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Introduction: In this sermon on death, learn how your attitude toward grieving can propel you forward toward healing and hope for the future. Use this sermon outline and illustrations on death and grief to preach on this difficult topic.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Eschatology is that branch of theology that has to do with the future. Clearly the Thessalonians knew quite a lot about this, but there were some things they didn’t understand and apparently they had raised questions about it. This section of the epistle is really dealing with a specific question they had concerning what to anticipate in the future.
One of the obvious things that had happened in Thessalonica since Paul and his friends were there was that some people had died. He talks about those who fell asleep. That’s a Hebraic euphemism, a figure of speech where something rather unpalatable, like death, is dressed up as something that is much more palatable, like falling asleep.
Some have died and others are very concerned about what has happened to these people. Paul is concerned that they should not grieve like the rest of men who have no hope, and he wants to encourage them.
These Thessalonians have been confronting the awesome reality of death. Some people had died and this had been clearly traumatic for them. Grief is the management of the change that comes about as a result of an irreversible loss. When somebody dies, there’s a tremendous loss. That loss is utterly irreversible. There’s not a thing you can do about it; therefore you have to make adjustments, and the grief process is working through the adjustments that are necessitated by an irreversible loss.
Your attitude toward death is going to make a big difference as to how you handle that grieving process and, as Paul says, there are some people who are ignorant about these things. One of the evidences of ignorance about death is the wishful thinking that a lot of people seem to have. They know in theory that everybody is going to die but in practice they assume that they won’t. They will be the first one to beat the rap. Somehow it won’t happen to them.
Young people, of course, for rather obvious reasons, always assume that it won’t happen to them, despite the fact that sometimes their friends are killed in automobile accidents or commit suicide and they quickly are confronted with the awesomeness of death. Then they as quickly get over it and assume, “well, it was too bad for them, they were real nice kids, but it won’t happen to me.” That’s wishful thinking. The reality of death is it will happen to you. That is something that we have to confront: the awesome reality of death.
Resigned fatalism is another way that people approach death with ignorance. This is very common in wartime. As a boy growing up in wartime England I remember the common saying was, “if a bomb has your name on it, you can’t outrun it.” In the early days of the war, as soon as the sirens would sound, people would rush to their bomb shelters. But as time went on, clearly the bomb didn’t have their names on it, so why worry about it — and if it did you couldn’t outrun it — so people stopped going down into the bomb shelters. They went to the top of their houses, stood on the roofs, and watched the fireworks.
I remember personally being taught how to time the differential between a bomb’s flash and its explosion, and the impact of the sound. I was taught how much faster light travels than sound. I would sit up there during the bombing and calculate how far away the bombs were dropping. In wartime, there’s a certain fatalistic approach to life.
Another approach to death that people have is uncontrolled rage. The feeling is that this absolutely should not happen to them. They are beside themselves with anger, and not infrequently people will actually go out of this life into death with the sound of cursing on their lips. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas advised his dying father to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
I submit to you that if we are simply approaching death by wishful thinking, or resigned fatalism, or uncontrolled rage, we’re not handling death properly. We would probably fall into the category of people who are trying to avoid the inevitable. As a very good friend of mine has said, on the basis of his medical research he has come to the conclusion that life is one hundred percent fatal! That being the case, we had better face up to it and we had better face up to the fact that death means grief. The two are inextricably bound up in each other.
Our ministry is to encourage people in their grief. But it isn’t just helping people to confront the awesome reality of death; we also need to help people to confront the awful reasons for death. Why is there such a thing as death? We’re confronted with it all the time. We have images of emaciated mothers trying to feed dying children in Somalia. We have images of people sorting through the wreckage of crashed airliners. Every time we turn on the news we seem to see the same guys wheeling out a stretcher with a murder victim in a body bag. We see the images all the time and, incredibly, we actually eat supper while we’re watching them.
The questions we have to ask ourselves are these: Why is this? Why is there all this death? What is the point of it? Where is God in this whole thing?
