Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Music albums frequently have a title track, which is when an artist or band draws the title of their album from one of the key songs from the album. For example, the title of The Beatles album Let It Be in 1970, was, of course, taken from a key song on the album, the title track “Let It Be.”
I’m not sure we’ve mentioned this yet, but the title of our sermon series, so the title for all of the sermons from 1 and 2 Thessalonians, is “When the Trumpet Sounds.” That’s also the title of this week’s sermon. The phrase comes from a line in the passage about the glorious return of Jesus, which the passage says will be announced loudly with a military cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God.
Follow along with me as I read from 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Sometimes we want to know how a story ends, while other times, we don’t. When people watch a series of like 20 Marvel movies, generally it seemed people did not want to know how Avengers End Game ended until they watched it. I’ll sometimes tease my wife about skipping a preface to a book, and she was not too happy with me when some scholar writing the preface for a classic Russian novel gave away the ending.
On Friday afternoon I wasn’t too happy either. While riding my bike, I stopped at a red light on Jonestown Road. Another man on a bike asked if I’d been watching “The Tour,” short for the cycling race called “The Tour de France.” I said I’d been watching all 18 stages so far but hadn’t seen today’s stage yet. As the light changed, he blurted out the result, which was a result I’ve never seen before in twenty years of watching. During the entire short conversation, I could just feel exactly what he was going to do, but I couldn’t stop it. It was like our conversation was in slow motion, but there was nothing I could do to stop him from spoiling the ending. (By the way, this morning is the last stage, and I’m two stages behind. So if you zone out of my sermon and look up what happens and try to tell me after the service, I will rebuke you like an Old Testament prophet.)
There are other times, however, when we want to know what happens, like when health is fragile, and we don’t know how things will go. If we could know that the ending was positive, that would help us along the way. When we’re not talking about entertainment—novels, movies, and sports—but serious life concerns, if the outcome is going to be good, we want to know the end before it happens.
Paul gives us that knowledge in this passage. And the knowledge he gives produces hope for those struggling. The knowledge about who Christ is and what he has done for us and what he will do for believers when he comes again should produce hope. Knowledge of the encouraging future of every Christian should give us hope now.
The opposite is implied too, that the lack of knowledge, that is, to be “uninformed” as Paul calls is in v. 13, is to not have hope, or at a minimum to be confused and anxious. To have knowledge is to have hope, and to lack knowledge is to lack hope. This is why Paul begins this section saying that he does not want them to be uninformed about a Christian’s hope about the future, and he ends the passage by instructing them to encourage each other with these words. So, if we are to leave this service encouraged and with words that we can then take and encourage others with, the first thing we need to do is understand what this passage teaches.
1. What does this passage teach?
If you recall, the context of the letter is that Paul ministered to the church in Thessalonica and taught them about the Christian faith. And they were changed. But due to persecution his evangelism and discipleship ministry among them was cut short. A few weeks ago we read in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 that Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus were praying night and day that they could see the Thessalonians face to face to “supply what is lacking in their faith.” Part of what was lacking was their instruction about holiness, which Pastor Ben so helpfully talked about last week in his sermon.
In this passage this week, we see that though they knew some things about the return of Christ, they also lacked understanding about what the return of Christ meant for Christians who have died. That may sound obscure, but it’s not at all obscure. It’s even possible, perhaps even likely, that between Paul’s first visit and the visit of Timothy to check on them, which we read about in chapter 3, that Christians from their church had in fact died. In the wake of these deaths, the young Christians who remained didn’t know what to think. And that’s where we pick up v. 13. Look at it again.
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
A few things to point out. First, Paul uses the language of “asleep.” He’s going to use this language several times in this passage. It’s actually common in the New Testament to speak of a Christian dying as falling asleep. Jesus spoke this way (Luke 8:52; John 11:11–13), as did Matthew (27:52), Luke (Acts 7:60; 13:6), Peter (2 Peter 3:4), and Paul in other places in this letter and in another letter (4:14, 15; 5:10; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51).1 At the end of the sermon, we’ll come back to what is incredibly hopeful that God uses sleep as a metaphor for the death of a Christian.
