Every day we are faced with the reality that people die. I know that’s probably not a good way to start off a post, but I have to believe that the best way of dealing with reality (bad, good or indifferent) is to face it head on. So this post is my attempt to go right at it…
I have become increasingly disheartened as of late with how people respond to the death of others; whether it be those of a “high-profile” nature or close family members whom the majority of the world never knew existed. I have found that the common coping mechanism used to combat death is false hope. Here are a few phrases that have become increasingly popular these days:
“I now have a guardian angel (insert deceased person’s name) to watch over me.”
“God must have needed an angel.”
“He/she is in a better place now (regardless of how the person lived).”
“He/she left such a lasting legacy of good words and deeds, surely our lost and heaven’s gain.”
The list goes on…
However comforting or soothing these words sound, they are (for the most part save the third one) built on lies and unfounded in Holy Scripture. At best, they can only provide false hope. That’s not the worse part though; the worst part is that as I scroll down my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds, these words emanate from the hands and mouths of professing Christians. Christians who have the very words of God near them. Christians who claim to have the Spirit of God in them. Christians who pledge their allegiance to the One whom declared Himself to be (and rightfully so) the Truth (John 14:6). Yet, perpetuate lies that may temporarily ease the pain caused by grief and loss. It is evidenced by statements like these that many ignore sound doctrine or aren’t being exposed to it as they should. As a Pastor, it pains me. It pains me that instead of offering and communicating true hope in Christ, we settle for lies; lies that do more damage than good.
So then, it is my responsibility as a Pastor and brother in Christ to point to the truth. To find this truth, I turn to the one place where the truth remains unchanged; the Bible.
In a world where we experience gut-wrenching pain of loss and grief, we find these words in Scripture:
13 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep throughJesus. 15 For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord:We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout,with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive 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 encourageone another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, HCSB)
It was the Apostle Paul who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit penned these words. He was writing to a church that had experienced great loss, yet did not know how to cope with the reality that the loved ones who once lived among them were no longer physically with them. Although they may have believed in the coming of the Lord, they thought those that died before the great Day were hopeless. It was obvious that this young church was in a vulnerable state and possibly (if not probably) under the influence of false teaching about death and the “afterlife”. Paul writes this letter not only counter the lies that were being fed and digested, but to provide real, life-giving hope; the hope of Christ.
Friends, I cannot stress this thought enough. Wherever we find ourselves searching and in need of hope (in life or the reality of death), we must always return to Christ. For He is our hope! He is our life! (Colossians 3:1-4).
This is what Paul did in this letter (and the aim of this post), he pointed his readers back to Christ. As such, there are four truths that I see in the aforementioned passage:
- Death is real
- Grief is real
- Hope is real
- Comfort is available
Death is Real
Paul in this letter wanted the church of Thessalonica to know that death is a reality. A reality that many people have faced and will face. Death is the climax of an earthly life. It should not be something we try to escape or try to cheat because it is a natural part of our earthly existence. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in the projects or penthouse, death is the great equalizer. Job fell down and worshipped in Job 1:21 saying,
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life.
“The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Praise the name of LORD.”
Should Jesus delay His return, all of us at some point will have to come by this way. The writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed (by God) for people to die once – after this, judgment…”
Death is a part of God’s plan of redemption, though we may not always understand it, we must be aware that it is a reality and our lives should be governed in such that we would be ready to meet our Creator should death coming knocking at the door.
Grief is Real
Paul not only stated that death is a reality, he also acknowledged that grief is appropriate. He told the church that it is ok to grieve, it is ok to mourn. They are natural responses to the reality of the loss suffered. It is not Un-Christian to feel pain and sadness during the loss of a loved one. However, he said something very crucial in the latter part of verse 13. He said, it is ok to grieve so long as you do not grieve as the world grieves; without hope. He wanted them to be aware that although grief is natural and is common to every man, what sets the Christian apart is that when we grieve, it is accompanied by hope.
Hope is Real
Hope is one of those words that can often be misunderstood and misused. To Paul’s audience and for us today, the word simply means “the desire of some good with the expectation of obtaining it.”
Paul wanted to the Christians in Thessalonica to know that even in the midst of pain, even in the midst of loss, even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of tears that there is “some good” that our hearts can yearn for and can “expect” to obtain; that is eternal life in Christ.
You see they thought that at the point a person died, the deceased would miss out on the blessing of Jesus’ return. They thought death was final. They thought death was it. And if that were the case, I could see how they could hope-less. But not so for the Christian. In fact, death is something God uses to usher us into eternal life. Paul takes it step further and says, that our loved ones who die in the Lord, their bodies are merely “asleep.” Waiting for the cry of command, the voice of the archangel and the sound of the trumpet of God. Waiting for Jesus himself to come and raise them up and clothe them with bodies that will never grow old, hearts that will never fail, imperishable, perfect bodies.
You may be asking how that is possible?
It is possible because Jesus died, to cleanse us from sin; to take our punishment. But He rose again, so that He might defeat death. He rose again so that death would not be the end. He rose again so that He could give us eternal life. That as Paul put it in 1 Cor. 15:54-55:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”
The hope we can have in the midst of grief is that even in death, we have victory in Jesus. He is our champion, he holds the key to life and death and has promised that if we trust Him, we will live even if we die. He’s coming back one day and all of us who have trusted Him will meet and greet in Him in the air. It reminds me of the old Bill Gaither song,
Because He lives, we can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because we know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because he lives!
Comfort is Real
Paul concluded this section by admonishing his readers to comfort one another with these words. Why would he say this? Because these words are true. The promise of Jesus’ return is real. God is faithful; which means “God will always do what He has said and fulfill what He has promised” (Wayne Grudem). There is hope; for the Christian. True strength is not found in fantasy or fairy tales, but in the truth of God and hope of Christ.
What shall we do with this then? I believe their are two appropriate responses:
1) Spread the Gospel and the Gospel alone. For it is the Gospel that points us to our only hope in this world and the world to come; Jesus Christ.
2) Rejoice in knowing that those who have died “in Christ” are not lost, but are merely sleeping. Their hope is our hope; Christ and Christ alone.