The Great Salvation



THE question which forms the heading of our address this morning is based upon the words, "caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air", found in the chapter read - I Thes. 4. Let me read from verses 13-18 in order to get the question clearly before us:

"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 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: 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. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."

Whatever the meaning is of this scripture there is comfort in it, for those to whom it was addressed were told this in the last words given. To derive comfort in the true sense, it is necessary that the words be fully understood, for how can one comfort himself with words he does not understand? The apostle says, we would not have you to be ignorant, brethren." He wished them to fully realize the import of what he was about to say, so that the deepest comfort might be derived therefrom.

The apostle's words are "concerning them which are asleep", about whom, it seems, some were sorrowing. It is evident that the popular theory of heaven-going at death was not in any sense considered here, either by the writer or those to whom he wrote. They all believed that those for whom some sorrowed were asleep in the sleep of death, none of them entertaining the idea for a moment that they were alive and better off in realms of bliss beyond the stars. Members of a modem orthodox'' church would have been viewing the sleep as pertaining to the body only, a trivial matter to them in view of their belief that their dead friends are better off disembodied than they were embodied; and a modern "orthodox'' preacher would be considered a very poor comforter if he did not, in similar circumstance, eloquently dilate upon the rapturous bliss their departed friends were enjoying in or beyond the sky. Death-bed and funeral comfort now, as prepared and administered in the religions of Christendom, is a very different article from that of the apostles. The doctors of divinity have a very different theory as to the nature of the case and they have consequently changed their pills of comfort to suit their changed diagnosis of the case. It is often the case in the domain of physics that disease is an abnormal condition of the mind, and doctors deal with it accordingly, allowing the patient to be deluded. In the religious world it is worse than in the medical; for in the latter there is an effort to restore the mentally affected to a normal state, while in the former the delusion is pampered and comforted in a manner to increase the religious insanity of the afflicted.

What would be thought of a popular preacher appealing to his people on behalf of their deceased friends, in a way to imply that their friends were really asleep in death--really dead and not alive? The people would wonder what had happened to the preacher, and they would inquire of each other, "Do you think our pastor really meant that our departed ones are dead? He tried to console us that they will have a resurrection, but would he have us believe that they lie dormant in death till the resurrection? That's what those people known as Christadelphians believe, and does our pastor propose to impose such a doctrine as that upon us? We must see about this, and if he really does believe that our friends are dead and not 'gone before', and if he has no comfort to give us but a resurrection way in the future, we had better ask for his resignation." This is how matters would run in such a case, and so "like people like priest". The people have been taught and trained to "love to have it so" and the preachers are hired to proclaim it so. Hence the words of the apostle in the verses read would fare in the mouth of a popular preacher something like this: "But I would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are 'gone before', that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope. For those you sorrow for are not dead, not asleep. They have read their title clear to mansions in the sky, and bid farewell to every fear and wiped their weeping eyes. They are now basking in the bliss of heaven and when you die you shall join the happy band above, mount triumphant there, while those who have no hope devils drag their souls away in infinite despair." Wherefore comfort one another with these words?" In this we have "another gospel which is not another", but a perversion of the gospel of Christ, the preacher of which, even if he be an angel from heaven, we are commanded "let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6, 8).

Now let us see What real comfort is afforded by the words of the apostle in the case we are considering. Verse 13 -- Your friends are asleep in death. I would not have you ignorant and sorrowful as others without hope. Verse 14 -- Jesus died and rose again, and became "the resurrection and the life". God "raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave", and in this you have assurance that, since those for whom you sorrow sleep in Jesus, God will bring them forth also. Verse 15 --- Do not suppose that those who are alive remain unto the coming of the Lord shall prevent them that are not alive when the Lord comes, that are dead--asleep in the dust of the earth. They shall not remain dead like those who died without hope. Verse 16 -- For the Lord himself, not by messenger, nor in a "spiritual" unreal manner, but the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, the trump shall sound and the dead in Christ shall rise first -- before those who are alive when the Lord comes shall be caught away. Verse 17 -- Then those who are alive shall be caught up, or away, with those who are previously raised, in clouds, or companies, to meet the Lord in the air; and so, in the state to which you shall ascend when you meet the Lord in the air, or firmament of his new heaven, "wherein dwelleth righteousness", so in that state shall we ever be with the Lord. Here is your salvation and that of those for whom you sorrow. Now do not sorrow any more, as those may well do who have no hope, but (verse 18) comfort one another with these words.

