1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We are now in week four of our look at what it means to be the church, and more specifically how we examine Paul talking about being the church in 1 Thessalonians. As we have read and talked through Thessalonians we have uncovered aspects that cause us to examine how we view church. How we view who the church is or what the church does. Through all of our study thus far we have seen one constant, and that is that the church is the people. Not a building or any physical place, but the people. When Paul addresses then needs and qualities of the church he is addressing the people, and the work they are doing. Not the condition of any building, or anything material at all. But the work that they do in the name of God.
We have answered the question how we are the church, and we have talked about how through the way we learn and grow with God both individually and corporately. We have looked at how Paul commends but also teaches and how this leads us to view Christianity as a journey, and no matter where we are on that journey that there is always more growing to do. Paul does such a great job of leading us away from complacency and towards a place where we understand that we must continue to grow and strengthen with the grace of God.
We have examined very personal matters that also present themselves in a corporate manner such as our growth as the church, our presence in ministry, and our holiness. This week we look with Paul at this concept of hope, but not just a blanket hope for all things or anything. He is talking about hope of the resurrection and hope in Christ’s return. Paul’s words are those of comfort for those in the Thessalonian community who are grieving those who have passed. This is a tough situation no matter what time you live in, and while the Thessalonian church is grieving for a different reason than we do today in terms of death there is still much to be learned.
We see this from the first words that Paul says in this matter. He writes, “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.” This, believe it or not, was one of the bigger issues for Christians in the ancient world. That is death of loved ones, or those who were close. And you may be thinking, “well its a big deal now too.” And it is however in different ways.
See in ancient times right after the death of Jesus people believed and wholeheartedly thought that Jesus would be back soon. So this was the ideal that was taught. They thought Jesus would return soon enough that no one would die. They believed that those around them would be around to experience the glory of Jesus’ return, and that resurrection was for those living. We even understand that Paul probably taught this on his trip to Thessalonica and in other areas he taught.
We find, however, that there are people who begin to get deathly ill and pass away. The people close to them begin to fear for their eternal glory, because they thought that glory could only be experienced if you were alive when Jesus returned. They had not thought of the resurrection of those who had passed. We understand this as an issue because this is not the only time Paul writes on it. This is a fear that plagued much of the early church. So Paul set out to quell the fear and anxiety about this issue. Paul is seeking to give hope and to allow them to know where their grief lies. We can understand this grief not just out of a concern for the eternal glory of those who have passed, but we can hear echoes of the idea that these people are sad they will not see their friends and family in glory. They feel they are lost forever now that they have passed before Christ’s return.
This again we see is a church that is dejected and now we find out it is not only because of the persecution that they receive from the Jews and the Romans, but also from their own personal struggles with death and loss of loved ones. As we have seen this theme of encouragement show through in this letter we too learn from how Paul lifts up the Thessalonians. Timothy has come back and reported back to Paul on this matter and Paul addresses it. Paul has heard of all the good that they are doing despite persecution, but also despite great amounts of grief around this idea of death.
Our lives are much like this because we too deal with all of that outside persecution, and we have talked about some of that the past few weeks. We have talked about how we must persevere and continue to live our lives for Christ. We must uphold the idea of faith. However, we also deal with the struggle of grief. All different kinds of grief especially those centered around death and dying, but Paul is telling the Thessalonians, and consequently us, that we need to keep our hope centered upon the glory that God promises us through the resurrection and Christ’s return. This is because it is a difference between us and those who do not have this Christian belief of resurrection.
Paul is trying to help the Thessalonians and others who read this letter that death and resurrection should be a point of hope as much as it is a point of grief. Paul is not saying there is no room for grief, or that grief is a bad thing. Rather he is addressing the hope that we need to hang on to that one day we will in fact be reunited in eternal glory. This is the message that we take away from this today. For the Thessalonians it was an assurance that the people who had died would be resurrected when Christ returned. For us we look more at the promise of being reunited with our loved ones. Either way the message we take is HOPE.
It is hope within our grief. We all grieve the loss of loved ones, but Paul is telling us to look up. Paul writes in verse 14, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus.” This is a reassurance for the Thessalonians that those who have passed will in fact join them in eternal glory. However, for us it is a reminder that despite having lost them in this current time we will be reunited with them. So we see this is a timeless teaching that we can take away from what Paul is writing.
We do not see Paul teaching against grief, but preaching to persevere through hope despite our grief. Grief is not bad we encounter grief throughout the Bible. We hear of people who mourn the loss of someone close to them. In John chapter 11 we see Jesus mourn the loss of Lazarus. We see the same thing after John the Baptist dies in Matthew 14. In 2 Samuel 1 David mourns the death of Saul and Jonathan. Grief is present in the Bible and the one constant through the grief is the hope the griever holds towards God’s actions over the deceased person.
We as the church 2000 years removed from these teachings can still take away from these verses and it is very much present in our contemporary liturgy. We look at the hope that is present in the situation. We allow the grief to be present, but we must allow the hope to be present right alongside of it. Grief is helpful, but Paul wants us to know that that helpful grief is found in the hope of the resurrection. In the liturgy for the service of death and resurrection words of grace are offered and I say, “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also.” We offer the hope in our own liturgy that this is not the end of their lives, and is not the last time we will see them.
Paul even notes in verse 13 that hope is what separates us from those who are not Christians. The hope that Christians carry with them. We must keep hope alive. When Paul starts this letter he commends the Thessalonians. Remember this? “We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers. This is because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.” You know we have talked about our works that come from faith, and our effort that comes from love. Now we talk about perseverance that comes from hope.
Paul commends the Thessalonians for their work in hope, but then takes this section again to reiterate in a different context how important hope is. Paul in turn wants us to understand that we must continue to persevere through hope. We cannot allow grief to solely control us, but should allow hope to come through alongside our grief. That is our hope of resurrection and the promise of being reunited with those who have gone before us.