“Afterwards” (1 Thess.4:17)
The believers in Thessalonica were troubled about some of their number who had died. Paul wrote about them in his first letter, referring to the way in which they were grieved and sorrowing, and tried to cheer them up by saying that the world may very well sorrow for their dead, but not so those who had pinned their faith in the Lord Jesus, who have hope for the future. More than hope, a sure expectation. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those who sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.” (1 Thess.4:14)
He then says he had been given specific word about the Lord’s return, and the manner in which the resurrections will occur. “We who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have slept. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven . . . with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first, afterwards we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them.” (1 Thess.4:15-17)
In this number I should like to focus our attention on the word “afterwards”. In the A.V. it is just “then”. But in the Amplified Bible the translators have taken the risk of saying “immediately afterwards.” We shall see that there is no guarantee that this is so. The little Greek word is EPEITA, and we can gain an idea of how to translate it from amongst the few other times it occurs in the N.T.
Mark 7:5. “Then the Pharisees and Scribes asked the Lord . . .” In this case, the questions were put immediately after certain events occurred.
1 Cor.15:6. “Afterwards He was seen by over 500 brethren at one time.” In this case, “afterwards” means a certain number of days, but certainly not more than 40, the interval between the resurrection and the ascension of our Lord.
Gal.1:18. “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem.” The time interval has now increased between two stated events.
Gal.2:1. “Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem.” This is the longest interval amongst the references.
As a result of this examination we are left with the clear message that EPEITA can mean anything from an immediate response to almost any length of time governed by the context. It is therefore quite beyond our knowledge to know just how long will be the interval between the resurrection of the dead saints and the change to the living ones.
But notice here that the trumpet sounds for the resurrection of the dead, and not for the change of the living saints. Hence those of us who are now living, (and if the Lord returns in our lifetime,) we shall know nothing of this prior event, namely the resurrection of the dead saints. But Paul tells us that when the Lord returns He will come together with the raised saints. Jude tells us that this fact was known even before the Flood in Noah’s day. “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, ‘Behold the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment . . .” (Jude 14-15)
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians were in respect of comforting those in bereavement, but Jude’s quotation from Enoch tells us that the purpose of the gathering of the elect, and their resurrection is related to the EARTH, not heaven, and it is the beginning of the time of judgment. Once again we remember Isaiah’s words, that “when the judgments of the Lord are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” (Isa.26:9) Throughout all human history the Lord has been gathering His saints, who now comprise “the general assembly and church of the firstborn, . . . the spirits of just men made perfect,” (Heb.12:23) in readiness for His Day. These “ten thousands” will all be raised from the dead before the living remnant is changed. And then, in due course, the process of judgment will begin on the earth.
No wonder the Lord said that no one would know the day nor the hour when the Lord would return. None of us has any idea when the seventh trumpet will sound, or whether perhaps it has already sounded! If it has, then surely the interval will not be long before the Lord enacts the change to His living saints.
Only today have I been sent details of an American brother who has stuck his neck out, and stated (“by the word of the Lord”) that the Lord will return on the 7th July this year. It would seem as though the thought was triggered by the calendar, the date being 07-07-07. Also, as Saturday, it will be the 7th day of the week. But this is only one calendar in the world, and there are others, such as the ancient Hebrew calendar, which doesn’t support any such nicely rounded numbers for that day. Personally, I would have been more interested in 8th August next year (08-08-08) as being the Dominical Number of our Lord. However, I feel sorry for all such as this man, because although his great and earnest desire is to see the Lord, yet all date-setting flies in the face of our Lord’s words, and must be treated as disobedience.
It is quite another thing altogether to share our feelings with each other, by saying that we sense the days are running out, and that the Lord is very near. My wife and I have experienced this several times over the last ten years or so, but such feelings come and go, rather like the tides with their ebb and flow. Maybe this can be understood in terms of the spiritual battles that rage in the higher dimension, and which are invisible to us, but in our spirits we are allowed to experience a little something of what is going on. More than that I think it would be unwise to say.
In the next number we shall take a look at the phrase “caught up to meet the Lord in the air.”