A Palliative for Grief

Paul now gives more detail to a gospel truth that he has mentioned briefly but vitally in several places throughout this letter. In 1:10 we read, “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” In 2:19 Paul reveals something of the personal relationships that will be magnified at Christ’s coming: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming?” In 3:13, Paul isolates the power of Christ’s coming as a transformative event for believers: “So that he may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” In this text, Paul expands both detail and chronology about the coming of Christ.

I. The Names of Deity. The variety of ways in which the returning and glorious king is discussed informs us as to the power and splendor of this event. Jesus who died and rose again is God, is the Lord, and is Christ.

A. Jesus – 14, twice; Total, two times. As Jesus, the name given him for his incarnation in human nature, he acts as the last Adam. Whereas the son of man of Psalm 8 failed to solidify his exalted position at creation, Jesus succeeded for God “put all things in subjection under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:27). “But we see Jesus” (Hebrews 2:8, 9) as achieving what the first Adam had failed to achieve.

B. God – 14, once. 16, once. Total, two times. Eternally as God the Son, he possesses all the natural power, authority, glory, knowledge, immensity, immutability, and covenantal understanding as the Father and the Spirit (Titus 2 ;12; John 1:1, 14; John 20:28).

C. The Lord – 15, twice; 16, once; 17, twice; Total, five times. As Lord, we see him as having been given authority as the one who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (Matthew 28:19; Hebrews 1:4; Philippians 2:11; 2 Timothy 1:10).

D. Christ – 16, once; Total, one time. As Christ, he is the one anointed as prophet, priest, and king to be the incarnate revelation of God to us (prophet, John 1:18), the one who provides perfect redemption for his people (Hebrews 2:17), and will reign in righteousness for eternity (Hebrews 1:3; Psalm 2:6, 10-12; Revelation 11:15; 15:3, 4).

E. All of these point to the incarnate Son of God.

II. Paul explains his reason for the brief, but astoundingly significant, revelatory narrative about the resurrection of the dead.

A. This is an area in which God has revealed truth and it is not necessary for them to be ignorant of this important part of the salvation that God has given his people.

    1. Jesus himself had given teaching about this aspect of his saving work. (John 5:21, 25-29; 6:39, 40). The voice of the Son of God will raise up believers at the last day unto eternal life.
    2. This also was a common apostolic revelation (Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 49; 51-57; 1 Peter 1:3-5; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 20). Without resurrection, one of the most obvious effects of sin would remain unremedied.

B. This is a word about those Christians who already have died (“who are asleep”). From the word for “sleep” is derived our word for “cemetery.” It is a sleep, for the soul does not cease to be active even as in our earthly, daily sleep, and the body will rise up afterwards for activities fitting for the state of existence. According to Paul, the separation of soul and body at death is temporary and the state of the soul is one of consciousness (blessed consciousness!) with the Lord (Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 4:6-8).

C. Your grief is qualitatively different from the grief of “the rest” who have no hope. They grieve, but do not have the same sort of grief as the rest—i.e. everyone outside of the saving work of Christ. When we see Jesus at his return, we will see him “just as” he is (same word). The glory we see will be uniquely his own and we will see it in the quality of his true resurrected glory. Even so, reflecting on the word “as” or “just as” or “in the same way as” the grief of believers is not be “as,” that is of the same type and quality of unbelievers. As Paul explains, this separation is only for a time, is only for ourselves in the emotional vacuum created by the departure of a loved one, but is greatly tempered by the hope of being with them again, and eventually in both body and soul in a glorified state with unalloyed affection.

III. Resurrection in its theological connection (14).

A. Paul assumes that they believe, as he taught them, that Christ died and rose from the dead. This is a fundamental article of Christian belief and was always preached by the apostles (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:13-15; 4:10, 33; 5:29-32, 42; 8:12, 35; 10:39-43; 13:28-37; 17:2, 3, 18, 30-31; 26:22, 23; Romans 1:4, et al). Paul reaffirms this in his letter to the Corinthians as he begins his extended discussion of the gospel and its historical consummation in Christ’s triumphant return (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4). “For I delivered to you as of first importance, what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Various appearances of Christ to the apostles and a large number of other people was finally sealed with a post ascension appearance to Paul himself “as one untimely born.” Whether, therefore, it was from him or one of the other witnesses of the risen Christ, “so we preach,” he told the Corinthians, “and so you believed.”

B. The work of Jesus in his humanity was a full work in which every aspect of it is for the benefit of his people. His resurrection and glorification determines that when he returns in a demonstration of his final triumph, even death will succumb to his power by his resurrecting the bodies of those who have died in him—“Even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

C. Jesus in his power as God will bring with him the ones rescued from the penalty of sin, who live in his glorious presence, and who in that return will be made whole in body and soul, both now glorified for the realm of eternal life. When they fell asleep, they did so “in Jesus” having as their own by his grace all the benefits that he gained for them by his substitutionary work. “To sleep in Jesus means to retain in death the union which we have with Christ, for those who are ingrafted into Christ by faith share death in common with Him, in order that they may share with Him in life.” [Calvin]

D. Jesus’ resurrection meant that the wages of sin has been paid and death no longer has dominion over us. Whereas we have borne the image of the man of dust, Adam, and share the verdict of his disobedience (Romans 5:18a), now we bear the image of the Man of heaven and share the verdict of his righteousness (Romans 5:18b; 1 Corinthians 15:49).

