This past Easter the BBC commissioned a poll of people's belief in the Resurrection of Jesus and also their views on life after death. The results regarding belief in Jesus' Resurrection sadly showed the North East to be the most unbelieving part of Britain.
Not surprisingly, the results regarding life after death were just as bad. Again they revealed North East people as the most unbelieving in life after death of all British people. For while in the North West 56% of the population believe in life after death, only 35% of people in the North East do. And while in the North West only 38% of people are positively not believing, in the North East it is 61%. So around us a majority of people are having no hope and without God in the world as Paul puts it Ephesians 2.12. What does such hopelessness look like in practice?
Let me tell you about an experience I had as a curate, years ago. Bertrand Russell, one of the forerunners of today's permissive society, was, until his death, the Richard Dawkins of the 20th century. For along with Christian sexual ethics, he jettisoned Christian beliefs about God. In doing so, for many in his generation, he gave voice to their doubts and despairs. So listen to how he muses on the meaning of life and the universe in his autobiography written in his old age:
"The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death; it was none the less unruffled and magnificent. But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness.
There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing."
(The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell)
I remember that being read out in a university mission at which I was an assistant missioner in 1970. That day I had heard at lunchtime the news that Bertrand Russell had just died. Having access to those words, and because many students also, I judged, would have heard of Russell's death, I suggested the missioner should use them in his evening's talk as it was going to be on Jesus' Resurrection.
The Union building that night in Oxford was absolutely packed out and needing an overflow, but there was absolute silence as that passage was read out. For such a man, "having no hope and without God in the world" was now dead and having to face God's judgment. No longer was there to be the judgment of a public bewitched by his brilliance regarding life and its non-meaning.
Friends, nearly two-thirds of the men and women around us here in the North East in 2017 are like Russell and a very similar situation was the background to our passage this morning in our series on Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.
So will you open your Bibles in the pews to 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 – our passage for this morning.
And My Headings This Morning Are First, The Need For Right Thinking About Life After Death; Secondly, The Evidence For Believers Being Raised From The Dead; And, Thirdly, The Reality Of The Second Coming.
The Need For Right Thinking About Life After Death
Our verses this morning reflect some of the wrong ideas the Thessalonians had about the state of dead believers but at least they had the belief that Christ would return some day. That BBC survey shows, however, that some in Britain, who call themselves Christian, while believing in life after death, do not believe that Jesus Christ will return, but Paul taught that you need to be confident of both the return of Christ and also that the dead who believe will be raised to new life. Look at 1 Thessalonians 4.13:
"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep…"
The Thessalonians were worried, it seems, that those who had died would miss out on all the wonder and joy of Christ's return. For they seemed to have had no hope regarding their believing loved ones who had died in this period before the return of Jesus Christ. They thought that these dead believers would remain dead when Christ returned. So Paul is forced to address these very wrong ideas. Look at the second half of 1 Thessalonians 4.13, where he says, his concern is …
'… that that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."
They were still being influenced by the ideas of the world around them. For they were "grieving as others do who have no hope". They were like Russell and like many in the pagan Greco-Roman culture of the1st century. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had earlier said:
"Death is the most terrible of all things for it is the end."
(The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle)
The Roman poet Catullus more recently had said:
"Suns may set and rise again. When once our brief light has set, one unbroken night of sleep remains."
(Catullus et in eum commentarius)
There was certainly fear of, and despair in, death in the 1st century, but Christians should have no such fear or despair. Yes, the Christian may grieve over the process of believers' parting – of dying and its results – but not over the fact of death itself. For Christ has conquered death through his death on the cross and his resurrection that first Easter; so the Christian is not to grieve like those with no hope, like Aristotle, Catullus, Russell and millions today, but the Thessalonians seem to have been following such folk. They were believing that once you died, you went into extinction. So Christ returned just for the living.
Well, that is the context for what Paul is teaching when he says he doesn't want them to "grieve as others do who have no hope."
To repeat - he is not saying that Christians cannot mourn when a loved one dies. Indeed, Jesus wept at the time of his friend Lazarus' death, but you should not mourn hopelessly. Yes, weep for yourself – the loss you feel, but you should not mourn for believers who are "asleep" in Christ (to use Paul's phase). For the hope of a glorious new life after death is as certain for them as for the living. In fact, as Paul wrote in Philippians, to be with Christ and in his immediate presence, as the believing dead are, is far better than being left here in this world. But how can Paul say that? What is the proof of such a good life after death for those who have died? Well that brings us to…
The Evidence For Believers Being Raised From The Dead
Look at 1 Thessalonians 4.14:
"For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep."
But how can the fact that Jesus died and rose again, which can be proved as you study the Gospels and the other New Testament documents as historical documents – how can Jesus' resurrection prove that Christians who die will rise from death and meet again those Christians who are still living a normal existence?
Well, the reason is because the believer is united with Christ. Take Paul's teaching in Romans 6 where he argues Christian baptism – a service of which we are having this evening - underlines this. Baptism is a ritual, as is confirmation (for those baptized earlier), that symbolizes the experience of new life in Christ. It is also an occasion for publicly confessing your faith in Christ and such faith, by the Holy Spirit's working, unites the individual in an inseparable bond with Jesus our Lord. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 6.3-5:
"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."
So your destiny is linked inextricably with that of Jesus Christ. All that he has experienced somehow will be your experience as it was, and will be, for the Thessalonians who had died. As Jesus died, so had those Christians who had gone before those Thessalonians who were still alive. But, in death, they were united to Christ as indissolubly as the members of the body to the head. So they experienced death like he did, but they will also experience resurrection and a glorified existence like he did. Death does not break the bond between the believer and the Saviour. For Christ is one with all believers in death. He is never separated from those who love and trust in him. Therefore, as he rose again, so also will they rise again.
