6. Good Grief (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)Related Media
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly 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 (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).1
When I think of the words, “Good Grief!” I think of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts comic strip. It is usually an expression of exasperation on the lips of Charlie Brown, most likely because of something Lucy had done to irritate him. The expression “Good grief” is sort of an oxymoron. Let’s face it; it is difficult to think of grief as good, perhaps because grief is most evident at the time of the death of one near and dear to us.
Nevertheless, there are times when the expression of grief can be beneficial, not only for the one expressing grief, but for others as well. For example, the grief of our Lord over the death of Lazarus is very briefly mentioned in the Gospel of John (“Jesus wept.”),2 and yet it served to convey to those around that our Lord greatly loved Lazarus,3 something that was very important for those looking on (and for us) to know.4
Remember the treachery of Joab and his brother Abishai when they killed Abner in retaliation for the death (in battle) of their brother, Asahel.5 David had met with Abner and had negotiated terms for peace between Judah and the other Israelite tribes. He had guaranteed Abner’s safety, and yet Joab and Abishai deceitfully killed Abner. It could easily have appeared that Abner’s murder was carried out under David’s orders (though we know this not to be the case, because we have been told of the deceitful way that Abner was murdered). David’s grief made it clear to all that he had nothing to do with this shedding of blood.6
There are also times when grief is not so good. When this is the case, things not only go wrong for the one expressing grief, but others may also suffer the consequences. For example, think of the grief of Samuel over the failures of Saul and his removal from office:
15:35 Until the day he died Samuel did not see Saul again. Samuel did, however, mourn for Saul, but the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. 16:1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long do you intend to mourn for Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with olive oil and go! I am sending you to Jesse in Bethlehem, for I have selected a king for myself from among his sons” (1 Samuel 15:35-16:1).
Perhaps the most dramatic example of inappropriate grief is David’s mourning over the death of his son, Absalom:
31 Then the Cushite arrived and said, “May my lord the king now receive the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today and delivered you from the hand of all who have rebelled against you!” 32 The king asked the Cushite, “How is the young man Absalom?” The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who have plotted against you be like that young man!” 33 (19:1) The king then became very upset. He went up to the upper room over the gate and wept. As he went he said, “My son, Absalom! My son, my son, Absalom! If only I could have died in your place! Absalom, my son, my son!”
1 (19:2) Joab was told, “The king is weeping and mourning over Absalom.” 2 So the victory of that day was turned to mourning as far as all the people were concerned. For the people heard on that day, “The king is grieved over his son.” 3 That day the people stole away to go to the city the way people who are embarrassed steal away in fleeing from battle. 4 The king covered his face and cried out loudly, “My son, Absalom! Absalom, my son, my son!”
5 So Joab visited the king at his home. He said, “Today you have embarrassed all your servants who have saved your life this day, as well as the lives of your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your concubines. 6 You seem to love your enemies and hate your friends! For you have as much as declared today that leaders and servants don’t matter to you. I realize now that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, it would be all right with you. 7 So get up now and go out and give some encouragement to your servants. For I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out there, not a single man will stay here with you tonight! This disaster will be worse for you than any disaster that has overtaken you from your youth right to the present time!” 8 So the king got up and sat at the city gate. When all the people were informed that the king was sitting at the city gate, they all came before him. But the Israelite soldiers had all fled to their own homes (2 Samuel 18:31-19:8, emphasis mine).
Apparently some of the Thessalonians were grieving inappropriately over the death of fellow believers. Their grief, in Paul’s analysis, was no different than that of the unsaved Thessalonians. Paul’s words in our text set forth a very different perspective on the death of a Christian, which is intended to result in a dramatically different response to death, a response that I would call “Good Grief.” The reader will recognize that this passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 is one of the most frequently used texts at the funeral of a Christian. Let us listen well to these words, for they not only comfort us when we grieve over the death of a Christian loved one, they also comfort us as we anticipate our own death.
After taking three chapters to review the salvation and spiritual growth of the Thessalonians, Paul moves to application in chapter 4. He has appealed to his readers to pursue their sanctification, specifically in the matters of sexual purity, brotherly love, and work. Paul then moves to the matter of the second coming of Christ and its implications for believers and unbelievers in 4:13—5:11. This is the context in which we must interpret and apply our text.
