Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Good Grief: Thoughts on Paul's Pastoral Ministry in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

I continue with a peek at my commentary on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. 

Today I look at 4:13-14. An examination of this section usually leads to a discussion of the rapture. However, I want to focus not on Paul’s eschatology, but his pastoral ministry to the grieving.

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. 14 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. 

Paul’s pastoral heart is evident in his stated desire for them. He does not want them “to grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (4:13b).  If not read carefully Paul’s admonishment could be understood as suggesting that believers should not grieve for the dead. But this is contrary to the examples of Jesus and Paul, both of whom were moved to grief over a friend who had experienced or come close to death (Jn 11:33-35; Phil 2:7). The focus here, however, is on what makes the believer different in their grief. It is not that they don’t grieve, but that they grieve with hope; a hope that they will see their friends and loved ones again someday. And this is what makes the Thessalonian believers so different than the rest of the world around them. Death, Paul is reminding them, is not a permanent end to life. It is not an eternal sleep. On the contrary, as Paul will explain elsewhere, it is a transition to a new and better life in resurrection (1 Cor 15:50-54).

Death has a way of putting everything into perspective. It’s not that we are not aware of death. It is all around us every day, but it doesn’t always touch us personally. Then a spouse, a family member or a close friend passes away and we stop and wonder what it is all about. In some ways death can be a gift to us because it forces us to stop and consider, even if for just a few days, about our own mortality and the meaning of life. Christians are not immune to the effects of death. Unless Jesus returns in our life time, we will all die. The difference between us and those who are not followers of Jesus, however, is that we believe that this is not all there is; that there is more than the seventy or eighty years we are blessed with here. For us, death is a new beginning.

I was 29 years old when my father died. He was 51, a Christian and approached his death with hope and confidence in the promises of God that death was not the final act. But for those of us who were left behind, it has not always been easy to hang on to that hope and confidence. Numerous times since my father died I discovered that my grief would continue to well up again and the fresh realization that he was gone reopened the wounds. At the same time, 1 Thess 4:13-18 has been my go to passage for finding some solace in his death. Along with 1 Corinthians 15 it is the theological foundation for my hope that death is not the end. Over the years there has been a song that I listen to that expresses the hope I hold onto as a follower of Jesus. The song is by the Christian rock group Petra and is based on the promises in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15. Here is a part of the lyrics that seems to always get me.

And the grave will come up empty-handed that day
Jesus will come and steal us away
Where is the sting, tell me where is the bite?
When the grave robber comes like a thief in the night
Where is the victory, where is the prize?
When the grave robber comes and death finally dies

Many still mourn, many still weep
For those that they love who have fallen asleep
But we have this hope though our hearts may still ache
Just one shout from above and they all will awake

And in the reunion of joy we will see
Death will be swallowed in sweet victory

Whatever one may think of Petra and their music, the theology of this song is correct. The main point of Paul’s words in this passage is that it is ok to grieve for those who are gone. The difference is that we don’t grieve like those who do not know God. We also don’t grieve without hope because Gods’ resurrection of Jesus is the basis for our own hope of resurrection. Without the resurrection and eventual return of Jesus there is no hope.

When teaching or preaching this passage one thing to keep in mind is that Paul is comforting the Thessalonians and reassuring them that grief is natural. The whole point of explaining the return of Jesus and the order of the resurrection is so that they could “encourage one another” (4:18). As the church of Jesus Christ we need to be able to provide hope and comfort to those inside and outside the church.  Simply telling someone to “keep their chin up” is not enough. Paul is not suggesting that they not grieve, that would be inhuman. John Stott describes grief this way.

Bereavement is a very poignant human experience. However firm our Christian faith may be, the loss of a close relative or friend causes a profound emotional shock. To lose a loved one is to lose a part of oneself. It calls for radical and painful adjustments that may take many months (Stott, The Gospel & The End of Time, 92).

Still, some will struggle with their grief and the how and if they should express it. They may feel conflicted about grieving the loss of a loved one knowing that they will see them again at the resurrection and Jesus’ return. In those cases I find the example of Jesus to be helpful.

In John 11 we have the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But it is also a story of Jesus expressing grief for a dead friend. John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible, says: “Jesus wept.” But here is the twist. Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to live again. Not at some future point in the general resurrection, but that day, in just a few moments. In fact, Jesus told Martha just a few verses earlier that “your brother will rise again” (11:23). And yet Jesus wept. I can’t think of a more poignant example of good grief than that which is displayed in this story by the person who is the resurrection and the life (11:25). Yes our confidence and hope is centered on the resurrection, but like Jesus, we are grieved when the effects of sin and death are manifested as we wait for the completion of the new creation. 


  1. Amen, brother. I've seen a great deal of violence done when people are not allowed the time, space and freedom to pass through the grief process. And it's so sad that this happens in our faith communities, places where just this sort of solace should take place.

    The best thing anyone can do with a grieving person is simply be there. Grief takes what it takes. Sometimes a few months is enough; sometimes it takes years. Every person is different, and every death is unique. And if, at a gentle moment we can remind our dear ones who remain of the promises of scripture and the hope that we can hold on to, then praise be to God.

    And these comforting scriptures can also be a great benefit to those who are sick; that sick bodies will be made well someday, and that when we are all back together again, the diseases that plagued our bodies will no longer be there.

    Good words, Dr. Byron. Thanks for sharing from your years of study and the hard-earned perspective of your own life experiences.


  2. I grieve because I feel I was unloved as a child, unwanted even. I feel so many opportunities were lost for me to be and do more than what I am and have done... I feel I have less to offer others and that I am less valuable in myself. Will Jesus' healing reach me in this lifetime?

    1. It will if you allow it. I am sorry you did not have the blessing of feeling loved as a child. That is a terrible void in your life, but know that you are a precious child of Almighty God who is valuable because He created you in His image (Gen 1:26) God made man a little lower than angels and crowned im with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5) Jesus prayed for all the believers who would come to know Him in future generations before He went to the cross (John 17:20-23) He prayed for all of us!! That has always been powerful for me when I doubted my self-worth. I hope you will be able to overcome your feelings and trust in the truth of God's word. Pray to Jesus honestly about the doubts and troubled feelings - I pray you will receive the healing you need to grow as His child through the Love of Christ.

  3. At a recent funeral, I heard the preacher say that the deceased would stay asleep in the dust until the sound of the trumpet when the dead will rise at Christ's return. I have found evidence of this in the Bible in 1 Cor 15:50-54 and in 1 Thessalonians 4. I always thought the soul separated from the dead body and immediately entered into heaven or hell. But, honestly, I cannot find Biblical scripture to support that other than Christ telling the thief who believed in him as they were being crucified, "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Can anyone offer other references to support the soul going to heaven or hell upon the moment the life's breath leaves the body? Thanks

  4. As Paul said, “ To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord “ And Paul struggled in that he would have rather died to go and be with Christ, but he also knew that he might be needed here on earth for a little longer..
    We do NOT soul sleep as some believe, when a person dies, his body of course stays in the ground but immediately when the last breath is breathed the spirit of that person stands before Jesus and is judged, as it says in His Word, “It is appointed unto man to die ONCE and than judgement.” ...