Will We See Our Loved Ones Again?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18My subject is one that we don’t often talk about. In the nearly 30 years I have served in pastoral ministry, I have had very few conversations on this topic. The reasons are not hard to understand.
Death in the best of circumstances is not easy to discuss. Even as an academic topic, most of us would rather not talk about death and dying. We feel uncomfortable with the topic and so we avoid it whenever possible. I remember a Sunday morning when the fire alarm went off during one of our worship services. A few days later I received a letter from a woman who had served on a crisis intervention team in another state. She told about her very first experience going to a fire started by a four year old playing with matches. His mother and father and little brother made it out safely. He did not.
Listen as she tells the story in her own words:
I had never been to a large fire before, it was very loud and very hot. The emergency personnel were just arriving and the scene was utter chaos, as most accident scenes are. I made my way to the mother of the family who was sitting, screaming, in the middle of the parking lot. I was holding her while the police and firemen and nearby workers and neighbors desperately tried to find a way into the inferno. I was holding on to her when she realized that the activity had stopped, the fire hoses were pouring into the building, but no one was attempting any longer to enter it. There was no hope.A few sentences later she adds this striking thought: “America is the only country in the world where people think death is optional.” How true. Much of our current obsession with diet and exercise—as important and necessary as it is—is an attempt to deny the inevitable. But in the end all such attempts are futile. This week and every week thousands of people will die in America. Some will die peacefully, others in fiery collisions, still others in hospital beds, and some will die totally unexpectedly, cut down by a rogue blood clot or sudden heart attack.
Death is truly and ultimately and finally inevitable. The Bible reminds us that “it is appointed unto man once to die” (Hebrews 9:27 KJV). You may miss many appointments in your life but that is one appointment you will not miss.
Farewell to Dearest Friends
And so we come to the question for today: Will we see our loved ones again? Deep inside we all hope and pray that the answer is yes. But can we be sure? After all, the newspapers are filled with stories of death. There are very few stories of resurrection. Death we have aplenty, but where is the resurrection?
Many of us have had the sad experience of going to a funeral and paying our final respects to someone we knew and loved in this life. Perhaps you laid to rest a dear husband or a sweet wife. Or perhaps you had the awful burden of burying a son or a daughter. Maybe you have said farewell to a brother or a sister or to the best friend you ever had. Just today I received an email from a friend whose aged mother is dying. Here is part of what he wrote:
My mom is near the end but peaceful from all we see. She is hearing us, not talking at all, but three days without fluids. It would seem she might live two more days in this state. Her passing seems calm and without great pain so far. We sang, I read Scripture, I prayed, we sang and told stories, we held her and kissed her, etc. Everything is up in the air now about how to plan next week but God will lead us as we take one day at a time. Seeing your last parent go is quite sobering. I feel a little like an orphan. I told her today, “Mom, you will soon be in the Church triumphant at the feet of Jesus.If you have had that experience, then my topic is anything but theoretical. It is intensely practical and personal. We desperately want to know the truth; we won’t be satisfied with mere speculation. We must know what God has said. Is there a word from the Lord that will help us?
The answer is yes. Thank God, we are not left alone to wonder and hope. God has told us the answer to this question. That answer is found in our text, which R.A. Torrey called the most comforting passage in all the Bible.
It begins with words that I have quoted over and over again at funeral services: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep (the reference is to believers who have died), or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (v. 13). This verse is filled with good news. God wants you to know the truth. He hasn’t hidden anything from us. If you are ignorant on this subject, listen up. God has something important he wants to say to you.
I. What Happens When We Die?
Have you ever wondered what happens when you die? I suspect we’ve all thought it at one time or another. Here is the biblical answer: What happens when you die depends on what happens before you die. The Bible tells us that all humanity may be divided into two groups—the saved and the lost. In our text the lost are those who “have no hope.” The moment of death marks a great division in the human race between those who are saved and those who are lost.
A. For the Saved
Those who have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior go immediately into the presence of the Lord. They are “away from the body” and “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). As the Apostle Paul languished in a Roman jail, he expressed a desire to depart (from his earthly body) and to be with Christ in heaven. In his mind, dying would be “gain” because it would usher him into the personal presence of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:21-23). Jesus made the same promise to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Meanwhile the body is buried awaiting the day of resurrection. Our text tells us that “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v. 14). That means there will be a literal resurrection of the bodies of believers who died “in Christ.” That resurrection will be no less literal and no less physical than Jesus’ own resurrection.
Often while conducting a graveside service, I will remind those present of the words Moses said when he heard the voice coming from the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Then I will say something like this. “This place of burial is holy ground. Look around you. Today all you see are signs of death–gravestones, markers, flowers, monuments. Everything about this place is quiet, peaceful, serene. It is a good place to bury the dead. But it won’t always be like this. When Jesus returns this very spot will be a place of resurrection. Take off your shoes, you are standing on resurrection ground.”
