Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The CDC recently reported the results of a survey that showed that in the wake of the coronavirus, 63 percent of American young adults, between the ages of 18 and 24, report symptoms of anxiety or depression. Maybe a number like that doesn’t surprise us any more. But how about this: 25.5 percent of these young people said they had seriously considered suicide within the 30 days before taking the survey.
A quarter of young adults over the past several months have “seriously considered” suicide!
How is that not a crisis? So many young people living with an absence of hope.
How desperately, therefore, we need to hear the apostle Paul’s message of encouragement and hope in today’s scripture. This is why he wrote these words: Look at verse 18: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” What words? The words that Paul just wrote in verses 13 to 17, about the Second Coming, our future resurrection, and the source of our hope.
Look at verse 13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers [and sisters], about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
It’s All Saints Sunday, the day in our church calendar when we the church remember and celebrate the saints from this church who’ve died over the past year. I know some of you are rightly grieving right now. And please notice: Paul isn’t saying, “I don’t want you to grieve.” Grieving at the loss of a loved one is good. Remember John chapter 11, when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died. Even though Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do… even though he knew in a matter of moments he was going to call Lazarus from out of the tomb and raise him back to life… what does Jesus do? He weeps. He grieves.
So “WWJD”—remember those bracelets? “What would Jesus do” when a loved one dies? He would weep. And he did weep when his good friend died. The fact that he also knew that he would see Lazarus again—even a few moments later—didn’t change that fact. So when a loved one dies—even when the loved one is a believer, and we know he’s in heaven, and we know we’ll see him again—it is good and appropriate to grieve.
Today’s scripture gives us permission… Verse 13: Paul says, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We can sort of rearrange the sentence in a positive way: “Grieve,” Paul says, “by all means, but do so as one who has real, genuine, authentic Christian hope”—which ought to look different from the way non-believers grieve.
But I get the temptation to grieve the way non-believers grieve. After all, I grew up immersed in popular culture, surrounded by un-Christian or anti-Christian or downright pagan ways of understanding the meaning of death. When I was 13, for instance, there was a smash hit all over the radio airwaves—and on the boomboxes and Walkman cassette players of my friends and family: It was Prince singing about the end of the world:
Two-thousand-zero-zero party over
Oops, out of time
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999
In case you don’t know the song, Prince was worried that in the year 2000 the world would come to an end. As if the year 2000 were anything next to the year 2020! Missed it by that much! Just kidding! But you get the point: He was saying, “You’re running out of time to experience all the fun, and the excitement, and all the hedonistic pleasures that this world has to offer, so you better get on it! Have as much fun as you can now, because time is running out!”
You’re on the clock; the clock is ticking!
And speaking of clocks… Back in 2014, a Swedish inventor introduced a new watch called the Tikker, which purported to keep track of our ultimate deadline. Seriously. This watch not only told time, like all watches do, but it also told you how much time you had left to live—based on information it gathered from a survey about your life, your health, your family history, your habits.
The inventor of the Tikker says that the purpose of the watch is not to depress anyone—or to be morbid. Quite the opposite. He calls the Tikker the “happiness watch” because “if we were more aware of our own expiration,” he said, “I’m sure we’d make better choices while we are alive.”
I notice that there are now apps for your smart phone that do the same thing.
My point is, all these products of our popular culture—songs, gadgets, apps, books, movies, TV shows, whatever—they often communicate the same message: Death is the worst thing that can happen to any of us. Time is running out for us to make the most out of life… and when we die we risk missing out on all this good stuff that life has to offer… forever.
Needless to say, the believers at the church in Thessalonica did not view death in this depressing, hopeless kind of way; they weren’t afraid that death meant missing out on anything… well, except for one thing. You see, they’re afraid that their brothers and sisters in the church, who have since died, were going to miss out on the greatest event in human history: the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. After all, since these departed saints are now dead, and Christ hasn’t returned yet, they won’t be alive to witness this amazing event that Paul and the other apostles have taught them about! And the Thessalonians are sad that their departed brothers and sisters are going to miss it. Sure, they’ll be resurrected later, after the Second Coming, but in the meantime they’ll miss out.
So what does Paul say in response?
