“The Blessed Hope”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
August 24, 2008
We encourage one another with the hope of His Coming.
I. Our Blessed Hope (I Thessalonians 4:13)
II. The Premise of our hope (I Thessalonians 4:14-15)
III. The Promise of our hope (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)
IV. The Practice of our hope (I Thessalonians 4:18)
The catacombs of Rome are fascinating. Here beneath the pagan city whole generations of early Christians worshiped in life and were buried in death, and thousands of inscriptions bear testimony to their faith and hope. The catacombs were dug by the persecuted early Christians into the soft rock beneath Rome, which hardens when exposed to air. Here the Christians descended as much as 65 feet below ground, to hide, sometimes; to worship, sometimes; but most often to bury their dead in peace.
There is a sharp, beautiful contrast between what the Christians inscribed on their tombs and what the pagans above wrote. Henry Fox, in his 1920 Christian Inscriptions in Ancient Rome writes “there is definiteness and sincerity in the words and symbols by which the early Christians expressed their faith and hope.
What are some examples of these Christian inscriptions? How about “solus Deus animam tuam defendad Alexandria” (“The One God protect thy soul, Alexandra”). Or “Quintilianus, a man of God, holding to the doctrine of the Trinity, loving chastity, rejecting the world." Or “Septimus Praetextatus of Cilicia, a servant of God, having lived worthily. I do not repent that I have served Thee here, and I shall give thanks to Thy Name.” Or simply “She is with God” or “Beloved, thou shalt live forever.”
In painful contrast to the peaceful and hopeful spirit expressed in Christian inscriptions are many placed over the pagan dead: “Justice is overcome by the unjust judge, Fate.” “We are deceived by our vows, misled by time, and death derides our cares; anxious life is naught.” Fox writes “Though many others of the same class are expressed in more patient and affectionate terms, none bears a trace of the hope and happiness that is the constant feature of the Christians who laid down their dead to rest in expectation of a joyful resurrection and reunion.”
This same hope is seen in the letters of Christians and pagans in those early centuries. In the second century, for example, a friend wrote a letter to comfort a couple whose son had died. It reads: Irene to Taonnophris and Philo, good comfort. I was sorry, and wept over the departed one, and whatever things were fitting I did, and all those in my household. But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing.”
Or a letter of Catullus, “The sun can set and rise again, but once our brief light sets, there is one unending night to be slept through”. Contrast this to a letter of Aristides, written about Christians, at the same time: “And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.”
Christians have hope. That’s the bottom line. And it’s fitting and right that our new statement of faith should mention that hope: “We believe in the personal, bodily and pre-millennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”
We have a blessed hope: the personal, bodily and pre-millennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Personal - he is coming himself. Bodily - he is coming in the flesh. Pre-millennial – he is coming to reign on this earth for a thousand years. It is this belief that gives us hope in a fallen world, hope even in the face of disaster and death.
Of the Scriptures that affirm this hope, the most beloved is 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18. Let me read it to you and we’ll look at how it relates to the statement of faith, how the return of Christ allows us to encourage one another in hope.
1 Thess. 4:13-18 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.
I. Our Blessed Hope (I Thessalonians 4:13)
Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica, a church he planted during a brief visit on his second missionary journey, and to whom he wrote twice in the following months, two of his earliest letters. He commended the believers of that church for their faith and love and the steadfastness of their hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. He writes to make sure that they understand the truth of Jesus’ second coming. His purpose is literally to relieve their ignorance, verse 13, to teach them and remind them of the truth about those who had fallen asleep.
To “fall asleep” in the language of the New Testament, is to die.And we have to ask ‘why did this become the common metaphor for the death of a believer?’ Was it because the soul was asleep, in some kind of suspended animation? No. Some people have thought so, but Paul says very clearly in Philippians - “I desire to depart and be with Christ” After he died he would be with Christ, not just unconscious for eons. In Corinthians he says: to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.
Why then did they speak of dying as sleep? One reason is that death often resembles sleep and rest. Even our English word cemetery does not come from a word for death, but from this Greek word for sleep - koimeteri - a sleeping place.
But the major reason Christians adopted this word ‘sleep’ is that they now knew, because of the resurrection and promised return of Christ, that death was not the end, that these very bodies would be raised to life. They had a hope no one else had, and Paul’s purpose is to remind them so that they need not grieve like other people.
Christians experience grief differently than those without Christ. Its not that we don’t grieve; we do mourn the loss and separation, but if our loved one was in Christ, we don’t see the separation as permanent, and we look forward to reunion.
