In their concerted drive into the Pacific, the Japanese army landed on the northern coast of Luzon Island, in the Philippines, on December 10, 1941. The American and Filipino troops were slowly pushed southward until they were concentrated on Bataan Peninsula and on Corregidor Island, near the mouth of Manila Bay. General Douglas MacArthur was on Corregidor Island at the time and he listened to the daily news bulletin every evening via shortwave radio.
MacArthur was one of history’s greatest military orators. When ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to evacuate to Australia, he made one of his shortest, yet most memorable speeches, a simple statement to reporters: “The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed from Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return.”
These three small words became the “rallying-cry” of the United States Army for the next few years. They gave courage and hope to millions of soldiers as they fought toward the goal of re-conquering lost territory. They represent the “hope” of MacArthur’s Army. Eventually, on October 22, 1944, the promise was fulfilled. Standing on a small beach in the Philippines, the great speech-maker began a longer oration with the words, “I have returned.”
But it was not Douglas MacArthur who first inspired discouraged followers with a departing promise of his final victory! Over 1,900 years earlier, under orders from his father to ascend to Heaven, Jesus Christ told his handful of disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you … I will come again … “ (John 14:2-3). These words, too, have given rise to a “rallying-cry:” “MARANATHA!” (which means, “Our Lord, come!”). The return of Christ is the hope of the church. One of these days his promise, too, will be fulfilled. Standing on a small hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus will be able to say, like MacArthur, “I have returned.”
The apostle Paul wrote, “But we don’t want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don’t grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God’s trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, WEB).
Paul had founded the Christian Church in Thessalonica, a major city in northern Greece (known today as Saloniki), during a three-week visit there, in AD 50, early in his second missionary journey (see Acts 17:1-9). Considering how short a time he had spent with these new believers, he had succeeded in teaching them quite a lot about their new-found faith, as is evidenced by the number of times he uses expressions like “you know” in his first epistle to them, which we know as 1 Thessalonians. Yet, obviously, there were gaps in their understanding. Bible scholars believe that when Paul’s assistant, Timothy (whom he had left behind in Macedonia), came to visit him in Athens, he brought with him a list of questions to which the Thessalonian Christians needed authoritative answers. The result of their query is the book we call “1 Thessalonians” – probably the first piece of the New Testament to be written by Paul.
One of the questions the Thessalonians asked seems to have been concerned with the condition of Christians who die. Probably no Christians had died during the three weeks Paul had spent in their city, so the question hadn’t arisen then, and Paul hadn’t dealt with it. Now, after the passage of several months, which included affliction and persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4), they had probably had that experience, and were wondering what would become of their deceased loved ones in the future. Would they ever see them again? The Scripture text we are looking at is Paul’s response to that question.
Paul’s answer begins with a strong affirmation of both the importance of their question and the truthfulness of his answer. “We don’t want you to be ignorant … this we tell you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:13,15). This is not an irrelevant “side issue” and it is not a matter of personal opinion or speculation! It is a doctrine of vital importance to the “brothers” to whom Paul is writing (1 Thessalonians 4:13) and it is given in the form of a clear revelation from God (1 Thessalonians 4:15).
What is the present condition of Christians who have died? Three times in as many verses (vv. 13-15), Paul uses the expression “those who have fallen asleep” to describe those he later calls “the dead” (v.16). It is clear that Paul, along with all the other writers of Scripture, portrays Christians who have died as being “asleep” – unconscious and inactive – unaware of anything that is going on in the world and unable to participate in it in any way. Since the moment of their decease, they haven’t gone anywhere or done anything, and that condition would remain unchanged forever were it not for God’s revealed plan to intervene and change it!
But there is such a plan! Beginning in verse 16, Paul describes, in sequential order, the events of a day the Church can still look forward to, eagerly and expectantly:
- “The Lord himself” (Jesus Christ) “will descend from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Notice that nothing is said, in this passage or any other, anywhere in the Bible, about deceased Christians (or anyone else) “going to heaven;” rather, the promise is about a living Jesus “coming from heaven” back to this earth.
- “ … with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God’s trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Where did anyone ever get the idea that this event would be a “secret”? This is a description of one of the “noisiest” events in our planet’s history! Not only is it “loud” but Revelation 1:7 adds that everyone in the world will see it happen as well as hear it.
- “The dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The importance of resurrection (rather than “surviving” the experience of dying) cannot possibly be overemphasized. Paul would later write, in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, … then … your faith also is in vain.” Of course, you have to be dead (not “more alive than you’ve ever been before”) in order to experience resurrection.
- “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up …” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This is the aspect of the event we are studying that gives it the name “Rapture” (the word “rapture” means “being caught up”). Notice that the “Rapture” is not a separate event from the second coming of Christ. It is a part of that same event.
- “ … to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The word “meet” calls to mind a specific tradition in the ancient world: that when a conquering king makes a royal visit to a city he has added to his empire, those citizens of that community who have hoped he would someday rule them would come running out of the city to “meet” him on the road and to accompany him into the city as he makes his triumphant entrance. It would be a misuse of the word “meet” to apply it to a vision of the Church being “raptured” several years before the actual return of Christ.
