1Thes4v13to18: THE COMING OF THE LORD
Introduction. Read 1Thes4v13to18
Paul did not want the Thessalonians to be in ignorance about what happens to those who die or fall asleep. The information that Paul gives the Thessalonians is according to the Lord's own word. v15. Jesus did not promise that Christians would go to heaven when they died. He did promise, although not as clearly as Paul, that he would return to earth and gather his chosen together: At that time men will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth and to the ends of the heavens. Mk13v26and27. Paul wrote to encourage the young church at Thessalonica. He didn't want them to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. v13.
I deal thoroughly with the important topic of, 'Life after Death,' in my article on the Afterlife. I will repeat much of what I wrote there in this exposition.
(1) What does it mean to be fallen asleep in him.
Most Christians today would say that a believer who dies goes to heaven. I don't think the expression, 'goes to heaven,' occurs anywhere in the New Testament. Jesus and Paul referred to death as falling asleep.
There is incredible resistance to what Jesus and Paul taught! Evangelical Christians are determined to keep saying, and I suppose believing, that when Christians die they go to heaven and when non-believers die they go to hell. This clear cut distinction gives them great satisfaction - although there is little Scriptural warranty for such a view.
Warren Wiersbe, a very able and helpful expositor of the Bible, argues that it is the body that goes to sleep when we die whereas the spirit (or soul) goes consciously and blissfully into the presence of Jesus and by implication, God. I am afraid in this instance Warren Wiersbe is guilty of dishonest reasoning. The body does not go to sleep on death. It is either cremated and quickly destroyed or buried and slowly disintegrates.
Sleep is a condition or state. When we sleep our body is alive but we have no consciousness or self-awareness. Our spirits are at rest. But we will awaken again. So Paul and Jesus tell us that death is a condition more like sleep than anything else we could understand. Our spirits are preserved in God, they rest, at peace but without consciousness, waiting to be restored to a resurrection body when Christ returns to earth.
Verse 16 suggests that Jesus returns to this earth alone. It is only after his loud command and the trumpet call of God that the dead in Christ arise.
It is difficult to reconcile a belief in going at death in some kind of bodily and conscious form into the presence of God with what John writes in his gospel and his first epistle: No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. Jn1v18. No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man. Jn3v13. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us. 1Jn4v12. These Scriptures seem to indicate that no one has gone to heaven as Jesus did. He went bodily and consciously to see God and to be at his right hand. No one else, alive or dead, has seen God.
Those who object to this view often quote John14v2and3: "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were no so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." However, it is important to finish the quotation: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." v3. Surely this is clear. We shall only be taken to the place Jesus is preparing for those that love him AFTER his return to this earth in glory.
Another familiar objection to soul sleep is based on Paul's remark to the Corinthians: We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 2Cor5v3. Sadly this is usually quoted out of context. In the preceding verses Paul has been writing about leaving our earthly tent, our old bodies, for a heavenly tent or new bodies. This does not happen at death but at the resurrection attending Christ's Second Coming. See my exposition on 2Cor5v1to10.
It is true that the passage in Phil1v20to24 does suggest that Paul expected at death to be with Christ, which is better by far. v23. If his spirit was in God's safe keeping there is a sense that he was with Christ, under his protection and waiting the day he would rise to new life.
Finally many consider Jesus' promise to the dying thief on the cross irrefutable evidence that we go consciously to heaven when we die. I will consider what Jesus meant by Paradise in the next part of this exposition.
(3) What happened to Jesus after death.
It is crucial to understand what happened to Jesus after he died because as Paul tells the Corinthians: Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 1Cor15v20. In other words what happened to Jesus after his death will happen to those who believe in him. So let us look at what happened to Jesus:
(a) At death Jesus said: "Father into your hands I commit my spirit." Lk23v46. Jesus trusted God to take care of his essence - his beliefs, memories, personality, character, virtues and so on.
