Christ's Return and the Resurrection

Dr. Brian Allison

Peter Marshall became the chaplain of the U.S. Senate in the twilight of his life. When he suffered his second heart attack, paramedics carried him of out his home on a stretcher. His wife, Catherine, was by his side. She could not accompany him to the hospital because she had to take care of their son. Before he was taken out of the house, he looked up at her, and said, "See you in the morning, darling." Peter Marshall died that night at the hospital. A short while later, Catherine Marshall went to the family cottage with her son. When they were out in a boat, she looked up into the bright, azure sky and, thinking about her husband, she said, "See you in the morning, darling." She, of course, was referring to resurrection morning; and that is the hope of the Christian. We too can say these words to our deceased loved ones in Christ, "See you in the morning, darling; on resurrection morning."

When we think of our loved ones who have died and have gone to be with Christ, we must remember that they have not perished; they have simply departed. Maybe you have had questions concerning dear departed loved ones in Christ, and you are not quite sure about the future. Maybe you have had some fears and worries. That apparently was the situation of those at Thessalonica. They had questions concerning the faithful dead, those who had professed faith in Christ and had died. They wondered whether they would see their departed loved ones again; they wondered whether their loved ones had perished at death; they wondered whether their departed loved ones would experience the future resurrection; they wondered whether there would be a reunion with these departed loved ones. The apostle Paul, in his pastoral way, addressed the concerns of these Thessalonian believers. He communicated language which was designed to quell the fear and alleviate the anxiety.

1 Thessalonians 4:13,14 reads, "But we do not want you to be uninformed [we do not want you to be ignorant], brethren, about those who are asleep [those who have died in Christ], that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." The resurrection of Christ is the ground and guarantee of the resurrection of believers. Paul gives this reassuring word to these believers who are concerned about their Christian loved ones who have died. The apostle proceeds to elaborate on these words of verse 14; and this will be our concentration in this message. And we should remember, as we explain verses 15-18 of this chapter, that the main point being communicated to the Thessalonian believers (and to us) is that their Christian loved ones have not perished, but that they will be reunited with them. That is the main purpose of this passage.

God has revealed the future

The apostle Paul spoke authoritatively. We read in 1 Thessalonians 4:15a, "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord." Paul makes it very clear that the truth he is about to declare concerning the return of Christ, the resurrection of the faithful dead, the rapture of existent believers, and the reunion of all believers is not a matter of his own opinion; it is not a matter of mere hearsay. God had directly revealed the truth to him. Commentators are divided on how we are to understand the phrase, "the word of the Lord." Some believe that it refers to an unrecorded word of Jesus Himself (unrecorded because we do not find this specific language in the Gospels; but apparently it was a word circulating subsequent to the death of Christ). Other commentators believe that this phrase refers to a prophetic word – that Paul received direct revelation from God. As we consider how this phrase is particularly used in the Old Testament, we probably have in view a prophetic word here. So, when Paul says, "We say to you by the word of the Lord," he is saying that he has received a direct communication from God concerning end times; and thus we are considering that which is certain. We have a strong foundation for our hope.

The faithful dead will not be disadvantaged

Paul says, "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep" (4:15). Paul is not necessarily including himself in this group which shall welcome the Lord's return. It is a stylistic 'we'. We can translate the statement thus, "We [Christians, whoever they are] who are alive, and remain [or survive] until the coming of the Lord." Now, this is an interesting statement, isn't it? It clearly infers that when Christ comes again, there will be people who are existing and active on the earth. We have "doomsday" prophets who teach that we are heading towards a world holocaust, towards universal annihilation; that we are going to blow ourselves up. This language is escalating, especially with the year 2000 looming. These prophets warn that the end is near; and they currently point to the Y2K problem – the 'doomsday bug'. Survivalists are on the rise, those who are storing up food and supplies by which they will survive for a substantial period of time after the clock chimes 12 midnight, January 1, 2000. They warn that the world will be thrown into chaos. Now, I admit that there is a legitimate concern about the Y2K problem, and that it requires serious attention, but I do not think that we should anticipate a disaster of astronomical proportions.

I do not know exactly what events will transpire in the future, but I do know this: according to the Scriptures, when Christ returns, life will be going on as it has always gone on. There will be those who are 'alive and well' when Christ returns. There will be Christians who will be alive on the earth to welcome Christ's second advent. In every age throughout history, Christians, no doubt, have believed that their age would be the final age, and that Christ would return within their lifetime. And, unsurprisingly, there are many Christians today who believe that Christ will come soon. Many Christians believe that we are living in the last days; and that may be true. The Word of God says that no one knows the day nor the hour of Christ's return. Yet, Christ may not come until the year 2415 or 2908; or He may come as soon as the year 2007; I do not know. Some Christians are anticipating the privilege of witnessing Christ's return. Well, let me ask you: What do you think will be the greater privilege: to be on the earth and see the return of Christ, or to accompany Christ when He does return?

The faithful dead will not be disadvantaged when Christ returns – "we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep" (4:15b). The term 'precede', of course, has reference to glorification.; and the point is that those who are on the earth, surviving until the coming of Christ, will not enter into a glorified state before those who have died in Christ. Those who have died in Christ will be glorified first – that is, they will be resurrected. Paul anticipates with these remarks in verse 15 what he proceeds to teach.

Christ's return and the resurrection

So, Paul says, in effect, "Be assured of this, that those who have died in Christ will not be disadvantaged. No, those who are alive and survive until the return of Christ will not precede, with respect to glorification, those who have died." Paul proceeds to outline the interrelated events which will occur at the return of Christ and which will announce the resurrection. 1 Thessalonians 4:16a reads, "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven." Heaven is not so much a geographical location as it is a spiritual dimension; and Christ is there now. He will 'descend' from heaven, with respect to the earth. Acts 1:9-11 reads, "And after He [Jesus] had said these things [to His disciples, subsequent His resurrection], He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold two men [angels] in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.'" One day Jesus will appear in the sky.

