Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Is Death's Separation Permanent?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

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Introduction

Briefly review the setting of this letter. In spite of his commitment to establish them in God's Word, Paul's expulsion interrupted his instruction of these new Christians—and their incomplete instruction left them vulnerable to real pain and confusion.

When we have holes in our grounding (regardless of whose responsibility), it will cause problems in our lives because we don't have the proper framework for dealing with what life throws at us.

In their case, the problem was how to cope with the deaths of some of their members (read 4:13). (“Asleep” here is a figurative expression for physical death.) Would they ever see them again? Or is death's separation permanent? Because they had no solid answer to this question, they were in danger of succumbing to a form of grief they should not have to experience as Christians. The Bible speaks of two kinds of grief.

It is important to note that Paul is not telling them they should not grieve at all. Biblical spirituality is not stoicism or denial. Jesus wept at Lazarus' tomb because of death's abnormality even though he knew that he would raise him a few moments later (John 11:35). Paul wept with the Ephesian elders because he knew wouldn't see them again in this life (Acts 20:37-38) even though he was confident he would not be permanently separated from them. This kind of grief is normal and healthy. The Bible says we were created to have deep love relationships with other persons, relationships that are never ended or interrupted. That's why it hurts when they are interrupted by death.

Paul doesn't want them to grieve “like the rest who have no hope.” “ Hope” here does not mean a wish (“I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow”); it means a confident expectation and assurance of an important future event. This is the grief of one who loses a loved one and has no basis for knowing that they will be reunited with them. This may be where you are this morning. You have lost a loved one, and you are experiencing the pain of separation. This pain is exacerbated by anguish that for all you know this separation is permanent.

The religions and philosophies of the first century had no such basis. The body was 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 epitaph from this period captures this hopelessness: “I was not. I became. I am not. I care not.”1 An early 2nd century letter from Irene to a family in mourning expresses this same hopelessness. She concludes her letter by saying, “But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another. Farewell.” How different from 4:18!

The religions and philosophies of today offer no basis for hope.

Naturalism leads to 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.” What is this? This is the grief of hopelessness!

Pantheism may sound more hopeful with its promise of reincarnation, but this is no basis for reunion with loved ones. Our spirits come back in different forms, and ultimately are absorbed into the impersonal oneness. This is just another form of personal annihilation. This is why when Aldous Huxley's mother died, he wrote 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.” What is this? This is the grief of hopelessness!

Only in the Bible, and specifically in Jesus Christ, do we discover a hope that tempers and ultimately overcomes this kind of grief. Paul explains this hope in this passage . . .

The promise: personal, embodied reunion

Paul provides them with a clear promise of personal, embodied reunion.

He hints at this in 4:13 when he describes Christians who have died as “asleep.” While someone is asleep, you cannot communicate with him—the relationship is on “pause” (ME WITH BEV TAKING A NAP). But sleep is only temporary—sleepers wake up eventually, and then the relationship can begin again.

He explicitly states this promise in 4:17 when he says, “we shall be caught up together with them”—but more on this later.

This is not something Paul made up. This was the clear teaching of the Old Testament (read Isaiah 25:6-9). Eternal life is above all else living forever in God's loving presence. But it is also celebrating with all of the Lord's people, including being reunited with loved ones who belong to him.

The basis: Jesus' bodily resurrection

How do I know this isn't just some psychological crutch (FREUD)—an infantile wish, a projection, a form of childish magical thinking to help me cope with reality? Paul reminds them of the answer to this question in 4:14, where he explains the basis for this promise (read).

The basis for this hope for the future is something that has already happened in the past—Jesus' bodily resurrection. This is why Paul refers to Jesus' past resurrection as the “first-fruits” of our own future resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20; EXPLAIN “FIRST FRUITS”). We live after the buds have formed! If/since we have solid reasons to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead in the past, we can be confident that he will raise us from the dead reunite us with believing loved ones in the future.

The real question, then, is: Is there adequate evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead? This is a whole teaching (or series) in itself. If you want a great book on this, check out Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ (EXPLAIN). The evidence for the empty tomb, the disciples' martyrdom, and the emergence of the Jerusalem church are as solid as any fact of ancient history. Consider the conclusions of these scholars:

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.”4

Sir Edward Clarke, famous British lawyer who approached the issue as a skeptic: “As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidence for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling”5

B. F. Westcott, New Testament scholar at Cambridge University: “Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously reported than the resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the . . . assumption that it must be false could . . . suggest the idea of deficiency in the proof of it.”6

You'll have a great opportunity to take a closer look at the evidence for Jesus' resurrection NEXT WEEK . . .

The event: the “rapture”

When will this happen? Read 4:15-17. The Bible doesn't give us a date for this (and Christians should quit trying to fix it)—it gives us an event. It will happen “at the coming of the Lord,” or what we call “the rapture.” This term comes from the Latin Vulgate's translation (rapiemure) of “caught up” in 4:17.

Without getting into all the details, this is evidently the first event of the complex of events known as “the end of the age.” Before the emergence of the Antichrist, before the Great Tribulation, before Jesus' return to earth to reestablish God's loving rule over humanity—before all these things, Jesus will come to gather up his own to meet him in the air.

Here, 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 are caught up to meet him first; those who are still alive bypass physical death!

From this moment onward, all who belong to Jesus will be “together with him.”

In another passage, Paul tells us that both groups receive their new, immortal bodies at this time (read 1 Corinthians 15:51-53).

The result: comfort

Read 4:18. You can receive (and give) real comfort from this promised. It is based on reliable evidence, it is firmly rooted in Christ's resurrection. It overcomes the grief of hopelessness and tempers the pain of losing a loved one. This is why genuinely Christian funerals are so different. There is sadness, but there is also celebration . . .

Let's listen to the testimony of brother who has recently experienced this comfort (VIDEO).

The condition: belonging to Christ

Before we close, I need to make explicit something that has been implicit throughout this passage and video: There is a condition. 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 . . .”

If you want to be with Christ and his people in the next life, you have to turn to Christ and put your trust in him in this life. This is because death is a result of sin/rebellion against God—and only Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins (Romans 6:23). Jesus is God's lifeline, extended to all of us, no matter how far we may have strayed from him. But you have to take hold of his lifeline by admitting your guilt to God, by trusting that Jesus alone (not WORKS, etc.) is God's provision for your guilt, and by asking him to forgive you and give you eternal life (John 11:25).

The moment you do this, you are guaranteed eternal life with Christ and all who belong to him. You can know you will be reunited with your believing loved ones, and you have a hope to share with your family and friends. Have you done this? If not, why put it off?

Footnotes

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

2 Cited in Oswald Sanders, Heaven: Better By Far (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1993), p. 22.

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

4 Cited in Michael Green, Man Alive (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), pp. 53,54.

5 Quoted by John R. W. Stott in Basic Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971), p. 47.

6 Quoted by Paul Little in Know Why You Believe (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971), p. 30.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt