Listen: Christian Growth with Simon Manchester. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Simon Manchester presents a three-part series of messages exploring the book of 1 Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians, Part 1
Let’s open up our Bibles at 1 Thessalonian 4 – we have got 6 very valuable verses.
The background to these verses is that if you travelled to Greece today, it would be a very expensive journey and hopefully it would be done for good reason but you could find the city of Thessaloniki and it’s alive and well, the city of Thessaloniki to day in Greece. And 2000 years ago the Apostle Paul conducted a 3 week mission in Thessalonica. Now he would have like it to have been a longer mission but he had to run for his life – you can read about it in Acts chapter 17 – he and Silas had to get out.
And what we are doing on these Sunday evenings is we are following Paul’s first Letter to the city which he had to basically get out of and the summary of the Letter so far goes like this:
“We thank God that you have put your faith in Jesus, please don’t think that we left because we wanted to but we left because we had to. It is so good to hear that you are keen followers of Christ, keep going” – that’s the Letter so far.
And as we come to chapter 4 verse 13 this evening, we come to a question which is worrying the Thessalonians and that is – you told us Paul that Christ is coming back, and we are waiting for him, we are looking forward to that. Some of our people of our church however have died – did they miss out? Did they miss out on the glory that Jesus is coming to bring?
A Comfort to Many
Now Paul writes some very wonderful verses here. These verses 13 to 18 which have comforted millions, millions and millions of people around the world have been comforted by these 6 verses. And they are very meaningful to me because this last week (as many of you know) we farewelled my father-in-law – somebody who has really been a father to me for the last 40 years. And at the service on Monday and then the cremation on Tuesday, we were face to face with death.
And as we finished the cremation, we went down the hill and we sat around for a while – just as a family and then we walked back up the hill and already the smoke from the Crematorium was going up – The end of the body. And I said to my brother-in-law – I said to him – ‘it’s very confronting isn’t it?’ and he said ‘yes, this is where we believe the promises’. And the promises are what we are given here in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4.
Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by
Now I hope you will take hold of these verses this evening for a number of reasons. 1. In this world we need an expert on the after-life – we need somebody who has gone through and back. I only know one person who has gone through and back with credentials and that is Christ and he therefore becomes the world expert on this subject. And because he has died and risen, God expects people to take him seriously.
I don’t know if you have ever noticed this but if you read the Book of Acts, all the early church preaching is “God has raised Him” – you must take him seriously. And Jesus himself said in the Gospels that if you follow him and entrust yourself to him, he outweighs the world. Who else would dare to say to you this evening “Follow me and you won’t lose your soul – but if you lose your body you are still a winner because you have Christ”. Who else would dare to say that – only Christ can look people in the world in the face and say “lose everything but have me and I outweigh the world” – and that’s the way Jesus speaks.
You notice of course that the ISIS people are making a point by decapitating people and the world is noticing. This is the way you get people to sit up and take notice. Now God has made a point to the world by raising somebody from the dead. To decapitate is relatively easy – to raise somebody from the grave is miraculous.
And without an expert on the after-life we are all guessers. Think of Richard Dawkins – he says there is nothing after this world. Well he is guessing. Think of the movies that you watch – one that comes to mind, a long time ago is Gladiator where you have that kind of vague, mystical, floating around in the after-life – it’s just a guess. Or think of the people who say in the Obituaries in the papers – “They have gone to a better place, all will be well”. That’s nothing to do with Jesus, they didn’t believe in Jesus but ‘all will be well’- they are just guessing. So we need an expert.
The Future is Safe For Us
We also need to know that the future is safe for us so that we can take Jesus seriously. There are lots of people who have gone in the Name of Jesus to do very dangerous missions without any fear because they knew that their security was forever. We need this security.
And we also need to know what God says so that we can comfort other people. We need to do the comfort with more than just sentimental fluff – we need to be able to say things that are really true and powerful and realistic and well founded.
