Flourish in Death | 1 Thessalonians 4:8-13
Topic: New Testament Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
Introduction | Flourishing Disciples
Good Morning! We are continuing our series on the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians. The series is titled Flourish: Hope and Holiness amid Hostility. Where do you find hope? How do you handle hostility? What does the word “holiness” mean and do we pursue it? How are hope and holiness related? Can you more than simply survive or endure hostility, but can you actually flourish in the midst of it? This letter is from Paul a pastor/church planter, to one of the churches he was involved in planting. This church is an example of a flourishing Gospel Community While there is much to affirm and celebrate in the life of the Thessalonian church, much hope seen, and there are issues to address. His pastoral love of God’s people leads him to practical teaching to encourage and exhort Godly living. He ended last chapter with a prayer for the growth of God’s people. Because life in our world is hostile he wants this church to even Flourish in Death.
If we are going to flourish in hostility, we need to be able to have hope in all situations. What could be more hostile than death itself? When you consider death, do you think about what happens when you die? What happens to you when you experience someone close to you dying? Where do you find hope, comfort, and solace? What do you believe about what is next after we die? There are certainly a plurality of ideas and philosophies our world offers up. Are you reincarnated? That’s a fun one, an endless cycles of progressively better animals or maybe just a better (or more interesting) person. Does everyone become a spirit or ghost condemned to merely float around in this world while everyone else gets to live their lives? Or you into some sort of nirvana where you’re just part of some great cloud of ethereal spirit warmth just feeling bliss like an eternal burning man? Or are you an atheist or naturalist so all you’ve got is that you’ll return to the ground as dust that might grow into feeding a beautiful tree? Your soul who you are and what you experience is simply “over” at death, so today you better eat and drink for tomorrow we die. What hope does that give you in death, how does that guide who you are and what you do in this life?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | 13 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. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.17 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, and so we will always be with the Lord.18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
PART I | Ignorantly Hopeless | v13
Like the Thessalonians, we have a lot ignorance around death. I contend that is part of why we don’t like to talk about death. It is unknown and thus it is both intimidating and frightening, even for many followers of Jesus. In this case the church of Thessalonica had heard the gospel in its fullness, including that Jesus will return and restore all things. There is great excitement and anticipation around this promises, yet there is still great grief and concern around the death of those in the church. These verse help enlighten ignorance for the purposes of giving them greater hope. It referrers to those who have “fallen asleep”. This is a euphuism for death, not laying out a doctrine of soul sleep that some Christians believe, as if when we die we’re in a multi-millennia coma or intermediate state until the end of history. We’re told very clearly by Paul to be absent for the body is to be present with the Father (2 Cor 5:8) and Jesus tells the thief on the cross who has repented of sin and placed faith in Jesus that “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Bad theology leads to unhealthy responses. Not knowing what is true about life, death, God and the Gospel allows what is not true to influence and dominate our emotions and responses. People were becoming hopeless in their grief, and in doing so they were acting as either functional pagans or atheist. God is not good, God does not save so their natural grief with loss was exacerbated as death became devastating. He doesn’t say do not grieve. The bible speaks much of, and Christians, should be well acquainted with grief. Jesus our Lord actually wept with grieving people at His friends Lazarus’s funeral literally moments before he raised him from the dead. God wants his people to be able to enter into the suffering of others.
This church in Thessalonica was loving each other well, they had become a Gospel Community and now members of the church were dying (some likely by persecution other by more natural causes). This caused great concern and grief for these people who were losing people who were “like family” to them. “We thought Jesus was going to come back tomorrow (a least before this Election or Cubs World Series) and now it has been longer than expected. What is to happen for those who have died as Christians? Are they suffering in wrath? Are they in a transitional soul sleep? What about when Jesus does return, are they disadvantaged? Did they miss their chance to be with Jesus? The church because of their theological ignorance, was ill equipped to handle the hostility of death without succumbing to hopelessness. Like the pagans around them who had some idea there was life after death but didn’t have great clarity, grief was dominating. Are we ever going to see these people again? Are they lost? These verse are to comfort.
