My mother passed a year and a half ago. When she died, I cried for an hour and then at random times over the next 6 months. That first Christmas, and she had been gone for only 2 months, the refrain to that Christmas carol came, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel.” And I broke out in sobs. Why that song? I was having some difficulty rejoicing.
The year before that, one of my co-teachers here at Second passed away due to a blood cancer. The year before that, my stepfather passed away.
My wife has two ministries that I don’t think I can do. One is calling on senior citizens that are in nursing care. The other is a prayer ministry where she prays for those who are sick and dying. In both cases, on a regular basis, the people she visits and the people she prayed for die.
And just 2 weeks ago, all of us in this class lost a dear friend and arrangements for the memorial are still being arranged. It would be rare if somebody in this class hasn’t lost somebody.
In our scripture today, 1 Thessalonians 4, the church had an incomplete eschatology. They believed that Jesus was coming again, and they grieved for those who had passed before Jesus came. If they were dead, then they missed the return of Jesus!
The Thessalonians had faith, but their knowledge was lacking, so Paul explains the end times. Those that have passed have not passed into an abyss, they’ve passed into the presence of Jesus and there is reason to rejoice.
What is death?
When people think about death – if they think about death, they see it in a number of different ways. Some that believe in evolution see it as a collections of cells that stop working together, and we just cease to exist. Some religions see this life as a sort of practice life. Maybe you get so many points to determine if you return as an eagle or a goldfish. In movies, either death is a comedy, like Michael Keeton’s Beetlejuice or Meryl Streep’s Death Becomes Her. Or maybe it’s a horror film. In Ghost, with Patrick Swayze, the dead stick around to finish some purpose before spiritual beings whisk you away, into the light or into a place of screaming.
But most people simply do not like to think about death. According to an article at Caring.com, 80% or people surveyed believe having a will is important, but nearly 70% don’t have a will. The most common reason is, “I haven’t gotten around to it,” but I think the real reason is people don’t like to talk about it. They fear it. I believe a significant factor in the world’s response to Covid-19 is a fear of death. Lock me up, mask and vaccinate me and everybody else, and then maybe I can live forever.
In God’s eyes, death is a punishment for sins and the end of natural life. Genesis 2:16-17,
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
And then of course, they ate the apple, which led to Romans 6:23a,
For the wages of sin is death
But death is an enemy whose days are numbered. When Jesus comes back to rule, 1 Corinthians 13:25-26 says,
For He [Jesus] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Jesus has already defeated death, and in doing so, rescued us from the punishment for our sins. He is the perfect atonement for our sins, so we do not have to fear death. In seven days, we will celebrate Resurrection Sunday, a celebration of that miraculous day when our Lord and Savior defeated death and rose from the grave.
But you and I, we still face death. Every day, and every night, we face the possibility, the certainty of death. Whether young or old, in peace or in pain, in good health or poor, Christians die. So, accurate biblical knowledge about God’s plans for death can give Christians hope. Hope is what we find in our study today of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Death is not final because Jesus promises to come again.
II. The Promise for Christians Who Die
So let’s begin with a discussion about Christians who die. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14,
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
So how should we think about Christians who have died? First of all, grieve. For every time there is a season. But our grief is not like the grief of the world. We have something they do not: We have hope.
What about those who have died? 1 Thessalonians 4 tells us three things about our deceased brothers and sisters –
- They have “fallen asleep.”
On at least two occasions, Jesus revealed that His victorious power over death means dead people are not quite as dead as we might think. In Luke Chapter 8, a synagogue leader named Jairus came to see Jesus because his daughter was sick and near death. There was a large crown of people, a sick woman touched the robe of Jesus and was healed from her bleeding sickness, Jesus stopped to talk to her… and then someone from the synagogue came and said to Jairus, “Your daughter is dead, don’t bother the rabbi anymore.” But Jesus went to the house of Jairus and said, “Stop crying, because she is not dead but asleep.”
Later, in John 11, Jesus said His friend Lazarus “has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up.”
The Greek word for “asleep” in both cases was a common word meaning actual physical sleep. The most obvious difference between dead and sleeping people is that sleeping people get up. Christians began referring to the dead as “asleep.”
And here in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul uses “asleep” three times to emphasize that death is not final. Dead Christians will rise again.
- They will rise again “through Jesus.”
