Union Chapel Baptist Church



The Dead in Christ

By Stephen Mitchell

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

IV. Exhortation to the Thessalonians (4:1-5:22)

B. Exhortation Regarding Eschatological Needs (4:13-5:11)

How many messages have you heard on these six verses? I am sure you have heard them expounded at funerals, maybe grave-side readings. I just used these six verses at a recent funeral. And any time a pastor focused on the Rapture, these verses were read. I have heard them taught and preached many, many times. I am not sure what I could say that is new about these sentences that Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica.

What we are going to do this morning is focus, not on the Dispensational Theology of these verses, or how Reformed Theology may use them, or on how any other systematic Theology may fit them into one system or another.

What I would like to do is to take us carefully through the passage and look at what Paul has written by the Holy Spirit.

a. Purpose (4:13)

The first question we need to ask ourselves is “Why?” Why did Paul write this section of the letter?

Now, often, when we look at a passage, we have to look for clues within the context to find hints as to the author’s purpose in writing.

But not here in verses 13-18. Paul tells us his purpose at the beginning and at the end of these verses. Paul’s purpose in writing these sentences is to give us accurate information about one of the most difficult of human experiences: death.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep.”

The word translated “asleep” is the word koimaō. This word is used of someone sleeping, as in Matthew 28:13 (You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’)

But it is also used metaphorically to refer to ‘Death.’ We see this use in Matthew 27:52 (The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.)

This is explained by Jesus and John in John 11:11-14:

“He *said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” The disciples then said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

It is this metaphorical use that Paul emulated here in our passage in 1Thessalonians 4:13. Paul wrote to inform the Thessalonians about those Believers among them who had died. He did not want them to be ignorant of what had happened to their brethren. Nor did he want them to think that their brethren who had died had missed out on the blessings of the return of Jesus.

The reason he did not want them to be ignorant was so that they would not sorrow as the world sorrowed. For the world, death marked, and continues to mark, a permanent separation. I continue to hear words at funerals that attempt to give hope when there is none. Such words as ‘They are still here with us.’ ‘They are with us here in our memories.’ ‘They are looking down on us.’ ‘I can feel their presence.’ Etc., etc., etc. But none of those words are true. Our loved ones are not still here with us. They do not hover over us watching out for us. Our memories remain of them, but they are gone. What Scripture is very clear about is that a person’s soul, at death, is separated from the body and is gone. Gone where?

Solomon wrote about death in Ecclesiastes 12:7 (then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.) And that is absolutely true. The spirit of every person who dies is immediately in the hand of God. But where is that spirit?

What Paul was doing was giving those Believers who remained alive hope about the future for those who had died. He was telling them that death, for Believers, is not an eternal separation.

b. Those Alive – Condition (4:14a)

So, after giving a purpose for his words, Paul immediately spoke of those living, specifically, of the conditions under which his words would be true as a comfort.

The condition: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again.”

Notice that these words of comfort are not for everyone. Everyone dies, and all mankind experience the grief of the separation of death. But Paul’s words of comfort are not for all mankind. They only apply to those who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Many arrogantly or flippantly think that they’ll see their loved ones in Hell for a big party. That is false. The very fact that Believers have a hope implies very strongly that unbelievers do not. The separation of death is permanent for them. They will not be with loved in Hell or the Lake of Fire. Their separation will be permanent. They will be in the same place, but not with each other. They are without hope.

But for those who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, relationships will continue after the resurrection.

c. Those Dead – Condition (4:14b)

But notice that Paul also gave a condition the dead must fulfill for them to experience this hope.

The condition: those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. Even though we are Believers in the resurrection, these words of hope do not automatically apply to all those we love. It only applies to those who were in Christ at the moment of death.

What does it mean to be “in Christ?” The moment a person puts their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus that person becomes a member of the body of Christ.

Romans 12:5 “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

1Co 12:12-13 “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

1Co 12:27 “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.”

Believers are considered as being members of Christ’s body and are, thus, in Christ. There is a lot more involved in this, but for today, just note that “in Christ” means a person has placed their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, these words of comfort are not only for those who are saved, it applies also to the dead who were saved at death,

Now notice again the second half of verse 14: “even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” The “even so” was telling the Thessalonians that their dead loved ones were going to be resurrected just like Jesus. And that resurrection meant that they were returning with Jesus. The Thessalonians were looking forward to the return of Jesus. Not only would that be a glorious reunion with Jesus, but it will also be a glorious reunion with our departed fellow Believers.

