SCRIPTURE ANNOUNCEMENT & INTRODUCTION
This morning we’re looking at 1 Thessalonians chapter four, verses 13-18. As I mentioned last Sunday, we’ll be in this text again in the evening service. A quick word about the difference between the two sermons:
This morning we’ll deal more directly with the original intent of the passage. Paul’s goal in writing these words is that the Thessalonians would be encouraged and comforted, as he says in verse 18 – “that you might encourage one another with these words.” He did not write this text primarily to satisfy our curiosity about the details of the Lord’s coming. That’s important to keep in mind. We don’t want to overlook the pastoral motive that prompted Paul to write these things.
In this evening’s sermon, we’ll take a closer look at one of the ways that eschatology ought to inform the Christian life. For now, we are more concerned with the way that God’s people are comforted in knowing about the Lord’s return.
Let us hear God’s Word, from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18…
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
- READ vv.13-14
In this section Paul is going to respond to some lingering questions the Thessalonians had. They were troubled about what would happen to their brothers and sisters who died prior to the Lord’s coming.
It is possible that they saw the death of saints prior to the Lord’s coming as a kind of punishment. Hearing about the deaths of saints such as Ananias and Sapphira, as well as those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 who died because they abused the Lord’s Supper, these new believers may have drawn some mistaken conclusions about the fact that some had died prior to the Lord’s return. And if someone’s death was seen as a punishment from the Lord, it would naturally call into question whether that person would share in the fully enjoyment of the Lord’s coming on the last day. We don’t really know if that is what they were thinking. What is clear is that they were overwhelmed with grief. They were in despair over the death of their friends and loved ones.
Paul says, “We don’t want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep….” – that euphemism, referring to the dead as those who have fallen asleep, is common in both Jewish and early Christian texts, as well as in Greek and Latin literature and burial inscriptions. Some have wrongly used this verse to argue for a doctrine of “soul sleep,” the idea that in this interim period between an individual’s death and the final resurrection, the soul sleeps in an unconscious state. But the NT consistently teaches that the saints do enjoy a conscious existence during that interim period (e.g. Luke 16, the rich man and Lazarus; Luke 23 when Jesus tells the criminal on the cross next to him, “today you will be with me in paradise”; 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul says, “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” – it’s hard to imagine him using that language of being at home with the Lord if there was no conscious enjoyment of the presence of God; the same idea in Philippians 1, where he says he desires to depart and be with Christ).
When he says “we who are alive” – some commentators see that as an indication that Paul believed he would be alive at the Lord’s return. However, as Leon Morris and J.B. Lightfoot, among others, have pointed out, when Paul says “we,” it may just be the most succinct way of saying “those of us who are alive on that day.”
John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Charles Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians & Thessalonians
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
I want to read you a typical letter of consolation from the first century Greco-Roman world. This is a personal letter communicating what we would call condolences. Listen carefully and see if anything strikes you:
When I heard of the terrible things that you met at the hands of thankless fate, I felt the deepest grief….When I saw all the things that assail life, all that day long I cried over them. But then I considered that such things are the common lot of all, with nature establishing neither a particular time or age in which one must suffer…, but often confronting us secretly, awkwardly and undeservedly. Since I happened not to be present to comfort you, I decided to do so by letter. Bear, then, what has happened as lightly as you can, and exhort yourself just as you would exhort someone else. For you know that reason will make it easier for you to be relieved of your grief with the passage of time. (cited by Green, pp.215-216, who is citing Abraham J. Malherbe, Ancient Epistolary Theorist, pp.34-35 and pp.70-71)
What strikes me about that letter is not the practical atheism of the letter, the way it attributes death to “thankless fate,” thereby leaving out God as a factor, let alone the most significant and sovereign factor. Nor was I struck so much with the statement that death comes to us “undeservedly,” in contrast with the Bible’s view that death is the penalty for sin. What jumped out at me was just the emptiness of the letter, the lack of real hope. The letter encourages the one who grieves to “exhort yourself just as you would exhort someone else,” but it doesn’t offer anything satisfying as the substance of the exhortation.
