Will You Be Left Behind?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

October 20, 2002 | Brian Bill

This past week we went with another family to an apple orchard.  Upon discovering that they had a “Corn Maze,” we decided to check it out.  I thought it was going to be a little field with a few paths through the corn.  Boy, was I mistaken!  We paid our admission fee and then split up into three groups.  We were handed some maps that we ignored, and ran into the maze.  Our task was to find 12 signposts and get our card punched.  It didn’t take long for us to get lost, and for me to become claustrophobic.  When we didn’t know which way to turn after going in circles for several minutes, we finally consulted the map.  

The map wasn’t much help because we didn’t know where we were.  A map only makes sense if you can find your location first.  We eventually stumbled upon a signpost and punched our cards.  We were encouraged but then we lost our way again.  I heard some people up ahead of us and asked them where the next sign was (this is not easy for a man to ask for directions!).  They pointed left, then right, then straight ahead.  I politely thanked them but had no clue what they were talking about.  Eventually, we discovered a few shortcuts through the corn where previous pilgrims had trampled down the stalks and found a couple more signposts.

As we stumbled through the maze of maize, I realized that if we could get up high enough we could see part of a pattern and the paths to our goal.  When I stood on my toes, I could gain a better perspective.  If we had a helicopter, or access to a Global Positioning Satellite, we would have cruised through the confusion in about 10 minutes.  If we could just get high enough we could see that there was an intelligent design to everything.

As we come to our topic this morning, it’s my hope that we can get above the labyrinth of life that we’re in and begin to understand God’s divine design for the future.  We might feel like we’re going around in circles but God is moving history to a grand finale, if we could just see it.  We’re going to catch a glimpse today as we stand on our toes by taking a look at a wonderful passage of Scripture.  Before we do that, let me address several preliminary points.

1. We need to guard against end times extremism. 

Chuck Swindoll hits it on the head when he writes: “For centuries, thoughtless fanatics have littered the path of Christianity, especially those who have earned the label ‘prophecy freaks’…these fanatics have consistently turned scores of people away from the Bible’s prophetic program.  Many people have reacted by discounting and even scoffing at the biblical picture of the future.  Christians today need to take a sane and sober reexamination of God’s plan for the events yet to come.”  My guess is that some of you are turned off by our topic today.   A few of you may be confused by an overemphasis on date setting or maybe you’ve been tempted to follow Bible teachers who force every current event into a prophetic paradigm.  My goal this morning is not to turn you off or confuse you further.  Instead, I hope that you become “turned on” to a biblical view of what lies ahead.

2. The “Left Behind” series is helpful prophetic fiction. 

I’m grateful to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins for their perspective on prophecy and how they have so dramatically portrayed what it might be like to be left behind when Christ returns for His church.  Their depiction of the Tribulation period is chilling and their description of how some people get saved after the Rapture is intriguing.  While the characters in the story are fictional, and some of their interpretation is conjecture, the prophetic premise is based on the passage we will be studying today.  When Jesus returns, some will be snatched away while many will be left behind to face a seven-year period of unprecedented Tribulation as described in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Friend, I can tell you this: however it all takes place, you do not want to be left behind!

3. The Bible is filled with prophecy. 

In his book called, “Are We Living in the End Times?” Tim LaHaye points out that almost 30% of Scripture is made up of prophecy.  More than one hundred prophesies in the Old Testament depict the first coming of Jesus as the Messiah, and He fulfilled each one.  LaHaye encourages us to be confident that Jesus will come again “…because He promised He would – five times more frequently than He promised to come the first time!  Since His first coming is a fact of history, we can be at least five times as certain that He will come the second time.” As Bible believing Christians, we are constrained to study this sweet doctrine.  And, as we’ve pointed out before, 1 Thessalonians contains a reference to the return of Christ in every chapter!  When we visited Washington, D.C. this summer, I was struck by the inscription on the dome of the Capitol: “One God, one law, one element; and one far off, divine event to which the whole creation moves.”  I’m not sure it’s all that far off!

4. The purpose of this passage is pastoral. 

Paul is a pastor at heart and his aim is to help these new believers understand and process some things that have been troubling them.  His intent is not to give us a complete system of end-time theology in this passage.  Have you noticed that there are godly individuals who differ on how future events will take place?  I have read and studied enough to know that one should not be too dogmatic on the precise details of how everything will happen.  I do know that Jesus is coming back and I will share with you my view, and this church’s view, of the major eschatological events.  That reminds me of the man whose grandfather clock went haywire and chimed fourteen times one midnight.  He jumped up and said, “Wake up, Nellie, it’s later than it’s ever been before.”  I sincerely believe that it’s later than it’s ever been before and that we are living in the last days.  However, my purpose this morning is pastoral.  If you’re itching for a theological gunfight, you’ll be disappointed.  Put your pistols back in their holsters. 

