The Lord's Day Morning

July 15, 2012

“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Reason for Hope”

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. We’re going to begin in verse 13 today. In this passage, Paul is speaking about the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now we've said all along as we've studied this letter of Paul that his theme is teaching Christians how to live life in light of Jesus’ return. Well he gets very specific in this passage and the next on that topic. Here, the Thessalonians are asking him some questions about their loved ones who die before Jesus returns again. It's clear that in the short time that Paul had to teach them before he had to leave he had already taught them about the second coming of Christ, one of the principle aspects of Christian teaching. It's found in The Apostles Creed, a short summary of the Christian faith that began to develop in the early days of the second century. And of course it's in Jesus’ teaching. You see it in Matthew and in the other Gospels when He speaks about the end times to His own disciples.

So Paul had had the opportunity to teach the Thessalonians about that but they had some questions. Remember, they came from a culture where the idea of the resurrection was strange. When Paul was preaching on Mars Hill in Athens amongst the philosophers and he mentioned the resurrection their response was not, “Oh yes, the resurrection. Everybody believes in that!” Their response was, “Who is this babbler?” They mocked him as some sort of an idiot for believing in the resurrection and the found it a very strange teaching, one that they did not accept. For the Greeks, there is no life after death for the body. If there is life after death in the thought world of the Greco-Roman society, then it was a very vague, shadowy afterlife of the soul. In fact, very often people who were departed were referred to as “shades in the netherworld.” So the idea of the resurrection was strange and clearly these new believers are wrestling with some of the implications of the doctrine of the physical return of Christ and the resurrection. In particular, they want to know what happens to believers who die before Jesus comes again. Is there hope for them? And they’re asking Paul and Paul's giving them an answer in this passage.

So before we read it, let's pray and ask for God's help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We need every word of it because we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We need it to be strengthened and matured because our Lord Jesus Christ prayed, ‘Father, sanctify them in truth. Your Word is truth.’ Help us then to have that attitude towards this, Your Word. Work Your own work in our hearts by Your Word today. For believers who are here today who are bereaved, we pray that You would comfort them. For believers who are here today who are struggling with doubts about these very questions, we pray that You would strengthen and assure them. For unbelievers who hear this word and have no certain hope of the life to come, we pray that You would change their hearts, grant them belief in Your promises and in Your Gospel, and then comfort them by Your Word. All this we ask in Jesus' name, amen.

This is the Word of God, hear it beginning in 1 Thessalonians 4:13:

“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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

In times of bereavement, we all have questions, even believers. What's happened to her? Is he alright? Where is she now? Will I recognize him when I see him again? Even believers in the hour of bereavement have those kinds of questions. And you know, one of the points of a funeral service, of a Christian funeral worship service, is to bring to bear the Word of God on the experience of God's people. You know, Leighton Ford accompanied Billy Graham on many evangelistic crusades over the years. He was a Canadian evangelist and when his oldest son, Sandy, died in 1982 at twenty-one years of age, Leighton Ford said, “I was wrestling to bring my faith and my emotions together.” Leighton knew what he believed. He trusted in the Bible, he trusted in the Word of God, but he lost his oldest son. And what is the Christian funeral to do? To bring God's Word to bear on our experiences.

You know just in these last few days here in Jackson, Andy Taggart has done that very thing in the wake of the tragic death of his son Brad. As he spoke at the memorial service, what did he do? He went to the Scriptures. He went to the Bible and he brought to bear the truth of the Word of God on a very, very difficult situation for him to handle, for his wife and children to handle, for the whole church and community to handle. That's what a Christian funeral is designed to do. And isn't it interesting that so often Christian funerals go right to this passage, sometimes quoting the whole passage in the course of a funeral service and it makes perfect sense, doesn't it? What Paul is saying here not only applies to the Thessalonians two thousand years ago, it applies to us, because the Bible doesn't just teach you how to live, it teaches you how to face death, and Paul's doing that in this passage.

There's so much here we can't do justice to it, but I want to draw your attention briefly to five things. And let me just tell you what they are ahead of time. First of all, in verse 13, I want you to see how Paul shows us that theology is for our comfort. Secondly, again in verse 13, in the second half of that verse, I want you to see how Paul is concerned to teach Christians that when we grieve we grieve with hope. Third, I want you to see, and you’ll see this especially in verse 18, that Paul encourages us to encourage one another with the truth of this passage. Fourth, I want you to see, and you’ll see this especially in verse 18 or in verse 14, that Paul goes to the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection in order to give us comfort in the hour of death. And then finally in verse 17, I want you to see how Paul points to Jesus’ bodily second coming and our physical resurrection to give us hope now in the hour of our loved ones’ death. So let's look at those five things together.


