In preparation for worship this Sunday, I’d like to follow up on a piece posted this time last year on TGC’s blog titled “The Neglected Resurrection” and suggest one more reason why the resurrection must not be neglected—one more reason why the resurrection is the sort of news we must reflect on beyond this Sunday and throughout the year. The resurrection must not be neglected not only because it gives us new, spiritual life, secures our justification, and empowers our fight against indwelling sin. (This is all fantastic news, of course—so do read TGC’s piece, if you’ve not already.) The resurrection also holds out a promise for us. With it, God declared that death would not have the final word over us. God declared that we will rise again, just as Jesus did. I suspect that for some, this may actually be just the sort of news you need to hear at the moment, especially if this last year’s calendar included a funeral for someone you loved. The best news you could hear this Sunday might just be this line Paul wrote to his Thessalonian friends, who were themselves grieving a loss of their own: “[I]f we believe that Jesus died and rose again, . . . so we believe that God will [take] with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thess 4:14).
Paul, as you’ll remember, only spent a short time with the Thessalonians. His missionary enterprise in the city was cut short by persecution. In the few weeks following his departure, something had gone wrong in Thessalonica—not so wrong that Paul couldn’t offer the community a remarkable word of praise (1:2–10), but wrong enough to send some into a season of despair. It looks as if one of their own had died unexpectedly, perhaps as a result of the same persecution that had caused Paul’s departure—though of this we really can’t be certain. In any case, the loss raised the question: what happens to Christians who die before Jesus’ return—before the parousia? The Thessalonians’ grief implies they feared the worst. I just don’t see any other way of explaining their complete lack of hope (v. 13). (You don’t hopelessly grieve at the funeral of a friend if you’re certain they’ll rise again.) In a letter, then, Paul spends some time addressing this situation, offering a word of hope firmly grounded in Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul’s response goes something like this: if we believe that Jesus died and rose, then we should also believe that those who die in Jesus will be taken or raised as well (v. 14; cf. v. 16; see also, e.g., 1 Cor 15:20–28). They’ll be taken from their graves just as Jesus was. Like a shrewd theologian, Paul shows the Thessalonians that they already had the resources to address their current crisis of faith. Comfort, after all, was simply a short and necessary inference away from their union with Christ (“asleep in him,” v. 14). Like any good pastor, however, Paul realizes that their grief may need something more; perhaps he feared their despair might cloud their theological judgment. So, he gives his claim a pretty solid footnote (vv. 15–17), saying, in effect, that if you want proof of what I’m saying, how would you feel about a promise from Jesus himself? Jesus’ words corroborate Paul’s point, promising that not only will the dead in Christ not be left in their graves—as the Thessalonians feared—but they’d be given the honor of meeting Jesus first. Then, to make sure his friends didn’t miss it, Paul adds a little coda to the citation, drawing their attention once more to his main point: they’ll not be without their loved ones; rather, they’ll be together with them and with the Lord . . . forever! Paul’s next and final line is, therefore, beautifully appropriate: “[E]ncourage one another with these words” (v. 18).
What this all means is that the resurrection is something we simply cannot afford to neglect or to reflect on only when resurrection Sunday rolls around each year. After all, trouble and despair won’t be taking the year off. We must preach this good word to ourselves and to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the year: Take courage. Your sleeping loved ones—who loved Jesus—will rise again just as he did. One day—one glorious day—the earth will shake with our Savior’s shout, it will resonate with the archangel’s booming voice, evil will cower at God’s mighty trumpet blast . . . and your loved ones will hear it and live.
This is a slightly edited version of an earlier post. For the earlier ed., see here.