5. We believe in the literal, personal, imminent, pre-tribulation and pre-millennial return of the Lord Jesus Christ with His redeemed ones. 

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?  The return of Christ will not be symbolic but will involve Jesus Himself.  Imminent means that He can come at any time.  

Jesus will come before the Tribulation and rapture the Christians who are alive and resurrect the redeemed who have died and take us all back to heaven with Him.  This will be followed by a 7-year period of unprecedented Tribulation.  At the end of this time, Christ will return with believers and set up his 1,000 year-reign on earth.  Thus, we believe the rapture is “pre,” or before the Tribulation; and Jesus will return “pre,” or before He inaugurates the millennial kingdom.

Let me clarify something at this point.  When you read the phrase “coming of the Lord” in the Bible, keep in mind that this phrase refers to a series of events.  It begins with what we’ll see today in 1 Thessalonians 4 when Jesus comes in the clouds for believers who have died and for those who are alive.  The “coming” of Christ concludes when He returns to the earth at the end of the Tribulation period as depicted in the Gospels and in Revelation 20.  

Ray Stedman states it well: “When Scripture speaks of the coming of the Lord, it sometimes looks at the beginning of that series, sometimes it spells out the end of it, and other times, as in the [bulk of the] Book of Revelation, it is looking at what is going on between the two ends.”  Another commentator compares the coming of the Lord to a two-act play separated by a seven-year intermission (the Tribulation).  

Let’s take a look at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: “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.”

The Problem of Sorrow (13)

In verse 13, Paul begins by saying that he does not want them to be ignorant.  This is his favorite way to transition to a different subject (see Romans 1:13; 1 Corinthians 10:1).  In other passages he says, “I want you to understand” or “I want you to know.”  This is a very emphatic statement meant to get their attention.  Remember that these brand new believers were experiencing persecution.  Perhaps they thought Jesus was going to return any moment and rescue them from their trials.  When their brothers and sisters in Christ started dying, it caused them concern.  Did their deaths disqualify them from meeting the Lord when He returned?  Had they somehow missed out on the end time events?  

Paul is writing to clear up their confusion about those who have “fallen asleep.”  That reminds me of the Sunday school teacher who asked her class why it’s important to be quiet in church.  One bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping!”  I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here.  The phrase “fallen asleep” is used in verse 13, verse 14, and verse 15 to describe believers who have died.  This is a wonderful way to speak of death for the believer.  Used in this way, it always refers to the bodies of believers when they die.  Our souls don’t sleep at death; they go immediately into the presence of the Lord as stated in 2 Corinthians 5:8: “We…prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”  

But our bodies are “asleep” in the sense that they will wake up again and be resurrected.  In John 11:11 when referring to Lazarus who had been in the tomb for several days, Jesus said: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”  By the way, this word in Greek is where we get our word “cemetery.”  It was the early Christians’ optimistic name for a graveyard because they knew it was a sleeping place, a dormitory for dead people who will one day be resurrected.  Our spirits go to be with Jesus when we die, while our bodies go to sleep.  This is illustrated by Stephen, right before he was martyred in Acts 7:59 when he cried out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Verse 60 tells us that he then “fell asleep.” 

The moment of death marks a great division in the human race between those who are saved and those who are lost

Paul’s pastoral concern is that these new brothers and sisters refrain from grieving like those who have no hope.  There are really only two groups of people in the world – those who have hope and those who don’t.  Believers in Jesus have the guarantee that there is something better coming, while unbelievers have no hope at all.  The moment of death marks a great division in the human race between those who are saved and those who are lost.

Paul is not saying that believers should not have sorrow when a loved one dies.  After all, Jesus wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35); he is stating that a believer should grieve differently than someone who does not know Christ.  We can grieve with hope because we don’t really have to say “goodbye” to a believer.  You’re really saying “Good night” because if they know Jesus and you know Jesus, you will see him or her again when their bodies “wake up” and they’re reunited with their spirit.  

In the following verses Paul spells out the certainty of that hope by referring to the coming of Christ.  This passage is one of the three key New Testament references for the Rapture and the Resurrection of those who are “asleep in Christ.”  The other two are found in John 14 and 1 Corinthians 15.  Before we go much further, let me define the term “Rapture.”  Look at the phrase in verse 17, “will be caught up.”  This verb means, “to snatch up, to seize, and to carry off with force.”  The Latin Vulgate translates this as “rapture,” which is the word we use today to describe how Jesus will “snatch us away and gather us together” when we meet Him in the clouds.  

