This Is the Way Walk in It: Describing the Indescribable

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This Is the Way Walk in It

Describing the Indescribable

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Ever tried describing a sunset over the ocean to someone who wasn't on the sandy shore sharing the tapestry of light unfolding before you?

How do you describe the grandeur and immensity of green forests with millions of trees looming upwards toward gray granite peaks framed with thunderclouds?

How do you describe the sights and sounds of birth to someone who isn't present during that miraculous moment of new life?

Does this sound like a lesson in futility? Sure! But we have all tried. And we do our best because we desire to share that moment in time.

Well, we are not alone. God inspired the apostle Paul to "describe the indescribable" regarding an event that has not even occurred yet. Now try that! But it's as if God wants us to be able to stand on the shore, be on the mountain peak or be in the room at the big moment to gain a sense of a truly stupendous event to take place in the future.

It is almost like He is placing us in position and saying, "I want you to stand right here and take it all in; and by the way, you, too, will be inserted in that big event. So get the picture, but be ready to rise up!"

What am I talking about?

Almost 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul shared a colorful prophecy with new Christians in the city of Thessalonica. What he shared is often mentioned at funerals and memorial services as words of hopeful encouragement. But these words are also bold declarations of prophetic understanding.

Prophecy (from the Greek propheteia) is not only about "forth-telling" what God has done or is accomplishing, but has a dual application in "foretelling" what He chooses yet to perform as a part of His perfect will. In essence, this word expresses God's sovereignty over what has been, is and is yet to be. All are simply one seamless world to Him.

If a man dies, shall he live again?

This prophetic illustration is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 [13] But I would not have you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. [14] For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. [15] For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. [16] For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: [17] Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. [18] Why comfort one another with these words.
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. The apostle Paul's inspired words would have resonated with and brought hope to the new Christians of Hellenistic background who had little understanding of the resurrection.

In contrast, the Jewish Christians of the first century had a pattern of understanding going back more than 1,500 years to the time when Job uttered, "If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands" (Job 14:14-15 Job 14:14-15 [14] If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. [15] You shall call, and I will answer you: you will have a desire to the work of your hands.
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But the gentiles of Thessalonica had no grasp of the true God's purpose. As William Barclay, the noted commentator, states, "The pagan world despaired in death with grim resignation and bleak hopelessness." He quotes Theocritus, a Greek poet of the third century B.C., as saying, "There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope."

And then Barclay soberly describes epitaphs on Greek tombs with etchings bemoaning, "I was not; I became; I am not; I care not" (The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 1975, p. 203).

With such cultural conditioning, is it any wonder that early gentile Christians may have thought that if they were alive at the return of Christ they would "have it made" and would receive God's gift of immortal life? Naturally, they likely also would have been saddened in regards to those who had already died, considering them to be beyond hope.

Paul paints a new picture for them

And thus, Paul begins to paint a picture of what God gave him to see as he stood on the threshold of eternity and peeked in. He introduces this sequential prophetic tapestry by sharing, "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13 1 Thessalonians 4:13But I would not have you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
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Here Paul validates the sorrow of separation that comes with death, but at the same time hints that all is not lost and gone forever as the etchings in the nearby tombs proclaimed.

Why? "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus" (verse 14).

Paul simply states that what occurred to Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, by breaking death's hold will likewise, because of Him and through Him, become the experience of all those favored by God. Yes, even the dead! This was mind-boggling to the Greeks, but even more it was heartwarming.

The apostle carefully and aptly applies the term "sleep" to describe the state of death. Death, like sleep, is not permanent, as there is an awakening. When we rise from that nocturnal rest, there is no sense of time having passed. When we experience our next waking moment, we do not have memories of the duration of the slumber. (For more information on this, read our free Bible study aid booklet What Happens After Death? .)

Paul goes on to say, "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep" (verse 15).

Paul states his credentials in making such a prophetic diagnosis. Basically, he has none. This picture of the future does not belong to him or the figment of his imagination, but "by the word the Lord." Such incredibly good news comes from only one source—the source of all things.

