(Adapted from a sermon first preached in Hamilton, New Zealand. Feb 2014)
When Thessalonians was written
The Apostle Paul was intensely connected to this Church at Thessalonica for it was Paul who had established it (around 49-50 AD) about 2 years before he wrote this letter.
We read all about the beginning of this church In Acts 17. When Paul arrived in Thessalonica (on his second missionary journey) he preached in the local Jewish synagogue explaining and proving over 3-4 weeks, from the OT, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who was to die as an atonement for sin and rise from the dead on the third day.
Consequently some Jews, some God fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women from the city joined with Paul and Silas and formed this church.
It wasn’t a Smooth Beginning
It wasn’t a smooth beginning. Many unbelieving Jews stirred up a mob which sparked a riot that threatened to do Paul and Silas some physical harm. They were accused of having caused trouble all over the Roman world by subverting the Roman Emperor through promoting Jesus of Nazareth as the true Lord – and now he had brought this trouble to the city of Thessalonica.
The situation was so intense that this new church had to send Paul and Silas away during the night. Therefore, Paul’s time and teaching about Christian hope had been very limited and sketchy. Paul never got back again in person over those two years (see 2:18).
According to what we find in our passage it seems that Paul had failed to tell them about what would happen to believers if they were to die before the Lord Jesus returned.
Strange isn’t it.
I can only suppose that the intensity of their persecution was such that they believed that Jesus Christ was going to come any moment to deliver them from their trial. Therefore 2000 years of church history and Christian funerals wasn’t on Paul’s minds over his 3 -4 weeks with them.
They Longed for the Lord’s Return
However, it is evident that they were longing and waiting for the Lord’s return. This was on account of the fact that the cities opposition to them never let up. They believed, as indicated in 1:10, that they had entered in to the time of trial and tribulation that would precede the Lord Jesus return to save them from the wrath that he was going to pour out on their opponents.
It is vital here to distinguish between what is meant by Tribulation and the Coming Wrath.
“Tribulation” is what the world puts the believers through and the “Coming wrath” is what Christ will bring on those who persecute his Church – in order to stop the Tribulation.
The Coming Wrath
So if Jesus Christ’s Coming is, for these believers, a deliverance from God’s coming wrath, that ends their tribulation, then our passage is not describing a pre-tribulation rapture!
Paul writes about the exact same Coming again in 2Thessalonians 2:3 where he makes it unmistakably clear that the Lord will not return until the lawless one (antichrist) has first been revealed.
An invisible pre-tribulation Rapture was never heard of until John Darby came up with the notion in the 1820’s. It was initially dismissed when it was introduced in the USA but became the pre-dominant popular Christian view in the 20th century – yet that’s not what our passage is teaching despite this passage being used as a key supporting text for such a notion in classic dispensationalism.
Not a thought of a Funeral
In all of the intensity of persecution at Thessalonica the church hadn’t really stopped to give any thought as to what would happen to a believer if they happened to die before Jesus Christ returned.
So when old Uriah Brown died one night, suddenly, the Church was left scratching their heads in regards to his fate.
Sure Christian hope was focused on being immortalized at Christ’s return but in their minds you had to be alive at the time, in order to see the event and to receive the deliverance that they understood it would bring.
As strange as it may seem to us this church appeared to believe that when you’re dead you wouldn’t be resurrected again until after Christ had come and cleaned up the world. Or worse still some might have believed that those who died before Christ’s return might not be raised at all! It seems that they hadn’t been given any clear teaching on the resurrection of the dead apart from the model of Christ’s resurrection.
Don’t be Ignorant
And so in order to correct this misunderstanding Paul writes in verse 13 –
“Church, we don’t want you to be uniformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”
They were uniformed weren’t they – for a Christian who is buried down at the cemetery is not a lost Christian who has no further hope.
Rather Paul writes of their deceased state as a “sleep” because the term would naturally suggests a future awakening. Sure we may return back to the basic elements of the earth, and more quickly if cremation is our preferred method, but God retains the memory of the deceased from which a future re-creation, or resurrection, will come.
