1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. – 1 Thessalonians 4:17 NLT
The Thessalonian believers to whom Paul was writing this letter were wrestling with something. It's important to keep in mind that, not only were these people new to faith in Christ, but the Christian faith was still in its infancy. The Gospel was being spread around the known world, but it was still a relatively new teaching. And apart from the apostles, there were not a lot of seasoned teachers, pastors, elders or other spiritual leaders. There was no New Testament yet. There was no established or written doctrine to speak of. These new believers had only what Paul and Silas had been able to share with them on their first visit there. And most of what they knew revolved around the basic message of the Gospel – that Jesus had died on the cross as their sin substitute, and had risen from the dead in order to provide them with forgiveness of sin and the assurance of eternal life. Through belief in the saving work of Jesus, these people had been made right with God and given the hope of a restored relationship with God the Father.
But that's where the confusion came in. Having accepted Jesus as their Savior, they had assumed that they were now part of God's Kingdom and would enjoy eternal life. And yet, along with suffering and persecution, they had watched as some of their fellow believers had unexpectedly died. Of course, these events triggered questions in their minds. Why had they died? Where had they gone? What would happen to them when Jesus returned? This was all new territory for these new believers and Paul had received word about their confusion and distress. So he wrote them to let them know what to expect. He gave them assurances regarding their deceased brothers and sisters, and comfort about the return of Christ. These people had been grieving. They were sad and confused. They were wondering what their own fate would be, because each of them had fully expected to be around when Jesus came back. Paul had even alluded to it earlier in his letter. "May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people" (1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT). So it was no wonder they had questions about the state of those who had died since accepting Christ as their Savior.
So Paul tells them, "we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NLT). Paul assures them that Jesus is going to come back, and when He does, He will bring with Him all those believers who have died prior to that point in time. Paul clearly states, "when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died" (1 Thessalonians 4:14 NLT). This event is what we call the Rapture. It is not the Second Coming of Christ, but the return of Christ for the Church, His bride. In this event, Jesus does not return to the earth, but He comes in the clouds, accompanied by angels and those believers who have died. "Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:17 NLT). The words, "caught up" literally mean to be snatched up and are where we get the word Rapture. All believers who are alive at this point in time will be suddenly removed from the earth to meet Jesus in the air. Another important part of this event is that the bodies of those believers who have died will be raised, renewed and reunited with their souls, which have been with Christ in heaven. Then we will all return to heaven, where we will spend eternity with Him.
Paul says, "So encourage each other with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:18 NLT). Why? Because this is our hope. This is our future. Death is not the end. One of the reasons this passage is frequently used in funerals is because it provides us with hope regarding those who have died. If they were in Christ, their souls have gone on to be with Christ. They are no longer with us physically, but they are far from gone and forgotten. And one day, they will return with the Lord to come get us who remain on the earth. That day is coming, We don't know when. We don't know exactly how it will all work, but it is going to happen. We can count on it. We can rest in it. We can encourage one another about it. One of two things is going to happen to every single believer. Either we will die and go to be with the Lord, or we will live to see the Lord's return. So there is no reason for us to grieve like those who have no hope. We know how the story ends, and it ends well.
Father, thank You for the assurance of Your Son's return for the Church. Thank You for the assurance of our place with You at death. We have nothing to fear and everything to hope for. Don't let us lose sight of that reality. Our future is secure and settled. Death has been conquered and the eternal security of our souls has been guaranteed by Christ. May we constantly encourage one another with these words. Amen.