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Wanted--Dead&Alive

Wanted…Dead & Alive

I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

March 2, 2014

[Opener: Return of Christ video clip]

We have a saying in English: “Ignorance is bliss.” While that may be true when it comes to a select few of life’s experiences, my general experience has been that ignorance is costly, painful, downright disadvantageous to my well being.

ILL: About 4 years ago when our family was traveling through Europe in an R.V., our first stop was Salzburg, Austria. Since we drove into Austria at night, we missed all the border information you usually get in the daytime. The result was that a couple of days later when we got to the border of Italy to leave Austria, a very nice, uniformed, English-speaking Austrian policeman asked to see our transit sticker. “What ‘transit sticker?’” I asked. He informed me that any non-Austrian vehicle need this little $20 sticker to travel in Austria. So I thanked him and asked where I could buy one. “Well, you can’t now” was his reply. “But you can pay the $250 fine for not having one right now…or go to jail.” Ignorance was definitely not bliss at that moment.

A little transit sticker is one thing. But being ignorant about one of THE most important and life-defining experiences for every human being is quite another. That’s why Paul says in today’s text of I Thess. 4:13, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep….”

[No, he’s not talking about this kind of “falling asleep” (which happened on the London subway after a long transatlantic flight). I think I’m going to be in trouble for this one. J]

Paul is speaking about death. And without a doubt, death is THE deepest most life-defining universal experience that every human being must face. Ignorance about death is definitely not bliss!

As many of you know, these past couple of weeks have been a new round of “death” experiences in our family. First, David’s Jeep “died” on that snowy Friday morning we had 3 weeks ago as he slid sideways into a “polar vortex” of a stoplight pole on north Division at 5:30 in the morning. Yes, it’s dead… and totaled.

            Then the next Wednesday, my mother of 93 years, “feel asleep” in Christ and woke up in heaven, just in time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with her hubby of 67 years.

Then last week we put down our golden retriever of 10 years and I had the dubious responsibility of digging the grave and burying its warm but lifeless body at our family property in Idaho.

            To varying degrees, every one of those “deaths” struck home. And I’m very glad that I’m not left standing here today wondering what has happened to the most important people in all those scenarios, my mom and dad.

ILL: I contrast that with something I experienced just a few months ago. I was asked to speak at the funeral of a former teacher of mine. After I and others had spoken, the “pastor” got up to give the message. He pointed out several men and women in the congregation who had lost their spouses to death in the past year. Then he said something like this:

            “We’ve all got our own ideas about life after death. And no one can really be sure what happens to us after we die. Since scientists tell us that the atoms that comprise our bodies will always be a part of our universe, I think we can be sure that in some way, the deceased’s presence will always be with us.”

            I wanted to scream! He could not have been more wrong on more fronts in a shorter period of time about something more important than this. First, because Jesus is God and because he died and rose again and came back to tell us a whole lot about what happens after death, we DO KNOW what happens to people after death. Secondly, if that pastor didn’t have a clue about what happens to a person upon death, why did any of us need to sit there and listen to his pronouncements about his ignorance? And thirdly, he proved his ignorance by appealing to the natural sciences, to the mistaken notion of an eternal universe, to then make his quantum leap to a spiritual proclamation about someone’s spiritual existence. He was wrong in every conceivable way!

I make that charge with no small amount of emotion because the way that man was making pronouncements about spiritual realities was nothing short of theological malpractice! It’s one thing to be the victim of medical malpractice. You could lose a limb or your mobility or some aspect of your health or even your physical life. Legal malpractice could cost you lots of money. But spiritual malpractice about THE most important enemy we will all face…death…that’s inexcusable. And this from a man who pastured a Southern Baptist Church at one point in his life. But I digress. J

Apparently, in Paul’s day, some people had been saying the same sorts of things about death. Times have really not changed that much. People are still listening to the wrong voices, still wandering around in the dark, even after Jesus made it abundantly clear what the truth is. Remember, He’s the one human being who can speak authoritatively about death from every possible perspective…and be trusted.

So Paul writes, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.”

What we believe WILL determine how we feel in life. Just probe into someone’s thought process who is depressed… or afraid… or sad…or happy, for that matter. Our emotional state usually flows from our mental processes. That’s why God is continually calling us to “renew our minds” and put on “the mind of Christ.” What we think and believe will largely shape our emotional reactions to life. Here Paul is acknowledging that people respond differently to the death of loved ones.

Then we come to that term “fallen asleep.” It really means “died.” It’s what we call a euphemism—a more mild or polite word used to talk about something that might be considered harsh or blunt.

