End Times, A
Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
It’s a pretty familiar scene in any day care or preschool. In fact, it’s a familiar sight here at our own church. You’ve got a handful of children being dropped off for a short while, and the responses are varied.
Some kids are asleep. Some kids don’t seem to care at all what’s happening. Some kids are just eager to play. And some kids are falling apart because Mom and Dad have left them all alone.
I see that when I drop off my own kids sometimes in the Nursery, and I thought, that’s not a bad picture of how some Christians handle the end times. Jesus left. He’s coming back again. And in the meantime, what do we do?
Some people couldn’t care less. The thought of Jesus returning means nothing to them. Some don’t really understand what it all means. Some are more concerned with other things. And some can get very upset or grieved with the thought of it all.
Just saying the phrase “End Times” to somebody can get you a wide variety of responses. Some are enamored with heaven. Some are obsessed with hell. And some are scared to death about it all. The media doesn’t always help with books and movies depicting what the end of the world will be like.
As Christians, as followers of Christ, as those who have received the word of God, we should be ready to speak up with the truth. And we should allow that truth to affect the way we respond to these kinds of things, in our emotions, in our actions, and in our words.
As we wrap up this series on doctrine, we’re going to take two weeks to talk about issues related to the End Times. The theological word for a study of the end times is Eschatology. For most people, when you mention eschatology, the most common book they think about is Revelation. And that really is the go-to-book for eschatology.
But that doesn’t mean that no other books talk about the end times. The Old Testament tells us a lot about the end, especially in the prophets. The gospels record Jesus talking about the End Times with His disciples. And the Epistles say a lot about it as well.
This July, we’ve chosen to have a three-night class on the book of Revelation, in order to learn more about it and expose some of you to it. You’ll get more information about that pretty soon. But because of that, I think it’ll be helpful for us not to look at Revelation, but to one of Paul’s epistles.
Sometimes, the End Times is like a puzzle with many pieces that need to be fitted together. And some people prefer to fit the pieces together to make their own preferred image. They try to make all the pieces fit into a preconceived system. And as a result, you get a lot of possible outcomes. More important than how it all fits together, though, is that we understand each piece properly.
This morning, I really just want to focus on one piece of the puzzle. And that is the Rapture. If you look up the word “rapture” in a concordance, you’ll find that it’s not used in the Bible. In fact, the Rapture is only explicitly mentioned in one passage. That is our passage for today, 1 Thessalonians 4.
The word “Rapture” comes from the Latin word used in verse 17, which is translated “caught up.” And we’ll get to that a little later on.
But before we start talking about this passage, you need to know some of the background. The Thessalonian church was planted by Paul after fleeing from the persecution in Philippi. This was during his 2nd Missionary Journey. Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica had a synagogue and Paul preached there. The result was that many were converted to Christ, and again, opposition came from the Jews. You can read about that in Acts 17.
The conversion of Thessalonica was dramatic. Not everyone was a former Jew. In fact, a lot of people came out of pagan idolatry. And so you got a large crowd of new believers who were excited and eager and thankful and loving because of Jesus Christ.
After Paul left the city, he sent Timothy back to check up on them. And then Timothy returned with a report on how the church was doing. Let me just show you this in some of the earlier passages of the book. In response to this report, Paul writes this letter. This would be around the year A.D. 50.
Skim over 1 Thes 1:2-10; 3:6-10.
So this is a church that’s very close to Paul’s heart. He loves them. He cares about them. They are new believers, eager to receive the truth of Christ but also facing persecution. So Paul writes this letter to encourage them and clarify some issues.
With that goal in mind we come to our passage for today. Paul starts this little section off by telling them his motivation. Verse 13.
Paul’s goal is to just to teach them something, but to bring them comfort. He’s saying: “I want you to know something, and it’s not just for the sake of knowledge, it so that you won’t grieve.”
Grieve about what? Paul says it there in verse 13. It’s “about those who are asleep.” This is concerning those who have died already. To say someone went to sleep was a nicer way of saying they had died. It’s a euphemism.
It doesn’t mean that dead people go into some kind of soul-sleep. That’s not what the Bible teaches. Jesus told the thief on the cross that He would be in Paradise today. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5 that we want to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. Philippians 1 says to live is Christ, to die is gain. When a Christian dies he goes to be with Christ. Romans 8 says it too: Not even death will separate us from the love of God in Christ.
