The Christian’s Hope
Scripture Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In an earlier study our attention was directed to the Christian’s walk (Chap. 4:1-12); it is now to be fixed upon the Christian’s hope. Paul in this paragraph departs from the main line of his teaching. The digression embraces the section from chapter four and verse thirteen to chapter five and verse eleven.
When Timothy brought his report to Paul from Thessalonica (Chap. 3:6), he made references to the faith of the saints there, and to their love, but said nothing about their hope. Had the “patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” alluded to in chapter one been shaken because some fellow believers had died? Apparently, there had arisen a condition in the assembly that required an exposition of the second coming of Christ, His coming for His people (Chap. 4), and His coming with His people (Chap. 5).
The believer’s hope occupies a prominent place in this Epistle; in fact, each chapter closes with an assertion relative to it. From these statements we learn that the second coming of our Lord Jesus is: an inspiring hope for the saved sinner (Chap. 1:10), an encouraging hope for the tried servant (Chap. 2:19), a purifying hope for the tempted saint (Chap. 3:13), a comforting hope for the sorrowing saint (Chap. 4:17), and an arousing hope for the sleeping saint (Chap. 5:6).
During Paul’s absence from them, some believers had died, had fallen asleep in Jesus, and their passing had caused much sorrow. Those who had lost relatives were stricken with grief because of the mistaken idea that these loved ones would miss the blessing of seeing Christ set up His Kingdom. The truth regarding the establishing of the Kingdom of God on earth had been revealed in both the Old Testament and the first three Gospels. Paul also had made a reference to it earlier in this very Epistle (Chap. 1:11). He now feels impelled to give them fuller instructions, so he writes, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep.” The word “asleep” is the one from which we derive our English word cemetery. The word has to do with the body, the death of the body, and in this connection it suggests restfulness, a state in which there is no moral communication with the person, and a state which is temporary.
“That ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” Certainly, the Christian sorrows; it is difficult to break the ties of nature for such an experience causes sadness. The child of God does not sorrow to the same extent as does the unconverted; their loss is twofold, for not only have they lost a loved one, but they have lost all hope of ever seeing them again. How different for the believer!
“For if (since) we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.” The “if” of this verse is not an if of doubt but one of argument.
“Jesus died.” Thank God for the use of His human name! He, the sinless Man who lived for a whole generation among sinful men, died; yet, death had no claim upon Him. It was not sleep for Him, but death in all its grim reality, the fruit of human sin. This should have been the experience of all, but Christ died for all and then arose. His resurrection, therefore, becomes the proof of ours. Because He lives, we shall live also (John 14:19). We shall live together with Him (Chap. 5:10).
What a precious thought is involved in the expression, “Them also which sleep in (by or through) Jesus.” It is He that puts His own to rest. Those sleepers God will bring with Him. Some, no doubt, there may be who will ask, how will this take place?
The Apostle gives instruction both as to the manner and the order in which these things are to be accomplished. “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (Vv. 15-17). In this detailed clarification are six precious comforting truths.
A New Revelation: “This we say unto you by the word of the Lord,” or better, This we say in a word by the Lord. This is something entirely new, something not mentioned in the Old Testament or in the first three Gospels. It is revealed in a message from the Lord, His title of absolute authority. Since that is true, we have the most reliable information about our hope. Peter does not speak of the blessed hope of the Church, because it was given to Paul as a special revelation by the exalted Head of the Church.
“The Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout,” with a voice. with a trump; all of which are for the ear. Now notice what happens:
The Resurrection of the Saints: “The dead in Christ shall rise first” (V. 16).
The Rapture of the Saints: “We shall be caught up.” Paul himself is the example of this, he says, “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third Heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2).
The Reunion of the Saints: “We shall be caught up together.”
The Residence of the Saints: “So shall we ever be with the Lord.
The Return of the Saints: “Them also that sleep in (through) Jesus will God bring with Him”; that is, at His appearing.
Death is not the Christian’s hope. At death the saints go home one by one; they go to be with Christ, “Absent from the body … present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). In this passage the Apostle is teaching that Christ is coming for His own, and that all shall be caught up together. No, death is not the hope of the Church.
The coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was not the realization of the Church’s hope. Pentecost was the commencement of the Church; the return of Christ, in one respect, will be the consummation of the Church.