“The Benefits of a Fundamental Faith”

8 May 2005

Texts: 1 Thess. 4:13-18;


            Something had the Thessalonians pretty stirred up.  (verse 13)  We don’t know exactly what the issues were because Scripture does not record them for us.  But we can gather that they are agitated because they are ignorant about certain truths pertaining to the state, and the future of the pious dead--particularly they are disturbed about resurrection.  There will be four classes of persons when Christ returns: the living and the dead believers and the living and the dead unbelievers.  The Thessalonians needed some illumination about the relationship between the four and about Christian hope.  My sermon title, “The Benefits of a Fundamental Faith,” hinges on a fundamental of the Christian faith: the resurrection of the dead--nothing could be more central than our belief that Jesus Christ died, was buried and, on the third day, rose from the dead.  If you take a minimalist point of view, Jesus’ death and resurrection means that He defeated death and the grave by rising again.  There are some who accept that this may have happened for Jesus, but they deny that this one-time event has any further ramifications for anyone else, for us.  Of course there are some who deny that the resurrection happened at all and among them are those who so “spiritualize” the death and resurrection of our Lord so that not only does it cease to be a bodily, physical resurrection--it even ceases to be real.  These folks are addressed in 1 Cor. 15.  Now I don’t bring this up just as a matter of general interest.  I bring it up because people who refused to believe the historically established reality of the resurrection were alive in Paul’s day and they were busy spreading confusion amongst the believers in Thessalonica with their skepticism--just as some philosophical skeptics do in our own day.  That’s why Paul felt constrained to  write about this topic so explicitly and straighten the record out--through a specific revelation of God through Jesus Christ.


            How did Paul know about the significance of the resurrection for believers?  And, more specifically, how did he know about the relationship between living believers and those who had died with regard to the Second Coming of Christ?  I want to establish right up front that there was no way for Paul to reason his way to his understanding of these matters.  Therefore we are instructed in verse 15 that the source of his knowledge was revelation: For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.  That means that Paul heard, perhaps with others present {”we”}, a direct revelation on this matter from the risen Lord.


            Now it is probable that the Thessalonians’ exposure to erroneous teaching was a pastoral issue as the whole section vv.13-18 teaches us.  Believers in Paul’s day were being robbed of their consolation because some, incorrectly assumed that the living possessed some advantage over the pious dead merely by being alive at the time of the Lord’s return.  For example, in very simple terms, it mattered to some who would be first in line to receive blessing from the Lord when He has returned in all His Glory and the Holy Angels with Him?  Now, if you don’t believe in resurrection, but you do believe that the Lord will return, then those who have already died simply lose out by dying too soon.  That’s a sad thought, particularly for someone who has lost loved ones who, like themselves, were believers.  Still others believed that the resurrection of the dead (believers and unbelievers) would occur after a long, long interval--it seemed to them that the living would be taken into glory more immediately at Jesus‘ return.  As it turns out, both of these “Second Coming” hypotheses are wrong.  Furthermore, they are fundamentally hopeless.  We read that Paul is concerned that his spiritual children do not mourn “as those who have no hope.” (verse 13)  Paul has the unsaved in view here.  For them, not knowing of the resurrection and believing that the grave is the end of everything, the future is both bleak and dismal.  Furthermore, the pagans do not, cannot know about the immortality of the soul--except as an abstract philosophical idea.  Not so, the Christians!  They know, if they believe in their own bodily resurrection, that the soul, once one died was in a happy, conscious state (“in Jesus,” or “with the Lord“} v. 14--in a sweet repose as it were.  Christians could anticipate a joyous reunion at the time of the Lord return (“the dead in Christ shall rise first“).  Now that faith knowledge modulates one’s sense of loss at death and, indeed, the whole grieving process. 


            In contrast,  the extreme grief is appropriate for who those believe in the futility of life--who erroneously conclude that all ends with one’s death.  Beloved, this finality of the grave is all that the materialist can reasonably conclude.  Christian faith is incompatible with naturalism and materialist worldviews--something better has been revealed to us!  That is why Christians have hope, whereas their earthbound, secular neighbors have a pessimistic outlook and despair.  While it may be said generally that a world without religion is destitute of hope--it is more particular to say that a world without Christian revelation is a most impoverished world.  Without that Christian revelation, there is no evidence of a future life, no anticipation of the more which is to come.  Therefore, we Christians do not bury our hopes with the dead in their graves as if the dead were consigned to eternal silence through decay and dust.  Christians affirm belief in an afterlife in a heaven, the place to which Jesus ascended, according to many witnesses, and the place to which we are destined to go--as Jesus openly taught! John 14:2  "In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:3  "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.  And this hope of heaven mitigates the sorrow that must otherwise hold humanity in cruel bondage.  Christians are indomitable because no tyrant can intimidate those whose “life” is hid with Christ!  How so?  Because the heaven we seek is one where loves not only survive but they increase forevermore.  Where the saints are perfected, they know that they will never be severed from each other or the Lord again.  With Him is where we shall truly, freely and fully live!


