How the Gospel Gives Hope to the Church
: Josh had a tough passage of Scripture last Sunday, but he did a great job with it. You could hear a pin drop as he talked about the need for sexual purity. If you weren’t able to be here last Lord’s Day I would strongly encourage you to go to the website, and either read it or listen to it.
I have a real advantage this morning–my sermon text is a very familiar passage of Scripture. I also have a real disadvantage this morning–my sermon text is a very familiar passage of Scripture. You see, sometimes we treat the familiar with contempt. That is, we assume we understand what it says and therefore fail to examine it as carefully as we might otherwise. I think that has happened with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
This is the first of four chapters in the Thessalonian epistles that deal largely with eschatology, that is, the doctrine of last things. For the sake of those who may be completely unfamiliar with biblical prophecy, let me offer a brief summary of some of its most important points.
Nothing is clearer in the NT than the fact that Jesus is coming again. He came the first time as a baby in Bethlehem; He will come again as a conquering king. In Acts 1 the disciples were watching the risen Jesus ascend into heaven when two angels spoke to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Ever since Jesus spoke those words the true Church has been looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ.
However, the Bible also teaches that before Jesus returns there will be a time of Tribulation, approximately seven years in length, which will be worse than anything the world has ever seen. A world leader called Antichrist will institute a terrible persecution against the nation of Israel and against Christians, which will culminate in the Battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.
God, however, has a rescue plan for true believers, and it is described right here in 1 Thess 4. When Jesus returns, He will resurrect dead believers, will transform living believers, and both groups will meet Him in the air and so be with Him forever. That rescue plan is often called the Rapture of the Church. Virtually all Christians, if they give any serious credence to the Bible, agree with everything I have said so far. What they don’t agree on is when this Rapture will occur relative to the Tribulation and the Second Coming. Hold that question while we read this well-known passage of Scripture:
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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
There are only three passages in the Bible that speak explicitly and indisputably of the Rapture of the Church–the one I have just read, 2 Thessalonians 2, and John 14:3. (I believe there are other references, like Matthew 24:31, but those are disputed). The actual word “rapture” is not found in any of these passages, but each contains terms which mean the same thing. Here in 1 Thess 4:17 we have the phrase, “caught up together with them.” And 2 Thess 2:1 it speaks of “our being gathered together to him.” In John 14:3 Jesus says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
I want to give you a little personal background that may be relevant to what I am about to teach about how the rapture fits into biblical prophecy. The Bible College and seminary I graduated from were both very conservative schools where every member of the faculty was required to hold a very specific view of prophetic truth, which included the pre-tribulational rapture of the church. By that I mean I was taught that the Rapture is the next event on God’s prophetic calendar, that it will be a secret and sudden event immediately prior to the 7-year period of suffering and persecution known as the Tribulation (thus the nomenclature, pre-tribulational rapture), and then following the Tribulation, the Second Coming of Christ will occur.
I was taught that every born-again believer alive at the time of the Rapture will suddenly disappear from this earth. Planes will become pilotless, cars will be driverless, and missing persons bureaus will be swamped with calls from frantic relatives. Only law firms will remain intact. (Just kidding!) You’ve heard of the Left Behind series of books–the title comes from this view: everyone who is not a believer will be left behind when the rapture occurs.
However, this is not the only view of the rapture held by Bible-believing Christians. There are actually four distinct views common in the church today.
Pre-tribulation: the Rapture is secret, sudden, and occurs before the Tribulation period (thus 7 years before the Return of Christ). There will be a two-phase Return of Christ, often distinguished as the Rapture and the Revelation.
Mid-tribulation: The Rapture occurs in the middle of the Tribulation period just before the worst of the persecution.
Pre-wrath: The Rapture occurs toward the end of the Tribulation, at the point where God begins to pour out His wrath upon the earth.
Post-tribulation: The Rapture occurs at the very end of the Tribulation,
essentially simultaneous with the Second Coming.
Some even take a pan-trib view–that is, it will all pan out in the end so why worry about it? There are actually some pretty good reasons why we should worry about it. Well, not worry but at least give close attention. You see, it makes a significant difference in how one prepares for the future whether he believes he’s going to be exempt from the worst time of persecution the world has ever known, as opposed to going through it. So I’m going to assume we can dismiss the pan-trib view.
