For the Thessalonians before their conversion they would have believed something like this:
1. Death is inevitable.
2. Death is the fate of all, king and beggars, rich band poor.
3. The person’s memory and honour will live on in spite of death.
4. Death releases one from the evils of life.
5. The funeral and tomb are a great honour to the deceased.
6. Either death is nonexistence and does not matter to the dead or it leads to some happier state of existence.
As normally the case with Thessalonians, this sound very much like the world in which we live!
Should we, as W H Auden said, "pack up the moon and dismantle the sun" because everything is worthless now, or take Henry Scott-Holland’s view that death is just a "negligible accident," and act as if our loved one is just in the next room?
"Grief," Samuel Johnson said "is a species of idleness." By contrast his contemporary, the poet William Cowper said that "grief is itself a medicine."
Into this whirlpool of emotion and confusion steps the apostle Paul with some wise and timely advice about death and grieving.
1. What good grief is: grief with hope
John Calvin: "we must not grieve for the dead beyond certain bounds, for all God’s children are going to be raised again."
We should grieve like those with hope. Lots of Christians give the impression that we shouldn’t grieve. Things are better for them now, people say. They might even quote some Bible verses for you – "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord". When another Christian dies they have gone to be with the Lord Jesus and we too, will be with him soon. That does not change the fact that we have lost something. But it does change what we have lost.
When a Christian dies there is no need to grieve for them. Dead Christians are with Christ. They are with the person they love most in all the world. They are happier with him than they would be with you.
We should grieve like those with hope.
It is vital that we remember that. Christian parents: your children brought up to trust God, love Jesus more than they love you. Christian students: your parents, if you have been brought you up in a Christian home, love Jesus more than they love you and more than they love each other. Christian couples: your wife or husband does not love you as much as they love Jesus. If they die they will be with someone they love more, someone you will be with too, very soon.
When you grieve, therefore, you are grieving for a world where death reigns. You are grieving for yourself and your loss of relationship with someone you love. But you are not grieving for them.
There is nothing wrong with grieving for your loss. If someone you love dies your loss is real and your tears are legitimate. But you need to realise that if your loss is unbearable that is a sign of how much you love yourself not how much you loved the one who has died.
2. Why good grief is possible: because Christ is risen (v15-17)
Calvin describes these verses as talking about things that are "incredible to the human mind."
v14: We believed that Jesus died and rose again and SO we be believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
The Christian hope for the future of those who have died, and our hope in the face of our imminent death, is based on faith. But faith isn’t, as Mark Twain suggested "believing what you know ain’t so."
It’s having a settled conviction about facts based on evidence. We believe that Jesus died and rose again.
You might, like me, find it difficult, almost impossible, to comprehend how, at the end of time, God will give all his people resurrection bodies and house us in a new earth. It’s fine not to be able to imagine the process or the scale of that !
But you don’t need to feel sceptical about it. You don’t need to doubt in your mind that God can raise you, raise us, from the dead. Because God is not asking you to believe something for which there is no evidence. He is asking you to believe something that follows entirely naturally from the historical fact that Jesus has already been raised from the dead.
What God is proposing for the human race is not something new. It is not something he has never done before. What God is going to do for his people is what he has already done for his Son. He is going to repeat something that hundreds witnessed. He is going to do again the resurrection miracle, a miracle that those who saw it were so convinced was real that they were willing to put their lives on it.
3. What good grief recognises: that dead Christians will be honoured.
It seems that the Thessalonians were particularly concerned that those Christians who died before Christ returned would miss out in some way.
Many Jewish teachers in the first century taught that the blessings of the kingdom of God would only be for those who were living at the time it came. That would have been fine when the Thessalonians had first become Christians because if Christ had returned at that point all those who had believed in him would still be alive to share in the kingdom. But once some of them started to die it raised some difficult questions.
Paul wants to reassure them. Far from missing out on the blessings of the kingdom of God, the remade perfect world that Christ will bring on his return, those Christians who have died before Christ comes will be right at the front of the queue.
At the time when Paul wrote this letter it was common for visiting dignitaries to a city to be greeted some way outside the city gates by important people of the town and escorted back to the city. Ambassadors and others would send riders ahead to let people know they were coming and announce their progress with instruments and heralds so that the appropriate crowd could be gathered.
When Jesus returns there will be lot of noise. There will be a loud command from heaven, archangels will shout and the call of God will sound like a trumpet. The volume of the announcement will make the coming of a Caesar seem like some school children blowing a kazoo.
It will be such a noise, he implies, that it will awaken the dead. And those deceased Christians, now clothed in their resurrection bodies, will go, with those who are alive when he comes, to meet the coming Lord Jesus.
Where could you go to meet someone who is coming to be the king of the whole earth? Only into the sky to greet and escort the coming ruler of the world to his new and perfect realm.
The way to make sense of this passage is not that when Christ comes we will go to meet him, led by dead Christians resurrected to new life, just to hang out in the air.
Rather, at the head of that great procession of joy and triumph celebrating Jesus’ victory will be brothers and sisters who have died. If he waits a long time before he comes we will be in that group.
If he comes tomorrow we will still be there; applauding and cheering the king as he comes as we are caught up and transformed into our eternal form.
When Jesus comes we will all be there. Dead Christians will be alive. Living Christians will be more alive than we have ever been. And we, together, all of us, will be with the Lord forever.
Lots of us have many friends and family members who we know will die but who we also know are not trusting Jesus as their saviour. Perhaps this passage has helped you to understand a bit better what the bounds of grief are for those we know we will see again, but what about those we believe face only God’s judgment on that day when Christ comes from heaven? How should we grieve for the unbeliever?
That’s not the topic Paul is addressing but:
A. All my grief, for Christians and non-Christians, is put into better perspective if I love God more than anyone else. The best cure for almost all my struggles is to remember that I am made first for relationship with God and then for relationship with other people.
B. I know less than I think I do. When you stand by the grave of a dead unbeliever you very rarely know whether they have made their peace with God in their final hours, or even perhaps their final minutes.
C. However hard it is to face the death of people who do not trust Christ in a world where God does not save everybody it is much better than all the alternatives.
D. God loves people, even those whom he will judge, more than I do. My grief at the death of unbelievers is not greater than God’s but merely a pale reflection of it, and so in my grief for unbelievers the God I worship is not distant and disapproving but near and understanding.
So when your brother or sister dies, grieve as those who loved them, but with hope. Such grief is good grief. Not just good for you, setting your world in its right perspective, but also good for the gospel; commending the love of Christ and our hope in Christ to a watching world.
And do not despise those who encourage you with the hope of glory. That does not mean glibly telling every grieving Christian you meet that it’ll all be OK. But it does mean that as we weep together, as we seek to share in the pain of loss, we must constantly return, in the church, and in our conversations to the reality of the resurrection of Christ.
He is risen. He will come again. And when he does his people, every one of them, will be caught up with him in the air and form his cheering, joyful escort as he comes to reign our new and perfect world.