Ignorance in prophetical matters
Of the six verses that we are considering concerning subjects of which Paul would not have the saints to be ignorant, the remaining two relate to prophetical matters. In 1 Thessalonians 4.13 Paul writes, "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"; teaching linked to the future of the church. In Romans 11.25 he writes, "For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in"; here the teaching concerns the future of Israel.
When thinking of the return of the Lord Jesus it is of course essential to observe that there are two phases to His return.
(a) His coming into the air, to take believers out of this world, prior to a seven year period of judgment that God will yet bring upon the earth, a period to be identified with Daniels seventieth week mentioned in Daniel 9.27. We usually refer to this phase of His coming as the rapture, and this is the primary subject of 1 Thessalonians 4.
(b) The second phase will take place at the culmination of that seven year period of tribulation, at which point Christ will return to the earth (Zech 14.4). We call this phase of the coming the revelation in glory, when Christ will be manifest to the world in all His glory, and set up His kingdom upon earth.
Turning to the reference in 1 Thessalonians 4, we might summarise the teaching under six headings.
(1) The reason
Why did Paul find it necessary to unfold these truths to the Thessalonians? It is evident from Acts 17, and the record of his ministry in Thessalonica, that the return of Christ had been prominent in Pauls preaching; not the rapture, but the revelation of the Lord in glory. In 2 Thessalonians 2.5, having spoken of events relative to the Day of the Lord and the revelation of Christ in glory, Paul asks, "Remember ye not, that when I was yet with you, I told you these things?".
Consistent with that, in Acts 17.7, when Paul was present at Thessalonica, his opponents charged him with teaching "that there is another king, one Jesus". Having embraced the apostles teaching, these believers (with the knowledge that they had before they were taught the truth of 1 Thessalonians 4) were waiting for the coming of Christ in glory to establish His millennial kingdom. But some of their company had died, possibly martyred for their faith. Paul describes them in 1 Thessalonians 4.13 as "them which are asleep", and in v.14 as "them also which sleep in Jesus".
Since they were looking for Christs coming to set up His kingdom, the question naturally arose as to where the departed saints would stand in relation to that kingdom? Christ would return, but the departed saints would be absent and so, they concluded, unable to participate in the millennial reign.
That Paul states, "I would not have you to be ignorant", indicates that the reason for their apprehension was not a lack of faith, but the fact that they simply did not know. So Paul writes to remove that uncertainty, something that had caused them to sorrow unnecessarily. He says in v.13, "That ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope". Paul is not teaching that a Christian should experience no sorrow at the home call of a loved one. In fact the verse reminds us that grief for the loss of a loved one is something that is common to all, and that such sorrow is not inconsistent with the Christian hope. But while the believer sorrows it is not as the sorrowing of unbelievers.
Unlike the latter, believers are not without hope; they not only know that their loved ones are "with Christ", they also have the hope of coming resurrection. It is true that unbelievers are to be raised also, but that resurrection is never spoken of as a hope. It will be for such but a brief relief from their suffering in Hades prior to their banishment to the lake of fire. In many respects the sorrowing of the Thessalonians was akin to that of unbelievers. They sorrowed for their own loss, but equally for the loss of those who had died, supposing that they would be unable to partake in coming glory. As we come into v.14 Paul reveals that such fears were groundless.
(2) The reassurance
Paul assures them that those who "sleep in Jesus will God bring with him". In this statement Paul is writing, not of the rapture, but of the revelation of Christ in glory, that moment described in Hebrews 1.6 when God will bring "the firstbegotten into the world". Then, those who sleep in Jesus, "will God bring with him" so that their place in the kingdom is assured. In Colossians 3.4 Paul writes of the same time and says, "When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory".
But another question immediately arises, "How can God bring them with Him, when their bodies have been laid in the grave?" The answer is contained in vv.15-17 where Paul reveals that before Christ comes with the saints at His revelation in glory He will come for the saints at the Rapture.
The truth that Paul is about to unfold had been given to him by divine revelation (v.15): "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". This is new truth that is being unfolded to them, probably specifically given to Paul to meet this particular situation.
The word "prevent" carries the idea of "precede", Paul indicating that at the coming of Christ the living saints will have no advantage over those who have died; instead those saints who have fallen asleep will have the precedence in experiencing the transforming power of the returning Christ.
(3) The return
We read in v.16, "The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God". Paul emphasises the personal return of the Lord, and asserts that His coming will be heralded by a distinct signal from heaven "a shout the voice of the archangel the trump of God", the three things all perhaps relating to one impressive signal from heaven.
(4) The resurrection
"The dead in Christ shall rise first" (v.16). It is significant that Paul writes of the "dead in Christ". Death had not altered their relationship to Him. The verse tells us that these will be the first to experience the quickening power of Christ.
(5) The rapture
"Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up" (v.17). The use elsewhere of the word translated "caught up" (eg Acts 8.39; 2 Cor 12.2), denotes a sudden and irresistible catching away.
(6) The reunion
Those who are alive will be "caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air" (v.17).
Note that they will be reunited and meet the Lord "in the air", the domain of Satan (Eph 2.2), but he will be unable to prevent this reunion and the meeting associated with its taking place. The grand climax is, "so shall we ever be with the Lord".
Little wonder Paul writes in v.18, "Wherefore comfort one another with these words". Words for the comfort of the bereaved, but not those alone: words for the comfort of every believer.
To be continued.