Encourage One Another with These Words (I Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–4:18
2012: The End is Near?
I. Wrestling with The Rapture
Have you ever seen this bumper stick: “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned”?
I’m sure many drivers have no idea what that means. But some people may understand this concept because of popular depictions of this event known as “the Rapture”. For example, in the movie adaptation of the popular book “Left Behind”, the Rapture is simply a mass disappearance of people. And the viewer knows these people are gone because there are piles of clothes left on the ground or we unmanned cars careening out of control.
When I was in High School, I remember attending a summer camp at which the songleader taught us a song called “Rapture Jumpin’” and had all of us jumping in the air as if we were practicing for an actual 'rapture'.
But the key question in all this is simple: where in the Bible does it talk about this “rapture”?
Well this morning, we are going to discover more about this idea as we continue our series, “2012: The End is Near?” You may recall from last week that we talked about the fact that this year, in 2012, many people, because of a some hype about a Mayan calendar, some people will be talking about and have been thinking about the end of the world.
But as we saw last week, when the Bible talks about the end of the world, there is more of an emphasis on the why of that discussion, rather than the when.
Most Christians, in spite of differences about certain details, believe that Jesus is coming back to our world to fully redeem His people, judge the world, and restore all creation. But amidst all the speculations out there, we can lose a clear sense of why we should know what the Bible teaches. What does God really want us to know about “the end”?
To help us begin to answer that question, what we’re doing in this series is going to some well-known New Testament passages about the end of the world, and we're looking at why the writers are teaching what they’re teaching.
II. Review: “Like a Thief” (5:1-11)
Now, before we look at our main passage this morning, I’d like to begin with where our main passage ends. So turn if you will to I Thessalonians 5:1-11. I’d like to look together at what Paul teaches in these verses because I think they confirm everything we talked about last time, when we studied Jesus' words to His disciples about the end of the age. Listen to what Paul writes here...5:1-11....
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers,you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all childrenof light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Now what I hope you can see here is that what Paul is telling the Thessalonians about “the day of the Lord” is based on what Jesus himself taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives just before his death, the same passage we looked at last week.
Notice the similarities: like Jesus, Paul compares the coming of Christ to the unexpected visit of a thief in the night. Like Jesus, Paul describes the world carrying on with absolutely no sense that judgment is coming. Like Jesus, Paul compares the events to a woman giving birth. Like Jesus, Paul describes spiritual readiness as “staying awake”.
While Paul does add some new imagery to the discussion, the majority of what he’s doing here is simply applying the teachings of Jesus, namely, that in light of the unexpected nature of His return, we need to be in a state of constant spiritual readiness.
We also learned last week that this ‘readiness’ is not about looking for this or that sign, but about faithfulness to Christ and the work to which He's called us. That’s what Paul is confirming here: we walk as those who are spiritually sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
As we walk in the light with Christ, we are ready for His return. And that return could happen at any time. It could happen today, or this week, or 10 years from now, or 10,000 years from now. We don’t know. But we can be ready through everyday obedience to God's word.
III. The Passage: “We Will Always Be with the Lord” (4:13-18)
But our main passage this morning, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, is the actual beginning of the section that continues into 5:1-11. It is really just one section with two parts. But in terms of the topic we looked at it in the introduction, the topic of the “rapture”, consider the fact that this passage is the only explicit mention in Scripture of a ‘rapture’ at the return of Christ.
So let's look together at those verses:
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. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul is pretty clear here about his reason for writing this, isn't he? According to verse 13, the Thessalonians were grieving over those in their church who were “asleep”. Now the context confirms that the term “sleep” here is simply a reference to death. The word sleep is used like that a number of times in the Bible. The disciples in Thessalonica were grieving over those in their church family who had died, probably recently.
But we might wonder why, if those who died were followers of Christ, why is the church struggling here without hope? Wouldn’t they understand that their friends and/or family members were now in God’s presence?
