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Future Glory | Present Trial: 1 Thess. 5:1-11

Future Glory | Present Trial
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 :: The Shape of the Future

In our study of Paul’s first letter to the young Thessalonian church, we have just come to the body of the letter and the subjects that Paul would like to teach or correct in the church family. These subjects included sanctification and holiness, which included sexual immorality and love for one another, and then advanced to matters of the end times, including the death of believers and the order of events in the end times. It is to the order of events that we now turn our attention to in earnest.

I am indebted to great mentors, professors and friends who have helped me work through the glorious details of eschatology for many years, including Dave Anderson. I have also leaned heavily on the great work of Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie and J. Dwight Pentecost, all godly giants themselves in the tradition and history of Dallas Theological Seminary, where I studied. Recently, the work of Mark Hitchcock, The End, which I highly recommend, has been extremely helpful as have other various articles, sermons and conversations. These and other references will have deeper layers of biblical texts and arguments than these notes can provide.

After Paul addressed the Rapture of the church (the word “rapture” comes from the Latin of “caught up” in 4:17) and the death of believers, he now turns to larger matters of the end-times, mentioning the “times and epochs” of matters relating to the “day of the Lord.” It is not haphazardly that Paul first mentions the Rapture and resurrection of church-age believers before he turns to matters of “the day of the Lord.” As we will see, he speaks of them in proper order and chronology.

In First Thessalonians 4 and 5, Paul seems to stay at a high level regarding eschatology, saving more specifics for his next letter. However, we will take the opportunity to go a bit deeper, exploring larger themes, events and texts in an attempt to form a more holistic map of end time events while maintaining a grasp of the many options and perspectives on their relationships.

To begin exploring the theme from above, at the very least, orthodox Christianity since the time of Paul has agreed on three things about the end times. These three are so thoroughly biblical such that any denial is heresy. They are non-negotiable. These simple three are:
1. The physical and bodily return of Jesus Christ to the earth
2. The resurrection of the dead
3. The final judgment of all

Of course the bible reveals more specific details than just these simple three things. However, these three truths form the backbone of the structure that we will build through the world of biblical and systematic theology. Adding these additional elements to this backbone, we will be building a biblical timeline of the present and future together. Here are the key elements we will focus on at this time (although there are others):
- Old Testament Anticipation of Jesus
- The life and ministry of Jesus from His incarnation to ascension
- The Church Age
- The Tribulation (7 year period, the last half of which is the Great Tribulation)
- The Millennial Kingdom of Christ on earth
- Eternity
- The Rapture of believers
- The Return of Jesus Christ
- The Judgment Seat of Christ - Bema
- The Great White Throne Judgment

Guided by the Scriptures, including Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and the big three texts mentioned above, we will organize these 10 elements into a biblical timeline. There is, however, great debate and differing perspectives on most of the 10 elements above and their organization (and definition). We will do our best to explore some of the main options.

This job, for many, has been akin to untangling a large knot of string. One is not quite sure where to start and all of the many connections seem hopelessly unclear. To simplify things a bit, we will focus primarily on the three key issue intersections in most end-time discussions:
1. The timing and framework of prophetic end-time events
2. The nature and timing of the Millennial Kingdom and its relationship to Christ’s Return
3. The timing of the Rapture of the Church and its relationship to the Tribulation

Although there are hundreds of Old and New Testament texts that are prophetic and eschatological in nature (indeed a full one quarter of the bible was prophetic in nature at the time of its writing), there are three texts that rise above them all. They offer so much insight and revelation that they must be dealt with first and primarily. They are:
1. The Book of Daniel
2. The words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24-25
3. The Book of Revelation

But even among these three giants, the writing of Paul in first and second Thessalonians has a great pride of place, mentioning Jesus’ return and specific end time events in almost every chapter. In fact, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 closely connects and mirrors Matthew 24-25, just as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 closely connects to John 14.

Let us begin with an examination of the glasses we are all wearing as we read the Holy Scriptures. We must first address how we interpret the bible and confirm if it is the best way to do so, as there are many approaches. This method or “hermeneutic,” along with all of its beliefs and assumptions, is perhaps no more important than when one is reading and studying prophecy and end times, or eschatology. Some prefer the allegorical method of interpretation; one that sees symbolic and illustrative meaning as the central truth, thus “spiritualizing” biblical texts in a purely figurative manner. This can be very dangerous, unpredictable and inconsistent. It is also not the basic way people communicate in general.

I strongly believe it is best to approach the bible with a literal interpretation scheme. By “literal” I do not mean that every phrase or word is taken at is base meaning, but that the Scriptures should be read in their grammatical, historical and literary context and that a literal interpretation should be assumed unless it is clear that another is intended, as in the case of figures of speech, illustrations and the like. This is the “normal” or “plain” way that both ancient and modern writers communicated.

This principal rule of bible interpretation has been classically stated by Dr. David L. Cooper: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at is primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truth, indicate otherwise.”

It is with these interpretive “glasses” that we will approach the three backbone events of the end times and several critical additions to form a biblical map, all of which is born of the biblical text itself, doing perfect justice to interpret accurately and synthesize as comprehensively and cohesively as possible.

When it comes to the specific events and details recorded in Daniel, Revelation and the Olivet Discourse (including the Thessalonian content), there are four major schools of thought:
1. The Preterist view - Almost all of these events were literally fulfilled in the first century AD
2. The Historicist view - These events find literal and repeated fulfillment throughout major periods of human history since their writing
3. The Idealist view - These events point to spiritual truths that can find relevance in any age
4. The Futurist view - Most of these events are unfulfilled and yet future

I am squarely in the Futurist view and hold that since the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the completion of the New Testament canon, the major end time events and timeline is yet future and unfulfilled. It is from this perspective that I read, study and teach the bible.