Let me return to my personal story. It was in 1966 while I was taking a course in Eschatology, the Doctrine of Last Things, from Dr. John Walvoord at Dallas Theological Seminary that my dad, who was a graduate himself of the same seminary, gave me a book, entitled The Blessed Hope by George Ladd. He wrote inside the cover (and I have it here in my hands), “To Mike from your Dad. This is probably the best presentation of the post-tribulational rapture theory. He’s wrong but a good writer.” I read the book; it actually made more sense to me than what I was hearing in Dr. Walvoord’s class.
By the time I graduated I had concluded that the biblical evidence led strongly to the post-tribulation position. I learned quickly, however, that it wasn’t safe to make my views on this topic known, because for that reason alone Dallas refused to recommend me for placement, even though I had graduated at the top of my class. Since I wanted to teach in a Bible College, I decided to become an agnostic, at least publicly, on the rapture question. (I’m not proud of that, but I needed a job). I didn’t lie about my position; I just avoided addressing it. Even when I left Bible College teaching to become a Free Church pastor, I discovered it was safer to keep my views quiet, because our denomination was (at the time) overwhelmingly pre-trib. In fact, it was almost impossible to pass an ordination exam if you were post-trib, so for the entire time of my first pastorate here I kept my previous ordination rather than transferring it to the Free Church.
Much has changed over the last 40 years. The Scofield Bible, which advocated the pre-trib view in its influential notes, is no longer in widespread use in evangelical churches. Many leading evangelical scholars have concluded that the theological system underlying the pre-trib view, called dispensationalism, is flawed. Our own seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I did my doctoral work in the early 90’s (and where Josh will graduate in May), has moved strongly toward the post-trib view and away from pre-tribulationism.
Now I know we have a number of people in this church who have been committed to the pre-trib view for a long time. In light of that I have generally avoided making an issue of the rapture question. But that quiet approach won’t work for me now, because for the first time I am scheduled to preach the two major NT passages on the Rapture. You see, 1 and 2 Thessalonians are the last two books of the New Testament for me to preach through. I have even wondered if perhaps subconsciously I left these books for last because of a desire to avoid dealing with this issue publicly.
I must admit I had the fleeting wicked thought of just assigning these passages to Josh and let him take the heat. That way he could become the first pastor to split a church before he is even voted on! But seriously friends, for 40 years I have made a practice of preaching every text exactly as I see it, and you have been kind enough to respect that, even when you disagreed with my conclusions. I trust the same will be true over the next month.
So let me just come out and state that of the four scenarios, I believe the post-trib view has the strongest biblical support, though pre-wrath is a very close second (in fact, the differences between the two are relatively minor). The first two views, in my estimation, are based more on theological assumptions than on specific biblical teaching.
However, I do not believe the Scriptures are clear enough on this matter to justify dogmatism. So my primary goal this morning and over the next month is not to change your mind if you take one of the other views (though I will argue for the truth as I see it). My goal is to get all of us to wrestle seriously with what God’s Word actually says about the future of Planet Earth. Prophetic truth has too long been neglected in many of our churches, especially over the past thirty years or so. Frankly, one of the reasons for that neglect is that for a long time there was too much dogmatism on the details by certain so-called experts. People got tired of false alarms about who the Antichrist is and how the latest conflict in the Middle East is a preview to Armageddon. What we need is to avoid both extremes–neglecting prophetic truth and becoming consumed by it, or at least by our pet theories about it.
Now let me state the question that confronts us in 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Does the Scripture teach that Jesus is coming again twice, or in two phases–once for His saints at the rapture and then again 7 years later (or even 3 ½ years later) with His saints at the revelation? That is what the Pre-tribulation (or Mid-trib view demands. Our text in 1 Thess 4 might allow for that if there were some other passage that teaches it, but it certainly does not teach that by itself. Nor does John 14:3. Most importantly, 2 Thessalonians 2, in my opinion, virtually disallows such a view. In other words, two of the three rapture passages say nothing about timing relative to the Tribulation, while the third one places the Tribulation first. Therefore I conclude that all three passages are best interpreted as teaching that the tribulation comes before the rapture of the church and that the rapture and revelation are essentially one event known as the Second Coming.
