“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Jesus Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead! We confess this in our creeds and we hear it in our Scripture readings. Jesus said, “As the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Matthew 24:27; cf. Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel). We are to be ready by repenting of our sinful ways and looking in faith to Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross.
The believers in Thessalonica “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). They had come to believe the Gospel and to trust in Christ Jesus for their salvation, and they were awaiting His glorious return to take them to be with Him forever in heaven.
But what of those who have died in the faith before the coming of Christ Jesus? If a believer dies before the return of Jesus, have they lost out? St. Paul tells us the answer in chapter 4, beginning at v. 13.
We do not have to sorrow when a fellow believer falls asleep, or dies, trusting in the Lord Jesus. We do not need to sorrow as others do, who have no hope. Why? Consider the inspired words of Paul’s letter: “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
This is no secret rapture or snatching away of believers as some suggest. The apostle says: “The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God” (cf. Matthew 24:29ff.; 25:31ff.; Revelation 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1ff.; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Matthew 13:47ff.).
Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3ff.), will bring with Him the souls of all the saints who have gone before us, the souls of all who have trusted in His name. This, of course, means that when believers die, their souls are taken to be with the Lord Jesus in heaven. Consider poor Lazarus, whose soul was carried by angels into the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:19ff.), or the thief on the cross whose soul was that day taken to paradise (Luke 23:43). Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21ff. He desired to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
When Jesus returns, all who have died in the faith will be raised up. It won’t matter whether the body is preserved through embalming, decayed to dust or turned to ashes, all the dead will rise and stand before the LORD God. The Bible says: “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works” (Revelation 20:12-13).
How will we be judged? According to our works. The Bible says: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10; cf. Matthew 25:31ff.). But our works do not measure up! According to God’s Word, we’ve all sinned and come short of what God requires of us to enter into His glory (cf. Romans 3:23; Ecclesiastes 7:20).
So, how is it that we sinners can be acceptable and righteous in God’s eyes? We read on in the chapter (2 Corinthians 5:19-21): “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” It is through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus! It is by fleeing to the holy life and innocent sufferings and death of Christ Jesus in our stead. It is by washing our robes and making them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1; cf. v. 34). Or, as Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).
Believers who are living in this world when Jesus returns will not go before those who have died. The Word of God says: “that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [precede] them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”
It is as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”
And, “so shall we ever be with the Lord”! When Christ returns, the dead are raised up and we are changed, we will be forever with the Lord. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” ( John 14:2-3).
It is described this way in Revelation 21:3-4: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” It is then that we will serve our God “in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Second Article; cf. Third Article and Luke 1:75).
So, why do we have hope when a fellow believer dies? And, why can we face our own deaths in hope and confidence? It is because of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again! By His death He made full atonement for all our sins – indeed, for the sins of all (cf. 1 John 2:1-2) – and by His resurrection, we have the assurance that His sacrifice for sins was acceptable to God and that all who place their faith in Him are also justified and forgiven and acceptable to God (cf. Romans 4:23 – 5:2; Ephesians 1:6-7). And we have the assurance that, as Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, so we also will be raised from the dead to spend eternity with our God and Savior!
We have the confidence of Job, who confessed: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” (Job 19:25-27).
O gracious Savior, grant us faith in You and Your cross that we might have a certain hope of forgiveness, life and eternal salvation. Amen.
[Scripture quoted from the King James Version of the Bible.]