The first thing you’ll see in verse 13. Don't miss this little phrase. It might sound like a throw away phrase but it's very significant. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers.” Now in some of your translations it may say, “Brothers, we don't want you to be unaware.” That's polite. In some of your translations it might say, “Brothers, we don't want you to be ignorant.” Paul uses this phrase over and over in his writings. You’ll find it in Romans 1:10. You’ll find it in Romans 11:25. You’ll find it in 1 Corinthians 10:1, 1 Corinthians 12:1. You’ll find similar verses in Philippians and in Colossians. He regularly says to Christians, “I don't want you to be uninformed.” In other words, there are certain things that it is very important for us to understand. We really need to understand those things because truth is what God uses to comfort and strength us. Theology is for our comfort. And Paul is going to make that very point in this passage.

But you know it's interesting — sometimes very intelligent people don't know things that we just assume that all intelligent people will know. And it surprises us; it even amuses us sometimes. I have been fascinated over the last few weeks at the continuous polls which indicate when you ask the American people, “Did the Supreme Court strike down all or most of the affordable healthcare act?” most people in the United States say, “Yes.” Now I have to say when I hear that, I wonder, “Where have you been? What planet are you living on? How can you not know that that is not what happened?” Or maybe you've watched Jay Leno go out into the streets and ask nicely dressed, reasonably intelligent looking people questions like, “How many states are there?” And you've seen this baffled look and the wildest guesses. Or, “Who is the President of the United States?” and they don't know! And you wonder, “How can intelligent people not know who the President of the United States is?” But I remember in AP history class in eleventh grade when Jedd Porter Smith, our professor, asked the question, “Who discovered the New World in 1492?” a National Honor Society member of my class responded, “Napoleon?” How is it that reasonably intelligent people cannot know certain things?

Paul is very concerned that we not be ignorant about the truth of this passage. He's saying, “It is very important that Christians understand that truths of this passage” because this truth that he's going to tell you in this passage is meant for comfort. Paul knows that theology, truth about God, is what God uses to comfort us, to strengthen us, to grow us, and that is his great concern in this passage. So there's the first thing I want you to see. Theology is for comfort. He says, “Brothers, I don't want you to be ignorant. I don't want you to be unaware. I don't want you to be uninformed about this important truth.”


And then look at the second half of verse 13. He says this, “And here's why – I don't want you to be uninformed about this because I don't want you to grieve like pagans. I want you to grieve with hope.” Look at what he says in verse 13 — “That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Paul, it's interesting here, Paul does not say, “Christians, you should never grieve. You believe in the Gospel, you believe in Jesus, you believe in the life hereafter, you believe in the bodily resurrection, so you shouldn't grieve.” Paul doesn't say that. You know, your acts of grief for a believing loved one departing, is an act of gratitude to God who gave you the gift of that person in the first place and it honors their memory. And Paul doesn't say, “Christian, don't grieve.” But what he does say is this. “I don't want you in that grief, to grieve as one without hope.” And the pagan world in Paul's day and today was filled with hopelessness.

A German scholar named, Adolf Deissmann, at the beginning of the 20th century, uncovered a bunch of letters from about the time of the New Testament and one of them was a letter written in Greek from a lady named Irene to two friends who had just lost a loved one. And she was comforting, she was offering words of sympathy and condolence to her friends who had lost that loved one. And here's two of the sentences of her letter. “Against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another.” Now what she's saying in that letter is, “You really can't do anything about death. Therefore, comfort one another.” How encouraging. Now I don't want to critique a bereaved woman who lived two thousand years ago that I don't know anything about, but I can tell you this. She didn't have much comfort to offer those two friends who had lost a loved one. All she could say is, “You can't do anything about death. It's going to come, so comfort one another.” And that is exactly what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians. “I don't want you to be hopeless like that. I want you to be hope-filled. I want you to be full of hope so that when you grieve, as you will the loss of loved ones, you will not grieve without hope.” The truth is designed to help you grieve, not hopelessly, but hopefully.


And then, notice in verse 18, he says not only that but he says to “encourage one another with these words.” “Encourage one another with these words,” Paul says in verse 18. In other words, encourage one another with truth. Take the truth of the Word of God and use that to encourage one another in the hour of death. The Lord Jesus Christ did that on the night that He was betrayed, the night before He was crucified. John records so many of the things that He said to His disciples in John 13 to 17. You know, one of the interesting things that Jesus spent a lot of time teaching about on the night that He was betrayed, the night before He died, was the Trinity. Now some of you think the Trinity is sort of speculative and abstract and impractical. Isn't it interesting that Jesus would spend time teaching His disciples the Trinity right before He died? Why would He do that? Because who you believe God is makes a difference in how you live life. And so He needed to teach about how the Father related to the Son and the Son to the Spirit and the Spirit to the Son and the Father so that His disciples would know their God better.

But He also gave very direct words of encouragement. For instance, in John 14:1, He's speaking to His disciples and His disciples are filled with anxiety. They’re filled with worry. In fact, they’re filled with foreboding. They know something's wrong and they know something's up and they know something's about to happen and they know that it's going to be bad. And what does Jesus say to them in John 14:1? “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Now how does He encourage them not to have troubled hearts? What's His next phrase? “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me.” Now did you see what He just did? He connected their trouble to truth about God. “Believe in God; believe in Me.” What did He just do? He showed that theology is for comfort. Belief in God is what answers to the anxieties of our souls, so He took them right to truth about God in order to comfort them.

