Written by: Vincent Cheung
An excerpt from Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 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. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
When Jesus was taken up into heaven, the disciples continued to look intently up into the sky as he ascended. Suddenly “two men dressed in white” appeared, which we understand to be angels, and said to them, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
This “second coming” of Christ is prominent in the teaching of the apostles (see 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 1 Timothy 6:14-15; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 9:27-28), although some passages about a “coming” that are often taken as references to this second coming in fact refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In any case, the doctrine is essential, and is necessary to a wholesome understanding of the Christian faith.
Paul introduced this doctrine to the Thessalonians when he first preached the gospel to them, and he refers to it in the letter. For example, he states that the Thessalonian Christians would be his crown and glory “in the presence of the Lord Jesus when he comes” (2:19), and he wishes that they would be blameless “when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” (3:13). The Thessalonians have learned the doctrine, and they understand these references to it.
All evidence suggests that Paul not only imparts a comprehensive system of theology to his converts, but he also strives to expound each doctrine in some detail, even when the time is short and the setting inconvenient. Still, Paul did not have all the time he needed with these converts (2:17), and it seems that he lacked opportunity to complete their understanding of the Christian faith (3:10), including the doctrine of the second coming. Or, perhaps certain questions did not arise when he was with them, but now have become relevant. Here he supplements his teaching with additional information (4:13-18), and provides a reminder and application (5:1-11) of what they have learned.
The doctrine is that Jesus Christ will come again, and when he comes, he will receive his people to be with him forever (4:17). As for how this will happen, we should begin with the concern that gives occasion for this passage in the first place. That is, what will happen to those believers who die before Christ returns? Is their fate unknown to us? Or, will they perish forever, as vapor disbursed into thin air? And even if not, will they somehow be at a disadvantage compared to those who are living when Christ comes? It is easy to understand the importance and relevance of the question, since numerous believers have died and will die before the return of Christ. And if he tarries, those of us who now live will also die as those who believed before us.
The answer is the resurrection. Paul does not refer immediately to the resurrection of the believers, but first to the resurrection of Christ. The Lord was killed and buried, but then he was raised from the dead. And Paul depicts Christ as the archetype of all those who die as Christians, as believers in him. The resurrection of Christ, therefore, is both a promise and a proof for the glorious future of the saints. When a person makes a promise, and then defies religious and political authorities, demonic powers, as well as death itself to authenticate and to enforce it, no doubt can be cast upon the integrity and ability of this person, and therefore no doubt can be cast upon the promise that he makes. The matter is settled – there is nothing that anyone can say against such a person as this, or against any promise that he makes. Just as Christ was raised from the dead, he will also raise from the dead those who believe in him (4:14-16). The dead in Christ will not be shortchanged or forgotten.
As for those believers who are still alive when Christ returns, the Lord will take them up to be with him forever (v. 17). We also note that the dead in Christ will be raised with a new kind of body. The new body will bare some relation with the old, but it will be vastly superior. Paul likens it to a seed that is sown into the ground and that produces according to its own kind. For example, wheat comes from wheat seed, not some other kind of seed. Those believers who are alive when Christ returns will also receive this new body, but they will not be raised from the dead as such, since they would not be dead, but their bodies will be “changed” into the same kind that the dead in Christ will receive at their resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:35-57).
Christians are to encourage one another with this doctrine. Encouragement is here not given by grieving with the bereaved or being an attentive and sympathetic listener. Although these can be legitimate, they are in themselves powerless to comfort. And it is wicked to identify with someone who rails against the kindness and justice of God on the occasion of the death of some friend or relative. We must not allow anyone to attack the honor of God as an exercise of emotional release. When this occurs, both the bereaved and those who mourn with them in like manner should be harshly reprimanded, and commanded to repent and then shut their mouths. Proper encouragement is offered not by listening, but by teaching. And to encourage the bereaved, we are to teach or remind them of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints.
