Mr. Stanley Delves
Forest Fold Chapel, Crowborough
April 14th, 1968.
“Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thess. 4.18.
The service this morning takes on a two-fold special nature. For one thing, of course, it is Easter Day. It is not that we ourselves pay all that regard to special days – there is nothing really in the New Testament to indicate that the early Christians ever observed any special days at all. Neither the day of the Lord’s death, which they observed in the Lord’s appointed way in the Lord’s Supper, nor do they appear to have paid any special regard to the day on which he rose again from the dead, because they regarded every first day in the week as being a continual commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection. But still, although there is no express appointment for the observance of days it is customary, and so at this time we consider especially – although we should never forget it at all – the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then this morning the service is in the nature of a memorial service to our late beloved brother. * And these two features of the service blend so very well together. For if Christ had not risen from the dead, what a gloomy thing a memorial service would be because there could be no hope in it, no joy, no comfort, no expectation concerning those that had died. It would be a retrospect only, with no prospect at all. It is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ that imparts to these occasions that have a very great sadness in them in one sense, such a blessed comfort and hope and consolation. I hope we may feel this morning the blending of comfort and thankfulness, for thankfulness is really called for -especially on this occasion.
Now may the Lord grant to us – for many of us I believe have prayed that He would – a gracious, thankful and hopeful frame of heart and mind today. And I have sought it for myself because I have really felt deeply affected by this dispensation of the Lord’s hand.
“Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
The substance of course lies in this Â— “these words”. All the comfort and relief and consolation and hope is expressed in “these
words”. Taking this short verse as a whole, there are, I think, three considerations that come from it for our minds to feed upon, and our hearts too, I hope, with the Lord’s blessing.
First I would mention this – their authority. These words have an authority. The Apostle Paul was very careful in this instance, as he was in other instances, to make it clear that he was not expressing his own thoughts, his own feelings nor his own views, but that the word which he preached and the truth which he wrote he received directly from the Lord. And that is very important, for men’s words are not of much consequence. If they are true, then they have an authority outside of men; if they are not true, then they are utterly worthless. Peter expresses the same thing: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Pet. 1. 24,25). It endures for ever, of course, because it is the word of Him who Himself endures for ever, and because He is unchangeable His word will never change. So the apostle is here very careful to let the Thessalonians know that what he is setting before them for their comfort he has received directly from the Lord. He said, “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4.15). If he had not said this – “by the word of the Lord” – it would have been no real foundation, no satisfying cause of the comfort that he would have them to feel. He means, “Comfort one another with these words” because the Lord has said this to me, and I say to you what I have received from Him.
The apostle does not indicate when he had this “word of the Lord”, all he says is, “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord”. But at some time the Lord must have personally instructed Paul in these solemn and blessed things. He said this, “by the word of the Lord”, in the sense that he was an inspired man, and under such an infallible direction, control and instruction of the Holy Spirit as preventing anything of himself, his own mind, independently of the Lord, ever entering into what he said. That is how I understand inspiration – it was such a control of the mind, the feelings, the thoughts and the words of these inspired men, that what they wrote or what they spoke was the word of the Lord, and there was nothing in it otherwise than that which came from the Lord Himself.
Now, my friends, when the gospel in any part of it, any truth of it, has a gracious power upon your heart, (and it does have, doesn’t it, sometimes?) it comes to you with a power that is not of man at all, not of eloquence, or utterance, but with a power that is essentially in the truth itself. When we feel an influence in it, gracious, attracting, humbling, nourishing, feeding, that is because it is the word of the Lord. If it was not the word of the Lord there would not be that power and graciousness and that effect of it in our souls. “This we say unto you by the word of the Lord”. Now we need to be clear about this, because all that is contained in these words is really the word of the Lord, and if it is the word of
the Lord surely we should seek faith to receive it and to mix with it, that it may be profitable to us. For the word of the Lord, however true it is in itself and however blessed in its teaching and meaning, will profit us nothing unless there is faith given to us in our hearts to believe it and to receive it. It was said of those of old that the word preached did not profit them, not because it was not the word of the Lord, but because it was not mixed with faith in them that heard it.
