The Final Gathering of the Church
December 10, 2017 / No. 3910
Dear Radio Friends,
What will happen when Jesus comes again? The apostle Paul answers that question for us in part in I Thessalonians 4:13-18. We read there:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
In these verses Paul is not interested in all the events surrounding Christ’s second coming. Rather, he concentrates his attention on those events that surround the gathering in of the elect church. He does not focus on the destruction of the creation or even the resurrection of the wicked in that day. Paul intends to answer one question: how will God through Christ gather His church to Himself in that day. The reason for this is to comfort the hearts of the saints in Thessalonica—and our hearts today.
You see, because the saints in Thessalonica were ignorant of the final resurrection, they mourned the death of their loved ones. The saints thought that their loved ones would in no way be able to participate in the victory and glory of the final gathering in of the church because they had died. They were dead and buried, never to see in their bodies the great day of the Lord. So Paul, in order to comfort God’s people, instructs them in the blessed truth of the final resurrection. Not only those who are alive and remain in the earth are going to be present when Christ returns. Not only they will be a part of the gathering of the church. But the entire church will be present in that day—even the saints who have died and whose bodies are long gone. When Christ returns, then His shout will go forth and the dead in Christ shall rise, their bodies reunited with their souls, and they will be taken with all God’s saints to heaven. Such is the fact of that great and notable day. All God’s people, those living when Christ comes and those who have died, will all participate in the gathering in of the church.
We can be assured of this because Christ Himself arose from the dead. Jesus Christ has through His death and resurrection gained the power to raise us from the dead. Through His death and resurrection, He has gained the power and right to raise all His people from the dead. He is the resurrection and the life. Because we are in Him by a true and living faith, His resurrection becomes the power unto our final resurrection. Therefore, we need not fear that any of God’s saints will miss out on the great glory and wonder of that day. Christ will indeed receive us unto Himself, that where He is, there we will be also. That is God’s purpose in the gathering in of the church. That purpose He will fulfill. And so we shall ever be with the Lord.
But what will be the order of events in that day? Paul very simply lays this out for us in the verses we consider today.
THE FINAL GATHERING OF THE CHURCH
I. The Manner
What will happen when Christ returns? What will be the order of events in that day? As clear as Paul is in the verses before us, we must bear in mind that there will be much happening in that final day of Christ’s return. To attempt to order each element exactly and understand just how all these events could possibly happen is difficult. This is true because in that day time will be swallowed up in eternity. It is hard to understand the order of events when speaking of eternity. Nevertheless, the events involved in the gathering in of the church in our text are clear enough. Christ shall literally return to the earth even as He went up. When Christ ascended into heaven, He did so by merely floating up into the sky and disappearing. While the disciples were still staring after Him, two angels appeared and made this promise: “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.”
When Christ returns, therefore, instead of seeing Him ascending into heaven we will see Him descending from heaven. Paul also teaches us that in verse 16 of our text, the very first part: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven.” Jesus Himself tells us that when all the events of that day begin to transpire, then we should look up, cast our eyes to heaven, because it is from heaven that our redemption comes. The miracle of that day, of course, is that when Christ descends, all the world will see Him. His coming will shine as the lightning from the east unto the west, and every eye shall behold that coming. This means that when Christ returns He will not come to stand in a particular place or locale on the earth itself. If Christ were to return, let us say, to a particular city or mountain on the earth, it would be impossible for every eye to behold Christ. Paul specifically teaches us in verse 17 that the saints will be gathered to be caught up together in the clouds to meet Christ “in the air.” The picture implied in these words is that Christ shall descend from the heavens and remain at a point in the skies where all will be able to behold His presence. Already this, of course, implies a miracle beyond all human comprehension. But it was never Christ’s intention to come back to dwell on this earth. Christ will stand in the clouds of the air, the very place where He was taken up into heaven, and from there He will gather His people unto Himself.
