“Death and the Christian Hope” -1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

A Sermon for the Memorial Service for John Curtis Connor (1935-2011)

Note: This is the unedited version of the homily I was privileged to preach at John Connor’s memorial service. Thanks be to God for the privilege of leading the service of such a great man!

As Christians, we mourn in the death of our loved ones, but we mourn as those who have hope. We hope because of Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. We now wait upon the Lord for the return of Jesus Christ and anticipate with great eagerness our heavenly reunion.

This is what we learn in 1 Thessalonians 4. The believers at Thessalonica had written to the Apostle Paul concerning the hope of those who had died. Their main concern: Would they also share in the resurrection? Was their hope for them? They needed God’s knowledge and insight into how to mourn. The Apostle Paul wrote:

ESV 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be 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.

As Christians, we mourn, but with hope. Notice in 1 Thessalonians 4, the Apostle Paul does not teach us that grieving and mourning are wrong when our loved ones die in the Lord. He does not forbid us to weep, grieve or mourn.

Rather, Paul teaches us that we do not have to grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13). There is a tremendous difference between our loved ones who die trusting in the righteousness of Jesus, and those who have no hope now for all eternity. When our loved ones reject Jesus, the only hope for dying sinners, there is every reason to grieve and to mourn without hope for that person.

But as Christians who lose our loved ones who were committed to Christ and trusting in His good words and in His righteousness alone, we can mourn, but with hope.

What is hope? Hope for the Christian who is trusting in Christ and the power of Jesus’ resurrection is not mere wishful thinking, but a confident and expectant trust in God’s Word, and in the completed work of Jesus Christ for sinners. “Hope” for the Christian is focused on God alone as He keeps His promises; and we simply believe God (Romans 15:13). By God’s grace we can abound in this hope, or confident and expectant trust in God’s Word to us!

What is death? Why do we still mourn if we believe that our loved ones are safe and sound in Jesus? Death is still a horrid monster and intruder into God’s good creation. Death is the judgment of God for sinful man seeking His own way and will apart from the way and will of God. We are taught in Genesis 3 that death was the result of man’s sin against God. For death to be removed, we must have our sins removed. We must have a loving Savior to take away our sins and to reconcile us to God; we have this in Jesus (Romans 5:6-11).

Death is not merely “part of life” as some will say without thinking. Death is the opposite of life that God gave mankind at creation in His presence; it is not supposed to be here. Death could never be just a “part of life”. Death is a hideous intruder and it should cause us to be “deeply moved” when we feel death’s affects in our loss and time of mourning.

When our loved ones die, and we attend funerals, we should especially be prayerfully considering the “weight” of loss and separation that death brings to all. We have all gone over to the casket somewhat apprehensively to view the body of our loved one; at this moment, prayerfully think about death. We often say at this moment: “He/She is not here; this is so strange.” This is death.

What did our Lord Jesus think about death? When Jesus our Lord was here in his earthly ministry, even though He possessed the power of life over death; even though He was anointed with the Holy Spirit beyond measure of any man or prophet before or since, he too, mourned death. We are told in John 11 when Jesus goes to visit his dead friend Lazarus’ family after Lazarus had died, he wept (John 11:35). We are also told that Jesus was “deeply moved” in His spirit by the hideous, terrifying specter of death (usually in this passage we focus on Jesus weeping as we should, but we overlook the entire context of John 11:33-38 where Jesus is also “deeply moved” in his spirit about death).

The word used that is of Jesus being “deeply moved” is a Greek word that describes the sound of horses “snorting” as in battle. It communicates a kind of inner “snorting outrage”. Our Lord Jesus was outraged by death. Jesus came to destroy death (Hebrews. 2:14-18; 1 Cor. 15:26). Death is a great enemy of Jesus that He came to destroy. Jesus our Lord, although He was King of kings and the very Lord of Life, wept and was outraged at death. This is our proper response to death. And Jesus displays His power and our hope in Him by raising His dear friend Lazarus from the dead after four days by the Word of His power! Amen and amen!

Why would our Lord Jesus be so outraged by death? Death separates. Death separates men from God; death separates loved from ones from us; death separates our bodies from our spirits (and/or souls). As humans we were created to live in the Life-Giving power and love of our Creator. We were never meant to live apart from this Life-Giving God and lover of our souls.

(1) Our sins have separated us from God. Death is the penalty and punishment or our transgressions. (2) Death takes our loved ones from us, and we are deeply moved, grieved, and saddened, because we are outraged that those we love are gone. (3) Death separates our incorporeal spirits from our bodies, and we were created by God to be embodied people who have spirits. To be human is to be both body and spirit/soul. We would never have left our bodies, and been separated from them if sin had not come into the world and cut us off from the life that is found in God alone!