ILL: Companies talk about “downsizing” instead of being fired. The boss comes to you and says, “Because we’re downsizing as a company, we’re going to have to lay you off.” It sounds so gentle and reasonable, nicer than, say, “Because your job isn’t that essential to us anymore, you’re fired!”

Death is one of those experiences none of us will be immune to in this life. In one way, you could say that any loss or disappointment is a sort of “death.” But real, physical death is something we will all have to struggle with, grieve over and eventually embrace personally.

            Knowing that, God wants His truth about death to really change life. Instead of being ignorant about death and fumbling around in the dark of grief when it happens like people without Christ have to do, God wants the rock-solid truth about death that He can give us to change how we grieve and sorrow.

            I’ve officiated at funerals where family and probably the deceased didn’t know Jesus Christ. They had no idea who He is and what He came to do to death. They had no idea about what lay on the other side of that dark curtain of death. And their wailing and crying, their crumpling on the floor or into the arms of friends or family was SO different from what I have so often experienced with people who know Jesus. If there is ever a place where following Christ makes a difference, it is at the casket of someone you have loved and loved deeply.

            I’m also very glad that God doesn’t command us not to grieve, even as Christ-followers. Jesus wept over the death of his good friend Lazarus and the pain death caused to others he loved. We should feel loss whenever we encounter death. But that loss must be balanced and tempered by what God also tells us about death. And just what are some of those death-changing beliefs???

Vs. 14“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”

Here’s the most important fact about death for the child of God: Jesus died and rose again!   God is not a detached bystander. He is a painful participant. He didn’t just experience death by losing friends and family, as significant as that is. He allowed life to be wrung out of him one bloody drop at a time. He struggled to breath minute by minute on the cross until he gave up his breath. He felt searing pain over and in virtually every part of his body without the aid of pain killers. He absorbed the judgment and wrath of God against all human sin hanging on that horrible instrument of torture, the cross. And he chose to be separated from God the Father, something he had never come close to experiencing before, so that we might be reconciled to the Father. And he embraced the grave in order that he might exchange a mortal, rotting, decaying flesh for an immortal, incorruptible, unchanging, eternal body.

            Being a follower of Jesus Christ means you “believe that Jesus died.” His personal experience of death means that when it is our turn to travel that road of death, we will simply be walking on a path already marked by his pierced feet.

That fact makes the resurrection possible too…which is the second major belief of a Christ-follower: Jesus rose again. He resurrected. He didn’t just resuscitate. God didn’t just breath life back into the same body. He remade Jesus’ body just as he will remake every one of our bodies one day so that the new body is immortal.

It’s what Paul talked about in I Cor. 15:35ff when he compared our resurrection body to what happens when you sow a seed in the ground. A whole new plant emerges. It’s got the same genetic characteristics but it’s not just the same atoms or shape or color that the seed had when it was sown in the ground. It’s a much greater, more alive, in a way totally superior type of thing. Seeds have life in them but the difference between a little, dry seed and a flourishing, greed plant it produces is massive.

Maybe that’s why I love to garden so much. There is a sort of miraculous experience in gardening. I put a little tomato seed the size of the head of a pin in some dirt and in 3 months I have a plant and fruit that can weigh 30 pounds…or a squash seed that produces 100 feet of vines all over the place. Gardening reminds me that just as Jesus was given a new body in the resurrection, so my Dad and my Mom and my wife and my children who have put their faith in Jesus will all receive a body far more amazing than this truly amazing mortal body. I believe in the resurrection because I believe Jesus was resurrected as history says, unlike anyone else but just like everyone will one day experience from God.

So Paul says that “If [or literally “since”] we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”

Here’s another death-changing belief. Every child of God by faith in Jesus Christ from the time of Jesus right up to today will 1.) be with Jesus at the moment of death and, 2.) will accompany Jesus when he comes back in the clouds. Let’s look at both of those present and future certainties or realities.

First, the moment you die is the moment you start living immortally with Jesus.

If Jesus is going to “bring with him” (vs. 14) “those who sleep [have died] in Jesus,” then they must be with him then. This is where groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and even 7th Day Adventists get it wrong. They both believe in “soul sleep”—that you sleep or enter an unconscious state when you die until Christ’s return. That bad theology runs counter to far too many Scriptures to hold any weight.

First, it confuses this euphemism “sleep” with a literalistic interpretation of a figure of speech. It’s abusing a clear figure of speech. And even if it were descriptive of what happens, then dead souls would be in some way conscious. We don’t stop experiencing life when we sleep. We experience it in a different way—through dreams, through half-awake/half-asleep thoughts, through physical movement all night long and more. Furthermore, the biblical euphemism of “sleep” as used of “death” refers only to the body, not the soul.