For now, the other thing to mention about v. 13 is the line about grief. Paul says that if they become informed then they won’t “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Two things are implied. First, Christians grieve. Sometimes the triumphant, hopeful themes of Christianity can be misunderstood and over-applied in a way makes Christians think that if they grieve, they are wrong to do so. But you’re not wrong. Christians grieve—we grieve our own sin and lack of Christ-likeness; we grieve the brokenness and injustice in this world; and we grieve when people we love die. Christians grieve.
But, says Paul, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope. That’s the other thing to notice. If the grave is the end of everything, then there is no hope. But if for the believer in Christ the grave is not the end of everything but rather the beginning of the best, then our grief in this life should be tempered with hope. There is a hope in Christianity that does not exist elsewhere.
A week and a half ago, one of the pastor-elders of this church sent an email to the rest of the pastor-elders. His father had passed away, and he was updating us as we’d been praying for him and his family. I asked his permission to read the email he sent, which begins like this: “Hi Gang, I’m back in PA. Thanks for the prayers. This weekend was rough, and it’s about to get rougher . . . . I felt the Lord’s protection at the mosque and cemetery.” Though this elder of ours grew up as a Muslim, he continues, “I felt like an outsider, which I was more than happy to be. I’ve been to several Muslim funerals,” he writes, “buried two family members, and I can tell you the natural conclusion of Islam is hopelessness, uncertainty, and joylessness. Again thank you for the prayers.”
I know in a pluralistic world where every path or no path at all supposedly leads everyone to a glad reception by God, that this email is electric. He didn’t write it to be that way on purpose; it wasn’t intentionally that way. It was just a quick update.
What do you think about these things? Is there hope outside of the gospel of Jesus Christ? I don’t know what you think, but I will point out that Paul distinguishes the hope of Christians about other Christians who have died, from the hopelessness found everywhere else. There is something about Christianity that gives Christians hope for other Christians. Now, Paul goes on to explain what specifically what that hope is. Look at vv. 14–15.
14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
These sentences are a mouthful, but a paraphrase of what Paul says might go like this: “I know you are worried and grieving about the members of your church who have died. Yes, grieve. But also know that one day, Jesus is coming back. Just as Jesus died and was raised to life, so also everyone who has fallen asleep as a Christian will be raised to life again. And then every Christian who remained alive before the coming of the Lord will be with alive with every other Christian who was previously dead but is now alive so that there will be a reunion. And at that reunion, we will all forever be with the Lord.” That’s the paraphrase. Look at vv. 16–17 that gives more detail about the return.
16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
One issue that tends to come up with this passage is the so-called “rapture.” In our church denomination, we do not take an official position on every detail related to the end times, but we do take several positions. For example, that Jesus is coming back, and that his return is not simply a “spiritual” return, is an official position. What I mean is that Jesus is not simply going to come back to earth in the hearts of his followers. He is actually coming back. Our church is very clear about that.
Other details of Christ’s return our denomination leaves to individual churches, pastors, and members to wrestle with on their own. I like that approach because it means that in our church we get to practice unity when we all don’t have uniformity. What I mean is that we get to be a church that is unified in the belief that Jesus will return, but we don’t specify all the details of his return.
With respect to the rapture, I suspect our church divides into about three, equal categories. About one-third of us believe in a pre-tribulation rapture of the church; about one-third do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture of the church; and about one-third of us do not have a clue what a pre-tribulation rapture of the church even means. I don’t need your sympathy, but that does make it more difficult to preach. For two minutes I’ll try to bring some clarity.
The tribulation refers to an intense time before the end of time. In the tribulation, there will be both conversions to Christ and apostasies from Christ; there will be wars and persecution and earthquakes and other intense experiences. Some Christians believe that before that the tribulation begins, Jesus will come back to secretly withdraw his church from this world before the tribulation. That’s what people mean by a pre-tribulation rapture. This passage is one of the main passages people use to support that view. Others Christians do not believe there will not be a secret withdrawing or rapture of the church.