IV. A divinely revealed order (15-17). This is given “by the word of the Lord.” Jesus’ own teaching, as cited above, affirmed the resurrection, and the apostles preached it and wrote about it. Paul’s teaching, therefore, is given by the authority of Jesus himself. As in 1 Corinthians 15, “I delivered … what I also received.”

A. Christians who are alive when Christ comes again, will not receive their glorified bodies prior to those who have died and whose bodies now are dissipated into dust and mingled with the elements: “will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”

B. These events of the resurrection will be triggered by a powerful display of the glory and power of Christ at his coming—“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout” (16). At his ascension, the angels who attended that event told the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This coming is a matter of pure promise and revelation. None could know any of the details at all were it not told us. Jesus has returned to heaven, and we have witnesses of that event. If he will return in visible form and in what manner he will return, becomes a matter of doctrine solely on the basis of propositional revelation. There can not even be any deductions from observed events, like healings, casting out of demons, healing lepers, the claim to forgive sins, raising the dead, or even his own resurrection. Observers of these events should have deduced that this man also had as his own the prerogatives, honor, and power of God. But how he will return cannot be deduced from other events. We are told, therefore, that certain specific events will give immediate notice of the Lord’s return in glory. These accompanying signs will be splendid announcements of the power with which he comes and will immediately subdue all things to him: “Every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10, 11).

    1. One event that will occur is an announcement that stops all activity on earth, “a shout, the voice of the archangel” (16). 2 Thessalonians 1:7 says “the Lord is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire.” Thus, myriads of angels appear in their created might and beauty while they are led as an entourage by a chief angel who will lead them in announcing that the judge of all the world has come. Calvin wrote, “The archangel will perform the duty of a herald in summoning the living and the dead to the judgment-seat of Christ.” Though his first coming was announced by angels, a “multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” only shepherds in the field saw this glorious event. It was glorious but private and local. This rush of angels will be seen and heard over the whole earth by every individual, living and dead from all the ages of all time from Adam to the last-born human.
    2. The mighty voice will be accompanied by “the trumpet of God.” In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul wrote, “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Voices and an instrument, blowing no uncertain sound but a sound that will speak of glory, honor, justice, and infinite royalty, will alert every rational being that the ruler, judge, redeemer, who has been seated at the right hand of God the Father now comes to exert the redeeming and convicting authority that has been granted him (Hebrews 1:3-13).

C. His coming prompts an immediate resurrection.

    1. “The dead in Christ will rise first” (16c). Believers, united to Christ in his saving work in their lifetime, now deceased, will rise with glorified bodies. If their dust is intact in one place the reconstitution into an incorruptible, immortal body will be perhaps visible to those who are alive. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42). Visitors to graveyard at that time will see wonders, either glorious or frightening, as graves open and bodies are rejoined with heightened and holy spiritual rationality in a state of incorruptible glory. Quickly ascending to be with Jesus in the air as he descends they will express the marvel of his glory as the mere first fruits of an eternity of glory (2 Thessalonians 1:10). “The dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
    2. In that same moment, the mortal bodies of living saints will put on immortality. “Then we who are alive and remain will 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). They will look the same but with a healed and heavenly immortal splendor unimagined in this fallen world. Paul longed for this in his own life time: “For while we are in this tent we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). Such will happen to those who are alive at his coming. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52).
    3. Paul here gives a summary. These events really will happen, but other events will also happen in their own time. There will be judgment of every person for every word, thought, and deed of his life. Who can know how quickly this will be? The events of Revelation 20 including the thousand years, the great rebellion at the end of the thousand years, the white throne judgment after the casting of Satan into hell, and the assignment to eternal abodes of either torment or unalloyed bliss reveals other events that are interspersed with these of 1 Thessalonians. The nature of real events put within a symbolic structure has brought on widely diverse interpretations of the exact order and precise character of these happenings, but we may know that the appearance of Jesus in glory and final absolute power is certain. Resurrection of both the just and the unjust will be accomplished by divine power. Judgment is precise, thorough, and absolutely unobjectionable, and sufficient time for it is given.
    4. In the glorious state of fully incorruptible bodies, fully gladdened spirits, fully-seen Christ, and fully-engulfing divine glory they would live forever. So, (“in this way”) we shall always be with the Lord” (17b). We will be forever with him in his full glory and in a fully glorified state: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subdue all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20, 21).

V. The comforting power of resurrection teaching (18). These teachings given by Paul to the Thessalonians were designed for the immediate effect of giving comfort to those who might wonder if their loved one who had died would somehow be diminished in the hope brought to them by the gospel. Without giving an explanation of all things concerning the return of Christ, he gave enough to provide an accurate outline of events, create a joyful desire for Christ’s return, and a comfort that fellow believers who had died in Christ would be front and center in the events of Christ’s victorious return. They would miss nothing of the glory of that time but would experience it with those with whom they had suffered for their faith, and had worshiped their Redeemer, and had anticipated the onset of the eternal state of a full enjoyment of the glory of God.

The Second London Confession summarizes these events in this way.

The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption;1 but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them.2 The souls of the righteous being then made perfect in holiness, are received into paradise, where they are with Christ, and behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies;3 and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell; where they remain in torment and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day;4 besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

At the last day, such of the saints as are found alive, shall not sleep, but be changed;5 and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other;6 although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.7

The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honour, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.8

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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