But sin did come into the world. Man did sin against God, and God so loved His people that He sent Jesus to live and die for all who believe (John 3:16). God the Father sent His Beloved Son into the world to take upon human flesh. The Son lovingly and willingly came for His own to live perfectly for them, to die under the penalty of God’s judgment for their sins. Jesus in our flesh lived and died for us, so that we could live and die in Him.

Jesus came to love us so that our lives could be hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3-4). Let the Holy Spirit minister this great truth to you. Ask God to minister this truth more deeply in your heart and help you to seek the things that are above, where your life in Christ is hidden (Col. 3:1-2).

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice and His love to His people, he accomplished the righteousness in His life that we could never accomplish. God demands perfect righteousness of every human being, and what God requires in His holiness, God provide for all who believe in Jesus. Christ our Savior gives this righteousness to us by faith when we believe in Him. Jesus came to die and remain under the power of death for three days, and to be raised powerfully from the death with great glory; Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection! This is the hope the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1Thessalonians 4:14:

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. – 1 Thess. 4:14

Death will not have the final word. Death is Christ’s enemy to be fully vanquished and destroyed when He returns again. God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of those who mourn, and the former things will no longer be remembered. This is our great hope in our grieving and mourning now (Revelation 21:1-7).

We can be hopeful because of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead in power and glory. Our hope is a confident and expectant trust in what the Lord Jesus has done for us in His life and death.

Death is sleeping for the believer. Another truth that we see in this passage in chapter four of Thessalonians is that Jesus’ death has turned death into sleeping. Jesus’ death for believers has made our death like going to sleep and taking a short nap. Because of the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can rest in death, and close our eyes in this world of sin and misery to awaken in the glorious presence of Jesus Christ, beholding His beautiful face. The Apostle John gives believers this hope of seeing our Resurrected Savior and Lord (1 John 3:2):

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3:2

What does the Apostle Paul mean by sleeping? He uses this term “sleeping” to describe the believers’ death four times in the context of chapter four of 1 Thessalonians. The Apostle Paul does not mean that our souls sleep, or that we are unconscious in our death state (no, Scripture is clear that we are conscious in death, whether it be in God’s presence in Christ or in judgment: Luke 16:19ff; also see Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; Luke 13:28)

What Paul means in using the term “sleeping” is to show that Christ in His resurrection has transformed death; Jesus has “tamed death” from the hideous monster it could be to us, and threaten us with slavery to fear it all the days of our lives (Heb. 2:14ff). No one really looks forward to death, and we very easily fear it. But Paul is saying that in Jesus, when our hope is in Jesus alone, death is merely “sleeping”. This is a tender term to describe how we cross from this present age to behold Christ in the age to come where He is at God’s right hand.

Do you remember Jairus’ story? Jairus was a synagogue ruler whose daughter was dying. We see an example of how death has been turned into sleep from this story (Mark 5; Luke 8). Jesus goes to Jesus asking Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus is willing but while he makes his way to Jairus’ daughters’ bedside, the beloved daughter dies. When Jesus finally arrives, Jesus finds the little girl dead. There are many mourners about the house crying out in pain and grief (as if they had no hope!).

Jesus comes into Jairus’ home with life-giving power and glory to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He tells all in Jairus’ home that the girl is only “sleeping”. Jesus takes the little girl’s hand, and calls out to her to awaken. He says very tenderly a command to the girl in Aramaic: Talitha cumi”. This means: “Honey, get up!” as we would say to our children at the beginning of a new day (Mark 5:40ff). Jesus uses a term of endearment, like the language of “honey” or “sweet pea” that we might use for our dear daughters and sons.

Jairus’ little girl gets up immediately and beholds the face of Jesus Christ her Savior. This is a picture of how death has been turned into sleep. When we close our eyes in this present age, on this side of darkness and pain, in a world full of sin and misery, characterized by death, Jesus reaches out to our hands in death, pulls us to Himself by His strong and powerful command into life itself. We close our eyes to the darkness and sin of this world, and open our eyes to behold the light and life of Jesus’ glorious presence!

We go to sleep in death and we behold His precious face. This is why death is only “sleeping” now. Let this comfort you. Let this be your encouragement to others when they lose loved ones. Don’t try to avoid those who have lost their loved ones because you know not what to say and you feel awkward. Don’t make up some kind of sentimental theology that both you and the person grieving know deep down is not truth.

No, speak words of comfort, speak the truth in love; if the one who has died is a believer trusting in the righteousness of Christ alone. Tell them that their loved one, whom they have lost on this side, now beholds Christ’s face, and will return to be with them.

The nightmare of death is over for all who believe. As Psalm 23 teaches us “though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall not fear,” for Jesus is with us. Jesus has turned the nightmare of death into mere “sleeping”. Let us fall asleep in His arms, and find a loving and glorious Savior on the other side. Then we shall dwell in the presence of God for all eternity, and we shall forever experience the abundant life that we were created to enjoy and live on, as branches on a vine (see John 15).

As Jesus reaches out with a human hand that is from a human body that has experienced the hideous and dark powers of death, take his hand, and let Him grant you life in Him. Find your life hidden in Him as you receive Him as your only hope.

