When reviewing passages pertaining to the Parousia one is immediately and inevitably drawn to Paul's comforting words directed to the brethren in the city of Thessalonica. He tells them that he does not want them "to be uninformed ... about those who are asleep" (1 Thess. 4:13). The reason for this concern is also stated: "so that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope" (vs. 13). Obviously, "sleep" is a figure of speech representing physical death. Even some of our Lord's closest companions misunderstood this figure of speech, and thus Jesus had to explain to them that He was talking of literal, physical death (John 11:11-14). In the same way, Paul was speaking of those brethren who had already died physically and were "asleep" in the dust of the ground (1 Cor. 15:18, 20, 51; Daniel 12:2).
The message he was about to impart to them would be information they could then use to "comfort one another" (1 Thess. 4:18). It was a message of assurance and hope, even of expectation. The Lord will return one day. The dead in Christ shall arise from their graves (Hades). The living will be caught up to the Lord together with those believers who have been resurrected. From other passages we also know that the wicked will experience a resurrection unto judgment. The present heavens and earth shall be burned up with fire, and the wicked will be consumed in this process (2 Peter 3:7). Then the redeemed shall be led to the new heavens and earth where they will dwell forever with their Lord. This is a comforting thought mentioned several times in the Scriptures, and from it we can draw great assurance.
In this passage of Scripture -- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 -- there are several points that need to receive greater attention exegetically if we would truly perceive the full force of this teaching by the apostle Paul. We will notice each one in turn.
ONE --- "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:14, NASB). Traditionally, this has been interpreted to signify that the souls or spirits of the righteous dead will come back from Heaven or Paradise with Jesus when He returns (at the Parousia). Thus, when our Lord comes again to "claim His bride," His bride will come with Him. Hmmmmm. That sounds a bit strange, now doesn't it?!! The traditional explanation, of course, is that He is bringing these "immortal souls" with Him for the purpose of zapping them back into their resurrected bodies. The righteous dead, according to this theory, were already WITH the Lord in Paradise --- the Bridegroom was already living with His bride (sounds like what happens too frequently today) --- but at the Second Coming He's just coming for the bodies. This leads one to ask the question: Why?! If the redeemed are already experiencing the joys of Paradise with the Lord, if the Bride is already at home with the Bridegroom, why bother with coming back for a body? Martin Luther (1483-1546), in his Table Talk, observed, "That would be a silly soul if it were in Heaven and desired its body!!" This thinking has actually led some to contend it is permissible for couples to live together prior to the wedding .... after all, "Jesus is doing it!" The traditional teaching here is twisted theology at its worst.
Jesus declared, "In My Father's house are many dwelling places. .... 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 to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (John 14:2-3). This sounds to me like we won't get there until He comes for us! That is what He says, isn't it? In Matthew 24:30-31 Jesus informs us that at His return His angels "will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other." Traditionalists teach that the righteous dead are already there at the moment of physical death, so there is not much need to come gather them, it would seem. Jesus says He will not lose any who are truly His, but will "raise him up on the last day" (John 6:39-40). Jesus teaches He will come to receive them to Himself at the Parousia; that they are not already there. He also teaches that He will bring His reward with Him. "Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done" (Revelation 22:12). Yet, the traditionalists teach that men receive their reward at the instant of death. Thus, there is no need for Jesus to bring these rewards with Him at the Parousia because we already have them. Are we to believe the traditionalists or Jesus? I think I'll choose the latter.
The notion that the victory is won at the moment of death, and we are already with the Lord in a "place of sweet repose," flies in the face of clear biblical teaching to the contrary. And yet the language of 1 Thess. 4:14 does at first glance appear to be saying that Jesus is bringing "with Him" from glory these redeemed ones who have previously died. So, what exactly IS being declared in this passage?
The NASB reads: "God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." These are those who are asleep .... who are dead. The New English Bible renders this passage this way: "God will bring them to life with Jesus." The Message (which is a translation in contemporary English) reads much the same: "God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus." This is assuredly true (our Lord will "raise them up on the last day"), but it is not an accurate translation of the actual text.