Unfortunately you’ll have to wait for a month to hear my sermon on the critical passage of 2 Thess 2, but trust me–I will go through it in detail, and then you can decide for yourself. All I ask for is a fair hearing.
Everything so far this morning has been introductory. In fact, that may be the longest introduction I have ever given to a sermon. It’s time to turn our attention to what 1 Thess 4:13-18 actually teaches about the rapture of the church, starting with the problem that generated this teaching.
The problem that generated Paul’s prophetic teaching here is the problem of bereavement. (13)
During Paul’s short ministry with the Thessalonians, he had undoubtedly taught them the whole gospel, including the good news that Jesus is coming again to receive His people to Himself.
Paul had taught that Christ would return, possibly soon. This is a common theme in the NT and a very important one for all of us to keep in mind. Jesus’ return could be during our generation, even our lifetime. But apparently some in the church had misunderstood Paul’s point. They were “misinformed,” according to verse 13.
Some of the believers wrongly assumed that Paul had promised a soon return. So what did they do? Well, apparently some of them quit their jobs. That makes sense, for after all, what’s the point of busting your chops if the end of the world is right around the corner? But Paul had notpromised the soon return, only the possibility of it. So Paul has to really come down hard on those who refuse to work. Josh’s passage just touched upon the problem of idleness last Sunday; it will come up again in 5:14, and it will be a major focus of 2 Thessalonians, chapter 3. The Return of Christ must never be used as an excuse for not taking personal responsibility.
However, there was an even more dangerous result of this “misinformation” that impacted the church.
They were devastated when some of their loved ones died before Christ’s return. They didn’t expect that. In fact, some were grieving like pagans. They were asking, I suppose, “What will happen to our believing loved ones who have died before Jesus returns? Are they at a disadvantage? Will they miss out on the blessings of the Second Coming?” I believe it is to questions like these, reported to Paul by Timothy, his personal envoy, that the Apostle responds in this great passage. He tells them that …
The best antidote to bereavement is the Gospel.
The truth about Jesus: He died and rose again. (14a) Paul’s words in verse 14 are the most basic fundamental truth of the Christian faith: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again.” He died for our sins on the Cross. Then God raised Him from the dead to demonstrate victory over sin and death. That is the heart and irreducible core of the gospel message. Without that, there is no good news, and there is no Christianity. With it, there is incredible hope for the future. But there is more.
The truth about dead Christians: they are only “asleep,” and they too will rise. (14) Three times in this paragraph Paul describes dead Christians as having “fallen asleep.” What does this mean? Some take it literally in the sense that the soul is unconscious until the Second Coming and the Great Resurrection. Soul sleep has been a key doctrine for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist, and other fringe groups, but it has rarely been espoused by orthodox Christians. The problem with this view is that Paul states elsewhere that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Our body may be in the grave, but the spirit, the real person, is with the Lord, apparently enjoying conscious fellowship.
I believe that when Paul uses the term “sleep,” as a euphemism for death. He is referring to the status of the body, not the soul or spirit, and he is simply trying to communicate the fact that death is temporary. As sleep is followed by awakening, so death will be followed by resurrection. Jesus, you will recall, used the same term, “asleep,” of His friend Lazarus, who though dead for four days and already decomposing, was only dead temporarily, because Jesus then raised him from the dead. So also the believer’s soul and spirit are alive and conscious with Christ after death, while his body remains “asleep” until the resurrection.
It’s important to observe that Paul doesn’t forbid grief when we have lost a loved one. It is natural, even emotionally necessary to grieve. People who fail to go through the appropriate stages of grief are asking for trouble down the road. To say goodbye to a loved one or friend whom we will not see again in this life is a sad and sometimes gut-wrenching experience, for sure. But when the one who dies is a believer, there is no need for inconsolable grief, such as is often observed at a pagan funeral.
Now Paul draws a strong connection between the truth about Jesus and the truth about dead Christians. Verse 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.” The Gospel and the resurrection of dead believers are tied inextricably together. The death and resurrection of Jesus brings with it the guarantee that dead believers are safe with Jesus, and not only are they safe, they are also coming with Him when He returns.
