Digging in Deeper: 1 Thessalonians 4:13

“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.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

One of the ideas people like to throw around sometimes today is that dying is easy. Usually the corollary idea paired with that is that living is hard. That kind of notion can be made to sound philosophically sagacious. Someone with a loud pen (or keyboard as is more often the case these days) can fire it off and be guaranteed a near viral load of retweets and reposts. But the truth is that it is just a platitude. It doesn’t add anything really meaningful to a conversation that nearly everyone has at some point in our lives. Should our Lord tarry, death is coming for us all eventually. And while dying may be easy in the sense that it really doesn’t take any effort on our part, death is hard. I’m thinking about this today because a good man I know is facing his own death. These are some thoughts with him in mind.

Death has always been the great and terrible enemy of humanity. We can try and dignify and sanctify it all we want, but that has never accomplished much more than putting whitewash on a tomb. The outside may look pretty now, but the inside still stinks. For most of human history, death was so scary because it represented the one unassailable unknown. Sure, there we many other things we didn’t know about the world and how it worked, but we could tinker and experiment and learn more. We have done those things. But there’s no tinkering with death. It’s a one shot deal. You go and you don’t come back. Yes, there have been many individuals across the ages who have walked right up to death’s threshold in this life and walked back to share what they saw, but these really aren’t but so helpful. Death was frightening because we really didn’t know what was on the other side of it.

But living with such uncertainty isn’t something we were made for. So, we made up stories about what was on the other side. The more elaborate, the better. Most ancient mythologies had a whole encyclopedia of tales of what lay beyond the veil. There were the terrifying elements we might expect, sure, but there were also visions of hope and peace meant to bring comfort to the ones who lived. We patted ourselves on the back with the notion that our loved one was in some sort of a pastoral setting. There were always a few stories of people who journeyed to this underworld and returned to offer the hope that such a thing was possible to the most committed to the journey. In spite of some variance, though, a great many of these bits of religious lore framed what came next in terms of eternity.

We have always had a sense that there should be more to our lives than what we experience on this side of the line dividing the living from the dead. Death itself has always felt unnatural. It is not how things are supposed to be. Now, yes, death is normal in the natural world. Plants and animals come and go in and endless cycle. But for people? That has always been a different story. Death was just not right for us. Call it arrogance if you want, but I would tend to think of as a longing for a reality we always knew existed but couldn’t quite bring within our field of vision.

And then everything changed.

What changed? Well, to put it bluntly, someone died and came back. When Jesus gave up His last breath on the cross and was subsequently laid in a tomb, things were in a state of chaos and tragedy for His followers, but they were otherwise normal. A man had died. Across the world on that same day it is likely that hundreds of people died. This was the world working how it had always worked as far as we knew.

Then what was normal was broken.

Three days later, Jesus came walking back out of that tomb alive; more alive, in fact, than you and me. He was resurrected. He had a new body that was permanent and powerful. It was designed to last for eternity – the very eternity we always told ourselves was real but couldn’t ever prove. Now we had proof. Incontrovertible proof. Death was in fact not the end. There was something on the other side. Specifically, there was life on the other side. If this one man had died and lived to tell about it, then we might as well. All of the terror was taken out of death. Its sting was removed. Where there had before been only fear, there was now hope.

And yet, while we had always longed for this hope as a species and made up stories to try and convince ourselves it was real when we honestly didn’t have any idea whether that was true, having this hope set before us as a live reality seemed too good to be true. Because of this, it took a while to take; even among those most primed to believe it thanks to their belief in Jesus Himself.

About twenty years after the resurrection, the full depth of this truth was still sinking in for most of the Jesus followers in the world. Sure, guys like the apostles had it down pretty well, but the average disciple was still struggling with making a clean break from the ways of thinking that had dominated humanity for all of our history to that point. For one group of believers, things had gotten bad enough that some instruction needed to be given. When the apostle Paul was writing to the members of a church he had planted a few years before in Thessalonica, he had gotten wind that some of them were really pretty concerned about their loved ones who had died before Jesus’ return. They were worried they would miss out on the party when He did finally make His grand reappearance. For all the promise of the resurrection, it seemed like death was still the enemy. This fear could not be allowed to stand, so Paul demolished it with the truth.

“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.” People without hope grieve differently than those with hope. Without hope – the hope of the resurrection as Paul makes clear in the next verse – death is the great separator. We say goodbye to our loved one and that’s it. There is no more. Their removal from our life is permanent. Paul said that as followers of Jesus that should not be the shape and scope of our grief. We don’t grieve without hope, but with hope. Anyone who thinks otherwise is uninformed. They are uninformed because our lost loved ones are not dead and gone, they are merely asleep. Now, sure, this isn’t a sleep like the one you got last night. But death and sleep are not the same. Death is permanent (or so the thought has always gone); sleep is temporary.

And why are we to no longer grieve as those who have no hope? Because we believe Jesus died and rose again, Paul says in v. 14. Well, he assumes on that belief. But that’s worth pausing on for a second. Everything Paul says here is predicated on that belief. If you don’t believe Jesus rose from the grave, there is no hope to be found in death. It is simply the end and that’s it. But if Jesus really did walk out of that tomb on the third day, nothing is the same. Nothing can be the same. There is something on the other side of the grave and that something is life…for those who believe in Him.

Paul goes on to spell out just how good this news really is. When someone dies – or sleeps – in Christ, Paul says by a word from the Lord Himself that His return will be their return as well. They will rise first with resurrection bodies when His coming is at hand, and then we who are still alive will be reunited with them to welcome the Lord Jesus back to reign over His kingdom once and for all. And this isn’t something anyone will miss. It will be accompanied with all the attendant fanfare. Specifically, Paul says, “then we are who 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.” That is good news.

The separation of death is not an easy. It won’t ever be. When we are used to someone being in our life, not having them there each day anymore is unavoidably difficult. That will always be accompanied by a season of mourning. Mourning is a natural response to loss. The greater the loss, the deeper the mourning. That’s simply how it works. But in Christ, we know the separation is not permanent. Therefore those who are in Him will not grieve the same as those who aren’t.

Paul says one more thing in these verses: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Here, then is an act of obedience. Absent the surprising and miraculous intervention of the Lord, a good and godly man will in all likelihood die in the next few days and his family will be grieving. It won’t just be his family grieving, though. There will be a whole community that will feel the weight of his death in personal and powerful ways. His faithfulness has been profound and impactful. He has spent a lifetime being generous with his time, talents, and treasure and the cumulative impact of those efforts has been enormous. No one who had the pleasure of knowing him will be the same on this side of the kingdom when that day arrives. But although his resting will be acutely felt, our grieving will not be without hope. This will not be a goodbye. It will be a see you soon. How soon we can’t say. But as he is in Christ, then the eventual reunion enjoyed by those who are similarly in Christ is guaranteed. Mourn, yes, but hope more. God is still good.

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