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American Journal of Biblical Theology
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Psalm 18:2. The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
At the time of this writing, it has been over seven years since the devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and at least one other target that the terrorists were unsuccessful in destroying. Thousands of innocent people died as a result of these attacks, people who came from every walk of life, representing many of the people groups of this world, and leaving behind grieving loved ones, a grieving nation, and a grieving world.
The shock and grief experienced by millions of people on September 11th, 2001 cannot be expressed with words. At times like this we are overwhelmed with far more questions than answers. Faced with death on such a horrific scale, we cannot help but take a closer look at the ultimate event of death and question the experiences of those who died, and their state after the event. Many even find themselves looking to their own experience and asking those same questions concerning death. How could God allow something like this to happen? Why did this have to happen? Where are they now? Will I see them again? What will happen to me when I die? What if I should die tonight?
After all of these years, our lives are still impacted by the events of that seminal day. Is our response one of hope, or one of despair? Is death the end of all experience, or the beginning of a new one? The scripture passage for this lesson is taken from 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church that he, with Silas and Timothy planted in Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, on his second missionary journey. Paul had delivered the gospel message to the people of Thessalonica, and the church there was growing despite the considerable persecution that they received at the hands of both the Jewish and Greek communities. Paul's message of hope included the truth that Jesus would return someday and end this age of sin. The Thessalonians waited expectantly for this event, ready for it to happen at any time. When members of their fellowship died, through presumably normal causes, the members of the church faced similar questions that people have been asking for centuries. Their grief was complicated by their expectation of Jesus' second coming. What was the state of those who had died while Jesus tarried? In the midst of their grief, Paul provides some encouraging words of instruction that can help us, even today, to deal with this issue.
1 Thess. 4:13. Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
Questions are the proper and direct response to ignorance. Ignorance is simply the state of not knowing, and is not meant to disparage the one who does not know. I am ignorant of the tools and processes necessary to do successful brain surgery. Consequently, I am simply not a brain surgeon, nor do I aspire to be one. My ignorance of brain surgery does not negatively impact my life. As long as our ignorance is of that information that does not directly impact our lives, it gives us little concern. It is when that ignorance negatively impacts our lives that conflicts and crises can arise. Paul often used this phrase when he wanted to encourage his readers and dispel their ignorance. As the Thessalonians were grieving the death of their own friends and family, that grief was compounded by their ignorance of the present and future state of those who had died.
Paul, upon hearing of this conflict, hoped to relieve some of their grief by instructing them about those who had "fallen asleep," a metaphor for those who had died. "Sleep" was a common euphemism for death, as it still is today. We see many examples of this reference in both the Old Testament and the New. Perhaps one of the most instructive of these examples is the latter when Jesus told his disciples, "Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." Even our English word for cemetery comes from the Greek word, koimeterion, which means "a sleeping place." The metaphor for sleep even makes more sense for a Christian when we understand that death is not a hopeless end of existence, but rather a transition from a life of fellowship with this world to an eternal life of fellowship with God and all believers in an eternal place we call heaven. This truth is the basis for a message of hope to all those who believe. The Greeks of their day had no hope of any kind of life after death. Their Greek philosophical systems all held opinions of this life on earth, but did not address an after-life. People saw death as a hopeless end. Even the Jewish community did not have a hope of an afterlife.
Consequently, since all of the members of the Thessalonian church were members of this culture, the concept of any hope in death was new and confusing. Paul certainly wanted those who were grieving the loss of loved ones and considering their own state upon death to face these events with the hope of the resurrection and the promise of Jesus' return, rather than with the hopelessness of the Greeks and Jews.
1 Thess. 4:14. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
Paul then presents the Thessalonians with the basic confession of the Christian faith: Jesus died, rose again, and will return to gather His church. Jesus experienced death, separation from this world, and in His case, the separation from God that will be experienced eternally by everyone who dies without faith in God. However, we know that Jesus did not remain in the grave, but rose again. Just as we awake from our sleep, Jesus arose from the dead, making the euphemism of sleep even more appropriate for describing the death of a Christian.
2 Cor. 5:8. We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.
Paul was very confident in one thing concerning death: To be absent from the body in death was to be present with Christ for eternity. Paul makes no implication of a waiting period, or a waiting place, where the dead have to wait until Jesus returns. Though he clearly teaches that the second coming of Jesus is a future event from the reference point in time of those of us on earth, the dead will enter eternity immediately upon their death. It is where eternity is spent that the final judgment will dictate. How can this be possible? How can we die at different times, yet be caught up with Jesus together? My personal opinion is that time as we experience it is a physical property, and God is eternal, existing outside of the limits of created time. When we enter eternity we are leaving this created "space-time" continuum in which we live. Such a position that is based largely upon modern understanding of physics, would have been beyond the thought of most people in the ancient Thessalonian society. Still, Paul understood this concept when he often referred to the immediacy of entering eternity upon death.
Without getting caught up in the physics and theology of this position, we can be encouraged to know that when we lose a loved one to death, we can be as confident as Paul that the one we have lost is with Christ. Certainly, as we experience this loss, we must appropriately go through the multi-step process of grief. However, our understanding this hope of resurrection can be very comforting at such a time, and can give us a true and renewed confidence when we face the experience ourselves. The bitter side of this truth is experienced when we lose one to death who does not have faith in God. Such an experience should affirm the importance of our sharing our faith with those who do not know Christ.