Mourn, grieve, weep, but not like those who have no true hope. What about other religions or philosophies? Don’t they offer some hope? Yes, they offer it, but what Paul is saying is they are without hope because they do not deliver upon it. He is speaking in to the pluralistic world and saying there is no hope apart from the exclusive hope that comes through faith in Jesus, that leads to the confident expectation of eternal life with God through Jesus. There has to be a reset of perspectives about what good life is. Your view of God’s greatness and goodness is to limited; if you think the idea of your own planet where you are god, being given 72 virgins as companions, or becoming a tree is something actually more hopeful than heaven?
Part II | We Believe | v14-15
What is note worth is Paul doesn’t start with a great discourse on the afterlife, the pleasures of Heaven, the glory of a resurrected body (see 1 Cor 15), all of which would be right and good. He starts with educating them on Gospel Truth so their ignorance can be addressed, “what is lacking in their faith” can be filled. If wrong theology leads to hopelessness, good theology leads to encouragement and comfort. Knowledge of God leads to hope in God when we see how He has perfectly provided all we need.
Jesus Died – Atonement for sin, absorbing wrath. Justifying His people before God, why are these important. This answers the question of “Why do we die in the first place?” God created the world good, and humanity to live and dwell with Him forever. Sin entered the world through man’s rejection of God’s loving law and a new state of separation exists between a holy perfect living giving God and people who by their sin nature live in opposition to God. God is the author of life, so separation form Him will lead to eventual death. We are fragile and dependent so when we declare our independence from God in sin death is the only logical consequences. That sounds so unloving and ungracious of God. No. God is just, merciful, and gracious. He, despite our sin, actively pursues His people specifically through Jesus.
I remember hearing an argument about the death penalty in that it was too easy, because it gave a convicted killer a way out from their punishment. You can agree if there is no life after this. However, it is not easier if you believe in a God who is just who wages eternal consequences. It is gracious if you believe in God who is merciful even to a murder, who appeals to God’s character of mercy through faith not in their own works (even murder) and instead places their faith in the work of God’s Son Jesus to absorb our wrath. Jesus in His death took on the ultimate separation from God our sin requires “My God My God why have your forsaken me” so the that we wouldn’t have to endure it. Jesus death in our place is good news and provides hope.
Jesus Rose – Resurrection, if Jesus didn’t raise from the dead that we are still in our sins and a people to be most pitied. Until Jesus, death had always defeated every man and women in all of history. After the cross Jesus, dead, was place in a tomb and three days later tomb was empty and Jesus is alive! That is where all our hope rests. Jesus died and rose again is not the entirety of the Gospel but it is the essential component of it. You cannot have good news in the Gospel without the Resurrection of Jesus. This was in every gospel proclamation in the NT. Jesus dying for us is good news. Jesus triumphing over death in resurrection is GREAT NEWS. Because it shows us God is able to both pay for our sin in Jesus and purchase our new life. Because Jesus tomb was empty we have hope that ours will be one day also.
Jesus Saves- The same God who didn’t let Jesus remain entombed in death is the same God who will save those who trust in Jesus. When you have placed the fate of your life and soul in the life of Jesus your death for sin is taken nailed to the cross and His resurrection is granted to you. This is the hope for all Christians across all time so those who have experienced death and those of us who haven’t are all saved by Jesus. The living will not proceed is the same as saying there is no advantage for those who are alive when Jesus come back over those who have died. For those who have died hoping in Christ they have the promise of resurrection so those who know them do not grieve like those with no hope. So for Christians, It is never farewell, it is “until we meet again.” Those who have not experienced death can rest knowing they will be reunited with their brothers and sisters in Christ. This can and should be an evangelistic motivator. If you love people you should want them to know and love Jesus in this life for eternal hope in the next. We preach Hope in Jesus because the stakes are high, our death is coming for our sin. The only question is will death lead to just wrath of God or glorious resurrection because of faith in Jesus death and resurrection for you.
Part III | Rest in Return | v16-17
How long will we have to deal with this cycle of life and death that produces joy, life, and hope, but also pain, suffering and grief. Jesus coming back is the great hope of the world! Rest and restoration is coming so the verses continue to outline this hope. The following section heading are from the great John Stott.
Return – Jesus, bearer of our sin and giver of our new eternal life with God will RETURN! The Lord Himself will come back to fully consummate His rule and reign over all creation. You’ve got awesome phrases here “Cry of command”, “Voice of archangel”, “trumpet blasts” This is all military language. THE LORD will physically return. There will be an overwhelming announcement of total and complete victory.
