I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
The Apostle Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, Paul doesn’t want them to be unaware about what the future holds for the Christians there who have died. The Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Christ. These converts, who had been turned away from their pagan idols to the true and living God, were taught by Paul to wait and look for God’s Son from heaven, the second coming of Jesus to save them from the final judgment. In fact, so great was their anticipation of the Last Day that some of these Thessalonians were even forsaking their jobs and their daily work, expecting the return of Jesus to be at any moment. In the verses right before today’s epistle, Paul had to remind the Christians in Thessalonica, “work with your own hands, as we commanded you.” And again, “if a man is not willing to work, neither shall he eat.”
And along with this, another problem developed. Some Thessalonians were unsure of what would happen to those Christians who died before the Last Day. They saw Christ’s second coming as being right around the corner, and they wondered what would happen to their fellow believers who had passed away before that time. Were they going to miss out on the blessings of Christ’s return if they weren’t alive in the body? Many pagans of that time believed that once you died, that was the end of it for your body. And so Paul says to them, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep.”
But before we consider the teaching of Paul on this subject, we must first ask ourselves, how do we compare to these Thessalonian Christians? What can we learn from them about ourselves? We might be tempted to scoff at them a little bit. “Those extremists, leaving their jobs to wait for the end. How ridiculous!” And yet, it seems to me that we can be guilty of the opposite error. They may have forsaken their work to focus on Christ’s second coming, but we tend to forsake Christ’s second coming to focus on our work and the things of this world. When is the last time you thought about Jesus’ return in a serious way? The Scriptures command us to be prepared for it, to watch for it daily. But we tend more eagerly to watch what’s happening with our money, or to watch our favorite shows and celebrities, or to set our eyes on politics or sports–my goodness, the never-ending sports. While the Thessalonians did indeed carry things to an extreme, the fundamental point they had right: we are always to be watching and preparing for the return of our Lord Jesus. As we carry out the callings that God has given us, we are to lift our eyes and await the coming of the Son of God from heaven. For each day could indeed be the Last Day of this world.
In the same way, we might be tempted to look down upon the Thessalonians’ lack of knowledge regarding those who have died in the faith–especially those who may have thought that you had to be alive in the body at Jesus’ return to experience His salvation. And yet, again, we often make the opposite error. We tend to give all our attention to the soul or the spirit while neglecting the fact that God also redeemed our bodies in Christ. We forget that the soul of a believer going to heaven is really only a temporary circumstance as we await the Last Day. Our true and full hope regarding everlasting life is the resurrection of the body, the undoing of the curse of sin and death, the conquering of the grave. The Word became flesh to save us in the flesh.
Paul speaks these words of God so that we will not grieve or sorrow as those who have no hope. Most face death without any real hope, only uncertainty. With no sure foundation they are left only with fear as life ebbs away. Some may try to comfort themselves with all sorts of false hopes. Some, for instance, believe in reincarnation, that once we depart these bodies in death, we will be reborn into new bodies in this world. But that belief in reincarnation is simply a lie and an illusion. For it says plainly in Hebrews 9, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The soul is the life of a particular body, a particular flesh-and-blood person, and it cannot simply hop around from one body to the next, regardless of what you see in the movies. Soul and body are a unit, belonging uniquely to each other. The only thing that rips them apart is death.
Others try to comfort themselves with the false hope that everyone goes to heaven, or to something like it, after death. They deny the reality of hell for those who reject or ignore Christ or who keep Him at arms length and go their own way. But the Scriptures are very clear on this. Hell is real, and it is the destiny of every sinner who has not sought refuge in Christ, in His holy cross, in His words, His body and blood. For only in Jesus is there deliverance from everlasting judgment.
So it is that Paul focuses our attention squarely on Christ. The Epistle says, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” Our hope is built surely and solely on what Christ has done for us. He died and rose again. Therefore, we who have been baptized into His body also die, for the sinful nature must finally be put to death, but we too will rise again to new life through the power of Christ’s resurrection. For Christ is the head of the body, the Church. Where the head goes the body must follow.
That’s why Paul refers to those Christians who have died as those who are asleep. Believers who sleep in death will eventually awaken in the resurrection on the Last Day. Therefore, it is quite fitting that places of burial are called “cemeteries,” which comes from the Greek word, “to sleep.” Many older and rural churches, you may know, had their cemeteries right next door, right on the property. And for Easter, theses churches would often begin their services at the cemetery, the place where their fellow believers were asleep in Christ, and then process to the place of worship to celebrate the sure hope of the resurrection in Christ, the awakening to everlasting life.
Now this sleep refers only to the body and not to the soul. The Bible makes it very clear that the spirits of the faithful who have died go to be with Christ in heaven. Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” The soul does not sleep but is comforted in the presence of God as it awaits the Last Day and the fulfillment of all things. Then at the close of the age, God will bring with Him the souls of His people to be raised from the dead in bodies that are new and immortal and imperishable. In the resurrection, God’s people will share in the glory of Christ so that we will no longer experience sickness or sorrow or pain or death, but only the perfection of life that the Lord Jesus won for us. It is written in 1 Corinthians, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality . . . Then the saying that is written will come true, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Where, O death, is your victory; where, O death, is your sting? . . . Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is why Christians throughout history never engaged in the practice of cremation. While God can certainly resurrect even from our ashes, we never want to give the impression, especially to our unchurched family and friends, that God is done with the body, as if our only hope is for the soul, as if the resurrection of the body isn’t something real. Rather than speeding along the breakdown of the body with fire, we commend the body into God’s hands, the God who conquered the power of death for us. The same God who created us from the dust in the beginning can certainly also resurrect and recreate us from the dirt into which our casket has been planted and raise our renewed bodies to live in the awesomeness of His very presence. Since we believe in creation, we also believe in our recreation and resurrection through Christ, who “will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.”
It is on this basis of the certainty of the resurrection that Paul offers comfort to the Thessalonians regarding their brethren who died. He says, “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 by no means precede those who are asleep.” In other words, those Christians who are alive at Christ’s second coming will not be the first to experience the effects of His return; rather those who have gone before us in the faith will. Departed Christians are not at a disadvantage when it comes to the Last Day, and therefore, Paul says, you need not sorrow over them as if they’ll miss out on something when Christ comes again. First, the dead will be raised, then the living will be changed and made new, though this will all happen with instantaneous speed. It is written in I Corinthians, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” That is the hope which Christ has given you in the face of death.
“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” Some have tried to say that this refers to some sort of rapture that will occur before the Last Day, where some are caught up and others are left behind. But that is a false teaching. Being caught up to meet the Lord in the air is a reference to our sharing in Jesus’ victory over the devil, who Scripture refers to as the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). This is the visible, final return of our Lord at the close of the age, when Satan will be cast down forever and we shall bodily be raised up forever. And we shall always be with the Lord, sharing in and reflecting God’s perfect goodness and beauty and truth, all to His glory and honor and praise.
Until then, do not become impatient, like those who engaged in the idolatry of the golden calf. But rather wait on the Lord Jesus and His timing. And do not become complacent like those in the days of Noah and Lot, but rather devote yourself to the Lord’s Word and His Supper. Comfort one another at times of death not simply with generic hopes of “a better place,” but with the concrete truth that the resurrection of the body is coming. For the day is near when Jesus will be visibly revealed like the lightning that lights up the heavens, and He will bring your salvation to its fulfillment.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