Here’s another example, a second century letter from one friend to another:
Irene to Taonnophris and Philo, good comfort. I am as sorry and weep over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort ye one another.
What kind of consolation is that? Against such things one can do nothing; therefore comfort ye one another?
It is not surprising, then, to find that in the ancient world there was a great desire to minimize grief. One burial inscription said this: “My mother, leave off lamenting, cease to mourn, for Hades turns pity aside.” Another said simply, “Do not grieve over the departed.”
There were some in the ancient world who offered hope in the face of death. Some philosophers taught the immortality of the soul, some religions taught an existence after death. But in the prevailing worldview of the average person, the attitude toward death was one of desperation. As one famous inscription put it, “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”
By contrast, the apostle Paul offers solid hope to comfort believers in the face of death. The main point I want to bring out from this text is this:
Because Jesus died and rose again, our grief is mixed with resurrection hope.
We need to first clarify what Paul is not saying. Is Paul suggesting that we adopt of kind of stoic posture in the face of death? Is he saying that any kind of grief is wrong, and we should just grit our teeth and fight through all feelings of grief, because we are Christians?
No, clearly Paul assumes that there will be grief. He knows there will be profound grief. In Philippians 2.27 Paul says this:
Indeed he [Epaphroditus] was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.
Over in Romans 12.15, Paul commands us to “weep with those who weep.” In Acts 8.2 we learn that “devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.”
Sometimes Christians try to move too quickly past grief. I heard an interesting comment from Ken Meyers, who puts out the Mars Hill audiotapes. He was interviewing an expert on the great composer Johannes Brahms, and made the comment that one of the things he liked about the Brahms Requiem was that it wasn’t hasty in its movement toward resolution. It didn’t move too quickly from the cross to the resurrection.
Paul is not saying that Christian grief is light or shallow or that it somehow denies the reality of how evil death is. Death is a terrible enemy. It is the ultimate enemy, the last enemy. And even though death is a conquered enemy, it still wreaks havoc; it still stings. Christian grief recognizes this, and does not minimize it or deny its reality.
But Christian grief doesn’t stop there. The sting of death will one day be a thing of the past.
So let’s now look at how our grief is to be different from the world’s grief. That’s Paul’s main point, as he says in verse 13, “…in order that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Those who do not know God, who do not belong to Jesus, face death with emptiness, a grief that really doesn’t have any hope to offer. By contrast, Paul offers a number of reasons why these Thessalonian believers could comfort one another about their brothers and sisters who had died in the Lord.
Verse 14 is the key verse. He starts out with this a little connecting word “for” (the Greek word “gar”) which connects verse 13 with verse 14, as if to say, verse 14 is now going to explain exactly why it is that our grief is not like the world’s. And what is the basis for the difference? It is the basic Christian confession that Jesus died and rose again.
Paul’s confidence here about the destiny of believers is not based on speculation, or wishful thinking, or a philosophical school of thought – it is based on historical facts, a sure and solid foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Implied in that is not only that these historical events happened, but that these events had personal meaning for us. He died and rose for us, as our representative, as our substitute. This is another way of getting at what is arguably Paul’s central doctrine – that of union with Christ.
Notice the prepositions in verse 14 – it is “through Jesus” and “with Jesus” that we will be raised up. As goes the head, so goes the body. Jesus is the first human being to receive a resurrection body, and since we are joined to him, we too will receive resurrection bodies. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, that Christ is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Once you have been united to Christ by believing in his name for salvation, you cannot be separated from him. Not even death itself can break that bond. That is a tremendously comforting thought, to know that our loved ones in the Lord who have died are not somehow experiencing less of the presence of Christ and the love of Christ and fellowship with him. In fact, if Philippians 1 is any indication, they are experiencing a far greater communion with him, free from sin, free from worldliness, free from the devil’s temptations and accusations! It is “far better” to depart and be with Christ.
