Monday, November 23, 2009

Pleasing God with Our Grief

In this continuing study of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonian church we have arrived at 1 Thessalonians 4:13. This verse is a prime passage concerning the Lord’s Second Coming. Eschatology, however, will not be the theme of this particular study. Do not worry! I’m not going to be sharing my opinions about the passage, but I do want to focus our attention on 1 Thessalonians 4:13. This one sentence provides a powerful introduction to the doctrine of the Second Coming, but it also presents us with a valuable lesson on death and grief.

From the tone of this and the second letter to the Thessalonians, it would appear that at least some of them if not most of them, assumed that they would personally witness the Lord’s Return. Armed with that conviction, the members of this church were troubled by the deaths of their fellow believers. What of them? Paul devotes the rest of this chapter, much of the next, and nearly half of the second letter addressing that issue, but this single verse (v. 13) enables us to understand how we might please God with our grief. Christians grieve too, you know, and how are we able to please our sovereign Lord when our hearts are broken?

This single verse contains a distinction between the “brothers” and the “others”; an instruction to correct ignorance, and an application for believers to affect.

The Distinction Contained

The distinction this verse contains is between the brothers and the others. “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren”. This is the familiar word that peppers this letter. The Greek word is “adelphos” and it is used 19 times in all. The word does not denote only the men of the congregation, but should be understood as “brothers and sisters”. While this word could be used to refer to a biological brother, it is overwhelmingly used in the NT to refer to those who are brothers and sisters in Christ, and even more specifically, to the members of a particular, local congregation. This is a designation for those people who have been transformed by the grace of God, the work of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The “brethren” are the children of God (Galatians 3:26). We are not all of us in this world “children of God”; the children of God are those who by repentance and faith in Christ have been redeemed.
“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not” (1 John 3:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:4, 9b-10; 2:10; 3:8).
Obviously, the “brethren” are the saved, and in particular, this designation refers to this local congregation. But who are the “others”? One thing is for sure, the “others” are not a mysterious group of people who populate an even more mysterious island in the Pacific!

The “others” are those who are without Christ, and consequently, they are without hope. That is what Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:12). This is what it means to be without Christ; it means to be without hope. If you are reading this and you are without Christ; if you have not come to Christ in repentance and faith, trusting in Him as your Savior and Lord, then this verse describes you. The issue is not religion, because the person without Christ may be very religious. The issue is not heritage, because the person without Christ may have a wonderful Christian legacy. The issue is not morality, because the person without Christ may be extremely moral.

The issue is none of those things. The issue is this: the person who is without Christ is without hope! And he or she will remain in that hopeless condition until one is, as Ephesians 2:13 says, “made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

This is no superficial distinction! This distinction is foundational; it is the difference between “brethren” and “others”; between faith and unbelief; between life and death; between hope and hopelessness; between a foundation of solid rock and a foundation of shifting sand; between the narrow and the broad way; between light and darkness. There is no middle ground! You are either in Christ and one of the “brethren”, or you are one of the ‘others”; without Christ and without hope.

Lest any of us who have been redeemed become puffed up, let us remember the words of Paul to Titus:
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:3-5).
Believer, I hope that this truth stirs your heart. May we never become so familiar with our redemption that we take it for granted, and may we never tire of proclaiming this good news of grace and mercy to “others”.

The Instruction Conveyed

Paul wanted to instruct this church and us thereby, concerning not only the matter of Christ’s Return but also the issues of death and grief. He said, “I would not have you to be ignorant.” Do not think that Paul was ridiculing this congregation, nor was he belittling them. He was informing them about these important and practical subjects. There is a difference between stupiditylacking intelligence – and ignorancelacking information. Paul was educating them, and us, about death, grief, and the Second Coming. This is something Paul did throughout his ministry, and it is the calling of all pastors-teachers; namely to “read in the book…of God distinctly, and {give} the sense, and {cause} them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8; cf. Ezra 7:10; Romans 1:13; 11:25; 1 Corinthians 10:1; 12:1).