Some have erroneously concluded from this passage that there will be no resurrection of the unjust, because all who are the subjects of the apostle's discourse here are to "be ever with the Lord". This error arises from a short-sighted view, a failure to realize, the fitness of things. There is a time for everything, a time to warn and a time to comfort. At the death-bed side and at the open mouth of the grave are not the places to address sorrow-stricken people upon judgement and punishment. When one calls to comfort the distressed it is not the time to bestow a look of wrath nor to utter words of vengeance. It is a time to speak words of consolation and to give expression to a heart-felt sympathy -- so far as truth and facts will allow, of course. The man who has nothing but vengeance and wrath in his words and looks has no business in the house of mourning. When one is addressing his friends in the language of hope he does not stop to mar it's beauty by interjections of words of judgment and punishment. The apostle Paul "spurned not to declare the whole counsel of God," but no one knew better than he how to speak according to the "eternal fitness of things"--the right words in the right place. This was a time for words of hope and comfort, and because for the time being he drew the curtain and kept out of sight the possibility of some he was writing to and of some of their mourned friends failing of the glorious triumph he held aloft, we must not conclude that he denied what he taught at other times - appropriate -- that "there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust."

Now the question is how shall we derive comfort from the words "meet the Lord in the air", "caught up", and "clouds". Our Lord gives us comfort in the words, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5) The Psalmist declares that such as be blessed of the Lord shall inherit the earth". "The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever (Psa. 37:22-30). The wise man also declares that the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth. All of the redeemed unite in the song of salvation, in which they sing, "Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests; and we shall reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:10). Then again, Christ himself is to return to the earth in like manner as he ascended (Acts 1:11) and "his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the Lord shall be king over all the earth" (Zech. 14:4-9). How then are we to understand that we are to "meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall ever be with the Lord"? And in view of the promises that we are to be blessed in the earth and that Lord is to reign on the earth, how can we derive comfort from these words?

It is in sundry times and divers manners that God speaks through prophets, Christ. and apostles. To receive instruction and comfort from His words we must learn to discriminate between the "divers manners" in which he speaks. Literal language must not be confounded with symbolical, figurative and spiritual. With the ordinary care exercised in reading good secular books we shall not find it difficult to determine when we are reading figurative or symbolic language. The context along with a knowledge of the first principles of the oracles of God will guide us in the only channel that will lead to a proper conclusion.

Every book has a right to claim that the reader shall be governed by It's own meaning of the technical terms it employs, and surely the Bible has the same right. It is but reasonable that we should compare scripture with scripture to arrive at the sense in which certain words and phraseology are employed therein. The literal is, of course, the foundation of all figurative language. There is a literal earth, but the word earth is used for the people of the earth --- "Hear, O earth." There are literal heavens, but the word heavens is also used for exalted position or political power. There are literal clouds, but the word cloud is used for a company of people, threatening trouble, and so on. If we read in ours newspapers that there is a cloud in the political heavens we do not look up to the sky expecting to see it there. If we read "there is war in the air", we do not understand that the writer is referring to the literal atmosphere. In the world natural there are sun, moon, stars, cloud, air, etc. When we use a figure of speech drawn from the world natural we must be consistent. Hence, if we employ the word heavens to represent a kingdom we must, to be consistent, allow for sun, moon, stars, clouds, air or firmament in the heaven of which we are speaking. The sun, moon and eleven stars of Joseph's dream were in the heaven or rulership of the little family kingdom of Jacob; and Jacob had no trouble in seeing the meaning of the words and their application to himself--the father was the sun, the mother as the moon, and the eleven brethren of Joseph as the stars, with all their servants and belongings as the earth ruled.

Now the apostle Peter speaks of the coming kingdom of God as a "new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (II Pet. 3:13). In this new heaven Christ will be the sun. "Unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings" (Mal. 4:2). The saints aggregately as the bride will be the moon. Speaking of the resurrection the apostle says, "There is one glory of the moon (I Cor. 15:41). The saints, individually, will be the stars. "There is an other glory of the stars," and "they that turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever" (Dan. 12:3). This heaven must necessarily have expanse, firmament or air; for consistency requires that the figure drawn from the natural world must admit of all the elements in the world or kosmos of which we are speaking. Of course, if we are asked to point out to the natural eye the heaven of which we are speaking we cannot point to a literal thing that can be seen as a heaven. We can only point to the kingdom of God, which can now only be seen in thought, or, as we may say, with the mind's eye. While the natural eye beholds the literal, the eye of thought or reason can look through it and beyond and see the new heavens wherein will dwell righteousness which will, in a higher sense than the natural, declare the glory of God and show forth his handiwork. It is as if we were reading characters clearly visible upon the surface of this paper, and then hold up the paper and let the light shine through it, and the watermarks will be visible, beneath the surface, as it were. The most sublime aspects of Divine truth are only visible to the spiritually minded by letting the light shine and straining, the eyes of the new man to look intensely down to it's depths, up to it's heights and away into the vast expanse of it's illimitable breadths.

