When at Last Jesus Returns
What is our hope for loved ones who, in the language of Scripture, now ‘sleep in Jesus’ (1 Thess. 4:14 ESV)? We are sure that, like the thief on the cross, they are at this very moment with the Saviour in paradise. But what of the future? In a glorious section of his first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18), Paul takes us step by step through the things that God has planned for them.
They will return as well
In the course of his remarks, Paul gives us a vivid description of Jesus’ eventual return: ‘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’ (verse 16 NIV). Nor will he be alone when he does so. Jesus tells us himself that all the angels will be with him (Matt. 25:31). And so also every saint who has been with him in glory: ‘God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him’ (1 Thess. 4:14 NIV). They will return as well! One day our departed loved ones will come back with their Saviour to the world they left at death.
They will rise from the dead
The separation that took place between body and spirit when our Saviour died on Calvary was only temporary. On the day of his resurrection, his spirit returned from paradise and was reunited with his body. So it will one day be with his people. Jesus’ resurrection is both the pledge and pattern of their resurrection. When they return with him from heaven it is the very first thing that will take place: ‘The dead in Christ will rise first’ (verse 16). It is in this precious hope that we commit their bodies to the ground. They will remain there only for a time – only until the day they return from heaven with their Saviour.
They will then be caught up
When Jesus comes back this world of ours will be a scene of terrible destruction, of fiery judgment. In his second letter to the Thessalonians Paul speaks about the Lord Jesus being revealed from heaven ‘in blazing fire’ (2 Thess. 1:7). But none of his loved ones will be touched by it. When the dead in Christ rise, says the apostle, ‘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’ (1 Thess. 4:17). The entire body of believers – both those who have come from heaven and those who are still alive on the earth – will join their Saviour in the safety of the air.
They will be forever with the Lord
And then? ‘We will be with the Lord forever,’ says Paul (verse 17). Christians in glory are with the Saviour now of course. And Scripture assures us that to be with him now is far better than to be living in this fallen world – even when we are happiest. Nevertheless, the best is still ahead of them. When Jesus returns and raises them from the dead they will then be with him in the completeness and glory of resurrection humanity. And not just for a time, either. Forever!
Is it any wonder that Paul should conclude by exhorting us to ‘encourage one another with these words’ (verse 18)?
David Campbell is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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