The following is a summary of a sermon presented to Akron Alliance Fellowship Church on October 5, 2008 featuring a discussion on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
I was at work Monday morning when I received an email from my wife informing me of some rather shocking news. She had heard through a friend of hers a rumor that the roller skating rink that we had attended faithfully on Thursday evenings for the last four years was permanently closed. The rink owner had apparently informed customers the night before that he would be closing his doors. At first, I did not want to believe it. I wrote back to Lynn to be sure that this information was true because (a) I did not want to necessarily take the word of the person who had sent her the email because she had been sending a slew of emails that turned out to be urban legends, and (b) while I knew that skating rinks over the years were becoming more and more extinct, I did not want to accept that yet another rink that had been in existence for many years was now gone. After receiving more information later in the day, it was apparent that the roller rink that Lynn and I had just attended four days earlier was indeed closed forever. It seems that the owner’s financial condition finally forced the move. To all of us who attended the rink, however, this was a sudden and unpleasant development. One day, the rink was open and well attended, and the next…gone.
I must confess that one of my great loves is roller skating. It is an ongoing passion of mine, and anyone who is around me long enough knows full well what my interests or hobbies are… ministry, spending time with my lovely wife, football, and roller skating. When I finally realized that the rink that I had frequented was now closed for good, it was, to me, as if someone had died. I was very, very sad when I received the news, and I was in a state of mourning over the turn of events. What was even more striking to me was the suddenness of the event. The rink was open for at least three sessions since that Thursday, and there was no indication of a problem. I had, in fact, just spoken to the rink owner that past Thursday, and he did not seem to give the impression that the rink was closing.
If we think about the sudden events in our lives, whether they are business closings, major or tragic events, or even life and death issues, they almost certainly will have a lasting effect in our lives, and the endings almost always are as memorable as the events that occurred prior to the end. The endings are remembered because they are abrupt and unexpected occurrences. When we are enjoying something that is ongoing, it is hard to accept when all of it comes to an end. And so it goes with life. Just as we have days that we live, we remember that those days are not promised to us. It doesn’t change how we feel; which still makes it hard for us to accept when there is a sudden change. It is one thing to know in advance that something is going to happen, as it is human nature to “prepare” for the event. Not knowing of the change when it occurs is often, for all its worth, a shock to our system.
This turn of events reminded me of what Paul said to the Thessalonians when he was encouraging the believers to remain strong in their faith. He had a brief visit during his missionary trip to Thessalonica but was there only about three weeks due to persecution, as he had to leave the area. He wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 that he wanted to return to see them, but his efforts were hindered by Satan. It was apparent, however, that his heart was with those that he had preached to in Thessalonica and he had many things to say to them, and he was compelled to do so because he feared that Satan was attacking them, as well. Paul knew that the people needed encouragement, and that they were reminded that it was important to remain steadfast in their faith and in Christ…no matter what was going on in their lives. We need few reminders to know that Satan is a powerful enemy, and we are reminded that we overcome Satan’s temptations and distractions by putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:11). Sudden events tend to rattle us and shake us out of our comfort zone. When all that we can see around us is uncertainty, the very uncertainty that we experience can be unnerving. How do we overcome the uncertainty and navigate through the stormy seas of life? See what Paul had to say to the Thessalonians in a prayer to the church as to how they were to always maintain a high level of focus on God:
1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
Now may our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we also do for you. May He make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. Amen.
This prayer sets the stage for Chapter 4, where Paul not only continues to encourage the Thessalonians but also seems to address questions about life and death, and the sudden events of life that may occur. There must have been specific questions from the Thessalonians about what happens when someone dies. We know that when someone dies it can be sudden and unexpected, or it can occur soon after one is taken ill. In both of these situations it can be extremely traumatic for those who are looking at it from the outside. Paul provides an answer of reassurance and comfort with his response:
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.
Then comes the additional encouragement which must have been hard to grasp and yet ever so wonderful to hear as a reassurance that some of us will not experience death as we understand it:
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
For we say this to you as a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.
This is the only mention throughout Scripture of the events that are known as the rapture. Why was this revealed as it was specifically to the Thessalonians? We cannot know with all certainty, but we can surmise that God must have known that the people needed something to look forward to that explained that God promised life after death and fellowship with Him. This would also encourage the Thessalonians to stay true and obedient to God, as there was something to now look forward to once life on earth was over. Not everyone needs this incentive, but it is nonetheless provided for all of us so that we can see that God does indeed love us and intends for all believers to have eternal life with Him. What an encouragement!
Sudden events may rattle us or knock us off balance, and Satan may have an active role in these occurrences, but God is our eternal refuge that gives us comfort, security and safety. The psalms proclaim Him as our refuge.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also rests securely. For You will not abandon me to Sheol; You will not allow Your Faithful One to see the Pit. You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in your right hand are eternal pleasures.