God knows all about us now and he will still know all about us in death. We ever live and are never lost to God. This is probably what Jesus meant when he said to the Sadducees: "But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob '. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for in him all are alive." Lk20v37. See exposition on Luke20v27to40.
The fact that our spirits are always safe and secure with God does not mean that we are consciously in God's presence.
Jesus told the dying thief who asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." Many take this to mean that Jesus and the thief went immediately to heaven when they died. But this is not what Jesus said!
Originally paradise was a Persian word for a lovely, pleasure garden. So the word came to be used to describe either the experience of being in a beautiful garden or the beautiful place itself. We still use the word like this - enjoying a meal with friends can be paradise and so can a tropical island.
I believe Jesus was describing what he and the dying thief would experience in death. There would be something akin to sweet dreams - a blissful sensation of well being, security and repose - without real consciousness. Jesus did say, "In my Father's house are many rooms." John14v2. Perhaps in one of those rooms there is a way of preserving the spirits of the believing dead that we cannot, as yet, understand. However agreeable, it is not what we were made for.
We must remember what Jesus said to Mary after his resurrection when she clung to him: Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to my Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Jesus may have been in paradise after his death but he was not bodily and consciously in heaven with his Father. He did not return to the Father until after his resurrection at his ascension.
(b) Jesus' state after his death and before his resurrection may be shrouded in mystery but there is no uncertainty about his resurrection. His old body was taken up into the new. It bore some resemblance to the old - nail prints in his hands and the wound in his side. But it was also very different from the old. The disciples had some trouble recognising Jesus. That is because as Paul put it writing to the Corinthians: For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 1Cor15v53. See also 1Cor15v42to44.
The great truth Paul conveys in his wonderful, inspired teaching about the resurrection is that: Just as we have born the likeness of the earthly man (Adam), so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. 1Cor15v49.
(c) Finally, at Christ's second coming, every believer will be caught up in the air to be with the Lord. John says we shall see him and be like him. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1Jn3v2.
Only then will we be fit for Jesus to present to his Father: without fault and with great joy. Jdv24.
(d) The sequence of events above deals with some of the difficulties arising from a belief that Christians who die go consciously to be with God in heaven. How can we be conscious without a body? If in some sense we have a body what is the point of the resurrection? Do we have an inferior body in heaven to receive a better one at the resurrection? The New Testament teaches that the church is the bride of Christ. All believers constitute the bride. It seems to me fitting that the church in its entirety should be presented to Jesus on his return - not arrive in heaven in dribs and drabs.
(3) A great encouragement. Therefore encourage each other with these words. 1Thes4v18.
The doctrine of the Second Coming as expounded by Paul in this passage is a great encouragement for several reason:
(a) There is going to be a world for Jesus to return to. God will not allow man to destroy what he has made. When Jesus returns there are going to be believers on the earth. Faith will never be expunged - it is more tenacious than life itself.
(b) Christians are not without hope. Death is not the end. No believer is lost. We may live to God after our deaths but God also wants to live to us. So we are restored to consciousness and new life. God by his grace ensures the continuity of humanity.
(c) We shall be changed. Christians are not raised from the dead like Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus were. We shall not continue in the same old way - struggling with our old nature and perverse bodily appetites. We shall not have the hang ups, fears, personality disorders, bad memories or weaknesses of temperament and disposition that we have now. This is the mistake the Sadducees made when they questioned Jesus on the resurrection - in which they did not believe. See exposition on Luke20v27to40. No, no - we shall be gloriously changed: But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1Jn3v2. We will shuffle off the old nature and finally lose any inclination to sin whatsoever. It will be our chief delight to enjoy fellowship with God and his dear Son for all eternity.
(d) We shall have the best of company. And so we will be with the Lord forever. There will be no more loneliness. No one is going to be ostracised in glory. No one is going to condemned as unsound there. No outcasts, no friendless, no rejects. Jesus is going to be with us forever.