One of the first letters written by the apostle Paul and recorded in the New Testament gives a straightforward explanation concerning the state of the dead, and of when Christians will be reunited with their loved ones who have died in Christ. Yet many Christians consider this still a mystery.
While Paul was evangelizing in the city of Corinth and making tents with his companions, Aquila and Priscilla, he was comforted by the arrival of two of his working companions. Silas and Timothy had come from Thessalonica and reported to Paul some struggles they were having in the newly formed church. He found out that there were some who had fallen into mistaken ideas concerning those who had died after their conversion. They had believed that they all would live to see the second coming of Christ. However, some of their friends had died and they were upset, thinking that now it would be impossible for them to behold that desirable event—to see Jesus coming in the clouds of heaven.
So Paul wrote a letter to the Thessalonian church explaining the true condition of a person in death. He said, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep (dead). For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
The Thessalonians had eagerly grasped the idea that Jesus was coming to change the faithful, who were alive at that time, but they had forgotten what Paul had taught them about the state of the dead and the fact that there would be a reuniting of those who had fallen asleep in Christ when He returned. For this reason, Paul said they were not to sorrow as others who had no hope. When his letter was received the people were greatly comforted, knowing their loved ones would rise again from their graves to a holy, happy, and immortal life. For now they would sleep in their dusty graves waiting for that great reunion when Jesus would receive all the righteous, alive and dead, to make their journey together to the holy city.
Three times in this passage death is referred to as a sleep. The Old Testament also refers to death as a sleep. In fact, David called it “the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3). This epistle gave great hope and joy to this young church. When accepting the gospel, they learned so many new, strange things that it is not surprising that they forgot some of the things that they had been taught. But no longer was there any darkness that enshrouded the sepulcher of the dead, because they had assurance that their friends who had fallen asleep in Jesus would be resurrected from the grave and also enjoy immortal life in the kingdom of God.
Notice, however, that this passage only talks about the resurrection to immortal life being given to those who have died in Christ. If you are in Christ, whether you live or die, your eternal future is secure. The question is: Have you committed your life to Christ to be your Lord and Saviour? Is it your desire to be like Him in character, or is your experience a mere profession?
Paul also reminded the church concerning events of the last days. “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:1–4).
Paul warned that the day of the Lord will come as an overwhelming surprise. But why would that be when there are so many other warnings given in the Bible for us to know when the last days begin? There are many Bible prophecies that point out clearly the exact time, the exact year, when the “last days” would begin, and today we are living in that period of time.
If we have this information, then why is it that the day of the Lord will come as a thief? Paul told the Thessalonians that they were not in darkness, so do not sleep as others. The careless and unbelieving, those who close their eyes to the evidence that the Lord has been pleased to give, seek to quiet themselves from all apprehension. But at the same time, the signs of the times are rapidly fulfilling all over the world today, showing us that the world is rapidly going toward that period of time when the Son of man will be revealed in the clouds of heaven. If we are not in darkness, what should we be doing?
Notice, Paul said, “You, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us … be sober” (verses 4–8).
To be sober means that you have not taken any intoxicating alcohol into your body. There are many today, even professing Christians, who see nothing wrong with drinking alcohol in moderation. But that is not what the Bible teaches. Both Paul and Peter clearly teach that Christians who are preparing for the second coming of Christ will not use intoxicating drink. (See Titus 2:11–14; 1 Peter 1:13–16). They will be sober.
It is impossible to be both sober and intoxicated at the same time. By drinking alcohol and becoming partially drunk, you are partially intoxicated and not really sober. We are instructed to be sober, to watch what is taking place in the world, and to prepare for the future, seeking for purity in our lives. The Bible says, “Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3).
Are you doing all in your power for the cause of God in the world? Christians living in these last days are going to experience severe trials. (See Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). Paul said, “We urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–15).