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s slow down and look at each verse carefully.  We’ll see that…

  • The Promise of the Rapture is Sure (14-15a)
  • The Participants of the Rapture are Certain (15b)
  • The Plan of the Rapture is Set (16-17)
  • The Purpose of the Rapture is to Strengthen Us (18)

The Promise is Sure (14)

We can know that the promise of the rapture is sure because it is built on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in verse 14: “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.”  This is a concise summary of biblical Christianity.  Jesus died as full payment for our sins.  By rising from the dead, He conquered death.  The Resurrection proved that God the Father accepted the sacrifice of His Son and guaranteed that we too will be raised to new life.   

When we were lost in the corn maze last week, I looked up and saw an old weathered light pole.  I remembered this pole when we came in.  Just seeing this helped me gain my perspective and gave me comfort.  As I kept my eyes on the wood I could find my way.  Likewise, the old rugged wooden cross is our focal point and the empty tomb is our hope of heaven.  Focus your attention on the facts of our faith: the crucifixion and the resurrection.  This will give you hope and you can know that the promise of His coming is sure.  Our resurrection and gathering with Him at His coming is predicated on His resurrection.  You can’t get much clearer than 1 Corinthians 6:14: “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead and he will raise us also.”

The first part of verse 15 gives us another reason to be confident of His coming: “According to the Lord’s own word…”  Commentators suggest that this may refer to something that Jesus said when He was alive that was not recorded in the Gospels or it may be something that Jesus revealed directly to Paul.  In any case, what is to follow is “the Lord’s own word.”  As such, it carries with it tremendous authority.  The Rapture is not a made-up doctrine.  It’s not theological speculation.  It’s sure because it’s built on three pillars – the redemption provided by Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the revelation of Christ. 

The Participants Are Certain (15b)

In the remainder of verse 15 we see that the participants are certain: “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.”  There are two groups of people who will participate in the Rapture.

  • Believers who are alive
  • Believers who have died

Notice that Paul uses the pronoun “we” to indicate that he thought he’d be alive when Jesus returned.  Like all early Christians who believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime, Paul was ready to be raptured.  Flip back to 1 Thessalonians 1:10: “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”  

When Paul refers to those who have “fallen asleep” he directly addresses one of their concerns.  The Thessalonians also believed that Jesus would come before they died.  That’s why they were so worried about those who had passed away.  Paul tells them that believers who have died will not only not be forgotten; they will take precedence over Christians who are still alive.  Actually, they are experiencing the benefits of being in the presence of Christ all the time.  And, when the Rapture occurs, they will be taken care of first.  This answers their questions.  The living have no advantage over the dead.  There will be no lesser saints.  They would not miss the Rapture.  No believer will be left out.

The Plan is Set (16-17)

The problem of sorrow is now solved because the promise is sure and the participants are certain.  The plan of the Rapture is set forth in verses 16-17: “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.”  Paul lists eight key elements to this plan.

1. A Sudden Descent. 

Notice that the Lord Himself will come down from heaven.  This is not an angel or a messenger.  This is not a substitute or a stand-in.  It is not symbolic or some kind of literary device.  This is the literal Lord, coming down from heaven just like Acts 1:11 declared that He would: “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.”

2. A loud command. 

This is a military term that was issued when the troops were “at ease” and it was time for them to “fall in.”  It can also mean to stand up.  Jesus is shouting for all believers to get on their feet, and to fall in line.  This word was used for a command that always came with authority and had a note of urgency to it.  I love what Jesus said in John 5:25: “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.”  This is the time when the dead and the devoted will hear the thunderous command of the Commander in Chief of the armies of heaven. 

3. The voice of the archangel. 

In Daniel 12 and Jude 9 the archangel is identified as Michael.  As Jesus comes down with his booming command, Michael’s voice is echoing behind Him.

4. The trumpet call of God. 

The Bible is filled with references to trumpets and they have a number of different meanings.  In Exodus 19 a very loud trumpet was used to call the people out to meet with God.  In Zechariah 9:14, a trumpet was used as a signal that the Lord was about to rescue His people.  The trumpet sounds forth at the Rapture because God’s people are called out in order to be rescued.

5. A great resurrection. 

The dead in Christ will rise first.  This is a statement of priority that would have calmed the concerns of the Thessalonians.  I want you to notice that it is the dead “in Christ” who are raised.  This is only a resurrection of believers.  The unsaved dead are left in their graves to be raised at the Great White Throne judgment 1,000 years later as spelled out in Revelation 20:5: “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.”

All believers in Christ will be raised.  That includes people who died 2000 years ago and those who died in Christ this week.  It includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, Corrie Ten Boom, Todd Beamer, and believers from our own congregation.  They will be raised indestructible with brand-new bodies, clothed with immortality, healed, restored, put in their right minds, and raised to live forever, to die no more. 

6. A glorious rapture. 

Rapture is 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?  1 Corinthians 15:52 describes the scene as taking place “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye.” How fast is that?  It’s faster than it takes to blink your eyes.  It’s how fast it takes to see light flash on the pupil of our eyes.  A “flash” is the Greek word that represents the smallest interval of time imaginable.  

