24th Sunday After Pentecost: “Dead, But Not Dead”
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
I know I’ve shared with you before that on the occasions Caroline is gone for a couple of days, I tend to put off the cleaning up the kitchen until shortly before she’s due home. While doing this clean up, I’ve sometimes asked myself, What if she comes home early? It’s not as though she’d be upset with me; that’s not the issue. It’s more about how I’d feel about it. It’d feel as though I had been caught being irresponsible because, you know, responsible adults clean up after themselves in a timely manner, right? So, at the very least, I try make it look like I’m being a responsible adult while she’s away by cleaning everything and putting it all away before she gets home.
Today’s Scripture reading addresses this very issue. Obviously, not in regard to staying on top of washing the dishes while one’s spouse is away but, rather, in regard to staying on top of one’s life choices and behaviors while Jesus Christ is away.
Today’s reading came from Paul’s letter to the Christians living in the city of Thessalonica. Thessalonica, located in northern Macedonia, which is modern day Greece, was a large port city located along a major trade route to the East. To give you some perspective regarding its location relative to the Middle East, here’s a map of New Testament Mediterranean world . Culturally, Thessalonica was very diverse, and included a large Jewish community.
Paul traveled to Thessalonica as part of his Second Missionary Journey . Looking at that map, you can see that his journey began in Jerusalem, from which he headed north to Antioch, then west through Asia Minor, stopping at various cities along the way. Eventually, they made it to Troas where they boarded and ship and crossed over to Philippi, then went on to Thessalonica.
His experience in Thessalonica is found in Acts ch. 17. According to this account, Paul was there for only three weeks, teaching about Jesus in the Jewish synagogue. His time there was very limited because a majority of the Jews in Thessalonica quickly became hostile toward him on account of his message. In fact, they formed a mob to drive him out of the city. However, in those three short weeks, the Holy Spirit had been at work. It was recorded that “some [Jews] were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, including a larger number of Greek God-worshippers and quite a few prominent women” (v. 4). This handful of brand new Christians comprised the Thessalonian church. And it was to this congregation that Paul directed the two letters which are now the New Testament books First and Second Thessalonians.
There are three important factors to keep in mind about this congregation. First, they were new Christ-followers. Some of them were Jewish and many of them were Greek Gentiles. But what they had in common was that they were new to the Christian faith, which means they had limited knowledge about Jesus as well as the kind of day-to-day lifestyle that was expected of them as Christ-followers. And as such, they were very susceptible to outside influence, pressure, and threats.
Second, at this point in time, the congregation was relatively few in number, which meant they had to work extra hard to stick together.
Third, they’re living in hostile territory.
To sum up, they were new to the faith, they were few in number, and they had a target on their backs. So, before much time passed, Paul wrote them a letter to both encourage them in their faith and in their practice, and to continue teaching them important truths about what Christians believe.
One of the most significant beliefs that set Christianity apart from most of the other religious traditions of that time was its view of death and, specifically, the resurrection of the dead. Generally speaking, Paul’s teachings on death and resurrection weren’t totally new or unique. He himself was a Jew, and within Judaism, he was a Pharisee, and important and powerful sect within Judaism of his day. According to Acts 23:8, Pharisees believed in a resurrection from the dead. So, I imagine Paul’s Christian teachings on this matter were, to some degree, rooted in what he was taught and believed as a Pharisee.
Based on their hostile response to Paul, it’s probably safe to say that the Thessalonian Jews didn’t share his belief in a resurrection from the dead. That being the case, for those Thessalonian Jews who did convert, the idea of a resurrection from the dead was probably new to them, and maybe even a bit challenging to believe. In addition to that, I’d imagine that the Gentile converts also found it difficult to believe in a resurrection from the dead because that was definitely NOT something that existed within their Greco-Roman religious beliefs. So, it’s pretty much the case that this new congregation in Thessalonica is comprised of persons for whom Paul’s teachings on death and resurrection were probably quite foreign. Therefore, in his first letter he puts concerted effort into laying out what Christians believe concerning this matter. Why? Because it will have a huge bearing on how they’ll respond to the challenges of being followers of Christ who live in a hostile environment. Also, it’ll help encourage them when it comes to the universal experience of feeling pain when a loved one dies.
