Hope in the Midst of Grief
Sunday School Lesson for October 14, 2001
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
The Facts Concerning the Dead in Christ (4:13-14)
It is apparent in this section that the believers in Thessalonica had a serious question regarding the status of their beloved fellow-Christians who had diedó"those who are asleep." The response that the apostle provides here is designed to prevent them from remaining "uninformed," or ignorant, of the essential facts related to the death and resurrection of believers, and their place in the Second Advent. It seems quite possible that this question was relayed to Paul upon the return of Timothy from his fact-finding mission of 3:5-6. From the concluding line of verse 13ó"that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope"ówe may discern that Paulís intention was to provide them with enough information to prevent their needless suffering and pain over the deaths of their Christian brothers and sisters.
Specifically, Paulís words of assurance and comfort have to do with the consequences of the reality of Christís own resurrectionó"if we believe that Jesus died and rose again." Whatever hope the apostle could hold out for them was firmly anchored to the one indispensable Christian belief that Jesus Christ was raised bodily from the grave on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3-58). This being the case, the Thessalonians are called to rest in the truth that, at the coming of Christ, "God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." While this passage does not set forth Paulís full eschatological expectation regarding the final resurrection and judgment, it does shed some degree of light on the intermediate state. Deceased believers are ushered into Christís presence immediately upon death where they will await the resurrection of their bodies at the Second Advent (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). In this way Christ will return to earth "bring[ing] with Him" those who have died as Christians. The picture being drawn by Paul, therefore, is one that will serve to confirm that those who have died as believers will suffer no disadvantage at the Second Advent. Interestingly, Paul refers to the death of believers as "sleep" (see 1 Cor. 11:30), yet speaks of Christ as having "died." This seems to highlight the magnificent truth that by means of Christís own death and resurrection He has forever transformed the experience of death for all those trusting in Him. "Whereas for the natural man death is the antagonist which no man can combat, for the Christian it is completely without terrors" (Leon Morris, 86).
The Dead in Christ and the Second Advent (4:15-16)
Here, the specific details concerning the Second Advent are presented with full apostolic authorityó"by the word of the Lord". Namely, that Christ Himself assured the apostles that those living at the time of His parousia would not "precede those who have fallen asleep." It is possible, according to Charles Wanamaker, that "the Thessalonians feared that their dead would lose out on the chance to be [bodily] assumed to heaven at the time of the parousia" and were, consequently, "troubled about their dead because they believed that to be assumed to heaven with Christ at His parousia one had to be alive" (172). With these assuring words, Paul confirms that at Christís return it is the deceased believers who will be raised first, followed by those living.
The exact sequence of events is now presented. First, "the Lord Himself will descend from heaven" in keeping with Christís own declaration (Matt. 16:27; Mark 13:26) and the announcement of the angels (Acts 1:11). As Leon Morris notes, "Paulís main point is that it is none other than the Lord Himself who will come. The end of the age is not to be ushered in by some intermediary, but by God Himself (cf. Mic. 1:3). The whole scene is awe-inspiring and full of grandeur" (87). As described in this verse, the Lordís return will be accompanied by other significant phenomena:
The Living and the Second Advent (4:17-18)
Now Paul turns to set forth the events related to those believers living at the time of the Lordís return. Following the resurrection of the dead saints, those "who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds." The language utilized by Paul bespeaks of both the sheer force and suddenness of this climactic event. Interestingly, the verb "caught up" is translated as "snatched away" in Acts 8:39 and "take by force" in Acts 23:10. Having been gathered up by the exercise of divine power, the living saints will be reunited with those who have died in Christ and will ascend to "meet the Lord in the air." Again, the terminology employed by the apostle is significant for understanding the nature of these events. "Meet" is a translation of an ancient word used to depict a dignitaryís official visit to a city. Bruce observes that "the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the [apantesis, or Ďmeetingí]" (102). As Bruce and others have suggested, Paul may be implying that at the Lordís return both dead and living saints will be gathered together in the air in order to escort their victorious King back to earth where the final judgment awaits (this is the interpretation generally affirmed by the Historic Pre-mill, A-mill, and Post-mill schemes). This conception also appears to be consistent with Christís declaration in Matthew 24:27-31. In light of verse 14, it becomes clear that Christ will indeed come with and for His saints. Those who have died in Christ and exist in a disembodied state will return with the Lord to be joined with their resurrected bodies. Living believers will be instantly transformed and gathered to the clouds with the Lord and their resurrected brethren (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
The passage ends with the statement that, having been gathered unto Christ, "we shall always be with the Lord." Thus, believers should continually "comfort one another with these words," especially those who have suffered the death of a Christian friend or family member. It is the promise of resurrection, and of Christís return and ultimate victory over the grave, that gives the Christian hope in the face of death. Furthermore, we are assured that those who have gone before us in death are secure in the presence of Christ and will fully participate in the His glorious Second Advent.
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: The Christian and DeathóHere Paul sets forth a Christian theology of death and grief. What is it that makes the believerís experience of death (the death of a loved one) different from those outside His kingdom? Can you think of other Scripture passages that address this issue? According to verse 14 where are the dead in Christ now? What comfort does this bring to those who have lost family or friends in death? Is it wrong for a believer to grieve or mourn the loss of someone?
Two: The Second Advent and the GospelóIs it really essential to believe in the bodily return of Christ? What does this doctrine have to do with the gospel? Is it essential that we all agree concerning the details of Christís return? How much attention should we give to this truth? Is it possible to abuse this doctrine, and if so, how? What are the essential components of this doctrine that all must agree on? Hint: There are three non-negotiable facts related to Christís Second Advent: Christ will return (bodily) in victory; no man knows when this will happen; all believers must be on the alert and at their station.
Three: The Second Advent and Ministry to OthersóAccording to the Apostle, we are to bring comfort to one another by means of this truth. How do we do this in practical terms? What is it, specifically, that is comforting about the Lordís return?