The solution to this apparent dilemma posed by this passage can be found in the intent of the "bringing" or "leading away." Unto what location are these "asleep ones" being brought or led? And from where? And for what purpose? The traditional teaching on this passage (and it is really only an assumption) is that they are coming FROM Paradise, and are being led back TO the earth to fetch their bodies. This certainly does NOT fit the "Bridegroom coming for His bride" scenario, however. When the bridegroom left the father's home to fetch his bride and bring her to the father's house for the wedding feast, he didn't bring her with him (having been living with her for centuries already) .... rather, he went to get her. The traditionalists' theory, however, has the bride coming along!! As an old preacher once said, "That ain't Bible, brother! That don't preach!"
Consider this much more biblically consistent possibility: The Lord returns from heaven in the company of the angels to gather His people, both living and dead, from the four corners of the earth. He first calls the righteous dead forth from their graves, arousing them from their sleep in the dust of the ground. Then the redeemed, those formerly dead and the ones still living, are caught up to a meeting with Him in the air, and then with Him they are led away from the earth (which is about to undergo the judgment of fire) and unto eternal fellowship with the Father in the new heavens and earth.
The word "bring" in verse 14 is a Greek verb signifying "to lead away, lead out; drag away." The Lord Jesus will lead us away from the judgment about to be poured out upon the earth (we shall be caught up from the earth unto a meeting with Him), and then lead us unto the glorious future that awaits us. In other words, being brought with Him is actually the reverse of what the traditionalists teach (which is: we are sent with Him). It is a bringing with Him up from the earth unto Paradise (in the new heavens and earth) rather than a sending with Him down to the earth from Paradise. This interpretation is entirely correct grammatically in the Greek and has the advantage of being consistent with the remainder of biblical teaching pertaining to the events of the Parousia.
In the New Commentary on the Whole Bible (which is based upon the classic work by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown), we find the following statement in its exegesis of this passage: "Disembodied souls are not spoken of; the original Greek reference is to sleeping bodies awaking and returning."
TWO --- "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:16-17, NASB).
In this passage we behold those "dead in Christ" raised from the dust of the ground, and they are gathered up, along with those believers still living at the Parousia, unto an "apantesis" (meeting, encounter) with the Lord in the air. This will be the first "encounter" or "meeting" of the redeemed (both living and dead) with the Lord. "And THUS we shall always be with the Lord." The word translated "thus" is "houtos" which signifies "thusly, under such circumstances or conditions." The conditions or circumstances by which we shall ALWAYS be with our Lord are: (1) His coming, (2) our resurrection, and (3) our gathering up. Nothing is said about the dead already being with Him for hundreds and thousands of years. Rather, it is under THESE CONDITIONS (coming, resurrection, gathering up) that this encounter with the Lord occurs, an encounter which leads to us being with Him always.
Several of our beloved gospel hymns speak of this blessed promise to the redeemed. Perhaps we should pay greater attention to the words of some of our songs of praise and anticipation.
When the King shall appear, in His beauty on high,
And shall summon His children to the courts of the sky,
Shall the cause of the Lord have been all your employ,
That your soul may be spotless in the morning of joy?
I am longing for that happy day,
When He comes in glory, by and by;
For with Him I hope to soar away,
When He comes in glory, by and by.
The word translated "caught up" (vs. 17) is the Greek word "harpazo" which means to "snatch away by force, convey away suddenly, seize (as a wild beast grabs its prey)." It appears as a Future Passive which signifies this has not yet occurred, but lies in the future (at the Parousia), and it is something that happens to us (we ourselves are not the active agent). We are awakened and called forth from the grave, and then we are "snatched away with great power" unto an encounter with our Lord. He seizes us and lifts us mightily from the earth which is about to experience the full outpouring of the fury of God's consuming fire. The wicked are not snatched away, but rather will be consumed along with the old heavens and earth (2 Peter 3:7). When this is accomplished, we will all be brought with Him to our dwelling in the new heavens and earth, and the wicked, now destroyed forevermore, will be as "ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing" says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 4:3).
"But according to His promise we are looking for a new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away" (Revelation 21:1). "And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.' And he who sits on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new'" (Revelation 21:3-5).