Now, in verse 15 Paul again uses this little connecting word “for” (the Greek word “gar”) which connects verse 14 and verse 15, as if to say, “Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord will be raised up, and here is how it will happen – we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Our beloved brothers and sisters who have died in the Lord will be the first to be raised up.
Apparently the Thessalonians thought that only the living would have the honor of going out to meet the Lord in his triumphant return. But Paul stresses the point that in fact the dead will enjoy a place of honor, and therefore of full enjoyment and participation in that glorious event. They will rise first.
Paul provides further assurance at the beginning of verse 15 – he says this is based on a word from the Lord himself. A “word from the Lord” probably means either a teaching that was given by the Lord himself but not recorded in the Gospels, or perhaps a teaching that finds its source in a passage like Matthew 24. But the key thing to notice is that Paul grounds the comfort of the passage not only in the solid footing of the historical events – the death and resurrection of Jesus, but on this authoritative word from the Lord himself.
We’ll look more at verses 16 and 17 this evening, but for now let me simply point out that Paul provides further comfort by saying that we will be caught up together with these loved ones in the Lord. We will be reunited with them, as John Stott calls it the “unbreakable solidarity” of the people of God with each other, and with the Lord.
So we grieve, but not as the world grieves. Our grief is mixed with resurrection hope.
You know that Doug & Margie King, and their boys, are currently serving on a short-term medical mission in the West African country of Niger. They return tomorrow. Doug and I have been corresponding via email, and he shared with me about the recent death of one of the SIM (Send International Mission) missionaries working with them in Niger. Chris Zoolkoski is a physician; he and his wife Helene are career missionaries. Quoting now from Doug’s email:
Chris and Helene have three children: Ellie (13), Zeb (11) and Joel (6). Helene was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma over one year ago. There was no viable treatment option and, at the time, she was without symptoms, so they decided to just complete their term here. Helene died this morning and will be buried here tomorrow. The Hausa tradition is to have visitors in the deceased’s home for one full day, so today there are many Africans and missionaries visiting the compound and expressing condolences. The way Chris has handled this has been an amazing testimony to all. His children, who are mature far beyond their years, have been well prepared for this event. We had a loud and long hymn-singing event last night on their porch and within Helene’s hearing. She had a chance to say goodbye to everyone and to give her children last words of commission.
The day after Helene died Chris Zoolkoski sent this email out to family and friends:
Earlier this week we had to postpone our return to the US as Helene had become too weak to make the trip. We decided that, given the stresses of travel, the comforts & stability of our home here in Galmi, and the supportive entourage we have here, it would be better for all of us to stay here and simply enjoy this time God has given us as a family.
Last night, from here in Niger, Jesus took Helene to be with Him. Yesterday, as we became aware that this would be our last day with her, the three children and I gathered around her bedside and sang Helene’s favorite hymn: O Sacred Head Now Wounded. This hymn became her favorite at the end of her senior year in high school. During the final verse, the kids and I talked about the paradox of “dying safely”. The words “safe” and “dying” don’t usually go together. But today they fit together very appropriately.
I invite you meditate on the words of this hymn along with us. We’ll be singing it again tomorrow at her funeral. I could never have asked for a more perfect wife, mother of my children, or partner in ministry. She is already greatly missed.
It is difficult to know how to pray at this time. Sometimes, when I find myself at a loss for words, I just ask God to listen to your prayers, since we know that you are interceding on our behalf. Thank you for this.
Reassured by what is certain,
We are reassured by what is certain. We don’t grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve deeply, but our grief is mixed with resurrection hope. We belong to him, we will be raised up, together with all the saints, and we will always be with the Lord. What a glorious hope we have! I am so thankful that we have this assurance. O that our faith would be deepened to live moment-by-moment in light of these things.
Let me close by reading that final stanza of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:
Be near when I am dying
Oh show Thy cross to me
And for my succor flying
Come Lord and set me free
These eyes new faith receiving
From Jesus shall not move
For he who dies believing
Dies safely, through Thy love