Only Jesus has the power to unite that which death has separated.

(1) Jesus has the power to reconcile you, and unite you to God, bringing you back back to Him to experience His loving grace and forgiveness. In Christ, you will never be separated from God and from His life-giving power ever again!

(2) Jesus has the power to reconcile you and unite you to your loved ones whom you have lost because of death. In Christ, you will never be separated from your loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus!

(3) Jesus has the power to reconcile our bodies and our spirits again, so that we are made who for all eternity. We will be like Him, and we will possess glorified bodies that will never grow old, suffer sicknesses of cancer and dreaded diseases, and grow tired, weak and weary!

Reach out and receive by faith the hope that is in Christ Jesus. Only Jesus can grant you this hope in death!

Otherwise, you will grieve and mourn as those without hope. But God loves to show grace, and lavish His grace and forgiveness on all who would take Christ’s extended hand. There it is. He extends it to you now. Behold the face of He who took death by the neck, has wrestled it to the ground, and taken out its sting (1 Cor. 15:56-58)! One day death will permanently be removed. This is because Jesus has lived and died for us—this is our hope in Him!

We look forward to a reunion! And what a family reunion it will be! We find out from this passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 that there will be a glorious reunion with our loved ones! Let us with great hope and confidence in God’s Word and the completed work of Jesus Christ look forward to the reunion (1 Thess. 4:15, 17-18).

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep…Then we who are alive, who are left, will be 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 Thess. 4:15, 17-18

The hope that the Apostle Paul teaches to us here is that our loved ones who have fallen asleep in the Lord will be raised from the dead one day just as Jesus has been raised. We who remain alive can hope in this glorious future resurrection, because it will also be a wonderful reunion. We have all attended family reunions and holiday celebrations where death has separated us from loved ones and they are not present as we wish they could be; this resurrection-reunion will be so sweet, so different from even our best family reunions here! We will be reunited together again–that is our hope! The Lord Jesus will take us up and we will be “together with him” and then “always with the Lord” (4:17).

Never to be separated again. Never to experience death and suffering again. Never to be away from the Lord and His life-giving presence again. Never any threat of sin, and temptation, and sin and misery. Never again. All of the sad things in this world of sin and misery will become “untrue” (as Tolkien says in Lord of the Rings Trilogy). Why?

Because Jesus has lived and died for us. He has done what only God could do (Rom. 8:3-4). God in Christ has given us life and life more abundantly in Jesus Christ. All we have to do is believe. Receive the Lord Jesus now. Call upon Him while He is near!

Beloved, let us remember the final admonition that we live “with Christ” whether we remain alive or have fallen asleep. Listen to how the Apostle Paul says this in 1 Thessalonians:

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11

“Whether we are awake or asleep” let us “live with Him” (1 Thess. 5:10). Let your life be hidden with Christ by faith, and prayerfully seek to understand more of what this means in your life now. This means to serve Jesus and to love Jesus before all other people, and before all other things. Jesus is your only hope; let Him be your portion, your life, your love!

Jesus has given His life and died for you; he has purchased you by His precious blood shed for your sins on the cross. You have died (Romans 6:1-11), and your life is now hidden “with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3-4). When Christ who is your life appears, you will appear also with him. This means that you will then truly and really begin to live.

For now, even though we are “awake” and have not yet fallen asleep, we should live as one who has died. We who are united to Christ now but learn to die to self, die to sin, die to this world, and die to the service of Satan, and to now live for Christ because our lives are hidden safe and sound “with Christ” in our union “in Christ”.

If you are a believer, you have lived a perfect life in Christ; you have died a perfect death that paid the penalty of all sins against God in Christ; you now live in resurrection glory in Christ, even in this world. Ponder this anew.

Prayerfully consider that even in your loss of loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus, how you might live as one dead to sin and alive to God. Consider yourselves as one who has died, so that you might live in Jesus, and make Him known.

Glorify Him now. Even though you grieve and mourn, and even though you are outraged and deeply moved in your spirit by the nightmare of death, know that in Christ Jesus you have hope, and the nightmare is over.

Jesus promises to you: “Fear not, I am with you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. I am with you always even unto the end of the age.”

Give Jesus your life and find the hope that is beyond this life, beyond the grave, and that will continue for all eternity with the Lord!

And the next time you are seeking to comfort a brother or sister who has lost a loved one, remember that the best encouragement you can bring to those who suffer are the words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.

Therefore encourage one another with these words.- 1 Thessalonians 4:18

 

We may think that we don’t know what to say, but for Christians, we can know what to say. And whether we are awake or asleep, let us live with Jesus. Amen.

Sleep in Jesus, dear John Connor. Thank you very much for showing to me and many others loyalty and faithfulness! “The Vicar” loves you very much and will look forward to seeing you again.

 

Love in Jesus,

Pastor Charles

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