Paul writes to Christians, and he says that he does not want them to grieve like “the rest of men,” that is, like all the non-Christians. In other words, Christians are permitted to mourn the deaths of fellow believers, but they are not to mourn as the non-Christians. Rather than allowing grief to plunge them into utter despair, or waiting for it to subside with time, Christians can lament the temporary separation from their brothers and sisters in Christ, but then find encouragement in the doctrines of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints.
The passage is often read at funerals, with the intent to encourage. However, Paul forbids universal application, since he contrasts the way that Christians should grieve against the way that all others grieve, since the rest of humankind have “no hope.” He is writing to Christians about Christians. If the audience includes non-Christians, or if non-Christians are among the dead, then the doctrine is not nearly as comforting. The doctrine should not comfort the non-Christians who mourn, since they will not share in the glory of the return of Christ, or in the resurrection of Christians. And the doctrine should not encourage anyone about the deceased non-Christians, since death spells the commencement of a kind of suffering for them that strains our ability to fathom, although we applaud the justice of it.
Even as Paul addresses those who might be in mourning, and even as he writes to the Christian living about the Christian dead, he makes an attack on the unbelievers. Unless a minister has warrant to assume that he is speaking to Christians about Christians, he is a liar if he applies the doctrine of the glorious resurrection of the saints as if it applies to all in the audience, and at a funeral, as if it applies to the one in the coffin. If the minister is aware that his audience includes non-Christians, and if he is aware that the deceased was an unbeliever, then what excuse does he have to say anything other than, “Look! God is punishing this man – your father, your husband, your son, your friend, this relative of yours – even now…God is punishing him, torturing him, burning him up even now! Your wife, your mother, your sister, your daughter…she is now screaming out in pain and agony! She is crying for help, but there is only endless suffering before her, forever. And if you do not repent, you will likewise perish! Repent, for soon it will be your time to face the Lord!”
Perhaps we do not always need to preach in this way, but there is nothing wrong with this manner of speaking, and indeed we should often speak like this. It is explicit, forceful, uncompromising, and convincing to those whose hearts God has made receptive to the truth. But even when we do not speak this way, we must make the doctrine clear: “If you have a non-Christian friend or relative who died, he is now suffering in hell. And if you do not become a Christian, then you will go there too.” Let social propriety burn in hell along with the unbelievers, but let boldness and wisdom be our guide. If we follow the rules of the world, we will never preach the gospel as it ought to be preached, if we are allowed to preach it at all.
The passage illustrates the use of contrast by the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus. Even when Paul’s purpose is to encourage Christians, he makes an attack on the non-Christians. This is not due to vindictiveness, but the contrast is a teaching device that serves to make the information conveyed explicit and to increase the effect that this information has on the audience. Since a contrast does not invent falsehood, but only draws attention to both sides of an issue and takes note of the distance between them, it helps to bring forth the whole truth of the matter. Thus the information conveyed is accurate, and the effect produced on the audience is based on truth and not deception.
In this case, although the purpose is to encourage, so that the main focus rests on the positive doctrines of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints, a contrast is made against the hopelessness of the non-Christians. Paul stresses the fact that unbelievers lack the glorious prospect of the believers – non-Christians are without hope. This stands in contrast with the hope of the believers, that their dead will be raised, and that their living will be changed and received by the Lord to be with him forever. Of course, when we take into account what Scripture teaches in other places, then the unbeliever does not merely face a lack of hope, but he is outright condemned. When a non-Christian dies, God seizes his soul and plunges him into the depth of hell, where he must endure extreme torment forever.
A survey of the writings and discourses of the prophet, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus would expose the alarming deficiency of much of what passes as Christian preaching and literature, and even Christian apologetics, in their reluctance to make contrasts between the Christian faith and non-Christian beliefs, and between Christians and non-Christians. Now, to assert sharp contrasts between what we believe and what others believe, and between what we are and what others are, and in a way that reveals our superiority and their inferiority, could be seen as uncharitable and arrogant. So it is understandable that many professing believers shy away from this biblical practice. I mean that I understand them to be worthless cowards and spiritual traitors.
