Imagine for a moment that you lived in Thessalonica. Paul had founded your church community not long ago, but was there for only a short time. He had taught you about this Jewish man Jesus Christ, who was really the son of the one true God of Israel. He died at the hands of the Romans, but was raised to eternal life three days later. He was coming back again to fix this world up and consummate God’s kingdom. In the meantime, you are to live lives of holiness, peace, love, and joy. Sounds great, right?
But what if your church is under persecution by the local authorities? Perhaps the local imperial cult has heard that your group is calling someone other than Caesar the Lord, the Savior, the Son of God, etc. During these skirmishes, some of your church members were killed for their profession of faith to Jesus. Your community begins to mourn their losses.
Paul hears of this tragedy and wants to comfort you. Here is what he writes:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
17 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.
18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. -1 Thes. 4:13-18
You try to understand Paul’s words of comfort. First, he does not want you to mourn like others who have no hope. This implies that there really is a hope for you and your fallen friends. This hope is bound up in the fact that since Jesus was raised from the dead, you too will be raised from the dead. This will occur when Jesus returns in glory. All the believers will be caught up together in the air. Then Paul uses a very interesting word. The Gk. apantesis was a word which was used when the Emperor was coming to visit and those expecting him would go out to escort him back to the town. You understand this as a simple “meeting,” but its purpose is to escort the royal visitor back to the earth.
Then Paul says something very carefully: kai oupos pantote sun kurio esometha. This means, literally, “and by this process, we will forever be with the Lord.”
Back to 2010. Paul just clearly stated to the Thessalonians that they will be “with the Lord” by means of the resurrection of the dead upon the arrival of Christ Jesus. Paul does not comfort them by saying that the dead are already in heaven and when you get there then you will always be with the Lord.
Why aren’t the words of comfort given by Paul taken seriously by most Christians?