A certain hope…
Sermon: Sunday, 21st February, 2021 1 Thessalonians 4:13 to 5:11
We’ve been living with the reality of the coronavirus for a year now. Every single day we’ve heard with the regularity of a metronome the figures of how many people have died, and what the overall total is. People react in different ways to these figures. Some might switch off from them – it’s just too much. Others will focus more on the positive news of how many have received their first vaccination. For some, the pandemic has triggered a real anxiety about death to such an extent that they are overwhelmed by it, and it is affecting their ability to function day by day.
Death is more in our faces than it has been for a very long time. We all know that death is a subject people typically avoid talking about, and if it’s brought up, there’s often a swift change of subject. But rather than burying our heads in the sand, or ignoring or avoiding this subject, with is something each and every one of us must face, we’re going to think this morning not only about death, but also about the 2nd Coming of Jesus.
God explicitly tells us here that he doesn’t want us to be ignorant about death. We ought to have a clear understanding of what Christians can expect at their deaths, and what they can expect when Jesus returns once more to the earth. Not to know these things is just to rob yourself of comfort, for Paul says in verse 18: ‘encourage each other with these words’. The truths God gives are utterly thrilling. He doesn’t give us comprehensive details about what will happen, but enough for us to realise that in Christ, the enemy called death has been defeated, and there is certain hope for the future.
When you think about your own death, does it fill you with fear and anxiety or hope? When you are at the graveside or the crematorium, and you coffin is lowered or the curtains are drawn, is that just the end of the person? Can we even know? Is it possible to know? And most importantly, what do you base this on?
1. Hopelessness, wishful thinking, or certain hope.
‘Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, so that you do not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
Notice the sense of balance in this verse. For Christians, when other Christians die, our response has two dimensions: there is both grief and yet ultimately there is certain hope. We often look back to Jesus’ experience on earth losing his friend Lazarus, and how he wept, and rightly so. Death is not something natural in the world, but is rather an enemy and the result of sin. The pain of separation from loved ones at death can be enormous. Jesus experienced that first-hand. Grief is the proper response to death. But it’s not the whole story. And it shouldn’t be the dominating response when Christians die. And that’s because we have a certain hope that our loved ones who die as Christians immediately go to be with God.
Let’s remind ourselves of the basics. Death is not the end of human beings, but is the separation of our bodies and souls.
Shorter Catechism number 37: ‘What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.’
That’s why Jesus said to the believing thief on the cross, ‘I tell you truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23:42) And that’s why Paul says in Philippians that ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain’.
So, let’s be clear, our grief in times of death is because of our loss. We miss our loved ones terribly. We long to see them again. But for our loved ones in Christ who go before us, they are going somewhere better, into the very presence of God, so do not weep for them.
Now that’s quite a claim to make. How do I know that’s not just wishful thinking, designed to make us feel better? We know, because it is a truth grounded in a historical event- the resurrection of Jesus. ‘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.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
Christians are people who trust in Jesus to forgive them, save them from judgment, and to look after them in both this life and the life to come.
How do we know Jesus can do this? Because he has conquered death. He has risen. And because we are joined to Jesus by faith, when we die, we too shall rise again. This is a magnificent truth. A truth based on historical fact. Jesus really did rise again. That’s why the Christian’s hope is certain hope.
Think of a loved one you have lost whose trust was in Jesus Christ. Are you still grieving for them? If you are, that’s totally understandable. You have lost them for a time and it hurts. But don’t grieve as those without hope. Because they are in a place of joy, and one day you will be reunited. Hope.
At the end of verse 13, Paul reminds us that outside of Jesus there is no true and certain hope in the face of death. There’s only wishful thinking. We’ve all heard people at funerals saying things like Bob is still with us and is looking down on us. Or Betty is at peace now. R.I.P. What do we base these things on? Or perhaps most common of all, we hear at funerals that ‘such and such’ is now in Heaven, because they lived a really good life. They worked hard, and were kind.
But what are the foundations for these beliefs? What are we trusting in? Many, quite frankly, trust in themselves, and that they are basically good people and so of course they’ll get into Heaven. This is so sad, because we know from God himself that no one will earn their own way to Heaven. It’s not just sad, but tragic, as people are basing their whole lives trusting in their own goodness. For others, they just believe what they’d like to be true- what brings them comfort. But is it real?
