“Words of Comfort and Challenge”Lawrence E. Webb 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Year A – Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Louisa is a great grandmother who is Rapturous — with a Capital “R.” She eagerly awaits the end of her earthly life, confident this will also be the end of life as we know it for all Christians before the Great Tribulation begins. She writes “Rapturously” about swooshing through the air with the redeemed of the Lord as all hell breaks loose among those who are Left Behind.
Her expectation is reflected in songs about the hoped-for Rapture written by Albert E. Brumley and Vep P. Ellis, songs made famous by gospel quartets in the golden age of radio as an entertainment medium. One of Mr. Brumley’s song begins, “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away”
An Ellis song with a similar message is “When He Calls I’ll Fly Away.” It begins “When he calls me I will answer here am I, I am ready if he wants me to die, There’s a mansion now waiting me on high, I am going there by and by”
Song writers in traditional hymnals also anticipate the heavenly flight:
In “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” William Walford awaits that instant when …“This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise to seize the everlasting prize; and shout, while passing through the air, ‘Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!’
Fanny J. Crosby’s “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” says this: “When my spirit, clothed immortal, Wings its flight to realms of day, This my song through endless ages— “‘Jesus led me all the way.”
These songs and others are related to the popular concept of the Rapture, based on an interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, with special focus on verse 17:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; (16)
then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. (17)
With the strong current emphasis on eschatology — or last things — in popular culture, it would be difficult to give a straightforward interpretation of this chapter without acknowledging a larger system of thought many people connect with it. An Irish clergyman named John Nelson Darby developed the system in the eighteen-hundreds. In the United States early in the twentieth century, C. I. Scofield published an edition of the King James Bible with footnotes spelling out Darby’s concepts. The Darby-Scofield interpretation of the end time has gained a huge following.
Not all aspects of this system are in the Bible, and the elements that are in the Bible are exaggerated or stitched together in patchwork-quilt fashion. The word “Rapture” is not in the Bible, but Darby-Scofield connects the term to the words “caught up” in verse 17. In this interpretation, the Rapture sets in motion a sequence of events including a seven-year Tribulation period, the appearance of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, and the Millennium — or thousand-year reign of Jesus on an earthly throne in Jerusalem.
Followers of this outlook earnestly believe the Lord is coming back any day now. They look forward to being raptured, caught up, with Christ and whisked away to heaven. This imaginative interpretation has become wildly popular through the series of Left Behind books and movies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins: The raptured ones leave their clothes and personal effects behind. If they are driving cars, the vehicles go out of control, and God have pity on those who are “left behind.”
Certainly, you can build a case for the Rapture as they conceive it, based on verse 17. But you need to look at verses 13-15 just before this. When Paul writes his letters, he addresses questions people in the particular church are asking. The people in Thessalonica are concerned about the status of their loved ones, fellow Christians, who have died. What will happen to them when the Lord comes back? Paul’s main point is to reassure the folks in this church that their loved ones will be okay: Christ will bring the dead with Him, and all of them will go home to heaven:
But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Then he goes on to describe how the dead and those who are alive will be caught up to be with the Lord always. And this is intended to bring reassurance. He concludes in verse 18 with another emphasis on reassurance: Therefore comfort one another with these words.
If we put the main focus where Paul puts it — that is, reassuring the Thessalonians about their loved ones who have died — the specific details of how the saints unite with Christ are of secondary importance. But the futurists reverse those emphases.
OTHER “RAPTURE” PASSAGES
Those who are certain of the imminent return of Christ also see the Rapture in Matthew 24:40-42:
Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.
Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
Matthew devotes two full chapters, 24 and 25, to Jesus’s eschatological teaching. The overriding themes in the two chapters are the need to be ready to give account for oneself when Christ returns and the uncertainty of when that will occur.
In that larger context, these verses are followed immediately by three parables in chapter 25, all emphasizing separation of the faithful and prepared, from the unfaithful and unprepared: ten young women who await the coming of the bridegroom (verses 1-13); three servants called to account for how they handled their master’s money (verses 14-30); and two groups in the final judgment who are judged on whether they have shown compassion to the least of these (verses 40, 45).
The overall setting in Matthew 24-25, then, emphasizes separation of the godly from the ungodly. Those who find the Rapture in the separation of the men in the field and the women at the mill need to account for 24:34: Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place.
Rapturists somehow want to apply that statement to their own generation in the twenty-first century rather than to the first century when it was written. With fertile imaginations, some find the Rapture in Revelation passages:
Revelation 1:7 – Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
Nothing in this verse remotely suggests people will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
Revelation 12:4-5 — And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.