Maybe it’s an alarm clock that wakes you up, or maybe it’s your cell phone. Maybe it’s a cat or dog that tells you it’s breakfast time. But there’s no alarm clock can raise a dead person back to life. The power to raise the dead belongs to God alone, and “through Jesus” He means to raise dead Christians.
But Jesus is more than just the power of resurrection. When Paul writes, “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep,” he means that Jesus is the illustrating our future, how we will die and rise again. We don’t come back looking like a zombie or Frankenstein’s monster, we rise with perfected, glorious resurrection bodies “in the same way” Jesus did when He rose again.
There is a penalty for this glorious resurrection. God’s judgement of our sin is absolute, and a payment for that sin must be paid. Notice in our verses that Christians are described as being “asleep,” but Christ died.
I’ll repeat Romans 6:23a,
For the wages of sin is death
Jesus is perfect, holy, and sinless, yet He received the wages of a sinner. Why? Hebrews 2:9 elaborates beautifully,
But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Jesus did this for you, Jesus did this for me, Jesus did this for anybody who puts their trust and hope in the perfector of our faith. Jesus says in John 8:51,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
Because Jesus is God, our penalty is paid. Every penny. The final words of Jesus on the cross were words of victory, “It is finished.” Jesus used the Greek word “tetelestai,” and it’s an accounting term. It means “paid in full.” The debt that man owes to God because of our original sin is finished, signed, and sealed in the blood of Jesus. And that is why Romans 6:23 doesn’t just say,
For the wages of sin is death
But the rest of the verse is
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paid in full. It is finished. Tetelestai. We fall asleep in Christ because of His death.
- They are “with Jesus” right now.
Not only are deceased Christians “asleep” awaiting resurrection, but they are also currently with Jesus. In our 1 Thessalonians verse, it says, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Wait a sec, my Theological GPS must be malfunctioning. Recalculating. I thought the dead, sleeping Christians were in the ground? But it says here, Jesus is bringing the sleeping Christians with him from above?
When we die, our souls are separated from our bodies. Our souls are exposed to the spiritual world. Theologians call this state the “intermediate state” between physical death and physical resurrection. During this time, our souls are protected by Christ Himself until the Second Coming.
Scripture doesn’t elaborate on this intermediate state very much, but we do know we are safe and there’s no reason to fear. We know –
A. On the cross, Jesus promised the repentant thief in Luke 25:43, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
B. Paul wrote the Corinthians 2 Corinthians 5:8, “we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
C. Later, in Philippians 1:23, Paul wrote, “I long to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).
The souls of departed Christians are not in purgatory, they are not wandering the earth, and they are not trapped in dead bodies. We are safe with the Lord until the End of Days.
III. The Promise for Christians Who Do Not Die
Here comes the exciting part. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17,
“For we say this to you by a word from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
Scripture says that no one knows when Christ will return, but I read on the internet that it’s April 3, 2033. Just kidding, but I think we all have a sense the end times are drawing nearer. Scripture makes it clear that many Christians will be living on the earth when He does. In verses 15-17, Paul gives us these encouraging bits of news when Jesus comes –
- We will see our Christian family that have passed before us.
I mentioned that my mother passed a year and a half ago, and I still miss her encouragement and her humor. One thing people said to me often was to remind me she was in a better place and she was dancing with Jesus.
When we lose a loved one, we long to see their faces, feel their embrace, hear their voice, or sit around the table and laugh. These verses say that we will see our Lord and our family members all at once. Christ’s appearance should and will fill us with joy at seeing our loved ones.
- It’ll be more than just an announcement in the church bulletin.
This scripture tells of amazing signs when Jesus returns, and I think the whole world can’t help but notice. First, there is a shout, appropriate because those Christians who are sleeping need a good wake-up call. The Greek word for shout is a word of command from an officer to those under His command. There’s the “archangel’s voice,” probably Michael the Archangel, the Captain of the Guard. If neither one of those get your attention, then there’s the “trumpet of God.” All of creation will know that Christ is returning.
In John 5:28-29, Jesus says,
Do not be amazed at this; for a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come out: those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the bad deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
Everybody will know. The good and the bad, the living and the dead, will all hear the triumphant sounds of our Savior’s return.
In addition to the sounds of Christ’s return will be the sight of Him descending “from heaven.” In Revelation 1:7, John says,
Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him.
Everyone will hear Him, and everyone will see Him, and everyone will know He is the Lord God Almighty returned.
