The Thessalonians were troubled about what would happen to their brothers and sisters who died prior to the Lord’s coming. It is possible that they saw the death of Christians prior to the Lord’s coming as a kind of punishment. Hearing about the deaths of Christians such as Ananias and Sapphira, as well as those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 who died because they abused the Lord’s Supper, these new believers may have drawn some mistaken conclusions about the fact that some had died prior to the Lord’s return. And if someone’s death was seen as a punishment from the Lord, it would naturally call into question whether that person would share in the full enjoyment of the Lord’s coming on the last day. We don’t really know if that is what they were thinking. What is clear is that they were overwhelmed with grief. They were in despair over the death of their friends and loved ones.
Paul says, “We don’t want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep….” Some have wrongly used this verse to argue for a doctrine of “soul sleep,” But this refers to the body. As far as our soul is concerned, Jesus said to the criminal on the cross next to him, “today you will be with me in paradise”; Paul says, “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” – that is not the language of someone who expects to unconscious until the Lord comes;
This is a personal letter communicating what we would call condolences. Listen carefully and see if anything strikes you:
When I heard of the terrible things that you met at the hands of thankless fate, I felt the deepest grief….When I saw all the things that assail life, all that day long I cried over them. But then I considered that such things are the common lot of all, with nature establishing neither a particular time or age in which one must suffer…, but often confronting us secretly, awkwardly and undeservedly. Since I happened not to be present to comfort you, I decided to do so by letter. Bear, then, what has happened as lightly as you can, and exhort yourself just as you would exhort someone else. For you know that reason will make it easier for you to be relieved of your grief with the passage of time.” You would easily think that such a letter was written by a typical broadminded, educated 21st century university graduate, but no – it was a 1st century pagan.
There is practical atheism in how they speak. They refer to death as “thankless fate.” God is totally omitted. There is no purpose to anything. It says “death comes to us “undeservedly,” in contrast with the Bible’s view that death is the penalty for sin. What fills the letter is emptiness and lack of hope. The letter encourages the one who grieves to “exhort yourself just as you would exhort someone else,” but it doesn’t say anything about how to do that.
“Irene to Taonnophris and Philo, good comfort. I am as sorry and weep over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort one another.”
What sort of comfort is it, to say “Against such things one can do nothing”?
People who lived centuries ago all have something in common – they have all died. They all had to face the inescapable fact that one day, they would all die, and die they did. Whether it was by a cricket ball, or a speeding car, or the plague, or cancer, or an executioners sword or bullet – they all died. And very few of them knew how to face that event, or deal with it.
It is not surprising, then, to find that in the ancient world there was a great desire to minimize grief. One burial inscription said this: “My mother, leave off lamenting, cease to mourn, for Hades turns pity aside.” Another said simply, “Do not grieve over the departed.” One famous inscription put it, “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”
The main point I want to bring out from this text is this: Because Jesus died and rose again, our grief is mixed with resurrection hope.
Is Paul suggesting that we adopt of kind of stoic posture in the face of death? Is he saying that any kind of grief is wrong, and we should just grit our teeth and fight through all feelings of grief, because we are Christians?
No, clearly Paul assumes that there will be grief. He knows there will be very deep grief. In Philippians 2.27 Paul refers to how he felt about Epaphroditus. “He was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.”
In Romans 12.15, Paul actually commands us to “weep with those who weep.” In Acts 8.2 we learn that “devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.”
Death is a terrible enemy. It is the ultimate enemy, the last enemy. And even though death is a conquered enemy, it still wreaks havoc; it still stings. Christian grief recognizes this, and does not minimize it or deny its reality. But that is not the only picture we have of Christian grief. It doesn’t stop there. The sting of death will one day be a thing of the past.
That’s Paul’s main point, as he says in verse 13, “…in order that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Those who do not know God, who do not belong to Jesus, face death with emptiness, a grief that really doesn’t have any hope to offer. By contrast, Paul offers a number of reasons why these Thessalonian believers could comfort one another about their brothers and sisters who had died in the Lord.
Verse 14 is the key verse. He starts out with a little connecting word “for” (the Greek word “gar”) which connects verse 13 with verse 14, as if to say, verse 14 is now going to explain exactly why it is that our grief is not like the world’s. And what is the basis for the difference? It is the basic Christian confession that Jesus died and rose again.
It is based on historical fact; the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. These historical events not only really happened, but they happened to our sakes. He died and rose for us; He was our representative, our substitute. A Christian is one with Christ, by faith.
Notice in verse 14 – it is “through Jesus” and “with Jesus” that we will be raised up. We are members of Christ’s body. If the head is raised, so will the body. Jesus is the first human being to receive a resurrection body, and since we are joined to him, we too will receive resurrection bodies. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, that Christ is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Once you have been united to Christ by believing in his name for salvation, you cannot be separated from him. Not even death itself can break that bond. That is a tremendously comforting to us. To know that our loved ones in the Lord who have died believing in Christ, are experiencing a far greater communion with him, free from sin, free from worldliness, free from the devil’s temptations and accusations! It is “far better” to depart and be with Christ.
In verse 15 “Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord will be raised up, and here is how it will happen – we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Our departed loved ones, are going to greet the Lord before we do.
Apparently the Thessalonians thought that only the living would have the honour of going out to meet the Lord in his triumphant return. But Paul stresses the fact that the dead will enjoy a place of honour, and full enjoyment and participation in that glorious event. They will rise first. So we grieve, but not as the world grieves. Our grief is mixed with resurrection hope.
I came across this just last week. This was written by a Christian missionary whose wife was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma over one year ago. This is an example of grief, yet in the midst of grief they have hope. It is not like the world. They have three children: Ellie (13), Zeb (11) and Joel (6). His name is Chris Zoolkoski, and his wife’s name is Helene;
Dear friends, Earlier this week we had to postpone our return to the US as Helene had become too weak to make the trip. We decided that, given the stresses of travel, the comforts & stability of our home here in Galmi, and the supportive entourage we have here, it would be better for all of us to stay here and simply enjoy this time God has given us as a family.
Last night, from here in Niger, Jesus took Helene to be with Him. Yesterday, as we became aware that this would be our last day with her, the three children and I gathered around her bedside and sang Helene’s favorite hymn: O Sacred Head Now Wounded. This hymn became her favorite at the end of her senior year in high school. During the final verse, the kids and I talked about the paradox of “dying safely”. The words “safe” and “dying” don’t usually go together. But today they fit together very appropriately.
I invite you to meditate on the words of this hymn along with us. We’ll be singing it again tomorrow at her funeral. I could never have asked for a more perfect wife, mother of my children, or partner in ministry. She is already greatly missed.
It is difficult to know how to pray at this time. Sometimes, when I find myself at a loss for words, I just ask God to listen to your prayers, since we know that you are interceding on our behalf. Thank you for this. Reassured by what is certain, Chris
We don’t grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve deeply, but our grief is mixed with resurrection hope. We belong to him, we will be raised up, together with all the saints, and we will always be with the Lord. What a glorious hope we have! You might like to turn to hymn 245 – and we will read that last verse together.