“Hopes are for the living; the dead have no hope.”
Those were the words of an ancient Greek poet, and it epitomizes how many people in Paul’s time saw death. For that matter, I talk to many Japanese today that have that same outlook. They have no hope beyond the grave. For them, this life is all there is.
For some reason, many of the Thessalonians had a similar outlook. Perhaps in seeing their own people die for their faith, they wondered, “What will happen to them when Jesus comes? Will they miss out on the hope and joy of his coming?”
To this, Paul gives a clear no.
He told them,
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.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.
According to the Lord’s 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. 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.
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.
Therefore encourage each other with these words. (13-18)
Why do we have hope beyond the grave? Because Jesus himself experienced death and was raised again. And Jesus told us, “Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19)
Paul tells us more, that when Jesus comes back, those who have already died will be raised to meet him.
Paul teaches in Philippians that when we die, we immediately go to be with the Lord (Philippians 1:23), and Jesus’ own words to the thief on the cross were that the thief would join him in paradise that very day. (Luke 23:43)
So the picture seems to be that whatever remains of all those who have died in Christ, bones, dust, or whatever, will be raised and joined to their spirits which are in heaven now. And after that, we Christians who are still alive will also be caught up to meet Jesus and we ourselves will be changed, given new bodies that are imperishable and incorruptible. (I Corinthians 15:51-53)
I do believe, by the way, Christians will be around for the tribulation period when Antichrist shows up. I really hope I’m wrong, but that’s how scripture looks to me. It also shows in the word that Paul uses for “meeting” the Lord in the air. The word is has the idea of meeting a VIP outside a town and escorting him back to their town. And so the picture seems to be that we Christians will meet the Lord in the air and escort him back to earth where he will begin his thousand year reign. And Paul says from that point on, even though there is much to happen after that, including a final rebellion by Satan, we will always be with the Lord, never to face death ourselves again.
That’s the hope we have. And that’s the hope we are to share with those around us who have no hope. And that’s the hope we are to encourage our brothers and sisters with when life becomes a struggle and they feel they can’t go on.
Our troubles will not last forever. Jesus will come back, and all will be made right. So though all that we go through in life, let us rest in this hope that we have.