Every night this scruffy old man would come in and pick up the Wall Street Journal.
Due to the rigors of our college academics, my wife and I spent much of our courtship time in the library. It never failed that this man, who my wife and I first mistakenly took to be a homeless man, would descend the stairs, find the paper, and sit at the table next to us.
There was something about him that made you pity him. Perhaps it was his cold demeanor. Maybe it was his disheveled clothes or the fact that age was overtaking him. Perhaps it was the feeling that you got from him that he was lonely. Whatever it was I know that Elizabeth’s pity was greater than mine. She wanted to reach out to the man.
One evening she began to converse with him. His gruff answers showed that he wasn’t much for conversation and would probably rather be left alone. But in time we came to find out that his purpose in reading the paper was to find a job. He was a former teacher and was now looking for employment.
As Elizabeth spoke with him we also came to find out that he was an atheist—He did not believe in God. Our pity for the man increase all the more, but at the same time our curiosity was perked as well—We had never met a real atheist before. Seeing that the conversation was beginning to move in a spiritual direction, Elizabeth jumped at the opportunity and asked him the first Evangelism Explosion question: “If you were to die tonight, what will happen to you.” In the cold and gruff manner that was characteristic of him he responded by saying, “I’ll rot.”
The conversation didn’t last much longer, and our hopes of reaching out to this man basically fizzled with the conversation. But that incident left a significant mark in my mind. It was my first real encounter with another worldview—a worldview that offers no hope in life or in death. And I can never stop thinking about how sad a funeral must be for him and for his loved ones. And it made me realize that one place where Christians must differ from the world, is by the graveside.
As we come to this passage this morning, we find this truth being asserted. We see from the first verse that the Thessalonians were not differing from the world at the graveside, but were in fact mimicking them. They were experiencing excessive grief for the loss of their loved ones.
And so the Apostle Paul writes to comfort the grieving saints. And through these words the Lord builds our hope in the afterlife. As Christians, we have the comfort of knowing that life does not end in death. We have hope—hope for life after life. And from this passage before us we see that our hope is based on gospel realities, is strengthened by prophetic revelation, is sustained through corporate encouragement.
The first thing we find when we look at our passage is that our hope…
I. Is based on gospel realities
Read with me the opening verses. “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.”
Paul says that the cure for their despair is found in the redemptive acts of Jesus. Jesus died, but death had no power over him. God raised him from the dead. And we know that after he rose again, he went to the Father’s right hand. And there he sits, waiting the day to come again.
Why does Paul point this out? It is because the life of a believer is bound up with the life of Christ. We who trust in him have been united to him in his death and resurrection, and ascension. We participate with him in these acts. Since Christ has by these acts opened the door to heaven, we do not need to despair of death. We can have the confidence that when we die, we will not slip into some underworld or simply cease to exist. No, since Christ has conquered death and resides in heaven, our souls shall be ushered into his arms when we die.
So Paul is pointing out the glory of what is sometimes called “The Intermediate State.” Our catechism talks about this intermediate state and summarizes what Paul says here. In question 37 it asks, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at their death?” Answer: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”
Now, that should make death sound a little different to us. Most people fear death. And a lot of people try to comfort themselves by making up some sort of afterlife or saying they will go to heaven. But all they do is fool themselves. They have no ground for their belief.
But as Christians do not have to have any fear in death. That’s because Christ has overcome it and given us life. As a matter of fact, we who trust Christ can go so far as to say with Paul, “death is far better.” (Phil. 2) Why is that? Because we have been united to Jesus. When we die we get to be with Him in paradise. Certainly we are not to seek death—that would be a violation of the 6th commandment. But death can sound somewhat desirable to us. That’s because we have the full assurance that we will be made perfect and no longer exposed to the miseries of this life.
I was once talking to a pastor and he told be about the different experiences he has had at the bedside of people who were dying. He said that there is often a distinct contrast between the believer and unbeliever in their last moments of life. He said that one time he was at the bedside of an unbeliever. The person was slipping away and they knew it. As their life came closer and closer to the end he said that they became more and more agitated. Then at the last moment the person’s eyes widened and a look of horror came over them. But he said that was so different from his experience at the side of believers who were passing away. The pastor said it was so peaceful--as though they were falling asleep.
The gospel made all the difference in the world. Knowing that they belonged in life and in death, in body and in soul, to their faithful Savior Jesus Christ enabled them to look death in the eye and smile. And it can do the same for us. It can give us the same kind of hope.
But, you know what? The Lord is good. He not only tells us that our hope is grounded in gospel realities. We also find that our hope is strengthened by prophetic revelation.
II. Our hope is strengthened with prophetic revelation
Paul goes on in verses 15, 16, & 17 to talk about the second coming of Christ. He doesn’t tell us of the past—He could have stopped there. But the Lord knows our weakness. And so he goes one to strengthen our hope by giving us a glimpse into the future. These verses contain a prophetic revelation that tells us about the resurrection.
Really he has hinted about it already. In the verses we just looked at Paul talked about our bodies sleeping. That is language that talks about death. The Christian’s body will one day rise again, almost as if it is awakened. And then in verses 15-17 we see it fleshed out (pardon the pun) a bit more.
We are told that there will be a resurrection. And this resurrection has a certain order to it. Those who have died and whose souls are with Christ will come back with him and be reunited to their bodies. They will, as it says in verse 16, be the first ones to experienced glorified bodies. Then those of us who are left will be caught up to be with the Lord.
Now, I need to emphasize something with regard to this passage. I need to emphasize that this is a real event. This will be something that will happen in time and space. Reading it may sound like science fiction. And there are a lot of people who profess to be Christians who don’t really believe in the physical, historical second coming of Jesus.