No Hope for Mankind
What I find intriguing in this verse is that Paul makes the sweeping statement that the rest of mankind have no hope in the face of death. This is not entirely correct. Many people in Paul’s day reasoned for the conscious survival of a soul or spirit that would leave the body at death for another spirit world.
I went to a funeral recently which started out with a poem that said – “I shall not, in fact I will not say that she has died, she has only moved to another place.”
This is just not so! Apart from a physical resurrection from the dead Paul felt confident to be able to out rightly dismiss all other speculation as being no hope at all.
Don’t Grieve like the World
Death is real, but listen up and get informed you Thessalonian believer’s, we are not to grieve as the world does who has no hope. Why? Because Christ will raise the dead as God raised Christ.
We notice also that Paul doesn’t say don’t grieve. Rather, don’t grieve hopelessly like the world; because death is not the final word on these believers – neither have they missed out on the glorious event of Christ’s Second Coming.
For Paul writes in verse 14 –
“Jesus died and rose again (that is the pattern which Christian hope will follow) and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
What does bring with Jesus Imply?
What does “bring with Jesus imply?”
This is tricky. For many Christians believe that a person has an immortal soul or spirit that departs to be with Christ in heaven at death. So if Jesus is coming from heaven then it might seem natural to suppose that he is “bringing” those departed souls with him to reunite them with their earthly remains in a resurrection. However, nothing else in this passage suggests that Paul has such an idea in mind.
When read carefully, in context, “bringing with Jesus” implies being brought by resurrection to the earth. Perhaps it would be helpful to understand the term “bring” from Paul and his audience’s perspective on earth. Jesus will bring to earth the dead and living in Christ after having first caught them up into the clouds to meet him on his return.
Why be resurrected from the grave to go up into the clouds to meet Christ only to come back down again we may ask. That’s a good question. The reason is to spare Christians from the coming wrath that will be poured out on the earth.
The Lord’s Own Words
What will happen (according to verse 15), and this is not Paul’s opinion but is in accordance with the Lord Jesus own words, is that we who are still alive; who will be brought with the Lord when he comes, will not precede (or go before) those who have fallen asleep.
Shall not go before the dead in what way? Shall not go before the dead up into the air to meet Jesus Christ in the clouds to then be brought with him as he comes to earth after having poured God’s wrath out on those who have caused these living believer’s suffering.
A Visible Event
Rather, (verse 16) the Lord Jesus himself will come down from heaven visibly and audibly to give a loud command with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God and the dead in Christ will rise first.
For those who have assumed that this description fits John Darby’s notion of a secret rapture off to heaven we can hardly imagine how such noise would be unnoticed when its affect will be the raising of the dead from their graves. Are we to assume that the resurrection of the dead is an invisible event that won’t be able to be seen or detected?
Everyone will know that this event is taking place as the lightning flashes across the sky from East to West, according to our Lord’s own teaching, for I do not believe that our Lord Jesus taught of a secret rapture in the Gospels. Neither do I believe that he taught that there would be two resurrections of Christians and two similar second comings that will bring this about.
The Dead will Rise First
Let’s not lose sight of what is pertinent to the believers at Thessalonica here in verse 16 – “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Not second.
It is after the dead have been raised (according to verse 17) that Christians who are living will be caught up together with them in the clouds. So the living and dead go together when Jesus Christ gives the shout. The point is that deceased Christians will be resurrected from their graves and not miss out on seeing that momentous event when the curtain between heaven and earth is drawn back.
You know I think that all of this will take place so instantaneously, in the twinkling of an eye according to 1 Cor. 15: 52, that the timing and sequence will be of little consequence. It’s a little bit like me getting an awful lot of detail onto the memory stick on my digital camera by one simple push of the button. The moment is captured in a flash.
The Dead will Miss Out on Nothing
And so we (the dead and living) will be with the Lord forever.
Where will the Lord be?
Will the Lord be in heaven or will he be on earth?
So let us encouraging one another with these words – the dead in Christ will rise again at his glorious coming and not miss out on seeing that day!