FacebookTwitterRSS FeedPinterest

By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 1045am Svc, 2014-08-17

Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

This morning’s sermon is very relevant to all of us, especially since death has been a very prominent feature in the news lately – e.g. 800 have perished in airplane crashes this year. Over a thousand lives have been claimed by the Ebola virus in West Africa thus far. Just two weeks ago 600 people died in the earthquake in Yunnan. The victims include both old and young. When the Korean Sewol ferry sank on 16 April, 250 high school students lost their lives. Among the 298 who died on flight MH17 there were 80 children.

 It is natural for us to feel very sorry for such tragic losses of lives. However I think most of us would rather not talk about death or think too much about it. The grief and loss that death brings does not really hit us hard until someone who is very close to us dies unexpectedly, and it seems as if our entire world has turned upside down! It is then that we realise how difficult it is to struggle against hopelessness and despair, and to be able to come to terms with death. No words can ever describe the devastating trauma of losing a loved one.

How does one cope with death? How should you respond if you were to lose your parent, or your spouse or your child today? How should you deal with all the pain and sorrow it brings? And how should you respond to the grim reality of death when it is your turn to face it? When the time comes for you to die, is there any real comfort that can sustain you effectively on your death bed? Is there any solid hope that you can cling to as your life is slowly slipping away?

The answer, as we shall see from God’s Word today is, “Yes, there is! There really is comfort and hope for us. It is found in Jesus Christ.” Let us learn about this comfort and hope now, as we turn our Bibles now to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (Read).

Here in this passage, Paul showed the Christians of Thessalonica what the grounds of their hope should be, as they face the death of fellow believers. It has to do with what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in the past and will do for us in the future. V.14 tells us what Christ has done: “For if we believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again…” In the next verse he adds what Christ will do: “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord…” From this we understand that there are three important things that can make a great difference not only to the way we live, but also to the way we die – The death, resurrection and return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us see how each of these removes our fear of death and bring us much comfort and hope in times of loss. Firstly, we will consider…

 

I. Our Exultation over Death through Christ’s Death (vv.13-14)

Through Christ’s death on the cross, we who are in Christ can face death very differently from others. But for those who are outside Christ, death only spells the end of all their hopes. Some people believe that when they die their souls will just cease to exist (annihilation). Others believe that they will be reincarnated, but this only means going through life in this sinful world all over again, and again and again.  Do such beliefs offer any real hope? Hardly.

We are now in the Hungry Ghosts month. This is based on the belief that the souls of the dead come out of the underworld once a year to roam around the world during this whole month. The living are supposed to appease these souls by offering food and hell money to keep them from bringing misfortune. Such beliefs only bring fear to those who hold them – the fear that when they die, their souls will not be fed and provided for in the underworld. The only thing they can hope for is whatever they can get from the living during each seventh month.

The truth of the whole matter is this: Those who are outside Christ have really nothing to look forward to beyond this present life. It is not surprising then that their funerals are often full of grief and sadness. Death is truly the greatest loss for them: The loss of everything they were able to have and enjoy in this present life. There is no comfort for the loved ones who mourn their loss, because they have no hope of ever seeing them again.

How different it is to attend a Christian funeral, where there is much singing, assurance and comfort from God’s promises. Instead of being an event with nothing but gloom and sadness, a Christian funeral is an exultation over death. This difference in facing death has existed since the times of the early church. Most of the tombstones in Rome where pagans were buried had the words “Taken away” (abreptas) on them. But on most of the tombstones in the Catacombs where Christians were buried the words “He sleeps in peace” (dormit) are engraved. They regarded death as a sleep, and so their burial places were like dormitories. Do you know that the word “cemetery” means? It comes from a Greek word (koimetrion) which literally means “a sleeping place.”

In our text you will notice that Paul refers to Christians who have passed away as “them which are asleep” three times (vv.13,14 and 15). But in v.14 he said that Jesus died. Why did he not say that Jesus had fallen asleep? Doesn’t the fact that Jesus rose from the dead make His death more like a sleep? It is striking that Christ’s death is never mentioned as ‘falling asleep’ in the whole Bible. Why is this so? It is because it was notsleep but death in its full terror. Before He went to the cross Jesus dreaded the darkness of death (Luke 22:42 – “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me…”). When He was crucified He felt the sting of death. When God the Father forsook Him, He bore the awful curse of death (Matthew 27:46). As He expired, He submitted to the power of death (Philippians 2:7). And as His lifeless body lay in the tomb for three days, He endured the desolation of death.

Dearly beloved, when Jesus died He experienced the full terror of death for us. Because of this, death, to us, has lost its sting and has been transformed to sleep! How wonderful it is that Christ’s death has transformed our death into a sleep! What is there to fear in falling asleep? Sleep implies rest which is a most welcome prospect for bodies that are all weary and worn after labouring on earth!