The unity of 4:13—5:11 can be seen as we observe the overall topic of our Lord’s coming in chapter 47 and in chapter 5 (referred to there as the “Day of the Lord”).8 In both paragraphs, Paul begins by addressing the “brothers and sisters” (4:13; 5:1)9 at Thessalonica, and then ending with the exhortation to “encourage one another” with the truths that he has just set forth (4:18; 5:11). In both paragraphs, Paul uses the symbolism of “sleep.” Thus, we can see that the general subject of 4:13—5:11 is the coming of our Lord. The focus of 4:13-18 is the response of the saints to the death of a believer, while in 5:1-11 Paul deals with the conduct of believers in this life, knowing that the “Day of the Lord” is near. This he contrasts with the unbelievers’ attitudes and actions in the light of the coming Day of the Lord. Paul’s teaching in 4:13-18 presents new teaching, which Paul has not given the Thessalonians before, and which they now need to know. The instruction of 5:1-11 is not new to the Thessalonians, but its content is worthy of repetition and its application is important to emphasize.
The Problem Paul is Addressing
1 Thessalonians 4:13
Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Of all the doctrines Paul had taught these saints, teaching regarding the fate of those who die in Christ had apparently not been among them. Paul’s preaching and teaching undoubtedly included the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life, but much emphasis was placed on sin and the judgment it deserved. No doubt Paul intended to teach these saints about the coming of the Lord and its implications for believers, but he was forced out of town before he could do so. Hearing that these saints were grieving in a way that was inappropriate prompted Paul to teach the Thessalonians about the hope they had in Christ, the hope of resurrection.
Paul wrote that these saints were grieving like their unsaved countrymen, rather than as Christians. Just what would this pagan grief look like, and why was it wrong? It would serve us well to note that Paul likely wrote this epistle from Corinth. The Corinthians also needed instruction (considerable as it was) regarding the resurrection (to which Paul devoted a lengthy chapter 15). It is in this chapter in 1 Corinthians that Paul discloses the mindset of the heathen regarding resurrection and its implications for life in this world:
30 Why too are we in danger every hour? 31 Every day I am in danger of death! This is as sure as my boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If from a human point of view I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what did it benefit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 34 Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God - I say this to your shame! (1 Corinthians 15:30-34).
Paul was confident of his resurrection when he died. This confidence of eternal life gave Paul great boldness, so that he could face danger (even that of death) without fear. If the dead were not raised, Paul would have been foolish to live as he did. Instead, he would live like the heathen: “Eat, drink, and live the heathen life” because death ends it all. Thus, I believe we can reason that the unsaved of Thessalonica had no confidence that there was any life after death, and thus no hope that they would ever see or enjoy fellowship with friends and loved ones once they died. The best one could do was mourn over what they once had in the past but would never have again. They might as well strive to indulge themselves with all of the earthly pleasures they could, for that was all the pleasure they expected in this life, assuming there was nothing to hope for beyond the grave.
There is one more thing that would contribute to a hopeless grief – no assurance of sins forgiven or deliverance from the fear of death:
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
When we go to a funeral, we not only mourn the loss of further friendship and fellowship with the deceased in this life; we must also come to terms with our own mortality, and the certainty of our own death. As the writer to the Hebrews indicates, all men are held captive by the fear of death. The devil holds the power of death, but it has been destroyed by the Lord Jesus, who took on human flesh and by His death and resurrection, defeated Satan and nullified the fear of death he once held over us. But this deliverance from the fear of death is only experienced by those who have trusted in Jesus. Thus, all unbelievers are afflicted by a fear of death (whether they admit to it or not). When an unbeliever grieves the death of another, he cannot help but grieve over his own bondage to the fear of death. No believer should ever experience this kind of grief again after trusting in Jesus.
We are not given any specifics regarding the circumstances precipitating grief on the part of the Thessalonians, prompting Paul to write these words. It would seem safe to conclude that sufficient time had passed since Paul had been forced to flee Thessalonica for some believer there to have died. Perhaps more than one saint had died. This could have been a martyr’s death, due to the persecution this church faced,10 or it could have been death by natural causes. Then, too (as my friend and fellow-elder pointed out), it may be that someone in the church at Thessalonica was known to be dying. Their testimony in facing death could adversely impact the gospel, or it could serve to enhance the good news, depending on the form the grief of this saint may have taken.
Paul’s words in verse 13 indicate that the Thessalonians were grieving in a way that was inconsistent with the gospel (were they to understand its implications regarding death correctly). In verse 15, we are given a clue as to what one error might be:
For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:15, emphasis mine).
If you are standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, it would make you very unhappy to see someone “cut” in front of everyone and check out before any of them. Being first in line is assumed to be better than being last. Here, Paul seems to address a common perception that those who are alive at the coming of Christ will be “first in line,” while those who have died will be “last” (if they are thought to be in line at all).