Well, I believe they did understand this. What we don’t often understand is that the disembodied soul or spirit , while it is in God’s presence at death, that existence is not the ideal state. It is an interim state that Paul refers to in II Corinthians 5 as being “naked” and “unclothed”.
It was the Greeks and their philosophers who often talked about the ideal of being a spirit liberated from the prison of the body. But that's not the biblical ideal. The Biblical ideal is embodiment, the way that God originally created us. This is why the resurrection of the dead is such an important idea in the New Testament. This is why our future is not only in a “new heavens”, but also on a “new earth”.
Now, there is no doubt that the disciples in Thessalonica had previously been taught about the second coming of Jesus. Paul mentioned it earlier in this letter in 2:19 (look there): For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
So what seems to be going on here is that the Thessalonians simply believed, using the words of Paul in I Corinthians 15, that we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet...that is, they might have believe that only those who were alive when Jesus came back would experience the resurrection of the body.
They were grieving because they believed that those from their church family who had died had somehow lost their chance for resurrection, and thus, lost their chance for a future in the new heavens and new earth.
It is this misunderstanding that causes Paul to go into more detail about the sequence of events that will take place when Jesus Christ returns.As Paul makes clear in verse 14, it is the resurrection of Jesus himself that forms the basis for our hope of resurrection. In the original Greek, verse 14 reads something like this: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God those who have fallen asleep through Jesus will bring with Him.
Or to make that intelligible in English: so also God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.
You see, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of resurrection for any who trust in Christ, whether they are now dead or alive. According to verses 15-17, those who have died as believers in Jesus will actually be changed before those who are alive.
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. 16 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. 17 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.
Once again, we see that Paul’s words here are based on what Jesus taught. Remember Matthew 24:31 from last week: “…they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Now it’s not clear from Jesus in that passage that the dead would rise first, but notice the common elements in Matthew 24 and I Thessalonians 4: the trumpet, the angels, the clouds. Paul is passing on and applying and authoritatively filling out the words of Jesus.
Now, did you see the rapture there? It’s in verse 17. We who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord… The phrase “caught up” is the word harpadzo in Greek. The word “rapture” actually comes from the Latin translation of this verse.
Harpadzo is the same word used when it says that Philip was “snatched away” after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8. It’s the same word used when the Roman commander ordered that Paul be “taken by force” out of the mob in the Temple in Acts 23.
But as you can see here, the only thing we learn about this rapture or “snatching up” is that those who are alive when Christ returns, along with the resurrected, transformed bodies of those who have died, all of us will be caught up to be with Christ.
In the only explicit mention of the word in Scripture, this “rapture” is not mentioned in order to scare anyone or explain how we fit or don’t fit into what is called “the great tribulation”. Paul’s overall, his ultimate intent here is summed up beautifully in his final words, verse 18: Therefore encourage [or comfort] one another with these words.
IV. The Encouragement We Need and Need to Give
It is very easy for Christians today to respond to different viewpoints on the ‘end times’ and to the amount of information that’s out there about this or that system, it’s very easy for many of us to downplay all of it and simply state, “All I need to know is that Jesus is coming back.”
Now, I won’t disagree that the return of Jesus Christ is the real issue that we have to be united around. But that doesn’t mean that we downplay what God’s word clearly says in passages like this.
If we do that, the danger is that we miss something so precious here.
So what does God want us, what does God want you to take from this passage, from this study this morning? Well, again, I think Paul is very clear here. We need to “encourage” or “comfort” one another with these words. That’s our application, right there.
But what exactly does that look like?
Well, first, we might encourage one another in a way that very much resembles the original setting here. (Encouragement in light of the reality of future LIFE)
A while back, I had the chance to share at a very informal memorial service for a Christian brother. And as I shared about of this man’s hope beyond this life, I think I could tell who the Christians were in this room of 30-40 people. I say that because I could see the encouragement on their faces when I spoke of Christ and our comfort in Him. You see…
I was comforting them, I was encouraging them with the reality that death is not the end. That life, even life in the fullness of how we know it now, life belongs and will always belong to those who trust in Jesus Christ. We do not have to grieve as others do who have no hope.
