Tuesday, November 17, 2009

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

V13-18 – 13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

Paul had already taught the Thessalonian Christians about the second coming of Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13), but he apparently did not have time to complete that teaching due to the death threats coming his way. So here he adds to what he had taught them in person, beginning with teaching about the dead, and he’ll apply that teaching for them in the final chapter of this letter. Then, as we’ll see, he addresses specific concerns about this eschatological instruction in 2 Thessalonians. In the meantime, Paul calls the dead “those who fall asleep,” which was a standard multi-cultural and multi-religious metaphor for describing the dead more tenderly. (It does not speak of “soul-sleep,” but of the body’s stationary, unresponsive position.) Paul wants Christians to grieve over the dead in Christ in a different way than the world grieves. Christian grief is done with hope; unbelievers lack hope, or at least their hope is false and unfounded. But our hope comes from the resurrection of Christ (v14). Because “we believe that Jesus died and rose again,” it logically follows that “we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have [died] in Him.” Calvin concludes, “Those that are by faith ingrafted into Christ, have death in common with Him, that they may be partakers with Him of life.” This is an encouraging, pastoral teaching, and Paul elaborates on additional questions in his other epistles. For example, Paul explains the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:35-37.

Vincent Cheung says of the second coming of Christ, “It is cited [here] to produce motivation in sanctification, anchor in temptation, comfort in bereavement, and strength in persecution. It is even used to identify those who belong to Christ – those who believe in Him look forward to His glorious return (1 Corinthians 1:7-8, 16:22-24; Philippians 3:20-21; Titus 2:12-15; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8; Hebrews 9:27-28; 2 Peter 3:11-12; 1 John 2:28). The doctrine does not only provide hope for us as believers, but it imposes a moral obligation on us to look forward to the Lord’s return and to order our lives in a manner that is consistent with this expectation. And it is to be a natural part of our preaching and conversation.”

In v15, Paul teaches “according to the Lord’s own word,” that the living will not precede the dead to heaven. Some people may have thought (2 Esdras 13:14-24 – a Jewish apocalyptic text) that those living at the second coming of Christ were more blessed, that they alone would receive eternal life. Apparently, many Jews (and Gentiles), such as the Sadducees, did not believe in a resurrection at all; still others hoped in vain for some type of resurrection, but nothing like the one Christ provides. So Paul implies in this teaching that all in Christ – whether dead or alive at His coming – are equally blessed with His resurrection power unto eternal life in heaven. He doesn’t speak here concerning unbelievers and in fact only mentions the resurrection of unbelievers unto judgment in Acts 24:15; see also Acts 17:31; Romans 2:5-16. Calvin says, “He says nothing as to the reprobate, because this did not tend to the consolation of the pious, of which he is now treating.”

Calvin begins his commentary on v16 by saying, “The Apostle unquestionably had nothing farther in view here than to give some taste of the magnificence and venerable appearance of the Judge, until we shall behold it fully. With this taste it becomes us in the mean time to rest satisfied.” Keeping that in mind, we see that Paul speaks of the resurrection of believers. He mentions “a loud command,” or cry from Jesus, “the voice of the archangel,” and “the trumpet call of God,” declaring a most-certainly public rapture (“caught up” from v17). When Paul teaches on the rapture, it’s not meant to be a full lesson on the doctrine of eschatological events – that will come in 2 Thessalonians – but it is meant to be pastoral teaching for the grieving to assure them (“encourage each other” from v18) of reunion with loved ones. So we conclude this chapter with the key doctrinal take-away – that Jesus Christ will come again, and when He comes, He will receive His people to be with Him forever (v17).

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