First, let’s not be confused by the word “sleep” in verses 13 and 15. Some Christians—not many Christians, but enough for me to have to talk about it—misinterpret that word and say that Paul is referring to something they call “soul sleep.” Maybe you’ve heard that term… According to this belief, when we Christians die, we are simply dead… until the Second Coming, when we’re resurrected and we’re given new bodies. So you die, and your next moment of consciousness is the Second Coming and resurrection. But no… that can’t possibly be what Paul means here.
Consider what Paul himself says in 2 Corinthians 5:8: “Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.”
Sometimes you’ll see funeral bulletins that will say “Homecoming Service.” That’s not wrong, theologically. Paul says that when we are absent from the body, we are at home with the Lord. That happens immediately following the death of a believer.
Or how about Philippians chapter 1. Paul is in prison, and he doesn’t know whether he’ll live or die. But he says in Philippians 1:21, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” For a Christian, dying is even better than living, Paul says, because dying means experiencing even more of Christ. So Paul is torn; he doesn’t know which he would prefer. In verse 23 he writes, “I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.” It’s better because he knows that he’ll get to be in a closer relationship with Christ than he can possibly experience on this side of death.
Or how about this as more evidence: in Luke chapter 16, Jesus tells a parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus. It’s a picture of heaven and hell happening right now—not in the future, at the end of history as we know it, after the Second Coming… but right now. Why do I say this? Because the rich man, who is in torment in hell, asks father Abraham to send Lazarus, who is in heaven, the “bosom of Abraham,” to his five living brothers, to warn them about the hell that he is currently experiencing.
Or how about the thief on the cross in Luke 23? When this man who is being crucified next to Jesus repents and believes in him, Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today… not thousands of years in the future, after Christ returns and believers are resurrected… but today.
All that to say, when Paul is using the word “sleep,” he is referring to the intermediate state between our death and our future resurrection. Right now, our loved ones who have died in Christ are separated from their bodies, but they are with Christ right now, they are experiencing Christ right now—they are closer to Christ right now than any of us left on earth can be. These departed saints aren’t dreaming; they’re awake. They’re fully conscious and alive. Right now. With Jesus!
Paul tells us that not only will these saints not miss out on the Second Coming, but look at verse 14: “[T]hrough Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Now keep in mind Paul is painting with word pictures: he’s using figurative, poetic language to describe what happens at the Second Coming. I don’t think any of us should be overconfident about what the Second Coming will look like or sound like when it happens—because the reality of the Second Coming goes beyond words… But make no mistake: we can and should be very confident that the Second Coming will happen!
So according to this breathtaking word picture that Paul is painting, Christ descends from heaven, and he brings with him all the departed saints—all those who have died in Christ. They will immediately be given new, resurrected bodies—in other words, their souls will be reunited with their bodies, except this time, they’re bodies won’t wear out, or get sick, or suffer injury or die; they’ll have bodies that last forever. Just like Jesus has a resurrected body that lasts forever!
Paul’s point is that these saints who’ve died before us will be the first ones to receive these new resurrected bodies and the first ones to experience the Second Coming of Christ. They will be the first ones to be “caught up with Jesus in the clouds” and “meet him in the air.” And then those of us who are left on earth at the time of the Second Coming will have our bodies transformed.As Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15, “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” And then we will join those saints who’ve gone ahead of us. And we will all be with Jesus forever!
No believer in Jesus is missing out on anything, Paul says. And we should therefore “encourage one another with these words.”
So… Do we find these words encouraging? Or a little fearful. I’ve asked around over the years. And most Christians I talk to find them a little fearful.
If we’re Christians and we find them fearful, this is probably why…
Because Paul says, “Don’t grieve as others do who have no hope.” Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t grieve as others who think they have no hope,” or “Don’t grieve as others whose hope is in the wrong god or gods, but as soon as they die, God will show them the truth, and they’ll be okay.” No. According to Paul there are people who are dying without hope… because they don’t know Jesus; they haven’t been saved; they’re still in their sins. With these words Paul is closing the door on any path to the Father other than the narrow gate and the hard way that leads through his Son Jesus to eternal life.
And that’s what scares us! Because we know and love some of these people who aren’t on that narrow path! If Christ returns today… well, that Prince song isn’t completely wrong: “Party over, oops, out of time!” They will have no more time to get right with God!
