2 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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The Apostle Paul did not get to spend adequate time with every congregation that he founded. He was often dragged away before he could really get going. It is amazing that many of the fledgling churches survived at all. Paul did not get to teach them about every matter, and he had to do much follow-up teaching through his writing. I would guess that he wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters.
In the church at Thessalonica many of the brethren were suffering grief over the death of dear loved ones. Their suffering was made worse they because they despaired over the eternal fate of their departed friends or family members, believing that if one died before Jesus’ return then they had missed out on the glory to come.
This caused the living to grieve as ones who had no hope would grieve – whether he means by this no hope either of the well being of the lost loved one or no hope of a future a reunion with them. But Christians, says Paul, because of Jesus’ resurrection, and hope of their own future resurrection, are those who do not grieve as those who have no hope.
These days, in 2008, it is only hard core atheists who grieve as those with no hope. Almost everyone else thinks that when a person dies his or her spirit goes to “heaven,” and he or she looks down upon us, watches us, maybe helps us along the way, sees us hits homeruns and sing on American Idol, and waits for us to come join them. This is an equal opportunity popular religion based on nothing but fantasy. It is a wall built against reality. This modern popular religion has co-opted the Christian message and undermined its power and can make our message of resurrection and glory, even to us, seem blasé after a while.
For Paul there was one specific reason why Christians, unlike others, could grieve as those who had hope, and that was the bodily resurrection and imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus had been raised from the dead. He was reigning as Lord. And he would be returning as mighty King. When he comes back it would be visible, audible, and quite public. And when he comes, not only will those who have died believing in Christ be raised, but their bodies would be raised first, to join finally with their souls or spirits in the air. So, not only have they not missed the boat, they will be first in line at the party.
Paul ends this bit of pastoral teaching with these words, “encourage one another with these words.” Again, dealing with death and the sorrow and grief that accompany it, Paul’s concern is less for the ones who have died as for the ones who remain. Their burden is greater. They have experienced great loss. But because of the resurrection of Jesus they can hope for future blessing for their loved ones, and perhaps even also a future reunion with them.
The living still grieve. This life still must be lived with the losses and sufferings all too common to it. But there is a real and lively hope for better things. We should encourage one another daily with such truths.