I just pause to remark, this is still true in regard to a faithful ministry of the gospel; not that the Lord’s servants have the authority of personal inspiration – we do not for one moment claim that our thoughts, our feelings and our words are so under the entire control of the Holy Spirit and His direction and influence that every word we say is certainly true – we do not claim that. But we do claim that what we say as far as it is accordance with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures is most certainly the truth.
I come to a second consideration, and that is the foundation of the comfort with which the apostle would have the Thessalonians, in their sorrow and sadness and bereavement, comfort one another. There was a foundation for this comfort and these words express it; and what is the foundation? Well, it is this, that Jesus died and rose again. If it were not that Jesus died and rose again there would be no comfort for us at all. We have only to pause a moment and consider what our state would be now and when we come to die and when we stand before God and enter into an eternal and unchangeable condition, what our state would be if Jesus had never died. For the word of the Lord is so true on this point that there is no remission of sin, no forgiveness, no cleansing of the soul, no reconciliation with God apart from this, that Jesus died. For He came into the world to save sinners – that was His chief purpose. He did much good in this world; all along His life’s pathway He strewed blessings, comforts to some who were in sorrow, healing to some that were diseased, instruction to some that were ignorant. But He never came into this world for that purpose alone – He strewed blessings, if I may put it so, all along the pathway that led to Calvary. That was it, the pathway led to Calvary, to the cross, to the tomb and to the resurrection. He came into this world to save sinners by death.
The whole truth and blessedness of the gospel and all that it means to us as it comes to us with power, and all that it will mean to us yet in the future, rests upon these two things. First, certain events, and second, the doctrines that expound their real meaning. And they must both go together. Here are the events: Christ died and He rose again. What are the doctrines? He died for our sins. His death was a substitution for us who are the Lord’s; His death was a sacrifice to atone for sin and to be a propitiation for us before God. That is the doctrine of His death. And His
resurrection; it is a fact that He rose from the dead. O how much there is involved in that wonderful truth; and the doctrine is that He rose again for our justification.
First, this comfort rests upon this: that Jesus died. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, refers to this great fact: “I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved.. .for I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15. 1-3). If He had died without that purpose, “for our sins”. His death would not have been any foundation of comfort to us, for there can be no comfort to us as we are sinful, unless it stands in that which takes away our sins. Now when the death of Jesus Christ is made effectual in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, then it takes away our sins personally. It takes away their guilt, it takes away their filth, it reconciles us to God, and what is more, it entirely takes the sting out of our death. For the sting of death is sin, and Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. It is because Christ died for our sins that death is just a “sleep in Jesus” to believers. No guilt strikes them in their dying moments, no terrors of judgment affright them when they breathe out their spirit to the Lord. They fall asleep because Christ died for their sins. Now, “comfort one another with these words”, Paul would say to the Thessalonians; Don’t look on death as a horrible thing, something terrible, ghastly, forbidding, for Christ has died and His death has taken everything that is terrible out of death – everything.
Further, He rose again according to the scriptures. Christ “died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him” (v.l4). It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died for our sins, but the resurrection proves it; besides, if it were not for the resurrection, everything with regard to the truth and teaching of Jesus Christ would have been left in doubt. The resurrection confirms everything. It is such a confirmation as is necessary to confirm things that are so momentous and so profound. And there could be no confirmation equal to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The apostle saw this so very clearly and emphasised it so powerfully when he said: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead.” There is no question about it – “and become the first fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15. 17-20).
There is no need for me just now to go into the many proofs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, nor into the significance of His varied appearances to the disciples after He rose from the dead. It is sufficient to say that they were perfectly satisfied that He was risen. Although they had been doubtful about it, they had found it so hard to believe; it seemed to need evidence after evidence and proof after proof to satisfy them that Jesus Christ was alive. But once they were satisfied with the truth of it, |O how it strengthened
them. When blessed with the Holy Spirit, they could go out in the streets of Jerusalem and preach Jesus Christ to the very people that had crucified Him; and go forth into all the world to preach Jesus Christ, for they knew that He was risen from the dead, that He was a living Saviour.
