Our Future Hope
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 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, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Paul’s opening words to this section remind us of the great importance of eschatology for the believer’s life. It also reminds us of the great confusion and controversy surrounding eschatology. Admittedly, the complexities of eschatology can quickly overwhelm even the most astute theologians. Nevertheless, Paul’s goal in these letters was not to confuse or overwhelm his readers but to encourage and comfort them with the great truths of these end times realities, especially in light of the terror of death. Much like our own day, the Thessalonians were apparently exposed to a whole plethora of views on the end times, some of them quite dangerous (cf. 2 Th. 2.2), and Paul’s words here not only clarify biblical eschatology but serve to restore the believer’s hope in the future. The fact that Paul begins on this note reminds us that if our eschatology does not lead to a greater hope of our salvation, we have erred in the process of its application and need to rethink our views and vision of our future state in the eschaton. Here Paul’s purpose is to restore the church’s eschatology by focusing on the hope, power, order, and comfort of the believer’s future in Christ whether we live or die, whether we die before the parousia (i.e. the second coming) or are alive to see the Lord’s glorious return. Either way, Thessalonians reminds us that the church needs an orthodox position on eschatology as believers are to experience real purifying hope and joy especially as we face the reality and gravity of death and the sense of fear and loss that can bring to our hearts.
The Hope Of Our Future
The first point Paul wants to make is situated in the context of death and grieving, “so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (ἵνα μὴ λυπῆσθε καθὼς καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ μὴ ἔχοντες ἐλπίδα). Paul places two responsibilities on the church that drive his exposition on eschatology. First, Paul wants believers to be informed, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren” (Οὐ θέλομεν δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί). Paul wants the church to be informed about personal eschatology (death and the afterlife) as much as he does cosmic eschatology (the parousia and the end of the age). We should be informed both as to what happens to us when we die (cf. 2 Cor. 5.8); what happens to the soul, a proper view of the body, the heavenly state, the hope of resurrection, God’s judgment as well as the nature of the final judgment of all mankind, the end of world and the age to come. He will develop some of these concepts here as well as in Chapter 5 (5.1-11), and in the second letter (2 Th. 1.7-10; 2.1-12).
Second, Paul wants believers to grieve properly, “so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” The “rest” (οἱ λοιποὶ) are the rest of humanity, the rest of the “outsiders” (4.12), the rest of the world who are not in Christ. The grieving process of the rest of the unbelieving mass of humanity is here characterized as hopeless, “who have no hope” (οἱ μὴ ἔχοντες ἐλπίδα). The matter is hopeless because it is Christless. To be outside of Christ’s saving interest is to be without hope and the process of death is the final expression of that hopelessness in this world (cf. Eph. 2.12; also, John 8.52; 11.26). Of course, I say, in this world, because in the world to come, that hopelessness is compounded by eternal destruction in Hell. The world of unbelief is further hopeless because they are ignorant. They have no assurance of the whereabouts of their deceased. They have no concrete truth to rely on at the moment of deepest loss. They have no basis for comfort when what they held so dear is suddenly stripped from them at death. Spouses, family, children, parents, friends are all lost and grieved over with a complete sense of aimless anguish and grief. The Paul’s entire purpose here is to restore the church’s understanding of what death means for the believer and how we should view those who die in the Lord, “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας διὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ). That hope is built on the power of our future in Christ.
The Power Of Our Future
The power of our future is the power that is at work in the resurrection of Jesus. Our hope is rooted in the power that rose Jesus from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 6.14; 2 Cor. 4.14; Phil. 3.10; also, Mt. 22.29-32). His eschatology dictates our eschatology. Because He rose, we will rise. This is where our hope is found:
Romans 6:4–5 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, (cf. 1 John 3.2).
