Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
—1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (TNIV)
Today we read another of Paul’s great tracts on the Christian’s hope of resurrection. This is one of those passages, along with Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 21, among others, that everyone who calls himself a Christian should take the time to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Why? Because within these passages is our Christian hope and the love of God is made gloriously manifest.
In looking at today’s passage, we mustn’t get too hung up on literalism, especially when Paul talks about Christians being taken up into the clouds and meeting the Lord Jesus in the air. The Greek word Paul uses for air, aer (pronounced ah-AYR), can also mean the political domain of transcendent beings or powers (BDAG), and the Greek word Paul uses for clouds, nephele (pronounced nef-EL-ay), was also used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT) to denote the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites while they were in the wilderness. God, of course, was in that pillar of cloud. None of this denies a literal meaning of the text; it simply suggests there is much deeper and richer meaning to it.
No, Paul tells us how we should read this passage. He writes us to remind us of the hope that is ours in Christ. We are to use it to encourage one another. Several themes jump out at us immediately in this passage. First, Paul reminds us that we are Christians. We have the blood of Christ shed for us and therefore we are not to grieve like those who have no hope. This does not mean, as some have assumed, that Christians are not to grieve. That is just silly. We don’t spend a lifetime developing a relationship with someone and then not expect to grieve when we lose them to death. Instead, Paul reminds us here that we just lose our Christian loved ones for a season rather than forever as those who have no hope believe.
Second, we notice our final destination. It is not “heaven” where we live forever in a disembodied state, but rather it is with the Lord Jesus in God’s New Creation that he will bring about at our Lord’s Second Coming. You can read more about the New Creation in Revelation 21-22. In God’s New Creation (the New Heaven and New Earth) we will have a resurrected and glorified body that will be similar to our Lord’s. Just as our mortal bodies are fitted to live in God’s current creation, our resurrection bodies will be fitted to live in God’s New Creation. Paul only touches on this in today’s passage but he explicates it in much greater detail in 1 Corinthians 15. Check it out. What we do not want to miss here, however, is that when we get our new resurrected bodies, whatever they may be like, we will be living directly in the Lord’s Presence. Sweet. Very sweet.
Third, we notice the immediacy of all this. Paul uses vivid language that suggests our transformation will be instantaneous and spectacular. No one will mistake the Lord’s Second Coming the way some mistook (and continue to mistake) his First Coming. Paul seems to be telling us that when our Lord comes again in great Power and Glory, the time for decision on our part will be gone forever. We do not know when that day will come but we had better be ready when it does.
All of this should bring you great hope if you are a Christian. To know my Christian loved ones are safe and secure with Jesus is tremendously comforting to me. I know they are alive and well, awaiting their final glorious destiny, not because of who they are but because of who God made manifest in Jesus is.
On the other hand, all this should make unbelievers pause and take stock. There is a somber warning in today’s passage, albeit implicitly. Paul is talking about the destiny of Christians, not everyone. This is why spreading the Gospel is so important. It is a message of life and we who claim to love Christ must also be willing to share his Good News with as many as we can because we do not desire anyone to die or be left out of the eternal party.
This, then, is our Christian hope and destiny. No wonder we call it Good News. Thanks be to God in our Lord Jesus Christ! Do you have the Good News in your life? If so, are you celebrating it each day? If not, what are you waiting for?