Click HERE for an audio podcast of this sermon.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
I invite you to turn to 1 Thessalonians 4 either in your Bibles or your service folder as we learn from Paul what will happen when Jesus returns on the last day.
Pastor Schultz and I rode together to Pastor’s conference this fall. On the way he talked about how scary it was when a few years ago he slid off the road and rolled his truck. I could identify with him. Even though I didn’t roll a vehicle, I have had that helpless feeling of sliding uncontrollably down the road and ending up in the ditch. Maybe you have too. Maybe your life doesn’t flash before your eyes, but at least this thought flashes by; “This might be it, this might be my last few seconds of life on earth.”
Now, in both cases, neither I, nor Pastor or Mrs. Schultz were seriously injured. But we didn’t know at the time what was going to happen. If we had known everything was going to be fine and no one would be injured, we probably wouldn’t have been quite as frightened.
We can apply that principle to what the Bible tells us about the last day. Some of what the Bible tells us about the last day is pretty frightening. In fact, a lot of people avoid reading Revelation because they think it’s too frightening. It’s frightening to think about the fact that Peter says that everything we know on earth will be destroyed by fire. You’ve seen the pictures of Paradise CA, but what Peter describes is much worse. We hear Paul talk about a man of lawlessness, and about the boastful horn from Daniel’s vision, the Antichrist and how deceptive he is. We hear Jesus talk about persecution, and John talk about beasts. We try to imagine all the dead, from Adam and Eve on, being raised to life, and because of all the Zombie shows and movies, people imagine Zombies chasing them trying to eat their brains. Thinking about what might happen on the last day can be a frightening thing. But, if you know in advance what’s going to happen and how it all ends, it calms your fears.
The fear that the Thessalonians had wasn’t so much what was going to happen on the last day. Their fear was that they thought that if you died before Jesus returned, somehow you would miss out, and they had people they loved who had died. How sad it would be to have a loved one die and to think that you would never see them again, and even worse, that they had missed out on living with Jesus forever! You have seen how people try to cope today when because of Atheism or Evolution or other forms of unbelief, they think that when someone dies that’s it. They have a celebration of life- not of eternal life like we do, but of the person’s past life, because they believe, or at least act, as if that’s all there is. That’s why Paul tells them, and us, we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you do not grieve in the same way as the others, who have no hope. A knowledge of what will happen on the last day comforts you in your grief and gives real hope.
What happens to those who die, fall asleep, trusting in Jesus as their savior? We heard the answer we few weeks ago as we celebrated All Saints Day. Their souls go to live and reign with Christ. They have not gone out of existence. And what happens on the last day? They appear with Jesus, like Moses and Elijah did on the Mount of Transfiguration. How can you be sure of this? If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, then in the same way we also believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.
You can’t say you believe that Jesus died and rose again for your salvation and at the same time deny that all the dead will be raised. They go together. If you believe one you have to believe the other. If you deny one you are denying the other. Jesus did die for our sins and he did rise for our justification. Because he lives, we too will live. He is the first fruits of those who sleep. That means that, just as you believe God’s promise that when you give him the first fruits of your crops the rest of the harvest will be brought in; so just as Jesus was raised from the dead as a first fruit, all the rest of the dead will be raised. That’s the comfort Paul gave the Thessalonians and that we still have today.
But, Paul sensed that the Thessalonians were still confused about how all this would happen. Would anyone who was alive on the last day have some advantage over those who had died? Paul says, “No.” In fact, we tell you this by the word of the Lord: We who are alive and left until the coming of the Lord will certainly not go on ahead of those who have fallen asleep.
Now I need to mention this because some of you may have read the “Left Behind” books, or seen the movie. That series is based on a false teaching about these verses that says that, sometime before the last day, believers who are alive will be snatched up to heaven, and others, unbelievers, will be left behind. So, notice that Paul makes it very clear that believers don’t go to be with Jesus before the dead are raised on the last day. And, also notice that the word translated “left”, or sometimes “left behind” simply means that they “remain”. They, believers, are still living on earth when Jesus comes. It’s interesting that those who teach a rapture of believers happening before the last day choose a verse to back them up that actually teaches the opposite of what they are saying. Satan is very good at twisting Scripture, as he tried to do with Jesus.
So, what is going to happen on the last day, the day that Jesus returns in glory, in the clouds just as the disciples saw him go into heaven? Verses 16-17 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together, not before not after, but together, with them, to meet the Lord in the air.
On a day and at a time that no one will know except the father; at a time when all those except believers who have been watching for the signs Jesus gave, will be caught by surprise; the last day will come. All this will happen in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, just a matter of seconds. Jesus will appear in the clouds of the sky as the angel armies receive the command “GO! Gather everyone and have them stand before God’s throne.” As was the case at Mt. Sinai when God came down to speak the ten commandments, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, so the coming of Jesus will be announced by the trumpet of God. At that moment, all the dead will be raised, their bodies united with their souls. Then, the resurrected dead who trusted in Jesus, who are now glorified as Jesus was after his resurrection, will be united with those who are still alive and who trust in Jesus, all believers of all time, souls united with glorified bodies, will be caught up, all at once, to meet the Lord in the air.
Why would Jesus want them to meet him in the air? He doesn’t tell us that exactly, but considering that Peter tells us that the earth and everything on it will be destroyed by fire and replaced with a new heaven and a new earth, it seems that it would be to keep us safe until that new heaven and new earth is established. The final result is, we will always be with the Lord.
Did the Thessalonians have to worry that those who had died would miss out on being with Jesus? No. Their souls were with Jesus and on the last day they would be raised body and soul from the dead and together with believers who are still alive, at the same time, they would all be with Jesus.
Do we have to be frightened when we think about the last day? There will be some frightening things happening on that day. It’s hard for us to imagine dead people coming to life all around us. It’s hard to imagine how we might feel as we see everything destroyed by fire. But it is a comfort to know how it will all end up. Because of Jesus, because he died and rose again, and because the Holy Spirit graciously brought us to trust in him as our savior, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we will be brought to safety at his side in the clouds.
Paul says that we are to comfort and encourage each other with these facts of Scripture. Take note that he says each other. It’s wonderful to gather here and hear these words and promises of God. That gives us encouragement. But, that encouragement needs to continue every day. We need to encourage each other with the word each day as family members. And what about those who don’t have families or who are separated from family for one reason or another? Look for others who may be feeling alone or left out, especially during the holiday season. Make the effort to get to know them so that you can encourage them with God’s word. And, what usually happens when you do that? You receive encouragement yourself. After all, the New Testament passage that gives us the reason for gathering as fellow believers says that the number one reason for doing that isn’t to hear the word only for ourselves, it’s to encourage one another, and that’s especially important as we see the signs that we are getting closer to the last day. If you are not getting to know and talking with your fellow church members you are not doing everything God would have you do.
Be reminded that Jesus died and rose again, not just for us, but for our fellow church members, and for our unbelieving neighbor. As we are reminded that the last day is coming and there are plenty of scary things that are happening and will happen, be encouraged by these words of God. Jesus paid for your sins. Because of what he did, even though you deserve to be thrown with Satan into the lake of burning sulfur, you know what will happen on the last day. You, together with all believers, will be taken to meet Jesus in the clouds so that you can live and reign with him for all eternity. Trust God’s promise to you in Jesus. Encourage everyone, especially your fellow church members, with that promise of God.