So let’s think about our verses this evening – I have got 3 headings –
First is Jesus and Security – verses 13 & 14
Secondly Jesus and Community – verses 15-17
Thirdly Jesus and Authority – verse 18.
Jesus and Security
This talk may raise some questions for you about the future – but first of all let’s think about Jesus and Security. Look at chapter 4 verse 13 – he says “we don’t want you to be ignorant and we don’t want you to be in the dark, we don’t want you to be agnostic – we have some information for you about those who fall asleep”. Notice what Paul is saying – he says we don’t want you to be stuck for answers and you don’t need to be stuck for answers.
Do we not love it when someone fills in some information for us? You are probably too young for this but have you ever had medical tests and wait for the test results? It’s a wonderful thing when the results come back clear. Or perhaps you are worried about a relationship, you don’t know whether somebody is cooling off in their interests for you and it is such a help for them to communicate and tell you – no they are still devoted to you. Or waiting for your exam results, or waiting to find out that your job is secure.
I was talking to a lady this morning aged 87 years after the morning service – we were just chatting at the morning tea time and she said to me “I am really hoping that my sins do not disqualify me because she said I’ve done some terrible sins over the years”. So we just pulled out all these promises and she said at the end of the conversation – “this has been such a helpful conversation filling in the gap, filling in the worry”.
Now what is going on in these situations? The fact of the matter what we are doing in these situations with hospital results or relationship results or examination results is that we want some information. Why do most people that we deal with in this world NOT WANT the information about the resurrection even though it is overwhelmingly good information? And the answer of course is that these people don’t want to surrender to Christ. They would lose the blessing of eternal life in order to keep the control of a temporary life and then of course lose the control of a temporary life anyway – it’s a tragedy – it’s an absolute tragedy.
But for those who are wanting information, for those who are wanting God’s word, even if you are an open agnostic this evening, you may be an open agnostic; Paul has some very great news.
Death has Been Redefined
The first thing he says in chapter 4 verse 13 is that Christian death has been re-defined by Christ. It is now to be called “sleep”. Now the reason that he uses the word sleep is because sleep is a temporary thing – it’s not forever. The Christian who dies as we see them die is going to get up one day with a brand new body. The other thing about sleep – this re-definition of death – is that sleep is safe, it is not dangerous. The Christian who dies as we see them die is going to experience no danger and no separation. This word ‘sleep’ is the word that Jesus used – you remember in the Gospels he talked about a little girl who had died and so she is just sleeping and he said this, although they laughed at him because he was about to raise her up – it was temporary – it was not dangerous.
But the word sleep was actually used back in the Old Testament and the word sleep was used in Greek literature and it was used as a euphemism – a polite word to soften up a harsh reality. We have similar phrases today. We talk about somebody “passing on” or somebody “has left us” or “they have kicked the bucket”. We talk about these sorts of things to soften a harsh reality.
Now when Jesus spoke of the believer sleeping or when Paul here talks about the believer sleeping, he is not just softening a hard reality, he is reaching a brand new reality which is that it’s temporary and it’s safe.
So this is the remarkable thing about this teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 is that people long for it to be true that there is something after this world. And they can only fictionalise what it could be. You know the little girl has become an angel – it’s an invention of something – people long for there to be something beyond this world. Jesus takes the longing and says ‘if you belong to me it’s not fiction, it’s non fiction’ and so the pagan who wants there to be something after the grave, is going to have to take Jesus seriously if their longing is to be a reality.
Incidentally the word “cemetery” comes from the Greek word for “sleep” because Jesus transformed the tragedy of dying and made the burial place into a place where many believers saw their loved ones go as it were into the ground looking forward to something temporary and something wonderful based on the resurrection.
So we can learn from cemeteries – in face the Old Testament tells us that we should learn from cemeteries – it’s a great place to walk around the cemetery and see what people have written. They have had one opportunity to write on their tombstone and to see whether they have written something that is based on the reality of Christ’s resurrection or whether it’s just pure fiction.