B. For the Lost
But what happens to those who die without Jesus Christ? They are sent immediately into a place of torment called hell. They will remain there until the Great White Throne Judgment when they will be condemned for all eternity and cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). If these things are true, then the most important decision you can ever make is the decision to trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And the most important thing you can ever do for your friends and loved ones is to share the Good News that Jesus died and rose again and wants to be their Savior.
II. What Happens When Jesus Returns?
All of that is very encouraging if you are saved, but it still doesn’t answer the question, Will we see our loved ones again? It’s great to know that they are in heaven if they know Jesus, but our hearts still cry out, “Will we see them again?” Our text does indeed answer that question but the answer is tied into another central question: What happens when Jesus returns?
Many of us know about Bible prophecy enjoy studying the movement of men and of nations. Perhaps you have read books about the Last Days and wonder how events in the Middle East may be preparing us for the coming of Christ. All of that is important and useful but it is not what Paul deals with in our passage. He is concerned about something much more fundamental. He wants us to know exactly what will happen when Jesus does return—whenever it happens, whether today, tomorrow or in a thousand years. The signs are important but the Second Coming itself is much more important.
In this passage Paul lists six things that will happen when Jesus returns.
A Sudden Descent
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven” (v. 16a). The emphasis in the Greek is very strong. It is the Lord himself who will descend. Not a substitute or a stand-in. Not a lookalike or an angel. Not a guest host or an Old Testament saint. Not a figment of our imagination or some ghostly religious figure. But the Lord himself will return. He will bodily and personally return to the earth.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, two angels appeared and spoke to the disciples, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). I love those three words: “This same Jesus.”
This same Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, he who walked the dusty roads of Galilee, who healed the sick, raised the dead, and preached good news to those in captivity. He was betrayed, tried, denied, condemned, scourged, crucified, and buried in a borrowed tomb. On the third day he arose and 40 days later ascended into heaven where for 2000 years he has been seated at the right hand of God.
This same Jesus … dismissed by many, ignored by others, mocked by some, hated by others. This same Jesus, head of the body, Lord of the church, creator of the universe. This same Jesus, the Lord himself, shall descend from heaven.
The one who saved us, the object of our prayers, the hope of every dying saint, the one whose message we preach. This same Jesus is returning to the earth that rejected him. Once he came as a lamb to the slaughter, now he returns as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Once he was judged of men; now he comes to judge all men. Once he was crucified; now he comes to be crowned. Once he was mockingly called “King of the Jews.” Now he comes as King of Kings and they mock him no more.
This same Jesus is coming again!
A Loud Shout
“With a loud command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet call of God” (v. 16b). He descends amid great pomp and ceremony. There is the shout of authority, the voice of majesty, and the trumpet call of victory.
In the old days whenever the king was coming to a village, the town crier ran ahead and shouted, “The king is coming! The king is coming!” In the same way the King of Kings will make his entrance known to the entire world.
A Great Resurrection
“And the dead in Christ will rise first” (v. 16c). This is a statement of priority. Evidently some in Thessalonica were worried that when Jesus returned he would rapture the living but leave the dead Christians in their graves. Paul says, “Don’t worry about it. The dead in Christ rise first.”
Note two little words in our text. It is the dead “in Christ” who are raised. This is only a resurrection of believers. The unsaved dead are left in their graves. They will be raised at the Great White Throne judgment 1000 years later. There are two resurrections, not one, and they are separated by 1000 years.
Let us understand what our text is saying. All the believers in Christ will be raised. That includes people who died 2000 years ago—James and John and Peter who was crucified upside down, and people who died 1500 years ago, 500 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 10 years, 1 year ago, 1 month ago, and those who died in Christ this week. It includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Peter Lombard, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Sunday, Jim Elliott, and the Turkish martyrs who died a few months ago.
It will be a literal resurrection from the dead. How? We simply do not know. But the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise from the dead all who follow him. This includes those who die at sea, whose bodies are cremated, those who die on the battlefield, and those who die a lingering death from cancer. They will be raised indestructible with brand-new bodies, clothed with immortality, healed, restored, put in their right minds, raised to live forever, raised to die no more.
Let the people of God rejoice. The grave will not have the final victory because the dead in Christ rise first.
A Glorious Rapture
“After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them” (v. 17). Do you see the phrase “caught up?” It’s the Greek word harpazo, which means to seize or snatch, to swoop down and take away. It’s a word that always implies a change of location. In this case it means that living believers will be literally lifted off the earth.
How will it happen? In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. How fast is that? It’s faster than it takes to blink your eyes. One moment you’re baking cookies, the next moment you’re flying like Superman. One second you’re eating pizza, the next you’re in the air. One minute you’re in the shower, the next you’re being blown dry at 30,000 feet. Just like that. We will be here one moment and gone the next.
