In 50 AD Paul and his missionary companions, Silas and Timothy arrived in the major Macedonian city of Thessalonica. They spent weeks teaching the Gospel. A thriving church was created. Too soon, for Paul’s comfort, they were forced to leave Thessalonica. The young Christians were left on their own to face... the tempter.
It was wonderful news. The young church was thriving. Their faith was strong. Their love had spread across Macedonia. Even under persecution, the believers in Thessalonica were doing just fine! Except, something unexpected happened. One of their own people had died. (We named him Nicolas. We made up that he died from a beating after being arrested for his faith.)
The Thessalonians did not know how to understand Nick’s death. Either Paul had not taught them this part of theology, or they did not remember it. Either way, their hope was challenged. Perhaps, they had expected all the believers to live until Jesus came. What happens to believers when they die? Was Nick just dead? Is Nick going to miss out on Jesus’s return?
Their hope was challenged. So, Paul writes a letter back to the Thessalonians explaining what happens to the dead in Christ. I suspect, this is the main reason Paul wrote both the letters, we know as 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
This morning, finally, we get to the main point of the 1 Thessalonians. We have been working in the Thessalonian letters for over a month! This morning we find out what happened to Nick.
Before we get to that, let me throw in a quote from N.T. Wright which I remind myself every time I study eschatology. Remember, eschatology is the study of last things.
“All Christian language about the future is a set of sign-posts pointing into a mist.”
What this means is that we should never be arrogant about what we believe is going to happen in the future. The Bible is not clear about the details of the next life. So, I need to remind myself that I could be wrong. “You wrong? Surely, not.” It’s possible. I offer the same advice to you. We are looking into the mist.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s study what Paul says happened to Nick. This may be as clear an explanation, anywhere in Scripture, to what happens to Christians when they die.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And 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, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Let’s break this paragraph down one concept at a time...
Concept 1... No pagan grief.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
Most of the people in Thessalonica would have believed in Hades. Hades is both the god who ruled and the place of the underworld. When a pagan died, they believed, the soul was ferried across the river Styx by Charon to the gates of Hades where Kerberos, the ferocious three-headed dog, stood guard to keep souls in, rather than to keep others out. Their souls were judged, and they were assigned their place in hades... forever. Perhaps, the most feared of the gods, Hades is described by both Homer as “pitiless”, “loathsome”, and “monstrous”.
The pagans had no hope. Paul says, “I want you to have hope. Don’t grieve because Nick died.” Hope is the glory of being a Christian!
Concept Number ONE... We have hope!
Concept 2... Jesus died and rose again... So, will we!
1 Thessalonians 4:14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so...
The reason they should not grieve over Nick was because of Jesus. Jesus died and rose again. We die and rise again! The resurrection of Jesus is the power of our resurrection! Our enemy, Death, was defeated by Jesus in the resurrection!
1 Corinthians 15:20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Jesus was the first of those who fell asleep and then was raised.
1 Corinthians 15:26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Concept 1... We have hope!
Concept 2... Because Jesus was resurrected!
The first two concepts I am sure of! But, here is where it gets a little... misty. So, I am saying I am 63% sure of Concept 3.
Concept 3... The dead have fallen asleep.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
The tenses seem to be important. Sleep used in the past tense would refer to their moment of death; they have fallen asleep. But in the present tense, “Those who are asleep”, seems to be their present state. It would be awkward to talk about someone who is currently asleep, if they are not asleep.
The most common language of the dead in the New Testament is sleep. Here is a sampling...
Matthew 27:52 The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised;
John 11:11-14 This He said, and after that He said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep." The disciples then said to Him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. So, Jesus then said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead.”
Acts 7:60 Then falling on his knees, Stephen cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he fell asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:51-52 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 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.
2 Peter 3:3-4 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation."
Matthew, John, Luke, Peter, and Paul refer to the dead as asleep.
Here is the rub. One choice is to take the “sleep” metaphorically as another way of saying dead without any thought to the state of the person. The other choice is to take “sleep” at its plain value... that speaks to the state of those who are dead.
To me, the simplest explanation is preferred. When we die we do not immediately go to our reward. Instead, the writers of the New Testament seem to be teaching the dead are asleep; resting in Christ; R.I.P. As I said, I’m 63% sure that Nick is asleep.
Concept 4... The alive will not have precedence over the asleep.
1 Thessalonians 4:14-15 God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Perhaps, the Thessalonians thought that Nick would miss out on the resurrection. Maybe, they thought Nick would not get to participate in the parousi,a Parousia. The Parousia is the Greek word for presence or coming. It has become a theological word referring specifically to the return of Jesus. The Thessalonians may have been sad that Nick was not going to be around for the Big Event, for the Parousia.
But, Paul explains to them that Nick was going to be brought with God at the Parousia. Those who are alive at the Parousia are not going party before those who are asleep.
Everyone gets to the Big Event at the same time. Don’t worry about Nick. Nick will be awakened in time to catch the Parousia!
Concept 5... Jesus will descend from heaven.
1 Thessalonians 4:16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
One day Jesus is coming back. (I’m 100% on this concept.) One day Jesus will come back to this earth. This next time, it will not be quietly as a baby on Christmas morning. The Parousia will be loud...
--He will visibly appear in our realm from the realm of heaven. Bam, “I’m back!”
--It will be with a cry of command – this is a military term... loud order... Charge!
--It will be accompanied with the voice of an archangel – I’m thinking angels are scary... loud... all hear!
--Sound of the Trumpet of God –
Matthew 24:31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds,
1 Corinthians 15:52 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 shall be changed.
Everyone will know when the Parousia happens!
Concept 6... We escort Jesus to earth.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 And 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, and so we will always be with the Lord.
The dead, those who are asleep, those who have been brought with God will rise from the dead. Then, alive Christians will meet Jesus in the clouds. The Parousia calls all believers to join Jesus in the air.
The Greek word for “meet” is avpa,nthsij apantesis. This is the Roman term for meeting a dignitary outside of a city and then escorting them back into the city. It is our ticker-tape parade. It is the tail-gate party before going into the game. It is the police escort through a busy city.
It is the Matthew 25:6 party for the Groom as he enters the wedding.
Matthew 25:5-10 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to (apantesis) meet him. ...and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.
Nick, and all those who are still alive at the time, will go to the clouds to escort Jesus to the earth. You will get to be a part of the apantesis.
The last concept is the best...
Concept 7... We will always be with the Lord
1 Thessalonians 4:17 and so we will always be with the Lord.
We are promised Jesus will return... permanently.
Acts 1:11 and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
Hebrews 9:28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
1 John 3:2 Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
YLT John 14:3 and if I go on and prepare for you a place, again do I come, and will receive you unto myself, that where I am ye also may be;
Let me end this with a fascinating insight into Paul; another psychoanalyzing of Paul. In 50 AD, when Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, Paul is on the “we” side of those who are alive at the Parousia.
1Thessalonians 4:15 that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord
But by the time of 2 Corinthians, say 56 AD, Paul has flipped to the other side; those who are asleep...
2 Corinthians 4:14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
Then, in 64 AD, as Paul writes his last letter...
2 Timothy 4:6-8 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
Paul knows he will die soon. Paul knows he has a crown. Paul knows that he will be awarded that crown on the Day of His appearing, not immediately, but on the Parousia!
Wow, that is us. When we are young we think we are going to be around forever... until Jesus comes. Then, as we get a little older, we begin to realize, maybe I will die... one day. Then, towards the end, we look forward to the Day for our crown!
1 Thessalonians 4:18 Therefore... encourage one another with these words.
Los Alamos Church of Christ
October 28, 2018