Now it would be difficult for one taught in the Scriptures to receive comfort from the contemplation of going up into the literal air. May we not venture, therefore, to look through the mere literal and try to find that the apostle in the passage in question is applying the words clouds and air to something that has to do with the resurrection of the dead and their change with the living at the Lord's coming, when they shall become elements of the "new heaven" or rulership of the glorious kingdom of God for which they now seek? If anything of this sort can be found in the words by holding the paper, as it were, up to the light and reading the Divine watermarks, then shall we taste the sweetness of the closing sentence -- "Therefore comfort one another with these words."

This same apostle says, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" or, as in the margin, heavenly places, or heavenlies. Reference here Is to the civil and religious wickedness in the Roman and Jewish heavens, the powers which antagonized the truth and martyred many of it's proclaimers. Now the Roman heaven would have the elements of the natural heaven, and therefore the word air would be applicable to it. In the political aerial of that heaven were the sun, moon and stars, which ruled the Roman kosmos or world. Hence the apostle says that when the saints at Ephesus were morally unquickened, dead in trespasses and in sins, they walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air --- "the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." (Eph. 2:2) The prince of the power of the Roman air, or expanse, was the emperor, the leading spirit of the empire, both civil and religious. Following the dictates of that prince, as administered by the magistrates and clergy of his pagan, God-dishonoring system the saints had in times past walked with the children of disobedience, moved by the same "spirit of the power of the air". For one to "meet" this prince "in the air" would be exaltation to be a star in one of the heavens wherein dwelt unrighteousness; and for one "so to be with him" would be to occupy, a position of wicked and tyrannical power. In a prospect of such an exaltation a worldling might take comfort; but not so with a saint. But "to the meet the Lord", the Prince of Peace, in the heaven wherein dwelleth righteousness would be exaltation the most glorious, and "so to be ever with the Lord" would be immortality and power, that which should never end. Where is the man who cannot comfort himself and others with words so full of meaning as these? He is easily found. He is the man who can only judge after the flesh, and who has no eye to discern the hidden treasures of truth lying beneath the surface of truth lying beneath the surface of literal language. But where, we repeat, is the man instructed in the truth who cannot drink deep of the sweet comfort of these words?

It is true that when the Saracenic hosts arose out of the Arabian pit, or abyss, the smoke of their warfare literally ascended in clouds and darkened the air, but the object the Spirit had in stating this to John (Rev. 9:2) cannot be limited to this comparatively trivial fact. The object was to show, in symbolic language, the effect the war of the Saracens would have upon the Roman apostasy. Therefore, when it is said, "And the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit;" the Roman sun and air, politically and ecclesiastically, are undoubtedly meant. Then, again, when 'the seventh angel shall pour out his vial into the air (Rev. 16:7), "and there shall come out of the temple of heaven from the throne a voice saying, "it is done", the consequent thunders and lightnings will clear the political air of the heavens that are now, in which dwelleth unrighteousness to give place to "new heavens wherein dwelleth righteousness."

From these testimonies we see that the word air is used for the expanse of political heavens, and now we can better understand the apostle's meaning in the verse in question, and see how the saints in Thessalonica could derive comfort from his words. To be "caught up to meet the Lord in the air is to be exalted as kings and priests to reign with Christ on the earth. It is worthy of note that the apostle does not say "there shall we ever be with the Lord", as if he were referring to a place; but so, in the condition implied by being "caught up to meet the Lord in the air" -- "so shall we ever be with the Lord". Many will meet the Lord to be condemned, cast out, and to be commanded to "depart"; but these do not meet him in the air of the new heaven; for when the door is opened in that heaven only the worthy will be invited to "come up hither' (Rev; 4:1); and such only will be permitted or fitted to "shine in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:43) as "stars for ever and ever (Dan. 12:3).

