1 Thessalonians 4: 13 - 18
No one ever says, “Why don’t you come over Friday night and have a braai. We’ll talk about death.” Death is not a popular topic, but we all think about it sooner or later because death is inevitable. The Bible reminds us “it is appointed unto man once to die.” You may miss many appointments in your life, but that is one appointment you will not miss.
But God’s Word speaks the truth: James 4: 4b “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Moses said in Psalm 90: 5, 6 “You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.”
This week and every week thousands of people will die in South Africa. Some will die peacefully, others in fiery collisions, still others in hospital beds and some will die unexpectedly cut down by a rogue blood clot or a sudden heart attack.
So we come to the question for today: Will we see our loved ones again? Deep inside we all hope and pray the answer is yes. But can we be sure? Many of us have had the sad experience of going to a funeral and paying our final respects to someone we knew and loved in this life. Perhaps you laid to rest a husband or a wife. Perhaps you had the awful burden of burying a son or a daughter. Maybe you have said farewell to a brother or a sister or to the best friend you ever had. Is there a word from the Lord?
If you have had that experience, then my topic is intensely practical and personal. We desperately want to know the truth; we won’t be satisfied with mere speculation. We must know what God has said. Is there a word from the Lord that will help us?
The answer is yes. Thank God, we are not left to wonder and hope. God has told us the answer to this question. That answer is found in our text, which begins with words I have quoted many times at funeral services – v. 13. This verse is filled with good news. God wants you to know the truth. He hasn’t hidden anything from us. If you are ignorant on this subject, listen carefully. God has something important he wants to say to you.
1. What Happens When Jesus Returns?
Many people who study Bible prophecy focus on the world-shaking events surrounding the coming of the Lord. The Bible has a lot to say about the rise and fall of nations in the last days, but that is not what Paul deals with here. He is concerned about something much more fundamental. He wants us to know exactly what will happen when Jesus does return—whenever it happens, whether today, tomorrow or in 1000 years. The signs are important, but the Second Coming itself is much more important. Paul lists 6 things that will happen when Jesus returns.
A. A Sudden Descent v. 16a
The emphasis in the Greek is very strong. It is the Lord himself who will descend. Not a substitute or a stand-in. Not a lookalike or an angel. Not a figment of our imagination or some ghostly religious figure. But the Lord himself will return. He will bodily and personally return to the earth.
After Jesus had ascended into heaven, 2 angels appeared and told the disciples, Acts 1: 11 “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” I love those 3 words: “This same Jesus.”
This same Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, he who walked the dusty roads of Galilee, who healed the sick, raised the dead, and preached good news to those in captivity. He was betrayed, tried, denied, condemned, scourged, crucified, and buried in a borrowed tomb. On the third day he arose and 40 days later ascended into heaven where for 2000 years he has been seated at the right hand of God.
This same Jesus . . . dismissed by many, mocked by some, hated by others. This same Jesus, head of the body, Lord of the church, creator of the universe. This same Jesus, the Lord himself, shall descend from heaven.
The one who saved us, the object of our prayers, the hope of every dying saint, the one whose message we preach. This same Jesus is returning to the earth that rejected him.
Once a Lamb, Coming Back as a Lion
Once he came as a lamb to the slaughter; now he returns as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Once he was judged of men; now he comes to judge all men. Once he was crucified; now he comes to be crowned. Once he was mockingly called “King of the Jews.” Now he comes as King of Kings and they mock him no more. This same Jesus is coming again!
B. A Loud Shout v. 16b
He descends amid great pomp and ceremony. There is the shout of authority, the voice of majesty, and the trumpet call of victory. In the old days 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.
C. A Great Resurrection v. 16c
Evidently some in Thessalonica were worried that when Jesus returned, he would rapture the living but leave the dead Christians in their graves. Paul says, “Don’t worry about it. The dead in Christ rise first.”
Let us understand what our text is saying. All the believers in Christ will be raised. That includes people who died 2000 years ago—James, John, Peter, Timothy and Barnabas - people who died 1500 years ago, 500 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 10 years, 1year ago, 1 month ago and 1 week ago. It includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Graham, Jim Elliott and all the saints of God who died this week.
It will be a literal resurrection from the dead. How? We simply do not know. But the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise from the dead all who follow him. This includes those who die at sea, whose bodies are cremated, those who die on the battlefield and those who die a lingering death from cancer. What about those whose bodies are vaporized in some fiery catastrophe? The God who created the molecules knows how to put those molecules back together. They will be raised indestructible with brand-new bodies, clothed with immortality, healed, restored, put in their right minds, raised to live forever and raised to die no more.
