The Christians in the city of Thessalonica were apparently disturbed about several uncertainties which they entertained concerning their loved ones who had died in the Lord. Hence, Paul gave them brief instruction regarding this matter and concluded by suggesting: “Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Words, especially those of the Holy Scriptures, do have the power to comfort (cf. Romans 15:4). Let us call attention to three (of the several) important points which the apostle made within the context of 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff.
First, the inspired writer referred to departed Christians as ones who had fallen “asleep.” Underline the word “asleep” and in your margin write: See Daniel 12:2; John 11:11,43,44.
In the Bible, the word “sleep,” is only used of the condition of the body in death. The soul does not sleep. The sleeping metaphor is probably employed of the body in death for two reasons.
- Just as the soul does not cease to exist while we are literally sleeping, neither does it cease to exist when the physical body dies.
- As the sleep of the body is temporary, so shall the death of the human body be temporary. The body will be raised from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15). Even the wicked will experience a resurrection (John 5:28,29; Acts 24:15).
Second, Paul admonishes that we should not “sorrow, even as the rest, who have no hope.” He does not say that it is wrong to mourn when we lose a dear one. Elsewhere, the apostle implied that if his beloved friend Epaphroditus had died, he would have experienced “sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27). The point made here is this: we do not sorrow “even as” those who are without hope.
Mark the expression “even as.” It translates a Greek word which denotes degree or extent. Make that marginal notation.
From this context we may also necessarily infer that “hope” is the possession of Christians; it does not belong to “the rest,” i.e., those who remain identified with the world. Concerning those who die outside of Christ (note the phrase “in Christ” vv. 14,16), i.e., outside of His spiritual body, the church (Colossians 1:18,24), there is no hope. But those who have died “in Christ”:
- are happy (cf. Revelation 14:13, where those who have died in the Lord are said to be “blessed,” meaning happy);
- are at rest (again, see Revelation 14:13);
- will accompany Christ when He returns to effect the resurrection and to claim living saints (4:14b,16,17);
- will enjoy a blissful reunion with their loved ones who have died in the service of God (cf. Genesis 25:8; 2 Samuel 12:23; Matthew 8:11);
- shall “ever be with the Lord” (4:17).
We must add this point as well. Those “in Christ” are they who, through faith, have been immersed for the forgiveness of their sins, hence, have entered into Him (Acts 2:38; Galatians 3:26,27).
Third, the basis of our confidence and comfort is the fact that “Jesus died and rose again” (v. 14). If Christ was not raised, then our faith and preaching are in vain. If such is the case, our hope has been only in this life and we are therefore most pitiable (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:13-19).