1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-18 ESV
“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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
One of my all-time favorite movie scenes is from Forrest Gump, when Forrest goes back again and again and again to find his fallen brothers in the battlefield. Forrest leaves the safety of the landing zone, runs back into the gunfire and explosions of the enemy, grabs a wounded man, throws him over his shoulder, returns to safety, only to leave it again to find another man.
The one who defied death, Forrest Gump, brought with him those who were knocked down.
This is what Paul is trying to tell the young Gentile believers in Thessalonica. They were infants in their faith and had once believed as the pagan world around them that there was no life after death, that when you died it was simply darkness. They were worried about those who had perished, especially those who died under persecution.
Paul hears of their suffering, of their worry, and in this letter is writing them to let them know something he didn’t have time to teach them fully about their faith. This Jesus whom they believe is the One who has defied death. Through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus has solidified His place as Lord and King.
Paul then tells them that Jesus will return and when He does He will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. Now here is where some cultural cues need to be explained. First, in the Greek culture, to fall asleep was another way of saying someone had died. Second, for Jesus to return at a shout and a trumpet call is to say He is royalty and returning home. Third, to meet Jesus in the air is to go outside the gates as a greeting party in order to welcome the ruler home and then fall in line behind the train of victors in order to restore the royalty’s rightful rule.
Basically, this is a fancy way of saying, “When Jesus comes back, He’s bringing our loved ones with Him, and we’ll run to the end of the driveway to meet them, and then come back to the house for tea and stories.” But in all seriousness, Paul is both teaching and comforting the believers in Thessalonica in the same breath. He is proud of their faith, but because he had to leave them before they were fully grounded, he has written them and sent Timothy to instruct them.
Like the image of Forrest Gump and the reality of Jesus being our risen Lord, it is important that we recognize the sacrifice of our many veterans who have served this country and its people with a life-on-the-line duty. As Christians, the hope is that each of us would be enlisted and employed in the Lord’s service to win souls for the kingdom of God. This is truly what we’re fighting for by believing in Jesus Christ and His defeat over death. It is through the work of Jesus Christ in His church that the victory train at His return will be long and full, made up of the faithful who have fallen asleep, but will be awakened, raised from the dead, and will join Him in His reign forever. We who may be here when that day comes, will be gathered together with them.
These are not strange and far-fetched Christian beliefs. These are the implications of believing in Jesus Christ, the reality of trusting the Resurrected Lord as your Savior. For us to place our hope in the One who defeated death, is to be grafted into His life. Listen to what Paul says later to the Christians in Rome, Romans 6:3-11:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Verse 5, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.” Jesus went back into the jaws of death and brought us out, like the many veterans who have laid their lives on the line for us. Praise be to God for His precious Son, who fought for us as He did. This is what we are fighting for, what we are believing for, for life everlasting for any and all who would believe in Jesus, our Lord. Amen.