1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a very significant passage, because of Paul’s detailed teaching about “the coming of the Lord.” As has been mentioned before, this “coming” is the Greek word “parousia,” and refers to the event of the physical return of the Lord Jesus Christ in power and in glory. The next blog post (I think) will be a verse-by-verse commentary on the full passage, but, as I read and meditated on 4:13, I felt the desire to write on that verse alone.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
So, let’s begin with some basic understanding. “Those who are asleep” certainly refers to believers who have physically died. This is primarily a Pauline expression (although Jesus does initially describe Lazarus’ death as him “falling asleep” – John 11) and its meaning is obvious: Paul is describing the death of those in Christ as merely being asleep. Now they are still and quiet, but there will come a day when the Lord Jesus will wake them up in glorious resurrection, never to sleep again!
Also, notice that Paul is giving the information he is about to share so that these believers will not grieve. He is informing them, in other words, in order to comfort them. He is going to remind them of the truths of the return of Jesus, that whether by resurrection or rapture, all believers will be glorified and will always be with the Lord.
Paul mentions that believers are not to “grieve as others do who have no hope.” (I will be reading this as meaning “believers grieve differently than do unbelievers, because believers have hope,” but the verse could also be read as meaning, “because believers have hope, we do not grieve at all.” I believe this latter understanding is incorrect because both our Lord Jesus Christ (John 11:35; etc.) and Paul (Phil. 2:27; etc.) expressed sorrow and grief. Therefore, grieving is allowed for the believer.) Let’s consider this.
Grieving is a very human thing to do, for, when confronting death, all humans are reminded of our powerlessness to resist or conquer death and we are again struck by the finality of death. Death separates us from those we love, and so grief is normal. But for those in Christ, the separation of death is only temporary, because Jesus Christ has conquered death and has rendered death powerless. So, while it is appropriate for Christians to grieve, it is not appropriate for Christians to grieve long. If we grieve too loud and too long for one who has merely fallen asleep, we begin to call into question the reality of Christ’s resurrection and the promises guaranteed by that resurrection. Yes, we are sad to be separated from our loved one, but the greater realities of the promises contained in Christ’s resurrection overwhelm the sadness. “If I live, you shall live also (John 14:19).” “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).” So, we do not grieve as others who have no hope.
Now, for those outside of Christ, it is entirely fitting to wail loud and long at the death of their loved one. Their doom is now sealed, their eternal condemnation now awaits the judgment seat of God, and all hope for any goodness or peace is forever lost. For those outside of Christ, each death reminds them that their own death is hurtling ever closer and that there is a terrifying, black, empty void just on the other side of the last heartbeat. And so, yes, those outside of Christ should grieve in anguish and horror when they confront death. They have no one to save them from death’s terrors and no one to deliver them from the fury of the wrath of God.
But those in Christ grieve as those who have a sure hope that is an anchor for our souls, an anchor both sure and steadfast (Hebrews 6:19). While we will “fall asleep” if Jesus tarries long, we will also certainly be resurrected when Jesus returns.
SDG rmb 6/5/2019