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The Trumpet Call of God

Jesus Christ is coming back for his disciples, whether we live or sleep.

From the editor

Eschatological issues have always been intriguing, but the interest has both widened and deepened in the last 25 years or so. Bestselling fiction and "wars and rumors of war" will do that. If you're looking to tackle the End Times, you'll benefit from reading this sermon by Lee Eclov. Lee finds ways to make the listener feel right at home with the more mysterious passages in the Word. It's due in no small part to his ability to tell a down-to-earth story and the great pains he takes to find just the right words.


Pastor Bob Russell often tells the story of his father's funeral. It was held on a cold and blustery winter day in Pennsylvania, and the snow was so bad—the wind was blowing so hard—that after the service at the church, the funeral director said the roads were impassible and that the typical funeral procession to the cemetery wouldn't be possible. He said to Bob, "I'll take your dad's body to the graveside." Bob couldn't bear the thought of that, so he, his brother, and a couple of their sons piled into an SUV and followed the hearse through the snow to the cemetery. Bob says:

We plowed through ten inches of snow into the cemetery, got about 50 yards from my dad's grave with the wind blowing about 25 miles per hour. The six of us lugged that casket down to the gravesite. We watched the body lowered into the grave, and we turned to leave. I felt something was undone, so I said, "I'd like for us to have a prayer." The six of us huddled together, and I prayed, "Lord, this is such a cold, lonely place." And then I got too choked up to pray anymore. I kept battling to get my composure, and finally I just whispered, "But I thank you, for we know to be absent from the body is to be safe in your warm arms."

Paul wrote: "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." One of the bedrock truths that every Christian must know and understand is this: Jesus Christ is coming back for his disciples, whether we live or sleep.

We do not grieve as those who have no hope.

Did you know that there are over 300 verses in the New Testament about the Second Coming of Christ? Three hundred verses! That comes to about one verse for every 30 verses in the whole New Testament. But no passage tells us more in one place than the passage before us this morning: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. We can't afford to be ignorant about the Second Coming of Christ, because it affects everything we believe and everything we do as Christians. I noticed that just in this letter, Paul makes at least five or six references to the Second Coming. In each case he mentions a different purpose, a different reason, why we need to know about it, and how it affects us in this way and that. In this text before us, it is for our encouragement—so that we do not worry about those who die in the Lord. It's a passage of encouragement. He ends in verse 18: "Therefore, encourage each other with these words." One of the most important tasks we as Christians have is encouraging one another with the good news that Jesus is coming back for us. We have to tell each other that again and again, in various ways. It's critical information—mission critical information.

The reason for the writing of this little section, apparently, was that these Thessalonian believers were under the impression that Jesus would come back almost immediately. When believers from their church began to die, and Jesus had not come back yet, they were worried about them. They were worried that they'd lose out—that they'd miss the big party. So Paul writes, particularly, to assure them about the fate of those Christians who have passed away. He says: You do not need to worry. These first verses you might summarize this way: those who have fallen asleep in Christ will not miss a thing.

At the pastors' prayer group I'm a part of, two of the guys recently came in wearing their dark suits, looking real spiffy. We pastors know what that means: "You have a funeral today?" Both of the brothers had funerals; it turned out they were back-to-back at the same funeral home! One of them was for an elderly woman who had passed away. She had come to Christ in the middle of life, and her children knew her both as a bad mom and a good mom. That funeral would celebrate what Jesus had done in her life to change her and to set forth the hope of a reunion. The other funeral was a particularly tragic one of a young mother who had died of cancer, leaving her husband and two little children. I later asked my friend Steve how the funeral went. He wrote:

The sense of the funeral was one of real grief and yet genuine rejoicing over a life consumed with passion for the glory of God. So many of the people in her extended family are committed believers. The funeral was a true and real experience of worship. No one has any doubt but that one instant after Beth passed from this world last Sunday evening, she woke up in more glory and joy than any of us can possibly imagine right now.

We do not grieve as those who have no hope. I've told you before about the woman who came to me with a friend. Her friend brought her to see me because she had gone to a funeral of an African-American believer in an African-American church, and she was so unsettled by the joy that she was shaken and troubled. When her friend brought her to me and I explained the gospel and the hope that we have, she embraced it and accepted Christ. We do not grieve as those who have no hope.

You'll notice here in verse 14 that everything starts with this bedrock confession of the Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again." That's the bottom line of the Christian faith! We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. One follows by necessity from the other. If Jesus rose from the dead, then all who put their faith in him and are hidden in him must rise also. He must come and get them back if he has risen from the grave. Look at something in verse 14 very closely: "We believe that Jesus died." And then later it says, "and God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." Different words—and they are not synonymous. One isn't just another way of saying the same thing. Harold J. Ockenga said, "Death is the God-forsaken experience of a condemned soul." This is the death of Jesus. Jesus died in the fullest and most horrible sense of the word—the God-forsaken experience of a condemned soul. When we put our faith in Christ, God puts us in Christ. Did you get that? When we put our faith in Christ, God puts us in Christ. His death swallows up our God-forsaken death. Our condemnation is in him on the cross and paid for there. When God raised him from the dead, death's sting was gone for us, and sin's sentence upon us was fully paid. So when our bodies give out, we do not die; we sleep. Jesus died. Alexander McClaren wrote: "His death makes our deaths sleep, and his Resurrection makes our sleep calmly certain of awaking."