The remedy is simple, but only those faithful to the Lord will implement it. Traitors will revile those who do – they know that courageous believers are in fact filled with mercy, but unbelievers will not spare them! – and make excuses for themselves. In any case, to follow the biblical pattern would mean that we must make explicit contrasts, to draw attention to the difference between Christian belief and non-Christian belief, and to the distance between Christian expectation and experience versus non-Christian expectation and experience. And we must point out that Christian and non-Christian systems are incompatible. In other words, a person cannot affirm non-Christian ideas and possess Christian expectations and experiences.
The principle seems harmless enough, but weaklings are too horrified to declare the actual contrasts. For preaching, it would mean that when we speak about the glories of heaven for the Christians, we should also describe the agonies of hell for all non-Christians. And when we mention the complete forgiveness that God provides for his chosen ones through Jesus Christ, we should also affirm the damnation that God reserves for those whom he has created for hell. Preaching entails telling not only how wonderful it is to be a Christian, but also how hopeless, asinine, and despicable it is to remain a non-Christian.
For our everyday conversation, it means that we must not testify only concerning the faithfulness of the Lord to comfort and rescue, but we should mention to friends, relatives, and strangers, that if they do not repent and believe the gospel, then God has already marked them for damnation, for endless suffering in hellfire. These comments about preaching and conversation, of course, must apply also to the education of children. We must tell children not only about the goodness of God and the sanctification of the saints, but also the severity of God and the wickedness of the unbelievers.
Children, just as much as others, can and must grasp the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, and the distance between them in terms of their beliefs, intelligence, character, prospects, and destinies. For example, children must understand that their non-Christian relatives and friends are sent to hell if they die as unbelievers. This includes their little demonic playmates at school – for every unconverted child is as a little demon, and the children of believers ought to know this. There is no reason to keep the truth from them. It is not the case that adults can handle the idea of hell any better. The reason anyone resists the idea of hell is sin, not age.
Likewise, when it comes to apologetics, the biblical practice of making contrasts means that we must not only argue for the veracity and rationality of the Christian faith, but we should also show that all non-Christian beliefs – all of their religions, philosophies, theories, and practices – are false, wicked, and stupid. Therefore, apologetics must not remain a defensive enterprise, but it must take on an offensive energy and an aggressive nature that no adherent of any other belief system has ever known or exhibited. Even so, our weapons are spiritual and intellectual, and not the feeble instruments of blades and explosives. If the term “apologetics” and the idea of “the defense of the faith” render us too passive in our attitude and approach, then it might help to supplement our thinking with other biblical terms such as the “confirmation,” “demonstration,” and “vindication” of the faith. These can accommodate both the defensive and offensive aspects of our intellectual engagement with the world.
When we consider the Great Commission in terms of our spiritual conflict and disagreement with unbelievers, it is in fact a command for us to invade and conquer – again, not in a military or political sense, but in a spiritual and intellectual sense. It is a command to intrude into people’s nations and regions, and into their lives, classes, and circles. We have the mandate and the authority to upset their lifestyles and upend their beliefs. Therefore, it is our duty and our right to pursue all non-Christians, to preach to them the Christian faith, and also to attack, criticize, refute, discredit, disrespect, and mock their beliefs and practices. This is grounded on the words of Christ and confirmed by the practice of the prophets and the apostles, so that anyone who disagrees with it sets himself as an enemy to the kingdom of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes people object to sound doctrine with the complaint that the Christian faith is supposed to be “good news.” For example, Christians have used it to oppose the biblical doctrines of active reprobation and effective atonement, and some have used it to endorse the false doctrine of the “sincere offer” of the gospel. And no doubt some will object that to condemn, attack, and ridicule non-Christians contradict the nature of the gospel in that it does not make our message sound like good news. However, this involves a misapplication of the term and a misunderstanding of the gospel.
