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TEXT: I Thessalonians 4:13-18
SUBJECT: Thessalonians #7: The Dead in Christ
The Thessalonians were fascinated by the Second Coming of Christ. Paul preached the doctrine when he was with them and they accepted it from the heart. For some time, the Lord's Return was a cause for celebration-and you understand why. The Christians were a small and hated minority. Their families were excluding them, the Jews were vilifying them, and the Romans were persecuting them. But though the pressure on them was building every day, they could stand up under it because the Lord was coming again. He'd surely come back in the next couple or three years, and probably far sooner than that.
But He didn't.
Several years had passed and the Lord had not come again. The Thessalonians did not take this to mean He was never coming again. They believed in the Lord's Return, as firmly as ever. But the passing of time had them worried sick because some of their loved ones had died. They feared the dead in Christ would miss the Second Coming and lose all the blessings that go with it.
Their fears are groundless, of course, but Paul takes them seriously and does what he can to relieve them. Remember: the stupidest fear is a real fear to the one who has it. The man who takes every cough for lung cancer may be a hypochondriac, but he's still scared out of his mind! Instead of dismissing him, laughing at him, or bawling him out, we ought feel for him and help him if we can. Some people are hopeless-I know that-but love (still) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
So, back to the question: Will dead believers miss out on the Second Coming of Christ? The Thessalonians honestly don't know, but Paul does, and he patiently puts their fears to rest.
On this point of End-Time prophecy, Paul does not want them to be ignorant. Underline the words, this point. You ought to be content not knowing some things about the Second Coming of Christ. Paul names one of them in 5:2,
You know (perfectly) well that the Day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.
A thief in the night comes unexpectedly. If he told you what night we was coming and at what time, you'd be waiting for him and he couldn't steal anything. In the same way, Paul says, the Lord is coming again. He's coming without notice. The Bible does not teach the day or the hour when the Lord is coming again-and not the month, year, decade, or century He's coming either. He knows when He's coming again but He's not telling!
Why doesn't the Lord want us to know when He will return? The Church has always longed to know this; believers in every age have scoured the Bible to find out; and sometimes they've looked elsewhere. But no one knows. Those who have said they did didn't. If we all want to know this, why doesn't He tell us?
For the same reason we don't tell our five year old kids about the birds and the bees: Because they don't need to know, and because, at this point in their lives knowing would do them more harm than good.
If Paul does not want us to know when the Lord is coming again, he very much wants us to know what will happen to believers when He does.
There are two kinds of Christians: dead and alive. Paul tells us what happens to each kind when the Lord comes again. Because the Thessalonians are worried about the dead ones, Paul spends most of his time on them.
THE DEAD IN CHRIST
To us, the dead are dead. We may think about them often, dream about them, wonder what they would do if they were still with us, and so on. But we have lost contact with them. To us, the dead are dead.
But, to the Lord, they are asleep. Some have taken this to mean there is no intermediate state, that the dead are unconscious until the Second Coming. The Bible is strongly against this view. Its teaching is rather sketchy on where the unbelieving dead are right now, and we ought to be careful about being too detailed on this. For dead believers, though, the Bible could not be plainer: they are alive, conscious, and triumphant with the Lord in heaven!
When the Lord returns, Paul says,
He will bring them with Him.
But this is not what the Thessalonians were worried about. And no matter how often you hear it at funerals, shaking off the body and going to heaven when you die is not the Blessed Hope!
What has become of our loved ones' bodies? They have gone into the ground, and with enough time, they'll dissolve into dust. But God has not lost track of their dust. Paul does not say the bodies rest in the earth, he says they sleep in Jesus. Living or dead, the Christian's body is in fellowship with Christ!
Being in fellowship with Christ means sharing His life-including His physical life! If no tomb could hold Him, no grave, ocean, or urn can hold us!
Your resurrection is every bit as sure as the resurrection of God's Son! Because you're in Christ-
Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.
Paul finishes this part of the answer with what I think is a joke-a true joke, to be sure, but a joke nonetheless,
We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.for the dead in Christ shall rise first.then we who are alive will be caught up to meet Him in the air.
It's not bad to die before the Lord comes again. In fact, it's better to die before the Second Coming! Why? Not because death is such a nice thing, nobody wants to miss it, but because the dead in Christ see the Lord first!