The passage that Grace read for us comes in the middle of a section in which Paul is instructing them on the kind of lifestyle they’re to adopt as Christ-followers—a particular lifestyle that pleases God. Pretty much everything he tells them to do and not do is different than how they’ve lived up until this point, and living as such will certainly set them apart from their neighbors. And as part of this teaching, he writes, “brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Now, what would motivate Paul to express this particular desire on his part? I want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope? Maybe it was because in the time since he was last with them, members of their congregation had died, possibly as martyrs. Maybe some had died for their faith and Paul was concerned that they might begin to question whether or not being a Christian was worth it. And so, he tells them, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus” (v. 14).
He’s laying the groundwork for an important teaching about death. He wants them to know that followers of Jesus Christ don’t really die in the truest sense of the word. Each one of our earthly bodies will cease to function, which is certainly a kind of death. But it’s only a physical death. And Paul’s point is that true death isn’t what happens to our physical bodies. The problem is, the physical is what we see; it’s what we’re most aware of; it’s what we tend to call “real.” But the truth is God created us with a dual nature; we’re both physical and spiritual in nature. Whereas our physical bodies are temporal, meaning, they’re limited to functioning in this physical world, and like everything else in this physical world, they’re subject to decay and death, our spiritual selves are eternal in nature; they’re not subject to decay and death. Paul’s point is that even though our bodies die, the true self, which is spiritual, will never die. And it’s this part of Christ-followers that God will raise from the dead and “bring with him” some day in the future.
This future day is what the Bible calls “the day of the Lord.” It has its roots in Old Testament passages which describe a time when God will return to vindicate the righteous and judge the wicked. Here are three examples:
- Isaiah 11:10-11 says, “On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious. On that day, the Lord will extend his hand a second time to reclaim the survivors of God’s people who are left from Assyria and from Egypt, from Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.”
- Amos 5:18 – “Doom to those who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light.”
- Malachi 4:5 – “Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you, before the great and terrifying day of the Lord arrives.”
Although these and other similar passages were used to announce the coming Messiah—Jesus’ first coming to this world—New Testament writers link them more specifically to his Second Coming:
- 1 Cor 1:8 – “[God] will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Philippians 1:6 – “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.”
- 2 Peter 3:10 – “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.”
From both an Old Testament and a New Testament perspective, this future Day of the Lord will be both a time of salvation and a time of judgement and destruction. And what Paul wants his new congregation to understand is that for anyone who dies to this world having come to faith in Jesus Christ, they will be raised to new life when Jesus Christ returns. According to Paul, on that day, both those who have died in Christ up until that point in time and those who are still alive at that point in time will be “taken up together in the clouds to meet with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In another place, Paul says that at that time we will all be given our resurrection bodies—the same type of body Jesus had when he was resurrected.
So, helping his new congregation to understand that our earthly deaths are not really deaths for Believers, Paul was hoping that that would give them hope for their future. That is, that they’d be able to mourn the death of friends and loved ones—which is a natural thing to do—but that they’d do so with an eternal perspective in mind.
But here’s the thing we all have to keep in mind, from first century Christians to 21st century Christians: no one knows when Christ will return. This means there’s an lot of living to do in the meantime. And when I say “living,” in the context of 1 Thessalonians 5, that means living in a way that pleases God and helps to accomplish his purposes in this world.
To bring this full circle, Paul’s admonition is that we consciously and purposefully live this way TODAY and every day, and not wait to so until we think he’s about to return. Why? Well, for one thing—and this is affirmed in multiple Scripture verses—Christ’s return will be unexpected in the sense that we’ll never be able to anticipate it. We can expect it to happen for sure, and it could happen tomorrow. Or it could just as likely happen 2000 years from now. Paul’s advice: don’t be caught unaware! Stay awake—spiritually awake. Live today for the sake of Jesus, not for self. Live today knowing that a day will come when we will meet up with all the saints throughout history at the feet of Jesus Christ the King, and worship him for an eternity of joy and light and true living. May this living truth be a source of comfort and encouragement for you.