No more wheelchairs. No more surgeries. No more chemotherapy. No more medicine. No more crutches. No more doctor visits. No more wasting diseases. All of it gone forever!
Let the people of God rejoice. The grave will not have the final victory because the dead in Christ rise first. “We are more sure to arise out of our graves than out of our beds!”
D. A Glorious Rapture v. 17a
The phrase “caught up” literally means to seize or snatch, to swoop down and take away. It always implies a change of location. In this case, it means living believers will be literally lifted off the earth.
One generation will never see death. One generation will never visit the undertaker. One generation will be raptured—lifted up—off the face of the earth.
How will it happen? In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. How fast is that? It’s faster than it takes to blink your eyes. One moment you’re baking cakes, the next moment you’re flying like Superman. One second you’re eating pizza, the next you’re in the air. One minute you’re in the shower, the next you’re being blown dry at 10000m. Just like that. We will be here one moment and gone the next. Like a magnet attracts iron filings, even so the Lord knows those who are his. He will literally lift us off the earth to meet him in the air.
E. A Happy Meeting v. 17b
3 key words. We will meet the Lord. We will be with the Lord. We will be with the Lord forever.
Do you remember what Jesus said to the dying thief? “Today you will be with me in paradise!” Where is paradise? It’s wherever Jesus is. The glory of heaven is not the streets of gold or the gates of pearl or the river of living water. The glory of heaven is Jesus. Wherever He is, that’s where heaven is. That’s the happy meeting for all of us. We will see Jesus. Face to face, in person, we will be with him.
F. A Grand Reunion v. 17
This is the ultimate family reunion. All of God’s children from all the centuries from every land and nation will be together at last with Jesus. This is what Christians have always believed. Do you know why the Bible calls death for the Christian “asleep in Jesus”? Because when you go to sleep, you wake up later. Death is not the end for the Christian. It is only the glorious beginning. That brings us to the question . . .
2. Will We See Our Loved Ones Again?
The true answer is, It depends. It depends on them and it depends on us.
A. It Depends on Them
We will only be reunited with our loved ones if they were saved through faith in Jesus Christ. We must not let sentiment stand in the way of sober biblical truth. Not everyone goes to heaven. Those who in this life had no time for Jesus will find in the next life that he has no time for them. If our loved ones died without Christ, there is no biblical reason to think we will ever see them again unless we see them at the final judgment when they are eternally condemned.
But if our loved ones died in Christ, then yes indeed, we will see them again.
B. It Depends on Us
But the answer also depends on you. Where do you stand with Jesus? Is he your Saviour and Lord? Have you ever trusted him and him alone for the forgiveness of your sins?
Wouldn’t it be terrible if our loved ones went to heaven and looked around for us, and we weren’t there? Let every person hearing these words take them to heart. Make sure you know Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.
So I ask the question one final time. Will we see our loved ones again? The answer from Scripture is clear. We will see them again if we know Jesus and if they know Jesus.
Let us comfort each other with these words of Scripture. Our hope is in the Lord. Paul said we sorrow, but not as those who have no hope. Unbelievers and believers both die. They are buried and we are buried. Side by side in cemeteries around the world the people of God rest with the unsaved.
What makes the difference? The only thing standing between unbelievers and us is the Word of God. We have the Word of the Lord that Jesus died and rose again. If God raised Jesus, he will also raise those who trust in him. God has promised it, and it must be so. If we reject the Word of the Lord, we have nowhere else to go.
We look at our loved ones dying and wonder if the resurrection can be true. But that's backwards. God says, “Look what I did for my Son. Will I do any less for those who put their trust in Him?” Put simply: We do not believe in the resurrection of the dead because of anything we can see with our eyes; everything we see argues against it. People die all the time. There hasn't been a resurrection in 2000 years. No, we believe in the resurrection of the saints because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
We think we are going from the land of the living to the land of the dying. No! We are going from the land of the dying to the land of the living!
On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,
And the glory of His resurrection share;
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
That’s our hope! That’s God’s promise! Victory on the last battlefield!
Fear not! Cheer up! Let the people of God rejoice because death is not the end of our story.
Prayer - Father, thank you for this promise that cannot be broken. Sometimes we waver and sometimes we doubt. The fear of death can overwhelm us. When those moments come, remind us of what you did when you raised your Son from the dead. Help us to live in hope and die in faith. So we say with all the saints, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.