Because we are united to Him spiritually, we will be united to Him physically, that is, through a physical resurrection like His. The Thessalonians fear that deceased believers would somehow miss out on the eschatological blessings of Christ and His coming kingdom were unfounded. They feared this for several reasons. Culturally, pagan philosophy was largely pessimistic about death and the potential for experiencing anything physical beyond death. An ancient Greek poet by the name of Theocritus is quoted as saying, “hopes are for the living, but the ones who die are without hope” (see, G.K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP (2003) 130ff.). Also, the bible of the early church, the OT, was not altogether clear on the precise nature of the resurrection both of the Messiah and the saints and without an extensive discipleship or teaching on the resurrection, the Thessalonians could come to many false conclusions on their own. Finally, there was also an obvious source of false teaching in this small church and possibly beyond that taught that the eschatological blessings of Christ were already past:
2 Thessalonians 2:1–2 1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit [probably a teacher] or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
This was in fact what Paul is trying to correct here, an over-realized eschatology that left a person with no real hope for the future especially for those who had died in the Lord. To the contrary, Paul insists, “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (ὁ θεὸς τοὺς κοιμηθέντας διὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἄξει σὺν αὐτῷ). Paul’s argument is that “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας διὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ) are actually in a privileged position having died first. Having been united with Christ mystically (spiritually), God will “bring” (ἄγω) them physically with Christ at His own physical parousia. Jesus thus, proves to be the “first fruits” of the resurrection. In a close parallel where Paul uses the same language as here, the same themes as here, and the same basic order of events as here; Paul encourages the Corinthians how they too will overcome death:
1 Corinthians 15:20–26 20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
The Order Of Our Future
Before Paul sets the order of the future events regarding death and the resurrection and their relationship to the second coming, he first qualifies his teaching by God’s authority rooted in God’s word, “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord” (Τοῦτο γὰρ ὑμῖν λέγομεν ἐν λόγῳ κυρίου). Paul’s teaching on this subject, unlike that of the false teachers, or even the confusion from within the church; was rooted in revelation not man’s opinion or speculation (cf. 2.13). If Paul also had in mind, and probably so, the teaching of the Lord (i.e. Jesus), this would direct us to the Gospels (esp. Mt. 24.30-49) where Jesus taught the same rudimentary elements of eschatology that are found here in Paul in terms of Jesus’ resurrection and return, the believer’s death and resurrection as well as the themes related to “the day of the Lord” (see for example, Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, 137. Beale gives a comprehensive comparison of Mt. 24 and 1 Th. 4.13-5.7).
But verse 15 also represents the erroneous notion that was being propagated in the church, claiming that those who have “fallen asleep” (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας, lit. ‘the sleeping ones’) would somehow be forgotten or superseded by those who would be alive at the time of Christ’s return. The parallel between those who are “alive” (οἱ ζῶντες, lit. ‘the livign ones’) (v.15, 17) and those who are “asleep” (κοιμάω) is spelled out as referring to those who have died in the Lord, “the dead in Christ” (οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ). Paul rejects the notion that the generation of believers who are alive for the second coming will supersede those who die in the Lord. In fact, they will “rise first” (ἀναστήσονται πρῶτον).
But the whole order of the future is laid out here in three basic steps (v.16), Christ’s coming, the resurrection of the dead in Christ, and the translation of the living believers. First, Christ himself will trigger the eschaton through His own cataclysmic coming, “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God” (αὐτὸς ὁ κύριος ἐν κελεύσματι, ἐν φωνῇ ἀρχαγγέλου καὶ ἐν σάλπιγγι θεοῦ, καταβήσεται ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ). This first step has three facets, features or prophetic signs attached to the coming of Christ when He will “descend from heaven” (καταβήσεται ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ). There will be “a shout” (κέλευσμα), “the voice of the archangel” (φωνῇ ἀρχαγγέλου) and “the trumpet of God” (σάλπιγγι θεοῦ). Although Pre-tribulationists, Dispensationalists have concluded that this passage is teaching a ‘silent’ rapture of the saints prior to the second coming, the very first feature of the this event seems to contradict this notion. Jesus’ return here is anything but silent. The word, “shout” (κέλευσμα) literally means, “cry of command” that signal the great parousia-event as a cosmic event that is literally descending upon the world. It is the clarion call of salvation and judgment. It will be a triumphant processional sound of heavenly deliverance for God’s people and at the same time, it will also be a dreadful ‘signal’ that the Lord will has appeared with His great and awesome wrath; both the effects of salvation and judgment are unleashed at the parousia.
The accompaniment of the “archangel” (ἀρχάγγελος) is also a signal that God’s warrior-beings have come with great power and authority as a angelic delegation of those who will do the King’s bidding whether to gather for salvation (cf. Mt. 24.31) or scatter for judgment (cf. Mt. 13.40-42). The presence of the archangel is just another way of saying that the glory and power of heaven is coming with Christ in His second advent. The “trumpet of God” (σάλπιγγι θεοῦ) is the final sign of the parousia. It signals the arrival of God’s consummate kingdom, the time of His wrath and power have come (cf. Rev. 8.13). In biblical theology, a “trumpet” sound is often associated with theophanies (cf. Ex. 19.16-19; 20.18), worship (cf. Ps. 98.6), and eschatology as well (cf. Ps. 47.5; Is. 27.13; Zeph. 1.14-16).
