Summary: Paul reassures the believers in Thessalonica who were afraid that those who had died would miss the Second Coming as he writes of the Return, the Resurrection, the Rapture and the Reunion.
OUR BLESSED HOPE - THE SECOND COMING OF JESUS
There’s often an interesting background to what we read in Paul’s letters to the young churches he had founded. The verses we’ve just read (1 Thess 4:13-17) are his response to a misunderstanding that had caused grief to the new Christians at Thessalonica. Paul the apostle had personally taught his converts that the Lord Jesus was coming again to gather up His people, His church, to be with Him forever. What a wonderful truth that was! What comfort it gave to the little band of Christians living in a hostile world!
After some months Paul had to leave the city to return to Athens and then go on to Corinth in the south of Greece. It was then that a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Second Coming caused the believers some grief. In the meantime a few of the church members had died. These deaths came as a great shock. "Oh dear," they thought, "what’s going to happen to our loved ones? Are they going to miss the Second Coming? They’ve died too soon!"
It’s clear that they’d misunderstood what Paul had taught that they should be ready for the Lord’s call or return at any time. But human nature being what it is, they worried themselves sick as to the fate of their friends who had died. Would they be at a disadvantage to those who were living when Christ returned. Would their loved ones be lost? Paul’s assistant, Timothy, relayed the story of their grief to Paul. You can imagine how Paul felt! He had a real pastor’s heart and that’s how the first letter to his friends at Thessalonica came to be written. He wanted them to know the full story, the whole truth, of the Second Coming of Jesus. Perhaps the Thessalonian Christians hadn’t been listening carefully when Paul was preaching and only got half the story with the result that they mislead themselves with unfortunate consequences.
A simple misunderstanding can cause great anxiety. Communication nowadays is so easy with e-mail and telephone, but until the 20th century it was very slow. Two hundred years ago messages were passed over long distances by signal stations on hills. When the Battle of Waterloo on the Continent was being fought England awaited the outcome with baited breath. At last the signals began to whirl, the message being spelt our letter by letter: "Wellington defeated …" The two words came through clearly and then fog covered the hillside. Quite understandably the people thought they’d lost! What a catastrophe for the nation! Quite understandably the people thought they’d lost! The people were plunged in gloom as they thought that was the end of the message - but it wasn’t because eventually another two words were added which made all the difference: "Wellington defeated … the enemy." Misunderstandings causing confusion and trouble often happen in daily life if we’re not careful. And that’s what happened in Thessalonica. It’s the work of the evil one to sow seeds of error, confusion and doubt between believers.
Paul responded to their doubts and concerns with words of reassurance. "Brothers," he wrote, "we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (4:13). Before the revelation of God in the Lord Jesus death in the pagan world was literally the end. A grim epitaph has been found on a tombstone of that time: "I was not; I became; I am not; I care not." There’s no comfort there for those who are left behind. There’s no answer to the question, "What’s the purpose of this life on Earth?" Of course, death, inevitable as it is, does bring grief through the parting of loved ones. It would be very unnatural, in fact, inhuman, not to mourn when we lose someone near and dear to us. Jesus did at the graveside of his friend Lazarus. What Paul is saying is that the Christian’s mourning isn’t hopeless grief.
Death for the Christian is entirely different from that of the unbeliever because we share in Christ’s victory over death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian was martyred for his faith by the Nazis days before the end of the Second World War in 1945, but before he was executed he wrote: "This is the end, but for me the beginning of life." Death is but the gateway into the very presence of God. Christians are inspired and comforted by "hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:3). Yes, we may mourn for ourselves and our own sense of personal loss, but we don’t need to mourn over those who have died in Christ. When Roy Castle, the entertainer, but also a devoted believer, died, his widow, Fiona was able to say to her friends, "No flowers, no fuss, no mourning, just lot’s of joy!" He Roy was safe in the arms of Jesus.