Scripture Reference: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The Future We AnticipateDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 19, 2006
Selected highlights from this sermon
While Christians still disagree about exactly how and when Jesus will return, this should not be an issue that divides us. Rather, this is a subject that should unite us in motivation and hope.
Looking at 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul’s encouragement is quite clear: at the rapture, the Lord will descend, and the dead in Christ will rise, and the Christians who are alive will be changed and dwell with God forever.
The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is returning back from Heaven to earth. There is no question about it. In the Old Testament and the New Testament it is predicted many, many times. We not only have the references of Jesus to His own return, but just think for a moment about how many times the Scriptures affirm it. Jesus is ascending into Heaven and the angels come and say to the disciples, “Why are you looking into heaven? The same Jesus who went into Heaven is likewise going to come again.” The Apostle Paul referred to it as “The blessed hope” and also “the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was Peter who said that we should live in such a way that our faith will be of benefit to God, in effect. Our faith will be like gold when Jesus Christ appears because God loves to see faith in our hearts. And it was John who said that we should live in such a way that we will not be ashamed at His coming - the return of Jesus Christ to earth.
Now the bottom line is that there are two different views, actually more than that, but two primary views held among Christians. Because when you look at the New Testament, it seems as if there are two future comings that are described. There seems to be a reference to those who are going to be with Jesus called “The Church” at the time when Jesus comes for the Church. And then after a period of time, there is going to be the great revelation of Jesus when His feet stand on the Mount of Olives (which lies before Jerusalem on the East.) And when He comes in glory it is then that the Kingdom is going to be established.
Now there are some people who do not divide these two comings. So let me explain to you the terminology and the division, and then we shall plunge into the Scriptures. Pre-tribulationism says that Jesus will come before the tribulation to take up the church to heaven. Then there will be that period of time when the Antichrist shall arise. And the wrath of God will be revealed from Heaven on earth. Then there is the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24, which is so wonderful it is like the lightning that begins in the east and goes to the west. That is the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ. If you believe that scenario, you are what is called a pre-tribulationist – believing that Jesus comes before the Tribulation to receive His saints, and then a period of wrath, and then the return in glory. Now there are some people that look at the Bible and they combine those two events; they put them together. They say that this is all one event; the rapture of the church and the glorious return is one event. And those folks are post-tribulational. What do we mean by that? They believe that Jesus comes after the tribulation. He comes both to receive His saints, as we shall be studying today, and also with His saints simultaneously to set up the kingdom and establish His rule upon the millennial earth. That is post-tribulationism. We will go through the tribulation first, and then Christ returns. Here at the Moody Church we’ve decided to not draw a line in the sand about these two views. We have pre-tribulationists among us, and that has usually been the position of many people in this particular era. But also there are post-tribulationists and many of them love the Lord and many of them are very fine scholars. So you can be pre-tribulation or you can be post-tribulation here at the Moody Church. All I need to do is say however, that if you are post-tribulation someday you will be very glad you were wrong, alright? And when we are snatched away to heaven we will say, “Told you so!” I say to you, let’s not divide over the coming of Jesus Christ. Rather, let us be united over the coming of Jesus Christ. Particularly, let us love His appearing.
Now in the New Testament there are several different words used for the return of Jesus. And by the way, without taking the time to go into the various views, my message today will be assuming the pre-tribulational rapture. But we must remember that there are different words used for the return of Jesus Christ. For example, the word parusia is based on the Greek word, meaning “the appearing of a dignitary.” Jesus will appear like a dignitary who has been gone and His presence will be among us. Now that word is used for both the first coming of Jesus in the rapture, and also the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ. The word is used in the New Testament for both. There is also the word epiphany. Epiphany is the word that refers to the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ to establish His kingdom when He comes with His saints, as is given in the New Testament. It is used for that particular aspect of the coming of Jesus Christ. You say, “where is the word rapture?” It is not in the Bible as an actual word. But the idea is there, and at this point I want you to see where it comes from. Would you take your Bibles and turn to I Thessalonians 4. The word rapture actually comes from verse 17 where it says, “then we who are alive and who are left will be caught up together.” The Latin word is rapiel from which we get the word rapture, meaning “caught up.” So, even though the word rapture does not appear in the text, the word rapture is a very Biblical concept – we will be “caught up.”