But this sleep does not refer to ‘soul sleep’. There are some who believe that when they die, their soul does not go to heaven immediately. They think that it sleeps until Christ returns. This is a false teaching. The Word of God assures us that when we die, our soul immediately goes to be with the Lord. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 we are told that to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord. When Christ was crucified He told the thief who was dying next to Him,  “Today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Therefore the sleep that is mentioned in verses 13-15 of our text is not the sleep of the believer’s soul, but of his body which remains in the grave until the time when it is resurrected back to life. This, by the way, is one reason why burial is the normal practice for God’s people. Falling asleep in Christ is best symbolised by burial rather than by cremation. Please take time to read the article on this subject that is published in today’s weekly to learn more about this.

The more important application for us here is that we can exult over death at every funeral wake of believers. In v.13 the Thessalonians whose loved ones had died were told  “to sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” This does not mean that we cannot be sorrowful at all. When a fellow believer dies, it is natural to feel sad and to weep – even as Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). We weep because we love him and miss his presence with us. His absence will certainly make a difference in our lives as we yearn to hear his familiar voice, see his smiling face, and be warmed by the touch of his hand.

But our response must not be the same as that of unbelievers to the deaths of their loved ones with much unrestrained grief and prolonged sorrow. Our response must be different from theirs because they don’t have a blessed hope, and we do! We know full well that since death is only a sleep for believers, then the day will come when they will surely wake up.

That day will be the day of Christ’s return. The details of this are given in 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 – “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Our union with Christ guarantees this wonderful outcome: Since we have a part in His death, we shall also have a part in His resurrection. This means that if we die before Christ returns, His resurrection from the dead will ensure our future resurrection. This brings us now to the second thing that that brings us much comfort and hope in times of loss:

 

II. Our Eventual Resurrection through Christ’s Resurrection (vv.15-17)

Our future hope of being resurrected is not based on mere wishful thinking. It has its basis in an actual historical event that took place in Israel about 2,000 years ago. The resurrection of Christ is one of the best-attested facts of history – with consistent eye witness accounts given throughout the four gospels. Though many have tried to disprove the resurrection of Christ, none have succeeded. So the fact remains that Christ has resurrected from the dead. And since Christ has resurrected, our resurrection is absolutely certain, because of our union with Him. Jesus Himself made this promise in John 14:19. He said, “…because I live, ye shall live also.”

In my pastoral ministry I have conducted many burials of Christians who went home to be with the Lord. When I stand at the grave facing the bereaved family and everyone looks down at the casket that is about to be covered with earth, it always gives me great joy to be able to utter these words to them from 1 Corinthians 15:55 – “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” When Christ returns, the graves of all believers shall be miraculously opened and they will rise up in new resurrected bodies. For this reason death is not a dead end for us, but a prelude to a glorious existence! Therefore we should not fear death anymore.

In our passage however, Paul was addressing a different kind of fear. The Thessalonians feared that their loved ones who had died would be left out of the glory of Christ’s return which they had looked forward to. And so Paul assured them here that far from being left out of Christ’s return, their loved ones will be among the first to meet the Lord at His return! He said this in verse 15 – “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [or precede] them which are asleep.”

This ‘coming of the Lord’ will be a spectacular event, on a scale that will surpass anything the world has ever seen. A week ago most of us probably watched this year’s National Day Parade which took place at Marina Bay. It was a really impressive sight and sound display, with many contingents making up the parade.

Christ’s return will be much more spectacular than this. It will be witnessed by every nation on earth. Unlike our NDP there will be no need for practices or rehearsals. No special equipment or special effects will be needed to enhance its impact. When Christ descends in the clouds of heaven He won’t be using a parachute like the Red Lions. When millions of resurrected saints fly upward to meet the Lord in the air, they won’t be riding in F15SGs. They will be supernaturally propelled through the skies by the Lord’s power.

According to verse 16 of our passage, “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God…” The word ‘shout’ here is a military term. It portrays our Lord Jesus giving a loud command, just like the National Day parade commander belting out commands at the top of his voice. And this shout from the Lord produces an instant response – the bodies of deceased believers are miraculously reconstituted out of dust in their graves. Their souls come back into them and they rise out of their graves. Each of them bears the same recognisable features they used to have, but now very much improved in perfect resurrected bodies that are immortal and incorruptible.

The voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God are mentioned next. This is connected to Matthew 24:31 – “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Perhaps these angels may serve as traffic marshals so that the multitudes of resurrected saints will come towards Christ from different directions in a coordinated and orderly manner.