One of the most interesting cemeteries is the Bun Hill Cemetery in London which is actually named after what was the Bone Hill Cemetery and it was called the Bone Hill Cemetery – now the Bun Hill Cemetery quite near St Pauls Cathedral because in the plague they poured so many corpses into this cemetery that it was basically just piled high with bones. And lots of great believers have been buried in the Bun Hill Cemetery. People like:
- Isaac Watts
- Susannah Wesley
- John Owen
- John Bunyan
And others. And they are all buried in the Bun Hill Cemetery and this cemetery became so famous for these famous believers that lots of poor people would buy a plot in the cemetery in order to get into the cemetery in the hope that when the great resurrection took place, they would kind of be swept up with all the other believers – which is a piece of lunacy – but there you are – that’s what they were thinking.
And I think it was John Stott who said that the resurrection changes the RIP (Rest in Peace) to Risen in Power for the believer.
Now this is lovely that the Apostle Paul says that Christians will sleep but why will Christians sleep? Why should we expect to sleep? Why should we expect to get up? How can we know this is true? The answer is in verse 14. He says “Jesus died, Jesus died and rose”. Notice that Paul doesn’t say “Jesus slept before you slept”. He says “Jesus died”. He uses the very deliberate word “died”. You see the death of Jesus was not safe and it was not secure – he got all the terrors and all the dangers of judgment piled on top of him. He experienced the full force of God’s justice – it was an absolute total death. And therefore if your confidence is in him – he has experienced the death for you. Your experience will be to sleep.
The other thing that Paul says here is that Jesus rose. If he didn’t rise of course he would be a deceiver. He would be on par with the devil. How could Jesus walk around in his life saying “trust me, I will give you eternal life, I will see you through the grave” and then just die. It would be the great deception.
I want to read to you just two paragraphs of an Article by a guy called Sir Norman Anderson and you can download this Article – just look up Norman Anderson on the resurrection. Norman Anderson was a remarkable man –
- First of all he got 3 First Class degrees from Cambridge University which is pretty special.
- Secondly is that he was considered the greatest legal mind in the United Kingdom during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
- Thirdly is that he and his wife had 3 grown up children who all died before the parents of various diseases.
So this is a subject for whom Norman Anderson is not just an academic exercise but a very important one and he says this:
“Easter is not primarily a comfort but a challenge. Its message is either the supreme fact in history or a gigantic hoax. This seems to have been realised in the days of the early church. On the one side, there was a little company of men and women who turned the world upside down by their passionate proclamation of the miracle which has transformed their lives. On the other hand, there were those who vehemently denounced the whole story as blasphemy. We ourselves find it hard to see the issue so clear cut for ours is a tolerant age and one suspicious of all fanaticism. Most people have not the slightest desire to attack the Easter message, yet they only half believe it. To them it’s a beautiful story full of spiritual meaning. Why worry then whether it’s literal fact? We miss the point. Listen to this! Either Easter is infinitely more than a beautiful story or it is infinitely less. If it is true, it is the supreme fact of history and to fail to adjust one’s life to its implications, means irreparable loss. But if it is not true, if Christ be not raised, then the whole of Christianity is a fraud, foisted on the world by a company of consummate liars or at best alluded simpletons. Paul himself realised this when he wrote “if Christ be not raised our preaching is meaningless, your faith is worthless and we are found to be false witnesses”.
Now that’s a very helpful point you see – you cannot call the resurrection of moderate interest. It’s either of total interest or total disinterest. It just won’t play the middle game.
Now because Jesus died and rose, says Paul, the Christian will sleep and rise. And that’s why the Christian funeral such as we experienced this past week has grief and hope. It doesn’t just have grief – that would be hopeless. It doesn’t just have joy, joy, joy – that would be insane. It has grief and it has hope. So that’s Jesus and Security.