Gail heard a story some years back from a friend whose father had recently died. It seems her dad was killed in a small plane crash, and that he was a believer, but that the pilot, who was also killed, was not a believer. Many people attended both funerals, and noted that the funeral of the believer was filled with hope and certainty, while the funeral of the unbeliever was filled with blackness and despair. I sometimes think believers and unbelievers just don’t ‘get’ each other’s funerals.
II. The Premise of our hope (I Thessalonians 4:14-15)
But what is our hope based on? What is the premise, the fundamental truth behind Paul’s hope? It is the resurrection of Christ and his promise that he will return for us. Verses 14 and 15: 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
How can we have hope for the future? Because Jesus died and rose again. Because we believe this truth. It’s a statement of faith: we trust that Jesus died and rose from the dead. This trust, this belief, this faith, is the furthest thing from wishful thinking. Paul bases his faith on a reasonable analysis of the evidence for the resurrection, and finds that evidence so certain, he uses it to ground our hopes.
What is that evidence? Paul doesn’t really go into it here, but when he does his main proof is eyewitness testimony. 1 Corinthians 15: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul gives a list of eyewitnesses who verify the resurrection: “I saw Jesus”. The first is Peter. The risen Lord appeared to Peter, and even though that encounter is not recorded in the Gospels, it is mentioned several times. Next, Paul says, Jesus appeared to the twelve - this might be that upper room appearance recorded in the Gospels, when Christ came through a locked door. Finally he appeared to over five hundred - on the mountain in Galilee, or the Mount of Olives.
Paul’s very significant point, made by the Gospels and Acts as well, is that there was objective evidence of this resurrection, the kind of eyewitness evidence that would stand up in a court of law. I recently read a book called “Faith on Trial” which evaluated New Testament evidence by current legal rules and found it compelling.
The resurrection is the Gospel clincher. If you ask “What’s the good news about Jesus?” I’d say first that Jesus became a man, a real person like you and me, because he loved us, and wanted us to have a right relationship with God. That relationship was broken by sin, by the rebellion of all people against God’s godhood and his law: ‘You can’t tell me what to do, God.’ But Jesus paid the price of a rebel - he allowed himself to be put to death – by the sacrifice of his own life, he gave us new life.
But how would we know he’d had won that victory for us without the resurrection? What assurance would we have of new life and eternal life, if he hadn’t himself risen from the dead to eternal life? The resurrection is the clincher - it shows that what we believe is objectively true.
And when we become Christians, we do so by consciously putting our faith and trust in a risen Savior. Have you done that? Have you recognized your sin and rebellion and turned from them to accept the free gift of salvation, the eternal life he offers? If you haven’t, all the wonderful promises we’re studying today don’t apply to you: Christ will still come back, but you won’t be raised, you won’t be with him forever. It’s like an airline flight - if you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get on the plane.
Paul says, because we know that Christ has been raised from the dead, we also know God will bring with Christ all those who have fallen asleep in Him. And if the evidence of His resurrection is not enough, Paul also has the Lord’s own word that we who are left till the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
The Greek word for the coming of Christ in this verse is parousia. This particular word had a double background in Greek culture. In one sense the word was a religious expression for the coming of a hidden divinity who makes his presence felt by a revelation of his power. But parousia was the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, especially kings and emperors visiting a province. So Paul is saying that the coming of Christ will be the coming of a divine king.
In referring to this as the Lord’s own word, Paul is probably quoting a well known saying of Jesus that didn’t get into the Gospels. John’s Gospel says that if you wrote down everything Christ did and said, there wouldn’t be enough books for it. This specific promise was apparently one of those sayings. But he made many other promises of his return and reign: “For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
III. The Promise of our hope (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)
So we’ve seen the purpose of these verses: that they might hope and not grieve like others. We’ve seen the premise: the resurrection of Christ and the assurance of his own words. Now we want to look closely at the actual promise, Verses 16 and 17:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever.
Paul paints a vivid picture. Let me read it again, asking you to close your eyes, and use your senses – hearing, sight, even the feel of the wind on your skin – to imagine this event. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
John Stott sees four distinct events in these two verses: The return, the resurrection, the rapture, the reunion. The return: the Lord himself will descend from heaven. In Acts 1 an angel told the disciples they would see Jesus return just the way they’d seen him go. He went up into the sky to heaven, and he will return through the sky.
And this return will not be silent - it will be heralded by a great fanfare. There will be a shout - perhaps the voice of Jesus himself. Max Lucado wrote once that he thinks Jesus will shout ‘enough!’: enough pain, enough sorrow, enough sin, enough persecution, enough death, enough waiting. Enough.
