An Exemplary Hope

How do you handle death? Everyone deals with death differently. According to Mental Health America, they provide a list of emotions that one feels when encountering the death of a loved one: denial, disbelief, confusion, shock, sadness, yearning, anger, humiliation, despair and guilt[1]. As one has encountered death often, the list is extensive, but not complete. They also provide a list for those to help others with the grieving process: share the sorrow, don’t offer false comfort, offer practical help, and be patient. Again, they provide a very helpful list, but it is not complete. The one thing that is missing from both lists is hope.

Death and hope are not naturally placed together, but for the Christian they are inseparable. We are called to hope in the face of death and we are called to help others hope as they face death of those they love. Churches are places of hope. We are called to be a hopeful people. Even in the worse moments of life, Christians are called to hope. And the hope of Christians by no means lessens the pain of death. All death is awful. Death is sign of the curse and consequence of human rebellion. Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Death is a constant reminder of the curse. We will face death, but how will we face death as church?

An exemplary church lives with an exemplary hope. We want to have hope always on our lips for we have been born again to the living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading in heaven (1 Peter 1:3). We will not escape death as a church. And we truly love one another, we will experience deep sadness when we face death as a congregation, but we must face that sadness with hope.

Hopeful Grieving

The Thessalonians were a young church and they believed in the resurrection. Remember back to 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They waiting for their deliverance on the return of Jesus Christ, but there were some people that were concerned about those who died before Jesus returned. Paul writes to give the church hope, “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.” (1 Thess. 4:13)

Jesus redefined death for his followers. Jairus’ daughter was sick and near death and he asked Jesus to come and heal her. When Jesus and Jairus arrived at the house, they told them that she was dead, but Jesus said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” (Luke 8:52) And taking her by the hand he called, “Child, arise,” and her spirit returned and she was restored to her parents. Death for Christians was redefined as sleep for those who go to sleep will one day wake up. Paul is teaching these young Christians how they should think about death. Those who die in Christ are not dead, but are asleep.

Paul does not say that Christians shouldn’t grieve, but should grieve entirely different than the world. We look at death through the knowledge of Christ. We have facts. We believe in specific knowledge of the future. 1 Thessalonians 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.” The facts that Christians believe is that Jesus lived in history and died in history and was raised in history. They did not believe in a spiritual resurrection, but a bodily resurrection. And the fact that Jesus body was raised is a sign that our bodies will be raised as well. This is a central theme in the New Testament.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5)

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23)

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Christians always live in the hope of the resurrection. Do you believe this?

By saying that believers live in the hope of the resurrection, Paul is also saying that those who do not believe in Jesus have no hope in death. There is a resurrection promised for everyone. Jesus says in John 5,

Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25-29)

What will happen when you die? You will experience a resurrection, but what kind of resurrection will you experience? If you were to die today, how confident would you be that you would experience the resurrection of life 50%, 85%, or 100%?

I have done a lot of funerals where the family had certainty that their loved one was a believer in Christ through their word and deed. And I have done others, when the family did not have confidence in their loved one’s faith. The family did not have hope. It is a completely different kind of grief. They are not comforted with truth, but come face to face with the reality of death without God. Atheists comfort themselves about the prospect of death by believing that they cease to exist or that they become part of the earth and the circle life. Although they may look for comfort elsewhere, the reality is that in death they will meet God and answer for their sin alone. And to stand in death alone without Jesus means they will be put in Hell.

Hell is not something that is often mentioned in general yet alone mentioned during death. There is no hope for those who do not have Christ, because they will have to face God themselves. When we try to erase Hell, we darken our understanding of God’s power. Hebrews 10:31, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” God is so glorious and so holy that any sin against His name deserves to be punished severely. Great American Theologian Jonathan Edwards writes,

Rebellion against God’s authority and contempt of his majesty, which every sin contains, is an infinite evil, because it has that infinite aggravation of being against an infinitely excellent and glorious majesty and most absolute authority. A sin against a more excellent being is doubtless great than against a less excellent; and therefore, sins against one infinite in majesty, authority and excellency must be infinite in aggravation, and so deserves not a finite, but an infinite punishment, which can be only by its being infinite in duration.[2]

A crime against an infinite being deserves infinite punishment. So an exemplary church must believe in an exemplary hope, but also must believe in a total lack of hope for those who do not have Christ. This is the Christian message.

And when we understand how horrific the punishment of hell truly is, we only can then understand how glorious the hope we have in Christ. We cannot have one without the other. Beloved, since we believe Jesus died and rose again, even so, with Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Death may be hard, but we bear it with hope. We must face death as a community with a hopeful grieving.

Hopeful Gazing

When will this glorious hope be finally realized? On the day of our Lord’s return. We keep our hopeful gaze on his coming. We long for our Lord’s return. We, ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit of God, grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:24-25, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” And what do we wait for? Paul declares it to us by a word from the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16, “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. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16) We wait for the blessed hope the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Paul mentions the Parousia or The Coming of Jesus Christ four separate times in this letter (1 Thess. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23). The coming of Christ was meant as an encouragement for the Thessalonians to stand firm in the face of persecution. And here Paul uses the coming of Christ to comfort his brothers and sisters who have seen dear friends fall asleep in Christ. There is no need to worry about those who have fallen asleep for their resurrection will precede those who are left until the end. Those who are asleep will be the first in the resurrection. The church should be comforted because those who have died will not miss anything. Paul does not explain in this letter where Christians are in the intermediate state between their physical death and the physical resurrection. We must focus on what Paul does say rather than on what he doesn’t.

