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Our Last Step on Earth (chapter 4:13-18)
One Step at a Time
our last step on earth
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
 
For several weeks now, we've been talking about our walk with God and how it is traveled, beginning with our salvation, "one step at a time".  And while there are some great joys as well as some grief and trouble along the way, we need to keep in mind, we are not just out for a walk.  There is a destination ahead of us.  And one of these days, we'll take our last step on earth. 
 
Now the truth is, most of us would rather not talk about death and dying. We feel uncomfortable with the topic and so we avoid it whenever possible. In fact, as much as we say we love heaven and want to go there, but sure do everything we can to avoid it! 
 
A few years ago I put together a resource called "Putting Your House in Order" and made it available to our church membership.  It is a well-thought out guide for planning your memorial service and providing all the information your family will need to take care of business after your death.
 
It arose as a result of my observations down through the years of watching people try to plan funerals and not really knowing the wishes of their loved ones, and trying to track down all the information on finances, burial plots, insurance and other important information. My aim was to have all the pertinent information available for a loved one in one location making funeral planning a little less stressful. 
 
 
So many families are completely unprepared for the task.  I remember one family who told me their mother had written everything out for them, but they didn't know where she put the information, and never located it.
 
So I put this multi-page guide together so all that information could be easily accessible in one document.  All the financial information, insurance policy numbers, how you want to be dressed, the songs, do you want your glasses on your body (you'd be surprised what families argue about), everything!
I even offered to put a copy on file at the church office so it would be available. 
 
And I will tell you I had a tremendous response to that guide.  All in all, I think there was a grand total of two who took advantage of it. 
 
We just don't like to think about dying!  We all kind of hope against hope that somehow the experience will miss us.  We are like Woody Allen, who said, "I don't mind dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens!"
 
We know we are going to die.  So we acknowledge the fact, then as quickly as possible, get the thought out of our mind, and then do all we can to avoid it.  Even those who watch their diet and exercise regularly, as important and necessary as those things are, are nothing more than attempts to delay or deny the inevitable.
 
By the way, studies show that if you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, on average you will prolong your lifespan by nine months.  It will seem like nine years while you're lying in a nursing home somewhere!  But good news!  You lived a longer life!
I'm drinking tap water and eating real eggs so that maybe I will avoid that blessing!
 
When I think about that, my mind inevitably goes to Dr. Robert Atkins.  He was the cardiologist who first developed the diet bearing his name in the early 70's, after becoming convinced that an excess of carbohydrate was having negative effects on his patients' health and weight.
 
For the most part, he followed his diet and lived a very healthy and fit life.  But on April 8, 2003, at age 72, Dr. Atkins slipped on the ice while walking to work.  The blow to his head caused bleeding around his brain. He lost consciousness on the way to the hospital, where he spent two weeks in intensive care. His body deteriorated rapidly, he suffered massive organ failure and died April 17, 2003.
 
Now I am not a neurologist, but I have a sneaking suspicion if we could have been in on what was going through his mind during those two weeks, I think we would have heard him saying, "Darn!  I wish I'd eaten more Fritos!" 
 
He had a great body mass index!  He was in fine physical shape for a 72 year old.  But he died!  Listen:  everyone is going to die.  In fact, you are in process right now. And no matter how hard you work or how healthy you eat, in the end, it's all 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.
 
So if we're going to die, we are just as well to face it head on and be as well-informed as possible. There are all kinds of questions that enter the discussion when we think about death because we've never experienced it.
 
In fact, one of the greatest frustrations for me when it comes to death and dying is the thought of "not being".  As far as I can remember, I've always been.  In fact, as far as I'm concerned, the world began when I was born and it will end when I die.  Not being!  And frankly, I'm more than a little bothered by the fact that I die and the world just goes right on without me. 
 
That's why it aggravates me when cars don't stop out of respect for a funeral procession.  Don't you realize someone has died?  Not being! 
 
So what will it be like?  Is there really something on the other side?  Will I "be" in another life or form or body?  If so, what will it be like? Will I know my family in the future?  Will I ever see my 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 but there is hardly ever a story of resurrection.
 
Most all 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.
 
If you have had that experience, then you will be extremely interested in what Paul has to say in our text today, a text, by the way, that R.A. Torrey called the most comforting passage in all the Bible. 
Because it is a text that answers some of our questions about death and life and what awaits us, 
 
It begins with words that I have quoted over and over again at funeral services:
 
1 Thessalonians 4;13
 
We don't have to read any farther than this one verse to hear some good news.  Before he ever answers a question, Paul first of all says, "God wants you to know the truth. He hasn’t hidden anything from us. So if you are ignorant on this subject, then  listen up because God has something very important he wants to say to you."
 
Since we all have questions, let me guide you through this text and see if we can't discover the answers God provides for us.  Let's begin with the most basic.
 
