The Second Coming of Christ is largely a neglected subject in many churches. But it received great prominence in the preaching of the Apostles.
It is clear, for example, that the Thessalonian Christians had thought much about Christ’s return, and the letters Paul wrote to them reveal a lively interest in this great theme. Our neglect of the subject has left us poorer.
It would seem that the Thessalonians had many unanswered questions about the Lord’s coming, and Paul addresses one of these in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. We consider three aspects of his response.
Comfort provided (vv. 13-14)
It appears that the Thessalonians expected Christ to return within their lifetime – but some of their number had died. So what would happen to them when the Saviour returned?
Would they miss the glory of that great day? Indeed, some may have feared that those who had died were lost.
After all, Paul taught that those who came thoughtlessly to the Lord’s Table came under God’s judgement, and added: ‘For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep’ (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). So they were perplexed.
Paul responds with a favourite expression: ‘We would not have you ignorant’. He is going to clear up the matter once and for all.
He speaks of their dead loved ones as those who were ‘asleep’. This metaphor fits the message of the gospel, for it sees death robbed of its sting and points to the resurrection of the body – for the believer, a resurrection to life.
Even in the Old Testament, death is often described in the words ‘he slept with his fathers’. When Lazarus died Christ said: ‘Our friend Lazarus is asleep; but I go to awake him out of sleep’ (John 11:11). This description of death became common in the days of the Apostles.
Paul explains that his readers must not sorrow for their loved ones as do ‘the rest’ who have no hope. Many pagan religions envisaged life beyond the grave, but did so with no sense of joy and peace – no note of victory.
By contrast, Paul is showing that those who have ‘fallen asleep’ in Christ will also awake with him at his coming. So Christian sorrow is altogether different from that of the non-Christian.
All who loved the Saviour during their lifetime are with him in heaven, and will share the glory of his return (v. 14). The risen Lord will bring the faithful departed with him when he comes. They will not miss the glory of that day.
Reunion described (v. 17)
At Christ’s return, believers who have died will rise first (v. 16). Only then will Christians on earth be caught up to join them, so that all will be with Christ together. Clearly Paul saw this reunion as important – it is a pity that some modern translations omit that word ‘together’ in verse 17.
This is a precious thought for those who have seen their loved ones die ‘in the Lord’, that is, as believers. For them, death represents only a temporary separation. One day we shall be together again in the presence of our Saviour.
On the great day here described, those Christians still alive will be ‘caught up’. The idea is of being ‘snatched away’ or ‘carried off by force’.
For what purpose? ‘To meet the Lord’. Paul has his eyes on Christ as he adds joyfully: ‘and so we shall ever be with the Lord’. What a glorious day that will be!
Prospects envisaged (v. 16)
How will Christ return? Like a thief in the night? Yes. And how does a thief come? With advance warning? Certainly not. He comes unexpectedly.
‘In such an hour as you think not the Son of man comes’. Hence the exhortation, ‘Therefore be you also ready’ (Matthew 24:44).
Will Christ’s return be secret? The answer is ‘No’ (v. 16). ‘The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout’, that is, with a word of authority, a command.
The term used here refers to the command of a ship’s master to his men, or a military officer to his soldiers. It means an authoritative cry – an apt word to use here.
We are reminded of Christ’s statement, ‘the hour comes, in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth’ (John 5:28-29).
The voice of the archangel is also mentioned in our passage (he probably adds his voice to that mighty call that awakes the dead). Then there is ‘the trumpet of God’. In the Old Testament trumpets are often associated with triumph and victory.
Thus we have envisaged the majesty and greatness of the day when our Lord returns in glory and power.
There is certainly nothing secret about the event described here. The natural force of the passage is that Christ’s return will be dramatic, powerful and inescapable. As John Newton wrote:
Day of Judgement, day of wonders,
Hark! The trumpet’s awful sound
Louder than a thousand thunders
Shakes the vast creation round!
How the summons
Will the sinner’s heart confound!
But to those who have confessed,
Loved and served the Lord below,
He will say: Come near, ye blessed,
See the kingdom I bestow,
Shall my love and glory know.
Nothing more important
Christ is coming back in person (‘the Lord himself, v. 16) and he exhorts us to be ready for his return. He said, ‘Watch therefore, for you know not what hour your Lord comes’, and before doing so he described that day as follows:
‘Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left’ (Matthew 24:40-42).
This is not talking about some ‘secret rapture’. It means that one will be taken to be with Christ – the other left to face God’s judgement. That will be the day of final reunion for the redeemed, and final separation for the lost.
Taken or left? Can anyone think of a more important question?