Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Hope in the Face of Death

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Teaching t22467


Brief setting of the letter. In this section of the letter, Paul is giving instructions on how to live the Christian life (4:1-3a). In 4:3-12, Paul addresses some of the ethical implications of the Christian life. Now in 4:13-18, he addresses how the Christian life provides hope in the face of death. Read 4:13. Some of the Christians in the Thessalonian church had died recently. Maybe they were killed by persecution, but probably they died of natural causes or accident. Unfortunately, Paul was expelled from Thessalonica before he had the opportunity to teach them what God says about Christians who die. Paul says that this ignorance is subjecting them to a level of emotional pain (hopeless grief) that they need not have.

It is normal and right for Christians to grieve the death of believing loved ones (Jesus did this in Jn.11)—but properly informed Christians (Christians who know and trust what God reveals about this area) can have hope that is stronger than their grief. This is why Paul proceeds in 4:14-18 to inform them...

Before we look at Paul’s instruction on this specific issue, I want to consider the general principle on which his explanation is based—namely, the relationship between biblical knowledge and our emotional lives. The principle is: Ignorance of biblical truth leads to emotional unhealth (“I don’t want you to be uninformed... that you may not grieve without hope”), while knowing and trusting biblical truth leads to emotional health (“For this we say by the word of the Lord... Therefore comfort one another with these words”). If we do not know and trust what the Bible says about every major area of life, our lives will be increasingly dominated by anxiety and bitterness and despondency. But if we know and trust what Jesus says, our lives will be increasingly undergirded by His peace and hope and joy.

Paul states this principle positively in one of my favorite verses—read Rom.15:13. It is God’s will for Christians’ emotional lives to be characterized by a strong foundation of peace and hope and joy. This doesn’t mean that Christians don’t or shouldn’t have negative emotions—but that peace and hope and joy can and should be stronger and prevail. God’s Spirit is willing and able to impart this to us, no matter what our circumstances. The condition is that we “trust in Him”—that we understand the good news that God has revealed (Rom.1-15), and that we address every area of our lives with this good news. A classic Christian book on this subject is D. M. Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression: Its Causes & Its Cure.

This is also how we should help one another during times of difficulty and emotional pain. PEANUTS CARTOON: Living in a therapeutic culture in which feelings are primary, we expect Linus to respond to Lucy’s fear with emotional empathy (“I see you’re afraid. I’m sorry you feel this way. You will feel better tomorrow.”), or that Lucy would not be helped by Linus’ approach (“Don’t preach at me!” “Don’t you care that I am afraid?”). But Linus helps Lucy by addressing her fearful emotions with good theology. This is what we should do with each other (with appropriate sensitivity, of course). And this is what Paul does in 4:14-18 ...

The promise: personal, embodied reunion

What is the biblical truth that addresses their grief over the death of their fellow-Christian loved ones? Read 4:14 – that Jesus has overcome death and will one day bodily reunite living Christians with Christians who have died. This is why Paul refers to dead Christians as “asleep.” The death of Christian loved ones is for living Christians like they are taking a nap. We cannot communicate with them for now – but they will wake up, so we are not permanently separated from them.

This truth was totally different than anything in Greco-Roman culture. The religions and philosophies of the first century had no such basis. They viewed the body as the prison house of the soul. There was no future for the body but decay, and the soul was either annihilated at death, or wandered in Hades bemoaning its state, or was ultimately consumed by the fire of elemental deity. One tomb epitaph from this period captures this hopelessness: “I was not. I became. I am not. I care not.” An early 2nd century letter from a woman to a family in mourning concludes her letter by saying, “But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another. Farewell.” How different from the reason Paul says: “Comfort one another!”

What about the other religions and philosophies of today? Don’t they offer hope? No!!!

Atheism promises only personal annihilation. Bertrand Russell said: “No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life from the grave...Brief and powerless is Man's life; on his and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.” The best you can do is try not to think about death!

Pantheism may sound more hopeful with its belief in reincarnation, but this holds no promise for reunion with loved ones. Our spirits come back in different forms, and ultimately are absorbed into the impersonal oneness—which is just another form of personal annihilation. Aldous Huxley rejected atheism and embraced pantheism. But when his mother died, he had no comfort for his sister: “My dearest sister, I offer you no consolation, for I know of none. There are things which each must bear as best he may with the strength that has been allotted to him.”

So the biblical truth of personal, embodied reunion for those who belong to Jesus addresses our grief over departed loved one. But isn’t this promise just wishful thinking? Look again...