I got my first vaccination on Thursday. I couldn’t have just turned up and got it. I needed the letter I had received, and I also needed my date of birth. Without these things, I wouldn’t have been able to be vaccinated. You can turn up uninvited if you want, hoping to get in, but the reality is you will not be seen.
The same is true of Heaven. It’s God who decides who gets in, and it’s not a letter we need, but faith in Jesus Christ. Look at the last two words of verse 14. ‘God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ These words ‘in him’ mean our confidence for entering Heaven is not self-confidence. Rather, we trust in what Jesus has done for us, by dying for our sins, and rising again so we can have eternal life. Friends, this is not wishful thinking. It is based on reality. It is based on history. It is God’s way and the only way of salvation.
I was reading some blogs about the fear of death many have in this pandemic, written by those who are not Christians. Some offered good common-sense tips to help our mental health. But none had hope. In fact, they were hopeless.
Lianna Champ: “Really grasping that ageing and dying are an inescapable truth can ignite us to live a better life and consider our footprint upon the earth.”
The words of Jesus provide quite a contrast. ‘Truly truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come 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.’ (John 5: 25:26)
What do you have in the face of your own death: hopelessness, wishful thinking, or a certain hope?
2. The second coming
Paul now details what is going to happen on the most important day left in human history – the return of Jesus. Jesus’ first coming was humble and quiet, born in a stable in a little town. Announced to shepherds on the hillside. Then, Jesus glory was hidden. When Jesus next returns it’s going to be very different. This will be a glorious, powerful, unmissable event. Every single human being will know then that Jesus Christ is Lord and God.
The actual word used here for Jesus’ second coming is ‘parousia’. This word means ‘arrival’ and usually has in mind a royal visit. And that’s exactly what it will be: the return of Jesus will be the return of the King. He shall come with his holy angels and with his glorified church.
Donald Macleod: “He will come to the accompaniment of events such as never were seen since the dawn of creation: the resurrection of the dead, the great judgment, and the re-formation of heaven and earth.”
Now in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, God does not give us an exhaustive picture of all that is going to happen. In fact, judgement is not mentioned here. Paul is trying to comfort the church in Thessalonica who are confused and perplexed about loved ones who had already died. It seems as if they were worried that these loved ones were going to miss out somehow when Christ returned. Paul wants to assure them that this is not the case – no Christian will miss out on that great day.
The 3 ‘Rs’ of this section are return, resurrection and reunion. Let’s consider them now.
Return: ‘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…’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
Jesus will return as the great Conqueror of death. He is the sovereign God in control of all things, and when he speaks, those he addresses must obey the sound of his voice. We remember the power of Jesus’ voice calling Lazarus from the grave, and he is raised to life. Here, the loud command, is Jesus’ command, and he shall command the dead to be raised. How wonderful.
Then there’s the voice of the archangel with a trumpet call. In the Old Testament, trumpet blasts signalled God coming down to meet with his people. Think of the giving of the law in Exodus chapter 19. In Zechariah chapter 1 and chapter 9, the trumpets signal the Lord coming to rescue his people. Again, we don’t have all the details, but it seems like the whole world will be conscious of these amazing sounds and the voice of Jesus. This is something which will be totally public.
Resurrection: ‘… the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
Again, how wonderful! God is telling us that it’s those who have already died, those people who have been in Heaven but without their new bodies, they will be the first to have those wonderful, new, everlasting human bodies. They won’t miss out! And once that happens, those who are still alive on earth shall receive their new bodies, if they are in Christ. Bodies which won’t age, grow sick, or run out of energy, or get cancer, or MS or strokes.
Reunion: ‘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.‘ (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
Reuniting with dear friends is always special, as we’re all too aware of in days when we cannot meet. But let’s grasp the magnitude of what is happening here. In this supernatural event, Christians from all ages will be together with Jesus in the air. We shall ‘meet’ the Lord in the air. This is mind-blowing.
The word ‘meeting’ is a word used to describe a public welcome given by a city to a visiting dignitary. This is actually really helpful to know, because it signals that although this special one-off welcome will be in the air, when this joyful meeting is over, we’ll go back with Jesus to the earth.
A. A . Hoekema reminds us: “Resurrected and glorified bodies of believers do not belong in heaven but on earth. It is therefore not in heaven but on the new earth that the marriage feast of Christ and his redeemed people will be held.”
This is our future. Therefore let us encourage one another with these words.