The idea of “good news” is specific. The term appears within the context of a Christian system of theology and a Christian history of salvation, so that its meaning is defined by such a context. It is not good news to every person and in every sense imaginable. The reprobate who hears that a person must believe in Jesus Christ and renounce his own beliefs and lifestyles would not consider our gospel “good news” at all. Since he is a reprobate, it is determined that he would not believe the gospel, and therefore the message is to him a notice of inevitable condemnation.
To such a person, the only good news would be salvation without faith and repentance, without any belief, without any change. But the only gospel that God has given states that a person is saved by trusting in Jesus Christ, through a faith given to him by the power of God. This is “good news” to a person whom God has chosen for salvation, and in whose heart God has performed the work of regeneration. To those who refuse to believe and cannot believe, the gospel is a death sentence. It is a final declaration that there is no other way to be saved. As Paul writes, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). In effect, the preacher of the gospel is the messenger of death to those ordained to destruction.
Since the Bible is God’s book, of course he approves of all the contrasts used by the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord Jesus – he inspired all those words. But he does something even more drastic, and that is in fact the necessary foundation for all the verbal contrasts made between Christians and non-Christians:
Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:21-24)
If there were no reprobates, we would not be able to say that those who do not believe have “no hope,” for all would be chosen and all would be believers. If Christ has redeemed all, we would not be able to say, “Look, those are the ones on whom the wrath of God shall fall,” for no one would suffer his wrath, except the Lamb of God. And if Adam had never sinned, no contrast between the two lines of humanity would be possible.
God takes this teaching device very seriously. He creates people’s very souls and ordains their eternal destinies, lifting some to heaven and damning others to hell, to make the contrasts possible. To draw attention to the difference and the distance between Christians and non-Christians is only to declare what God has been doing throughout human history. It is to labor in accordance with his purpose and to speak in agreement with his explanation. He chooses to reveal his nature and educate his people in this manner. The person who preaches his works, that he saves whom he wills and damns whom he wishes, is the one who declares his glory.
The doctrine of the second coming exhibits several characteristics that should greatly affect our thinking and our preaching:
First, it is a foundational part of a comprehensive and self-consistent system of belief. It depends on other parts of the system, and is depended on by other parts of the system. For example, it is directly related to the doctrines of the resurrection and the judgment. The second coming must be mentioned together for a proper understanding of the nature, order, and relation of these events.
Second, there is much about the doctrine that is clear, definite, and not subject to speculation or misunderstanding, although even so some distort it to their own destruction. Many complicated and farfetched theories and schemes have been devised about it or around it, but the main thrust of the teaching is simple and explicit. This is the doctrine: Jesus Christ will one day return, at which time the dead in Christ will be raised, and the Christians who are alive at the time will be changed, and together they will be received to be with the Lord forever. As for non-Christians, they will be judged and thrown into a lake of fire, to be punished forever. With this simple doctrine, we admonish and encourage the saints, and we warn the reprobates and the unrepentant. To overcomplicate the doctrine dulls its force to impress itself upon the minds of men.
Third, and this follows from the first two points, the doctrine is so foundational and connected within the Christian system that it is an integral part of the teachings of the apostles. Even in some places where it does not stand apart to receive special exposition, it is often naturally mentioned as a point of reference. It is cited to produce motivation in sanctification, anchor in temptation, comfort in bereavement, and strength in persecution. It is even used to identify those who belong to Christ – those who believe in him look forward to his glorious return (1 Corinthians 1:7-8, 16:22-24; Philippians 3:20-21; Titus 2:12-15; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8; Hebrews 9:27-28; 2 Peter 3:11-12; 1 John 2:28). The doctrine does not only provide hope for us as believers, but it imposes a moral obligation on us to look forward to the Lord’s return and to order our lives in a manner that is consistent with this expectation. And it is to be a natural part of our preaching and conversation.