Where are these people who have fallen asleep? Where are they? The verse says, "God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep." If you look in the very next chapter, 1 Thessalonians 5:10 says, "He died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him." Those who have fallen asleep are living with Christ as surely as we here are living with Christ. Whether awake or asleep, we live with Christ. Remember that famous statement by Moody? "One day you will hear that D. L. Moody of Northfield, Massachusetts, is dead. Don't you believe it! In that day I will be more alive than I have ever been before."

But how can you say that they're sleeping if they're alive? Actually, not to put too fine a point on it, they are not sleeping; their bodies are sleeping. The Bible is very clear that the moment we die, we are consciously present with the Lord. We don't go into some long, spiritual coma. Our bodies are asleep the way you see them in a casket, for example. Believer's bodies are, you might say, incubating. They are dormant just like the lily bulbs that are under the ground out in our gardens, waiting to come to life. But the spirits of those who have fallen asleep are alert at this moment and enjoying the company of the Lord. Take heart in that and do not grieve. Don't think they'll miss a thing, for they are consciously with the Lord. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Paul said, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." God will see to it that those who have fallen asleep will not miss out on Jesus' Second Coming. In fact, in a manner of speaking, they get first dibs! They get to be first in line. Look at what it says in verse 15: "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"—that's one of the strongest negatives in the whole New Testament (will "absolutely, certainly not")—"precede those who have fallen asleep." They'll go first; we'll come after them. Take heart in knowing what will happen when Jesus comes back.

The events of Christ's Second Coming

You understand, of course, that we don't know everything about Jesus' coming back. I've got some questions that for all these years are still not answered. But Paul says, "Encourage one another with these words." There is enough here to encourage every believer, no matter what our circumstance of life.

He begins with this: "The Lord himself will come down from heaven." When Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, as described in Acts 1, the angels told those waiting disciples: "This same Jesus, who has been taken away from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." At the signal of the Father, when time has reached its fullness, Jesus Christ will rise from his sapphire throne, pass through the arches of glory—past the altar of sacrifice stained by his own blood, past the altar of incense, fragrant with the prayers of the saints, past the awesome living creatures who worship him night and day—and summon one great archangel to accompany him. He will cross the great gulf fixed between heaven and earth and step through the curtain of the sky. No need for a star to point him out this time. No need for shepherds or wise men to spread the word. No disguises of baby flesh or swaddling clothes. As C. S. Lewis said, "When the author walks on the stage, the play is over." This time there will be no mistaking his coming. He will come, it says, with a loud command.

What will he say when he shouts? That was the question that caught Greg Fisher off guard. He was teaching at the West African Bible College a few years ago, and this passage had just been read. A student said, "I would like to know what the command will be." Reverend Fisher was going to pass on the question, because we're not told what the command will be. The Bible doesn't say. But he hesitated. In his mind he remembered conversations he'd had with African believers who had suffered beyond description. He remembered the bloodshed and brutality of that particular place. He thought about the beggars that he passed on his way to work every day. Again the student asked, "Sir, what will the command be?" "'Enough,'" he said. "I think it will be, 'Enough.'" Enough suffering. Enough starvation. Enough terror. Enough death. Enough time. Perhaps that is what he will shout. Or perhaps he will shout as he did when he stood before Lazarus' tomb: "Lazarus, come forth!" Someone has said that if Jesus had not used Lazarus' name—if he hadn't been specific—all the tombs and all the hillsides in all the earth might have broken open at the power of that command. Perhaps the command will be, "Beloved, come forth!"

It says he will come with the voice of the archangel. The archangel is one of those chief princes of heaven who has stood guard at the behest of God over the centuries, who has listened to the pointed prayers of the saints ("How long, O Lord"), and has been in hand-to-hand conflict with Satan over the outcome of salvation history. He is there, I suspect, as the representative of all the angelic hosts. I believe he will say a hearty amen on behalf of all the angels of heaven, for they have been waiting for this as well.

"And he will come with the trumpet call of God." I've always imagined it as brass but perhaps not. Perhaps we should think of the haunting, deep-throated summons of the shofar, the ram's horn trumpet with its two-note call. God has used trumpets in the past in fanfares for the future—hints of what would come. This last trumpet will be like the trumpet sounding at Mt. Sinai. God is among his people, finally, and ready to lead us through the last leg of the journey to the land he has promised. It will announce, like the rams' horns at the Feast of Trumpets, our invitation to a celestial feast. Like the trumpets of Jericho, it will announce that the world's rebel walls are about to come tumbling down.

The text also says, "the dead in Christ will rise first." Our fellow believers who have been with the Lord will now experience the resurrection of their bodies. They have been with Jesus all these years, blissfully happy. But in spite of all the unhindered joys of that state, they have been restless. Make no mistake: they have been restless indeed. Though they have been with the Lord, they have not been complete. They have not had their resurrected bodies, which lay sleeping till this very moment. The imagery seems like they descend into the dressing rooms of the earth where new bodies wait—almost as if they are on hangers, refashioned by God from the dust and ashes, in the same way that God makes flowers from seeds. Now they explode forth, Christ-ward, clothed in the Christlike bodies that they have been waiting for.