And it’s for their sake, I think, that so many of us present-day Christians hope that Christ doesn’t return any time soon. Because we know that we’re not ready… because even though we’re saved, we know we need to do more to share the gospel with lost people… to warn lost people… to lead lost people into a saving relationship with God though Christ!
So if we’re Christians, how do we move beyond fear of the Second Coming to anticipation of the Second Coming?
We do exactly what the Thessalonians did. Listen to what Paul writes about these normal, average, everyday Christians:
Chapter 1, verses 6 and 7:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
Chapter 2, verse 14:
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the [religious leaders in Judea].
Paul goes on to say in chapter 3 that he was worried that because of the great affliction the Thessalonians were experiencing on account of their faith, Satan would have tempted them to abandon the Christian faith. On the contrary, he writes that they’ve become famous everywhere for being faithful to God and his mission.
Listen: When you forget about yourself and your own concerns and the cares of this world and instead dedicate your life to the things of God, to his kingdom, and to fulfilling the Great Commission that Christ has given you—the way these Thessalonians did, well… good things start happening: you fall in love with Jesus more, you trust in him more, you experience more of his grace, more of his love, more of his power, and you think, “Man, I can’t wait to get caught up with Jesus in the clouds and meet him in the air! I can’t wait for the Second Coming! Because I can’t wait to see Jesus face to face! That’s what I’m living for! That’s what I want more than anything!”
Brothers and sisters, I want you to want that! Because that’s where you’ll find true and lasting happiness!
But we modern-day Christians hear about the Thessalonians’ faithfulness in the face of affliction and often think, “We don’t know persecution and suffering the way they did. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We have the First Amendment,. We have religious freedom! Unlike these Thessalonians, we are very comfortable.”
But not so fast… I mean, it’s true we’re comfortable. But we’re not comfortable because we have the First Amendment and religious freedom in this country. After all, suppose we lived instead under some totalitarian regime, and some lawless dictator told us—at gunpoint—“I’ll let you worship at church, and preach at church, and do whatever you want to do… at church… But don’t you dare share the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone outside of church… don’t you dare tell anyone about Jesus outside of church… don’t you dare try to witness to anyone outside of church.”
Be honest: If that unthinkable thing happened, how many of us would know the difference?
And I’m asking myself this, too!
My point is, we’re not comfortable because of the First Amendment and the religious freedom that our Constitution affords—which I cherish and thank God for—we’re comfortable because, unlike these normal, average, everyday Christians at Thessalonica, we’re not being as faithful as we should be in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m a wimp; I hope that we never experience affliction and suffering and persecution on account of our faithfulness to the gospel. But I do hope that we’ll risk stepping outside of our comfort zones for the sake of the gospel. Amen?
A few years ago, a 20-year-old young woman named Maggie, a friend of my daughter’s—died after a long battle with cancer. Shortly before she died, as she lay unconscious in hospice care, her parents posted the following on their blog about their daughter’s imminent death:
And it is, after all, a transition. We’re walking her home as far as we’re allowed. Her faith is firm and secure. Her mansion is ready. Where would we be without the promises of God? Don’t find yourself on the brink of what the world would say is the worst thing to happen to a parent without a rock hard grip on the promises of His Word. Don’t. We know her healing is close. Closer than any treatment or surgery could ever bring her. Her healing will be complete. Her future secure… She’ll be free.
“We’re walking her home as far as we’re allowed.”
God, in other words, is sovereign over this process of their daughter’s life and death. Whereas death may be unexpected to us, it’s never unexpected to God. Listen to Psalm 139:16: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Therefore, before any of us is conceived in the womb—and by extension, before time existed, for all eternity—God knew exactly how long each of us will live; he knew how we will die; and in his wisdom he at least allows death to happen in the way that it happens… for dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of reasons, the vast majority of which we may never understand on this side of eternity, but God does know, and we can trust that God knows best.
As Paul says in Ephesians, God works “all things according to the counsel of his will.”
You may object to this biblical view of God’s sovereignty—some Christians do—but how can it be otherwise? “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them,” Jesus says, “will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” If the life and death of even a humble, seemingly insignificant creature like a sparrow matters to our Father, Jesus implies, how much more does your own life and death matter to him?
And when that time comes for each of us—and it will, unless the Second Coming happens first… but when it comes, our hope is sure: We lose nothing. We gain everything. We will always be with the Lord.