Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” That statement comes from the liturgy of the Anglican Church, and it encapsulates the essence of the Gospel. All three elements belong together: Christ’s death, resurrection, and second coming. Leave out any one of Jesus’ actions, and you no longer have the Christian hope.
And yet American Christianity is full of all kinds of goofy, mixed-up ideas about the End Times. Books and movies like The Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series capture popular imagination but inject into our popular piety such non-biblical concepts such as the so-called “Rapture” (among others).
At the beginning of our sermon series on 1 Thessalonians, I told you that we would learn much about how to live as we approach the Last Day. Much of Paul’s purpose in penning the two letters to Thessalonica was to correct their misunderstanding of eschatology, a theological word that literally means, “study of last things.” In today’s reading, Paul’s teaching becomes very explicit on this point as he describes the final resurrection on the Last Day, and in order to properly unpack it, we’re going to take one verse at a time.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers [and sisters], about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Th. 4:13, ESV). Paul provides a very specific reason for his teaching about Christ’s second coming: pastoral care for his congregation. The Thessalonians apparently had the impression that Jesus was going to return before any of them died. We don’t know where they got this idea, but they had it. Perhaps it came from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ cryptic comment after his first passion prediction: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28).
And yet some of them had died—or, as Paul puts it, “fallen asleep.” Throughout the New Testament sleep is a euphemism for death, similar to the way in which we speak of someone “passing away” or “going to a better place.” Nobody wants to say, “She died,” so we resort to metaphor to hide the morbid reality. In this way, Paul speaks of believers “falling asleep” when they die. While the souls of the Christian faithful are with Christ in heaven, their bodies sleep in the dust awaiting the Last Day, when Christ will come again and raise us from the dead. In fact, the English word “cemetery” comes from the Greek words for “fall asleep” and “keep.” A cemetery is a place to keep the ones who fall asleep: a “sleeper-keeper”—a dormitory for the dead.
Nevertheless, the Thessalonians were disappointed that Jesus had not yet returned, and they were concerned about the status of their Christian loved ones who had died. What would happen to them when Christ did return? Would they be precluded from entering the kingdom of God? What was to become of the dead in Christ?
In response to their worry and weeping, Paul writes this letter. He begins by assuring his readers (both the Thessalonians and us!) that we do not grieve like the rest of the world, which has no hope. For our hope is in Jesus Christ, who conquered death and will come again to raise us from the dead.
Paul does not say that it is wrong to grieve. Far from it! Even Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). But we do not grieve forever, and even in our sorrow, we hold onto the hope of the resurrection. “For in this hope we are saved…” (Rom. 8:24). The Christian knows that death does not have the final word. Death is not a period, merely a comma. The world believes that this life is it. You die and then you rot. That’s all! But we look forward to so much more than that: “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” At the end of the day, Christians have the best story for what happens after death—at least for those who believe and belong to Christ.
“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 15). Here again is the Church’s core proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins and take away God’s punishments. He rose again to vindicate his teaching and inaugurate the new creation. And at the end of time, he will come again to raise us from the dead and judge the living and the dead. The dead are not forgotten. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep, for the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Th. 4:16-17).
Wow! There’s a lot going on this in this verse full of vivid imagery and loud noises. And we have to make sure that we properly understand verses 16 and 17 or we will come away with some really bad theology.
The Latin word for “caught up” in verse 17 is rapere, from which we get the English words “rape,” “raptor” (i.e., birds of prey), and “rapture.” Rapture is passive voice: to be caught, as in caught up in the air. There are many viewpoints of the End Times that include some form of the Rapture. In all these belief systems, the idea is that before Christ’s final coming on the Last Day, he first has a “secret” or quiet coming, in which he gathers only the Christian dead and any believers who happen to be alive at that time. In other words, he doesn’t make his return known to the whole world—only to the Church. Then the rest of unbelieving humanity is supposedly “left behind” to live in a godless world relegated to the Antichrist. And then after a certain amount of time (which, depending on the system, is either 3.5, 7, or 1,000 years), Jesus comes back for the final Judgment Day (essentially, a third advent!) with all the Christian faithful coming in his train like an invading army. There is a final battle between good and evil (Armageddon), and then any wicked people still living after that are judged and sent to hell.