This may seem like a rather insignificant matter and the concern over it may appear petty, but let me remind you that Peter was greatly concerned about this very thing:
18 I tell you the solemn truth, when you were young, you tied your clothes around you and went wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will tie you up and bring you where you do not want to go.” 19 (Now Jesus said this to indicate clearly by what kind of death Peter was going to glorify God.) After he said this, Jesus told Peter, “Follow me.” 20 Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. (This was the disciple who had leaned back against Jesus’ chest at the meal and asked, “Lord, who is the one who is going to betray you?”) 21 So when Peter saw him, he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus replied, “If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours? You follow me!” 23 So the saying circulated among the brothers and sisters that this disciple was not going to die. But Jesus did not say to him that he was not going to die, but rather, “If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours?” (John 21:18-23, emphasis mine)
Jesus informed Peter that he was going to die, and it wasn’t going to be in a manner that he would have chosen. Peter was concerned that he was “getting the short end of the stick,” and so he inquired about John. What about John? Would John die early as well, or would he “get off easy by being allowed to live until the coming of Christ”? Peter was grieving, so to speak, regarding his death, because he assumed that it was better to remain alive until the coming of Christ.
(The humor here is that Peter was wrong and that it would not be that long until he would realize it. I have to chuckle when I think of the Book of Revelation. John has now outlived Peter and James, his closest associates, as well as all of his fellow-apostles. He is imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos, and here he is given a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. I like to imagine that as he looked intently at the New Jerusalem, he observed someone standing in one of the windows of this marvelous city, waving to him. As John looked more closely, he realized that it was Peter. By his unpleasant and “untimely” death, Peter arrived in heaven before John. Where would Peter rather be now, in heaven or in an earthly prison with John? How Peter’s perspective must have changed!)
The Solution to the Problem
1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).
What would have been true for Peter was so because of what Paul is teaching the Thessalonians in our text. In these four verses, Paul summarizes the Thessalonians’ hope regarding life after death. I should point out that the “if” at the beginning of verse 14 is not “iffy” at all. The construction here indicates that it is assumed that we believe Jesus died and rose again, and thus some translations render the “if” with “since.”11 Others merely begin by stating the assumption, “We believe. . . .”12
Notice the direct relationship between the believer’s resurrection from the dead with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our resurrection is based upon the resurrection of Jesus. It is apparent that the resurrection Paul speaks of is a literal, physical resurrection from the dead. You can therefore see the implications of denying the literal, bodily, resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If His resurrection was not both literal and physical, how could our resurrection be literal and physical? How could our resurrection be greater than His? No wonder Paul makes such an issue of the resurrection of Jesus elsewhere:
12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. 15 Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. 18 Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
One should easily recognize why the literal, physical (bodily) resurrection of the Lord Jesus is an essential element of the gospel that must be believed for salvation, and why it is therefore a fundamental of the faith.
29 “So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination. 30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul left the Areopagus. 34 But some people joined him and believed. Among them were Dionysius, who was a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them (Acts 17:29-34).
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), 9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:8-9).
1 Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. 3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
When we come back to Paul’s teaching on the resurrection of the saints who have died in 1 Thessalonians, we find that he makes a point of the fact that this instruction is a revelation directly from God.13 To deny or to doubt this truth (regarding Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of the saints14) is to deny or doubt the word of the Lord Jesus. The exact source of this revelation15 is not named. It appears that Paul is making a point of the fact that God revealed this truth directly to him, and not indirectly. Informing the readers as to just when and how this occurred is not Paul’s concern; his concern is only that his words are the words of Christ.16
Paul’s words in verses 14-16 clearly state that God will raise those saints who have died, but this is stated in general terms which leave out many details. I believe this ambiguity is deliberate because Paul wants to emphasize two main points: (1) both the living and the dead in Christ will ascend into heaven to be united forever with Christ and those believers who have died in faith; and (2) those who are alive at the time of Christ’s coming will not be given preferential treatment over those who have died before His return (indeed, the dead are “first in line” to be raised from the dead and joined with Christ).