And why shouldn't they? Most of them are far older than the living. If grandfathers and fathers are seated before sons and grandsons, why shouldn't Peter and Paul be seated before you and I?
Don't worry about dead Christians! Their spirits are with the Lord right now and wonderfully happy. Their bodies are still united to Christ, and if He rose from the dead, they will too!
Traditional Judaism pictures the Resurrection as a Harvest. To a farming people, this was the happiest time of the year. All the work and worries and weeds are done with, and the crops are safe in the barn.
Paul believed this long before he became a Christian. But when he was converted, he saw the Harvest wasn't exactly what he thought it would be.
There would be a harvest-he always knew that. But he didn't know it would be made up of two parts. But he should have known it. For this was the pattern in Israel. The crops were taken in in two stages: first fruits, and then the rest. The first fruits-in a special way-belonged to God. The Resurrection would be like this too: Christ is the first fruits (of the resurrection), and then those who are Christ's at His coming.
The believer's resurrection is sure because the Lord is risen indeed.
THE LIVING IN CHRIST
Not every Christian will be dead when the Lord comes again. We don't know who will be alive at the time, only that some will be. Maybe you and I will be. We leave that to God and don't worry about it.
What will happen to living Christians when the Lord returns? In a word: we meet Him in the air. How will we get up there? We'll be called up there-by the shout of Christ, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God.
This makes me admire the Word of God. It not only tells us what to do, but it enables us to do it. At the tomb of Lazarus, the Lord not only called the dead man to come out, but He gave him the life to come out. In the same way, the shout of Christ not only calls us up into the air, but it gives us the power to fly! Everyone in the world-I suppose-has dreamed of flying. Maybe that's a hint that we were made to fly, when the Lord comes again.
What are we going up there for?
On this point, many Christians have got it backwards. They think the Lord is calling us up to heaven where we'll live with Him forever (or seven years). But this is not the picture at all. The Lord is coming back to earth, and like any King coming to take His kingdom, His supporters run out to welcome Him! But they don't greet Him in the outskirts of town so He and they can go back to where He came from. No! They go out to meet Him to escort Him into His kingdom!
This is what we have here. It's not a secret rapture of the Church. If it were, how come Paul is at pains to make it so noisy? Shout, voice of an archangel, trumpet of God!
I thought I should mention this is passing, but this part is secondary: the main thing is: thus we shall ever be with the Lord.
When the Lord comes again, the living and formerly dead Christians will be gathered around our King-and He will publicly make us His own.
This is Paul's doctrine: The Lord will come again. Dead saints will be raised, living believers will be translated, and they all lived happily ever after. That's the doctrine.
But Paul didn't write these things so we would know the doctrine (as good as that may be). He wrote it so we would feel the doctrine--
Therefore, comfort one another with these words.
Why does Paul tell us about the Second Coming? So we would speculate about it? Set dates for it? Split churches over it? Join cults because of it? Look down on others because they differ with us on it? Judging by what I see in the world, these are the reasons he told us.
But when I look in the Bible, I see something else. The Second Coming is meant to comfort us. Not excite us, not to make us mad, not to bore us, but to relieve our fears and to give us hope.
To the Thessalonians it meant they hadn't lost their loved ones who died in Christ! It means the same to us, for we also love the dead.
It means other things too: It means our problems will not last forever. Every tear will be wiped away-not most of them, but all of them! Broken hearts-and broken bodies--will be mended at the Resurrection.
It means sin is on the way out. It seems all-powerful at the moment, but the tide has turned with the Resurrection of Christ and before long, sin will be no more! Resurrected men don't lust; resurrected women don't worry; resurrected kids don't fight.
It means God is love. He loves the whole creation. He loves our souls, our bodies, and the world we live in. The Second Coming doesn't destroy the creation, it renews it. The meek shall inherit the earth-an earth worth inheriting.
It means God is just. To the Jews, Resurrection was a mighty symbol of Divine Justice. Wicked men may rule now-Nebuchadnezzars may heat up furnaces, but one day, the Judge will come to set things right: the wicked will be condemned and the righteous will be justified. They were right. The friends of Christ will be honored that day. People who were called hypocrites and Pharisees--and who thought of themselves as dirty sinners-- will be told what they really are: faithful servants and the King's long-lost family. Home at last.
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