The truth about living Christians: they will have no advantage over dead Christians when Christ returns. (15) Let’s continue with verse 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.” Paul first tells us he is not blowing smoke here. He is declaring “a word from the Lord.” This could mean that he personally got it from the Lord by direct revelation. Or it may mean that this was a saying of the historical Jesus passed down to him. The exact teaching he is about to give is not found in the Gospels, but of course not everything Jesus ever said is recorded in the Gospels.[i] Either way, Paul is intent on convincing them that the truth he is sharing with them was taught by Jesus Himself, and therefore we are not free to dismiss it.
Now the content Paul declares by a word from the Lord is that some believers will still be alive when Christ returns. Does Paul himself expect to be one of them? After all, he uses the first person plural, “we.” I would not say Paul expects it, but he no doubt believed it was a possibility. It seems more likely that he expects to become a martyr (2 Timothy 4:6). And right here in 1 Thessalonians (5:10) Paul entertains both the possibility of death and the possibility of surviving until the Second Coming, as he speaks of Christ, “who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” By “awake or asleep” I think he means “living or dead.” Paul doesn’t know which it will be for him. In fact, he doesn’t care. He is very conflicted about which would be better–just read his statement to that effect in Phil. 1:21-26. Whether God rescues His children alive through the Second Coming or long before through death and subsequent resurrection, they are still rescued.
But what is Paul’s principal point in verse 15? He’s trying to offer correction to people who are worried about their dead relatives. And he tells them that when Jesus comes the living Christians will not precede the dead ones. That is, the living will have no advantage over the dead. The dead will not miss out on anything! Paul’s whole emphasis is on the unbreakable solidarity which the people of God enjoy with Christ and with each other. Premature death is utterly unable to destroy that solidarity. Thus the Thessalonian Christians have no business worrying needlessly or grieving hopelessly about their departed loved ones!
Well, so far we have examined the truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the truth about dead Christians and the truth about living Christians. Let’s now consider the question, …
How will God’s prophetic plan unfold?
Paul gives us some fascinating details about how this great event of the rapture of the Church will unfold. He doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know, but he does tell us some very important things.
1. The return of Christ (15-16). The key word in verse 15 is the term “coming.” In Greek the term is parousia., and it is the word most frequently used of our Lord’s return. It means “presence” or “arrival.” It was the official term in Greek for the visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province, or of a military general returning from a victorious battle.[ii] The term parousia is clearly used often of the revelation of Christ after the Tribulation. In fact, right here in the Thessalonian letters it is used that way: 2 Thess 2:8 reads, “And then the lawless one (Antichrist) will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming (parousia).” Clearly this is a Parousia that occurs after the Tribulation. It only seems natural that we would take it the same way in 1 Thess 4.
Verse 16 elaborates on what will occur at this parousia: “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” exactly as promised in Acts 1:11, and His return will be accompanied by three things:
First, a cry of command. What is that command? I think it may be something like the cry Jesus gave at the tomb of his friend Lazarus: “Lazarus, come forth.” This will be a universal, authoritative, divine proclamation which will both announce the end and summon the dead to rise. The parousia and the resurrection are inseparable.
Second, the voice of an archangel. Only one archangel is named in the Bible, and that is Michael. Interestingly Michael is mentioned in another very important prophetic passage–Daniel 12:1-2.
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Virtually everyone takes Daniel 12 as referring to the Second Coming following the Tribulation. I think that is another indication that 1 Thess 4:16 is speaking of the same event.
Third, the sound of the trumpet of God. We see the trumpet also in Matthew 24:29-31 in a clearly post-tribulational context: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened … and 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 ….”
By the way, everything in verse 16 is public–the command, the voice of the archangel, the trumpet call of God–arguing against the notion that the rapture is a secret event with billions “left behind” wondering what happened. In fact, someone has called this the noisiest passage in the Bible.
Simultaneous with the return of Christ we have, secondly,…
2. The resurrection of dead believers (16b). “The dead in Christ will rise first.” (16b) We said earlier that the dead in Christ will be at no disadvantage. In fact, they will have a slight advantage–they will rise first. Someone has said that’s because they have further to go–they need a six-foot head start. It was said facetiously, but I’m not sure it isn’t true. The resurrection of these individuals is important information, of course, because up to this point we have been told that they are coming with Jesus but we haven’t been told in what form they would be coming. Not we see that they are not coming as spirits or as disembodied souls. They will be reunited with their bodies through resurrection.