Jesus and Community
Second point – Jesus and Community – verses 15-17. This is where Paul tackles the Thessalonian question which is “have the Christians who have already died missed out on the glory to come”? In other words, would it better to stay alive, say the Thessalonians, until Christ comes and if we don’t manage to stay alive, would we miss out and have those people who have died missed out?
Now the answer is in verse 14. He says “when Jesus comes he will bring them” – although their bodies may be in the grave and although their bodies may be destroyed in a Crematorium, the real person (what Jesus might have called the soul) goes to be with Christ. And we know this from the rest of the New Testament.
That’s why Paul says in Philippians 1 “I desire to depart and be with Christ”. He wouldn’t say that if he knew that he was just going to lie in the soil for 2000 years. No he says “I want to depart and be with Christ”.
2 Corinthians 5:8 says “away from the body but home with the Lord”. As soon as a believer leaves the body, he or she is in some sense “home with the Lord”.
Again this may be relevant to Luke 23 where Jesus said to the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise”.
Or again in Revelation 6 we read “that the saints around the throne in heaven are saying to the Lord in some remarkable way ‘how long, how long, come on finish this, bring it all together, bring it to completion’ “.
So we are immediately with Christ when we die but we are waiting for the resurrection body and there is a little bit of mystery in this. We are just no in a position to be able to pin down all the details and answer all the questions. But what we do know is that once you are with Christ, you are always with Christ, once you died you are in some sense “with him” absent from the body and present with the Lord but there is still some kind of waiting for the resurrection body. And that’s why chapter 4 verse 14 is very clear. “Those who have gone from us (and friends that is billions of people have died) and hundreds of millions of them trusting Christ have died. They have gone to Christ and he will bring them when he comes. When he comes, he will bring them with him.
The Second Coming of Christ
And this is what the Second Coming will mean (verse 15) – we who are alive when Christ comes (and notice incidentally Paul doesn’t necessarily say ‘that he will be alive when Christ comes’) – he just says ‘if we are alive when Christ comes we will not beat those who have died to Christ. In other words, if Christ was to come in one second now, the people who have already died in Christ would have got to him first. They would come with him and then we would join them.
So which is the most blessed condition? Is it to be dead in Christ with Christ or alive in the world waiting for Christ? Paul’s answer is: the first one – it’s to be with Christ – that’s why Paul of course wants to depart and be with Christ but when he comes, says Paul, they will come and we will join him and we will join them.
How does Paul know this? (Verse 15). He says “according to the Lord’s own word”. Well which word of the Lord? Where did Jesus say this? And the possibilities are that either the Lord Jesus said this to Paul as an Apostle and therefore we are learning it for the first time or that this is something that was recorded by Jesus which lots of people knew but was not put into our New Testament because there were many things that Jesus said that didn’t get put into our New Testament. Or that this is some way a re-stating of something like Matthew 24 & 25 where Jesus talks about coming and bringing his people.
So look at verse 16. To understand the Second Coming, if you want to understand the Second Coming, and we will look at this more next week.
Jesus himself will come.
- It will be personal – it will be Jesus;
- It will be global – he is not going to come through the Heads (of Sydney Harbour)– it will be global.
- It will be sudden – it could be before this sermon finishes (and some of you may be hoping that’s the case).
- It could be years from now.
All we know is that it’s going to be sudden and expected and it’s going to be very wonderful for the believer and it’s going to be very terrible for the unbeliever. And Paul says in verse 16 – there is going to be a triple announcement.
- There is going to be a command from God – I presume this is God the Father calling out ‘NOW – GO’
- There is going to be a voice – the archangel’s voice which I presume is the archangel maybe Michael or Gabriel calling out ‘HERE HE IS’
- There is going to be a trumpet – the famous trumpet which says ‘IT’S TIME TO MEET GOD’.
