Devotional # 181. 3/15/16. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Intro. Last week we covered the first 12 verses of this chapter (Devotional # 180) where we saw how to be righteous Christians, but I mentioned that it was laying a foundation for us to understand how the Rapture of the Church was going to go.
vv. 13-14. Having said that it is God’s will for us to be sanctified and cleaned by not being sexually immoral (v. 3), leading a quiet life, not gossiping and working hard (v. 11), Paul finishes that thought by explaining we need to be good witness to non-Christians (“outside”) and that we Christians “may lack nothing” (v. 12). With the fact that we lack nothing, Paul moves in to the truth of what our resurrection and the Rapture will be like. You see, because we lack nothing we also do not lack knowledge. That’s why Paul can say, “I do not want you to be ignorant” because ignorance is the lack of information.
I was reading Proverbs 14 this morning (as I attempt to read the chapter of Proverbs that corresponds with the current calendar day) and verse 6 stood out as applicable to this study: “A scoffer seeks wisdom and does not find it, but knowledge is easy to him who understands” (Proverbs 14:6). From what we’re reading here in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 there are those who are “ignorant” that heaven exists and that the Rapture of the Church will happen. Today there are very few people in the “civilized” world who haven’t heard the truth about a biblical heaven and the idea of the Rapture with movies like “Left Behind” with Nicolas Cage and the “Left Behind” book series (and films with Kirk Cameron). So we can see that many of them are “scoffers”, making fun of a Savior who would die on the cross; the ideas of sin, the Rapture and heaven. But for the Christian, we have this “knowledge” and it is “easy to him who understands.” What does this do for us? We’re told this so that we will have “hope” (v. 13) but notice that verse 14 says “if”. The “if” here makes it a conditional promise. “If we believe…” Believe what? “That Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” You can’t get much clearer than that!
In verse 14 we have the roadmap: What is to be done: “believe”, in Whom: “Jesus Christ”, Why: because He “died and rose again”, and the Result: the Father “will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” To “sleep in Jesus” sounds a little strange but is actually a truthful and perfect way to put it. Anyone who has died but believed in Jesus is not really spiritually “dead” – they are merely “sleeping.” Do you remember what Jesus said to His disciples, the family and the mourners of the little girl He raised from the dead in Mark 5:35-43 (Devotional # 15) ? He said that she was just sleeping, and then proceeded to bring her back to life. What an incredible story and what an incredibly hopeful outlook – that death is not the end but merely a short time of sleep followed with the fullness of eternal life! We must keep in mind that for that little girl (and any other people Jesus raised from the dead during His ministry) they were going to have to die again since every person must die (1 Corinthians 15:22; Hebrews 9:27). But the principle still applies: God considers the physical death of His Church as merely sleeping.
vv. 15-17. Paul substantiates his claim by saying this is true because it is “the word of the Lord.” This isn’t something Paul made up or even connected the dots and made a hypotheses. No, the facts of heaven and the Rapture were told to him by God. Not only to him but we see it elsewhere in the Bible, proving the validity of these claims.
The Thessalonians were unsure in what order future things were going to happen. Would their dead friends and relative miss Jesus coming back? Hadn’t Jesus promised to save Christians from difficult times? Paul explains how things will happen and in what order:
First, at “the Rapture” Jesus will come down from heaven. This will be announced, as always, at Jesus’ command (“shout”), also announced by a separate voice of an archangel and lastly, announced by a trumpet blast.
Second, the Christians who have died before Jesus raptures the Church will rise before the believers who are still alive (“we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” and “the dead in Christ will rise first”).
Third, the Christians who are still alive will be taken from their earthly bodies (essentially dying) and join Jesus “in the clouds.”