This is an important idea for us to always remember the trajectory of History is one of Jesus ever closer return to bring justice and restoration. There are greater implication to this we’ll get into greater detail in a few weeks. However, as the last time I’ll have to preach at our church before the election; Please I urge you whatever the outcome; do not shoot up to ecstasy or plunge into hopeless despair. Desire the welfare of you, your family, and neighbors in your community and this country. But always remember, this is not the new heavens and new earth. Jesus is on the throne and Jesus will return.
For Christians, Jesus return is a great and glorious day we should absolutely long for. We won’t be left behind, we will clothed by the pristine righteousness of Jesus and in the presence of the King. That moment the trumpet blast is when the last battle is over, God will stand, death and sin will be defeated FOREVER, and all in Christ celebrate the death of death. God’s people will finally mock death. Where is your victory?. Death is like a school yard bully who other children cower too before a stronger good kid came along and defeated him giving others freedom and hope. At the last day death will finally be vanquished.
Resurrection- The same God who resurrected Jesus will resurrect the dead. The dead in Christ will raise first. He Died and rose so they who have died will rise. The return of the resurrected Christ will include a procession of His resurrected people. When you die in Christ there is no possibility of separation from Him. For Christian Dead they have died in Christ, rest in Him, and will come with Him, with new glorious resurrected bodies that are “imperishable” (1 Cor 15). So for the Thessalonians (and us) who see the reality of the dead empty bodies of their brothers and sisters in Christ they can grieve the loss, but have great hope their loved ones will be resurrected not returning as creepy zombies but forever people.
Rapture- This is a fun word! Caught up together “Seize = Rapere” is the same way they would talk about death catching you. So the hope laid out in this verse is not about the zapping from this horrible world leaving a rag tag remnant; it is saying do not fear being “caught up by death” because at the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead you will be “caught up” together with all who have faith in Christ. This is not a violent sudden kidnapping. He is saying that those in verse 15 “who are left” in verse 17 will be seized up together with Jesus resurrected people. But what about my “Warning in case of rapture this car will be unmanned.” license plate cover? It’s cute, but if we’re worried about falling airplanes and crashing cars (or just more Nicolas Cage films) we’ve missed the point of the text. So I encourage you NOT to ask more of this text than what is intending to do in providing hope to Christians who have lost their brothers and sisters in death and instead try to marry it up with speculation about the end times. The meeting of the “Lord in the air” is a royal meeting. Clouds throughout scripture have been used to depict the presence of the mighty God. Jesus grand return will be glorious and it will be universal (not localized “he’s in turkey!!”) Sleeping dead, archangels voices, trumpets, and singular decent from clouds by the Lord are all apocalyptic in nature and thus should be seen as more symbolic than literal while still remaining very much “true, right, and reliable” There are many text that give greater detail about our resurrected bodies and new heavens and new earth, etc. We see at the end of verse 17 is a glorious…
Reunion- I don’t know why we would get so focused on the specifics of the “how or the timing of the “when”; when the “WHAT” is so amazingly comforting. He says simply “we will always be with the Lord!” Are you kidding me? THE creator of the universe, the author of life, the KING of KINGS, the source of all life and joy we will be with in a new heavens and new earth with no more tears. So for those who have died In Christ, God will bring them with Him, and there is a great reunion! This grand event of “meeting in the clouds” Like a royal procession coming to a city is not for a short visit or season but will be the first day of eternity with God. The hope for the dead is God will bring them to this day, the living will be caught up with them, so all (the dead in Christ, living Christians, and eternal God) will all be together ALWAYS!!
Part IV | Be encouraged and encourage | v18
Therefore debate about these words and make many sensational movies about the rapture NO!! THE purpose of this whole section of scripture is for them to know what is true about God and death for the Christian, so they will not have the same type of grief others have. He has told this church they do well in “brotherly love” and now he wants to make sure they are a church that helps pastor each other well through difficult circumstances, even death. These words are to be an encouragement to the grieving, and they are to be equipment for those who are close to the grieving who feel ill-equipped to speak into sad and difficult situations. This is a text for those who need encouragement not for those who are simply curious. What is true about God is comforting. Filling ignorance, reminding the truth of the Gospel Jesus, death, resurrection, who saves and who will return helps comfort us in this time between the cross and the consummation. Death is difficult, death is hard, death is sad, but death does not get the last word when we Trust Jesus.