Notice that v.16 ends with the words, “…and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” God gives them the special honour of being the first contingent to meet Christ. They are like the guard of honour who have the privilege to lead the whole column of believers. And they deserve that honour because they had to experience death – something which all believers who are alive until Christ returns are spared from going through. [I think most of us here will not mind being left out of the first contingent to meet Christ. Isn’t it better to see Him without having to die?]

This may happen if Christ returns within our lifetime. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 says, “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.” This change will be instantaneous! And then, verse 17 of our text tells us that all who are changed will then be caught up together with all who are resurrected in the clouds, “to meet the Lord in the air.” This brings us now to the third precious truth that brings us comfort and hope…

 

III. Our Eternal Reunion through Christ’s Return (v.17-18)

The description of Christ’s return ends in v.17 with the words, “…and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”  This is the ultimate goal of His return – He will come to bring all believers to be with Him permanently. Jesus had promised to do this in John 14:2-3 – “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” There will be no more parting as we will be with Christ forever, enjoying the most blessed fellowship with Him. One hymn writer expressed her eager anticipation of this: “Face to face! O blissful moment! Face to face – to see and know; Face to face with my Redeemer, Jesus Christ who loves me so.”

Dearly beloved, do you look forward to being face to face with your blessed Redeemer – Jesus Christ who loves you so? Does it thrill your heart to think of all the crowns He will give you for your labours? Can you imagine the supreme joy you will have when you sit at the table with Him and enjoy feasting at the marriage supper of the Lamb? Let us look forward with all our hearts to the day when we, the Bride of Christ, shall be joined together with Him as One, and nothing can ever put us asunder from Him. What a glorious reunion that will be!

And that’s not all. This reunion with Christ also means that we will be reunited with all our loved ones and friends who are Christians. We will enjoy having blessed fellowship each other, and worshipping the Lord together. In some ways it will be similar to what we do here in church every Sunday. But it will be on a much grander scale than this, as we will also be with all our brethren who had gone home to be with the Lord, and who are now but a memory to us. Just imagine the joy of seeing that brother or sister whose funeral you had attended long ago, now alive and well – no longer looking frail or infirmed with age, but in a perfectly healthy body! It will be absolutely glorious!

There will be some interesting changes in the way we relate to one another. I won’t be preaching to you anymore since you will all be receiving the Word directly from the Lord Himself. Likewise the different roles of parents and children, husbands and wives will no longer be needed, since Christ will be over us all. He will be our parent, our spouse, and also our pastor. So we will all relate to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And since we will all be perfectly sinless, nothing can ever spoil the sweet fellowship we will share with one another.

Now, in anticipation of that fellowship which we will share forever, Paul instructs us in v.18 to start practising it now – “Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” If we value the oneness that we all share in our Lord Jesus, and if know that we will all be gathered together as one when He returns, then let us be willing to comfort one another, especially in times of loss or sorrow. Whenever we come to know that a church member has lost a loved one, let us take time to visit the wake or attend one of the vigil and funeral services. Even though we may not know the deceased member or his family personally, our presence shows that we care for them and that we want to bring comfort to them.

And what better way is there to comfort them than to use these words of comfort and hope from the Lord Himself? Here in these verses of Scripture Christ has promised us such a bright future and glorious hope. If your heart has been blessed and comforted through them, then please share it with others, and especially with those who are sorrowing over the death of a loved one. Show them that they can Exult over deathknowing that Christ’s death has turned our death into sleep. Point them to their Eventual resurrection or rapture that is as certain as Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. And remind them of the Eternal reunion they will enjoy with Christ and with the loved ones they miss so much when Christ returns.

Before we close, I would like to say a word to those who are still unsaved in our midst. The comfort and hope that you have heard about today is found nowhere else except in Jesus Christ. It is only by receiving Him as your Saviour and Lord that you can have an Endless Hope. I therefore urge you now to repent of your sins and to trust fully in His death on the cross to save you from sin and eternal death.

If the Lord Jesus has spoken to your heart today, then please come to Him now without any further delay. For who knows whether you may die sooner than you expect? None of those 800 passengers who boarded an airplane expected to die. None of the 250 students who boarded the ferry expected to die. What will happen if you were to die much sooner than you expect? Dying without Christ means that none of these wonderful things He promised will be yours. Instead of Exulting over death you will be Sorrowing with regret. Instead of experiencing Resurrection, you will experience Condemnation. And instead of enjoying an Eternal Reunion with Christ, you will suffer Eternal Retribution for your sins. Put all these together, and you will realise that it is really a Hopeless End.

The bottom line is this: With Christ in your life you have an Endless Hope, but without Christ you will have a Hopeless End. Which of these will you have – An Endless Hope, or a Hopeless End?

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25