One moment you’re driving your car, the next nanosecond you’re flying through the clouds.  One second you’re eating a chalupa, the next you’re airborne. One minute you’re in the rain, the next you’re being blown dry at 30,000 feet.  One moment you’re cheering for the Packers, the next you discover that the angels are wearing green and gold!  Just like that.  We’ll be here one moment and then gone the next.  

Warren Wiersbe defines the various meanings of the Greek word “caught up” with these phrases: “to catch away speedily,” “to seize by force,” to claim for one’s own self,” “to move to a new place,” and “to rescue from danger” (“The Bible Exposition Commentary,” page 180-181).  And, when we’re snatched, we’re instantly transformed and given a brand new body according to Philippians 3:20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

7. A grand reunion. 

Notice what Paul says in verse 17, “We will be caught up together with them.” Then he says, We will be with the Lord forever.” This is the ultimate family reunion. All Christians from all centuries from every land and nation will be together at last with Jesus.  Your loved ones who loved Jesus will join you for an unending family reunion.  Robert, if you do ascend in the Rapture, your mother will be reunited with her resurrection body and will join you on the way to heaven – though she may beat you there!  Jesus will come either with us or for us.

8. A joyful meeting. 

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 word “meet” is a beautiful word that was often used to describe the meeting of a dignitary or a king as people rushed to get close to him.  We will not only meet Him, we will be with Him.  And we will be with Him always, never to be separated from the Savior again.

The problem of sorrow is solved because the promise of the rapture is sure, the participants are certain, and the plan is set.  We come now to the final point: the purpose of the rapture is to strengthen us.

The Purpose of the Rapture is to Strengthen Us (18)

As we come to the end of this chapter, Paul the pastor reveals that the purpose of all that he has written is to comfort us: “Therefore encourage each other with these words.”  Jesus is coming for His own.  Don’t worry about believers who have died and don’t be concerned about yourself if you know Christ.  We’ll all be there when He sounds the trumpet.  As believers we should be talking more about the Rapture than we do because knowing what is coming ought to influence what we are doing right now.  

After establishing the truth of His return, and what will happen to our bodies, Paul concludes 1 Corinthians 15 with a very practical admonition: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  While we wait, we must work.  And while we exert our energy, let’s encourage one another by talking about what’s to come.

The purpose of prophecy is to give us hope, comfort and encouragement.  Jesus is coming again.  It’s a promise for us to believe.  At the same time, it’s a frightening prospect for those who have not yet put their faith in Christ.  If you don’t know Jesus as you personal Savior, if you have not been born again, you will be left behind.

We want to show a short clip from the “Left Behind” movie to help us visualize what it might be like for someone who has been left behind.  The Rapture has taken place and millions of people have suddenly disappeared, causing planes to fall out of the sky and cars to drive off the road.  We pick up the action as Rayford Steele, a pilot, rushes home to check on his family…  

Friend, I want to tell you right now that it’s not too late for you.  In fact, you can have a new beginning if you want it.   It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, where you’ve been sleeping, or how many times you’ve gone to church.  Turn to Jesus right now…before it is too late.  My sister Beth, after reading part of the first novel in the “Left Behind” series, realized that if Jesus came back right then she would be left behind.  That led her on a search that culminated in her commitment to Christ.

What about you?  If Jesus were to return this afternoon would you be snatched away or would you be left behind?  Maybe you feel like you’re running in circles through the maze of life and you don’t know which way to go.  Friend, there is a path and it’s clearly marked.  But, it’s narrow and it may restrict you a bit. 

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said that more people take the wide road but unfortunately that path leads to ruin: “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” 

If you’re ready to commit your life to Jesus Christ and find salvation, I’m going to ask you to come up front in a few minutes.  Some of you are ready to make that decision and I pray that you will before it’s too late.

Others of you have made the salvation decision and maybe you’re ready this morning to take your sanctification seriously.  A couple people came forward last Sunday when we talked about the need for purity.  I could tell that many others were close to doing so.  I received a note in the mail this week from someone with some keen insight that I’d like to share:  “Thank you for the message last Sunday.  Giving in to temptation can seem very subtle.  After the experience of going through life for a while I have learned a valuable lesson.  As a believer, sin will take you further than you want to go and keep you longer than you want to stay.”

Have you gone further than you wanted to?  Have you stayed away from Christ much longer than you ever thought you would?  It’s time to come back.  I’m going to give you another opportunity this morning to look up, fess up, and come up.

1 John 2:28 challenges us to live like we should be living because Christ can come back at any time.  When He returns, what do you want to be doing?   When He comes to rapture the redeemed, will He have to pull your hands off of something that you’re clinging to?  Listen to these words and allow them to penetrate your life: “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.”  The only thing worse than being left behind is to be ashamed when Jesus returns.  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?