You can find this in a lot of mainline churches. In the late 19th & early 20th century there were some theologians who began to deny the second coming of Christ. They would say that those places that the Bible talks about a second coming of Christ are places where the Apostle was wrong or some mythology that the early church made up. But they deny this mainly because they can’t bring themselves to believe in supernatural events. And their denial of this event has the potential to shatter one’s hope.
But what Paul is talking about here is not made up or an error. As a matter of fact, he even points to the Lord’s authority on it. He says in verse 15, “This we declare, by the word of the Lord.” This is not Paul’s imagination; he is resting on what God himself said. This is a real and true prophetic revelation.
Now, when my daughter first started going to Pre-school, she sometimes would cry. She didn’t want my wife to leave her. So Elizabeth would often have to comfort her by telling her that she would come back for her after school was out.
So, if she needed to, my daughter could console herself throughout the day. If she began to get teary eyed, she could just say, “Mommy said she would be back to get me.” Now, if she did that, would she be making it up? Of course not. She is depending on the authority of her mother. And because of that authority her fears could be alleviated.
The same is true for the Christian. We believe that Christ will return, not because Paul said it, but because Christ himself said it. The One who possesses all authority over heaven and earth, over time and space—He is the one we put our confidence in. We have hope in eternal life, bodily life, because he said he will come and renew all things.
We confessed earlier the Hidelberg Catechism. The question was asked, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” And we responded by saying “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
We might be tempted to say, “Yes, our souls mean so much to God that he would not let them slip into oblivion.” But that is only half true. Our bodies mean a lot to him too. He created us, body and soul. And he will redeem us, body and soul. Our bodies, just as much as our souls, belong to him. Gazing into the future tells us that we shall be wholly redeemed. Not one part of us will be disregarded. The only thing that will be left out, is our sin, when he takes us to be his.
So far we have seen that our hope in the future life is based on gospel realities, and strengthened by prophetic revelation. But let us also remember that our hope for future life is sustained by corporate encouragement.
III. Is sustained through corporate encouragement
Look at the last verse of chapter 4. Verse 18 says, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Isn’t that a great exhortation? That is a great way to end a passage that is trying to console people who are ailing. Our hope is bolstered by each other. Each of us is to serve as a buttress to each other’s faith.
You know, when we most need to think about the future, that is when we are least likely to think about it. Isn’t it? When we are in the times of greatest affliction, isn’t that when we are most likely to be thinking more about or problem than the solution?
That’s why we need each other. We need someone to come alongside us and point us to what we should be thinking about. We need someone to say, “Hey, remember what the Bible says.”
In our day we need to remember that it is our duty to present these truths concerning the resurrection and life with Christ. We are living in a day where Christians don’t know much about the Bible or haven’t been trained in theology. And we can easily see how a believer could slip into ungodly grief like the Thessalonians did. The Thessalonians were simply living like the pagans of their day. They weren’t thinking “Christianly” about death. Someone in our day, where there is a panoply of worldviews and an array of beliefs concerning the after life, could easily intermix their theology, and, as a result, be on the brink of despair.
But this passage is not just useful for comforting the grieving, it can be used to console Christians who have suffered severe injustices.
You probably didn’t catch it, but remember the situation of the Thessalonians at this time. They were being persecuted for their faith. Wouldn’t you despair if you were suffering like that and there was no hope of justice? This passage points to the justice we will one day receive.
Some of this has been obscured in our day. A lot of Christians today think that this refers to a secret rapture-- that is a time when Christians disappear from the earth for several years and unbelievers are left behind. This view has become popular by the recent Left Behind books written by LaHaye & Jenkins.
But let’s think through this passage: Really there is nothing secret about this, is there? It sounds very public. There are trumpets announcing the coming of Christ. There is shouting—all sorts of clamor. And it doesn’t say that Christ comes and takes people away, does it?
Really if you understand something about ancient times you understand that Christ comes back and stays. In ancient times a King would have to go away from his kingdom for a time. But he would always return. And when he did, the lookouts perched on the city walls would spot him in the distance. The watchman would then alert the rest of the city. He would blow trumpets and begin shouting to announce the king’s arrival. Then all the people of the city would all go out together to meet the king and escort him back to his throne. Once the king was back he would take up his business again of setting straight his kingdom. Those who had done wrong during the time that he was gone would be brought to him and he would give their sentence.
Our passage has that imagery in mind when it talks about the second coming of Christ. Our king will not grab his people and fly away. No, all his people will rally to him. And once he takes his throne he will execute justice once and for all.
You can imagine the Thessalonians saying, “Now there’s my hope!” And Christians could come along side of those who were grieving lost loved ones or those who were suffering for their faith. They could point their despondent friends to the truth of Christ’s ultimate triumph over death and evil.
We too need to remember that we have been bonded together. When we were united to Christ, we were united to His people too. Now we are charged with the duty of taking care of one another. We are charged with the duty of sustaining one another’s hope. Hope is as fragile as an autumn leaf. And if we aren’t there for one another, someone can end up suffering an unnecessary mental torture. But if we are there for them we can ease their woes and restore their hope.
You know, life is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle at times. When you start a jigsaw puzzle all the pieces are scattered out in front of you and it seems like there is no hope of things ever coming together. But in a matter of time all the pieces are put in place and a beautiful scenery is laid before you.
Yes, in a matter of time all the broken pieces of life will be straightened. Our bodies will be restored to their rightful state, and we will enjoy life as it was first meant to be. And all the injustices will be set in order. And we will spend eternity in the most beautiful place, the place where Christ is.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.