A COMFORTING HOPE FOR BEREAVED CHRISTIANS
P. D. Johnson
‘But I would not have you to be ignorant brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
The old saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is not one that could have been applied to the Apostle Paul. The various Epistles he wrote during his great ministry testify most clearly to the abiding concern he continued to have in his heart for the new converts, even after he had moved on to preach the Gospel in other places. Time and again we find the Apostle taking up his pen to send spiritual counsel to churches or individuals who not only had a firm place in his affections, but whom he realized needed so much instruction after their wonderful conversion to Christ, after years in a largely pagan environment. And it is not difficult to imagine the astonishment, relief and joy that must have been felt by those early believers when Paul’s Epistles were first read in the congregation, and later copied and passed from hand-to-hand, as they realized that their faithful mentor had written on the very matters which were causing them so much perplexity. Not that a sense of relief and gratitude for the timely arrival of godly counsel was something confined to the Christians to whom Paul’s Epistles were originally addressed. Being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Epistles of Paul, like all the other precious Epistles in the New Testament, were intended for believers in every age of the Christian Church, and consequently speak to us in our day with as great an authority and relevance as they have done to Christians in the past.
A good example of Paul’s continuing interest in the spiritual welfare of the churches, and his diligence and ability in communicating the very teaching tried believers needed, is found in verses 13 to 18 of Chapter 4 of his First Epistle to the Thessalonians. In this passage of Holy Writ, the Apostle gets to grips with one of the most trying experiences any Christian has to pass through, i.e. the loss, through death, of a beloved partner, friend, or pastor in the Lord, and it is the present writer’s hope that, under the blessing of the Lord, the following exposition of the Apostle’s teaching will be of some help to bereaved Christians today.
1. The Apostle’s God-given concern.
Even as we begin our actual exposition of the passage, the Apostle’s continuing awareness of his spiritual relationship to the Christians at Thessalonica comes before us. Notice how he addresses them as ‘brethren’ in verse 13. It is this spiritual bond that God had forged between the Apostle to the Gentiles, and the young converts at Thessalonica, that lay behind Paul’s abiding concern for their spiritual welfare. As we shall now see, that God-given concern was made up of three main strands, each of which was linked to the others:-
(a) His concern that Christians should not remain in ignorance. A glance back to Chapter 1 shows us that Paul had not forgotten either the power that had attended his ministry of the gospel at Thessalonica, or the idolatry from which these elect souls had been delivered. ‘For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (Ch.l v.9). Knowing that many of the young believers in the Church at Thessalonica had been brought up in paganism, and continued to be surrounded by it after their conversion, he saw how exposed they were to temptation in times of personal bereavement, and consequently took up his pen to dispel their ignorance. ‘But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep . . .’ (verse 13). All this points to the need for true Christians today to be instructed in the same way. Many true converts in these days come from what can only be described as a pagan background, and know little or nothing about the Christian hope. Nor can it be assumed that other converts, having had the advantage of a Christian home and an evangelical ministry, are necessarily well-informed about these matters. If believers are to experience the comfort and support the Christian hope offers to the bereaved, they must first have their ignorance removed by gracious instruction.
