When considering death, what is our hope? Strictly speaking, our hope is not a what but a who. It is Christ Himself and all the benefits that we enjoy in Him. Hebrews tells us that we have a “hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf ” (Heb. 6:19–20a). Ralph Wardlaw’s well-known hymn praises “Christ, of all my hopes the ground.” Our hope is in Christ, and our hope is Christ.
In particular, the “blessed hope” of the believer is the “appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:13–14). Our great hope is the return of Christ in glory. Every Christian eagerly awaits the return of Christ and the full experience of eternal life in Him—this is our “blessed hope.”
Encourage One Another with These Words
What does this hope look like when we mourn the loss of believing loved ones? How does this hope give us comfort and strength in such times? How can we help our fellow believers to lay hold of this hope in their grief?
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 answer these questions. While it is difficult to sort out all the details of what was troubling the Thessalonians, the main lines are clear. This is a young church, and many of its members have been recently converted from gentile paganism. Their believing loved ones have died, and they do not know how to respond biblically. Paul is concerned that they will lapse into the familiar cultural response of “griev[ing] as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
In this passage, Paul applies the truth of the gospel to the Thessalonians’ mourning. The gospel does not do away with our grief, but it transforms our grief. Paul is going to explain how that is so. There is a direct, practical component to Paul’s teaching. Paul expects the people of the church to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18). He wants them to take what he says in verses 14–17 and to share these truths as means of comfort to fellow believers in need. This duty does not belong simply to the elders, deacons, or especially mature Christians. It belongs to all believers. We need to gather up the truth of these verses so that we may minister that truth to hurting believers.1
Paul offers at least five lines of comfort and encouragement to grieving believers.
- “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thess. 4:14).
The first comes in verse 14: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again.” Paul here makes three points. First, Jesus has died. In His death, He conquered death. Jesus paid the penalty of sin that merits death, bore the curse of the law on behalf of sinners, and propitiated the wrath of God. Second, Jesus rose again. After three days in the grave, Jesus was raised to newness of life. His body, transformed by the Spirit, is glorious and fit to dwell in heaven. Possessed by the Spirit and possessing the Spirit, our risen Savior shares the Spirit with us, giving blessing, life, and glory to us by the Spirit. Raised from the dead, Jesus gives us every assurance that we will one day be powerfully and gloriously raised from the dead also. Third, Paul reminds us that “we believe”—that Jesus has died and been raised. Paul is saying more than that we assent to these historical facts as facts. We do assent to them, but we have also placed our trust in Christ as Savior and Lord to accomplish the same for us. Our whole lives are lives of faith in Christ, crucified and raised from the dead (2 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 2:20). Because it is true that Jesus died and was raised from the dead, and because we have put our trust in Him as Savior, we have the comfort we need to grieve in hope and to help our brothers and sisters do the same.
- Believers who have predeceased us are “the dead in Christ” (1 Thess. 4:16).
The second line of comfort and encouragement is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Believers who have predeceased us are “the dead in Christ.”2 Even in death, the believer remains united to Christ. Death has not destroyed the bond between that person and Jesus Christ. The whole person remains united to Christ—soul and body. His soul has immediately entered the presence of Christ, which is “far better” (Phil. 1:23) than even life in Christ on earth. He has entered his reward and rest. His body rests in his grave as in his bed, awaiting resurrection dawn. Surely our union with Christ affords us great hope and comfort when we mourn the loss of believing loved ones.
- “The dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).
Paul’s third line traces a timetable of future events. He says that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16) and that this will happen immediately after the return of Christ (“for the Lord himself will descend from heaven,” (1 Thess. 4:16). When Christ returns and the dead in Christ are raised, “God will bring with [Jesus] those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:.14), and “then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them” (1 Thess. 4:.17). Paul assures the Thessalonians that their loved ones who have gone before them in death will not miss out if Christ returns before the Thessalonians join them in death.3 Nor will they be “second-class” participants in the events sur-rounding Christ’s return. Their resurrection and ingathering to Jesus is the Lord Jesus’ first agenda item upon His return (v. 16). If the Thessalonians are alive when Christ returns, they themselves will see their believing loved ones clothed in their glorious resurrection bodies. They will not be looking around and wondering where they may be. These words reassure us that although believers who have died are out of our sight, they very much remain in the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. The events surrounding His return will make that plain.
- “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds” (1 Thess. 4:17).
Fourth, Paul points us to two grand reunions. The first is that believers will then be reunited with dead—now-resurrected—believers: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds” (1 Thess. 4:17). The bodies of believers alive at Christ’s return will undergo profound transformation, and the Spirit will make them glorious and in conformity to the resurrection body of Christ (1 Cor. 15:51). They will then be immediately reunited with believers who died before the return of Christ. The second is that all these believers will “meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17). As the Lord appears, we will all appear with Him. What makes these reunions so glorious is that Jesus Christ is at the center of them.
