1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 You Only Live Once for Eternity
You may have heard the expression YOLO. It’s an acronym. It means You Only Live Once. It is similar to the phrase Carpe Diem – seize the day. One should make the most out of life because sometimes you will die. But death is not the end. Death is a portal into eternity.
FOUR UNKNOWNS ABOUT DEATH
1. We don’t know how we are born or HOW death works.
2. We have no control over WHAT causes death.
3. We have no control over WHO dies.
4. We don’t even know WHEN we die.
So the question is: Where do you go when you die? Some people believe like the ancient pagans.
The pagan world in Paul’s day had no hope of life after death. A typical inscription on a grave demonstrates this fact:
I was not
I am not
I care not1
And even though some people may believe that there is no hope of life after death, they will grieve. People grieve when another person dies. The difference between the grief of a Christian and others is the fact that we grieve with hope.
Pastor John Stott shares this insight about grief: To lose a loved one is to lose a part of oneself. It calls for radical and painful adjustments, which may take many months. Dr. Leighton Ford, the Canadian evangelist and mission leader, put it well when his elder son Sandy died in 1982 at the age of 21. ‘The struggle is to bring our faith and our emotions together’, he wrote.2
The fact for the Christian is that our grief is for a temporary loss.
The Christian grieves the temporary loss at death with a certain hope of a reunion.
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, HCSB)
The reason that a Christian has hope is because Jesus gave us hope. All who know Jesus die to be with Him. Jesus is the only person to die and live again. The Bible says that we know Jesus, when we die, we go to be with Jesus. It is as simple as that.
TWO WAYS TO BE WITH JESUS IN ETERNITY FOR THE CHRISTIAN
There are only two ways to be with Jesus.
1. At Death (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
“Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14, HCSB)
In other words, “Believers who have died are presently in heaven.” Some falsely teach that when believers die, they remain in the casket until the Rapture. What did Jesus say to the thief on the cross next to Him? He didn’t say, “You will sleep for a couple thousand years and then you’ll be resurrected.” No, He said:
“And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.”” (Luke 23:43, HCSB)
Jesus also made it clear that the Christian passes from this life into eternity immediately. Jesus said:
““I assure you: Anyone who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24, HCSB)
The moment someone leaves his body at death, an amazing thing happens. He moves into eternity where there is no time. There’s no past, present, or future. It’s just all one great big “Now” because eternity transcends time. How do I know this? Albert Einstein hypothesized about heaven without even knowing it. His theory revealed that if one could ever travel at the speed of light, time would cease. Therefore, because God is light, time ceases in His presence. Thus, from the perspective of those in heaven, the Rapture has happened, and we’re already with them in heaven.
How can this be? As Jon Courson explained, you can think of it this way:
Here I am watching the Rose Parade on Colorado Boulevard. You find me watching the parade, and say, “Hey, Jon, good to see you. Listen, did the General Electric float go by?”
“Yeah. It was great,” I say.
“Ooh, I missed it. I really wanted to see it,” you say.
“Well, you can still see it if you go down Colorado Boulevard,” I explain. “In other words, if you go to ‘the past’ that’s already passed me, what’s fresh for you will be something I’ve already seen.”
If you came to me and asked what was coming up in the parade, I would say, “I don’t know. You’ll have to go to the future, to where the parade begins.”
On the other hand, I could say, “Let’s just get in the Goodyear blimp, and we’ll be able to see the whole parade simultaneously—past, present, and future.”
That is the best illustration I know to describe the concept of eternity. You see, we’re down here on the curb watching the parade of life, wondering what’s coming. From heaven’s perspective, like the view from the Goodyear blimp—it’s all one big Now. From heaven’s perspective, the Rapture has already happened. From our perspective, however, we’re still waiting on the curb.
I say this because many of us have dealt with the departure of loved ones. Personally, I do not believe that heaven could be heaven if a husband left his family behind and wondered how they would survive, or if a mother left her kids behind and worried about their well-being. That is why I suggest to you that heaven can only be heaven if we’re all there simultaneously.3
2. At His return (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
Those who died are already there. Those who are alive will join those who died at the return of Jesus.
We will always be with Jesus. Whether one dies and goes to be with Jesus, or one is alive when the Rapture occurs, there is no advantage.