- “So we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In order to be “with” the Lord, of course, we will have to be wherever he is at the time. Where will that be? The logic of the word “return” implies that he will be on Earth, since one cannot “return” to a place other than where one has been before (remember MacArthur? He didn’t “return” by relocating from Australia to the United States; he “returned” by going back to the place he had earlier left, namely, the Philippines). So if Jesus is planning to return to Earth, then it is on Earth that we will “be with” him “forever.”
- “ … comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). This statement isn’t part of the description of the second coming, of course, but it is extremely important for an understanding of the entire passage. When loved ones die, we are instructed by this statement to use this very Scripture in giving comfort to one another. We are to remind one another of Jesus’ promise to return. We are to look forward to seeing our (formerly deceased, but now resurrected) friends again when he comes (and not before then). We will live eternally with him and them on his beautiful, newly re-created Earth – not in Heaven, where he himself specifically said (John 13:33) it is impossible for us to go.
Think about it!
- Why is it important to know what condition the dead are in now?
- How is the issue of the condition of the dead connected with the prophecy of Christ’s return to earth?
- How can discussion of a future event (the second coming of Christ) bring “comfort” to a bereaved Christian?
In the next chapter, Paul goes on to say, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need that anything be written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. For when they are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ then sudden destruction will come on them, like birth pains on a pregnant woman; and they will in no way escape. But you, brothers, aren’t in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief. You are all children of light, and children of the day. We don’t belong to the night, nor to darkness, so then let’s not sleep, as the rest do, but let’s watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep in the night, and those who are drunk are drunk in the night. But let us, since we belong to the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and, for a helmet, the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-8).
Another question the Thessalonians may have asked Timothy to convey to Paul is, “When will the second coming take place?” This is a question that naturally occurs to anyone who is thinking about an event that is said to be in the future. We want to put things “on our calendar” so we can plan for them and anticipate.
However, Paul introduces his answer to this question with the little word “But” (1 Thessalonians 5:1), indicating a contrast between the vagueness of the answer he is about to give to the “when?” question and the detailed specificity of the answer he had just given to the “what?” question. “Of the times and seasons” he says (to the very same “brothers”), it is totally unnecessary that he should write. Why? Because “you already know perfectly well” (we would say) “that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
Has your home, or place of business, ever been invaded by a burglar? (Having been through that experience myself, I can assure you that I wish your answer would be “no!”). But if it has, let me ask you another question: did the burglar first warn you that he was coming? Could you have marked your calendar and known when to expect him? Were there even any “signs” to give you a hint that his approach was imminent? I rather doubt it!
In the same way, Paul is telling us that Jesus will return without warning and at a time when his return is not expected. That is quite the reverse of the impression you would get from the flood of books on “prophecy” currently on the market. We are led to believe that the Bible is full of predictions about when Jesus will come and how we will know that the time of his advent is near. If those books are telling the truth, then how is the day of the Lord going to come “like a thief”?
The correct answer is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:3-8, where Paul explains a certain difference in the nature of Christ’s return between how it is to be viewed by believers and how it is viewed by unbelievers. To the unsaved, his coming will be like that of a thief; when they are not expecting him (v. 3), he will suddenly come, and the effect of his coming will be their “destruction.” But to the saved, there will be no “surprise” on the day he returns, since we live in the “light” of the knowledge that he has promised to return. We don’t know when he will come, but we do know how (thanks to 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), so the day will not “overtake” us like the arrival of a burglar at midnight would.
Think about it!
- Does prophecy contain any “clues” as to when Jesus will return?
- In what way will Jesus’ coming be “like” the coming of a thief?
- Should the actual return of Christ come as a “surprise” to his followers?
The apostle Paul explains to curious Christians the truth about their loved ones who have died: those people are now asleep, awaiting a future resurrection to life in God’s eternal kingdom. They will remain in that condition until Jesus returns. His return will take place suddenly and dramatically, accompanied by audible sounds and visible activity. Deceased Christians will be the first to experience the change, but they will be joined immediately by the Christians who are still alive at the time. Together the entire Church will meet Jesus in the air and accompany him to his throne in the New Jerusalem. “What a day – glorious day – that will be!”
This message should be used to comfort the bereaved in their moment of grief – this message, not the spiritual-sounding platitudes of man-made tradition. Use the Scripture for its intended purpose: not to answer our curiosity about the future, but to encourage us with a hope we can live with in the present!
Remember: “… the Lord himself will descend from heaven …” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
By Dr. John H. Roller
(John Roller currently serves as pastor of First Advent Christian Church in Hickory, N.C., having served in Advent Christian churches in Illinois, Florida, West Virginia and North Carolina. He has also served as Director of Urban/Ethnic Ministries, Resource Center Coordinator and Publications Coordinator for the Advent Christian General Conference)