One of the things that makes the Bible ring true to me is the openness of its teachings. Unlike the gnosticism that was increasingly taking root in the first century, there are no secret teachings or higher levels of knowledge in Christianity. Earlier, we saw how intentional Paul was to highlight truths that he had taught them, things they "knew" because he was transparent in his ministry. Here, we see that same level of intentionality applied to teaching about death, the return of Christ, and the day of the Lord.
Jesus talked at length about the end of the world and told the apostles what believers living at that time could expect to see. So it's only natural that as new followers came into the fold, they would hear of Jesus' words (remember, the gospels hadn't yet been written down) and wonder about other believers who had died, who wouldn't be here to see Christ's return. Paul didn't leave them hanging - he didn't want them to be ignorant about it. This tells me that at the heart of true ministry is a desire for people to know. To have specific truths to hold on to. This is another of those areas where Paul didn't leave room for discussion, for a soft theology of discovery and raising questions; instead, he lays out "hard theology," a sound doctrine of clear truths with a specific timeline (though not specific dates and times).
- Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, an archangel's voice, and a trumpet call of God.
- The dead in Christ will rise first.
- Believers who are still alive and left on the earth will be caught up in the clouds.
- Everyone - the resurrected dead and the caught up living - will meet the Lord in the air.
- We will all be with the Lord forever.
Paul also didn't want them to grieve hopelessly. Have you ever witnessed truly hopeless grieving? I have, and it's one of the saddest things I've ever seen. "Grieve" means to be sorrowful or sad. We are not told not to grieve - we will still experience sadness when those we love die, because death is not normal. It's not the way it was meant to be. Instead, when we lose a loved one in Christ we grieve differently because of the hope that we will see him or her again - we don't even have to wait for heaven. We'll be reunited in the sky, either both being resurrected (if we die before Christ's return) or being caught up after their resurrection (if we're still alive). Paul's specific theology here becomes a source of encouragement - we are told to "encourage each other with these words". The bodies of those who are gone are just "asleep" - waiting for the trumpet. (As Paul notes elsewhere, their souls are with the Lord immediately at death; absent from the body but present with God.)
Paul then moves into a related, but distinct topic: The "day of the Lord." Not the day of joyous resurrection, but the day of judgment. He doesn't give specific information, because that day will come suddenly, like a thief. The entire emphasis here is on the impact of this day on those who are being destroyed. These individuals are also said to be asleep, but not in the sleep of death. These are asleep in the darkness of unbelief. Asleep when they could be awake.
Believers are in direct contrast. In Christ, we are all children of the light, children of the day. We are alert, self-controlled. We are not in the dark of night, where sleep and drunkenness reign. We are in the light of day, where truth and love reign. We have been called from darkness into His marvelous light, called to declare His praises with every breath He gives us until our last breath - or until we meet Him in the air.