1 THESSALONIANS 4, 13-18
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
A Lutheran pastor had finished up the graveside service at the local cemetery, and was heading back to his car, when the caretaker for the cemetery approached him and said, “You know, Pastor, we like it when you have a service at this cemetery. Your people, come and they go through the little service you have and then they leave comforted. We have a lot of funerals where they come, and say a few words, but the people just won’t leave. They are weeping and carrying on, laying over the casket. They just don’t want to leave. They don’t want to say good-by. And they definitely have no comfort!”
The pastor thanked the gentleman for his kind words, and then told him, “I’m glad you recognized that! That’s the way it should be! The difference is that we Christians, weep and mourn because someone we love has died! But we have hope. Unbelievers have no hope. Therefore, they have no comfort.”
There should be a huge difference between the funeral for a Christian, and a funeral for an unbeliever. Oh, Christians weep and cry at death, just like unbelievers. And Christians may even be afraid of death, just like unbelievers. But unlike unbelievers, Christians have the comfort that this person is in Heaven, and we will one day join him. Because of that we have hope, a hope unbelievers will never have!
The Thessalonian Christians had some questions and concerns about their fellow Christians who had died. But their questions were not theological and theoretical. Their concerns were very personal, and frightening to them. Their concerns were bordering on fear, and worry, and hopelessness, like unbelievers. So, Paul writes these words so these Christians will not grieve LIKE THOSE WHO HAVE NO HOPE!
These Christians had learned that Jesus will come back to take His believers to heaven. But they began to worry about their fellow saints who had died. What’s going to happen to them when Jesus comes back? And then there were a lot of weird ideas about death floating around in the Greek world. Many taught that the god of death was the most powerful god of all, and every other god had to bow down to death’s will. So, what about Jesus? Was He also subject to the god of the dead? When Jesus came back, would He only be able to take those who were alive to heaven? Would the dead, miss out? You see why they were troubled!
So, Paul writes “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “Jesus died and rose again.” Jesus was dead, but He didn’t stay dead! He broke death’s power and rose from the dead. Jesus destroyed the power of death. Jesus has conquered death!
The next piece of good news is how Jesus describes those who died, as “those who have fallen asleep in him.” The original says, “fallen asleep through Jesus.” The fantastic news is these people fell asleep, these people died, “because of Jesus, through the working of Jesus.” The god of the dead is not in charge of people dying! Nor are wicked people. Nor is accident, plague, or war! Jesus is in control of death. Just like Jesus directs each hour of every day of our lives, so also Jesus decides at what point we will die. These loved ones fell asleep because Jesus decided that their work for Him was completed, and now they could go home.
Paul then gives them one more piece of good news. “We believe that God will bring with Jesus, those who have fallen asleep in him.” When God comes back to end this world, Paul says, He is going to “bring with him, those who have fallen asleep.” And if God is going to bring them with him, where have these people been since they died? They have been “with the Lord!” Oh, their body was left behind, and you know where it was buried. But their soul is with the Lord. They are already enjoying the bliss of Heaven. These people aren’t going to miss out on anything! They are already enjoying the bliss of everlasting life.
When someone we love dies, there are a lot of emotions that run through us, sometimes, all at the same time. There is a sense of loss, since this person will no longer be part of our life. There may be a little bit of fear, as we are once again reminded that death waits for everyone, including us. There may be a bit of guilt, as we think of all the things we should have done, and all the things we should have said before our loved one passed away. And there is a lot of tears, and mourning, and grieving. In that regard we look like everyone else in this world, including unbelievers.
But Christians also have hope! We know this person is in heaven, enjoying the biggest welcome home party ever. And he doesn’t have to worry about his Cholesterol, or his sugar. He has no more diabetes. He has no more cancer. When we think about the blessings our loved one is enjoying, we can’t help but rejoice. Maybe even feel a little jealous of him. We are also assured that because we believe in Jesus, the same future waits for us. Yes there will be tears in our eyes, and grief in our souls. But there is also hope, which we can show the world. We can show the world the joys of being a Christian who has hope and comfort even in the fact of death. We can show the world that we are NOT LIKE THOSE WHO HAVE NO HOPE!
But Paul doesn’t leave it at that. Paul continues to comfort these Christians by telling them what is going to happen at the end of the world.
“According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” The word, “precede,” means “to come ahead of, to be ahead of someone.” It is quite often used in games to describe the one who finishes first in a race. This person has gone ahead of the others, and has won the race. And along with this word comes the idea that the person who has gone ahead will gain the prize, and everyone else will get nothing. Paul says, that’s not going to happen with us. It’s not that we’re going to finish the race first and get the prize, and they get nothing. In fact, Paul says, the exact opposite will happen.
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” The last day of the universe will be like any other day. Some of us will be trying to figure out which Medicare Supplement we should get. Some of us will be running around getting ready for work, dreading that 9:30 meeting. Some of us will be yelling at the children trying to get them ready to drop off at school. We will be driving down the expressway and getting caught in a traffic gridlock. We will be checking our texts and our messages from our phones. And then just like that, the end comes. And everything stops!
There will be a huge buzzer like the buzzer that sounds the end of the basketball game. Paul describes it as “a loud command,” or, “the voice of the archangel,” or “the trumpet call of God.” And everyone on this planet will hear it. You won’t need a friend to call you up, and tell you to go outside and see what’s happening. Every ear on this planet will hear and see. In fact, if we ever colonize other planets or solar systems, regardless of how many light years they may be away, they will hear it. And the world comes to an end. No more meetings at work. No more Medicare. No more traffic jams! Just facing Jesus. And what you were when the buzzer went off, you will be for eternity.
And the very first thing that will happen! “The dead in Christ will rise first.” The graves will open up, and those souls who had come with Jesus, will be reunited with their bodies. Even though those bodies have decayed to dust. Even though those bodies have been cremated. Even though those bodies have been lost at sea and never recovered. Even though those bodies have been destroyed in such a way that there wasn’t enough of it left to identify. None of that means anything to God. Jesus knows where each of His people are. And Jesus will resurrect that body, and it will be a glorified body to go along with the glorified soul. No more death. No more arthritis. No more cancer. No more heart problems.
And then those of us, who are left behind, “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so, we will be with the Lord forever.” Our bodies will be glorified. And we will be with the Lord in Heaven forever.
In these verses, Paul doesn’t say anything about unbelievers. But then, that wasn’t his point. He was giving comfort and peace to believers who were troubled about death. And what comfort He has given us!
The one thing in this world that terrifies people the most is death! And the end of the world! And Jesus has taken the fear and terror out of both of those for us. He died and rose again. He tells us, “I’ve been through it. So, when it comes time for you to go through it too, I will be right there to take you by the hand and lead through it, as I take you home. Because of what Jesus has done for us, because Jesus has placed us in His family and hangs on to us, we have nothing to fear. He directs every aspect of our lives. And He will direct every aspect of our death! And He has already directed every aspect of our eternal life. So, whether we continue to live in this terrifying world, or whether we face our own death, or the death of a loved ones, we don’t have to fear, we don’t have to worry, we don’ have to fret. Jesus is in control and is taking care of it.
Weep, yes, we will, just like unbelievers. Mourn? Yes, just like unbelievers. Become an emotional wreck? Maybe just like unbelievers. But through it all, Jesus gives us hope that only He can give. So, when all is said and done, there will be a difference between us and the unbelievers. Because of the comfort Jesus gives us, we will be NOT LIKE THOSE WHO HAVE NO HOPE!