            How do we know that? Look at some of the passages that talk about what happens to the SOUL of a person when their body dies.

  • In Luke 16:19-31 an unbeliever and a believer (the rich man and Lazarus) are said to have died, but both are shown to be fully awake, conscious after death, one in torment in Hades, and the other in bliss in paradise or heaven. The Lord portrays them as able to think, talk, remember, feel, and care. That’s hardly “soul sleep” as defined by anyone.
  • The same is implied in Jesus’ statement to the penitent thief,today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:40-43).
  • In Philippians 1:20-23 (“…for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”) death is described as “gain” because it brings the believer into the conscious presence of Christ. If living in this body with Christ is life, how could be unconscious about Christ and his presence be in any way superior or “gain”? This definitely implies conscious awareness of the Lord.
  • In Revelation 6:9-11, it talks about those who were slain for the sake of Christ during the Tribulation. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” This scene occurs before the resurrection of Old Testament or Tribulation saints. They are in heaven and they are not only conscious, but visible and aware of the battle on earth, yearning for God’s judgment to be poured out.
  • In Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9, the Gospel accounts of the Mount of Transfiguration, you have two Old Testament saints who have definitely not experienced the resurrection yet (Moses & Elijah) being nonetheless visible and recognizable in some sort of celestial form. They aren’t asleep. They aren’t unconscious. They are “talking with Jesus” according to Matthew’s account. Unconscious people don’t carry on conversations…even if they used to “talk in their sleep.” J
  • In 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, Paul clearly states that to be absent from the body (physical death) is to be present and at home with the Lord. These are strange words if we are with Him, but unconscious of His presence.

So the good news is that the moment my mother stopped breathing terrestrial air in Vancouver, WA 2 weeks ago, she started experiencing celestial life in the presence of Christ. That’s not a nice, little quaint Christian fairy tale; that’s reality as solid as the death and resurrection of Jesus. You can take that to the bank…or the morgue…or the cemetery. Trust God on that one!

Now, what is going to happen when Jesus returns in the clouds and “brings with him those who sleep in Jesus”? Are we talking about Jesus Second Coming to earth to reign in the Millennium OR are we talking about some sort of “rapture” of people before Christ returns to set up his Millennial Kingdom?

To be honest, this passage isn’t crystal clear as to when that will take place in the flow of future events. What it does make clear is that the event Paul is talking about here is going to take place “in the air (vs. 17). Vs. 16 says that “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven….” He’s not descending from “the heavens” as in outer space but is coming down visibly from “heaven.”

So what are the options regarding WHEN this will take place? When will Jesus resurrect the believe dead of the Church age and cause living believers to be “caught up together with them in the clouds” (vs. 17)?

There are basically 4 different possible scenarios or times when this first great resurrection of deceased saints and “catching up” of living saints might occur. Here’s how the options would look on a time-line:

1.)    Pre-tribulational rapture: sees the rapture prior to the 7 year Great Tribulation before the Millennium. Immediately following the rapture, the judgment seat of Christ will take place. While this is going on in heaven, the tribulation will begin on earth. This will last for a period of seven years. At the conclusion of the seven years, Christ will return in power and glory and set up His kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years (i.e., the millennium). During this time He will fulfill the Old Testament promises He made to Israel.

2.)    Mid-tribulational rapture: at the 3½ year mark in the 7 year Great Tribulation with the other events unfolding as in the pre-trib description I just gave.

3.)    Pre-wrath rapture: The rapture will occur 5½ years through the tribulation, when the wrath of God begins to be poured out on the earth at the seventh seal (Rev. 8). See I Thess. 5:9—“For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ….”

4.)    Post-tribulational rapture: The rapture will occur at the end of the tribulation right before Christ’s second coming. This position sees the resurrection of N.T. believers and Tribulation saints as happening together and just before Christ sets up his Millennial reign (talked about in Rev. 20).

All these positions place the resurrection/rapture event before Christ’s millennial reign. What varies is the period of time between the rapture of the church and the Second Coming of Christ to reign in the Millennium. The pre or mid-trib positions would see the Judgment Seat of Christ (I Cor. 3:9-15, 2 Cor. 5:10) and the Wedding Supper of the Lamb taking place between a rapture and Christ’s Second Coming. The post-trib position has a little difficulty, I think, with when those two heavenly events will take place. (Rev. 19:6-9; Luke 12:35-40—master returning from a wedding banquet, servants admonished to be ready because they don’t know the hour.)

But let’s back up and ask the question, “Where do we get this term ‘rapture’ anyway? Is it biblical or some wild human invention?”