Friends, you just imagine what this will be like. If the Second Coming of Christ took place in the next 5 seconds and everything universal changes and we suddenly come face to face with the person who made the world and is now coming back to the world – JUST AMAZING.
And those who went first, says Paul, rise first. And those who are waiting will rise second but all believers will join Christ and all believers will join together and as Jesus said the future will be like a house and a feast and very very wonderful.
Well there’s one thing therefore that is absolutely certain for all of us who are here this evening and that is that we will meet Jesus. You see, you may not die – you may be among those millions and millions of people who will never physically die because Christ will come in your lifetime. Therefore we need to be very careful when people say “everybody will die” because actually if Christ comes first, we won’t die but we will all meet Jesus.
Let me just give you a few details on Christ’s coming – just say a word to you about the MILLENNIUM and a word to you about the RAPTURE in verse 17. Just look at verse 17 – he says “we who here when Christ comes, we will be caught up, we will be (the word is grabbed or scooped). The old Latin word is RAPTUS from which we get the word RAPTURE. This caused many believers to read the words and think that Christians would be snatched away from the world. And this has led to a lot of humour and absurdity in the church over the years.
What do you do if you are in an aeroplane and you have a Christian pilot? And Christ decides to take him home?
What do you do if you are in a bus and Christ decides to take the Christian driver into the Rapture?
And Christians on camps have played games on one another by leaving the electric shaver buzzing in the bathroom and the shoes beside the sink or have rigged up a little speed boat to go spinning around and around in the lake with nobody in it – these pranks to give the impression that the Rapture has taken place and therefore the other people have been left behind.
And this has spawned the ‘left behind’ movies which some of you may know about. This is a whole industry – LEFT BEHIND. You can imagine how tragic you would feel. Some of this is based on Matthew 24 where Jesus said “there will be two in a field, one will be taken and one will be left”. This gives that kind of bizarre picture that two guys are ploughing and suddenly one just zooms up in the sky or in Luke 17 “two will be in a bed – there’s a man and woman in the bed” and suddenly the wife leaves.
Now I want you to notice very carefully that Jesus does not teach any disappearing acts in the Scriptures. He says this will take place at his return. It’s at his return one will be taken to him, one will not. It’s possible for two men to be working in the same office and when Christ returns, one is safe and one is in dreadful trouble. It’s possible for a couple to be in the same bed – the man is a believer and the wife is not a believer – Christ returns – he is safe and she is not.
Jesus is not talking about a disappearing act but he is talking about when he returns. And that’s why in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 he talks about people being caught up to be with Christ. This is not some kind of random disappearance – this is when Christ comes. It’s not even a secret rapture as many people say it will be a secret rapture – it’s so public as there’s going to be a voice, a command and a trumpet– the whole world will know when Christ comes. Nobody will be in the slightest doubt when Christ comes.
What is the MILLENNIUM? Some of you will have heard of the millennial views.
The Millennium means “a thousand years”. It’s not related to this passage but I just mention it very briefly because it comes in Revelation 20 which talks about 6 times in a few verses about 1000 years.
Now some people say that Christ will come – Just stay with me, are you with me? – Christ will come and set up a 1000 year rule on the earth before the judgment. In other words, he will come PRE-MILLENNIUM. The difficulty with this view is that it just doesn’t seem to tie up with a lot of the rest of the New Testament.
Others say that Christ will come after 1000 years of great blessing. In other words, the Church will suddenly enter into a golden period for 1000 years. People will be believers all over the place and then after the 1000 years Christ will come – POST MILLENNIUM. The difficulty with this again is that it just doesn’t seem to tie in with the rest of the New Testament which talks about declining world rather than improving world.
The most satisfying view of the Millennium to me is that the 1000 years is a symbol like the rest of the Book of Revelation. It’s teaching that Jesus will come after a very long time. And we are in the long time, we are in the MILLENNIUM.
But don’t miss the big issue of what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians and get lost in these micro issues. The big issue is this:
Will the Christian be lost when they die? NO – perfectly safe.