The dead will rise in Christ, but so will the living. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 says we will be “caught up” with Jesus and those that died before us. The Greek word for “caught up” is “harpazo” but when translated into Latin, the early church used the word “rapiemur” from which we get the word “rapture.”
- We will always be “with the Lord.”
Then what happens to us? From the moment we are “caught up to meet the Lord,” Christians will “always be with the Lord.” God’s eternal presence will give life, light, and joy to His people forever.
I’ve become a little more familiar the last couple of years with the traditions of the Jewish Wedding Feast which is mentioned in multiple passages of scripture. Jesus Himself makes this same analogy.
The first step of a Jewish marriage is the arrangement, called the Shiddukhin. In this arranged marriage, the father of the groom visited the bride’s family and discussed the terms of the marriage contract and the bride’s dowry. The bride-to-be would approve or decline the offer. If she accepted, the ketubah or written contract was prepared.
There was then a betrothal (eyrusin) ceremony. The couple exchanged rings, shared a cup of wine, then a ritual immersion in water to symbolize their spiritual cleansing. At this point, they were considered legally married, though they didn’t live together or have marital relations.
The bride would stay at her parents for at least 9 months to assure her purity, the groom would go to his father’s and prepare a place for them to live, usually by adding a room to his father’s house.
After 9 months, the bride and her bridesmaids would wait. They burned oil lamps into the evening, waiting for the groom. One night, the groom and his wedding party would arrive at the bride’s, the groom would shout, “Behold, the bridegroom comes!” They would blow the shofar, a horn, to announce to all. They would parade back to the groom’s house, there would be a ceremony and sharing of a cup of wine. Then the bride and groom and everybody present would begin the wedding feast, seven full days of food, music, dance, and celebration.
The church of believers is the bride of Christ. The wedding has already taken place. The terms of the covenant have been written. Our father in heaven has agreed to the price for His bride. The bride’s family – all of humanity – gets to decide whether to accept or reject. For those who have accepted, Jesus has spent 2000 years preparing a place for each and every one of us in His Father’s house where there are many rooms. It has been at least 9 months to demonstrate our purity.
What’s next? Our lamps are burning at the windows expectantly. We are waiting for Jesus to return and claim His bride. When will that be? When the Father says it’s time.
For Christians, the marriage of the lamb has begun, and we are only waiting expectantly for the consummation and the glorious wedding feast. We are waiting, and waiting, and waiting expectantly. The contract will be fulfilled when the Father blows the shofar.
IV. Share the Promise
1 Thessalonians 4:18 ends with,
“Therefore, encourage one another with these words.”
Paul, Silas, and Timothy offer one simple application of these fantastic promises: “encourage one another.”
Christians do need not to fear death. Everyone who dies, everyone who “sleeps in Christ” will “awake” again at the command of Christ. We will receive a resurrected body and reunited with all other believers in Jesus, including our Christian family members.
The souls of Christians who die are immediately “with the Lord,” we can face death with hope, courage, and even joy. And we can encourage one another not to hold onto this mortal life too tightly. We can face war, persecution, cancer, car-wrecks, 9-11, violence – because we know that the day our mortal life ends, we will be safe with Jesus.
Paul knew this. In Philippians 1:21, Paul addressed his persecution, imprisonment, and impending death by saying,
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Our eternal life has already begun, here on this earth. We don’t need to worry about our Christian brothers and sisters who die because they are immediately “with the Lord.” We grieve their loss in this world only because for a little while we cannot be with them, but Paul says there’s no need to “grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
What about nonbelievers? If we want a joyous reunion, encourage nonbelievers today about these incredible promises. When the trumpet of Christ sounds and He arrives in the air with a shout, every believer that accepted the marriage contract will rise from their sleep and join the wedding feast of the marriage of the Lamb.
Our scripture today, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, describes Jesus and the believers in Christ –
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For 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 not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
All of us believers will either experience sleeping in Christ, or being caught up in the air with Him. These words bring us comfort in this world that surrounds us with temptation, evil, suffering, war. We do not grieve like the world grieves because we are only in this world. We are not of this world.
These mirror Jesus’ words in John 14:1-3, when Jesus says to His disciples –
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 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? 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.
God keeps His promises. For those that place their faith in the cleansing blood of Christ Jesus, we have eternal life in Him. So let us comfort one another with the truth of our eternal lives that stretch from now to eternity. 1 Corinthians 15:55,
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
For us, the sting of death has been forever removed. We live in Him forever and ever more.
All glory to God through Christ alone. Amen.