What makes these bodies so glorious? It's not really that we become superheroes like those guys on TV. It's not that we'll have X-ray vision or superhero strength or be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I don't know if that will be true or not, but that's not the best part. The best part, the most significant thing, is that these bodies will be sin-free and sick-free. These are bodies fit to live forever—minds unhindered by the lies and lunacies of this world, hands that will only and ever serve the Lord, eyes worthy of holy sight, ears that can bear the hymns of heaven, tongues that will speak only blessing, and hearts clean enough and big enough and loving enough to embrace the very glory of God.

"After that," the text says, "we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds." The Latin word for caught up is rapto, meaning, "to seize, to carry off." That's why we call this experience the Rapture, the seizing. Elsewhere, we're told that this will all happen in the twinkling of an eye. Part of the reason this Rapture is so wonderful is what it will pull us from, what we will be seized out of: all that drags us down here, all that weighs us, the heavy gravity of this world that pulls down our souls, that draws tears from our eyes and forces bodies to bend beneath the weight of sin and sorrow. We will be caught up and away from all the crippling memories and sorrows, from the heartaches that hobble us here, the weaknesses that hinder us here—all thrown off like those sandbags they toss from the baskets under balloons. We will rise to meet the Lord in the air.

"We will be together with them in the clouds." What a reunion! God's people have never been all together. The great cloud of witnesses has watched us run our courses, but we have never been all together. We have read one another's stories and seen in each other's lives that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but we have never been all together. We have sensed deep within us that we are part of one great church across ages and miles and languages, but we have never been together. I am sure that when we gather in the clouds, we will recognize each other. We will know our loved ones. What's more, we will know those who we have never met, because we are brothers and sisters. There will be that recognition, that family resemblance, that signal. Our very bodies are the proof of who we are. We will be known, and we will know.

And look where it is we will meet: in the clouds, in the air. This, of course, has been the domain of our great Enemy. The Bible calls him the prince of the power of the air. The reunion is there in the heavens—in the sky where Satan has held forth and held court. He who has tormented us and lied to us and accused us of sins that are under the blood of Jesus will be cast down, and we will meet in triumph where once he ruled. It will forever be the domain of Jesus.

Douglas McKelvey wrote:

The clock has stopped. The universe has flashed and cracked. The flood has swept the dam. Bright angels sift like gold dust from the gash, heralding invitations of the Lamb: Arise ye hobbling, tattered, orphaned, blind; ye maimed in spirit, measured without merit, by men cast off as useless. Rise and find the crown, the throne, the birthright to inherit."
We shall meet the Lord in the air, and we will be with him forever. We can perhaps imagine at least a shadow of what a reunion with our loved ones will be like, for we understand how good it was to be together here. But I do not think that our minds can conceive or our hearts grasp what it will be like to meet the Lord in the air.

Finally, the one who has heard ten thousand prayers from our lips, the one to whom we've sung a thousand times, the one who we sometimes sensed was right with us in the room but we never saw him, and the one who sometimes seems so far away and yet never left us or forsook us—we will see him. Our image of him has always been earthbound: sandals and robe, the Son of Man, cross-fixed, or at best, standing by an empty tomb. We have never really imagined that transfiguration of Jesus. But in that moment we shall see him in his glory. What's astonishing is that we shall contribute to that glory. We will be part of the shining. Do you think that the angels of heaven add to the glory of God? They do, but not as much glory as the redeemed of Christ. When we gather with Jesus, we who were sinners and who had no love for him till he loved us first—the redeemed of Jesus—will be like the halo of his glory.


And the faith that we have so carefully cultivated and guarded will no longer be necessary. Faith is being certain of things unseen. It will be pointless, for we shall see. The faith we have guarded will have done its work and can be laid aside forever.

And there's one more thing: Jesus himself will be thrilled. I have pictured Jesus as impassively gathering people to himself, standing above the hubbub. That's not right. Jesus himself is waiting for that day with unbridled anticipation, drumming his fingers and checking the clock (if such a thing were possible in heaven). He wants to be with us more eagerly than any bridegroom ever awaited his bride. He will be more excited than anyone that his church has finally been gathered to him, that the end has come, and that the dinner is at hand. At Lazarus' tomb, Jesus wept. He wept, I think, for the waiting. But he will wait no longer. I don't know if resurrection bodies have adrenaline, but this I know: no one in all that excited assembly of saints and angels who meet the Lord in the air will be more thrilled to be there than Jesus himself.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? __

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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Sermon Outline:


One of the bedrock truths that every Christian must know and every Christian must understand is this: Jesus Christ is coming back for his disciples, whether we live or sleep.

I. We do not grieve as those who have no hope.

II. The events of Christ's Second Coming


I don't know if resurrection bodies have adrenaline, but this I know: no one in all that excited assembly of saints and angels who meet the Lord in the air will be more thrilled to be there than Jesus himself.