But the entire concept of the Rapture is misguided. First, there is no other evidence in Scripture for any kind of “secret” second coming of Jesus. In fact, everything about Christ’s return in today’s reading goes against the idea of a secret coming.
Paul describes Christ’s return on the Last Day as the final—and most magnificent—event in all of history. Not only is it something you don’t want to miss. It’s something you literally cannot miss because it will affect every single person on the planet, living or dead. Paul describes all kinds of loud indicators of Christ’s return: “a cry of command,” “the voice of an archangel,” and “the sound of the trumpet of God” (v. 16). All of those sounds are loud attention-grabbers. There is nothing secret or quiet about Christ’s coming on the Last Day. Elsewhere, Scripture also describes a very public return: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Rev. 1:7).
When Christ returns, the dead in Christ will rise first. But almost instantaneously, the Christians who are still alive in that last generation will also be “caught up” into the air with the newly resurrected to meet Jesus in the air. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states that all of this will happen “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” (1 Cor. 15:52). Did you hear that mention of the trumpet again? Nothing quiet about Christ’s coming! Everyone will see him and hear his voice and know about his return—the living and the dead, the just and the unjust.
Now to help us visualize what’s going on here, I created a diagram, which you can find on pg. 18 in the bulletin. This diagram shows a lot more detail about the Last Day than we can discuss in today’s sermon. For a fuller explanation, I encourage you to attend adult Bible class, where we will discuss Paul’s description of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.
But this is the picture of what’s going on. When Christ comes with the clouds on the Last Day, he will not touchdown on earth immediately. Rather, partway down on his descent, all believers—whether living or dead—will be raised and caught up with Jesus in “the air” (the sky). Paul says that we will “meet” Jesus in the air. The word Paul uses here (apantēsis) had a very technical meaning in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire. It refers to the kind of welcome reception that a city would give to a visiting dignitary, such as a victorious general, provincial governor, or even the emperor himself. When the herald blew the trumpet to announce that the important person’s entourage was on its way, the citizens of the city would actually leave the city and go out the city gates to meet him on the road. Then after rolling out the red carpet for him, they would return to the city with the important leader, escorting him the rest of the way.
In Paul’s description of the resurrection, the voice of the archangel, the trumpet, and the like are part of the herald’s work announcing that Christ is nigh. Then the Christian faithful are like the citizens of earth going up into the sky to meet Jesus and give him a proper royal welcome before coming down the rest of the way to the earth. Thus, when Revelation 19 describes Jesus riding on a white horse and coming with the clouds and an army of saints and angels behind him, those saints are not only the dead in Christ, but also the final generation that remains and is still alive on the Last Day. In other words, Christ comes back to earth with the entire Church triumphant, because we go out to meet him and escort him on his way down.
From then on, the dwelling of God will be with his people forever on earth—really a new earth joined to the new heaven. “And so we will always be with the Lord” (v. 17b). There will be no more sorrow, no more pain, no more scorching heat, no more death or disease, and no more sin (cf. Rev. 7:14-17; 21:3-4). What a glorious Day that shall be!
And that is why Paul’s final word in today’s lesson is this: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (v. 18). Encourage one another! Build one another up! Encouragement is a major theme of Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians. The word shows up five (5) times (1 Th. 2:12; 4:18; 5:11, 14; 2 Th. 3:12). Why should we take courage? Because of these words—this teaching—about the time of the End. As I’ve already alluded to, there are many messed up ideas of the End Times that focus on scary imagery in the Book of Revelation and turn Biblical prophecy into a source of worry and fear. Yet, as the Apostle Paul points out in todays’ epistle, the Church’s teachings about the Last Day should not be a source of fear for believers, but rather one of hopeful expectation and joy. So, if your theology of the End Times focuses on fear instead of hope, you have really bad theology. That’s why Paul says, “Encourage one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). Don’t scare each other! Even in the Gospels, whenever Jesus speaks of his Second Coming in plain terms, he always tells his disciples not to be afraid. We should be glad that Jesus is coming again someday. Maranatha (1 Cor. 16:22, Aramaic). “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).
But when will that be? An excellent question! But we will answer that one next week, when we turn the page to chapter 5. In the meantime, I leave you with this message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Alleluia! Amen. In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.