1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
In a time when the year has been like no other; in a time when the presidential election has been like no other, some may want to join the writers of spirituals and go to “Glory Land,” or join songwriter Albert E. Brumley in proclaiming “I’ll Fly Away.” There have always been times in history when groups of people endured terrible hardships on this earth, and they long for Heaven. But Christians have been taught by Christ that “The Kingdom of God is within you,” Luke 17: 20-21) but it will come in its fullness at Christ’s second coming. Did you know that Leo Tolstoy, the famous author of the book, Crime and Punishment, wrote Christian books too? One was, Where Love is, There is God Also; and another was appropriately titled The Kingdom of God is Within You. It was first published in Germany because it was banned in Russia. It is about our call to offer universal, unconditional love to others: something our world—and certainly our nation—need very badly. It was also Jesus’ own message: for Christians to lead the way “for the facing of this hour” by showing love toward others. It is that kind of love that can transform our world, making hearts of stone begin to beat again. But our desire may be to pull the covers over our heads, or to cloister ourselves from the onslaught of news and election analysis. Christ calls us to pray, to love one another; and to look for the next opportunity we may have to change the world, one person at a time. Yes, we have a rising pandemic; yes we have unrest; and yes some souls may be troubled. Today, with the reading of scripture and the gathering together for worship, we hope to lead you to sing, as we just sang, “It is Well with My Soul.” Next week we will hear the solo: “How Great Thou Art” that includes this verse: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘my God how great Thou art.’” Today, however, we go to the passage that has reassured some and puzzled others for ages: 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. The last verse of “It is Well With My Soul” proclaims this hope: “And Lord, hast the day when my faith shall be sight; the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.” Today, as we have been reminded that we cannot will the Lord to hast the day of our flight to heaven, let’s explore this passage that has been at the heart of human hopes for ages.
Paul says: we do not want you to be uninformed … about those who have died so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [vs. 13] First, your Bible might say, “those who have fallen asleep;” that actually is what this text said, but it is just a euphemism for death, just as some choose to say “passed away” instead of “died.” The translators of the NRSV chose to use the word describing what actually happened—died—to make readers sure of the reference. In society, people often allude to death without saying death, which can lead children to confusion. “If he’s asleep, then he’ll wake up!” they might conclude. Even the Apostles’ Creed, from the 4th Century, declared that Jesus “descended into Hell;” or “descended unto the dead.” One of the main reasons to say that was to declare that Jesus had really died, not just fallen into unconsciousness. The other inference was that he went to the place of suffering because of the sins of humanity, not because of his own sins. And then after three days, “he arose from the dead,” he did not just “awake from sleep.” So “died” is a word of both reality and clarity. Paul refers to that in verse 14 saying: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” It is much clearer to say, since we believe Jesus died and arose, so God will bring those who also died instead of those who have “fallen asleep.” It’s more clear and more reassuring. That is blessed assurance indeed. Then Paul says in verse 15: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord: we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.” Here again we are assured that Paul is talking about being alive as we normally do: as living, breathing persons. It is not a division between people who are spiritually alive or spiritually dead. He is talking to a group of Christians in Thessalonica, in his earliest letter: he certainly assumes they are spiritually alive as they are physically alive! But the crystal-clear New Testament scholar, William Barclay, gives readers valuable insights into the reason for these reassurances. Listen:
The idea of the Second Coming had brought another problem to the people of Thessalonica. They were expecting it very soon; they fully expected to be themselves alive when it came, but they were worried about those Christians who had died. They could not be sure that those who had already died would share the glory of that day which was soon to come. Paul’s answer is that there will be one glory for those who have died and for those who survive.
[Daily Study Bible Series; The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, pp 202-203]
So what does that mean for today? If you have a Christian loved one who has died, when Christ returns, he will take them and those who are still alive up into the clouds to join him! What a wonderful message! Let’s read more as Paul describes what he expects to happen: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” You can see how many hymn writers refer to this powerful description in their lyrics! The Lord will descend—come down from heaven again to earth—at a certain signal, a signal that was familiar to readers of the Old Testament and to those who attended Temple worship: Perhaps our Lord’s cry of command will be, “It is time!” But according to the Bible, only the Father knows the time when that will happen, and he will pass that time on to his Son. So the signal is given, to alert the world, and the archangel-who is a Chief Messenger-passes the word, and the trumpet-that announces the presence of God at Temple events-is blown; and then what Paul described will occur. People have asked me over the years what Paul meant by “The dead will rise first.” You know what it means now, don’t you? It means Christians who were dead and buried will rise up first, then Paul says, “And we who are alive (remember, that means physically alive) who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” So yes, those who have died rise first, but I don’t believe the physical bodies will come out of graves, since Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So it is spiritual bodies that rise, and likely those who are alive will offer up their spiritual body to join Jesus in the clouds and be transported to heaven. The only bodily resurrection on record is that of our Lord; when the women went to anoint his body, it was gone. He later appeared back on earth in miraculous transformation.
So let me try to be clear in this case: This was a situation in time around 55 AD when Paul wrote these words. They thought Jesus would return in their lifetime. He didn’t. So does that mean our loved ones who have died, and are still in their graves or in their “returned to dust” forms, are still waiting for heaven? This calls for interpretation of what the Bible alludes to but doesn’t say:
I think that now, when we die, our physical bodies return to the ground—or to the dust from which they were created—and our spiritual bodies are drawn up to heaven. Otherwise the greatest Christians through the ages—including your loved ones and my loved ones—have not yet gone to heaven! Is that comforting news? I cannot buy that. I believe that our Lord will welcome us—in the air, or at the gates or somewhere in between—and gently walk us over to the other side. He will not accompany our broken, wrinkled, or painfully physical bodies, but our renewed spiritual selves. In spite of bumper stickers that assert: “In case of rapture, this car will be driverless,” I do not believe that God’s grand plan includes car wrecks and plane crashes. No physical corpses—or living bodies—will rise up. But you will rise, in your essence, as your spiritual self.
Finally, listen to more of what Paul says: he was really on a roll when he was writing to the Thessalonians and later the Corinthians. Here is part of his master work from 1 Corinthians 15:51 and the following:
Lo! I tell you a mystery! We shall not all sleep [remember, that means die,] 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 [imperishable means not mortal with its weaknesses and illnesses]. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable; and this mortal nature must put on immortality. .,[When that happens] “death is swallowed up in victory.”
That is what our victory in Christ is all about. Keep the faith; hold fast to hope, and in God’s time you will see your Savior Jesus! And oh, what a meeting that will be!
Let us pray: O Creator God: we are glad for the power you have given Jesus to save and deliver us. We are also glad for faithful people like Paul who explained this great mystery to the best of his ability. Now comfort us with these words, we pray, in the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 1, 2020