Paul was also confident of Jesus' return. If one observes Paul's continual concentration on this truth, it is evident that Paul was expecting that return to be imminent, most likely in his own lifetime. Paul, then, continually taught that to be included with Christ upon His return, it is necessary that one is "In Him" prior to that return. However, how will Jesus' return impact those who have already died? Will they miss out on the experience of the second coming? Apparently, this was the question that was concerning the Thessalonians.
1 Thess. 4:15. According to the Lordís own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Paul declares, under the authority of Jesus' own words, that those who have died prior to the second coming will in no way miss the reward of their faith. It is interesting to note that the gospels do not contain a specific statement by Jesus that declares this position. However, Paul's clear testimony to these words affirms that Jesus did personally teach this. We might be reminded that the gospels do not contain every word that Jesus spoke during his three-year ministry, and the disciples who were taught by him heard much more teaching than is recorded in our New Testament writings, and were able to bring that to remembrance and share it with one another and with the people to whom they ministered. The authority of Paul's statement, therefore, should be without question, and its truth is clear. Those who are alive to experience the coming of Jesus, the perousia, will not precede those who have died:
1 Thess. 2:16. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Paul states that the end of this age, perhaps the end of the linear time experienced by all of this creation, will be issued in by Jesus' personal return. Jesus will not come in secret, as some people believe. The rapture will not be characterized by the quiet disappearance of the faithful, leaving the unsuspecting unfaithful behind, as is the position of many apocalyptic novels that are based on a literal and sequential interpretations of the symbolism written in the Revelation of John. Jesus' return will be open and triumphant. This verse describes the event including a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and with God's call described as that of a trumpet: loud, clear, and very identifiable. The dead who are in Christ will rise first, and will be there to experience the joy of this event. According to Paul's statement in verse 15, this truth is "certain."
1 Thess. 2:17. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Once the dead in Christ are raised, they will be joined with those who are still alive to meet the returning Messiah. The description of that meeting is quite instructive. Paul describes the event as being caught up together in the clouds to meet Jesus in the air. This statement can certainly inspire visions of people flying through the air to meet Jesus as he is suspended in the clouds. However, if we consider a little more deeply what Paul means by "the air" we get an even more meaningful message.
Eph. 2:1-2. As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
Repeatedly in scripture, satan is referred to as the ruler of the kingdom of the air. The air is a euphemism for the domain of satan. If we understand this, we can infer a new image of what is taking place when Jesus comes back. Rather than meeting Jesus at some distance above the ground, we are meeting Jesus in what was, up to that time, the dominion of satan. This reveals clearly that satan is defeated at Jesus' return. Satan is powerless when confronted by Jesus, and by Jesus' coming to the domain of the "Prince of the world" and the "Ruler of the kingdom of the air," satan's influence is entirely nullified. Remember that the Thessalonians were experiencing persecution at the hands of what they see as an evil world, where satan is certainly the king. Furthermore, that persecution had been going on for more than two generations, almost removing from their culture any concept of a world without it. Paul's statement here is a very encouraging statement that when Jesus comes back, satan will be soundly defeated simply by His presence, and all who He finds faithful will finally see Him, and will be with Him for eternity.
1 Thess. 2:18. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Do we need similar encouragement during these tough times? As we look at our world, we have seen satan's successful hold on it since the beginning of time. When we look at the events of September 11, 2001, we see the result of bigotry, anger and hatred at work in this world. Satan is the author of such bigotry, and through the willful acts of a group of terrorists many thousands of people died. Some of those who died have left us to spend eternity with Jesus. Many of those who died did so without responding to the Gospel message. By shortening their lives and removing the possibility of their salvation, satan won a great victory. However, again realize that satan is powerless against the Power of the Holy Spirit. The results of the terrorist attack on America has been the complete opposite of the intent of the perpetrators. Instead of causing the nation to cower in terror, it has brought the people of the nation together in a show of nationalism that has not been seen since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. America's response to terrorism has been half-hearted in the past, empowering the terrorists to continue their hateful and murderous campaign. However, by striking the soul of America, they now find themselves running for cover as the American people stalwartly stand behind their government as we make use all of the resources of our military to locate and destroy this threat to peace. Finally, the attack has brought upon America a spirit of tolerance and care for one another that has opened many doors for the sharing of God's love as people responded not only to the victims of the crime, but to one another as society is taking time to consider what is important in life. Married couples who were previously bickering their way into divorce were rethinking their options. People turned to God. Many Christians have been praying for a spiritual revival across this land, and the satanic attack on America has inspired just that. The terrorists thought they would put America into despair; instead they multiplied the hope of the nation.We can be encouraged to know, just as those experiencing persecution at the hands of the Romans and Jews, that Jesus will ultimately win the victory, and all of the faithful will be there to experience it. However, this does not provide us with much encouragement concerning those who die without Jesus. As we look at the lost society around us, even including those individuals who we consider the most evil criminals, we see a sea of people who God created for the purpose of glorifying Him. God's will is that all people be saved, and the only true impediment to their salvation is the lack of faithfulness of those who know Jesus to share that knowledge and love with others. When someone dies without Christ, they face an eternity separated from God. Do we blame the one who died without Christ for his state, or do we blame ourselves for not taking part in their salvation? Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against satan. All too often we forget that and make excuses for our lack of evangelism by blaming those who have not responded to the gospel. These events should be a call for all of us to recognize God's sovereignty and love, to share that with one another, and to share it with the lost world so that as we grieve the losses of future deaths, more people will have the confidence in death that they will rise with Christ. To keep silent only serves the purposes of the ruler of the kingdom of the air.