I don’t think it’s helpful for me to say that I don’t believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, that is, I don’t think it’s helpful to say that I don’t believe in a secret withdrawing of the church before the end times. I don’t think it’s helpful to say that I don’t believe it. I think it’s more helpful to say that I don’t believe the Bible teaches a pre-tribulation rapture, which is why I don’t believe it.
I say this for a few reasons. First, as you look at this passage, does it seem like this is describing to you something secret, something only known to Christians? Or does this seem like something that will be visible to all, indeed very visible?2 Look at it again: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (v. 16). That sounds visible to me.
Second, I believe Paul is drawing on a situation common to his audience that is not so common to us. Last week as Ben was preaching, he mentioned that sometimes a passage can be very easily understood right away because the aspects of the world that first received the text are very similar to our own. Other times, however, there are aspects of their context that require us to slow down and study and learn about their context before we know what is actually being said into our context.
In this passage, the “meeting the Lord in the air”—I think—refers to the practice of coming out from a city to meet a dignitary or a returning army (cf. Acts 28:15). It was common that if your city sent out an army, when that army returned victoriously, you would go out to meet them as they returned. When the Eagles won the Super Bowl, there was a parade in downtown Philly. It’s sort of like that. And this language here of “meeting the Lord in the air” mimics this practice. When Jesus returns, his people will greet him in the air, and then they will very quickly return to earth, where Jesus will re-create the world to be a place of peace and prosperity. Throughout the New Testament, including 1 and 2 Thessalonians, I think, there is only one glorious and decisive return of Christ, not several returns with one of them being secret.
Some people can hear that argument and wonder, “If Christians meet Jesus in the air when he comes back, and we don’t go back to heaven with him, then what’s the point?” Well, let me ask this: how big of an Eagles fan could you consider yourself to be if the parade marched down your street and you didn’t come down to cheer or even come to your window to greet the parade? Christians meet the returning Lord in the air because we are leaping for joy at his celebration. When Jesus told a parable about his return, he describes the people in the parable as so excited to meet him that they come out to meet him . . . but then they went back inside to celebrate (Matthew 25:6). At the Lord’s return, we go out to meet him, then we come back, but when we come back, everything is different.
Most of us don’t know what it means to live in a fragile city where you send out your brothers and fathers and sons to war. We do this sending (and of our daughters), but we don’t feel the immediate fragility of our cities because our cities are most often so removed from the fighting. But that wouldn’t have been the case back in the day. When your king and your father and your brother and your son returned from war victorious, you went out to meet them when they returned. And when you went back into that city after their victorious return, nothing was the same because the war was won and all fear was gone.
For those reasons and lots of others, I think the return of Jesus that Paul describes here in 1 Thessalonians 4, is the final return of Christ, not to take his church away from the world, but to lead his church back into the world in a way that the world will be forever changed. This victorious return is loud, visible, and glorious. And if it is those things, then that is something worth encouraging each other about, which is what Paul says next. Look at v. 18.
18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
For all the debate over the specifics about Christ’s return, let’s not miss the point Paul wanted us to emphasize. Don’t miss the pastoral aim of Paul’s words. God cares so much about local churches that God inspired Paul to encourage these young Christians that Christians have hope beyond the grave.
2. How does this passage encourage believers?
Maybe the best way to end this sermon is to mention some ways I’m encouraged by this passage. The joke can be made of pastors that they only work for one hour a week. We have two services each Sunday, so maybe I get credit for two hours a week. It’s not true, of course, that pastors only work an hour or two a week. But there is a lot of pastoral ministry that is not super difficult. If you’re doing pastoral ministry rightly, then pastoral ministry is rigorous and involves effort, but most of the time, it’s not the most difficult thing in the world.
But part of pastoral ministry is difficult, sometimes very difficult. Pastoring means moving toward people as they experience the most difficult experiences a person can experience. I’ll say it like this. If you have ten people standing shoulder to shoulder and a certain difficult situation happens to someone else, when everyone else wants to take a step backward, maybe two steps, pastors take a step forward, maybe two. Pastors, the good ones, move toward people in their brokenness. Once a month I talk by phone with a friend who is a pastor in our denomination. His name is John. The brother of a woman in John’s church committed suicide last week. He took steps forward toward the brokenness, maybe two, pointing that family to the Christian hope of the end of the story.