“For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, HCSB)
The revelation of this resurrection came from Jesus Christ Himself. How it came to Paul is not known, but perhaps it was a direct revelation. Not only will the souls of the dead in Christ return with Him (as it says in verse 14), but their bodies will also be resurrected at His coming. The bodies of dead Christians will be resurrected immediately before living Christians are conveyed upward.4
Those alive at the return of Jesus, are said to be “caught up” together with the risen dead “to meet the Lord” (literally, “to a meeting with the Lord”). “Caught up” translates the Greek word harpazo, “to seize, snatch” (in Latin rapere, from which comes the English word “rapture”). In using this particular word Paul may be making a play on words; Plutarch, a near contemporary of Paul, used the word (or compounds of it) for those who die an untimely death and thus are “disadvantaged” in that they are “snatched away” from the opportunity for education, marriage, citizenship, and so on.5
This why there is no advantage for people who are alive at the Lord’s coming. The reason is because it will all be instantaneous for those who die. When you die, you go directly to Heaven. If we are here when Jesus returns, then we meet together. This insight was given to Paul by Jesus Himself. That’s why Paul calls it a revelation.
Then what do the next two verses describe? They don’t contradict the previous verses. Instead, they describe the change in Christians at the Rapture.
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, HCSB)
Jesus comes to be with us. He will descend from Heaven. With a shout, a voice, a trumpet call. At this point, all is the same for every Christian. We are changed, glorified, and ready to be with Jesus forever. These last verses are describing the glorification process that happens to Christians. Remember that when one dies, the spirit goes to Heaven. But the body stays in the ground.
“And Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit.” Saying this, He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:46, HCSB)
Remember everyone saw Jesus’ body after death. It was here on Earth. They buried Him. Yet three days later, He rose. What happened? His spirit rejoined His body in a new form. This is why Jesus could walk through walls.
“And as they were saying these things, He Himself stood among them. He said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.” (Luke 24:36–37, HCSB)
But Jesus showed convincing proof that His spirit had rejoined His body.
““Why are you troubled?” He asked them. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself! Touch Me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”” (Luke 24:38–39, HCSB)
Jesus walked through walls but ate with the disciples. He was able to be touched and could talk with them. He had a body, a body that was rejoined with His spirit after death. His resurrection and His walk on Earth for forty days was a preview of what would happen to us.
Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, explains our lives today in the following way: Good Friday and Easter Sunday have earned names on the calendar. Yet in a real sense, we live on Saturday, the day with no name. What the disciples experienced in small scale—three days in grief over one man who had died on a cross—we now live through on a cosmic scale.
Human history grinds on between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda and inner-city ghettos and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth? It’s Saturday on planet Earth. Will Sunday ever come?6
The fact is that a Christian will always be with Jesus.
“Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17, HCSB)
“and we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8, HCSB)
In 2 Corinthians, Paul compares our Earthly bodies to a tent and our new bodies to a house. He says that he looks forward to the time when his body will be changed. The change is that the body will be able to last forever. It will be an immortal body, a body that can last without repair for eternity. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15.
“Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed. For this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality. When this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51–54, HCSB)
Gordon Fee addresses the dilemma many people may have about all this and asks:
So how, one is inclined to ask, are the dead already present with the Lord, but are yet to be raised at the Parousia? The answer would seem to lie primarily with the fact that Paul himself saw no tension here. And since elsewhere he speaks of death in terms of being “absent from the body” but “present with the Lord,” he most likely understood believers who have died to be already present with the Lord—whether consciously so or not is never spoken to.7
The Christian can comfort and encourage one another with a certain hope about death.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18, HCSB)
Yes, the world tells us to live for today. YOLO (You Only Live Once) is a current buzz phrase used to justify all sorts of questionable decisions. Popular culture encourages us to focus on today without thinking about the long-term consequences, let alone the eternal ones.8 Yet, as Christians, we are called to live YOLO living for today, but also looking forward to eternity.
1 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 178.
2 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 92–93.
3 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 1342.
4 Thomas L. Constable, “1 Thessalonians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 704.
5 Michael Holmes, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 151.
6 Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof, 1001 Illustrations That Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 385. Originally from: Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 1995)
7 Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 170.