At no point is Christian faith more relevant, or more pointed, than at the moment when we must deal with death, and there is no point pretending that it is not easy to find ourselves ‘faint-hearted’ in the face of life about to end.
‘What about our friends who have died? What has happened to them? Are they all right? Will I see them again? What about my own readiness and security as I face death?’
For the Bible-believing Christian, the answer lies in two things: God’s promise and our hope.
What we can assume from a passage like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 is that when the apostle Paul had been in Thessalonica, he had taught the Christians there that there would be a day when Jesus would personally return to bring his people home to himself. Yet, from his teaching to this young church two problems seem to have arose:
- Some of the Christians there clearly thought that Jesus would return in their own life-time, and as such, some had quit their jobs (like the followers of Harold Camping in 1994 in the US) believing that they ought to do nothing but wait for his appearing;
- There were those who, having taken this teaching seriously, suddenly found themselves completely unprepared for the experience of grief and bereavement. Relatives and friends of theirs had died before Christ had returned. This took them completely by surprise and troubled them terribly. They were full of anxiety and questions. How would the Christian death be dealt with? Would they be disadvantaged at having died before Jesus’ return? Would they miss the blessing of being alive when he came?
There are of course, many Christians who struggle with these questions even today – and so the apostle Paul’s response to these matters is still very relevant to us, and very important.
Believers who die (1Thessalonians 4:13-18)
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
Paul begins his answer to these issues by making two things very clear. The first is that those who die in Christ are not lost, but rather they are those who ‘sleep’. Many ancient texts speak of death in this way, indeed the Old Testament does so regularly. Very often, the sleep of death is spoken of as a kind of ‘rest from life’s labors’. But this is not Paul’s meaning here.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, sleep is used to indicate that death is only temporary, in the same way that when we sleep that act is only temporary – we will wake again (Daniel 12:2 & Mark 5:39). This image is used because in death, our physical bodies lie still – like sleep (in fact the word ‘cemetery’ actually means sleeping place) but remember, this is a reference to the activity of our bodies alone, and not to the activity of our souls. Our physical bodies may ‘sleep’ but not our souls.
The second point that Paul makes here is that grief and sorrow over someone who has died is not forbidden. Christians grieve for those they love and have had to farewell in the same way that everyone else grieves. This sorrow over loss is entirely appropriate, normal and healthy. What is forbidden however, is a certain type of grieving, and that is a grieving which is without hope. We are forbidden to behave (when confronted by death) in a way that suggests that this life is all that there is and that God has made no promise for our future life and blessing in Christ Jesus!
You see, for Christians the face of death must always be viewed alongside the promise of the return of the Lord, because our Christian hope is that the coming of the Lord will also be accompanied by the return of the Christian saints who have died and the taking of the Christians saints who are alive to join them. You see, for the Thessalonians, and for us, it is the separation which causes pain and anxiety. We are separated from those whom we love by death and we fear that they have been separated from God in dying before his return. We go on, fearing that they have been left behind, untended and uncared for somehow. But what we discover from Paul is that these separations are not real and nor are the permanent. For the death will appear again in the company of their Saviour and Lord, and we will certainly not be placed before them.
14 For 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. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 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 principle that Paul works from is this: If God did not abandon Jesus to death, then neither will he abandon the Christian dead. On the contrary, he will raise these sons just as he raised his own Son and so when he comes again, they too will come with him.
They are not lost and they are not separated, they are sons and daughters of the kingdom of life. We must not be confused or doubtful about this. On this day, there will be no difference between the living and the dead in Christ. All will appear transformed by the Lord, and all will appear as living members of his kingdom. There is an unbreakable solidarity between us and them in Jesus, which death is entirely unable to destroy.
4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
This future, this reality, Paul declares has been guaranteed by the Word of the Lord himself (1Thess. 4:15). But which word of the Lord Jesus has promised this? Well it could be many sayings of Jesus that Paul is relying on, but perhaps the one that best that suits this context is Jesus declaration at the beginning of John 14.
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
The arrival of the ‘Day Of The Lord’ (1Thessalonians 5:1-11)
Having now addressed the Thessalonians’ concerned about their friends and family who had died, and whether or not they would suffer any disadvantage, the apostle now turns to address their concerns about their own readiness for Christ’s return.
1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
Two things seem clear from the beginning of 1Thessalonians 5: the first is that Paul has already taught the church to live in anticipation of ‘the coming of the Day Of The Lord’, and the second is that he had already told them that the coming of this day would be sudden and unexpected:
“about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
No doubt Paul had already repeated to them the words of Jesus in Mark 13:32:
32 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
And in Matthew 24:42-44:
42 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Paul uses two illustrations to reinforce his point about the day’s surprising arrival. The first is the fact that it will be when people are most secure and complacent about their own peace and safety. The moment that we are most comfortable and most self assured – judgment will come and our stupid self-assurance will be dreadfully exposed for what it is.
The second illustration is one from pregnancy. Like the sudden unexpectedness of labor pains in childbirth, so will the Lord appear. I have never yet heard a single woman say: “Excuse me, but in ten minutes time I’ll be going into labor”. No, the only warning she gets is the pain that comes with the fact the time is already here, and when it starts, there is no turning back.
The big issue for the Thessalonians (and for us) is how to respond to this inevitable truth. The appropriate response for the believer is to live in the light of what you have been told, and what you believe is true. If we are to rely on the word of God for our understanding of death and resurrection then we must certainly apply that same word to our understanding and response to the great Day Of the Lord!
4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.
Notice that the secret to our response to this day is actually not what we do when the day arrives, but rather how well we are prepared for this day by our knowledge of what is to come. It is not what you do then, but rather what we do NOW!
- You have been well taught and well prepared – so act now and don’t be surprised!
- You have been given light – so use it and walk in it!
- You know what is to come – so act appropriately!
This is the time for you to be awake, ready, and diligent. We have no permission to live as though this day will never come. You have no permission to be lazy or complacent, living as though everything will go on and on. We are NOT the ones who proclaim peace and safety, rather we preach repentance and preparation!
8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
Our role is to:
- Live out the confidence we have in what we have been taught by God. We walk in accordance to the promises we have been given – we live by faith in him, not the world.
- We live in love for one another and for those who are outside. We encourage each other to stand strong in the gospel truth and we encourage others to embrace this gospel as well, so that they too might be ready for the Day and escape God’s anger.
- We live out our hope – we keep our eyes fixed on Christ and the life that is to come. We cover all our thinking and all of our planning with the reality of the salvation that is to come. We wear it like a helmet – it is our protection and our courage.
We remind ourselves and one another of who we are, of what God has done for us in Jesus and of what our sure and certain future is. We live in the clear light of God’s promise and we grasp hold of the life that has been won for us by the life, death and resurrection of Christ our Lord.
9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
We remember there is no difference between the living and the dead in Christ. All will appear transformed by the Lord, and all will appear as living members of his kingdom. There is an unbreakable solidarity between us and those who have gone before us in Jesus, which death is entirely unable to destroy.
What fear or anxiety is there for our future? What can we possibly fear?
10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
Your future is secure. Your hope is certain. You are free to be a vehicle of love, joy, hope, and life.