Yet, to be clear, these matters see a large number of good, smart, godly people in different camps of thought, with very different views. Eschatology, or the study of end times, has enjoyed perhaps the most diverse array of viewpoints and interpretations among all fields of systematic theology. Ancient prophetic writings of yet future events is tricky ground to tread. But it is worth the trouble. Consider the ten reasons Mark Hitchcock offers for prioritizing prophecy in your biblical study.

1. Prophecy is a major part of divine revelation (28.5% of OT is prophetic; 21.5% of NT is prophetic)
2. Special blessing is promised to those who study prophecy (Revelation 1:3 etc.)
3. Jesus Christ is the chief subject of prophecy
4. Prophecy gives us a proper perspective on life
5. Prophecy helps us understand the whole bible
6. Prophecy is a tool for evangelism
7. Prophecy helps protect believers from heresy
8. Prophecy motivates people to live godly lives in light of eternity
9. Prophecy reveals the sovereignty of God over time and history
10. Prophecy proves the truth of God’s word

From our study of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, many have asked about what actually happens to a believer who dies now. Where do they go? What happens to their soul? What happens to their body? What happens at the resurrection that Paul says will coincide with the Rapture of the Church and precede the gathering of those still alive in that moment?

Simply put, any believer that dies is at once in the presence of God in spirit, as a disembodied soul. Their body obviously remains behind. There is no great evidence for “soul sleep” or a play with the timeline of history that we are trapped in that allows a rejoining of body and soul to seem instantaneous. These are, of course, matters we are piecing together from various Scriptures, but there seems to be ample evidence to this conclusion. Allow me to quote at length from The End by Mark Hitchcock. I find his words hard to improve upon.

To understand this rejoining of the body and the spirit, we need to understand what physical death does to our bodies and spirits. Death in the Bible always means separation, never annihilation. People will not cease to exist; their spirits will go on. So we need to distinguish between physical and spiritual death.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, they died spiritually. That is, they were suddenly separated from God.
From that point on, every person was born into this world spiritually dead or separated from God (Ephesians 2:1). Applying this understanding to physical death means that when a son dies physically, there is a separation between the material body and the immaterial spirit of the person. When this separation takes place, the body “falls asleep” and is buried. But the spirit goes immediately to heaven if the person is a believer in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). Between a believer’s death and the resurrection of the righteous, the believer lives in a disembodied state that Paul likens to being “naked” (2 Corinthians 5:3).
First Thessalonians 4:13-15 uses the words “fallen asleep” or “asleep” three times. This is a common biblical euphemism for death (Matthew 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36). The Bible is clear that when a believer dies, his or her should goes immediately into the conscious presence of the Lord (Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43; Acts 7:56-60; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). The “sleep” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 refers to the sleep of the body, not the soul and some believe.
The Greek word for “fall asleep” is koimao. In ancient times it referred to natural sleep or the sleep of physical death. In the Scripture when this word is used for death, it is only used for the death of a Christian. Just as we wake up from natural sleep, the body will one day be awakened at the resurrection. A related Greek word, koimeteria, refers to a bedroom or a graveyard. We get our English word cemetery from this word. A cemetery is a place where bodies sleep until the resurrection of the dead when they will be rejoined with the spirit.
”—Mark Hitchcock

1 Thessalonians 5 continues the theme of end times teaching as Paul reminds, informs and encourages the young church. But there is a distinct change of subject within this theme. Paul addresses the Rapture in 4:13-18 and then the “Day of the Lord” in 5:1-11, which is next in the prophetic timeline and begins with the Tribulation. This is why Paul maintains a distinction between “you” and “them” throughout this passage. The rapture will have occurred by then and believers will not undergo the Tribulation, for we “are not destined for wrath but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Group Discussion Questions:
  1. When you were little or younger, did you think about the end times much? What were some of your experiences or memories about this subject in church or elsewhere?
  2. What are your thoughts about end-times and prophecy now? Do you think they are important? Share with your group.
  3. Refresh your memory of the text by rereading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. Notice the change of specific subject in 5:1, even though Paul continues to talk about end times.
  4. In the end of chapter 4, Paul discusses the rapture of believers. How would you succinctly define and describe the rapture to a young believer? How does John 14:1-3 help?
  5. Read 1 Corinthians 15:50-57. How does this text inform the rapture of believers?
  6. At the beginning of chapter 5 of 1 Thessalonians, Paul begins to discuss the “day of the Lord.” What do you think this phrase refers to specifically? Do you know any Old or New Testament Scriptures that would help define it?
  7. How does Paul describe the impact of this “day” in 5:1-11?
  8. How does Paul contrast “you/we” and “they/them” in 5:1-11? What do you think he means by this contrast? What other contrasts does he use?
  9. 5:9 is a very key verse. How do you understand Paul’s meaning in light of the fuller passage? Discuss it among your group.
  10. How might one “encourage” and “build up” another with these truths? How are they relevant to life here and now?
  11. In the sermon, Scot constructed a timeline of prophetic events on the stage. He mentioned several options for several events. Was this helpful for you? What questions did it answer? What questions did it raise?
  12. Scot also identified seven points of personal application from 5:1-11. Share with your group the three that seem most relevant to you and why.
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