 
1. 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 can be divided into two groups—the saved and the lost. Last week, we looked at those who are in and those who are out.  Either you are in Christ, or you are outside of Christ. 
 
And even a casual reading reveals those two groups here in our text. 
 
Look at verse 13 again.  Notice, Paul begins by addressing the "brethren".  Then, in verse 14, he further identifies the brethren as those who "believe that Jesus died and rose again". 
 
But notice he also differentiates the brethren from those "others who have no hope". So, just reading from the text, there are those who "believe that Jesus died and rose again and there are "others".  Two different and distinct groups. 
 
And I will tell you, there are a lot of good people who may fool you while they are alive as to whether they are in or out, lost or saved, but the moment of death reveals the true nature of every person.  And there is a great division in the human race between those who are saved and those who are lost.
 
 
 
 
- 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 wrote a letter to his friends in Philippi and 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 Himself made the same promise to the thief on the cross when He said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
 
So what happens when we die?  At the moment of death, the soul of a believer, saved by the blood of Jesus, is immediately ushered into the presence of a waiting God.
 
Meanwhile the body is buried awaiting the day of resurrection. Notice, verse 14 of our text tells us that “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him”.  That is a reference to the soul that has been safely kept in the presence of God from the moment of physical death until that return. 
 
And when Jesus returns, bringing the souls with Him, at that moment a resurrection of those bodies occurs allowing the soul and body to be reunited. 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.
And the bodies will be changed, literally glorified, to be like that of the resurrected Lord.
 
And I will tell you, I never stand beside a grave at a funeral without thinking about the fact that we are standing on holy ground.  It may not appear to be so when we are surrounded by the freshly opened earth and gravestones and markers and flowers.  After all, it is the burial place of the dead.   
 
But it won’t always be like that because when Jesus returns, every cemetery where there lies a buried saint of God will become a place of resurrection. And for the saved, there awaits a "great gettin' up morning!"
 
- For the Lost
 
But what about those who die without Jesus Christ?  At the moment of their death, their souls are immediately delivered into a place of torment called hell.
 
I remember several years ago when we were at the old location, I was talking to a man out in front of the church one day. We had been remodeling the offices and had an old hot water heater out there waiting to be picked up by the trash truck.  He had stopped to inquire about it and before he left, I engaged him in a discussion about his spiritual condition. 
 
And I remember making a statement similar to what I just said, about how at the moment of death, a person without Christ goes immediately to hell.  he said, "Don't you think you get some time to lay around and think about it for a while?" 
No.  There is no time to reconsider.  The time for choosing and thinking has come and gone. That's why I said what happens after you die depends on what happened before you die.  And in that moment of death, those lost souls are carried into the torments of hell and there they will remain until their bodies are resurrected for the Great White Throne Judgment. 
 
And there, also reunited, a dead soul in a dead body, they will appear before Almighty God to be condemned for all eternity.  And according to  Revelation 20:11-15, death and hell will be cast into the lake of fire as God sees to it that the punishment they deserve is carried out.  And in that lost condition, they will spend eternity in the pain and torment of punishment that comes from rejecting the Son of God.
 
Now, if these things are true, and I believe they are upon the authority of the perfect Word of God, 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.
 
Second question:
 
2. 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?”  
 
Now it seems to me that the question of whether or not we will see our loved ones again is tied to another central question and that is, what happens when Jesus returns?  And that is exactly what Paul deals with in this text. 
 
He wants us to know exactly what will happen when Jesus returns whenever it happens, whether today, tomorrow or in a thousand years. But the important thing is the Coming of Christ Himself. 
 
So notice what Paul says about that in our text:
 
verses 16-18
 
Now if I count correctly, Paul lists six things that will happen when Jesus returns.  First, there is
 
- A Sudden Descent
 
verse 16a
 
"The Lord Himself will descend from heaven"
 
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 Lord of Lords and they mock him no more.
 
This same Jesus is coming again!
Second, He comes with
 
- A Loud Shout
 
verse 16b
 
"with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God"
 
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.

Third, we see
 
- A Great Resurrection
 
verse 16c
 
"and the dead in Christ will rise first"
 
As I've already explained, there is a resurrection of the bodies of the saints of God.  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.”  In fact, if you are alive at the Rapture, they leave before you do!
 
verse 15
 
Don't worry about God's children being left behind!  He takes care of his own!  And pay particular attention to 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.
 
Now be clear about what he's saying.  All the believers in Christ will be raised. That includes every New Testament saint!  That is people who died 2000 years ago like James and John and Peter, and everyone in between and including those who are dying at this very moment. 
 
It includes the great church fathers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Sunday, Jim Elliott, and those who are being martyred around the world even as we speak.
 
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.
 