Given Paul’s deliberate omission of details which are of great interest to us, many are tempted to read more into these verses than what is plainly stated. Some of this may be legitimate, based upon what we will learn later in these Thessalonians epistles or elsewhere in the Scriptures; some will simply be speculation, based upon or prompted by a particular school of thought. Paul’s omissions (and those of the other authors of Scripture) are just as purposeful about what they choose to include. Paul’s purpose for writing these words was to calm and to comfort the Thessalonians regarding the outcome for those who have died before the coming of the Lord, especially in relation to those saints who are alive at the time of His return. Paul has done this by telling them (and us) that dead believers will be literally and physically resurrected just as Jesus was, and that when this is accomplished at Christ’s return, all the saints (those who were raised from the dead and those living) will spend eternity in His presence. Details such as the transformation of those living at the time of His return are not given, though we read of this elsewhere.17 Neither is there any mention yet as to what those who have been joined with Christ will be doing on earth. Paul’s focus here is heavenly, rather than earthly.
A few other details have been supplied by Paul in our text. The coming of Christ as described here is not secretly accomplished; it is announced with a great deal of fanfare, so that no one can miss it:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God (verse 16:a).
This will catch unbelievers by surprise, but believers should not be caught unawares. Paul will take this up in the verses which follow in chapter 5.18 At this point, it is enough for Paul to have informed Christians (the Thessalonians and the readers of this epistle) that those who die in faith will spend eternity with Christ, just as those believers who are alive when He comes.
The Intended Outcome of This Revelation
1 Thessalonians 4:18
Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Paul’s instruction concerning those who have died in faith has been given to encourage the Thessalonian saints. But let us take careful note of what Paul has said, and what he has not said. He did not conclude his teaching in 4:13-18 by saying, “Therefore be encouraged by these words.” What he did say was, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” All too often our focus is self-centered and individualistic. We read Paul’s words so that we can be comforted or encouraged, or instructed. There is nothing wrong with this, other than that it does not go far enough. These words of Scripture are given to us so that we might be encouraged, and thus we can encourage others with the same truth. When God encourages us, He expects us to encourage others.19 We can see this in Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow toward us, so also our comfort through Christ overflows to you. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort that you experience in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we also suffer. 7 And our hope for you is steadfast because we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you will share in our comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, emphasis mine).
Think of it; we are stewards of the instruction, the gifts, the exhortation, and the comfort which God graciously gives to us. We are to share with others that which God has given to us. We are not to hoard these things any more than we are to hoard the material resources He entrusts to us. Those who are instructed by God should teach others, those who are encouraged should encourage others, and those who have received the good news of the gospel should share it with others.
The message Paul has for us in this passage is short and sweet. Christians are to be comforted concerning those believers who die before the Lord’s return. Departed saints will not miss the blessings Christ will bring when He returns, nor will they be second-class citizens in heaven. They will enjoy everlasting fellowship with Christ and with their fellow-believers when they are physically raised from the dead at His return.
I have a confession to make; when I completed my study of our text, I felt somehow short-changed. Was this all that this text was meant to convey? Was Paul’s purpose in this paragraph only to assure Christians that a resurrection from the dead awaits those who die before Christ’s return? Is the simplicity of this truth the reason why so many seem inclined to press this text to say more – something like squeezing an empty toothpaste tube for just a little more?
In thinking about this matter, I have come to several conclusions. First, at this point in time, this is all Paul wanted to tell the Thessalonians about those who die before Christ’s return. It is really all they needed to know. The mechanics of how God will bring this about and the precise timing and sequence of the events of the last days are not considered essential to the Thessalonians’ concerns or Paul’s purpose in writing here.
Second, there is more to come. (As those television commercials all seem to say, “But wait! There’s more!) Paul has more to say about the Lord’s return and its implications for believers and unbelievers, but this comes later (some as soon as in the next verses, starting with verse 1 of chapter 5). Indeed, these additional truths are built upon the foundation that Paul has established in our text. And then there are those additional truths that are revealed elsewhere in Scripture. Paul does not have to tell us everything that has already been conveyed elsewhere.
Third, to focus on the fine points of the Lord’s return might tend to obscure or draw attention away from the main point that Paul is seeking to make: when He comes, both the dead in Christ and those believers who are alive at the time will be united with Christ, enjoying the ultimate blessing of dwelling in His presence forever. Paul’s focus in our text is on Christ, just as ours should be. If we quickly try to move on to other aspects of His coming, we reveal that our focus is on something – or someone – other than on our Lord. It would be something like a child receiving a very costly gift from his parents for Christmas. After looking briefly at the gift, the child sets it aside and looks about for other gifts. What an affront that would be to the parents who have sacrificed greatly to give their child the finest gift possible. For Paul, whether his destiny was life or death, his focus was on Christ:
19 for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (Philippians 1:19-21).
7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:7-14; see also Romans 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; Ephesians 1:3-14).