Although the male child is Christ, nothing here shows He is accompanied by the saints of the centuries and those currently alive.
Rapture in the Old Testament?
Determined rapturists find the Rapture prefigured in the Old Testament in what they call “types”:
Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him (Genesis 5:24).
Angels removed Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from Sodom to escape tribulation: But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him forth and set him outside the city. (Genesis 19:16).
The rapturist emphasis is on Lot and his family being seized up by the angels.
Moses sent spies from the twelve tribes to search out the promised land. So Rapture foreshadowers see a type in Numbers 13:21 when “they went up.”
The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) graphically describes physical love between a man and a woman, interpreted by some as representing Christ and the Church. In a great stretch, the Rapture is seen as the groom calls to his love, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away (2:10).
Much of this approach seems about as logical as reading tea leaves, studying cloud formations, or looking into the entrails of a chicken to discern answers to questions.
Such interpretations indicate a predetermined goal of finding the Rapture. This suggests the same mindset as a committee of high school teachers who were assigned to review a designated program in their school in a re-accreditation study. In their initial meeting, they decided they wanted to come out with a 3.8 out of a possible 4.0 grade. Then they worked to make that their outcome, rather than looking objectively at the program and letting their research determine the grade.
Obsession with the Rapture is usually accompanied by efforts to set the date for the Rapture and its attendant events. Through the centuries, many dates for the end have been set. Consider these recent examples:
Edgar Whisenant wrote a booklet, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture will happen in 1988,” and Colin Deal wrote the book, Christ Returns by 1988, 101 Reasons Why. (http://bibleforums.org/showthread.php/210691-1988)
Charles H. Dyer’s 1991 book, The Rise of Babylon, cites Saddam Hussein’s plans to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon and asks, “Could ours be the last generation?” The Iraqi president was hanged in 2006 without apparent effect on prophecy. (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.)
Grant R. Jeffrey’s 2007 book, The New Temple and the Second Coming, heralds “The Prophecy That Points to Christ’s Return in Your Generation.” (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press)
Harold Camping attracted international attention as he bought air time and print ads heralding the date of May 21, 2011. Many date-setters don’t seem terribly discouraged when their predicted time comes and goes, but Mr. Camping refitted his date to October of the same year and then admitted his error in predicting dates at all.
Religious groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses find their basic meaning for existence in looking and hoping for the end to come.
Confronted with the warning of Mathew 24:36 that no one knows the day or hour, one TV preacher hedged his bets by saying, “I may not be able to tell you the day and the hour, but I can tell you the month.”
There’s little doubt that Paul in this passage expects to be alive to see Christ’s return. Similarly, John in Revelation begins and ends by referring to what must soon take place (1:1; 22:6). Then, three times in the last chapter, John pictures Jesus saying, “I am coming soon” (22:7, 12, 20).
SO WHAT IF IT DOESN’T HAPPEN SOON?
What if the Rapture and the series of projected events do not take place in your lifetime? What if you die and your body is buried in the ground? What if life on earth continues another two thousand years, as it has continued since Paul wrote to the Thessalonians? What then is the value of this passage?
Chapter 4 divides itself logically in two parts with separate but still related themes: Our focus so far has been on verses 13-18 that point to significant events at an unspecified moment in the future. By contrast, verses 1-12 pertain to the present and the kind of lives Christians are expected to live.
The here-and-now instructions focus primarily on sexual purity as a sign of sanctification (4:3). The word sanctification may strike as much fear in your heart as the excessive claims about the last days we’ve been considering. To some, sanctification suggests extreme piety with expectations for living apart from the reality of daily routines: Being so high and heavenly to be of no earthly use.
The biblical word for sanctification has more to do with being purified from our sins, consecrating our lives, in the realization of God’s Holy Spirit as a living presence in the struggles of life.
Paul reminds his children in the faith, he and Silas and their missionary team taught them how they ought to live and to please God. And he is optimistic that this is their goal: just as you are doing, you do so more and more (4:1).
Then, as now, sexual temptation was rampant. So Paul makes a triple appeal for sexual purity: first, a general call to abstain from un-chastity (v. 3), then faithfulness in one’s own marriage (v. 4), and finally not transgressing another marriage (v. 6).
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from un-chastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you (vv. 3-6).
Writing more than a century ago, William Arnold Stevens cited another author who said the secular mind in Paul’s time “had become so corrupt as to almost to have lost the idea of chastity as a virtue.” (Stevens, “Commentary on the Epistles to the Thessalonians,” An American Commentary on the New Testament, Volume V. Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1890, page 45).
