Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 6, 2002
As a child, I grew up in the church, but I was not yet a Christian. As I child, I had yet to trust in Jesus Christ as my Saviour from sin. Aside from tolerating Sunday morning worship, what I regarded as the most painfully boring hour of my week, I seldom thought about God and His relevance in my life.
That all changed the day my father died. All of a sudden, as an eleven year-old boy, I was confronted with a question that was entirely theological: ‘What happens to us when we die? Where do we go?’
At some point, I think every person asks these questions, and it can be very troubling for us if we do not have adequate answers. We want to know what happens after we die—‘Where do we go? What happens to our bodies? What happens to our soul?’ These are important issues. And these were important issues for the new Christians living in Thessalonica.
First of all, Paul raises the subject matter, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep”(4:13). Now Paul is talking about those who had died, so why does he use the word “asleep”? Why doesn’t he just say they are dead?
It’s not as if Paul thinks that the word ‘dead’ is too harsh, but rather, Paul doesn’t think ‘dead’ is the best way to describe Christians who have died. Sound confusing? Listen to what Jesus says, before the raising of Lazarus, “he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die”(Jn. 11:25,26). If this is true, if the Christian “lives even if he dies”, what shall we call this? The apostle Paul calls this “sleep”.
The use of the word “sleep” in the Bible is the same as our use of the word. Sleep refers to a recovery process by which the body rests temporarily. Sleep, of course, is something you wake up from. So you see, by using the word “sleep” to describe what has happened to those who have died in Christ, Paul is telling us something amazing.
As John Calvin comments, “(Paul) speaks of the dead as asleep . . . (because) there is a great difference between sleep and destruction. (The sleep) refers, however, not to the soul, but to the body, for the dead body lies in the tomb, as in a couch, until God raise up the (person).”
The apostle Paul is telling us here what happens to the body when we die, but what about our soul? What happens to our soul when we die?
Holy Scripture tells us that when we die, our soul rises immediately to heaven. Paul tells the Philippians that “to die is gain”(Phil. 1:21) because it means “depart(ing) and be(ing) with Christ, which is very much better”(Phil. 1:23).
When Stephen was being stoned, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”(Acts 8:59). Stephen, who was experiencing a vision of the risen Christ at the time of his execution, anticipated entering immediately into the conscious presence of Jesus Christ.
And Jesus, speaking to the thief on the cross, promised, “today you shall be with Me in paradise”(Lk. 23:43). Jesus doesn’t say ‘soon you will be with Me’; He doesn’t say ‘someday you will be with Me in paradise’; He says “TODAY you shall be with Me in paradise.”
For the Christian, sudden death means sudden glory. The soul of the Christian is to be found at once before the throne of God. It is the body that is said to sleep. Paul explains this to the Thessalonians, and to us, “that you may not grieve, as do those who have no hope”(4:13).
Notice that Paul does not forbid us from mourning. Sadness, even prolonged sorrow, is to be expected when we lose someone we love. Yet, our grief must be of a different nature because of what we know about the destiny of those who treasure Jesus.
Paul is saying that Christians should not have dead-end grief, the kind of grief that comes to people who have no hope for a reunion. Our grief for those who have died in the Lord should be tempered by our knowledge that this is not a final good-bye. ‘Don’t grieve like those who have no hope. Don’t grieve like the non-Christian’ is Paul’s message to us.
I recently read an account where a little girl, a five-year-old girl, was watching her brother die of a very painful disease. He was much older, and the little girl loved her brother a lot. After the brother died, and after the funeral was over, the little girl said to her mother, "Mommy, where...where did brother go?" To which her mother replied, "Well, he went to heaven to be with Jesus." She said, "Oh." And that answer satisfied her.
Not long after that she heard her mother having a conversation with a friend, and her mother was weeping, and saying, "I've lost my son...I've lost my son...I've lost my son." Later in the day the little five-year-old went to her mother and said, "Mommy, is somebody lost when we know where they are?"
Well, the answer to that question is, “No.” Nobody is lost when we know where they are. We should not grieve as those who have no hope.
The souls of those who have died in Christ are now in His presence. Remember the promise, “TODAY you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
And, when Christ returns, our sleeping bodies will be clothed with heavenly glory. This is what Paul promises, “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus . . . For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first”(4:14, 16).
Not only will our bodies be clothed in heavenly glory, but Paul promises that “we shall be caught up together with them”(4:17). ‘Who’s “them”?’ If we live to see the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul promises, at that moment, “the dead in Christ” and the living followers of Jesus Christ will be reunited (4:17).
Bodies clothed in heavenly glory; a reunion with loved ones—and there is more; verse 17: “and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
As our hymn so well put it,
My spirit faints to reach the land I love,
The bright inheritance of saints, Jerusalem above . . .
That resurrection word, that shout of victory;
Once more, ‘Forever with the Lord!’ Amen; so let it be.
It is no wonder Paul ends this section by saying, “Therefore comfort one another with these words”(4:18).
Friends, this passage of Scripture was written to bring you comfort—real comfort. Forever with the Lord! Forever in communion with Christians of every age! Forever-clothed in heavenly glory! It is no wonder that Paul would write, “To live is Christ, but to die is GAIN.”
I fear that very few Christians can even comprehend this truth. I fear that very few Christians view themselves as citizens of heaven. The way in which many Christians speak of heaven, you would think they were talking about some strange, foreign, land; you would think that their life on earth was the pearl of their existence, and could not be improved upon by their ascent to heaven.
I have heard many strange speculations about what heaven will be like. I have heard people express anxiety over whether there will be pets in heaven; whether there will be golf in heaven; whether there will be cold beer in heaven. And what is behind these questions, to be sure, is this one question: Will heaven be fun?
Charles Spurgeon, when he preached on the difference between life in heaven and life on earth, began his sermon by saying, "There can be no comparison between a soaring (angel) and a crawling worm."
Will heaven be fun? You bet it will be.
There will be no cancer wards in heaven. There will be no starving children in heaven. There will be no violence, discrimination, or disrespecting of individuals in heaven.
The imagery of the prophet Isaiah on this subject is beautiful, "The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox"(Isa. 65:25).
In heaven there will be no more death or sin. Heaven is perfect. And friends, we who treasure Jesus Christ are citizens of this glorious place.
Friends, be comforted by these words. And do your part; “comfort one another with these words.” Amen.