The body may look like it’ sleeping, but the soul is experiencing the joys of Christ or the anguish of condemnation. That was Jesus’ teaching in the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.
Well, here’s the question: What was it about those who had died that was upsetting the people in Thessalonica? More than likely, the Thessalonian Christians understood that Jesus would come to rescue them. They understood that their enemies would be judged. But they weren’t sure what that meant for the dead.
The coming of Jesus would be an amazing display or power and joy and salvation. But what if someone already died? Would they miss it? Would they miss out on the joys of heaven and Christ? Well, some of them thought so. And so Paul steps in with some instruction for them. Look at verse 14.
He points them back to what they already know. Jesus died and rose again. It’s like he’s asking them rhetorically: Jesus came back from the dead, right? So, if that happened to Jesus, the same is going to happen to His people. This is an extension of our union with Christ. This is a practical application of their theology. Paul is just connecting the dots for them.
Believers are united to Jesus Christ. When they die, they die “in Christ” or “through Christ.” The ESV moves the phrase back and it loses some of its meaning, but the NAS and the HCSB and the NIV do a better job I think. That’s a beautiful way to put it. We fall asleep through Jesus. Just like Jesus’ death was in God’s hands, so is the death of a believer. We have a relationship with Jesus that even affects our death.
Jesus’ story in Luke 16 says that it’s the angels who carried the man away. In Jude, it says that the archangel Michael watched over Moses’ body. These are amazing truths about how much God cares for those who have passed. He cares because they are in Christ. He cares for them because they are His children.
And just like Jesus will return one day physically, so will everyone who has died in Him. Christ will bring their souls back and reunite them with their glorified bodies. Those who have died in Christ aren’t going to miss any part of Christ’s return.
In fact, as we’ll see in the next verse, they get the front row seat. The resurrection of Jesus was amazing, but nobody got to see it happen. They didn’t see His body be transformed and glorified and reunited with the soul. But when the same thing happens to Christians, they’ll get to experience it for themselves.
At this point, someone might say: “Ya Paul, that all sounds nice, but it’s all speculation. Nobody knows for sure.” And look at what Paul says. Verse 15.
He’s speaking with authority. He’s speaking with assurance. He’s not speculating. Because he was told by the Lord Jesus Christ. When? I don’t know. It’s possible that Jesus talked about this during His earthly ministry, maybe during the Olivet Discourse. But if that was the case, it probably would have been recorded in the gospels.
More likely, this was probably a new teaching given to Paul by a revelation. First Corinthians 15:51 says that our glorification-transformation is a mystery, something which wasn’t revealed earlier. So it seems that the Rapture is something Jesus entrusted especially to Paul. And the fact that it came directly from Jesus would add not just to the authority, but to the comfort it gives.
And Paul restates what he has already been saying. “We who are left alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Paul uses the strongest negative possible here. It won’t happen. There’s no way it’s going to happen. They’re not going to miss a thing. There’s no disadvantage for them. They’ll be there when Christ returns. They’re not missing anything.
I imagine it’s common at times in our lives, when something special happens, we think about those who have passed and we think: “Oh, I wish they were here to see this and experience this.” Well, guess what? They’re thinking the exact same thing as they rejoice before the Lord. And as we look forward to one of the most glorious and amazing days in human history, no Christian, dead or alive, will think: “I wish you were here to see this.” Because we’ll all be there. We’ll all see it.
The word here for the coming of Christ’s is parousía. And it was a word people used for the arrival of a god or a king to a city. It was something glorious and triumphant and loud and amazing and majestic and awesome. It will be an honor to be there. And Paul’s comfort here is: It’s not only for us who are left alive. It’s for everyone. In fact, those who have died already will rise first.
Verse 16, then, talks about the specific order of all these events. And he gives us three phrases to describe what it’s going to be like. Verse 16.
First, there’s the cry of command, or a shout. This was something an officer in the army would do for his troops. It’s a shout of authority. It’s a command. This is the shout of Christ for the dead to rise.
John 5:25 says “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” This isn’t a shout for everyone to come to life. Here it’s just describing a resurrection of those who are in Him—those who were united to Christ by faith.
This would be similar to the shout of Jesus in John 11:43. Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth! Come out of the grave!” It’s a shout of urgency and of authority. And it produces an instant response.