In a culture that acknowledged and worshiped many gods whose rituals included sexual intercourse, Paul’s urging seems — urgent. Dr. Stevens also noted: Unchastity was glorified in poetry, all the arts had combined to make it pleasing as well as seductive, and in the worship of not a few Pagan deities, had secured for itself the sanctions of religion (ibid).
The Thessalonian church included men and women from pagan backgrounds (Acts 17:12), who had come to faith as adults from that culture that glorified sensuous living. So the warning seems timely. In our own culture, all these temptations are greatly increased with the ever-present iPhone, iPad, CD, DVD, Facebook, and Twitter.
In 2014, divergent sexual patterns and preferences are glorified: Marriage between a woman and a man often regarded as passé, unnecessary. Casual sex among high school and college students. More couples living together and begetting children without a ceremony or legal certificate. Homosexuality, Pedophilia, Rape, Spousal abuse; so, comparing the first Christian century with the twenty-first, it seems “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
MIND HOW YOU LIVE
As he reflects on the many temptations in the prevailing culture, Paul challenges the hessalonians to be holy, to exercise Christian love, and live exemplary lives. The call to holiness is the same word as the earlier call to sanctification: Be dedicated to living close to God, depending on the Holy Spirit. This is not just a good idea, a suggestion. Paul says this is a commandment from God: For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (vv. 7-8).
In chapter 2, Paul asserted that his words to them were the very word of God (2:13). In this regard, they have been taught to love each other. Recalling his time with them, Paul says they have, indeed, learned to love each other with agape love. They bravely faced physical opposition, as their local leaders were arrested because of their faithfulness to God. Word of this demonstration of love for God and for one another had spread throughout the region (4:9-10).
LIVE QUIETLY, EARN A LIVING
In verses 11-12, Paul moves toward the issue of the end time: aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.
Some of the Christians were noisy, busybodies, perhaps overbearing in their discussion of what they thought was the impending end of life as they knew it. Apparently, some had quit work and were awaiting Christ’s return. They should earn a living and, thus, earn the respect of those outside the church, rather than depend on someone else to support them till the end came.
THE VITAL CONNECTION
Now, we can make the connection between the two parts of chapter 4. Now we can put the emphasis on the end time (vv. 13-18) in context with details of practical living (vv. 1-12). We don’t know when the great events at the end of the world will come. We may well not live to see that blessed time. We may be among those who are asleep (v. 13). From our perspective, we know many generations are “asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep” in which “death hath lost its painful sting.” (Margaret Mackay, “Asleep in Jesus, Blessed Sleep!”, hymnary.org, http://www.hymnary.org/text/asleep_in_jesus_blessed_sleep)
Though we sorrow over those who have died in the Lord, we are not to grieve as others do who have no hope because we are confident of God’s provision for the living and the dead. So, despite our ignorance concerning details of the Lord’s return, Paul has given practical words from the Lord to us — and to our friend Louisa with whom we began — as to how we are to live out the rest of our lives, whether we meet Christ in life or in death.
AN HOUR OR A HUNDRED YEARS
In conclusion, we can borrow words from a song by Grand Ole Opry singer and composer Roy Acuff. He wrote about enduring human love we can apply to our lives in relation to the end time: “As long as I live if it be one hour Or if it be one hundred years.”However short or long our lives — one hour or one hundred years — one day, we shall always be with the Lord, and this should enable us to comfort one another with these words (4:17-18).
About the writer: Lawrence Webb is an emeritus professor at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. He teaches a weekly radio Bible class from Anderson’s First Baptist Church where he and his wife Pansy are members. Lawrence and Pansy also minister to retirement homes in Anderson. He was pastor or educational associate in New Windsor, New York; Toccoa, Georgia; Sanford, Florida; Paducah, Texas; and Anderson. He wrote and edited for the Georgia Baptist Convention, the national office of Woman’s Missionary Union, and the Citizen Newspaper in Waco, Texas; and he is a long-time freelance writer. His latest book is Revelation, A Book of Hope. Lawrence and Pansy have two adult sons and two grandchildren.
Scripture and Music:
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers!
“Sleepers, Wake!” A Voice Astounds Us
Crown Him With Many Crowns
Be Still My Soul
My Faith Looks Up to Thee
The God of Abraham Praise
Near to the Heart of God
When We All Get to Heaven
Rejoice, the Lord Is King
The Lord Bless You and Keep You (Lutkin or Rutter)
My Lord, What a Mornin
Steal Away to Jesus
Seek First the Kingdom (McDonald)
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning (Andre Thomas)
Father Lead Me Day By Day (David Stanley York)
Surely the Presence of the Lord