By Sam E. Stone
The apostle Paul founded the church in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey (Acts 17). Because he was not able to stay with the new converts as long as he would have liked, he continued to instruct them by letter. A central theme in both epistles to the Thessalonians is the topic of today’s study—the return of Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul describes Christians who have already died as those who sleep in death. In the New Testament, death is often compared to sleep for the believer (Luke 8:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60). It lasts only for a brief period. Therefore, Christians should not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
Grief is natural. When his friend Lazarus died, even Jesus wept (John 11:35). When Stephen died, the people wept (Acts 8:2). But when believers grieve, there is a difference. We have hope. The unsaved do not. They are “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). For the believer, Paul explained, “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
The Thessalonian Christians were eager for Christ’s return. It appears, however, that some were worried their brothers and sisters who had already died might miss it. Paul assured them this would not happen. God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. The Lord had revealed to Paul that we who are still alive . . . will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. Believers still living at the time of Christ’s return will not have an advantage over those who died trusting Jesus.
The apostle explained exactly what would occur. The Lord himself will come down from heaven with . . . the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. The voice of Jesus will call all his people (John 5:25-30). Once he called Lazarus from death to life with a word (John 11:43). When he returns, the Lord will summon every Christian with the voice of the archangel. Countless angels will accompany Jesus when he returns (Matthew 25:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:7). As at Mt. Sinai, God’s trumpet will also be heard (Exodus 19:16; Hebrews 12:19).
Believers who are living when Jesus returns will meet the Lord in the air. Like the Lord caught away Philip after he baptized the Ethiopian (Acts 8:39), so he will catch us up to meet him as he returns to earth. So we will be with the Lord forever.
Some Bible students like to discuss technicalities. Will we actually go to Heaven at that moment, or will that come later? The important thing is that we will be with Jesus. Wherever he is, all will be well. This passage wasn’t written to answer all our questions about eschatology (the study of last things). Instead it is intended to encourage us to live faithfully until death.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We don’t need to know the precise date and time when the Lord will return. Instead, we are to be ready
always for that moment. The apostle compares the event to a thief’s visit. No one knows when to expect a robber. Neither can anyone predict when Jesus will return (Matthew 24:36). Nor can expectant parents know exactly when their baby will be born. An obstetrician may tell the mother-to-be when her baby is due, but the baby may have other plans!
Though the Lord will come like a thief in the night, we need not be “in the dark” about it. Instead, we are to be watching and waiting. The children of the night face destruction while faithful believers are children of the light and children of the day. Expecting his imminent return, Christians are to be like soldiers prepared for battle (see Ephesians 6:13-17).
The Christian’s destiny is to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus did not appoint us to suffer wrath. He came to deliver us from judgment, not bring us into condemnation (John 3:17). Whether we are still living when Jesus returns, or whether we are in the sleep called death, we need have no fear (Philippians 1:23). All will find new life in Christ. Our goal is to encourage one another. Help other Christians. Don’t tear them down, but build them up (Jude 20; Romans 15:2).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.