Will all Christians be together one day? YES – there will be a great reunion.
We have security because Jesus has died
We have community because Jesus rose.
Jesus and Authority
Last thing very briefly Jesus and Authority – verse 18. How are we meant to encourage one another? The Apostle’s answer is with words, with words of truth, with good theology. And of course we are to exercise every kindness. And it’s very interesting when you go through some kind of grief that people in the church use words and kindnesses and it’s very precious.
The pagan world doesn’t have any words and so it has to invent very sort of schmaltzy things. You know those terrible cards and sometime it uses balloons or makes big claims and lots of hugs (which is fine) but no Gospel – no Gospel – whereas the Christian uses all the kindnesses that is possible and words -The words of God which God has underwritten in blood.
So don’t miss the power of this. I know that you would like for somebody to tell you something about the future which is rock solid. I know that you (like me) would like a window into the future through the grave – wouldn’t it be wonderful to see heaven waiting? Well the best we are going to get is the Book of Revelation where the door is open, the roof is open and we are going to be given a glimpse. But Paul’s answer is that since we walk by faith and not by sight, we are to encourage one another with the power of words.
Now I know words can be cheap – we need to be very careful when we are comforting or encouraging somebody that we don’t say something really cheap.
I remember once in a family bereavement in my home where somebody sent a card and all they wrote on it was ‘Romans 8:28”. That’s all it said. “All things work together for good for those who love God”. It was thoughtless – it is a good verse – just didn’t come very thoughtfully.
And we don’t want to use cheap words but we don’t want to use no words. God is a great speaker, God communicates to encourage and we can’t encourage people without words. Therefore silence is sub Christian. We are not expected around the fellowship to be a store dummy which just stands. We are meant to be people who speak the words and exercise the kindnesses – otherwise we are diluting and even becoming useless, maybe even heartless.
Now the people who ignore God’s words, the people that we live amongst ignore God’s words, they can’t expect any light in the darkness because the words of God are the light in the darkness. But for those of us who take hold of the words, they bring tremendous light. And as John Stott says in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians – “there will be everlasting fellowship” and we need God’s promises to know that.
So there are 3 profound treasures in 1 Thessalonians 4. Christ died, the believer sleeps, all believers will be together and we have power in the words of God to encourage one another.
Let me close by just telling you that when the great Baptist Preacher, Spurgeon was preaching once in a hall in the area in the UK called The Surry Hall – I think it was a big agricultural hall, 20,000 people came to hear him and some young people played a very dangerous prank and whenever everybody was gathered, and there was a bit of quiet, they called out ‘FIRE, FIRE’.
There was pandemonium and people ran all over the place. There was a great deal of damage and injury and a handful of people were killed. Spurgeon was so cast down by this that he slept for 3 days and he resolved when he awoke that he was not going to continue in the Ministry. He went on for a while thinking he wouldn’t do this anymore as it was just too difficult and too costly. And then he said the word of God came to his memory of Philippians 2 that God has exalted Christ to the highest place and he suddenly realised that everything was under control.
I would never have thought of giving that very to Spurgeon. It doesn’t even seem to be a new idea to say to him but it was the truth which brought the encouragement and the comfort and the strength that he needed and turned the corner for him so he continued his Ministry.
I am not suggesting to you that there is a magic verse for all situations, but the word of God does have great power and it has power for us to believe it and it also has power for us to extend it.
Well let’s pray – let’s bow our heads –
Our Father we thank you for the question which was raised by the Thessalonians which triggered the answer which we read today and is such a blessing that because Christ died the believer sleeps and that all believers will be gathered together with Christ and with one another and that in the present we have very precious promises to stand on and to share with one another.
We pray that you would help us to take your word and to live in the light of it and that you would help us to use the word as a blessing not only to ourselves but to those who are needy – the believer and the unbeliever.
We ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.