“We don’t like to think about death; yet, worldwide, 3 people die every second, 180 every minute, and nearly 11 000 every hour…As human beings, we have a terminal disease called mortality. The current death rate is 100%” – (R.Alcorn)
Many cultures in the world shun speaking about death for superstitious reasons. However, it is ludicrous to think that we can avoid thinking our mortality since it is both personally inevitable and also impossible to avoid since people die every day and in time, people close to us will die.
Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, death has been the normal experience of all of humankind; however, that doesn’t make it natural! Death is unnatural since God created Adam and Eve for eternal life in the Garden. And because it is unnatural, we wrestle with this horrible intrusion into our human experience which tears beloved people apart and brings great sadness and loneliness.
We need to talk more about death, not less. Not talking about death is non-sensical. No one would approach a monumental moment or an epic life-changing trip to an unknown place without some thoughts of preparation. It is normal for travellers to do some fact-finding and engage in discussions with others to find out more about the experiences they are about to have when planning a trip. We all have a date with death. It’s a date we can’t change, can’t be late or early for and one that we cannot change or reschedule! Therefore, surely it is normal to talk about death with others, to ask our questions and to find the answers in Scripture.
Because Paul’s time in Thessalonica was rushed & was brought to a premature end as he had to leave for his safety. It seems as though he hadn’t managed to get to teach the new believers at Thessalonica about death and what will happen when we die. So when some of their congregation died, they naturally had questions about what happens to those who die. And so now as we read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 we get to listen in as Paul assures them by teaching them what will happen when we die as believers.
1. Don’t be uninformed about those who have died are ‘asleep’ (vs13)
Being naive about life and death and eternal life is very unwise. It will leave you either unprepared or unnecessarily worried about things you don’t need to be concerned about. Those who have died are in a state of waiting what theologians sometimes call the ‘intermediate state’ a transition between this life & eternal life. Here, Paul describes them as being ‘asleep’ waiting for a new dawn, the day when Jesus will return in glory.
2. We don’t grieve as others do, who have no hope (vs13)
Because of what we know (which will be expanded on in the verses that follow), we do not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope because they have not believed in Jesus. What we know gives us peace and hope both for ourselves and for those we love. Note, however, how Paul does not say; ‘don’t grieve’! We do grieve as believers. We grieve because death is a terrible, unnatural, intrusion in our lives and relationships. Death is our enemy that Jesus came to destroy and overcome, but that victory will be only fully realised at Jesus’ second coming. So in this life, we do grieve, we suffer the pain of separation, but we do so with that pain limited by hope!
3. Our hope is rooted in our belief that Jesus died and rose again (vs14)
Jesus rose again victorious from the dead, and so we know that we too will rise with Him (Romans 6:4). As Rick Warren said; “Death is therefore not your termination, but your transition into eternity.” Famously DL Moody supposedly said; “Soon you will read in the newspaper that I am dead. Don’t believe it for a moment. I will be more alive than ever before.” And as PJ Smyth says; “Do you best death – all you do is promote us!” This is why we do not grieve as those with no hope do.
4. The Great Reunion! (vs14-17a)
We know that at his glorious second coming Jesus is going to bring with Him all those believers who had fallen asleep before that moment. They will rise from their state of sleep and will meet with us in the air with Christ! What a day, what a reunion! I am sitting writing this in an airport. I love airports and watching some people both crying and as they hug good-bye, aching for the moment they will be reunited and then also others crying with the joy of home-comings, reunions of loved one. Imagine for a moment all the married couples being reunited, parents and children, best friends. Can you hear the excited chatter? Can you feel the relief and the intensity of the hugs, can you see the Father’s joy?
5. Together Forever (vs17b-18)
Paul goes on to complete this thought with the words; “and so we will always be with the Lord”. This reunion of believers never ends; the joy will never subside or be replaced by a new sadness. This is the era of unhindered & unending proximity to Jesus and one another. The best you’ve ever experienced of the joy of relationships in this life is the worst you could imagine in the new heaven and the new earth because even best things are tainted by sin in some way or end through our mortality. The best is yet to come! So, encourage one another with these words (vs18), speak about our glorious future and allow that certain future to shape today.
Lastly, maybe contemplating these things will also cause you to have the courage to reach out to someone who doesn’t yet believe in Jesus Christ so that they could be with you in eternity – share your life with them, share the good news of Christ with them, bring them to church.
“It ought to be the business of every day to prepare for our final day” (Matthew Henry)
There is a day when the temporary separation brought about by all death in this life will be overturned by the greatest day of re-unification ever!