The Bible is pretty straightforward about this. It tells us that at the very beginning of creation God created man and woman and He put them in this superb environment and He said that they were to live as human beings. Human beings live on the basis of obedience and dependence. To give them the opportunity to be both obedient and dependent, He gave them Paradise. And He gave them one little section that was off-limits; that was all. All they had to do was to keep out of the off-limits area and thereby demonstrate their obedience and dependence and God said, “If you decide to go off-limits, the day you do you’ll die.” There is a clear link between going off-limits and dying.
This link is explained even further for us in the New Testament. The Bible says the wages of sin is death — death is God’s answer to man going off-limits. This is what the Bible teaches. It says that sin entered into the world and sin abounded. That means sin became pervasive. The attitude of arrogant independence and rebellion is deep in the heart of human beings. That’s the essence of sin: arrogant independent rebellion against God. It entered into the human race, it is pervasive.
The Bible goes on to say that sin reigned. In other words, sin has become the dominant force in human experience.
In the same way that sin entered and abounded and reigned, death entered and abounded and reigned. Death is God’s answer to sin. The essence of sin is arrogant, independent rebellion. I refuse to obey God, I refuse to depend on God, and in refusing to obey Him and depend on Him I am simply saying, “God, you are an irrelevance in my life.” That is the ultimate insult of which human beings are capable.
God has determined that there has to be an end to rebellion and He set the limits. The limits are: you arrogant, independent, rebellious people will die. That will be an end to our arrogance, our independence, and our rebellion. I have never seen an arrogant cadaver. I have never seen somebody rebellious at their own funeral.
There’s a tremendous, awesome finality about death. It is God saying to arrogant man: “So far and no farther; you’ve reached your limits.”
If we grieve because a loved one has died, we grieve not only because of the shock value or the suffering that was part of it, or the terrible sense of separation that results; we grieve because we recognize that in exactly the same way that all have sinned, all will die. And we’re overwhelmed with the awesomeness and the awfulness of the human condition.
We need to help people to work through all this and encourage them in their grieving, but how do we do that? Well, the second point here is that we encourage people in their believing. Notice what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.”
We believe — there’s the key. The way we help people in their grieving is by helping them in their believing. What you believe will determine how you grieve.
For instance, it is not uncommon in our society to find people who will tell you with tremendous force that “when you’re dead, you’re finished — that’s it.” They dispatch people in much the same way that they dispatch animals. The problem is that their dogmatism is totally unwarranted because they are not speaking from any experience at all. It is a total impossibility for anybody to tell you with any degree of dogmatism, “when you’re dead, you’re finished.” That is rank speculation, but many people believe it fervently. We have to help them at that point.
In contrast to human speculation is divine revelation. Notice very carefully what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:15: “According to the Lord’s own words we tell you.” If you choose to disbelieve divine revelation, you simply paint yourself into the corner of human speculation.
What does divine revelation tell us? The Apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “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.”
When we look at divine revelation we first notice that it makes a statement about the unique death of Christ. We’ve already pointed out that the term fall asleep is a euphemism, but no euphemism is used to describe what happened to Jesus. The cold, hard, unrelenting word died is used to bring us face to face with the awesomness of His death. But you remember there was a uniqueness to His death. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, we’re told that Jesus died in order that He might rescue us from the coming wrath. In 1 Thessalonians 5:10, we’re told He died for us so that we might live together with Him.
Divine revelation says that the death of Jesus had something to do with people being delivered from the coming judgment and it has something to do with making it possible for us to live together with Him for all eternity. That is a basic of divine revelation. You either believe it or you don’t. You accept it or you deny it.
Then it goes on to say that the Jesus who died rose again. When Jesus was dead, God intervened and raised Him from the dead, and in so doing destroyed death. That’s the good news. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God killed death dead.
God has delivered all those who through fear of death live all their lives subject to bondage. In other words, people fear death, and because they fear death they live their lives captivated by that fear. However, to hear that Jesus died for our sins in order that we might be delivered from coming judgment and in order that we might live for Him and with Him for all eternity, and to know that He rose again and in so doing conquered death, gives us hope. It sets us free because it helps us discover that the final enemy called death is a defeated enemy.