And, Paul tells you, through Jesus, God will bring the departed again to meet their friends, and that word "bring" in 1 Thessalonians 4.14 is expressive, as the commentator James Denny says; it suggests 'living persons' being led by a guide. Let me quote:
"The dead for whom we mourn are not dead; they all live to God; and when the great day comes, God will bring those who have gone before, and unite them to those who have been left behind. When we see Christ at his coming, we shall see also those that have fallen asleep in him."
(The Expositor's Bible, Rev. James Denney, B.D.)
So the union of the believer with Christ is one proof for the fact that the dead in Christ will rise again.
A second proof, of course, is there in 1 Thessalonians 4.15:
"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."
This is not just by an inspired personal word from Paul. Rather it is "by a word from the Lord." It looks like being an especially remembered teaching of Jesus. If so, this would then have come down verbatim from Christ himself. True, this is not recorded in any of the four Gospels. But nor are the words in Acts 20.35:
"…it is more blessed to give than to receive."
And John in his Gospel tells us that Jesus (of course) taught more than was recorded in the Gospels. So 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 are more than likely verbatim or near verbatim teaching directly from Jesus himself and so obviously you will take that seriously, but to take it seriously will mean two things:
First, to believe it. You don't say that what is unimaginable is unbelievable. Yes, what will happen is unimaginable, but that is because it speaks of something totally beyond the confines of this universe of space and time. It is God breaking into his created universe at the climax of history. So inevitably, symbolic language has to be used, but that's not to say it is a myth! No! It really will happen, but you must let the human language (used to describe it) stimulate your imagination, to move your will, to act in accordance with this truly awesome reality, and you are to believe it will happen, for this "word" is "from the Lord".
Secondly, you are to recognize that this "word from the Lord" doesn't answer all your questions about the Second Coming and its consequences. Never ever forget Deuteronomy 29.29:
"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law."
God reveals sufficient to enable you to live obediently and be ready for Christ's return and to live as he wants. He does not reveal sufficient to satisfy all your curiosity. Paul sums it up in that other verse you must never forget – 1 Corinthians 13.12:
"For we now see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face…"
You will have to wait for Christ's return to see how this symbolism exactly and precisely fits what happens. Until then you can only see in "a mirror dimly". But you do "see". You're not in a complete fog! So what can you see realizing that this may only be part of the reality?
The Reality Of The Second Coming.
What can you say about this final event in history as we know it? Answer five things.
First, look at the first part of 1 Thessalonians 4.16:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven…"
It will not be an angel who is coming on Christ's behalf but Christ himself – the second person of the Divine Trinity, God the Son. It is a divine intervention (with it seems angels in attendance), but it is the risen and glorified Saviour of the world himself who is 'descending'. And that is why words can only partly describe it.
So, secondly, it is Christ coming in majesty and glory. 1 Thessalonians 4.16 again:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel [or a voice like an archangel's], and with the sound of the trumpet of God..."
This is language for an imperial triumphal procession. Often a victorious Emperor would return to Rome and the crowds would be out. There would be a summons and shouting and trumpets. The nearest we have to that are the preliminaries to a sporting event like yesterday's football Cup Final in Wembley Stadium, but it is going to be an infinitely more amazing occasion of majesty and glory.
And, thirdly, verse 16 the last part of 1 Thessalonians 4.16 says:
"…the dead in Christ will rise first."
The faithful departed will rise first. So far from Christians who have already died not being in on the act, they will have a priority.
Then, fourthly, look at 1 Thessalonians 4.17:
"…we who are alive, who are left [either us or succeeding generations if we die first], will be caught up together with them in the clouds…"
Here is a wonderful promise – there is going to be a 'reunion' of the dead and the living – "we … with them". Many Christians say, when a loved one dies, "shall we recognize him or her in heaven?" Well, if words mean anything, "Yes, we shall be reunited with our loved ones, even before, as 1 Thessalonians 4.17 says, we …
" … meet the Lord in the air."
But again, can you believe it? Yes, if the resurrection of Jesus is true for which, to repeat, there is remarkable evidence historically and from experience, and the symbolism here is clear enough. The cloud is a symbol of God's presence. You have that in the transfiguration of Jesus, in his Ascension (we celebrated last week) and here. So whatever was true of the Ascension is true here. This, so to speak, is the reverse of the Ascension. The Ascension was the last appearance of the Risen Jesus. But this is the first appearance in glory not only of the risen Jesus, but also Jesus with his people. It is the consummation. The cloud (the glory of God), will be in evidence; and we will be caught up in that glory.
And remember, these picture words or symbols are something like the metaphors which we regularly use. I can say to you, "Your car engine is running" and you know that word "running" describes a real happening. You know what it means and what it doesn't mean. It does not mean running as in the Great North Run. And you know that when you know something about automobiles. Similarly, when one day you experience and really know about this wonderful happening of Christ's Second Coming, you will see how the language of the Bible fits the facts.
Then, fifthly, and finally, the language teaches that there will then be a wonderful safekeeping with the Lord. Much may remain a mystery, such as when this all will happen. The Bible says no one knows. It might be soon or vast distances of time away. It is a mystery. But what is clear is the great hope of 1 Thessalonians 4.17(the last part):
"and so we will always be with the Lord."
What is heaven going to be like? It is going to be amazing in so many ways. But one thing is certain – it will mean being "always … with the Lord". And it is the Lord Jesus, who, Paul had taught in 1 Thessalonians 1.10, "…delivers us from the wrath to come". So it is with him with sins forgiven. That is the wonderful Christian hope.
So the conclusion is very simple and in the words of 1 Thessalonians 4.18:
"Therefore, encourage one another with these words."