I find airports very interesting spaces. Going to an airport one can observe a whole range of contrasting emotions on display.
On the side of departures there are last hugs, last kisses and last looks – endings, separations, increasing distance, tears & questions of when we will see one another next.
Yet, on the side of arrivals its the opposite. There are first hugs, kisses & words of joy and love. Decreasing distance, intimacy and re-unification, the resumption of relationships…
Death is like the departure section of the airport. The second coming of Jesus, however, is like the arrivals section! There is a day when the wait will be over, the distance between us and Jesus will evaporate forever, and a day when the separation we have endured from loved ones who died as believers will be over forever and ever.
These Thessalonians had questions about loved ones who had died, here in these verses Scripture describes the amazing day to come when King Jesus will return as King. The underlying Greek word (‘parousia) used here and translated as ‘the coming of the’ Lord is a word that has special meaning. It’s not just like a friend ‘coming’ round to your house but the picture the Thessalonians would have had when that word was used would have been that of a victorious king leading his armies and his captives in a victory parade through the streets, to be received with cheers and celebration from his home city/kingdom.
We get hints of this incredible scene when this passage describes the picture of Jesus’ return with three sounds;
- Jesus declaring loudly with a shout/command ,
The voice of an archangel (chief angel) saying something about Jesus no doubt
- And God sounding a heavenly trumpet!
- In this moment there will be the greatest day of re-unification ever! It seems from vs15-16 that those who had already died, believing in Jesus will be raised and then they will join Jesus in His ‘parousia’, in His victory procession as ‘God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep’ (vs14).
I can imagine Jesus in all His glory out front, and the host of believers behind Him singing glorying in Him and yet at the same time looking out for, finding in the crowd and waving with joy and excitement at those who are still alive who believed in Jesus. What a day of re-unification, joy unspeakable! This is comforting for us who just feel the loss of separation in the present time, this sadness will be overcome with everlasting joy.
Lastly, the result of what I’m calling Re-uniting Day will be an intimate proximity to Jesus that will never be undone again; “and so we will always be with the Lord” (vs17).
These truths should encourage us, and should be used by us to encourage one another (vs18).
Who can you encourage with these words today?
Have you done it yet?
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep… (vs13)
In their short time in Thessalonica, despite having covered many questions about life and faith, it appears as though questions regarding death and life after death were either not covered in Paul’s preaching while in person with them and so much of the remainder of 1 Thessalonians 4-5 focusses on what is commonly regarded as Paul answering questions that had been asked probably via Timothy who returned to Paul and the team.
When someone dies we as believers can be faced with the struggle of reconciling;
- our faith and our emotions,
- our faith and the loss of a loved one,
- our faith and the likelihood that some of the things we prayed for weren’t answered as we wished they would be,
- our faith and some of that which is unknown concerning this loved one and life after death.
Paul said to the Thessalonians, “we do not want you to be uninformed”(vs13). We do not want you to not know what we ought to know. As believers, although there is mystery still regarding death we do know many things from Scripture, and knowing helps grieving.
…that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.(vs13)
Grief is our multifaceted response to loss. Grief is unpredictable and can be full of conflicting emotions ranging from deep desperate sadness through to the relief that the person who died is no longer suffering, or even relief as the load of caring lifts and yet the pain of guilt that you feel relieved or are doing ok after their death…
Scripture doesn’t say that we as Christ followers won’t grieve.
To not grieve would be to deny our common human experience post-the-fall of humankind. Rather, what this verse teaches is that we don’t grieve in the same way, as those who ‘have no hope’.
Our grieving is transformed by hope. This life is not the end, death is not the end but rather a transition from this life to the next as Jesus Himself said;
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
Believing in Jesus transforms us so radically that death becomes the doorway to eternal life! And in that moment death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:55), in life that’s imperishable.
This is why believers in Jesus don’t grieve the death of a fellow believer in the same way, as those with no hope, yes they grieve – because there is loss, a break in relationship for the present time, but that loss is informed, is transformed by the knowledge that this loved one if they believed in Jesus Christ has nothing but glorious suffering free imperishable life in their eternal trajectory with Jesus!
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.(vs14)
Jesus who died and rose again, will resurrect us who believe, will resurrect those who have died having believed in Him in this life. And this knowledge, that believers in Jesus will be resurrected by Jesus on the day of His glorious second coming transforms our grief, doesn’t take it away, but fills it with unshakeable hope.