3. The rapture of living believers through transformation (17). “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds.” (17) “Then” signifies sequence, but I suspect the living will be behind the resurrected dead by just a fraction of a second, because it says they will be caught up together with them.
But a question immediately arises: How can earthly bodies function apart from the earth? And the answer is they can’t. 1 Corinthians 15:50-54 solves the dilemma for us:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery (something unrevealed previously). We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 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 (i.e., those still alive when the trumpet sounds) shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
The term “changed” there in verse 51 is the Greek word metamorphosis. As the butterfly breaks forth from a cocoon into a glorious creature, so we will receive resurrection bodies by transformation, without ever having died.
Finally, Paul informs us there will be a great reunion.
4. The reunion of living and dead believers with Jesus (17). This is the fourth key detail–return, resurrection, rapture, and reunion. We will be caught up together with them. There will not be two peoples of God in the future–the dead and the living, and there will be no distinction between the resurrected and the transformed. There will be a glorious reunion for all the people of God.
Now Paul provides two final items of information about this meeting of resurrected and transformed believers: They will meet the Lord in the air and they will be with the Lord forever. Two questions may come to your mind: How long is this meeting in the air, and where do they go from there?
In the pre-trib view this meeting lasts for seven years. Some suggest that during the tribulation they return to heaven, where several things take place–like the judgment of the believers’ works and the marriage supper of the lamb. At the end of that period, they return with Christ at the Second Coming proper and help Him rule the earth during the Millennial Kingdom.
The post-trib view sees this meeting in the air as very brief. When a Roman general returned from a victorious battle, the populace of the city would go out to meet him and when he appeared (his parousia), they would follow him back in a victory march. So, according to most post-tribs, the meeting in the air is followed by Jesus returning to earth with His people. Perhaps they will join Christ in the battle of Armageddon as the army of the Lord of Hosts. Some, however, believe it is at this time that God will fashion a new heaven and a new earth so that the saints can inhabit it forever. Either way they will always be with the Lord. [iii]
There is one more thing I don’t want you to miss this morning:
The purpose of this teaching on the Second Coming is encouragement. (18)
That’s what verse 18 tells us: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The basis for the encouragement is clearly the confidence we can have of being either raised with Christ or raptured with Christ, and subsequently being with Him forever.
Now some of you may be thinking, “How is it encouraging to hear that we may have to go through the Tribulation period rather than be raptured before it happens?” Well, I grant you the prospect of tribulation is not encouraging in itself, but the prospect of the Return of Christ at the end of it and the blessed hope of being with Him forever, is surely encouraging! Two weeks ago I preached about the suffering and trials the Thessalonian church and their pastors were enduring. Paul said in 3:7, “for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted (that’s the same term, “encouraged”) about you through your faith.” Encouragement is possible even in the midst of trial and tribulation!
Conclusion: I love to go through old cemeteries and write down epitaphs. Most graves today don’t have them, but in a previous generation they were common. This one, however, I found in a book:
Pause, my friend, as you walk by;
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
Prepare, my friend, to follow me!
A passerby was said to have astutely added two lines to that epitaph:
To follow you is not my intent,
Until I know which way you went!
Every true believer has the wonderful assurance and hope offered in this passage of resurrection, rapture and reunion with believing loved ones–all because Jesus died and rose again, and because He is returning.
[i]. Remember what the Apostle John said at the end of his Gospel? “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did (and, presumably said). Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
[ii]. The term parousia is used frequently in the NT of the revelation of Christ (the Second Coming itself). See Matthew 24, 1 Cor. 15, 1 Thessalonians 3, 2 Thessalonians 2, 2 Peter 1 & 3, and 1 John 2. Even most pre-tribulationists agree that the focus of most of those passages is the Second Coming proper following the Tribulation. I see no compelling reason to take it differently here. If the same term is used for both the rapture and the revelation, perhaps that is because they refer to the same event.
[iii]. Now today I haven’t tried to prove to you that this wonderful passage can’t be reconciled with a pre-trib rapture. All I’ve really tried to show you is that there is nothing in the passage that argues for a pre-trib rapture. When we come to 2 Thess 2 we will be confronted with evidence that is much less ambiguous.