These are to meet the Lord in a higher sense than will those who meet him and be commanded to "depart". When it was said to Moses, "And in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee, and there I will meet with thee" (Exo. 25:21, 22), the meaning of the word "meet" is very different from that of the words "a lion met him by the way and slew him" (I Kings 13:24): There is a deeper meaning. It signifies a oneness, a communion. So to meet the Lord in the air is to become one with him in nature, to be "like him, for we shall see him as he is" (I John 3:2). Those, therefore, who shall meet the Lord in the air are the faithful children of God of whom the apostle John says, "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure I John 3:1-3)

As there are clouds in the natural heaven, so are there in the political; and so there will be in the new heaven of righteousness. A company of people is called by the apostle Paul a cloud - "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us (Heb. 12:1). The word cloud is used figuratively in various ways, the thoughts conveyed being derived from the natural heavens, in which there are thunder clouds, clouds without rain and clouds with rain. In time of drought clouds that contain no rain inspire hope and then tantalize with bitter disappointment. When the earth is dried up, vegetation scorched and burned and man and beast are parched for water, how anxiously men will wait and watch for a cloud, and if they can catch a glimpse of one, even though it be but "like a man's hand", what hope and joy it brings. Now we speak of "clouds of sorrow", clouds of darkness", "clouds of war", etc.; and the book of Jude (verse 12) speaks of deceptive men as clouds without water, carried about of winds". The groaning millions of our time are looking into the political heavens and watching the clouds, hoping for a rain that will bring relief to a thirsty world; but alas! the clouds have no water to quench their burning thirst, no rain to give life to the withered and blighted fields that are ready for the sickle of the swiftly coming harvest of wrath. But after this clouds will appear in the new heavens, from which there shall come down "rain upon the mown grass and showers to water the earth" (Psa. 72:6).

The goodness of natural Israel has been as a morning cloud, and "as the early dew it goeth away" (Hos. 6:4); but when spiritual Israel's goodness shall appear as the morning, cloud and as the early dew "it shall not pass away." It will not be a cloud without water; but it shall be a "cloud of dew in the heat of the harvest" (Isa. 18:4), that shall rain down heaven's blessings to make "the wilderness to blossom as the rose and the forests to clap their hands". These are the clouds of saints that are to "meet the Lord in the air", composed of that company that will have been redeemed out of every nation and kindred, and "in the light of the king's, countenance they have found life", and now they are to the world "his favour as a cloud of the latter rain" (Prov. 16:15). The Lord will make these "clouds his chariots", "ride upon them as a swift cloud", and in this cloud will appear his glory (Exod. 16:10), the glory that shall fill the earth as the waters cover the deep.

This passage in the epistle to the Thessalonians has special reference to the morning of the resurrection, and it is in connection with this these figures of speech are used, used to adorn and beautify a glorious subject -- one, the one, with whose words we can truly "comfort one another". The prophet Isaiah treats of this subject in the grand words, "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is as of the dew of the dawn, and the earth shall cast out the dead" (Isa. 26:19). The dew of the morning comes from the womb of the night, and under the rays of the rising sun is drawn into the air to be formed into clouds to give rain upon the earth. So are the true saints to be the dew of the dawn of millennial glory, upon whom the Sun of righteousness shall shine and draw up into the new heavens as clouds to give the latter rain of blessing, and as showers to water the earth.

When thus this cloud is in the air or new heaven, and the glory of the Lord appears therein to the joy of "all families of the earth" whom the Abrahamic covenant promised to bless, it ii then that there will be the glorious fulfillment of the words, "I will set my bow in the cloud" (Gen. 9:13), and the everlasting covenant shall find it's full, glorious and sublime exemplification - it is then that it will appear and be a reality in the sense that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard". It is then that these things that are now matters of hope and promise will "materialize" and be a gladsome and gladdening, glorious reality. O, the beauty and transcendency of our hope! what gladness it brings even now in this cloudy and dark day; but "what will it be there" to experience the rapturous joy of realization.

Conditions are necessary for the appearance of the rainbow with all it's prismatic beauty. There must be the shining sun, the cloud and descending rain. For the appearance of the rainbow of the everlasting covenant the Sun of Righteousness is ready, but as yet the dew of the coming dawn is enveloped in the womb of the darkness of death and the grave. The morning is about to dawn, the dew appear, the sun to arise; and then, when "we are caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air", the shining sun, the cloud from the morning dew and the descending rain of heaven's blessing will show that God has filled full His promise, "I will set my bow in the cloud", and to the joy of the whole earth the everlasting covenant will shine forth as the sun, pour down blessings as the rain and the appearance of the bow in the new heaven will command the astonishment and admiration of "all families of the earth" blessed in Abraham's seed. If we are worthy, brethren, if you, friends, prepare yourselves for this great and high calling, we shall all be able to say "so shall we ever be with the Lord" and in reality "comfort one another with these words".

May this be our comfort now in measure and then in it's full fruition. Amen.

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The Great Salvation
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