Many practical instructions were given at the close of Paul’s letter. He said, “Pray without ceasing” (verse 17). This means to always be in an attitude of prayer. “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies [or prophesying]. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (verses 18–22).
O, friend, are you following those injunctions? Are you abstaining from every form of evil? Are you a sober, watchful Christian or among those who make a profession but are drunk in the night? Those who are not watching and not praying will not be ready and the day of the Lord will overtake them suddenly as a thief. It will come as an overwhelming surprise and it will be too late at that time to be saved. When Jesus comes again in the clouds of heaven with His reward, it is then too late to be saved (see Revelation 22:11, 12). All decisions will have already been made. Paul told the Corinthians, “Now is the accepted time; … now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Now is the time to make that decision to commit your life to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and choose to follow and obey Him, which will result in eternal life. The Holy Spirit has been promised to all who seek Jesus. It will transform your life, enabling you to live a completely different life.
Paul’s letter brought wonderful comfort, hope, joy, and excitement to the Thessalonians. However, they were confused when he said, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).
When Paul said “we,” he is referring to the people in the Christian church who are alive when Jesus comes and are ready to meet Him. But some people interpreted that to mean that he was including himself and that he would be one of those who would live until Jesus came. This misunderstanding resulted in Paul writing his second letter. In fact, there were some people who thought the Lord would return so soon that they decided they did not need to work. This mistake was corrected when Paul wrote, “If anyone does not provide for his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8, literal translation).
Even today some people think the apostles expected the Lord to come in their day, in the first century. They did not. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sought to correct misapprehensions about when the day of the Lord would come. His letter begins by commending them for their faith, and looking forward to the time when all of their suffering would be over. He said, “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer” (2 Thessalonians 1:3–5).
“Since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed” (verses 6–10).
He then continues to talk to them about the coming of the day of the Lord when they would receive rest, when all persecutions of the Christians would be at an end. Those who died in Christ would be resurrected and taken with the living to heaven. They would be given immortality (1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4). They thought it was going to happen very soon but Paul continued, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come” (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2). It was common then for unscrupulous people to send forged letters in the names of important people, so Paul warned that if they were to receive a letter telling them anything different, to know it is not so. He gave this very emphatic warning not to be troubled or even think that the day of the Lord was at hand, because there were more events to happen before He would return.
Paul wrote, “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless [until] the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (verse 3).
This man of sin is the antichrist. It says in verses 4 and 5, concerning him: “who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God [the church], showing himself that he is God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?”
The coming of Christ would not occur until after a great apostasy occurs in the Christian church and the antichrist is revealed. Antichrist does not just mean somebody that is against Christ, but somebody that stands in the place of Christ. The antichrist would arise in the church first. He says, “And now you know what is restraining, that he [antichrist] may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one [the antichrist] will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (verses 6–8). That is a very interesting verse.
Some people believe that the antichrist is going to appear after the Lord comes. But this verse teaches us that when the Lord comes the antichrist will already have been revealed and will be destroyed when He comes. “The coming of the lawless one [antichrist] is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders [miracles], and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (verses 9, 10).
Do you love the truth, friend? If you don’t love the truth, you are going to be deceived. It says, “because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (verses 10, 11).
God will never force anyone to believe or accept or follow the truth. In God’s government, there is freedom and the power of choice. All who are willing to look at the weight of evidence will find plenty of evidence to know truth. But God will never give you so much evidence that you will be forced to accept it against your will.
Paul goes on to say, “For this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (verse 11). The lie is that a person can be saved in his sin.
The truth has always been unattractive to those who have pleasure in unrighteousness. “All unrighteousness is sin” (1 John 5:17). “… sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4 KJV). So to have pleasure in unrighteousness means to have pleasure in sin. Or, to put it even more simply, to enjoy breaking God’s law. To choose the pleasures of sin is so temporary. To choose Christ and live for Him is to have eternal life and pleasure forever.
As Joshua said, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … . But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.