_________________________________________________________________________________“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 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. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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 forever. Therefore comfort one another with these words." 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
- Death brings grief.
- Because Christ rose, Death does not have the final word.
- Comfort one another with the hope of the final Resurrection.
At the time Paul was writing this, the Jews had a variety of opinions about the afterlife, including a concept pretty close to our idea of Heaven, reincarnation, or annihilation. No matter what they believed, there was a very methodical process to be sure the dead were honored: rituals for a day, three days, a week, a month, three months, a year, and yearly. It’s not a process intended to consume them with grief, but to help them acknowledge a grievous loss and move on without forgetting the ones they loved.
But the Greek/Roman culture didn’t just acknowledge grief; they indulged grief. When friends and family died, they hired people to play a dirge on a pipe or trumpet, or to howl and lament in a dismal manner. They shrieked and tore their clothes and hair; they put dust on their heads, or sat down in ashes. This was a ritual of despair.
Gladiator contains a scene where Maximus is reunited with his wife and son after he dies. It’s moving, but it’s just not accurate historically. The Greeks and Romans grieved mightily because they thought death was absolutely the end. In fact the Stoics thought you were absorbed into the universe. Catullus wrote, "When once our brief day has set, we must sleep one everlasting night."
Some among the new converts in Thessalonica apparently doubted whether there would be any resurrection. Those who accepted it were afraid that that the dead were cut off from the hope of eternal happiness with Christ, so their grief was more like the Gentiles in despair, "as those who had no hope."
Paul looks back to Christ's resurrection to lay a foundation for why they had a reason to view death differently:
“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."Since Jesus died and rose again, showing his power over death itself, we know that the power of life and death is under God’s control. Having established that foundation, Paul writes what is apparently the first written message to the Church about the return of Christ.
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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 forever.”This is a brilliant image, but a little background is necessary to fully appreciate the message. In 42 BC, Roman law deified Julius Caesar. Poets celebrated the divinity associated with Augustus, and across the empire coins, monuments, temples and artwork promoted the cult of Augustus. The language of emperor worships contained a lot of words or phrases with which we are familiar today:
- "Son of God"
- "Faith" in the "Lord"
- "A Gospel" about a "Savior" who brought "salvation"
Trumpets blew; crowds shouted; celebrants waved burning incense as a way of offering thanks for victory. If commentators and historians are correct, Paul uses this image, so familiar to his audience, to describe a spiritual event--the most important spiritual event in this age.
- Churches were the true ekklesiai where the faithful citizens of heaven worshipped the true Lord and King
- The church awaits the parousia, the triumphant return of Jesus, the king who has won the greatest spiritual victory there is. Through his death and resurrection, he has paid the penalty for our sins and thus conquered both physical and spiritual death.
- Just as loyal citizens went out of the city to escort Caesar home after a visit to the colonies, believers will go out to meet Jesus at his parousia and return with him in triumph.
- The fanfare that accompanied the return of Ceasar is earthly; the fanfare that accompanies the return of Jesus will be heavenly.
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1, KJV)The word for “cloud” here in reference to the multitude of followers of Christ is the same word used in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul makes the analogy that when the triumphant King returns, we will join the “cloud of witnesses” – all who have given their lives to God – to usher in the true Emperor and Lord.
One day, we will be taken fully into the presence of Christ along with everyone else who committed their lives to him, living or dead.
“Comfort one another with these words.”