Fourth, there is
 
- A Glorious Rapture
 
verse 17
 
"we who are alive and remain will be caught up"
 
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.
 
I get amused by those who like to point out that the word "rapture" is not in the New Testament.  Well neither is the word "grandfather".  Do you want to deny they are real also? 
 
Listen:  Just know this in regard to Biblical teaching and doctrine:  A specific English word doesn't have to be present for the principle or truth to be real.  The New Testament consistently teaches us about the rapture of the church. 
 
For instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, paul talks about our "gathering together to the Lord".  He mentions a "falling away" that opens the door for the appearance of the anti-Christ".  It couldn't be more clear than here in our text where Paul we will be "caught up. . .in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air".   That sounds like a rapture to me!
So how will it happen? To the Corinthians, Paul said it would happen "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye."
 
So how fast is that?  Well, I realized this week, that I've been attempting to understand this phrase, along with a lot of other people, by looking at the wrong part of it.  The phrase, "in the twinkling of an eye" gets all the attention. 
 
And you can find all kinds of opinions about the speed of a twinkle.  There are all kinds of formulas and opinions about that. 
 
But before Paul talked about the twinkling of an eye, he said it would happen in a moment.  And that word "moment", is a very interesting word because it is the Greek word from which we get our word "atom".  And it defines likes this: that which cannot be cut or divided.  It means indivisible. 
 
So in the Greek understanding, you can’t get anything smaller than that which cannot be divided.  Therefore, Paul is indicating that the rapture will occur in the shortest time imaginable. It can’t be divided down any farther.  It will happen in a moment.  So that is the teaching.  
 
The twinkling of an eye is the illustration of that teaching.  It will happen in the shortest possible time and it will happen like the twinkle of an eye.  Now a twinkle is not a blink or a wink.  Those are different. 
 
A twinkle is what happens when a flash of light reflects off the retina.  One writer suggests it would be like a sixth of a nanosecond. 
So how fast is a nanosecond?  Well, a micro-second is one millionth of a second. A nanosecond is one thousandth of a micro-second. And the twinkling is one sixth of a nanosecond. That's fast!  Now Paul loves descriptive language and he is straining against the limits of human vocabulary to tell his listeners that one of these days, the Lord will snatch His church off the face of the earth and when it happens is will instantaneous. 
 
It’s faster than it takes to blink your eyes. It's fast than you could ever imagine.  One moment you’re baking cookies, the next moment you’re in the presence of God!  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.
 
Fifth, we will have
 
- A Happy Meeting
 
verse 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.
 
Listen:  The glory and the beauty and the wonder 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.  And if He is th4e wonder of Heaven, then the wonder of wonders is that we get to be there with Him for all eternity. 
 
That’s the happy meeting for all of us. We will see Jesus. Face to face, in person, we will be with him.
 
And finally, there will be
 
- A Grand Reunion
 
verse 17c
 
"we shall always be with the Lord"
 
Now notice what Paul says there because this verse is the one that provides the answer to our question.  Will we see our loved ones again?  Well, if they are there and you are there, then it stands to reason they we will be there together.  And not only will be there together, but we will be with the Lord for all eternity, without any threat or fear of ever being separated again!
 
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.
 
In fact, you may not realize it, but 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.
 
Now, that brings us, finally, to the ultimate question.
 
3. Will We See Our Loved Ones Again?
 
The truth is, "It depends". It depends on them and it depends on you.
 
- It Depends on Them
 
We will only be reunited with our loved ones if they were saved through faith in Jesus Christ. I'm not going to stand here and mislead you or try to soften the message and tell you anything less than the truth. 
 
Unfortunately, not everyone will go to heaven. There is no such thing as universal salvation and everybody going to heaven because they lived a good life.
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.  So it depends on them and
 
- It Depends on You
 
See, if you are without Christ and they are saved, then they will never see you again.  That's why it is so important to know where you stand with Jesus. 
Is He your Savior and Lord? Have you ever trusted Him and Him alone for the forgiveness of your sins?
 
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.  Now, Paul provides one final thought in
 
verse 18
 
"Comfort each other with these words."
 
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? There are a lot of things about death and what happens afterwards that create questions for us, but not this one.  For those who know Jesus the answer from God’s Word is yes. 
 
One final story:  A sick man turned to his doctor, as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, "Doctor, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side."  Very quietly, the doctor said, "I don't know."
 
"You don't know? You, a Christian man, do not know what is on the other side?"
 
As the doctor was holding the handle of the door; on the other side came a sound of scratching and whining.  When he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped onto him with an eager show of gladness.
 
Turning to the patient, the doctor said, "Did you notice my dog? He's never been in this room before. He didn't know what was inside. He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened, he sprang in without fear. I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing. I know my Master is there, and that is enough." 
 
Let's pray.
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