Commentary by Walter Albritton
1 Thessalonians 4, 5.
Key Verse: For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:9
The new Christians in Thessalonica may have been “model”
believers, but they had questions about Christian doctrine. They wanted their
What happens to our spirits when our bodies die? Do our spirits go immediately to heaven or remain in the grave with our decaying bodies until the time of a general resurrection? If some living Christians will “meet Christ in the air” when he returns, what about those believers who are dead? At the time of the final judgment, will we come out of heaven or the grave to be judged? These are significant questions not easily answered. Let us examine what Paul says, and what the Bible says, and try to determine if there is consistency in what the Bible teaches.
Paul believed in the Return of Christ. He evidently believed that the Lord would return during his lifetime. Many believers in the young church at Thessalonica also believed in the imminent Return of Christ, so much so that some of them quit their jobs, disrupting community life. Paul wisely advises them to remain calm, mind their own business, and keep on working with their hands. He insists that they provide for themselves and not expect others to take care of them.
Another concern of the Thessalonian believers was the fate of their Christian friends and family members who had already died. Again, Paul calms their fears, assuring them that God’s gracious plan includes both the dead and the living. As he would later tell the Roman Christians, nothing can separate believers, whether dead or alive, from the love of Christ. Salvation spares us from the wrath of God in the final judgment.
Most commentators point out that the Bible does not provide us with “details” about death and heaven. Paul clearly teaches that when Christ returns, there will be a glad reunion with him for all believers, living and dead. Our friend Warren Wiersbe offers this helpful insight: “The Bible does not reveal all the details of this reunion. When Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, He tenderly ‘delivered him to his mother’ (Luke ). This suggests that our Lord will have the happy ministry of reuniting broken families and friendships” (Be Ready, p. 92, Victor Books). This is indeed a comforting thought. Paul believed the truth would comfort believers, and of course, it does. To know that Christ is returning, and that we will be with him, can comfort any broken heart.
It will help us to understand that there is a difference in the biblical concepts of “dying” and “sleeping.” When the death of Jesus is described, the word “sleep” is never used. When our bodies die, our spirits go to heaven to be with the Lord. Jesus is there praying for us. Our bodies “sleep” in the grave – until the time of what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the resurrection of the body.” Does this mean that our dry bones and decayed flesh will be raised from the grave? No, God at that time will give us a “new body” which united with our spirit will equip us for eternal life. Again, Wiersbe is helpful:
“Paul did not say that the soul went to sleep at death. He made it clear that the soul of the believer went to be with the Lord: ‘them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him’ (). He cannot bring them when He returns unless they are with Him. It is not the soul that sleeps; it is the body. The Bible definition of death is given in James 2:26 – ‘For as the body without the spirit is dead…’ At death, the spirit leaves the body, and the body goes to sleep and no longer functions. The soul-spirit goes to be with the Lord, if the person has trusted Jesus Christ. ‘Absent from the body, and … present with the Lord’ (2 Cor.5:8).
“When Jesus Christ returns in the air, He will issue the ‘shout of command’ and the ‘dead in Christ shall rise first’ (). This does not mean that He will put the elements of the body together again, for resurrection is not ‘reconstruction.’ Paul argued for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. He pointed out that the resurrection of the human body is like the growing of a plant from a seed. The flower is not the identical seed that was planted; yet there is continuity from seed to plant. Christians shall receive glorified bodies, like the glorified body of Christ (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:47-58). The dead body is the ‘seed’ that is planted in the ground; the resurrected body is the ‘flower’ that comes from the seed” (Be Ready, pp. 85-87).
One of the great promises of the Bible is that those who have walked with Christ here will meet him again. Then we shall “see him as he is,” and wonder of wonders, “we shall be like him”! (1 John 3:1, 2) We can believe that we will have recognizable personalities. Moses and Elijah were recognizable when they appear with Jesus in his transfiguration.
Jesus, of course, taught the doctrine of the resurrection. One instance is in Matthew 22:23-33 where he silenced the Sadducees who, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
The Thessalonians found comfort in Paul’s teaching. Even more may we be comforted by the words of our Lord: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3). Is there a better word on the subject anywhere?
John Wesley believed that when the spirit is free of the body, and of evil, the spirit will continue to grow. Surely, that is true since there is no life without growth. Wesley said: “What a satisfaction must it be to a good man to perceive the good works he had begun in this life continued and perfected in himself, to find that every one of those Christian virtues with which he had endeavored to adorn his soul improved and drawn out to its utmost extent” (Sermon on “Death and Deliverance).
William Barclay reminds us, “It is not the details which are important. What is important is that in life and in death the Christian is in Christ and that is a union which nothing can break.” Amen! Rather than fret about the details, let us seek daily to be ready to enter his nearer presence when our names are called!
John Wesley can have the last word: “But who, even with the tongue of men and angels, can worthily describe what eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive!” + + + (Contact Walter at firstname.lastname@example.org)