If Jesus Chnst had not risen from the dead, His death would have been the death of His teaching, and of the Christian religion -it would never have survived. For instance, after the death of Jesus Peter could say “I go a fishing”, and the others said “We also go with thee”. And they would have gone fishing for the rest of their lives, and that would have been the end of it but for the power of their risen Saviour. Then we should probably never have known, never have read, never have heard the least thing about the Lord Jesus Christ. Think also of those two disciples on the way to Emmaus expressing their sorrowful and confused feelings; for they could not believe that He was risen, they could not think such a thing could be true. But they had heard those things which the women had said and could not dismiss them from their minds though they seemed like idle tales. Somehow, although they felt something wonderful had happened, they could not think He could be alive. And so as that mysterious stranger drew near to them and enquired the reason for their sadness; why, they said, don’t you know what has happened? There was Jesus of Nazareth and He was a wonderful Man, did mighty works, but our people crucified Him, and that was three days ago, and we trusted that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel. If Jesus had never risen from the dead it would have ended there. We trusted, but alas, alas, it all came to nothing. It all came to nothing. You see then, what the resurrection of Jesus Christ meant to them, it was a resurrection of their faith, it was a resurrection of their hope, it was a resurrection of their love. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means so much to us to this day, and always will do. It means that we have a living Saviour, and that He is death’s conqueror. He left the tomb as a Conqueror, not as a fugitive. He never fled away from death, death fled away from Him. Quietly and orderly. He left His grave clothes behind Him, very significant, and came forth to a risen, glorious, blessed power of an endless life. He was death’s conqueror. He would never have been death’s conqueror if He had not first died. He died to conquer death and He rose to show that He had done it. For those triumphant words of the apostle could never be true if Jesus Christ were not risen, “O death, where is thy sting?” Jesus has taken it away by His death. “O grave where is thy victory?” Jesus has conquered the grave by His resurrection. Now that is the foundation of his comfort. It rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and all that His death and resurrection mean.
I come now to the third consideration that arises from these words, and that is the instruction concerning those that have fallen
asleep. How far the Thessalonians understood this matter we do not know. I mean, how far they realized the blessed state of those that had fallen asleep, but it would seem as though their minds were not very clear about this. The apostle said, “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren”, as though they were somewhat ignorant still “concerning them which are asleep” (v.l3). This is not to be wondered at, because they had not very long received the gospel, and the first reception of the gospel is to receive it as the gospel that brings salvation to our souls. But there is such a great deal more to learn and to be instructed in with regard to the gospel; it cannot all be received and understood in a very brief time. The Thessalonians had not been Christians very long, and so probably they had not yet learned much of this part of gospel truth concerning those that were asleep. Their ignorance concerning those that were asleep did not in the least degree affect the blessed state of those who were asleep in Jesus. Oh no, but it very much affected the comfort – or the lack of comfort – of the Thessalonians, for all our comfort concerning those that are asleep rises from the instruction concerning them that is in these words.
Let us consider particularly. “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep.” It is a remarkable thing that almost every reference to death in the New Testament is different after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It would take me some time to show you all that I mean, but after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the very Way of speaking about death in the New Testament alters, and there is scarce one reference to death that leaves it just simply and plainly as ‘death’. There is almost always something attached to it, even if the sleep of believers is referred to as ‘death’. I think the only reference to death in the New Testament that is unqualified is with regard to the death of Dorcas or Tabitha whom Peter raised from the dead, and it was necessary that she should be referred to simply and plainly as ‘dead’ because otherwise there might have been the question as to whether she was ever raised from the dead, or whether she was just in a trance, or in a sleep. But in almost every other case in the New Testament there is something attached to the word that it did not have before the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For instance, it was said to be a dissolving of the earthly house of this tabernacle, a breaking down of our present temporary abode and the word tabernacle means a tent. A dissolving, not a destruction of the tenant, the inhabitant, the soul, but a dissolving of the body that it had lived in, back into its original elements of the dust of the earth. It was a dissolution of the body, that is all, not a destruction of the soul. And it is referred to as the ‘departure’. The apostle said, “The time of my departure is at hand” (2 Tim. 4. 6), and the expression ‘departure’ has something more than appears in it in that translation. It means departure, of course; the soul departs from the body; but the usage of that word ‘departure’ implies also the loosening of things that held the person, such as the walls of a house. It meant the loosening or the breaking down of things that held a person, so
that being free he could depart. There is something beautiful about that. We do not like to think of illness and pain and the breaking down of strength and all the natural sources of vigour in our constitution, but what does illness do to a child of God? It is just the way of loosening the things that bind him to the body. Sometimes they are quickly loosened – they just drop apart;
sometimes it is a long process and the Lord’s will is to be recognized in it that pain and sickness and weakness are just the loosening of the bonds. When the apostle said he was ready to depart he meant the bonds that held him would very soon be broken. He does not envisage the means, he does not think about the sword that would bring his life to an end, no, he said the bonds would soon be loosened and his spirit would be free to be with Jesus. Now that is the view of death the gospel gives us.
