What Hope Do You Have?

Explore the Bible Series

January 11, 2009


Background Passage: I Thessalonians 4:13-18

Lesson Passage: I Thessalonians 4:13-18




Shortly after the War of 1812 a New England farmer experienced a profound spiritual struggle, a struggle that convinced him to abandon Deism and embrace the biblical message of salvation through faith in Christ.  William Miller joined a local Baptist Church and began to study the Bible.  During his studies, Miller developed a deep desire to understand eschatology (the doctrine of Last Things).  He followed a literalist approach to the Scriptures and utilized something he called “millennial arithmetic” to determine when the end would come.


In 1836, William Miller published a series of lectures in which he predicted, based on his careful study of the Bible, when Jesus would return.  Thousands of followers embraced Miller’s ideas, and a Baptist minister named Joshua Himes promoted the fledgling Millerite movement.  In other aspects of his theology Miller remained within the mainstream of Baptist thought; however, he was convinced that ministers who did not share his millenarian views were the “Great Whore of Babylon”  (he, of course, drew this imagery from Revelation 17:1f). This kind of rhetoric steeped Millerism in a separatistic ideology that galvanized the movement and drew tens of thousands of people into this particular brand of adventism.


Reluctantly, Miller published his conclusions that Jesus would return on March 21, 1843.  His most ardent followers sold their possessions and joined Miller in awaiting the end.  When Jesus did not appear as Miller predicted, the baffled minister went back to his studies and concluded that he had made an error in calculations.  After a reconfiguration of his data, Miller predicted that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.  Again, the Millerites experienced a “Great Disappointment.”  Eventually, Miller’s significance faded, and a young woman, Ellen Gould White, assumed the leadership of many of the adventists.


From the earliest days of the British settlement of the New World, Americans have been deeply interested in the return of Jesus.  Sometimes this interest has spiraled into obsession.  No doubt, many of my readers grew up in revivalistic circles that regularly heard evangelistic sermons on the Second Coming.  I remember well the revival meetings that punctuated the church life of my youth.  Often, semiannual “revivals” reached a crescendo with a stirring description of the Lord’s return.  These sermons often produced deep emotional responses and filled the aisles with people concerned about their souls. 


Let’s face it, the “Second Coming” sells!  Since the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, Americans have renewed their fascination with the Second Advent.  New books appear regularly, books that provide bold predictions about the end of the world, and evangelicals buy these works at an astounding rate.  Radio and television preachers often interpret the Bible through the lens of the morning headlines, all intent, it seems, on concocting some new, innovative twist on an old theme.  Some aspects of this trend, in my judgment, are soul abuse.


Please don’t misinterpret my point.  The Bible clearly teaches the return of Christ, and any serious Bible student must come to grips with its unmistakable message.  However, the simplicity and mystery of Paul’s teaching, as reflected in I Thessalonians, needs emphasis.  This lesson will make every effort to avoid sensational speculation about the Lord’s return.  Frankly, I don’t understand much of the Bible’s teaching on this matter; in particular, much of Revelation remains a mystery to me.  Hopefully, our lesson will bring some clarity to the general contours of the Bible’s message and offer encouragement and comfort to the Lord’s people. 



Lesson Outline:


I.                   The Problem in Thessalonica (v. 13): To this point in our study we have only intermittent glimpses into a disturbing concern that troubled the believers in Thessalonica. At this point the text yields greater insight into their question.  Paul had taught them of the imminent return of Jesus, but, since the apostle’s departure, some of the saints had died.  Their deaths had raised serious concern about the state of those who died before Christ’s return.  This paragraph reveals Paul’s mind concerning the death of the Lord’s people. 

A.    “I do not want you to be ignorant”: Paul, of course, did no mean to insult his readers; in fact, he made certain to soften his concern by referring to them as “brothers.”  He simply wanted to underscore their need for this information.

B.     “those who have fallen asleep”: This is a fitting analogy for death, as it relates to the Christian.  Just as sleep is a temporary state, so death is for believers. 

C.     “as those who have no hope”: Leon Morris observes that the ancient, pagan world was permeated with hopelessness, in the face of death.  The Thessalonians, of course, had to overcome this worldview, and the Christian faith gave them hope, even in the face of their grief.


II.                The Believer’s Hope in Christ (vv. 14-18)

A.    “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (v. 14a): Notice the Christ-centered answer to the Thessalonian dilemma.  Their hope rested in the redemptive work of Jesus as the one who died for sinners and rose gloriously from the grave.  This hope, therefore, is not grounded in graveside platitudes and cheerful chatter; rather, it grows from the believer’s confidence in the crucified and resurrected Christ.

B.     “even so God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus” (v. 14b): Paul’s argument takes a somewhat unexpected turn; that is, he riveted his attention on the Lord’s return.  He assured the Thessalonians that those who die in Christ will return wit the Lord, at the end of the age.

C.     The nature of the Second Coming (vv. 15-17)

1.      this teaching comes by the word of the Lord (v. 15a): Paul did not claim any personal insight into the Parousia; instead, he claimed that this information came from the Lord.  We do not find this quotation in the Gospels, but perhaps Paul received this material from another source.  Maybe the Lord revealed this directly to the apostle. 

2.      those who die in the Lord will receive a position of honor as they “precede” those who remain (v. 15b).  Death, it seems, will afford these believers a special blessed status.

3.      the Lord himself will descend from heaven (v. 16a): No emissary will represent the Lord in this great undertaking.  He will personally return.

4.      with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God (v. 16b): The text does not identify the archangel, but Morris suggests that Gabriel may have this honor.  Presumably, the archangel will shout and sound a great trumpet to announce the coming of the Lord. 

5.      and the dead in Christ will rise first (v. 16c): Morris doubts this refers to the bodily resurrection of the saints, but he does not expand on his reasons for holding this view.  The text, in my judgment, seems to indicate that dead Christians will rise from the dead, at this time.

6.      those believers who are still alive will meet the Lord in the air (v. 17a): As I see the passage, all Christians will join the Lord 0in the air, and they will form a great entourage to accompany Christ in his glorious return. 

7.      Whatever the particulars, Christians will always be with the Lord (v. 17b)

D.    “comfort one another with these words” (v. 18): Believers have nothing to fear form this future sequence of events.  To the contrary, these things should strengthen and comfort the church.