Lesson 15: With No Sorrow Concerning Those Who Have Died - Page 1 (series: Lessons on 1 Thess.)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

Tom Lowe

Lesson 15: With No Sorrow Concerning Those Who Have Died
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NIV)
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

The idea of the second coming had brought another problem to the people of Thessalonica. They were expecting it to happen very soon. They fully expected it to happen while they were still alive but they were worried about what was going to happen to those Christians who had already died. They could not be sure that those who had already died would take part in that great day when Jesus comes for His Church. Paul’s answer is that there will be one glory (Rapture) for those who are dead and those who are alive.

The coming of the Lord Jesus is the principle theme of both Thessalonian epistles. Paul is not presenting the doctrine of the Rapture as though the believers had not already heard of it; he is simply reminding them of the things he preached when he was with them in person. Evidentially some of the weaker saints had misunderstood some of his teachings concerning the Lord’s return, and false teachers had attempted to cause the believers to think Paul had let them down.

In 5:1-3 Paul warns them that no man knows the hour or the moment of the Lord’s return. He will come as a thief in the night; and therefore they are to be ready at all times, like a good soldier - fully armed and ready for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.

Lesson 15

(4:13) Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death,
Timothy brought a full report to Paul from the Thessalonian church. Apparently some Christians had died since Paul’s ministry in that city. Perhaps some had suffered Martyrdom for their faith. The Good News Paul had delivered earlier included the wonderful truth about Jesus’ return to earth. But Christians in Thessalonica were still perplexed about what happens to Christians who die before Jesus comes back. The answer to this serious question becomes an incredibly encouraging message in Paul’s letter. Paul doesn’t want these young Christians to be fearful about God’s plan for any believer’s future.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed” is a phrase Paul uses often in his writings. In this way he calls sharp attention to the topic he is about to discuss. There is no excuse for ignorance on the part of believers, for every believer has in his heart the Teacher of the Word of God (Romans 8:9); and since the Spirit dictated the Word of God to holy men who wrote it down, He is the best teacher. In 1 John 2:27 we are told that we don’t need any man to teach us for we are taught of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” Paul commands “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

He refers to the dead as “those who sleep in death,” a common expression of his day, but now, since the resurrection of Jesus, a phrase filled with greater meaning. Dead people often look as if they are unconscious or asleep. Paul’s descriptive phrase appears to be a picturesque expression rather than a doctrine, as some would make it. The apostle speaks of the sleep of the body, not the sleep of the soul. The body of a believer sleeps in the grave, but his spirit goes into the presence of Jesus Christ: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8{1]).

To the Christian, death is sleep. No, the believer does not become unconscious in spirit; the body returns to dust, but the spirit goes back to God, who gave it. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The beggar Lazarus died and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom. Jesus said to the penitent thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” He used the term “sleep” when referring to the death of the body: “Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her.” "Stop wailing," Jesus said. "She is not dead but asleep" (Luke 8:52). He made the same statement referring to Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:11). Sleep indicates a restful condition of the body; in sleep the body relaxes and is rebuilt . . . but sleep is a temporary state. In the true sense of the word, the believer’s body is put in a grave - a crypt or sleeping chamber in a mausoleum - and it will remain there until the resurrection, at which time it will be raised an incorruptible body that will never die. Sleep, therefore is not permanent. The body returns to dust, only to be raised incorruptible when Jesus comes.

so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
He tells them that they must “not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” In the face of death the pagan world stood in despair. The finality of death filled the heathen with a feeling of blank despair. It was a sorrow that could not be relieved by any hope of a future reunion with their loved ones. They met it with grim resignation and bleak hopelessness. “The rest of mankind”―pagans, unbelievers―”have no hope.” In Ephesians 2:11-13 Paul described them thus: “Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Great men and wise men of that time expressed their opinion on this matter. They made comments like these and even engraved them on their tombstones:
• “Once a man dies there is no resurrection.”
• There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope.
• When once our brief light sets, there is one perpetual night through which we must sleep.
• I was not; I became; I am not; I care not.
• “Irene to . . . good comfort. I was as sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for . . . And all things whatsoever were fitting I did, and all mine. But nevertheless against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort ye one another.”

Then and now pagans grieve without hope. There is nothing in these men’s words that would be encouraging; they would instead be very discouraging and lead to a feeling of hopelessness. But unlike broken hearted pagans, I have tremendous hope built on this promise: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (4:16-17). That is the next great event in Jesus relationship to His Church.

Believers are not to be sorrowful. Paul is not saying that Christians never grieve; they have their sorrows like other people (Phil. 2:27). But they sorrow like those who have an abiding hope. The apostle is not contrasting a lesser grief with a greater one; he is contrasting those with hope and those without it. When the non-Christian world is characterized as lacking hope it is probably not the absence of the hope of an afterlife that is primarily in mind, but the absence of the knowledge of God, much like those Paul describes as “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). But this shows itself strikingly in their attitude toward death. Few things are more impressing in the contrast between early Christianity and the surrounding pagan systems than their attitudes in the face of death. Nowhere outside Christianity do we find at this period any widespread view of a worthwhile life beyond the grave.

Death has been overcome by the risen Lord, and that has transformed the whole situation for those who are in Him. If a loved one dies in the Lord, that one would not return even if it were possible to do so, because when saints depart this earthly body they are immediately present with the Lord - and to be with Him is far, far better than anything earth can offer. Paul said, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23).

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