There will be a number of signs marking and coinciding with Christ's return and the resurrection of the dead. First, our Lord "will descend from heaven with a shout" – a shout or cry of command. Jesus Himself will utter the command for the dead to rise. Accordingly, John 5:25,28f. reads, "Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live...Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." Even as Jesus called to Lazarus to come forth from the grave, so He will give the command to the bodies of both believers and unbelievers: "Come forth!"

Second, the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead will be marked by "the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God" (4:16b). 'Archangel' is used only twice in the New Testament; the other reference is Jude 9, which refers to Michael the archangel. Perhaps, the voice of the archangel Michael will resound at the return of Christ, signaling the discharging of the angels to execute their role with respect to the redeemed (see below). Now, I suggest that we translate this particular verse as follows (so that we have in view two signs, not three), "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout [of command], with the voice of the archangel, ['even', not 'and'] with the trumpet of God." The point is that the voice of the archangel is the trumpet of God. Sometimes in the Scriptures, an angel's voice is likened unto a trumpet. For instance, Revelation 4:1 reads, "After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice [of an angel] which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, 'Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.'" Even the Lord's voice is likened unto a trumpet (cf. Rev. 1:10).

With the sound of the 'voice of trumpet', in reference to the resurrection, the angels may be discharged to gather the elect. Matthew 24:31 reads, "And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other." The sound of the trumpet will mark a jubilant gathering, a celebration of the deliverance of the children of God. The sound of the trumpet will mark the total release from bondage, and the ushering in of the new age. 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 reads, "Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed."

Those who have died in Christ will first enter glorification – "and the dead in Christ shall rise first" (4:16c). Can you picture it, my friends? What a glorious day that will be; what a wonderful day that will be. Does that excite you? Are you looking forward to that day? It will be stupendous, indescribable, unspeakable, ineffable! The command will go forth from our Lord, "Come forth!" The archangel will utter his voice like the sound of a trumpet, and the dead in Christ shall rise from their graves. In coming forth, and rising, they will be transformed; we who are on the earth will not precede those who come with Christ. The faithful dead will not rise to stand on the earth, but they will rise to soar into the sky, and there they will meet the Lord. Do you believe that? I am not asking you whether you were taught that; I am asking you whether you really believe that?

The rapture and the reunion

With the resurrection of the faithful dead, there will immediately follow the rapture of the extant Christians – "Then [it suggests a temporal element] we [Christians] who are alive and remain [survive on the earth until the second advent of Christ] shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (4:17). Once the dead have been raised, once they have been resurrected, and they soar into the air, those who will be on the earth, at the return of Christ, will be 'snatched away' into the air to be with those who will have risen. This is the only notion to be found in the Scriptures of the 'rapture of the saints'. There are those who believe a teaching called 'the secret rapture' – for instance, supposedly a Christian pilot will be flying a jet, and, in a moment, he will disappear, leaving the plane to crash; or an engineer will be driving the train, and, in a moment, he will disappear, leaving the train to crash. Apparently, there will be total chaos. Apparently, all Christians will be secretly raptured out of the earth, prior to a period of great tribulation. No! There will be no 'secret rapture'. Even the language of verse 16 suggests anything other than something secret – the shout of command, the voice of the archangel, like the trumpet of God. These thunderous sounds will reverberate throughout the cosmos. When Jesus Christ returns, everyone will be aware of it. Anything less would be dishonouring to His name, wouldn't you say?

So, after the dead have risen, we who are on the earth will be snatched away – "We who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds [remember Christ is coming back in the clouds] to meet the Lord in the air" (4:17a). There will be a grand rendezvous with Jesus in the air. The term 'meet' is an interesting one. It is a term used of city dignitaries going out of their city to formally receive visitors, and to escort them back into the city. Accordingly, could it be that our being caught up to meet the Lord in the air will be like an official reception; and after the cosmic conflagration (see 2 Pe. 3:10ff.) – judgement by fire to consume the wicked and to purify the creation – that the redeemed, escorting Christ to the earth, will descend as the glorified Church of Christ to the earth? What a picture!

Believers will enjoy unbroken fellowship with their Lord when they meet Him in the air – "and thus we shall always be with the Lord" (4:17b). Not only will believers be eternally united with Christ, they will experience joyous and unending reunion with each other. We shall be reunited with loved ones who either had died in Christ (if we survive until Christ's coming) or who had survived (if we depart before them). But the greatest joy will be our physical fellowship with Christ. Do you appreciate the sweetness of those words? – "And thus [this is the end of the story, folks] we shall always be with the Lord." Revelation 14:4a reads, "These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes." What a tremendous hope for the Christian!

Paul wrote to these believers at Thessalonica to comfort them, and that is exactly what these words convey – "Therefore comfort one another with these words" (4:18). My Christian friend, you will again see your loved ones who have died in Christ. They – Mom, Dad, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, daughter, son, etc. – have not perished, but have only departed. We have hope. We do not grieve as unbelievers who have no hope. We are looking forward to the return of Christ, and the reunion with loved ones.

If you are reading this message, and you do not know Christ, then you now possess no hope. If you do not know Christ in a saving way, then when you die, you will know no happiness nor joy. You cannot look forward to the resurrection of life, but rather can look forward to the resurrection of damnation. When our Lord returns and gives that shout of command, you too, my unsaved friend, will come forth from the grave, not unto eternal life, but unto eternal hellfire. These words of comfort for the Christian are not for you. The only comforting words that I can offer to you are: Repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord, and you will be saved. That is your only hope. Won't you believe now?