We’ll look into these things in more detail but I think at this point it’s important to note that although many Christians refer to Jesus’ return for his Church as the “Second Coming” technically the “Second Coming” is something different that doesn’t happen until after the Tribulation. Although The Rapture and the Second Coming share some similarities, here are several key differences:
The Rapture vs. The Second Coming (Source 1)
|The Church||Jesus returns FOR His Church (1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17)||Jesus returns WITH His Church (Rev. 19:11-16)|
|Tribulation||Before (1 Thess. 5:9; Rev. 3:10)||After (Rev. chapters 16-19)|
|Reason||Believers get delivered (1 Thess. 4:13-17; 5:9)||Non-believers get judged (Rev. 3:10; 19:11-21)|
|Viewed||Hidden (1 Cor. 15:50-54)||Visible to all (Rev. 1:7)|
|Timeline||Any time (1 Cor. 15:50-54; Titus 2:13; 1 Thess. 4:14-18)||After specific events (2 Thess. 2:4; Mt. 24:15-30)|
|Contrasts Between the Rapture and the Second Coming (Source 2)|
|Christ comes for His own (John 14:3; 1Th. 5:28; 2Th. 2:1).||Christ comes with His own (1Th. 3:13; Jude 1:14; Rev. 19:14+).1|
|Christ comes in the air (1Th. 4:17).||Christ comes to the earth (Zec. 14:4; Acts 1:11).2|
|Christ claims His bride (1Th. 4:16-17).||Christ comes with His bride (Rev. 19:6-14+).3|
|Removal of believers (1Th. 4:17).||Manifestation of Christ (Mal. 4:2).4|
|Only His own see Him (1Th. 4:13-18).||Every eye shall see Him (Rev. 1:7+).5|
|Tribulation begins (2Th. 1:6-9).||Millennial Kingdom begins (Rev. 20:1-7+).6|
|Saved are delivered from wrath (1Th. 1:10; 1Th. 5:9).||Unsaved experience the wrath of God (Rev. 6:12-17+).7|
|No signs precede rapture (1Th. 5:1-3).||Signs precede Second Coming (Luke 21:11,Luke 21:15).8|
|Focus is Lord and Church (1Th. 4:13-18).||Focus is Israel and kingdom (Mat. 24:14).9|
|World is deceived (2Th. 2:3-12).||Satan is bound so he cannot deceive (Rev. 20:1-2+).10|
|Believers depart the earth (1Th. 4:15-17).11||Unbelievers are taken away from the earth (Mat. 24:37-41).12|
|Unbelievers remain on earth.||Believers remain on earth (Mat. 25:34).13|
|No mention of establishing Christ’s Kingdom on earth.||Christ has come to set up His Kingdom on earth (Mat. 25:31, Mat. 25:34).14|
|Christians taken to the Father’s house (John 14:1-3).||Resurrected saints do not see the Father’s house (Rev. 20:4+).15|
|Imminent—could happen at any moment.||Cannot occur for at least 7 years.16|
|Precedes the career of the man of sin. (2Th. 2:1-3).||Terminates the career of the man of sin (Rev. 19:20+).|
(For more on how Christians will not go through the Tribulation and how our current trials and tribulations are much different from the Tribulation event, see Devotional # 179).
The charts above should give you some good information (and maybe even some extra stuff you didn’t know like how unbelievers won’t be aware when the Rapture happens or that there are no signs that happen prior to the Rapture) but let’s look a little deeper at a couple of things specifically here in verses 15-17.
We should acknowledge that time and again in the end times it is Jesus who starts something or gives a command to begin (read Revelation). In verse 16, “The Lord Himself” who descends “with a shout” is giving a “war shout”, which shows He is “a victorious King, giving the word of command to the hosts of heaven” (Source 3). This makes sense when we realize that when the Church is pulled out here at the Rapture it is the immediate beginning of the Tribulation, the 7 years of horrible plagues that God rains down upon the earth. Jesus is signaling battle positions to His angels. After the archangel comes the trumpet blast. We should be aware this isn’t “the judgment trumpets of Revelation 8-11, but is illustrated by the trumpet of Exodus 19:16-19, which called the people out of the camp to meet God. It will be a trumpet of deliverance (cf. Zephaniah 1:16; Zechariah 9:14)” (Source 4).
Many say that the word “Rapture” is not in the Bible, as if that somehow makes it untrue. I would point out at words like Trinity, Jonah’s whale and the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” are also not found in the Bible but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many places in the Bible that teach the concept without using the exact word we use. So the reason we call it the Rapture is because of the phrase “caught up”. In the original Greek “caught up” is harpazo, which means “to seize” or “to snatch out or away” (Source 5).
We see that all of the Christians, those who were dead and those who have just died, all join Jesus “in the clouds”, “in the air.” So Jesus never actually comes down to earth but stays in the sky bringing His Church to Him. It is important for us to recognize that if He did come all the way down to earth at this point then He would be failing at the prophecy in Zechariah 14:4.
v. 18. The last part of verse 17 (“thus we shall always be with the Lord”) and this verse gave the Thessalonians, and give us nowadays, a lot of hope. The fact that all of the difficulties we have gone through on earth are over and we never have to leave our beloved Savior’s side is such a hopeful thought that it makes our current struggles worth it. Now here in verse 18 it says to “comfort one another with these words.” It’s important that we understand that this kind of “comfort” isn’t like Paul saying ‘hang in there through the tough times, the Rapture is soon’ instead he means ‘live holy lives, we have our hope of salvation!’ Do you see the difference? There is nothing wrong with being comforted by the Rapture (most Christians are!) but in the first example the focus is on us and the difficulties we’re going through, and the quick event of the Rapture, but as we’ve said many times it’s not all about us, it’s all about God. So if we “comfort” each other with encouragements to live holy lives as pleasing to God, and are hopeful and appreciative of the eternal salvation He provides, than we aren’t focused on ourselves instead our holy lives are also testimonies to the “ignorant” and “scoffers” (“outside”) who can receive his salvation just like we did!
Conclusion. When we recognize the foundation that Paul set in the first half of this chapter (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Devotional # 180) about living godly lives suddenly how Paul ends the chapter makes a lot of sense. And this key portion of Scripture on the Rapture reminds us of our personal responsibilities in our lives and in the lives of others. We take great “comfort” in the hope of our salvation and that we “shall always be with the Lord”. As you’ll see in Revelation 19:6-14 we come back to earth as part of Jesus’ army, so He is training us for great things. (Here, in 1 Thessalonians 4 Jesus is coming FOR His Church, in Revelation 19 Jesus is coming WITH His Church.) We have great responsibility and continued hope in Jesus!
Source 4: John MacArthur, The John MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1848.