To sum up, the passage in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 does not even begin to teach what the traditionalists claim it does. It merely declares that our Lord will return, raise those who sleep in the dust of the ground, snatch those to be saved away from the earth (along with those believers still living at the time) unto an encounter with Him in the air, and then with Him, following the destruction, we shall be brought unto the new heavens and earth where only righteousness will dwell, and we shall thus forever be with our Father and His Son. "Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18).
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Bro Al, Just a short note -- I just cannot resist making a comment after reading your various postings: Your Reflections #40 is dead on the bull's eye ... center target ... as usual with all the Reflections. God's grace be with you, Al.
From a Reader in Louisiana:
It was pointed out in a class I was attending at a church in Missoula, Montana that the Scriptures had been lost to the Israelites for some time and were finally recovered. The people determined to hold the Passover, and though they held it on the wrong date, God honored it because their hearts were pure. This was an eye opening lesson for me. At the time I had been away from the church altogether for a long time. I had always believed in a loving God, but hadn't been finding Him in the church. I had experienced rigidness in worship and attitude as I grew up, so I find it refreshing to be able to believe in Grace. Thanks, Al, for sharing your thoughts. The lesson was wonderful for me. Keep the loving spirit. Perhaps if we can't win them by our words, we can win them by showing extreme love.
From a Reader in Missouri:
Brother, I know it's late, but I just read Reflections #40, and "you done nailed it again." As the old folks would say "you done did good, brother." Al, for the past few months I've been e-mailing and corresponding with you on matters. I am probably associated with the strictest component of our brotherhood. As one of the readers commented, "I might not necessarily agree with everything and every position that Al takes, but ..." Al, that's where I am, although there is a whole lot that I do agree with you about. But brother, let me say this -- I am so happy that I've met you, though not in the flesh YET. You continue to write the way you do and I'll continue asking questions. Brother, I'm selfish! I'm in this thing to save my soul! Not to follow man-made doctrine. The neat thing I like about you is that you manifest a spirit of love. I just love communicating and studying with you.
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Al, Another great article. You have added the fortieth pearl to a beautiful strand! I am convinced that you are chopping at the root of the most significant problem in our religious approach. If we were to be able to grasp the true source of our salvation, if we could understand that we have NO PART in our justification, what a different people we would become. But what a challenge it is to awaken a brother trapped by religiosity or law. It is quite a difficult task to convince anyone that they are being held hostage by law unless they are seeking help to escape. Marilyn Ferguson said, "No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside."
None of that prevents me from trying, however. As recently as this past Sunday, I had a discussion about the concept of grace with an Elder teaching the class I attend. His first response was the standard, "Grace just makes it too easy to sin and do what you want." He also said he was "afraid the pendulum had swung too far towards grace." I am going to draw a pendulum on a piece of pager and label one side "grace" and ask him to label the other side for me! It seems that some of our brothers see grace as an "optional" element of the gospel. They seem to think that the mature have no need for grace and the weak will only abuse it! They readily admit receiving God's grace when they "obeyed the gospel" but after that initial forgiveness it became their duty to walk the "straight and narrow" and "work out their own salvation." But salvation is not a do-it-yourself project.
Working within our sect to teach the Good News instead of "positions and patterns" is a frustrating task. I am always excited to read your articles and those of others who have discovered the true beauty of this gift of God. Then I remember Carl Ketcherside's writing on this same subject so many years ago. We have been on this road for a long time. How slowly we learn. How deaf are the ears of those who already have it "figured out." On the other hand, there is certainly a lot of "job security" in preaching grace to our brothers and sisters! Preach on, Brother!
From a Reader in Alabama:
Dear Al, Thanks for the insightful thoughts on faith and works. I have come to realize that when you see how much Jesus loves you, you start to really love Him, and the "works" start manifesting themselves as a result of the love you feel. While I think God in His mercy may accept devotion out of fear, I know He wants it out of our love. I finally left the churches of Christ over this issue. I fear that most of them are teaching a different Gospel than that taught by Paul. Carry on the fight to carry the good news to those in darkness! I met Edward Fudge who turned me on to your web site through his GracEmail. Your site has been a good resource for talking to some friends.
From a Reader in Ohio:
I want to thank you for the material you are giving and have given. I am going to use it in a class I am teaching on Sunday mornings. Please keep it coming. One thing I promise, I will present everything you have given.
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