If you’ve lost loved ones who trusted fully in Jesus Christ as their only hope, then let me personally encourage you this morning: … we who are alive, [if we] are left until the coming of the Lord, [we] will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven…And [those loved ones who have died in] Christ will rise first. 17 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.
When brothers and sisters around you experience this kind of loss, you need to comfort them with these words. When we lose a Christian brother or sister, either a friend or family member, we need to remember these words. This is the encouragement we need personally and the encouragement we personally need to give.
It’s kind of sad that the only explicit passage in Scripture that talks about the ‘rapture’ is so often used simply to paint pictures of worldwide chaos, of suddenly unmanned airline cockpits, huge traffic accidents, and bewildered neighbors. It’s sad this passage intended to bring us so much comfort is so often used just in dry discussions about how it fits into things like the great tribulation and the millennium.
The shadow of death falls on every single one of us. Not only have all of us lost family and friends, but all of us know that one day, if Christ does not return in our lifetime, one day, we will have to face the reality of our own death.
We need to comfort one another with these words.
The rapture, the fact that we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, this should be a much spoken of topic in our church family. Yes, it may be part of discussions about details of the ‘end times’, but may it be used, more so, as a truth that brings encouragement to the hearts of those around us.
But I think there is still another way, a second way, that we can encourage one another with these words. Look back at verse 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.
One of the things that these words should do in our lives is distinguish us from the world around us, from those “who have no hope”. You see, all of us will be tempted to grieve as others do who have no hope, like it tells us here. We will be tempted to worry as others do who have no hope; tempted to doubt as others do who have no hope.
And that can happen when we are ignorant or forgetful of the central truth we see here. The central truth we see here is not that the dead will rise first, or that we will be raptured or caught up, or even that we will live forever.
The central truth of this passage is expressed at the end of verse 17: and so we will always be with the Lord. (Encouragement in light of the reality of future LIFE with HIM) If you have been rescued by Jesus Christ, if you have truly given everything you know of yourself to everything you know of Christ, if you are following Him, than nothing, nothing can change this destiny: you “will always be with the Lord”.
What fear is not calmed when you really believe that incredible truth? What desire is not satisfied when you really believe that incredible truth? What doubt is not assuaged when you really believe that incredible truth? What anxiety is not relieved when you believe this? What sorrow is not comforted when we genuinely believe that we will always be with the Lord Jesus Christ?
Everything will be okay.
The essential joy of eternal life is not that we will be reunited with our loved ones or that we will experience no more pain. The essential joy of our eternal life is that we will be with Jesus Christ, our Lord, forever.
Can you say with Paul, For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Philippians 1:21, 23)? Do the words of Peter describe you: Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory… (I Peter 1:8, 9)
Brothers and sisters, when we lose sight of the fact that we are destined to be with Jesus forever, it is easy to slip into a “right here, right now” kind of mindset; it is easy to fall into the “you only live once” school of excuse-making; it is easy to struggle with uncertainty and worry…It is easy to live as others do, [those] who have no hope.
We need to encourage one another, we need to encourage ourselves with these words.
The reality of the rapture is not to be viewed in sensationalistic terms or simply as a helpful piece of an “end times” puzzle. Our being “caught up” is nothing more than the means by which we will experience the resurrection and transformation of our bodies in Christ.
The reality of this rapture should always point us to the glorious hope that we will always be with Jesus Christ, that we will be know the joy of His presence forever and ever.
Paul had a very clear reason for writing what He wrote. He was not interested in setting dates or clearing up speculation about how current events fit into God's divine schedule. But in the same way, he also didn't write-off these issues as unimportant. No, he had a clear application that was expressind both 4:18 and 5:11:
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Brothers and sisters, that's our take-away. Are you encouraged by the truth that Jesus is coming; by the truth that along with those who have died, we will meet Him; by the truth that will always be with Him...always. If you're encouraged, are you ready to encourage others? To encourage them toward hope and holiness?
Brothers and sisters...encourage one another with these words.