The term which is most frequently used, and a most beautiful expression it is, is that of falling asleep. They that sleep in Jesus. Now it is very important to take one scripture in connection with others and if death was always, and only, spoken of as a sleep, then it might be thought, well, then the soul knows nothing more than we do when we are asleep; the soul just passes into a state of absolute sleep and knows nothing, but other scriptures describe the death of a child of God and put it differently from that, for to depart and go to be with Christ is not just to go to sleep and know nothing. Very beautiful is this expression, more beautiful than I can express, but this is the comfort of these words. First, they sleep in Jesus; not only that they sleep, but they sleep in Jesus. That is, they sleep in union with Him, a union that was formed in their souls by the grace of God by the new birth that brought the life of Jesus into their hearts by living faith in which they cleaved to Him. And that heavenly love, that Christ-like love that never faileth, the union that was formed between them and Jesus still goes on just the same. They lived in it here, and they sleep in Jesus now. It is still in Jesus, always in Jesus.
Once in Him, in Him for ever;
Thus the eternal covenant stands.
None shall pluck thee (no, not death itself)
From the Strength of Israel’s hands.
Now that is the teaching of these words. I have tried to show very briefly their authority, and their foundation, and their instruction.
My friends, we have need of this comfort on such occasions as these. It has been desired of me that I should not fill the sermon this morning with references to our departed brother, and so I have somewhat restrained myself. There is a word that has been much on my mind ever since our brother passed away from us, and I have thought it might have been the word for this morning, but perhaps it might have rather too much filled the discourse with our feelings to him rather than the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was the word: “A brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the
Lord” (Philemon v. 16). That is exactly what our dear brother has been. He has been a brother in the spiritual sense of the word; and so much is expressed in that term ‘brother’. It means oneness of life, life derived from the same parentage, and to be a brother is to be one in the life that is derived from Jesus Christ.
The Lord’s people are eminent often in different ways. One is eminent in one way, and another in another way. Some are eminent in gifts and forcefulness of character and the like; others are eminent in tenderness, humility, gentleness and meekness, and I might say that if our brother was eminent in anything he was eminent in the gentleness and meekness of Christ. As Paul says, “I beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10. 1); not merely meekness and gentleness that a man may have by reason of his natural disposition, and which our dear brother had, but it was that of Christ. We may never have another quite equal to our brother in this particular; and in every feature of his life and work amongst us he always manifested that same tender and affectionate spirit, even in the way in which he would speak to us. It has been very noticeable where I have travelled this week, and reference has been made to him, they say he always gave you such a kindly welcome, such a word that made you feel your heart drawn to him. He had a remarkable manner in that way without effusiveness or overdoing it he could give you such a word that drew your heart out to him. And what a peacemaker he has been -a lover of peace and a peacemaker. The Lord blesses such -“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God”. He has meant much to me, my heart has safely trusted in him all these years, and even now I just cannot seem to realize that he is with us no more, that we haven’t him still. But then to some of you this is true, “How much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” (Philemon 16); and you who have lost one that has been doubly dear to you, the Lord comfort you with these words, and because these feelings in our hearts are so very sensitive I will not dwell upon them.**
Now we should feel, as I said when I began this morning, a blending of comfort and thanks; comfort concerning his state – we have no cause to mourn for him whatever – he is with the Lord, he is asleep in Jesus, he is departed – the bonds that bound him to a suffering body are broken – and his ransomed soul has fled. We have no cause to mourn for him. And we would comfort one another with these words, and we have much cause for thankfulness. So many years of usefulness, gracious, tender, -faithful service and steadfast life in this church is not to be just thought of and left. It calls for real thanksgiving to God.
*A sermon preached after the death of a beloved deacon of the church at Crowborough, Mr. Alfred Fennor.
The more personal references in this sermon have been omitted to make it more suitable for general reading.
**So many expressions in this more intimate section could be transferred by many to Mr. Delves himself; they express our feelings towards him exactly.Â—Ed.