We must let nothing and no one come before our devotion to the Savior. Let us not become so curious about the fine points regarding the future that we miss the final goal of the future – spending all eternity in His presence.
What, then, should Paul’s teaching do for those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation? It should give them the same attitude toward life and death that Paul expressed in the passages cited above. If the Thessalonians had previously believed that those who died before Christ’s coming would somehow have an inferior status, then this error should no longer trouble them. The impact of Paul’s words should be obvious from his final exhortation in verse 18: “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” What does it mean to “encourage” someone? It means to infuse them with courage. From Paul’s words in our text, the saints should realize that dying before Christ’s return is no disadvantage at all. From what Paul says in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5 (above), I believe we can conclude, as did Paul, that to die is actually to gain. Remaining on provides the opportunity to continue to serve God and others on this earth, but dying puts us in the presence of our Lord, where we will await the day of our bodily resurrection. This is the truth which Peter was to experience when he died (while John remained alive for some time).
Believing Paul’s words should cause the Christian to view death in a very different light. It is no enemy, to be dreaded and avoided at all cost; it is a friend that will take us to Jesus. Why, then, be hesitant to boldly proclaim the gospel, even if threatened by death? Why live in a tentative way, walking, as it were, on egg shells to avoid persecution? The worst men can do to us is the best thing that can happen to us. That truth should revolutionize the way we live.
The truth Paul has set forth applies to much more than the threat of death at the hand of the enemies of Christ and His gospel. Paul is saying what the writer to the Hebrews taught in Hebrews 2:14-15: the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ has once for all taken the fear of death away from those who have trusted in Him. As we grow old, death is nothing to fear. If the doctor tells us that we have a terminal illness (no matter what our age), we should rejoice in the truth of what Paul has taught us here. And that joyful expectation exhibited in the life of the dying saint should be a testimony to others who lack such hope. It is proof of the reality of the hope which we have in Jesus.
That leads me to my final point of application. The hope which Paul speaks of in our text is the hope of the gospel. Believers in Jesus should be confident of their literal, physical resurrection from the dead because the Lord Jesus has already been literally, physically raised from the dead. Our resurrection is as certain as His. Our resurrection is the fruit of faith in the Lord Jesus, the fruit of the gospel. Thus, when we proclaim the gospel to others, we offer them the same hope and confidence regarding eternal life after death.
I have this firmly in mind whenever I conduct the funeral service for one who has died, whether the deceased was a believer or not. There is no message other than the gospel of Jesus Christ that gives men and women the assurance of sins forgiven and of spending eternity in the presence of God. To fail to preach the gospel to those who grieve the loss of a friend or loved one is to fail to offer them hope, and freedom from the fear of death.
This leads me to the other side of the coin. While Paul does not emphasize this truth here, it would be good for me to remind you that death is not the end of it all for those who have rejected Christ’s offer of salvation. Just as the dead in Christ will surely be raised to eternal joy in the presence of the Savior, the lost will be raised to eternal torment, away from His presence. This is what Paul says in his second epistle to the Thessalonians:
6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
My friend, if you have never acknowledged your sin and your need of salvation through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on your behalf, I urge you to place your trust in Him this very moment. Your decision in this matter will have eternal consequences.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 6 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on July 11, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:
2 John 11:35.
3 John 11:36.
4 Otherwise, one might question the motivation for our Lord’s delay in coming to be with Lazarus and his sisters (see John 11:5-7).
5 See 2 Samuel 2-3.
6 2 Samuel 3:31-39.
7 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16.
8 1 Thessalonians 5:2.
9 The NASB and other translations render this term more literally (“brethren” or “brothers”); the NET Bible renders it “brothers and sisters,” thus making it clear that this term applies both to men and to women in the church. My preference is to render it more literally (“brethren”) and let the reader know that this term includes both sexes.
10 See 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14-16; 3:1-4.
11 ESV, CSB.
12 NIV, NJB.
13 See verse 15.
14 There is, of course, the resurrection of all unbelievers (as we see in Daniel 12:2, Revelation 20:12-15 and elsewhere), but this is not Paul’s emphasis in our current text since he is seeking to encourage Christians about the fate of fellow Christians who have died.
15 It could have been teaching our Lord gave to His apostles, but which was not included in any of the Gospels, or teaching revealed to Paul directly by means of a revelation.
16 Compare 1 Corinthians 7:6-12; 14:37-38.
17 See 1 Corinthians 15:51-53.
18 See 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5.
19 I am reminded of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12:1-3, where God promised to bless Abraham and his seed so that they could be a blessing to the nations.