There will also be the voice of an Archangel. Paul doesn’t say which Archangel - possibly Michael, the only archangel clearly identified in Scripture, though tradition has Gabriel sounding the trumpet. Maybe Michael shouts and Gabriel plays the horn. In any event the trumpet is a symbol used in Scripture for this moment. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
Jesus himself describes this moment in Matthew 24:30. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Jesus is coming again. And when he returns there will be a resurrection. Paul tells us “The dead in Christ will rise first.” Believers who have died between the Lord’s first coming and his second coming will rise before anything happens to those still living. Only God knows the number of those who have died ‘in Christ’. But the whole number of them, will be restored to physical bodies in that moment.
A return, a resurrection, and then a rapture. Verse 17: “then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds” We get our word ‘rapture’ from the Latin word for ‘caught up’ The rapture is a taking up of believers. Just as those who have died will be resurrected, those living will be raptured.
So there is a return, a resurrection, a rapture, and finally there is a reunion - and this may be the greatest thing of all. Verse 17: “We will all meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.” The ultimate purpose of this whole sequence events is that we, the resurrected and raptured of Christ, would be together with each other and with our risen Lord, in his presence through all eternity.
So this is the personal, bodily and pre-millennial return of Jesus. My best understanding of Scripture, our denomination’s best understanding of Scripture is that these events occur before Christ reigns on earth for a thousand years - the millennium. The span of a thousand years is emphasized in Revelation chapter 20, verses 1 to 6:
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
4I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
Notice the repeated emphasis on the thousand years. Christ reigns on earth for a thousand years, and I believe that during that time many of God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled. But whether the rapture is followed immediately by this reign is not clear. Many people believe as I do that the time of tribulation, the outpouring of God’s wrath, will occur after the rapture and before the reign. In other words we will be removed before that wrath is fully evident. This could be a pre-tribulation rapture or a mid-tribulation rapture depending on your interpretation of other Scriptures.
So these verses teach us that Jesus returns, raises those who have died as believers, raptures those who are alive as believers, and is reunited with them forever. Wow! Next week we’ll look in more detail at the events which follow, the ushering in of eternity in a new heaven and a new earth.
IV. The Practice of our hope (I Thessalonians 4:18)
But for now we need to obey Paul’s command, verse 18: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The practical use of this text is to comfort and encourage one another. You and I, friends, if we’ve trusted Jesus, have this great hope of his return: resurrection, rapture and eternal life. Each of us has it. Not the mature more than the child, or the eloquent more than the quiet, or the emotional more than the intellectual, but each of us.
The doctrinal statement says that this truth, “demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.” The phrase ‘blessed hope’ comes from Titus 2, where Paul writes: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
I know many of you are going through trials – financial, relational, personal. Trials of illness, difficulty with children, daily pressure and stress and temptation. I want to comfort you with this truth: you know the end of the story, and Jesus wins. We’ll be with the Lord forever. We can lift each other up with the hope of his coming.
Throughout the history of the church, that has been the effect of these verses. As we saw in the letters and the tombstones of early Rome, the Christians had found the true source of comfort and of hope, in the resurrection and the words of Jesus.
A rural housewife, Fay Inchfawn, who lived at the turn of the century. wrote of her need and expectancy of God's presence in ways which speak to us even in the more sophisticated frustrations of our modern day:
Sometimes, when everything goes wrong; When days are short and nights are long,
When wash day brings so dull a sky, That not a single thing will dry.
And when the kitchen chimney smokes, and when there's none so "old" as folks;
When friends deplore my faded youth, and when the baby cuts a tooth
While John, the baby last but one, clings round my skirts till day is done;
And bright, good-natured Jane is glum and butcher's man forgets to come
Sometimes I say, on days like these I get a sudden gleam of bliss.
Not on some sunny day of ease He'll come...but on a day like this.
Martha Snell Nicholson, a Christian poet who triumphed over much sorrow, says the same thing with a contrasting image: “The best part is the blessed hope of his soon coming. How I ever lived before I grasped that wonderful truth, I do not know. How anyone lives without it in these trying days I cannot imagine. Each morning I think, with a leap of the heart, "He may come today." And each evening, "When I awake I may be in glory."
There are no more grey days--for they're all touched with color; no more dark days--for the radiance of His coming is on the horizon; no more dull days, with glory just around the corner; and no more lonely days, with His footsteps coming ever nearer, and the thought that soon, soon, I shall see His blessed face forever.”
Don’t you long to hear that cry? “Enough” Let’s be people who encourage one another in the hope of his coming.