“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 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 not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Most of us are pretty familiar with these verses. You’re also probably well-acquainted will the usually divisive efforts to fit the “rapture” described here into Revelation, 1 Corinthians 15, Matthew 24//Mark 13, or even Daniel (despite the fact that Paul doesn’t indicate that such integration is worthy of our attention). In consideration of these verses, the only time the last verse is mentioned is at a funeral. This is odd, since this verse is the only one with a command.
Just in case we don’t get it, though, Paul repeats himself immediately after this.
“Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (5:1-11).
Paul ends this section the same way he ended 4:13-18. In 4:18 he commanded us to “comfort [παρακαλειτε] one another.” In 5:11 he commands us to “encourage [παρακαλειτε] one another.” Same command. He says it twice. In the first section he is concerned with their knowledge (“we do not want you to be uninformed”). In the second section this is not his focus (“you have no need of anything to be written to you”), even though the theme is the same. What’s different about the second section?
Whereas the first section describes the culmination of the last days, the second section gives us an ethic for living day-by-day through the last days. All the days between the first and second coming of Christ are the last days (Acts 2:16,17; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3; 1 John 2:18). We cannot live through the last days like they are any other days. We are reminded that we are “all sons of light and sons of day,” and have nothing to do with spiritual darkness/sleep. We are commanded to “be sober” by a constant living in and growth in faith, love, and “the hope of salvation.” The reality of the culmination (“we will live together with Him”) is repeated.
Again, we are to “comfort” or “encourage” one another. We cannot do it alone, and Paul reminds us by these commands that we must do it together.
There is a difficulty of translating the Greek word παρακαλεω (here “comfort” or “encourage”). Our English word “comfort” comes originally from the Latin phrase cum fortis (“with strength”). The origination of the word doesn’t carry with it the empathetic or emotionally-supportive meaning it has now. For example, in the Latin Vulgate, the “strong man” of Luke 11:21 is said to be cum fortis, or “fully armed.”
When Paul gives this command in 4:18 and 5:11, he is not commanding us to console one another. We are being told to live a last days ethic with a view to the completion of the last days that makes us stronger (not emotionally assuaged) in our faith-lives together.
Live in these last days in such a way that we – together - are strong in the faith. Live in these last days in such a way that we are motivated and inspired and emboldened by the reality that we will inevitably and gloriously be together with our beautiful Lord.