The basis: Jesus’ bodily resurrection

“Since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again...” Paul is not saying that our beliefs make Jesus raised from the dead. He is saying that since our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead is sound, we can be confident that He is God’s Messiah who will return and reunite us with Himself.

This is another unique feature of Christianity. Other religions’ hopes for the afterlife are completely speculative. But Christians’ confidence in their future resurrection rests on the fact of Jesus’ past resurrection. Jesus said He would raise His followers from the dead (Jn.11:25), and He based this promise on the claim that God would raise Him from the dead three days after His death (Jn.2:19).

And Jesus’ resurrection is perhaps the best attested fact of ancient history. The number of people who give eye-witness accounts of His crucifixion and resurrection, the fact that they did not expect Him to be resurrected, and the fact that they stood by their testimony even when it cost them their lives—this is historical evidence so strong that only the presumption that it must be false (i.e., blind faith) can ignore it. You should listen to this instead of the “History” channel!

Therefore, we can trust Jesus’ promise to return and reunite dead Christians with living Christians. This is what Paul describes in more detail next...

The event: the “coming of the Lord”

Read 4:15-17. The Bible doesn't give us a date for this (and Christians should quit trying to fix it)—but it does describe the event. It will happen “at the coming of the Lord.”

“Coming” (or “arrival”) is parousia, which was often used to describe the arrival of the Emperor to a city. He would usually disembark from a ship at the port city near the main town he was visiting. The citizens of the main town would go out to the port city to meet the Emperor, and then accompany him in a parade processional back to their town.

Paul seems to be saying that Jesus’ arrival will be similar. At the end of this age, He will arrive “in the air,” and those who belong to Him will be caught up in the air to meet Him. (Christians sometimes call this event the “Rapture” because of the Latin Vulgate’s translation of “caught up” [rapiemure]).From that moment on, they will be together with Him. Then they will accompany Him when He returns to earth to establish God’s kingdom.

Paul emphasizes that those who die before this event will still participate in it. Their death in no way disadvantages them. In fact, it's a “win-win” situation. Those who die in Christ before His coming will be caught up to meet Him first; those who are still alive will bypass physical death! From this moment onward, all who belong to Jesus will be “together... with the Lord” in bodily presence and personal interaction. Isaiah gives us a beautiful picture of this reunion (read Isa.25:6-9 NLT).

The implications

The first and most important implication of this passage is this: Entrust yourself to Jesus as your Lord and Savior. This hope is for those who belong to Jesus Christ. Paul has said this through the passage. In 4:13, this promise is to the “brethren” over against “the rest who have no hope.” In 4:14, “...if we believe...those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” In 4:16, “...the dead in Christ shall rise...”

Certainly you know that no one gets out of here alive. Certainly you know that living in denial of this is foolish. Certainly you know that there is no hope in atheism or pantheism. Only one Person has conquered death—Jesus—and He invites you live forever with Him and all who belong to Him (read Jn.11:25). It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve lived, or how much of your life you’ve lived not believing in Him. He died on the Cross to take care of all that. But you do have to call out to Him and tell Him that you want to belong to Him. Are you willing to do this? Don’t put this decision off!

The second implication is what we talked about at the beginning: Address yourself and one another with this promise. Read 4:18. “These words” of biblical truth—spoken by Jesus, confirmed by His resurrection, and illuminated by the Holy Spirit—have the power to deeply comfort and strengthen (parakaleo) those who trust them.

I experience this reality every time one of my Christian friends dies. I’ve lost three of them within the past few months. There was and is sorrow for us, and especially for their family members—but at their memorial services you could see and feel the difference between those who know Christ and those who don’t.

Those who don’t know Christ were either numb or deeply pierced by grief without hope. One relative told me despondently: “Now he’s gone and I’ll never see him again.” How I hope he responds to this message which I shared with him!

But we who belong to Christ know that we’re only parted for a short while, and soon we’ll be together forever—home and free and rejoicing together in Jesus’ presence in never-ending and ever-increasing joy. And reminding one another of this promise tempers our grief with a hope that is deep and solid!

Cited in Warren Wiersbe, Be Ready! (Moody Press), p. 83.

Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p.107.

Cited in Oswald Sanders, Heaven: Better By Far (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1993), p.22. Huxley subscribed to Vedanta mysticism, a form of Hinduism which believes in reincarnation and moksha.

Chief Justice Darling (Court of England): “The crux of the problem of whether Jesus was or was not what he proclaimed himself to be, most surely depends upon the truth or otherwise of (his) resurrection. On that greatest point we are not merely asked to have faith. In its favor as...truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.” Cited in Michael Green, Man Alive (Downers Grove: IVP, 1968), pp. 53,54.