The second phrase says there’s the “voice of an archangel.” The word for voice could also mean “sound” so it could be a reference to some kind of speech or some kind of sound being made.
And the third phrase Paul give us is “the sound of the trumpet of God.” There will be a trumpet. And it won’t be a Mariachi band. Actually, in those days, trumpets weren’t really thought of as musical instruments.
In the Bible, trumpets were marks of festivity, triumph, majesty, and greatness. They were used when God was coming to be with His people. They were used to gather Israel together.
The Romans were known for the pomp of their trumpets. The army did practically nothing without them. When the Emperor Claudius died, it was said that the trumpets were so loud, even the dead could hear them. Well, in this case, the dead will hear the trumpet. And they will respond by rising.
This is the same thing it says in 1 Corinthians 15, when it discusses our glorification. We looked at that passage on Easter. First Corinthians 15:52 says: The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
That’s what’s going to happen. There’s gonna be a shout, there’s gonna be a trumpet. And it will be unmistakable that something amazing is happening. Frankly, I don’t see how some people could read this and think that there’s going to be some kind of secret Rapture. Paul is saying just the opposite. Unbelievers might not know what has happened, but they’ll know it’s something beyond what anyone has ever experienced.
Well, what happens after the trumpet? The end of verse 16 says so: The dead in Christ will rise first. They get a place of privilege. Then what? Verse 17.
That’s the Rapture. The verb there for “caught up” is a strong word. Arpáẓo. It means to snatch something away. To take something forcefully. It was even used for criminals or animals snatching something for themselves and dragging at away for themselves. What it emphasizes is a helplessness in the object being taken. They don’t have any control.
That’s what’s going to happen. Those of us who are alive are stuck in this world. We’re attached to a place of sin and violence and immorality. And Jesus is going to snatch us away. It’ll be sudden and swift. And as a result, we’ll be with Jesus. And we’ll be with our lost loved ones. That’s what Paul emphasizes at the end of verse 17: And so WE (plural) will always be with the Lord.
It will be a glorious meeting. Are you looking forward to that? Meeting with your lost loved ones. Meeting with the saints of old. And most of all, a face-to-face with the glorified Jesus Christ. Your Redeemer. Your Savior. Your Lord. Your Friend. The champion over sin and death and Satan.
Where are we going to meet him? What does it say? In the clouds. In the air. This is huge. First of all, it means you’ll be flying. But more importantly it’s the demonstration of the power and victory of Christ.
Many people thought of the air as the realm of Satan and the demons. In Ephesians 2:2, Satan is called the prince of the power of the air. But Satan is not the final authority. Jesus is. And you’ll be with him. In the air. In the clouds.
The fact that Paul mentions clouds is significant too because clouds were a symbol of God’s presence. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence is symbolized with a cloud. On one occasion, at the end of Exodus, God’s cloud fills the tabernacle. And it says nobody could enter it. But now, we get to enter. We get to enter into the very presence of God.
Does that excite you? I hope so. The end matters. The end is part of what God wants us to know. And it’s not just for mature believers. It’s for everyone. That’s what happened at Thessalonica. Look back again at 1 Thes 1:9-10. Look at the transformation of the church. And look at how he describes them. 1 Thes 1:9-10.
This is the kind of people we’re supposed to be. People waiting for the return of Christ. People relying on His salvation and mercy. People for whom theology is not just an intellectual exercise, but people for whom theology produces worship. It stirs their hearts. And the truth within them spills out.
It spills out into their conversation with others. And it spills out into their conversations with brothers and sisters in the Lord. This is how Paul ends this section on the rapture. Let’s close with 1 Thessalonians 4:18.
You see, for Paul it wasn’t just about teaching about the Rapture or about glorification or about eschatology. It was about filling the people with comfort and hope. And what he’s telling them should be what they are repeating to one another. In the words of 2 Corinthians, they are comforted and then they become comforters for other people with the same truth.
That’s God’s calling for you. Take this truth and talk to others about it. Minister to their souls with the truth of Jesus Christ. People all around us living with grief and doubt concerning death and the end times. And our response is not just to strike an emotional chord. It’s to proclaim to them what God is doing in the world. It is to ground them in the truth of God. We have certainty concerning our future. Everyone who has repented of sin and surrendered to Christ has that certainty.
We will be reunited with those who have passed. With those who have gone on before us. And we will be forever with our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no greater comfort in this life.