And what is incredible is that those who died in hope go first. Imagine the smile on those Thessalonian faces. Maybe you are smiling right now thinking of a deceased loved one. Yes, in God's order, they actually precede those living with hope.

The Lord Himself will descend

Now that we have the order, when do the fireworks of immortality commence? Paul continues to describe in colorful flow how "the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first" (verse 16).

He uses the known heraldry of antiquity to describe the entrance of a conquering king. Paul builds upon Jesus' own words from the Olivet Prophecy when He stated, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven...and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:29-30 Matthew 24:29-30 [29] Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: [30] And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
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Nobody alive at that time is going to miss this. While Christ is likened to the morning star, He is not one of those "shooting stars" at night that you miss if you blink. Jesus said that His second coming could be likened to a lightning storm filling the entire canvas of darkened sky as it flashes from east to west (Matthew 24:27 Matthew 24:27For as the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even to the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
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Here Paul gives us insight that the answers are not down here below but come from above, as he describes how "the Lord Himself" descends with a shout. Is the shout from Him, or is it the voice of the archangel? Either way, the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary describes it as a "war shout" as the Captain of our salvation enters earth's atmosphere to subdue Satan and his earthly pawns known as the Beast and False Prophet.

But beyond the war cry, there is a secondary meaning for the Greek word keleuo and why the One who describes Himself as "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25 John 11:25Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
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) uses it. It is He who proclaims: "Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades [the grave] and of Death" (Revelation 1:17-18 Revelation 1:17-18 [17] And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand on me, saying to me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: [18] I am he that lives, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for ever more, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
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). The second defining use for keleuo is a "summons" or notice to appear.

Come forth!

Again, why such a "loud voice" heralding Christ's return? One could draw a parallel to the loud voice that Jesus raised up to God the Father as He stood before the spot where Lazarus lay dead and buried with hopeless family and neighbors all around.

John 11:43 John 11:43And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.
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describes how our Savior "cried with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come forth!'" Imagine a prophetic moment in the future as countless "Lazaruses" come forth in response to a magnified heavenly voice that will penetrate into every cell of the living plus reach right down into the graves. It is literally "the voice that can wake the dead." It is "the call" that Job and all of us, dead or alive, await.

It is no wonder that the return of Christ, who lived, suffered, died and was resurrected for us, would be ushered in with such a great utterance, with angelic voices heralding the triumphal entrance as "the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!" (Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
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Talk about a family reunion!

Paul concludes his efforts to describe the indescribable by stating, "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17 1 Thessalonians 4:17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
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Talk about a family reunion! Can you imagine that moment when the forces of the Kingdom of heaven intertwine with the newly immortal members of the divine family? This unique moment may be the pivotal prophetic impact point of all that God has revealed. Imagine as Christ on behalf of His Father welcomes all who have lived and died in Him!

It is this moment of indescribable bonding—not the rise or fall of kingdoms or the emergence of the Beast figure or man of perdition—that grabs the whole creation's attention. For as Paul says elsewhere, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:18-19 Romans 8:18-19 [18] For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. [19] For the earnest expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God.
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The best news Paul describes regarding this indescribable "impact" moment is that God's children will "always be with the Lord" and will never again face the loss and separation from loved ones so prevalent in this age.

Comfort with these words

Paul did a pretty good job of conveying God's vision. He almost makes you feel like you're already there. Could he have described everything to us better and given just a few more details? Of course, but he didn't. God has eternity to sketch in the rest of the story for us. God's perfection is always better than our best estimates of what He might perform.

Even so, when it is all said and done, it is not the details of this prophetic narrative that are most important. Rather, it is the foundational principle that for those "in Christ," whether in life or death, there is nothing that can break our union with Him.

And that is why the words of Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
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, "This is the way, walk in it," resonate with Paul's last comment in this narrative: "Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:18 1 Thessalonians 4:18Why comfort one another with these words.
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