(b) His concern that Christians should not sorrow as unbelievers do. The second strand in Paul’s God-given concern for these young Christians at Thessalonica is that they should not sorrow in times of bereavement in the same way as the unbelievers around them did:
‘..that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope'(verse 13). Now let us be clear about what the Apostle is saying at this point. He is not saying that it is somehow carnal and unspiritual for Christians to experience deep sorrow when a loved one passes on. Where there has been real love, there will always be real sorrow at parting, and sincere Christians often mourn the loss of a loved one long after the Funeral has taken place. What the Apostle is concerned about here is that bereaved Christians should not sorrow in the same way as the ungodly people around them do when death invades their circle. One does not have to look far today to discover many people who manifest what one can only call hopeless sorrow when death’s cold hand grasps the knocker of their door. Oh, how Satan mocks poor, unbelieving souls! Behold how he encourages thousands, often in their early years, in the path of either atheism or false religion, and then see how he leaves them high and dry, as we say, when the great crises of life come! What solid, lasting comfort can distressed and bewildered souls ever find through atheistic theories of annihilation, or vague, notional ideas, vended by so-called ‘Christian’ ministers, that everybody goes to heaven when they die? Sinners do not have to wait until they pass beyond this life before beginning to reap the fruits of their unbelief. Those who have wilfully lived without God, and despised His holy gospel, are left to sorrow without hope when a major affliction like bereavement enters their lives. How thankful true Christians ought to be, therefore, that the Lord, in delivering them once and for ever from the clutches of the ‘strong man armed’, has given them a better hope through the gospel, so that, when death does strike down a beloved partner or friend in the Lord, they may enjoy, even in the midst of deep, personal sorrow, a comfort and peace unknown to an ungodly world.
(c) His concern that Christians should not fail to apply their doctrine. The third and final strand in Paul’s pastoral concern is too important for us to skip over, particularly in days like these when the very fundamentals of the faith are being openly denied by many who claim to be Christian ministers. It is found in Paul’s words in verse 14 – ‘For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.’ Notice how the Apostle, in this verse, first reminds them of truths that he knows they believe – ‘that Jesus died and rose again’, and then proceeds to assure them of further truths that inevitably follow because of those tremendous events – ‘even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.’ It is as though Paul is saying to the saints at Thessalonica, “I know from your conversion that you believe that Jesus died and rose again. But what I want you to do is to apply all that to this trying problem of bereavement. Do you not see, that the death and resurrection of your Lord and Saviour secures the present and future salvation of all those who trust in Him? Do you not realize, that because Christ made a full atonement for the sins of all His elect people when He died on the cross, and then literally and physically rose from the dead, still representing all those for whom He died. He secured the present safety and future resurrection of every one of them?” In other words, the Apostle, by first reminding the Christians at Thessalonica of the basis for the Christian hope, i.e. the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, then encourages them to work out the glorious consequences of His blessed work. Oh, how much comfort Christians lose, especially in the hour of personal trial, by their failure to apply their doctrine! What bereaved Christians need, when stunned by a deep, personal and perhaps quite unexpected, loss, is for other knowledgeable believers to come alongside them, as it were, and remind them, in a kind and sympathetic manner, of how the death and resurrection of their beloved Saviour guarantees the present happiness and future resurrection of their departed loved one. One of the greatest glories of the gospel is that it covers every area of need in the Christian life, and the discovery, or perhaps the rediscovery, of that glory, is one of the ways in which the distressing experience of bereavement is sanctified to a true believer.
2. The Christian’s God-given hope.
It is worth noticing that, before the Apostle opens up the nature of the Christian hope, he assures the Christians at Thessalonica that he is writing with apostolic authority. ‘For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord . . .’ (verse 15). In other words, Paul emphasizes, at this point, that what he is about to tell them has been communicated to him from heaven, and therefore comes to them with divine authority and accuracy. What a mercy, then, for Christians today to be able to turn to the gospel with the same
confidence in its divine origin, and discover for themselves the following three main facts about the Christian hope:-
(a) When the Christian hope will be realized.
Paul could hardly have been more clear as to when the Christian hope will be realized. He has already hinted at it in verse 14, where he writes, ‘…even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.’, and in verse 15, where he again draws our attention to ‘…the coming of the Lord.’But it is stated most fully in verse 16, where we read, ‘For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.’ In focussing our attention on what the late W. J. Grier aptly termed ‘The Momentous Event’, i.e. the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle teaches us that it is when our Blessed Redeemer returns, not as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger, but as the King of kings and Lord of lords, that the hope of His dear people will be realized. But, alas, is it not at this point that we see one of our failures in times of bereavement? It is so easy for Christians today to imbibe the philosophy and drink in the spirit of the ungodly world around them that they not only forget the truth of Christ’s Second Coming, but even cease to think of this earthly life against the background of a coming eternity at all! Is it any wonder, then, that Christians are slow to obtain real consolation in times of bereavement when we do not even consider that tremendous event, now nearer to them than it has ever been in the history of the Christian Church before? If we would gain solid comfort when our hearts are saddened by the loss of beloved brethren in the Lord, we must begin where the Apostle begins with these Thessalonian Christians, i.e. with the return of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven.
