Read 1 Thessalonians 4.
Death is always an unpleasant topic. It is unpleasant to think about your own death and it is sad and difficult when others we know and love die. Because I am a pastor, I have attended more funerals than the average person. Funerals for godly believers can be worshipful and even uplifting in some ways, but they are never joyful. God did not create us to die, so the irreparable separation that death brings is always difficult, even when your loved one is in heaven.
Here in 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul offers words of comfort to the Thessalonians and to us about the dead. Paul’s reason for writing these words was to give them hope even in their grief: “…so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (v. 13).
Yes, even Christians grieve but our grief is not the grief of complete loss. Christ gives us hope even in the most tragic and unexpected death of a believer because of His resurrection from the dead: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v. 14). That verse reminds us that, although Christ did not immediately end death with his resurrection, he did break its power over humanity.
The phrase “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v. 14) reminds us that the spirits of those who die continue to exist. Christ will “bring” them with him when he returns because they are with him now.
In verses 15-17, Paul described how the process of the resurrection will happen. There will be believers “who are still alive, who are left” on earth when Jesus returns, but their gathering to Christ will not precede the resurrection of those who are dead in Christ. Instead, “the dead in Christ will rise first” (v. 16). Christ will bring their spirits with him to earth and after his trumpet and loud command, their living spirits will be reunited with their dead bodies in resurrection.
Once that resurrection has occurred, those in Christ who are still alive will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). The result of this rapture is “so we will be with the Lord forever.”
That is the endgame of discipleship, the harvest of new life in Jesus Christ. After living by faith on this earth, we will be rewarded with an eternity with Jesus.
Christians have debated when this event will occur in relationship to other events prophesied in scripture. The point of this passage is not to lay out a prophetic timeline of all that the Lord has promised to do in the future. It is, instead, to “encourage one another with these words.”
Death is always unpleasant, always sad, always accompanied with grief; yet in Christ we have the hope of a perfect resurrection followed by eternity with Jesus.
Here is something to hold on to in faith despite whatever fears you have about death or whatever trials and struggles you face today. If you die before Jesus returns, you’ll be with him and return with him when he comes. If you live until his return, you will be gathered in the air with him and all those who have died in him. Hold this hope in your hearts and live today like eternity is the only thing that matters. It is!