Paul uses three prepositional phrases describing the Lord coming, “a cry of command, a voice of an archangel and the sound of the trumpet of God.” Scholars debate on the exact nature of how these are connected, but most see them as connected to calling the dead in Christ to their resurrection. Christ descended from heaven issuing a cry of command through the voice of an archangel and the sound of the trumpet of God. Therefore Christ calls the dead via the archangel and the trumpet. The trumpet is a common symbol throughout the Old Testament to inaugurate the Last Day (cf. Ex. 19:16, 19; Is. 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zp. 1:14–16; Zc. 9:14).[3] The trumpet calling the dead to life is also consistent with 1 Corinthians 15,

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:51-53)

This promise of an imperishable body is only for those who are dead in Christ. “In Christ” being an abbreviated way of defining believers.

Do not lose the intent of the passage. Paul speaks about the coming of the Lord as an encouragement for the church. It was not written to garner debate and disagreement about the timing of the Last Day, but to encourage the saints to press on even in death because one day God is going to come again. We all may differ slightly on how we view the sequence of the end of history will occur, but there should be no disagreements that we all believe that Jesus Christ will come again and close all of history.

Hopeful Gathering

Paul offers one more encouragement to the Thessalonians. He not only wants them to see that those who have fallen asleep will not miss out on the resurrection, but they will not miss out on the glorious gathering of the saints in heaven. 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “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.” Let us first deal with the content of the verse then we can look at the main intent of verse.

The idea of a rapture has come from verse 17. The word “caught up” comes from the Greek word harpazo which is translated rapio in the Lain which is where we get our English word rapture. As we have seen in verse 16, it does not appear that this is a silent event, but a loud visible cosmic declaration of the coming of the King of kings and the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. The saints will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air or the clouds. Daniel mentions that the Lord will be coming in the clouds and the angel said after Jesus ascended into heaven that they would see him return in the same manner. The term “meet” comes from the technical greeting of a visiting dignitary to a city. The city officials and citizens would meet the dignitary on the road and then be ushered back into the city with great celebration and fanfare. The word is used with a similar meaning elsewhere in the New Testament[4]. Although the passage does not clearly state what happens after the alive and sleeping saints meet the Lord together in the air, it is a logical deduction that they met Jesus in the air to usher him back to the earth. We do not have time to unpack how this passage relates specifically to the millennium and the tribulation, but appears based on this passage alone that Paul is describing the Last Day and consummation of history.

It would be easy to get lost in the details, but we have to continue to focus on the Holy Spirit’s intent through Paul to encourage the church of the Thessalonians. There are two main encouragements from this verse. First, all the saints of history will be reunited as it says, “caught up together with them.” We have not lost those who have fallen asleep. Their sleeping will one day end and w all will be reunited together. How comforting and encouraging is that truth!!! We will see all those we have lost in Christ again. It is hard to quantify how encouraging that is. One of my favorite things to watch is military reunions. I love to watch children run to their dads and wives run to their husbands. The joy and happiness is so overwhelming that in almost every reunion I see, I am moved to tears. Can you even imagine how glorious our reunion will be with the saints who fallen asleep?

The second encouragement from this verse is that we will be with the Lord. The text says we will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Our Savior who for our sake, became sin who knew sin. Our King who bore our sins in his body on a tree. Our Messiah who took our shame nailing it to the cross. Our Prince who delivered us from God’s wrath. Our Lord who cast our sin as far as the east is from the west. On that Day we will always be with Jesus and all his saints. Do you long you to see Jesus? It will be glorious to see our love ones, but it will be even more glorious to see the King of Glory.

Jesus is our only hope in life and in death. On November 15, 1982, Atheist and Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was buried at the age of 72. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush attended the funeral. Five years later when giving a graduation address, Bush recalled that day,

(At the funeral of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev,) things were run in military precession; a coldness and hollowness pervaded the ceremony – marching soldiers, steel helmets, Marxist rhetoric, but no prayers, no comforting hymns, no mention of God. The Soviet leaders took their places on the Kremlin Wall as the Brezhnev family silently escorted the casket around to its final resting place. I happened to be in just the right spot to see Mrs. Brezhnev. She walked up, and took one last look at her husband and there – in the cold, grey center of that totalitarian state – she traced the sign of the cross over her husband’s chest.[5]

There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all, hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross.[6] She knew that the only hope in the face of death was Jesus. She knew people in atheistic Russia didn’t want to think of Jesus, but she also knew that the only way to bring hope in death was to share the hope of the cross.

An exemplary church will regularly speak of our exemplary hope as we face death. 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Is there anything that could be more encouraging than sharing real hope?  Let us commit ourselves to the unwavering hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13) Believe and share the gospel of hope.


[1] accessed 10.17.2015

[2] Jonathan Edwards, quoted in Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell by Owen Strachan and Douglas Allen Sweeney. Moody Publisher, Chicago 2010

[3] Wanamaker, C. A. (1990). The Epistles to the Thessalonians: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 173). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[4] “To meet” the Lord translates a term used only two other times in the New Testament. In the parable of the ten maidens the maidens are called out to “meet” the groom and join the marriage procession (Matt 25:6). Outside Rome some Christian brethren came to “meet” Paul and escort him back into the city (Acts 28:15[4]

[5] accessed 10.18.2015

[6] Gary Thomas, in Christianity Today, October 3, 1994, p. 26.