(b) How the Christian hope will be realized.
Having told the Thessalonian believers when their hope will be fulfilled, Paul then proceeds to reveal how it will be fulfilled. There are three main points to notice here. Firstly, the resurrection of departed believers, ‘..and the dead in Christ shall rise first:’ (verse l6). When our Blessed Lord returns in glory, the first way in which he will fulfil the hope of His waiting people is by raising their departed brethren from the dead. Oh, how wonderful to think that the grave, which seemed to be so victorious when it snatched our loved ones from us, shall quickly release its captives at the Second Coming of the King of kings! Nor let us forget, as we contemplate the resurrection of believers on that Day, that they will be raised with new, incorruptible bodies. ‘In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.’ (1 Corinthians 15:52). Secondly, the reunion with departed believers. ‘Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds ..’ (verse 17). Do not these words imply that those believers, who are alive on earth when Christ returns, will also put on immortality, and be reunited with their brethren at that time? Can there be any more doubt about bereaved Christians being reunited with their departed loved ones, and that in a more glorious state than anything they knew together in this world? Thirdly, the reunion of believers with Christ Himself. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that the chief blessing of the resurrection will be to give us back our departed loved ones. Paul’s words in verse 17 -‘.. .to meet the Lord in the air’ – clearly show that these new, immortal, incorruptible bodies, with all their faculties, will be given in that Day in order that believers may be reunited to their glorified Lord. Ah, the Lord of glory has a greater purpose in mind for His resurrected and changed people than just a reunion among themselves. These unique and altogether new capacities which all believers will receive ‘at the coming of the Lord’ will be imparted, not so much that believers may admire again those whom they had ‘loved, and lost awhile’, but that they may all behold, enjoy, and adore the glory of Christ in a way which none of them could do while they were in this world. Their greatest joy in that glorious Day will be joining with all Christ’s elect people in worshipping and adoring that Jesus who ‘died and rose again’ for them, and to whose super abounding grace they owe their entire redemption.
(c) The eternal realization of the Christian hope.
We would not be doing justice to the Apostle’s teaching, or revealing the full extent of the Christian hope, if we did not comment on the final clause of verse 17 -‘… so shall we ever be with the Lord’. In these few, short words, Paul reminds believers that the reunion with their brethren and their Blessed Lord, which he had mentioned earlier in the verse, is not going to be a temporary affair -a kind of short excursion to heaven. Rather is that reunion with our departed loved ones, and that meeting with the Lord in the air, only the beginning of a heavenly companionship which will last for all eternity. Ah, our Blessed Lord only permits His dear people to be tried by losses in this life, in order that they may learn to anticipate more fully the eternal glory He has in store for them. And how superior, in every respect, will that heavenly state be to anything His people enjoy in this poor world! In this life, believers inevitably experience sickness, weakness and, eventually, death: in the life to come, they will never experience illness, physical or mental disabilities of any kind, or even face the possibility of dying. In this life, believers are often plagued by the workings of indwelling sin, and by the subtle, persistent temptations of the devil: in the life to come, they will not have a corrupt nature within them, or be subject to the assaults of their adversary at all. In this life, believers see Christ only by faith, and their view of Him is often rather fleeting and transient, and quickly obscured at times by the glitter of the world: in the life to come, they will see their Blessed Saviour by sight, and their view of Him will be constant and steady, uninterrupted by anything of the world, and lasting for all eternity. ‘Wherefore comfort one another with these words.’ (verse 18).