So, back to what encourages in this passage. What encourages me about this passage is that when you and I move into the hardest situations, and Christianity is tested to its limits, Christianity has answers that hold.
If, as a pastor, I only had a word from the Lord for people when the sun shined in their life, I wouldn’t know what to do when the dark clouds roll in, the wind picks up, and the shutters on their house begin to shake.
Some of us have struggles with sin that seem to abide no matter how much effort and grace are applied. And we grieve. Others of us have chronic illnesses that will only be healed when the trumpet sounds. And we grieve. For some of you, perhaps, when you pass away, and I’ll come to your house and sit around your kitchen table with those who loved you. And we’ll grieve.
But in all of these cases, and a hundred others, I hope that the Lord will call to mind the truths of this passage so that I can encourage fellow Christians. In our deepest grief, when that grief is over our brokenness and the brokenness of other Christians, there is hope. His name is Jesus.
Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (v. 18). You don’t have to be a pastor to encourage in this way. Paul invites every Christian to be so in awe of the power and beauty and grace and mercy of King Jesus Christ that all of us can offer hope to others.
Christian, be encouraged that for those who die “in Christ,” our death is as though we are only taking a nap. For those who die after they have placed their faith in Jesus, the Bible teaches that you are “in Christ,” meaning that your life is now hidden with the life of Christ. What is true of him is true of you. As he was raised, so will you be raised. Be encouraged that your death, when you die “in Christ,” can be described as sleeping.
Twice in the gospels, Jesus referred to death as sleeping (John 11 and Luke 8). When Jesus spoke of a friend who had died as sleeping, and the disciples said essentially, “That’s good; our friend will get better if he sleeps.” Then Jesus said essentially, “No, he has died; I’m just saying he’s sleeping because when we go, and I raise him from the dead, it will be only as difficult for me as it is for others to wake someone up from a nap.” In another story, a little girl had died, and Jesus told her parents she was only sleeping. People in the room laughed at Jesus when he said this. But then he took the little girl by her hand saying, “Child, arise.” And she woke up.
In a world that offers no sturdy hope for life after death, when the trumpet of God sounds, the Lord will return. Even if you have been buried in the ground for thousand years, God the Father will raise you like he raised Jesus from the dead. In a world where no medicine, no spiritual guru, no health regimen can stop your death, Jesus will come with a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God, and the dead will rise.
In this world everything good eventually ends—all our best joys, end; all our best experiences, end; and all our best relationships, end. But in a world where everything good ends, this passage encourages us that when the trumpet of God sounds, Christians will be with the Lord forever. Forever doesn’t end. Our best joy, our best experiences, and our best relationship does not end in forever; it only gets better.
In college one of my best friends was killed tragically. His name was Kyle. Kyle was climbing a mountain when an avalanche was triggered. A wall of snow as long as two football fields killed Kyle instantly. It was two weeks before his wedding. His family asked me to say something at his service. His fiancé, Maria, sat on the front row grieving as I spoke. The only thing that made that service possible was that if anyone I had ever known was actually a Christian, then my friend Kyle was. Jesus had changed his life. And though I couldn’t say it as well then as I can say it now, my hope on that day for my friend, and my hope on this day for all of us who experience brokenness, is that when Christianity is pressed to the most difficult situations we experience, the love of God has answers that hold and offers a true story of hope.
When the trumpet of God sounds, as gently as I might wake you up from a Sunday nap, God will wake up Kyle from death. He’ll do the same for you. Paul writes, “Encourage each other with these words.” In other words, Paul tells us that he’s calling all Christians, not simply the pastors, to be those who move forward when the brokenness comes. Will you do so? Who do you know that needs you to take steps toward them?
1 List of verse adapted from Matt Smethurst, 1–2 Thessalonians: A 12-Week Study, 50.
2 A similar question is asked by Matt Smethurst in his 1–2 Thessalonians study guide.