            Now I want to be clear, humanly speaking, that we do mourn the loss of each other’s society in genuine and heartfelt ways.  But Paul wants to be sure that the Thessalonian Christian’s grief stays this side of the hopeless worldly, complaining and excessive grief of unbelievers--and that because of what we do believe about the resurrection of the dead.  Correspondingly, Christian grief should be calm, submissive, patient and courageous because our confidence in God‘s provision for us.  Yes, it is a mystery but because of our God‘s revealed provision, we can thank Him even in the midst of our pain and loss.  In view of these comforts (a heaven to go to, our reunion with the Lord and other believers), it is indeed and needlessly sad to die without hope, that is, without faith--interred eternally into the gloom of atheism.  Those who die in the faith, we affirm from Scripture, are in glory already.  Our deceased loved one do, in a real sense, sleep in Jesus.  They repose from pain, sorrow and labors.  And the implication of this is plain: as we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, so also we believe that those who die in Him will also rise.  They are forever in union with Him, under His care and His protection because they are in His presence.  We are not lost, nor losers but gainers by death!  And when Jesus comes, which He shall, God will bring them with Him all the saints, past and present--oh, yes, and all His angels, too.  Either spirit, soul and body will be re-united, just as it with Jesus, or we, the living, will go through our change at that time (the great exchange of immortality for mortality) and we shall enter into resurrection glory after those who died before.


            In verse 15 we come across a curious use of the word “prevent” which is translated by the NKJ as “precede.”  In KJ English the primitive meaning of prae venio (Latin) as come before was sustained whereas we tend to mean “hinder, or impede” in modern American English.  Psa 79:8  O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low.  Psa 79:9  Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge away our sins, for thy name's sake.  “Prevent” here means to “go before us” as we are in danger, or at peril because of our sins/iniquity. And again: Psa 119:147  I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried: I hoped in thy word.  Here the plain meaning is anticipate--I got up early, prior to sunrise, and cried out to you God.  The dead are to be raised, and they are to “prevent,” that is, precede into the Lord’s presence those believers who are living at the time of Christ’s return.  The living will be changed, after the dead have been raised incorruptible.


            The Lord will descend with a shout (v.16) keleusma--a word that does not occur elsewhere in the N. T. means a shout of excitement, the clamor as of sailors excitedly working their oars, soldiers rushing into battle, or the noise of a great multitude.  In itself the word does not suggest the pomp and ceremony of a royal court, but those allusions are supplied by the voice of the angelic herald, and the trumpet of God.  Indeed, the later would lend itself to the triumphal procession of a victorious general, or king returning from battle.  But a solemn assembly is to be preferred because of the gravity of the scene of judgment which transpires at this moment according to other texts.  Various scriptures verify that this is the moment of judgment: Matthew 25:31-56 with its unforgettable scene of the separation of the sheep and the goats, Acts 17:30-31 where Paul announces that there will be a righteous judgment by the Lord on an appointed day, and 2 Pet 3:9-12:  The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.  Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,  looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!  The archangel reference in 1 Thess. 4:16  is one of two such occurring in Scripture--the other is Jude 9--and it suggests the ranks and divisions of heavenly beings such as may found in other places: Col 1:16  For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created by Him and for Him. Col 1:17  And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. Col 1:18  He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.. And again, Paul seems to allude to ranks and orders in Rom 8:38  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, Rom 8:39  nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  There are a total of seven archangels alluded to in Scripture. (Rev. 8:2:Rev 8:2  And I saw the seven angels who stand before God; and seven trumpets were given to them.) But, if you count Apocryphal books like Tobit, only three such angels are named for us: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael!  It is appropriate for the Most Supreme Court to be called to order by a creature of such stature., or eminent standing.  The cry then is  coupled with the voice of the archangel as the summons to judgment--the trumpet we will recognize as the command for the dead to be raised incorruptible.  The timing of all this appears to be quite compact, a brief time from beginning to end, but nonetheless a highly significant sequence of events: the second coming, the call to judgment, the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of those believers yet living.


            The scene of the final judgment appears to be “in the air,” or under the firmament.  And the glory of the saints, if it be likened to light, will be bright, yes brilliant to dazzling.  We need artists to give us various perspectives on this all because the Scripture is sparse on imagery--for instance the appearance of the redeemed, if we have the glory of the Lord, will be amazing and those who believe will simply have to wait for the time of His appearing to actually “see” it all fully.  We do know that none of this is the result of the saints own efforts--it will be God’s own doing.  He will bring the saints with Him, He will raise the dead, He will clothe the righteous, He will cause them to be “caught up” to join with the Lord and He will cause them to dwell together forever.  I am assured that we are nowhere told that the last judgment will occur on the earth as we know it.  But the specifics that we have been given are quite enough to induce wonder and praise in the grateful believer.  In the end, we shall see as it were a seamless garment joining our justification with our sanctification with our final translation!  But Paul’s pastoral heart brings all this wonderful revelation to a close on the point of our comfort. (verse 18)  It is as if he is saying, when you face the lose of loved ones as undoubtedly you will in this life, comfort one another with the words of this revelation.  Comfort each other with the knowledge that we do indeed have a hope and a future. 

Ÿ         Those who have died will not be in the grave forever

Ÿ         Those who died in prior years shall not be hindered in any way by the timing of their decease.

Ÿ         All Christians will be received into heaven to dwell with their Lord blissfully and forever.