Roman world. Let’s look at what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18.
What Believing In Jesus Means (4:14-15)
Notice what Paul says we must pay attention to when is comes to knowing about the second coming of Christ. First, our foundation is that we believe Jesus died and rose again. This is a critical component of our faith. In fact, we are not believers in Jesus at all if we do not believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead. But please note that Jesus dying and rising again was not the continuing life of his spirit. Resurrection is the body coming back to life. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus means that Jesus came back to life in the body. This is what the apostles argue (1 John 1:1-4) and the gospel declare. Jesus rose from the dead not as a spirit but as a body that the apostles saw, spoke to, and touched. Jesus puts back on the human body and the apostles touched the wounds where the nails were driven through his hands (John 20:24-27). Jesus puts back on the human body so that we see him eating with his disciples (John 21:13-15). In fact, notice that the Gospel of Luke specifically deals with this thinking.
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:36–43 ESV)
Jesus expressly points out that he is not just a spirit because you can touch him and he ate in front of them. Resurrection means a bodily resurrection. Now notice what Paul is pointing out in 1 Thessalonians 4:14. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, we believe God will bring with him those who have fallen sleep. “Falling asleep” is a metaphor for death yet it also possesses the hope of resurrection. They are not dead. They are asleep as if they will wake up again.
Now notice what Paul is doing. In verse 13 he says the he does not want these Christians to grieve as others do who have no hope. So what is the hope that he presents? The hope is not that you will live in eternity with God. Read carefully verse 14 again. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, we believe God will bring with him those who have already died. God will bring with him those who already died. Christians have no need to grieve as the hopeless. Those who are not in Christ cannot have a positive view of the afterlife. God will bring with him those who already died. Is this not the great question that hangs over every funeral? Is there life after death? Is this the end? Is there any hope? The clear answer is yes. If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, then we believe that God will bring with him those who died.
This is the message of 1 Corinthians 15. Christ is described as the first fruits of the resurrection. What happened to Jesus will happen to us in resurrection. God did not abandon Jesus in death and he will not abandon us to death. We are raised just as he was raised. Those who die before Jesus returns are not lost to some underworld spirit realm. There is hope. God will bring with him those who died when he comes. No one is left behind or left out of this great event. The Lord will come again and there is no advantage given to those who are alive when he comes over those who already died. Paul wants us to have hope and not grieve like the hopeless. The faithful are coming with the Lord when he comes. Oh, how this lifts our spirits to know this truth. If we believe Jesus rose from the dead, then we can believe coming of those who have died in Christ with the same certainty.
What Will Happen When Christ Comes (4:16-17)
So what will happen when Christ comes? Paul explains more in verses 16-17. The Lord is going to descend from heaven with an arousing outcry, with the voice of the archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise when he comes. Christ’s victory over death is our victory over death. No one is lost in death if we belong to him.
This scene was prefigured when Jesus was on the earth. Remember when Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus who had been dead for 4 days and was already smelling from decomposition (John 11). What does Jesus do? Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). What happens next is staggering. The dead man came to life. At merely the word of Jesus, a dead person whose spirit had departed and his body had begun to rot, came back to life, his body was restored, and he was whole again. This is what is going to happen. This was also prefigured when Jesus rose from the dead. Do you remember what Matthew records for us that also happened when Jesus rose from the dead?
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51–53 ESV)
What happened? Tombs were opened and the bodies of believers who had died were raised. Notice these are not spirits but bodies. They come out of the tombs and they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many. This is the hope of resurrection. God will open the tombs and the dead in Christ will rise. Now don’t worry about the details of this. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that our bodies will be changed at this moment.
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:50–53 ESV)
We will be raised and we will be changed in an instant. It does not matter what has happened to your body, God proves that he will raise those who are his from the dead and bring them into life with him eternally. Thus, we see life in verse 17. Those who are alive when Christ returns will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
Please notice what Paul is highlighting. We are caught up together, not with him, but with them. The Christian hope is not only Christ’s coming, but he’s bringing the dead in Christ with him and we are joining together with them with the Lord. See this at the end of verse 17: “So WE will always be with the Lord.” The Christian dead are not separated from Christ. Verse 14 says that the Christian dead are “with him.” Further, the Christian dead are not separated from the Christian living. Verse 17 says that the Christian dead are “with them,” which refers to those who are alive on the earth when Christ comes.
So listen to what Paul says in verse 18. “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” We have hope. This is one of the great things we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper: death is temporary! We have a stunning hope that gives us encouragement. This is a time of thanksgiving that our country has set aside. I would like for us to be thankful to Jesus because through him we have hope in resurrection.
Death does not separate us from God. This is our primary hope and our primary reason for thanksgiving. When we die, it is not over. We are not annihilated. We are not cast into a gloomy underworld of departed spirit wasting away for eternity. We are with the Lord awaiting our bodies to be resurrected and changed.
Not only does death not separate us from God, but it does not forever separate us from each other. Another stunning hope that is given to us is that our separation from each other is temporary. We will be with each other with the Lord. We are not only caught up with him but also with them.
Therefore, our grieving at death must never obscure the hope of the gospel. We miss being with our loved ones in Christ now. But we know, just as assuredly as we believe Jesus rose from the dead, that those who died in the Lord will be coming with the Lord when he returns and we will be caught up and meet the Lord in the air with them. Friends, not only does this encourage our hearts regarding death, but it must encourage our hearts to be holy and live faithfully to the Lord because we have the great hope of resurrection. Serve the Lord and have the hope of resurrection. Thanks be to God who gave us Jesus who conquered death and rose from the dead so that those who are in Christ will also conquer death and rise again. Therefore, comfort and encourage one another with these words.