Now as I begin this exposition of I Thessalonians 4 beginning at verse 13, I need to tell you something. What I am going to be saying to you in terms of the sequence of events and the teachings that are here, these things are believed both by post-tribulationists as well as pre-tribulationists. So don’t let the different views get in the way of the clear things that God, though Paul, is saying to us about the rapture of the church. This, by the way, is the tenth and last in a series of messages called What We Believe: And The Difference It Should Make. Today we are talking about The Future We Anticipate. Now before I read verse 13 let’s have some background. When the apostle Paul established a church he always taught the people to look for the appearing of Jesus. That is very clear. This took place right at the beginning of Paul’s church planting, so obviously the return of Christ was on Paul’s mind. So, he taught the people of Thessalonica about the return of Christ, but time had elapsed and some of them had died. And of course the apostle Paul apparently did not know that this period of time when Jesus did not return was going to be very long (at least 2,000 years so far.) But the people were looking for the appearing of Jesus, and some of their numbers were dying. They had a question on their mind which was this: “Will those who have died be at a disadvantage when Jesus comes? Will they miss out on something?” In response the Apostle Paul writes to clarify, in no way will those who have died miss out on anything. Now let’s look at the text, I Thessalonians 4:13. “But we do not want you to be uninformed brothers about those who are asleep.” In the New Testament the word sleep is often used for death. It does not mean that the soul sleeps; it does mean that the body sleeps. I think that the imagery is so beautiful. Here in the text the imagery is of a mother who lulls her little baby to sleep. She has fed the baby, she has talked to the baby, and now she lulls it to sleep. When you go to the funeral of a Christian and you see their body, remember they have been lulled to sleep by Jesus. Their soul has gone to heaven, but their body is sleeping until the day of resurrection. And sleep is not a fearful thing. Last night I came home very late after a speaking engagement and I had a good night of sleep. I did not fear to fall asleep…and neither should a Christian fear death. Paul says “I don’t want you to be ignorant concerning those who have died, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” The pagan world of the time had no hope whatsoever. In fact, they were so hopeless that when the plagues came, Ciprean (a church leader) said that it was because of the plagues that the Christian church has advanced – because we die differently than the unconverted. The pagans used to say of the Christians, “They carry their dead as if in triumph. How can they die with so much hope?” So Paul says, “I am writing to you so that you don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” You can grieve, but not hopelessly. And then he says that since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so though Jesus God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. When Jesus returns, He will be bringing the souls of all those who have died with Him. The people today who die in Christ do not yet have their permanent bodies. The soul takes on the characteristics of the body so that they can see, communicate, and recognize one another. But they do not have a permanent body. God is going to bring them with Him when Jesus returns. Now hang on to all of this – it will become clear in a moment. Then Paul says, “because we will not proceed those who have fallen asleep.” Paul is saying those of us who are living are going to be translated – and I am not talking about a translation from one language into another. I am speaking about a generation of people who will be living, and will not die. A generation of believers will instantly be translated and have their glorified bodies. Now let’s put this in sequence. Paul is saying that when Jesus comes He is going to bring with Him those who have died, and we will not go ahead of those who have died. In fact, those who have died go first and then we follow after. So don’t think for a moment that your loved ones who have died are going to miss out on anything. They are going to be raised, and their bodies will be joined to their spirits – and that will happen first! And then we who are alive under the coming of the Lord will be translated. The dead have no disadvantage at all. And all of this is just the introduction.
I would now like to walk through the sequence that the Apostle Paul gives regarding these events. And if anything I said is unclear, when I am finished and as we walk though Paul’s words hopefully everything will be clear. Clarity is always my goal. I don’t want to be like the politician who left a political rally in Chicago the other day and whispered to one of his aides, “I hope that in the excitement I didn’t have to make myself clear about anything.” Well, I want to be clear. Let’s begin. Look at the sequence. He says in verse 16, “for the Lord Himself will descend from Heaven with a cry of command.” Step one – the Lord descends with a shout and a cry of command. And the command is that the dead in Christ be raised! Sometimes we used to say as children, “you are making so much noise you could raise the dead.” Do I need to tell you that no matter how much noise we make, the dead remained dead. But when Jesus comes with that shout of command, He himself has said that all who are in the grave shall hear His voice. And some shall come forth unto the resurrection of life, and some shall come unto the resurrection of damnation. When Jesus speaks, the dead are raised. Wow. He comes with a shout of command. The best illustration is the story of Lazarus. Jesus is at the tomb of Lazarus, and the Bible says that he cries with a loud voice “Lazarus come forth!” And he who was dead came forth bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was bound about with a napkin. Someone has said it was good that He named him, otherwise all the dead in Bethany would have arisen. When Jesus speaks, the dead are raised. So He comes with a shout of command and with the voice of the archangel. Who is the archangel? Gabriel. Gabriel is the only one referred to in the New and Old Testament as the Archangel. So, Gabriel comes along and he is shouting as well. I have no doubt that the whole hosts of angels are there, because everything that Jesus did was accompanied by angels. That is why we have so many angel stories at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The angels are coming too, the same angels who told the shepherds that they should go to Bethlehem and who gave glory to God. All of those angels (no question in my mind) are coming with Jesus who gives the shout of command with a trumpet sound. Trumpets were used to cause Israel to march. When the trumpet sounded, it was time for them to move on. So what happens when the trumpet sounds? The dead now know that it is time to move on. They have been dead long enough. It is time for the body which has disintegrated to be recreated and put together by God. Jesus says “Come!” and the dead are raised. That is step number one. Step one, the Lord descends with the shout of the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God.