“God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” God Himself, in Whose care are all of His children, living or dead, is going to bring with Him those Believers who have died. They will not stay in Heaven. They will one day head back to earth. They have a great event, a wondrous event, a glorious experience coming to them.

And all these precious Saints who have died. Can you imagine the laughter in their eyes and faces as they know what’s coming. They are headed down to earth for the great resurrection of Believers. If I am still alive, I can imagine the laughter of my mom as she heads down with Jesus to get her Stephie. The delight of Ed and Mary as they head here with Dorita to pick up Darlene and Kevin. Our loved ones delight and joy as they come to rejoin us.

d. Those Alive (4:15a)

“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord,”

Since we do not have in any Gospel these words, Paul would have been reassuring them that this revelation of reunion was directly from the Lord. This is not a supposition, a longing, or anything questionable. These words of hope are directly from Jesus. This is His plan. This is how He is going to carry out the words He gave the Apostles there in John 14:1-3.

So this hope pertains to those who are physically alive and remaining on this earth at the moment Jesus returns.

e. Those Dead (4:15b)

“will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Those who have died are not going to miss out on anything. In fact, those who are alive are going to have to wait on those who have died. Whatever is going to happen at the coming of Jesus, the dead will not have missed out on even a second of that thrilling and glorious event. So what is going to happen?

f. The Lord Returns (4:16a)

The central thought of these 6 verses is the first half of verse 16.

“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God,”

Jesus is going to give a shout as He is coming down from Heaven, with the archangel shouting as well (Michael? Jude 9), and with an angel, presumably, blowing the trumpet of God. This is the whole focus of these verses. It is the focus of all the Hope of His Body, the Church. It is our motivation for living a righteous life.

Titus 2:11-13 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,”

That shout of Jesus will girdle the earth. That shout will be a shout of absolute omnipotent power.

That shout will be a shout of sovereign command.

We saw a little of the power of that shout in John 11:43 “When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’”

That shout can no more be ignored than Lazarus could have chosen to stay dead. Jesus’ command is absolute. He will shout as He is coming down …

e’. Those Dead (4:16b)

“and the dead in Christ will rise first.” The graves will open, and all who have died in Christ over the last 2000 years will rise up out of their graves, the sea, the ashes, wherever they lay. Since the souls have been brought by God from Heaven we conclude that each Believer’s soul will reenter that body they departed, the body will be transformed, and the dead will walk. The shout of our Lord will empty every tomb of the saved, no matter where or under what condition.

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will 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, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1Corinthians 15:51-57

d’. Those Alive (4:17a)

“Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up …” Those Believers who are alive and remain here when this event takes place will be caught up, snatched away from earth. Our place will be empty. Our possessions no longer important. Our careers no longer to be striven for. We will be gone from the earth.

c’. Those Dead (4:17b)

“together with them” We will not be snatched alone. We will go up with the vast company of Believers who died in Christ since the Church began on the Day of Pentecost. We will go up with Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Mark, Luke, Luther, Katherine, Thomas, Philip, and all the host of Saints we have heard and read about through the centuries. All of us will go together. Those precious Saints whose faithfulness down through the centuries has brought the Gospel and God’s Word to us, they will be in that crowd of Believers.

b’. Those Alive (4:17c)

“in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” And now there is no more dead and alive. Now we will all be alive in Christ, not only spiritually, but physically as well. And we will be headed up as one great troupe of living eternally transformed people to meet our precious Savior and Lord in mid air. All those who had died had already been with Jesus. For those still alive, that indescribable joy comes at that moment when they meet Jesus in the air.

And it will not be a temporary, short meet and greet. No! “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” We will be with our precious and dear Savior from that moment on. As our Bridegroom, we will live eternally with Him in sweet communion, in perfect love, in total sinless holiness, a perfect Bride adorned for her Husband. We will be with Jesus

a’. Purpose (4:18)

“Therefore comfort one another with these words.” Therefore, in light of this truth, because of this hope, comfort one another with this truth. As Paul wrote to Titus: This is the blessed hope. This is all of our futures, if we Believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is where we are going.

For our Christian loved ones, death has lost its sting. Death has lost its victory.

As Paul wrote in 1Corinthians 15:57

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We have future and eternal victory promised in Christ Jesus. On that truth we can hang all our hopes and dreams. No matter how dark it gets down here. No matter how death has hurt us. No matter how we may struggle here in this world.

We have a sure and steadfast hope in Christ Jesus. And whether we go in death or when Jesus returns, one day we will be together with Jesus and with all the Believers through the ages, enjoying sweet, perfect eternal fellowship in the presence of our precious and dear Savior Jesus.

So do exactly what Paul said to do:

“Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

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