Three signs will accompany the return of Christ to gather His people unto Himself. These signs will be three sounds we shall hear: a great shout, the voice of the archangel, and the sound of a trumpet blowing. Now, before going into these individually, we must understand the significance of them. These sounds herald the ingathering of the church! They are the clarion call to the elect saints to assemble, to be gathered together unto the final and glorious unification of the church of Jesus Christ! Believers confess that we belong to the church catholic, that is, universal—a church gathered from all ages and from all nations of the earth. But in this life, this confession is only an object of faith. We do not see with our eyes the entire church. We cannot behold the church as she is gathered from all over the world. Neither can we behold the church of the past, which has gone on before us. But in that final day, when these sounds are heard, it is unto the gathering together of all the church. That this is the significance of these signs is evident from Old Testament history. In Numbers 10 we learn that Moses ordered two beautiful silver trumpets to be fashioned. The first three verses of Numbers 10 teach us that the particular purpose of these trumpets was to call the people of Israel together unto an assembly. And the instruction of this chapter in Numbers does not stop there. We also learn that, when the children of Israel were called to break camp in order to move to another place, a familiar shout went forth. Still another shout went up when the nation settled into their new place. In this instance, too, we find that this shout reminded Israel that God was leading her to the promised land. Now, at the end of time, these same signs accompany the gathering in of the church of Jesus Christ.
First of all, we read that a shout will be heard. Literally, this term “shout” means “command.” A command will be heard. That command will proceed out of the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself. It will be an effectual command that will set the events of this final gathering in of the church in motion. It is a twofold command. The shout will be heard, “awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead!” This effectual shout will cause the dead in Christ to rise from their graves. But that shout of Christ shall also be the command to His angels to go out and gather together from all the earth the saints yet alive and waiting. This latter task of gathering the then-living saints, we learn from Scripture, will be fulfilled by the angels. We learn from Matthew 24:31, “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” This explains as well why the voice of the archangel will be heard in the day of Christ’s return. An archangel is an angel of higher rank among the angels—probably of highest rank. This archangel will take charge of sending out the angels in an organized manner to gather together all the saints unto the assembling of the church. As we have noticed already, the sound of the trumpet will be a summons to the church. When it is heard, all the saints will be waiting—even preparing themselves unto the great assembly of the saints in heaven. These are the signs, then, that accompany the coming of Christ from heaven to the earth.
There is more. There will be a certain orderly way that the saints are gathered. We are told in verse 16 of our text that the dead in Christ shall rise first, and then we which are alive and remain will be gathered afterwards. We read in verse 15 of the verses we consider, “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” Actually, the term “prevent” here has the sense of “to precede.” “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep.” In other words, the gathering in of the dead in Christ (those in Christ who have fallen asleep in death) shall precede the gathering in of those that are alive yet at Christ’s coming. Again, although this is all so hard to understand because all these events are rushing in upon themselves, evidently the order of events would go something like this. When Christ’s shout goes forth with the sound of the trumpet, the dead in Christ shall rise from the dead and be gathered with Christ in the air where He performs His work. At the same time the angels are sent out to do their work. These angels gather the saints still living. “Then,” Paul writes in verse 17, “we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” In this way, God will bring through Jesus and with Jesus both those who are dead in Christ and those alive unto His coming to be with Him forever in heaven. These are the events of that day.
Now, this explanation of these few verses is simple enough. Easy to understand. But some twist the words of Paul here to say something entirely different. We must be aware of this error. Those who err twist these verses to prove their theory of several different comings of Christ before the end. They claim that Paul is not explaining events, all of which take place on the day of Christ’s return at the end of time. Verse 16, they say, speaks of the dead in Christ rising first.
That is Christ’s first return and the first resurrection. Verse 17 begins, “Then [and notice that word ‘then’] we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them.” That word “then” refers to another time, some years later, when Christ shall return again to raise up those who are living on the earth. At least two resurrections and at least two comings of Christ are taught here by Paul, they claim.
It is not my intention today to enter into polemics with this entire error. The question we need to answer is this: is what the premillennialist contends a proper explanation of the Word of God we consider today?