In Revelation, the initial revelation to John comes on the “Lord’s Day” (probably to be at least associated if not identified with ‘the day of the Lord’) and John hears a voice like a trumpet (cf. Rev. 1.10; also 4.1). The trumpets in Revelation above all are associated with God’s end-time judgments on earth, but even this reinforces God’s use of the trumpet imagery for sounding forth God’s wrath, power, and judgment (also see, Ex. 19.19). The same dynamic with many of these features is found in greater detail in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching on the parousia:
Matthew 24:29–31 29 “But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 31 “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
Second, Jesus’ heavenly intrusion into the present age will also usher us all into the age to the come, the age of resurrection as “the dead in Christ will rise first” (οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστήσονται πρῶτον). This was really central to Paul’s purpose here. It showed the priority of the “dead in Christ” (οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ). It showed that they still are entitled to the same future hope as living believers. They were not forgotten and thus they were not forsaken. That is why the believers were exhorted to mourn in the manner that reflected the hope of the dead in Christ— a mourning that should eventually give way to joy and celebration.
Third, and finally, those who are “alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (ἔπειτα ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες οἱ περιλειπόμενοι ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς ἁρπαγησόμεθα ἐν νεφέλαις εἰς ἀπάντησιν τοῦ κυρίου εἰς ἀέρα). To be “caught up” is to be transformed, instantaneously translated into the glorified state along with those who have been resurrected from the grave. Those who are alive and remain will not experience a resurrection per se but an alteration nevertheless:
1 Corinthians 15:50–53 50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 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. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
One of the crucial mistakes in Dispensational Pre-Tribulation Rapture theology, is that it assumes that Christ cannot both come with His saints and for His saints. But here we see why this will be ultimately necessary. There are saints who have died or “fallen asleep in Jesus” (v.14), and there will be those who are yet, “alive and remain” (v.17) on earth to see the return of Jesus at the end of the age. There could be nothing more logical therefore, than to stipulate precisely how God was going to gather us, in uniform fashion, together with Christ at His coming so that we could enjoy eternal union with Christ as one body, gathered together, reigning together and triumphing together over death and Hell. In the same way that Paul had delineated the events to the Corinthians, insisting that consequent to the parousia would come “the end” (1 Cor. 15.24a). So too here, Paul ends the order of our future hope with our, that is all the saints (cf. 3.13, “with all His saints”), eternal union with Christ, “so we shall always be with the Lord” (οὕτως πάντοτε σὺν κυρίῳ ἐσόμεθα). The culmination of the order of our future is communion with Jesus Christ and all of the saints. It will be the abolition of all rule, authority, and power. It will be the abolition of all of God’s enemies and death the greatest enemy of all! It is the reversal of the curse that began with the first Adam and terminated by the second and last Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15.20-22). It will be the death of death (cf. Rev. 22.3).
The Comfort Of Our Future
Sadly, eschatology has been relegated to the controversial category of Christian thought and in the process we miss the practical application of its purpose to comfort us in daily life, “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (Ὥστε παρακαλεῖτε ἀλλήλους ἐν τοῖς λόγοις τούτοις). Indeed, these words remind us of the immense practicality of eschatology. The essence of our comfort is our hope. This is what distinguishes us from the world, not only in death but also in life. Think of it. What this life represents to the wicked now is a hopeless expression of a life devoid of the knowledge of God (4.5), hostility to God (Rom. 8.7), hatred of God (Rom. 1.30), hostility toward one another (Tit. 3.3), the futile pursuit of sensual pleasure (Heb. 11.25), and the illusion of temporal happiness (Eph. 4.22; Jam. 5.5) what the ‘preacher’ in Ecclesiastes called, ‘chasing after the wind. All the while, the impending wrath of God looming on the horizon of a world preserved for wrath (cf. 2 Pet. 3.7). In the next chapter, Paul reminds the church that we are not appointed for wrath (5.9). This is something the wicked cannot take comfort in. For this reason, their conscience has no rest (Rom. 2.15), their souls have no satisfaction (Jam. 4.2), and their future has no hope (Eph. 2.12); at least not while in their sin (Rom. 8.8). But we have a hope that is both sure and satisfying if we see it for what it is. This is why Paul hangs all of his hope in the resurrection for without it we are without hope and without comfort (cf. 1 Cor. 15.19). Peter reminds us that this hope is reserved for those who have been genuinely born again and that our hope is not a futile, stagnant, dead hope but a real, steadfast, living hope that is ready to be revealed to us:
1 Peter 1:3–5 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.