Take some iron filings and sprinkle them in a pile of sawdust, then pass a magnet over the pile. What happens? The force of the magnet pulls the iron filings from the pile. Like a magnet attracts iron filings, even so the Lord knows those who are his. He will literally lift us off the earth to meet him in the air.
A Happy Meeting
“To meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (v. 17b). Notice three key words. We will meet the Lord. We will be with the Lord. We will be with the Lord forever.
Do you remember what Jesus said to the dying thief? “Today you will be with me in paradise?” Where is paradise? It’s wherever Jesus is. The glory of heaven is not the streets of gold or the gates of pearl or the river of living water. The glory of heaven is Jesus. Wherever he is, that’s where heaven is.
That’s the happy meeting for all of us. We will see Jesus. Face to face, in person, we will be with him.
A Grand Reunion
Notice what Paul says in verse 17, “We will be caught up together with them” (v. 17c). Then he says, “We will be with the Lord forever.”This is the ultimate family reunion. All of God’s children from all the centuries from every land and nation and tongue and kindred together at last with Jesus.
This is what Christians have always believed. We lay our loved ones to rest in hope that they will be raised immortal when Jesus returns. Do you know why the Bible calls death for the Christian “asleep in Jesus"? Because whenever you go to sleep you always wake up later! Death is not the end for the Christian. It is only the glorious beginning. The English word “cemetery” comes from the Greek word that means “the sleeping room.” The dead in Christ will wake up, their bodies brought back to life by the resurrection power of God, they will be raised from the grave immortal, and we shall rise through the clouds to meet them in the air and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
And that brings us, finally, to the ultimate question …
III. Will We See Our Loved Ones Again?
The true answer is, It depends. It depends on them and it depends on you.
1. It Depends on Them
We will only be reunited with our loved ones if they were saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Let us not let sentiment stand in the way of sober biblical truth. Not everyone will go to heaven. Those who in this life had no time for Jesus will find in the next life that he has no time for them. If our loved ones died without Christ, then there is no biblical reason to think we will ever see them again unless we see them at the final judgment when they are eternally condemned.
But if our loved ones died in Christ, then yes indeed, we will see them again.
2. It Depends on You
But the answer also depends on you. Where do you stand with Jesus? Is he your Savior and Lord? Have you ever trusted him and him alone for the forgiveness of your sins?
That brings me to the end. So I ask the question one final time. Will we see our loved ones again? The answer from Scripture is clear. We will see then again if we know Jesus and if they know Jesus.
I close with this story. Eleven years ago Cliff Raad called me into his office and said, “I want you to read this letter. He gave me a copy of a letter he had written to his six grandchildren. He was 72 when he wrote this letter. He is 83 years old today. Let me quote from part of it:
When you read the age of 72, you realize that you have already exceeded the “three score and ten” that the Bible speaks of and after that, any years you get are a bonus. Perhaps the Lord will give me many more years, but if he chooses not to do so I’m grateful for the wonderful life he has allowed me to have.What a wonderful letter. Would that every grandfather would write such a letter to his grandchildren. Let me make two brief comments and then I am done. First, let every husband and every father and every grandfather do what Cliff Raad has done. Make sure your family goes to heaven with you. Do whatever it takes. Write a letter, make a phone call, talk to them face to face, and don’t ever stop praying for them. Don’t go to heaven without the people you love the most by your side.
I did want to share with you, while I still have the opportunity, some of the desires of this grandfather’s heart. My greatest desire for each of my grandchildren is that they would walk with God. After 72 years on this planet, I can testify without reservation that there is absolutely nothing that can compare with living your life surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there are other things more important.
Another desire is that each of my grandchildren would choose as a marriage partner a person who is a “born again believer.” Every week I look at the prayer sheet here at church with requests from numerous people longing for their spouses to come to Christ. Spare yourself this agony by starting out right.
The bottom line is that I want only the best for each of you. God has been good in giving me six wonderful grandchildren. I love each of you dearly and pray almost daily for your well being, but most of all, that you would walk with God. Some day when we’ve all finished our time on earth, I look forward to another of our family reunions, with everyone of you on hand. God bless each of you.
With all my love,
Second, let us comfort each other with these words of Scripture. Our hope is in the Lord. Paul said we sorrow but not as those who have no hope. They die and we die. They are buried and we are buried. Side by side in cemeteries around the world the people of God rest with the unsaved.
What makes the difference? The only thing that stands between us and unbelievers is the Word of God. We have the Word of the Lord that Jesus died and rose again. If God raised Jesus, he will also raise those who trust in him. God has promised it and it must be so. If we reject the Word of the Lord, we have nowhere else to go.
Hold fast to the promises of God. Will we see our loved ones again? For those who know Jesus the answer from God’s Word is yes.
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