In the first place, it is improper to assume something about the Word of God here that is not taught. Paul is explaining to the saints in Thessalonica the events of Christ’s second coming. He lays out logically the order of those events. There is no good reason to interject a lengthy period of time before verses 16 and 17. Such an interpretation forces this Word of God to say something that it simply does not say! Besides, even the sentence structure of these two verses does not allow for that. Together they make up one sentence.
In the second place, forcing this passage in this way leads to an absurdity. Those taken up with Christ in His first return need to live for years in a place “in the air”? Where does the Bible teach of another spiritual place other than heaven or hell that is in the air? That is about as far-fetched as the doctrine of purgatory. Other arguments can be made too, but it is not possible to enter into them in the time we have left today.
Paul describes for us in the clearest terms what will take place in that great and notable day of Christ’s one and final return. God’s people yet alive and remaining will be taken to be with Christ in the air; the wicked will be left behind to be destroyed together with the earth. Then too, in that same day, after the destruction of the earth, the dead outside of Christ will be raised unto the just judgment of God and will be cast into everlasting perdition. God’s people will meet in the air Jesus Christ Himself and those whom Christ raised in the final resurrection of that last day. Once having met with these saints in the air where He was performing this final great miracle, Christ will take all of His saints together with Him to heaven and there shall they ever be with the Lord. This Word of God provides for God’s people of every age unspeakable comfort!
II. The Comfort
Let us not forget that our text is practical in nature. It is meant to give comfort to God’s people. When they properly understand the events of the day of Christ’s coming, then God’s people do receive such comfort. This is why Paul states at the end of these verses, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” What words? The words we considered today. The dead in Christ shall rise and shall take part in the final gathering in of the church. God will indeed fulfill His purpose to take us to be with Christ in heaven. Our death will not prevent our waking at the end of time to the wonderful glory that awaits the church of Jesus Christ. The dead in Christ only sleep. How do these words provide comfort for us? In verse 14 Paul writes, “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.”
Death and the grave are bitter enemies! Bitter enemies! They are harsh and hard because they rob us of our loved ones. They take away the fellowship and love we shared with them in this life. Death and the grave take from us companionship and leave us with loneliness and solitude. How we hate to say our goodbyes when a loved one is slowly taken from us in death! How we hate it that we could not say goodbye when a loved one is snatched from us suddenly by the hand of death. And the grave: how final it seems. When the body of our loved one is left by the graveside we know we will never see him or her again. Many of us have experienced death in one way or another: a grandfather or grandmother taken away. A husband or a wife, a mother or a father. Maybe these were even taken from us while we are young. We know, do we not, that God can do this. Maybe death has claimed a child, an infant, or a teenager. Ah, how death can hurt! It is at that time in our lives that the words before us today provide for us the greatest of all comfort!
Someday we, together with our loved ones, will stand together before Jesus Christ. There will be no more death or the grave. These will have been finally conquered! We will stand body and soul alive, with each other, and all the saints. Our parting at death is only temporary—only for a short time. It is a mere closing of our eyes in sleep to be opened again to live forever! Death and the grave actually serve us, by transforming our vile and earthly bodies into that which is glorious and spiritual! It is with this hope that we lay our loved ones to rest in the grave. Do we mourn? O yes, we mourn! Sometimes we cry our hearts and souls out! We miss our loved ones and the fellowship and love we shared with them in this life. But when we mourn we do not do so even as the unbeliever who has no hope! We have great hope: we will see our loved ones again and will share together in the gathering in of the saints. We will live again! I know we cannot always see that hope when we are consumed in sorrow. But we are led to that hope through the comfort of our fellow saints. “Comfort one another with these words!” And we do. We all take turns doing that, do we not? When another member of the church of Christ passes away, we are there to embrace our fellow saints and to remind them of the hope of the final resurrection! And we comfort them with our fellowship and love!
This comfort causes us to suffer silently. Quietly we rest assured in the final resurrection and gathering in of the church. We look forward to that day and patiently long for it! And our souls are comforted! What a glorious day that shall be, when my Jesus comes for me! What great rejoicing will be ours! Be still my soul and wait on the Lord! Christ comes again! With uplifted head I long for that coming! I pray for it! Then is when we shall be saved. And we shall ever be with the Lord!