That's not the only time He does that. In John 16:33 He does it again. Remember what He says? He says, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.” He acknowledges that they’re in the midst of trial and tribulation, but He says, “They can take heart, they can take courage, they can be not afraid” — why? Because He has overcome the world. What is He doing? He's connecting their anxieties to theology, to the truth of God, and then the truth of God's Word is what? It's helping them know how to handle, how to respond to, how to cope with their experience. And Paul is saying in verse 18, “Encourage one another with these words.” Is there anybody who does a better job at this than Al Chestnut? Are you one of the many recipients of his Scripture encouragements where he brings to bear the Word of God in your life and he gives you a word of encouragement? We ought all to be giving that kind of encouragement because heaven knows we need it. We live in a world filled with troubles. Even in the most godly, wonderful Christian homes there are heartbreaks and troubles and we need the encouragement of the truth of God, the Word of God, rich, sound, Biblical theology. And this is what Paul is saying. “Brothers, encourage one another with these words.”


What words, you ask? Well, that leads us to our last two points. Go back from verse 18 and look back to verse 14. This is the first of two things that Paul says provides us encouragement in the hour of death: Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ours. Look at verse 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.” Now do you see what Paul is doing there? He's saying to these believers that, “What happened to your Savior will happen to you. If you’re not alive when He comes again,” Paul is saying, “you’re going to die just like He died, but you’re also going to be raised just like He was raised.” Paul points to Jesus’ bodily resurrection and he says to every believer who lives, not in that final generation when Jesus comes again, we're all going to be dead and buried but we're going to be raised just like He was raised. Paul is grounding their hope in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He saying, “Jesus lived and so will you. Jesus was raised from the dead, bodily, and so will you be.” Now that's a truth that's easy to say, it's a short sentence that flows off the tongue, but it takes some work to get it deep down in our hearts.

I don't know of a better hymn to celebrate that than number 706. Would you take your hymnals and turn with me? The whole hymn is worth memorizing but I want to draw your attention especially to the first stanza. “Jesus Lives and So Shall I” — “Jesus lives and so shall I. Death, your sting, is gone forever!” Because Jesus is raised from the dead bodily, the sting of death is gone forever. “He who deigned for me to die, lives the bands of death to sever. Jesus died for me.” It's very interesting that the New Testament more often speaks of Jesus dying and you falling asleep. Jesus died so that your death simply became a portal into glory if you trust in Him. Look at the last line. “He shall raise me from the dust. Jesus is my hope and trust.” The whole hymn is worth studying. But what is it doing? It's driving home the point of 1 Thessalonians 4:14, that when we face death, the death of our loved ones, and we're seeking comfort, we're comforted by the fact that Jesus died, was buried, and was bodily raised again from the dead; so will they be.


And then if you look at verse 17 Paul gives a second encouragement. This is the final thing that I want to draw to your attention today. “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.” You know the Thessalonians had apparently been wondering, “Are believers who die before Jesus comes again, are they going to be left out of the glorious event of the second coming of Jesus Christ?” And Paul's answer to them was, “Oh no. They’re going to be first in line! You’re going to be second in line! If you’re alive when Jesus comes, you’re second in line behind those who have died before you. They’re going to be raised first then you’re going to be caught up with them and with all of us we're going to be with the Lord always.” Don't you love that phrase? “We will always be with the Lord.” In other words, Paul points us to Jesus’ physical return and our physical resurrection at His second coming and he says, “You will always be with the Lord.”

I'm very often asked in the hour of death, “I wonder where heaven is? Pastor, do you know where heaven is?” And my answer is this: “I don't know where heaven is, but I do know that all those who trust in Jesus are going to be with Jesus forever. And wherever Jesus is, there is heaven, and we're going to be with Him forever.” And the apostle Paul is saying to these Thessalonians, “Encourage one another with these truths. Believe these truths. Bring the Word of God to bear on your experience. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, you’ll find comfort and strength.” You know, so often when I'm talking with you after a funeral or at a graveside service, one of you will say to me, “Ligon, I just don't know what people do who don't have Christ and who don't believe the Gospel. I don't know how they handle this.” And I always say to you, “I don't know either. I'm so thankful we have Christ and we have the Gospel.” And Paul's telling us to encourage one another with that truth, even in the valley of the shadow of death. May God bless His Word to you all. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would work its truth deep down into our hearts so that it really, really constrains us, controls us, guides us, so that we can yield to it in the tribulations and trials of life. And we’ll give You the praise and the glory for it, for we ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

Now Paul's encouraged us with the thought of the bodily return of the Lord Jesus Christ in His second coming, so let's take our hymnals in hand and turn to number 327 and we’ll sing the fifth stanza of “One Day He's Coming.”

After the benediction I’ll ask the members of the congregation to be seated and our friends and guests, our visitors, are welcome to make your way to your homes and meals.

Receive the Lord's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.