1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In recent days we have been attending the funerals of family and are also hearing of terminal diseases in beloved friends. One of my greatest fears before putting faith in Jesus Christ was death. It was at my grandfather’s funeral that the reality of dying without Jesus Christ gripped my heart.

Imagine living in 50 a.d. in the city of Thessalonica. One of your loved ones died and you asked a priest from one of the temples to perform the funeral. Perhaps he would quote some of the Greek philosophers of the day. Listen to what they would say:

“Of a man once dead there is no resurrection.” Aeschylus

“Hopes are among the living; the dead are without hope.” Theocritus

“Suns may set and rise again but we, when once our brief light goes down, must sleep an endless night.” Catallus

No hope—no resurrection—nothing but despair. J. B. Lightfoot said, “The despair of the Roman world is brought to us in the gloomy inscriptions on their monuments—the contrasts of the monuments of the heathen above ground on the Appian Way with their dreary wail of despair, to the exultant notes of hope in the ill-written, ill-spelled inscriptions of the catacombs beneath.” Those of the pagans above the ground had no hope while those of the believers beneath were filled with hope.

The first funeral message given in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. The reasons for the words are twofold: (1) Dispel the ignorance concerning those who died in Jesus, and (2) bring comfort to the grieving.

A believer’s death is likened to going to sleep. Sleep is what happens to the body while the spirit/soul returns to the Lord. The Apostle Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Saints are seen engaged in worship around the throne in Revelation 4–5. They are not asleep in the presence of the Lamb but very much alive. It is the body that is at rest until the resurrection.

Where is Jesus when the believer dies? Those who have placed their trust in a Savior who died for them and rose again will see that same Jesus put them to sleep. Saints are put to sleep through the intermediate agency of [Greek preposition dia] Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). One hears of an angel band coming for the child of God and other sentiments, but the Shepherd of Psalm 23 goes with His own through the shadow of death.

I will never forget a sermon a Chinese-American student wrote for me while I was teaching seminary classes. He was a quiet person and I could never know what he was thinking except through his writing ability. He stated that in all other religions their founders and leaders never promised to be present with them in death, but in Jesus the believer has one who will be as close as He has ever been in life.

All of us believers want to go up to heaven without dying. Yet sickness is the taxi that usually brings us home to heaven. Whether we go “air mail” or “subway,” we will be with the Lord forever.

Knowing Jesus Christ is not only the greatest thing in this life, but He will be the closest friend and shepherd when we close our eyes in death. Jesus said that whoever believes in him “shall never see death” (John 8:51). What believers see when dying will not be death but the face of their Redeemer. Job had this confidence years before Thessalonians 4 was ever written. He said: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Dr. Phillip Howard