- “We will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
Fifth, Paul reminds us that upon these reunions, “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Jesus does not meet with us and then dismiss us. He gathers us to Himself so that we might be with Him forever. Believers, raised from the dead, along with those believers who were alive at Christ’s coming, will dwell forever in the presence of Christ.
These last two lines of consolation make the same point. Death is about separation. Our hope is about reunion. Soul and body will be forever reunited, gloriously. The believing dead and believers who are alive at the second coming will be reunited, and all believers will be gathered to Christ, forever. Our hope reminds us that death is not the final word. In the providence of God, it is one step toward the grand accomplishment and realization of God’s purpose to gather His people to Himself in Jesus Christ. This hope cannot but transform our experience of grief. We certainly grieve in view of the tremendous loss that death has brought into our lives, but we grieve in view of the blessings that are sure to come.
Facing the Death of an Unbeliever
We have been thinking about how a believer faces the death of a fellow believer. Clear, certain gospel hope transforms that experience of grief. We are called to minister this hope to our fellow brothers and sisters.
But what if the person who dies is not a believer? Or what if he did not give clear evidence of being a true believer? Believers will and must grieve that death. What does such grief look like?
Compounding a believer’s grief in such a situation is that we have no confidence to say that this person has died in Jesus. We therefore have no expectation that the person will be gloriously raised from the dead, reunited with the saints, and brought eternally into the presence of Jesus. We have no expectation that the person is now with the Lord in the way that believers are now with the Lord. How do we face a situation such as this in faith?
We must remember the Bible’s teaching that death immediately ushers a person into the presence of the Son of God, who passes sentence and either brings that person into heaven or sends the person to hell (Matt. 25:31–33; John 5:22). The matter is therefore settled. We must not pray for the dead person’s salvation.
We must also remember the Bible’s teaching that God is perfectly just and righteous. God never does any human being wrong or does injustice (see Gen. 18:25). No one—ourselves included—deserves the least bit of mercy from Him: “He has mercy on whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18). We must never let our confidence in the integrity of God’s character waver.
We should certainly pray in this situation. We should pray that in the midst of a difficult providence, we might find grace from God to submit to His wise will. We should pray that we would rest content in God’s purposes, even if we do not fully understand those purposes in a particular situation. We should pray for any living friends or family members of the deceased—that they would find mercy while they are alive, in the only place where sinners may find mercy, in Jesus Christ.
What if someone asks us whether the deceased “is in a better place”? How should we respond? The best thing to do is to steer the conversation toward Jesus Christ and the gospel. As we are able, we should tell the inquirer that hope of eternal life is found in Christ alone and that any sinner who puts his trust in Christ according to the gospel may know that he has been saved by the work of Christ alone. We may not be able to have this conversation right away, and these words, however gently we put them, may not be well received, but sharing the good news about Jesus is the best thing we are able to offer anyone who is grieving.
We have been especially thinking about grieving the death of a loved one from the perspective of the one who is grieving: How do we grieve, in faith, the loss of a fellow believer? How do we help our brothers and sisters in Christ do the same? Put yourself in the shoes of one who, one day, will grieve your death. The very best thing that you can do for such a person, the richest inheritance that you can bequeath, is a sound, confirmed, and fruitful profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Let those near and far from you have no doubt or uncertainty that you have gone to be with the Lord.
There are many ways that we can do this. We might have honest, earnest conversations with our friends and family about the root of our confidence in the face of death’s approach. We could commit our thoughts to letters or recordings. But one thing we must do is make sure that our lives line up with what we claim to believe. This does not mean, of course, that we come close to living lives of perfection. But it does mean that there is evidence that the grace of Christ has taken up residence in our lives (see Rom. 8:1–11; Gal. 5:22–23).
Whether you are serving your loved ones by preparing them for your death or whether you are grieving the loss of a fellow believer, you need the same thing: the gospel of Christ. This means that we need to commit to hearing the gospel preached every Lord’s Day. It means that we are spending time with fellow Christians to encourage one another in faith and godliness. It means that we are regularly spending time in the prayerful study of, meditation on, and application of Scripture. Preparation for death never begins at death—whether someone else’s or the imminent arrival of our own. Preparation for death begins right now by drawing close to Jesus Christ and finding grace in Him to face death and to encourage others who will face death.
- I have drawn inspiration for this approach to the passage from the Puritan Thomas Case, Mount Pisgah; or, A Prospect of Heaven. Being an Exposition of 1 Thess.
4:13–18, in The Select Works of Thomas Case (1836; repr., Ligonier, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993). My outline, however, differs from that of Case.↩
- It is possible to translate verse 14 thus: “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” If so, Paul would be making the point that he makes in verse 16 in verse 14 also.↩
- Paul is not saying declaratively that Jesus will certainly return in the lifetimes of his
readers. He is saying, rather, that the return of Christ (the exact time of which has not been revealed to us, Matt. 24:36; 1 Thess. 5:3) is imminent—that is, it could happen at any moment. When it does happen, the sequence of events described by Paul will transpire.↩