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About Those Who Are Asleep

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“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

We Americans don’t deal well with death. When death occurs, as it inevitably will, it is minimized as much as possible. Sometimes, this takes place as a simple, private gravesite affair. The more popular method in our culture, however, is a funeral service that doesn’t talk about death. Not quite knowing what to do with death other than run away from it, our society has turned to services that feature more comedy and light-heartedness than reverence and hope. The purpose of such services is, supposedly, to “celebrate life” and to “let the healing begin.” As eulogies recall what the person did in life, and Christ is put off to the side, death becomes the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

The prevalence of such shallowness is brought to my attention after almost every funeral I conduct. It never fails; at least one person will come up to me and remark how good it was to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified at a funeral. “That was just like funerals used to be,” they say. “I always know when I come to [this church] I’m going to hear God’s Word proclaimed.” When they talk about how meaningful and reverent the service was, I say, “That’s why I follow the service in our hymnal. It keeps me from getting in the way and leaves Christ as the center.”

There’s a reason why our funeral services are structured the way they are, and why we resist any change to them. It’s spelled out in our epistle as it begins: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

That determines our funeral service. We mourn, but not as those who have no hope. We hope because Christ died and is risen again.

Like many today, the Thessalonians did not know how to think or talk about death and what happens after death. With that in mind, Paul tells them what is going to happen at the return of the Lord. He has a practical, pastoral purpose for venturing into these deep waters. Some Christians in Thessalonica have died, and the others are not sure what to believe about where these people are and what has or will happen to them. They’ve mistakenly thought only those alive at Christ’s return will be saved. So, naturally they fear that their loved ones who are already dead have forfeited any share in the coming glory. For this reason, they are going around grieving like their pagan neighbors, “who have no hope.”

So, Paul corrects their error to comfort them with the truth of sound doctrine. He wants them to learn appropriate Christian grief, instead of the wild and hopeless mourning that typifies the desperation of pagan funerals. The pagans are right to despair, there can be no Christian comfort without Christian faith. Get back to the truth about Christ’s resurrection and glorious return and you won’t have to sink into the funk of depression or the errors of speculation.

Paul draws a contrast, not with natural and excessive sorrow, but between Christian hope and pagan hopelessness. Hardly could a lesson be more needed in our gnostic, neo-pagan world today. The finality of death fills the heathen with a feeling of blank despair. It is a sorrow which is unrelieved by any hope of a future reunion with their loved ones, because there is no future for the dead.

What Paul needs to do for this bunch of downtrodden believers is to re-describe the moment when God makes His new world. The only possible language is that of pictures, snapshots, and glimpses because critical parts of it are unique, yet-to-happen events. He says, in the best way he can, “It is kind of like this,” and then flashes a few slides about “those who have fallen asleep.”

To start with, he reiterates the foundation of Christian facts-of-faith. Mindful that the pagans’ understanding of death as a finality (a terminal point where the spirit that animated the person is extinguished and the worthless, cursed shell of the material body is burned), Paul says, “NO!” Death is not the end of humanity in God’s new world. The pagan thinks so, and that is why they cremate their bodies. And why not? Dead means dead, right? The person is now extinct, so burn the packaging (materialists say the same thing today).

The Thessalonian Christians started looking around and saying, “Hey, where is the coming of Christ and God’s new world because we have loved ones in their last days, and some have already died? What’s going to happen to them?”

Paul breaks in and says: “I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are asleep.” Paul’s starting point echoes one of the earliest Christian creeds, which sums up what the Church believes: “Jesus died and rose again.”

But this creedal line, that, “Jesus died and rose again,” is not just info about the past. It reveals what will happen to those who belong to God’s Messiah. Each of them and their dearly departed were united to Jesus through Baptism. The spirits of the baptized were resurrected at the point of justification. They were once dead in trespasses and sins, but now God made their spirits alive in Christ. As for their bodies, they too have been washed by the Word of God in Baptism. What is more, their bodies were regularly united to Christ’s resurrected body and blood in Communion. If they die united to the risen Christ, they will also rise again. When Christ comes on the last day, He will bring them with Him.

So, the Christian understanding of “sleep” is not like the pagan one. For the pagan and today’s materialists, “sleep” is a mere euphemism for an obliterating death. But Paul isn’t just trying to make something bad seem a little bit better by referring to it in rosy terms. No, he is describing what death is really like for one who is dead in Christ. It is like a sleep in which a person’s body is completely unaware of anything around it, but from which his body awakens to use all its abilities and senses again. We aren’t afraid to put our heads down on our pillows at night and go to sleep. We know we’ll wake up again to a new day. That’s how death is. We need not fear putting our heads down on the pillow of death and falling asleep. Jesus will wake us up to a glorious eternal day.

This sleep applies only the body of the dead believer and not to their spirit, which is ushered at the time of death into the presence of God to be comforted by His angels and Christ Himself (Acts 7:59; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 6:9) until the day of resurrection.

Paul is not saying that Christians don’t grieve. He simply says they do not “grieve as others do.” Of course, there is sorrow at a death—one cannot part even for a short time from a loved one without some sad feelings. But because Paul does not want the Thessalonians to grieve without hope like most people, he presents  them with facts about the deaths of Christians and the Lord’s coming. At each funeral they can comfort one another with these truths.

Paul begins with the most basic fact: Jesus died but then rose again, showing His complete power over death. Paul says if you believe this, then a second point to believe goes hand in hand with it. Jesus promises that His resurrection means we also will rise from death. Therefore, we are confident that when Jesus comes, He will wake us from the sleep of death and bring us body and soul to heaven.

The resurrection of the departed saints was secured by the rising of Jesus.  God will bring them and us with Jesus upon His momentous permanent return. So, stop acting like the hopeless pagans when we should be basking in a confident assurance. Plant their bodies in the ground and let them rest in peace. Jesus endured the full horror implied in the death He suffered as the wages of sin, only to transform death for those united to Him into a good night’s sleep in a casket. At an hour we do not know their transformed bodies will be united with glorified spirits.

To describe that Day, Paul joins several pictures from the Old Testament and says that the Lord will come down from Heaven, accompanied by various dramatic signs. “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

We need not think of this happening in terms of hours or even minutes. Just as the resurrection of all the dead will taken place “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye,” so in a moment, all believers, living and resurrected, will be reunited with one another. What a joyful scene that will be for all who’ve been parted by death!

Nor will the joy simply be in the reunion of all believers. More important, we will be “caught up” by the power of God “in the clouds to meet the Lord”! And we will not have to be afraid or ashamed to stand before Him. For He is our brother. He will give us new bodies. These bodies will be the same bodies, but they will be without a sinful nature, imperfections, and weaknesses. Ours will be “imperishable” and “spiritual” bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), like that of our risen Savior Himself. What’s more, “we will always be with the Lord.” Never again will we be parted by death. Eternal joy and peace will be our lot.

Paul closes by urging the Thessalonians to talk about these facts so they might encourage one another in times of bereavement. That’s good advice for you and me, too! Do you wonder what we should say to a bereaved fellow believer at the funeral home, or at church before the funeral service, or when leaving the graveside after the committal, or a week or a month or a year after the funeral? Don’t just say, “I’m sorry!” Unbelievers can also say this in their hopeless grief. How much more comforting it is to hear again and again from the lips of fellow believers the simple facts about the dead in Christ and the coming of our Lord: Christ rose and promises us, we will rise also; death is but a sleep from which Christ Himself will wake us; at His coming all believers will be reunited to meet with Christ and live with Him forever.

For now, it is given you to grieve. But now is not forever. Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Therefore, encourage one another with these words, for you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.