1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Jari Rankinen
Reija Becks

Read or listen the First Epistle to the Thessalonians - chapter 4 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

How about those who are dead? 4:13-18

The Thessalonian Christians had learned that the last day is near. That is why they waited for Jesus to return soon. They lived in the hope that the Lord would soon return and gather his own to the joy of heaven. The return of Jesus did not take place as soon as the church of Thessalonica expected. Instead of the return of the Lord, the church experienced the grief that some of its members died. This raised a serious question: What happens to those who die before the return of Jesus? Will they get to heaven? The concern of the Thessalonian Christians may seem strange to us. After all, it is clear to us that Jesus will take care of his own even after the temporal life ends. The Christians of Thessalonica did not know this. So, they asked Timothy about the situation of the dead. Timothy conveyed Paul this question that preoccupied the church. In verses 13-18, Paul gives an answer to it. The apostle's answer is not a detailed account of the end time events. He only answers the question that puzzled the church. Therefore, we should not read into those verses something that is not said in them.

First, the apostle comforts his readers by speaking of hope. The Christians have a lasting hope that rests on Almighty God and therefore cannot perish even at the moment of death. Paul reminds the Thessalonian church of what happened to Jesus. He died, but on the third day God raised him from the dead. The destiny is the same for those dead that have left this world in faith in Jesus. On the last day, God will raise them. So, there is no need to worry about the dead. They are partakers of the joy of heaven just as those who are living their faith in Jesus. When Jesus returns, we all, both living and dead, will be brought together. Paul concludes his answer with a comforting word: we will always be with the Lord. The living and the dead members of the church will meet. The joy with Jesus will never end.

In verses 13-18, we should pay close attention to two details. First, Paul waited for Jesus to return in Paul’s own lifetime. In answering the church's question, He counts himself among those who will still be living at the Lord’s return. However, Jesus did not return as soon as Paul expected. Jesus’ word that only the Father knows when the last day will arrive proved true. Nevertheless, Paul's expectation was not in vain. Paul shows us just the right way to regard the return of Jesus. All Christians should expect Jesus to return in their lifetime. When we do this, we understand why we must always be watchful.

Paul’s response to the Thessalonians has often been misunderstood. One misunderstanding is the so-called doctrine of rapture. According to it the believers are caught up to heaven at a certain point in salvation history, whereas the non-believers continue to live on earth. Paul does not teach like this. He does speak of the rapture of the church to meet the Lord. However, this takes place only when the trumpet sounds, that is, on the day Jesus returns. Only then will believers be gathered to Jesus. Until then, the church will remain on earth. When Jesus returns, life on earth will not continue the same as before. The history of the world ends, and every human being will stand before the judgment seat of God.

The return of Jesus 5:1-11

Throughout the ages, Christians have been interested in Jesus’ second coming. People have always asked when Jesus will return and what the sign of his coming will be (see Matthew 24: 3). During the history of the Church, there have been many teachers who have said that they know the date of Jesus’ return. They have all been mistaken. Paul’s approach is different from many end-time prophets. He will not begin to predict the day or hour of Jesus’ return but recognizes that only God alone knows his timetable and that it is futile for man to begin to speculate about God’s concealed decision. Paul repeats what he has said earlier in Thessalonica. Jesus will come unexpectedly like a thief in the night (cf. Matthew 24: 43-44). Just when people think that everything will go on as before, Jesus returns, and this age comes to an end.

In verse 3, Paul speaks of the destruction that humanity will face. When Jesus returns, every person will be brought before the judgment seat of God. No one can escape. Everyone will be judged for their actions and omissions. Because Jesus will return unexpectedly, Christians should be constantly awake. Every moment we should be ready to go before God. We should have this question in our minds: if Jesus returns now, what will happen to me? Paul describes staying awake with two pairs of words: darkness – light, and sleep – staying awake. People who don’t care about Jesus live in darkness and sleep. Often their lives are in line with it: they live exactly as God has forbidden. They live a life that cannot stand the light of day. Christians believe in Jesus. That is why they live in the light and stay awake. We should live so that we can unashamedly bring all our actions, words, and thoughts to the light of day for all to see. Paul speaks of sobriety. By this he evidently does not mean what we usually understand with sobriety, but he means the true knowledge of God.

There is again the familiar theme in verse 8: faith, love, hope. These three should be dominant in the life of a Christian. In verses 9-11, Paul reminds his readers of the foundation of salvation. Jesus died on the cross for us and suffered the punishment that we deserve. Because the punishment has already been suffered, God does not condemn believers in Jesus. Therefore, on the last day, we will receive salvation instead of the wrath of God. In verse 10, Paul talks some more about being awake and being asleep. Now the meaning of the words is different from what their meaning was earlier. By those being ‘awake’ Paul means those members of the congregation who are alive, and by those who are ‘asleep’ he means those who are dead. So, Paul returns to what he has already spoken of earlier. The salvation Jesus brought to us is both for the members of the church who are alive and for those who died in faith in Jesus.