Secondly, the dead in Christ will rise first. That phrase “in Christ” is a technical term which refers to the church. No where in the Old Testament do you find that those who died, “died in Christ.” It was the church that was formed at Pentacost. So this is Jesus Christ coming for His church – the dead in Christ. And they arise. The Old Testament saints will arise, but that will be at the second part of the return of Jesus. When He comes in glory, and the dead of the Old Testament will rise so they can go into the Kingdom. They too will be with Jesus, along with the rest of us. So, the Scripture says the dead in Christ shall rise. And this is only the resurrection of the body, their souls are already in Heaven. There is a joining of the soul and the permanent body. And what a wonderful body it is going to be. No more cancer, no more expressways, no more hassle, no more weaknesses, no more sleep...it is like the resurrection body of Jesus. We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is. Isn’t that wonderful? I think that this miracle is going to be more wonderful than creation itself. The dead in Christ then rise first.
Step number three: we who are living (if it happens during our lifetime) are then translated. Verse 17 says, then we who are alive who are left will be caught up together, and that is the word rapture. We will be together in the clouds. So, the living will be translated. The apostle Paul taught that there would be a whole generation of Christians who would not experience death. I Corinthians 15, “Behold I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye at the last trump. For the trumpet shall sound and the dead in Christ shall be raised incorruptible.” But there is a whole generation that is going to be translated in the twinkling of an eye. How long does it take for your eye to twinkle? How long does it take to blink your eye? They tell us it takes 1/50 of a second. Boom! It just suddenly happens. It is a done deal. The twinkling of an eye – the last trump. And notice that the Bible says that Jesus will come with the clouds. That is true both of His first coming, and the second stage of His coming. It may well be in this instance that the clouds so engulf the world, when Jesus comes to take away all that are in Christ and there is a disappearance, the world will come up with a natural explanation of the phenomenon. They may link the disappearance with the clouds. They will try to hide from the rest of the world what God is doing. So, Jesus comes and the living are translated is step number three.
Step four, we meet the Lord in the air. The word meeting is kind of a technical term too. It is used for example in the book of Acts where there was a delegation who came out from Rome to meet Paul. I don’t want to stretch the point too much, but think about this. All of the dead who died in Christ are raised and have their glorified bodies. Those currently living are now translated and have their glorified bodies. Both groups now have their eternal bodies, and are in effect a delegation to meet Jesus. And we are saying “Oh King Jesus, thank you for returning! Glory to God! Here we are to greet you.” Remember, He raised us and saved us so that we have the ability to do that. Isn’t that going to be an exciting prospect to meet the Lord in the air? And so we meet the Lord in the air together. Imagine that for a moment. Now there is no evidence that Jesus Christ comes all the way to earth this time. He certainly will come in the second stage of His return. So then we are with Jesus Christ, and that is actually the last phase. We are eternally with the Lord. So shall we always be with the Lord. We will be with the Lord during the great tribulation. We will be with the Lord when He returns with His saints to establish His kingdom. We will be with the Lord and we will reign with Him during the coming kingdom. And then when the kingdom is swallowed up in eternity, what does the Bible say in the book of Revelation? Their names shall be on His forehead and there shall be no night there. They need no light of the sun, neither of the moon to shine upon them. For the Lord God giveth them light and they shall reign with Him forever and ever. The Lord will be with them forever. No wonder the apostle Paul in an understated way concludes in verse 18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” I hope you’ve been encouraged today.