This verse teaches there is a Christian generation that will not experience death. Like Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, some believers will bypass death and be taken directly to heaven. The phrase “caught up” comes from the Greek verb harpazo, which means “to grab or seize suddenly.” This word is used of Paul being taken into heaven (2 Cor 12:2, 4). It is also used of Phillip being snatched after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:39).

This word is also where we get the term “rapture.” When the New Testament was translated into Latin (i.e., the Vulgate), the scholars rendered harpazo as the Latin verb rapturo. It is just a small step then from the noun form raptura to the English word “rapture.”

So while the term “rapture” doesn’t occur in the Greek N.T., the term is valid for the action that will take place—a sudden snatching up of Christians from the earth.

Vs. 16 of I Thess. 4 tells us that this “snatching up” event will be accompanied by 3 heavenly events/sounds.

“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”

So what are the three sounds? 1.) Christ’s shout, 2.) the archangel’s voice, and 3.) the trumpet of God. The word “shout” is a military expression and it indicates a command or an order that is given. It is as if the troops are standing at ease and the command issued is, “Come to attention!” This voice will wake the dead. We don’t know the specific content of the command. However, in biblical times whenever the king was coming to a village, the town crier ran ahead and shouted, “The king is coming! The king is coming!” In the same way, the King of Kings will make His entrance known to the entire world.

The second sound is the archangel’s voice. Daniel 10:13 implies several archangels, but the Bible only mentions one, Michael (Jude 9). Michael is most likely the leader of the holy angels. Since he and the other angels have been commissioned to protect God’s people (Dan 12:1; Heb 1:14), it may be that he is present to protect God’s people from Satan and his forces as they pass through his domain.

The final sound is the trumpet of God. The archangel and trumpet of God are united by the conjunction “and” so that the archangel is represented as sounding God’s trumpet. Since the days when Israel was camped down at Mount Sinai, trumpets were used to call God’s people together for assembly (Num 10:2). This trumpet blast summons the church to gather in heaven (cf. 1 Cor 15:52).

So who hears these sounds, everybody or just Christ-followers? There are 2 different views regarding this: One is that these sounds are only heard by believers; another view suggests that these sounds are heard by everyone. I think these three descriptions sound rather public, don’t they? It is likely that unbelievers will be aware that something unique, supernatural, and amazing is taking place; however, they will not understand its meaning and significance.

Paul is clear that deceased believers will rise to resurrection before living believers are raptured (cf. 1 Cor 15:52). Yet, not just any person will rise from the dead but only those who are “in Christ.” The Bible never claims that Old Testament saints are “in Christ.” I think that the “dead in Christ” refers only to those believers who have died since the ascension of Christ. Paul is addressing the Thessalonians’ concern about Christians who have died in the church age. He was comforting those Thessalonians who had lost loved ones by saying, “Death is not as final as it seems. Your loved ones have not missed out on the coming of the Lord. In fact, they will be the first ones to receive their brand-new bodies.” This answers the Thessalonians’ concerns. No one who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ will in any way miss out on His return. There will be a great return/ resurrection of the deceased believers and a great reunionwith the living Christ-followers of that generation.

Paul will later teach believers in 1 Cor 15:51 that the rapture will take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” The Greek word for moment is the word from which we get the English word “atom.” The point is that the time it will take for Christ to rapture His church is infinitesimally small. The twinkling of an eye is the time it takes for your eye to catch light, which is a lot faster than a blink. We will be changed and given our new bodies instantly.

Stop for just a moment and blink your eyelids. The return of Christ will be quicker than that! One moment you’re baking cookies, the next moment you’re flying like Superman. One second you’re driving down the road and the next you’re looking at the face of Jesus. One minute you’re watching TV, the next you’re watching earth recede from view. Just like that. We will be here one moment and gone the next. Paul then says we shall be with the Lord forever…and ever…and ever.

This passage and I Thess. 4 also suggests that Paul believes Christ could return at any moment. In other words, there are no other signs that need to be fulfilled before Christ returns. This is another one of the reasons I believe in a pre-tribulation rapture (i.e., before the tribulation).

SO WHAT? What difference should all this talk of the return of Christ for his children have upon us…here…now?

1.) Certainly this reality was meant to change how we feel about our own death and about the death of loved ones in Christ. Physical death is NOT the worst thing that can happen. In fact, it is just the doorway to the fuller presence of Christ if Jesus is your Savior and Lord. We have NO reason to fear death. In fact, we have every reason to welcome it when it is God’s next step drawing us closer to Him. Dead or alive, we’re deeply wanted by our Savior.  

2.) It can change what we experience in this life and the next of the life of Jesus Christ .

