VI. The Authentic Hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11)
VI. The Authentic Hope (4:13–5:11)
4:13 Paul knows how dangerous ignorance can be; therefore, he doesn’t want the Thessalonians to be uninformed. An ignorant Christian can become a hopeless Christian. And as sure as wrong doctrine leads to wrong beliefs, wrong beliefs lead to wrong living. To know the truth is to be set free from the hopelessness of ignorance. As Jesus said, the truth shall set us free (see John 8:32).
What kind of ignorance is Paul concerned with? Here he mentions those who are asleep, referring to people in the Thessalonian congregation who have died. Their living loved ones were afraid that they had missed the rapture. But Christians need not grieve like the rest, those who have no hope because they are uncertain what happens after death (if anything). Paul reminds us that for the Christian, death is not the end. It is the beginning of a brand new life.
4:14-15 There is a contrast here between our deaths and Jesus’s. Note that Jesus died and rose again (4:14), whereas we are described as having fallen asleep. If we believe in Jesus, what we call “death” is no more permanent or harmful than sleep. We need not fear it anymore than we’d fear a nap. Believers who perish will come back with Christ, which means that Christian loved ones who pass away remain alive in heaven with him, not trapped in the grave (see 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:22-23). At the rapture, they’ll return with Christ to reclaim their resurrected, eternally glorified bodies.
4:16 Repeatedly in the letter, Paul has told the Thessalonians that Jesus is coming back (see John 14:1-3). Now we see how he is coming. Apparently it will be a loud event since the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout. Jesus came the first time like a whisper. Most people, in fact, missed him. But no believer will miss him the second time.
What will Jesus be shouting when he returns? There’s another instance in Scripture when Jesus shouted—when he called the dead man Lazarus by name, and Lazarus walked out of the grave (see John 11:43-44). When Jesus comes back, he will do that again, many times over. I’m going to hear, “Evans, come forth!” And my old body, decayed in the grave, is going to jump back to life again and be united with my spirit and soul.
4:17 Many of us have heard the word rapture. And it is from this verse that we get the idea. Where Paul says that we will be caught up together, the Latin word for “caught up” is rapturo. At the rapture, those of us who are still alive will join other brothers and sisters in Christ, and we will meet them in the clouds. Our bodies will not have the same limitations that they do today. Not only will our busted bodies be put back together, but you and I will literally be able to walk on cloud nine since we will have a resurrected body like his (see 1 John 3:2). Since those alive will join those who are coming back with the Lord, this clearly proves that believers who die immediately go to be with the Lord (1 Cor 5:8).
4:18 What are we supposed to do with all of this information? Well, Paul’s point is not just to teach eschatology or give us details about the rapture. Paul wants us to encourage one another with these words. As we saw earlier (3:2), we are to walk alongside other believers and encourage them, just as the Holy Spirit does. We are called to comfort others when they are hurting—in the same way we expect them to comfort us.
5:1 Paul knows the Thessalonians want to hear about the times and the seasons—that is, they want a timeline for Jesus’s return. But the illustrations Paul uses here remind us that we will not get one. After all, if we’re busily looking at dates on the calendar we’ll fail to look for the Lord. Jesus’s second coming is imminent—that is, we should expect him to return at any time. It could be tomorrow or it could be in a hundred years. One thing is certain: It will be a surprise for people who do not expect it.
5:2 The day of the Lord is the future time of judgment and blessing after the rapture through the conclusion of the millennial kingdom (see Isa 13:9-11; Joel 2:28-32; Zeph 1:14-18; 3:14-15). Paul says Jesus will return like a thief in the night (5:2). A thief does not send a note in advance. He doesn’t say, “Tomorrow night, around 11:00 pm, I plan to break your back door with a sledgehammer and take your television.” So, if you are not prepared for a thief to arrive at any hour, you are not prepared at all.
5:3 The other analogy Paul uses here is labor pains (5:3). Doctors can tell mothers when they think a particular baby will arrive, but mothers know that the baby will ultimately choose the time of his arrival. And when baby decides to come, Mom isn’t going anywhere. In one moment, everything changes for her. The day of the Lord is that time after the rapture when God directly intervenes in world affairs for judgment during the tribulation and for blessings in Messiah’s millennial reign.
5:4-5 Jesus’s return will be a surprise for nonbelievers, but it should not be a surprise for Christians. You are not in the dark, for this day to surprise you (5:4). If you are a Christian, you should not be staggering through life like everyone else. You do not belong to the night because you are all children of light and children of the day (5:5). Therefore, you ought to be living with grateful assurance, knowing you are headed to glory and not to the wrath of the tribulation (5:9). Your knowledge of the future should grant you confidence in the present.
5:6-10 We must stay awake and be self-controlled (5:6), rather than sleep and get drunk (5:7)—which is a reference to spiritual soberness and spiritual drunkenness. To do this, we need three things: faith, hope, and love. We must put these on: the armor of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation (5:8). Without these, we have no protection in this world. With them, however, we can be confident in our deliverance since God has not destined us for wrath (5:9).
5:11 Here is that command again: encourage one another. And this time Paul adds, build each other up. These theological truths are not for personal education alone but for our corporate edification. We stand or we fall—together.