Let me simply conclude by saying first that the return of Jesus Christ is a message that should motivate us. In fact that is the way it is always presented in the Bible. The return of Jesus is never presented in a way to show that we should satisfy our curiosity. Sometimes I think that people who are really into prophecy are into it in such details, even details which are unclear in the Scriptures. They just want to find out EXACTLY what is going to happen. They want to know how the antichrist is going to part his hair – well, that is a slight exaggeration. The return of Jesus is always presented in such a way to motivate us to holiness. Earlier I quoted First John 3 where it says that we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is. And whoever has this hope in Himself purifies himself even as He is pure, even as Christ is pure. And John does say as quoted earlier, let us live in such a way that we will not be ashamed at His coming. Second Peter says that the elements will eventually all melt with fervent heat. What manner of people are we then to be in all conversation and godliness, knowing that all these things shall be destroyed? That new car that you have your eye on that you open and close the door just to hear the thud of this thing. When you park it in the parking lot, you park it far away from other cars so that other doors won’t hit yours. This thing that you are actually willing to make payments on - God bless you, it is going to be destroyed. Poof! And that which is eternal will last. And what is eternal? Demons and Satan will last forever in hell, people will last forever, angels will last forever, and God will last forever. And at the end of the day it is only that which really matters. And so the coming of Jesus should be a motivation to holy living. The coming of Jesus should be a motivation to witness to people and to say to people “are you going to be taken up when the Lord comes?” Because, when Jesus comes I want you to imagine an electro magnet going over iron filings, but amid the iron filings are all these pieces of plastic and wood. What happens is, these iron filings spring up in the twinkling of an eye. But the rest are left behind. Left behind…the phrase comes to my mind. It sounds like you could write a book on that, couldn’t you? But there are people who are going to be left behind, no matter which understanding of the tribulation you have. So, the coming of Jesus should be a motivation. The coming of Jesus should be a great message of hope. We do not grieve as those who have no hope.
I had a nephew who was killed at the age of 15. He was in the backseat of a car memorizing Bible verses on his way to a Bible quiz. The driver hit some ice and my nephew was killed. I have not seen him in those past twenty years, obviously. But he is going to be there with us. We have relatives and friends who have not yet died. Either way, living when Jesus comes, or dying, we are all going to be together with Jesus. I think of all those funerals I performed at Edgewater Baptist Church so many years ago. When I became pastor, everybody seemed to die. I don’t know if there was a cause/effect relationship, there may not be. I had so many funerals. Then you think of the Moody Church. Think of all the people who have been here throughout the decades, and they have died. I am thinking right now of Evelyn Johnson whom so many of us knew who died perhaps a year and a half ago. She is going to be there, and her husband is going to be there, and all of the relatives. So shall we ever be with the Lord. When you are with the Lord, you say goodbye to saying goodbye. You are there forever and ever. Comfort one another with these words. You widower, your wife is in Heaven. Widow, your husband is in Heaven. Comfort one another with these words. Jesus is going to return, and some of believe this could be at any time.
I remember reading the story of a dog; you know dogs are very loyal to their masters. There are many stories of dogs like “Lassie Come Home.” I remember reading it as a boy and crying my eyes out over Lassie. Well you did too, didn’t you? You should have. I read a story of a dog out on the prairie who was very loyal to his master. But his master died, so they took the man and put his body in a coffin. Then they took the coffin to the train in the little town. And of course the coffin went off with the train. And this writer said that as long as the dog lived, every single day he met the train as it came into the station hoping his master would return. Do you love the appearing of Jesus? When you read of wars in the Middle East, when you discover in the Bible that Europe is supposed to be unified and out of Europe an antichrist will come? We can see the unification of Europe through the EU. Is there something within your heart that says maybe this is the sound of the train that brings back not a dead Jesus, but my Jesus? You can read in the Bible about the fact that in the end, Jerusalem is going to be surrounded by armies and all the nations will want to exterminate Israel, and Jesus is going to return in the midst of that messy battle in Israel. When you read about those things in the newspaper is there something within you that says, maybe this is an indication that my Jesus is not far away. He may be coming and I love His appearing. And the Bible says that if you love His appearing, you will be given a crown of righteousness. God says “I’ll even give you something special if you look forward to seeing my Son!”
Face to face with Christ my Savior
Face to face what will it be?
When with rapture I behold Him
Jesus Christ who died for me.
Only faintly now I see Him
With a darkening veil between.
But another day is coming
When His glory shall be seen.
This is my friend, the blessed hope.
Let’s Pray. And so Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that you might make us ready. For those who have never trusted Christ as savior, we pray that you might show them the need to believe in Him. That they also might die in Christ, so they can be with us forever. To those who have never done that, bring a great deal of doubt to their hearts, so that they might wrestle with the question and make sure that they belong to You. And may they even at this moment say Jesus I want to be yours and I accept you as my savior. I receive You and the gift that You came to give me. For those of us who know You, we pray that every day we may wonder whether the train is coming – if today will be the day that we see Jesus. Grant that to us Father we pray. And now as I close this prayer, what is it that you need to say to God? You talk to Him right now. *silence* Father, hear the prayers of the many who have called upon you. In Jesus Name, amen.