Paul goes even further than that and he says, “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.” There’s a definite connection between the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and our death and resurrection. What the Bible teaches is that when people die in the faith, died committed to Christ — fall asleep in Him, as Paul puts it — when they die in that condition they will be raised again into eternal life.
Just think for a minute what it means if you believe that. If you really believe that because Jesus died and rose again those who are committed to Him will be raised again as surely as He was, that makes all the difference in the world to your dying and it makes all the difference in the world to your bereavement. It makes all the difference in the world to your grieving.
The question, of course, is when will those who have died be raised again? This was the major question of the Thessalonians. They understood that the Lord Jesus who had died and risen again and ascended would come again at what was called in those days the Parousia. It was a word that meant the entrance into a city of a majestic dignitary. And the normal procedure when a majestic dignitary arrived at the city was for the people of the city to rush out of the gates to meet him. Paul and the other apostles had taken this picture and used it to explain the coming again of Christ to establish His eternal kingdom. Paul expects that when Christ returns, those who are alive in Christ will go to meet Him.
The problem for the Thessalonians was that they were worried about the loved ones who died; they thought they were going to miss the Parousia. They’re going to miss that exciting glorious moment when the whole world will see Christ come again in great glory. No, says Paul, they won’t miss it. In actual fact, the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those who are alive will be raised with Him and so will we be forever with the Lord. Now you either believe that or you don’t. If you dismiss biblical revelation, you’ve painted yourself into the corner of human speculation and that exacerbates your grieving. So our responsibility now is to encourage people.
Notice the tremendous note of certainty with which Paul speaks of these things. He says when Christ will come; He will come with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, the trumpet call of God. Surely you get the picture of an authoritative command. In exactly the same way that we believe that God commanded light to shine out of darkness in the great act of creation, so we believe that at His coming Christ will command death to give way to life, and those who are dead in Christ will be raised in Him. The command, the voice of the trumpet, and we will be with the Lord forever.
If you believe that, your believing helps your grieving because you recognize that there is to be a time not only of union with the triumphant Christ but also reunion with those who are in Christ, and we are to encourage each other with these words.
If we encourage people in their grieving by encouraging them in their believing, let’s encourage people in their achieving. And what are we helping them to achieve? We’re helping them to achieve a degree of consolation in their grief.
We are not telling people, when they are bereaved, “don’t grieve.” Some well-meaning souls do that, but the Bible does not say that. It says we don’t grieve “as those who have no hope.” Paul, ministering to the Thessalonians, was surrounded by pagans who were well known for their utter hopelessness concerning death. Paul says, “We don’t grieve like those who have no hope.” So we hope to help people achieve a measure of consolation in their grief.
Secondly, we hope to help people achieve a degree of confidence in the future. If you know how the book ends, if you know how the story finishes, if you know who wins and you’re on the winning side, does that help? Of course it does. It gives you that tremendous sense of confidence; the word Paul uses is hope. Remember that when Paul talks about hope in this epistle he encourages the people because he recognizes that endurance is inspired by hope. When you’ve received consolation concerning the coming of Christ and His ultimate triumph, when you have confidence because you know who wins in the end and you’re on His side, that instills in you a tremendous sense of consistency because that confidence breeds in you a persistence, an unrelenting commitment to keep on keeping on through all your sickness, through all your suffering, through all your sorrowing, through all the sinfulness of this world. You don’t quit, and you know why you don’t quit. You don’t quit because you understand what’s happening in your life.
We’re to encourage people in all these things — and what a ministry of encouragement is necessary! We also need to encourage a lot of people to start thinking seriously about these things because most people don’t believe we should talk about such things in polite conversation. If we’re going to be fair to people, we should help them address one of the very few certainties of life: death.
We talk about the Vice President being one heartbeat away from the presidency. I’ve got news for you. Every single person in this room is one heartbeat away from eternity. How do you face that? How do you handle that? In what way are we helping people in their grieving and in their believing to achieve that which is of significance in their lives?