Might I suggest that one reason the bodily return of Christ to this earth means so little to the church right now is that His spiritual presence with us right now means too little. If we’re really hungry to know God is working in our daily lives right now, if we’re really hungry for fresh encounters with His Spirit, fresh works of God daily right now, then I think the prospect of seeing Christ bodily at any moment would captivate our hearts.

            But if our lives are cluttered with a bunch of competing or equal allegiances to other things or people, we may actually be sort of dreading His coming.

ILL: Maybe we’re like the fellow who is engaged to be married to his fiancée who is living in another state. He’s not going to see her until the week of the wedding. So in the meantime he figures he might as well date around a little more, have fun playing the field until he has to really focus on one love of his heart in marriage. How’s he going to feel about… getting phone calls from his fiancée when he’s out late at night with some other woman…or having his bride-to-be surprise him by just showing up unannounced one day?

ILL: Surprising Joanna when she was a junior in college at Claremont College in CA. We walked in the house where she was visiting mutual friends (and doing her laundry), and her first response was to break into tears and blurt, “But I have too much planned for this weekend already!” J

Do we really want Jesus to come? Do we want him to come afresh today…and tomorrow…and next week…and next month? Are we really longing for Him?

And if He does come to us, what might that rearrange in our life?

What might he ask us to do to focus our attention, our passion, our heart on Him? Are we willing to pull away from other attractions and distractions to spend more time really pursuing His heart? Seeking Him prayerfully? In His Word? In praise and worship? Through serving others humbly?

[Encourage Saturday Night Praise & Prayer(7:00-8:30), monthly serving @ Cup or City Gate, Bible Study, Thursday A.M. prayer]

Let me invite you to place everything important, everything that fills your day, your time ON the cross today. Take your sermon notes page and write down as many things as you can think of that occupy your life in the course of a week.

And then, as you come forward to take Communion today, stick that list on the cross as a symbolic gesture inviting God to refine and refocus your commitments and activities so that His presence means more to you than anything. You might right down things like this:

  • Sports
  • Work
  • Over-studying/Schooling/grades
  • Money
  • TV, electronics
  • The internet
  • Books
  • Children/Grandchildren/Family
  • Home
  • Retirement/Investments
  • Sleep
  • Privacy/solitude
  • Friendships
  • Food
  • Hobbies
  • Comfort
  • Music

The only way we’re going to be ready for Jesus Second Coming is if we have personally known Him by faith in His 1st coming.

  • Are you trusting in his sinless life and atoning death for you, a sinner?
  • Have you invited Him to take charge of your life by personally asking Him to be Lord of your life?
  • Have you recognized that it is His work for you not your work for Him that can save you by faith?

Why not embrace Jesus today? [Maybe you want to write “MY WHOLE LIFE I GIVE TO YOU” on that notes page and put it on the cross today.]

 

Study Questions for I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

1. Who are the closest people to me who have died? How did their death affect me? What other beliefs and experiences have shaped my view of death and dying? Has there been any difference in my response to the death of people I know and love who are Christ-followers and those who are not?  

2. The Bible teaches that the moment a believer dies he or she goes immediately and directly into the presence of Christ. Read 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 and Philippians 1:21-23. How does this affect the way I view my own future and the death of others?

3. Paul anchors the Christian’s hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus. According to 1 Corinthians 15:14-19, what are some of the consequences if Jesus did not truly rise from the dead?

4. If I were asked by someone if Jesus might return today, how would I respond? What could I point to in this passage (I Thess. 4-5) that would support my belief? How would I like that reality to affect my life right now?

5. Am I ready for Jesus to return? Read 1 John 2:28 and 2 Corinthians 5:10. In what areas of my life may I be a spiritual sleepwalker who has been intoxicated by the world (5:6-7)? What personal steps can I take to grow in fellowship and intimacy with Christ? Who can help me grow in my relationship with Christ? Will I contact this person today and ask for his or her assistance?

6. Do I have a balanced understanding of the end times? Am I prone to dogmatism, pessimism, escapism, or sensationalism? If so, how can I return to a biblical balance? Are my views based upon Scripture, the opinions of others, experience, or personal preference? How can I ensure that I do my best to seek the Scriptures when deriving my theological convictions on the end times?

7. In what ways am I presently seeking to “encourage” and “build up” my fellow believers (5:11)? Read Hebrews 10:24-25. How can I intentionally spur other believers on to love and good deeds as the day of Christ’s return draws near? Am I actively involved in other people’s lives? If so, how? Do I attend a small group? Am I serving in some capacity? Am I a friend to those who need encouragement and strength?

 

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