Welcome to our final podcast of the week, and indeed this month. On Monday 1st June Mick will continue our reflections on the book of 1 Thessalonians, and then move onto Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica. Do keep listening!
Also on Monday, my husband Alan will be taking the funeral of a very lovely lady from our church called Dorothy. She was 93 when she died, and a passionate follower of Jesus. At her request, the Bible passage preached on during the service will be the one we are looking at today: 1Thessalonians Chapter 4 verses 13-18.
In fact the words in this passage are used at almost all funerals. However, for this podcast, we will focus on verses 13, 17 and 18:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope……we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Straight away, I want to say that whenever someone dies we always feel grief, and this is right and proper. This passage is not saying that as Christians we should feel less sad or less upset about the death of loved ones, compared to those who do not follow Jesus.
Instead, what Paul wants to communicate in these verses, is that for Christians the whole concept of death has been transformed, and it is this transformation in our understanding of what happens when we die, that Paul is addressing.
Verse 13 is pretty clear here – for those with no faith in Jesus, death is approached with despair. However, as Christians, whilst we may be desperately sad, we are also able to respond to death with hope.
Last week a friend from church dropped a card round to Alan and I, and, whilst we enjoyed a socially distanced chat on the steps, we ended up having a conversation about the fact that although neither of us want to get ill and die, neither are we approaching this current situation about coronavirus with fear. My friend said she had shared these feelings with a non-Christian colleague. This person had replied, “So is that what your faith does for you? It gives you hope?” My friend replied, “Yes!”
And that hope, that confidence, is because as Christians we believe that death is not the end. It is not something that we are defeated by. Because we will be with the Lord forever.
Obviously, this section of the Bible is tackling some quite complex ideas, and so I did some reading before putting pen to paper for this podcast. I was fascinated to discover that in the New Testament, Christians are never said to die. Instead, the writers of the different books and letters say they have “fallen asleep.”
One commentator writes, “Perhaps our best understanding of it is that death has been transformed into sleep through Jesus.”
I love this explanation.
Death brings about a definite end, whereas sleep is just a passing state from which we will awake and go on to something new or different.
In contrast, Jesus did die. He didn’t fall asleep. On the cross He was defeated, his life ended. But then, after three days, he came back to life and conquered death. He overcame the power of death that was holding him in the grave and was, therefore, able to rise again into a new life, and he now lives forever with God.
And through Jesus’ death on the cross, where he died on our behalf, we will be able to enjoy eternal life with God when our earthly life comes to an end.
And this is the hope that we have as Christians.
If you want a longer explanation or unpacking of this, then read what Paul wrote in Romans Chapters 6 and 8.
Returning to the Thessalonians passage, in between verse 13 and verse 17 Paul goes on to talk about the second coming, what it might look like and the order that things might happen in.
This is another complex and difficult topic which will definitely not fit into the length of one podcast. There are probably many aspects or details of the second coming of Christ that we would like more information or clarity about.
But until it actually happens, we won’t know all the answers.
It’s a bit like all of our unanswered questions regarding the new normal – when will I be able to get my hair cut, how are children in all year groups going to get back to school, can I go on holiday this year, when can I see my parents again?
Until it actually happens, we won’t know all the answers.
So, what do we do in the meantime?
I think that Paul’s summary in verse 18 is very helpful here.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
We could choose to keep searching for answers, trying to work out and understand all the spiritual explanations and ideas about Jesus’ return…….but actually all we need to do is to live with the knowledge and the hope that we will be with God forever.
What happens between now and then, or at the time when Jesus returns, is not important, and we can’t change it. Only God is in control of that.
But we will be with God forever, and so let us encourage one another with this hope.
This is what Dorothy wanted everyone at her funeral to know. In different times, the church would have been packed and everyone there would have heard these words from 1 Thessalonians that Dorothy believed – that because of what Jesus did on the cross and through his resurrection, that now she is with Jesus forever, and she wants to encourage us all to have that same hope.
We are sad that she has died, but we live with the hope that one day we will see her again in glory, and we will be with one another in the presence of God forever.
Heavenly Father, in a time of unanswered questions about the future, may we hold onto the hope that ultimately all this will fade away, and we will be with you forever. Help us to encourage one another with this truth. Amen.
BIBLE READING: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.