Many of our problems, Christian or otherwise, are related to ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss in some instances, but in many ways ignorance is rarely ever bliss. With Biblical and church issues ignorance leads to misunderstandings which leads to confusion which leads to disruption which leads to chaos, and all of these lead to no where good. The Lord said through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

As opposed to ignorance, knowledge is described as one key to blessing (Colossians 1:10). And the believer is expected and commanded to “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

That is why you should study the Bible in an expositional manner; so that you may better understand and be strengthened and instructed by God’s Word. So that when you are buffeted by temptation to impurity you can run to 1 Thessalonians 4:3. So that in your daily routines you may know that God wants you to lead a quiet life, minding your own business, working with your own hands so that you may be a gospel witness to “others” and financially dependent on no one. So that when death or loss visits you, you may know how to grieve in such a way that honors and glorifies your God before men.

Paul does not want us ignorant “concerning them which are asleep.” In the Bible, especially the NT, “sleep” is a common term used to describe death, but this is also true of extra-Biblical sources. The Greek word translated sleep is koimaƍ, from which comes the English word “cemetery” (koimeterion in the Greek – Webster’s II New College Dictionary).

In this passage (1 Thessalonians 13-15) the death of the Christian (“which sleep in Jesus”) is compared to sleep, but we must understand that this idea of sleep only applies to the body never the soul. The teaching of “soul sleep” – the idea that the souls of the dead are in a state of unconscious existence awaiting the resurrection – has no Biblical basis. Paul said that for a Christian to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord, and he also said “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21, 23). Paul would not have regarded death as gain unless he understood it to mean a closer, richer, fuller experience in the very presence of his Lord.

The primary emphasis of this word sleep, concerning the believer, is to describe the temporary nature of death. At the moment of the Christian’s death his soul departs his body (Genesis 35:18) and goes to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). At the resurrection of the dead in Christ (the Rapture), the body is raised incorruptible and reunited with the soul (1 Corinthians 15:42). Those who are still alive will be instantly changed from mortal to immortal (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).

Here is the point; death is the end of life here, but it is the beginning of a conscious eternity. Christ clearly taught that after death there would be an immediate awareness of either pain or joy; (Luke 16:19-31) “And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (vv. 22-23).

When you die you will immediately know that it is either good or bad; heaven or hell; present with Jesus or apart from Jesus. The good news is that you do not have to wait until you die to find out which it is!

Paul instructed them concerning death and he instructed them concerning their grief over those who had died: “That ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” No where is it taught that the believer is to be free from grief. The notion that a Christian is to always wear a smile and only cry “tears of joy” is un-Biblical. It is perfectly right and natural for a believer to grieve and mourn; for a believer to feel the pangs of loss is not a weakness. That grief, however, should be informed by our knowledge of God which only comes from the Word of God. A Christian’s grief is to be distinguishable from a non-believer’s grief.

For the unbeliever death is an awful, terrifying, permanent severing of relationships with no hope of reunion. Death is the great unknown, the unwanted inevitability of life; if you’re an unbeliever. And it is often covered with small talk and/or silly talk – “He’s looking down on us right now.” or “He’s here with us as we speak.” For the unbeliever the loss of loved ones is layered in depression and despondency and covered with hopelessness.

In contrast, believers do not experience the hopeless grief of non-believers. There is still genuine grief and not a little pain, but it is not the grief and pain of unbelief because we know from the Bible that there will be a “gathering together {of all believers} unto Him” (2 Thessalonians 2:1). We do not pretend that death does not bring loss and tears. We “sorrow”, but not “as others which have no hope.”

The Application Commanded

The application is three-fold: the issues of belief vs. unbelief; knowledge vs. ignorance, and God-honoring grief vs. pagan hopelessness.

Belief vs. Unbelief

Where do you stand in relation to the distinction between faith and unbelief? Are you in Christ or without Him? Only you can answer this question. Your spouse, parents, religious traditions or feelings, none of them can answer that question. You are either “dead in your trespasses and sins” or “by grace ye are saved.”

Knowledge vs. Ignorance

How are you handling the scriptures? If the answer is “Not very well” then how long do you plan on living as a relatively ignorant Christian? Believer, you need to be a student of the Book! You must know the Word of the Lord if you are to please the Lord of the Word. Do not be a clueless Christian wandering about always hoping that someone else will have the answer. There are many things in this life about which we may be ignorant; God’s Word is not one of them.

Good Grief vs. Bad Grief

How do you approach grief? Christian counselor Jay Adams defines grief as the following:
“A life shaking sorrow over loss. Grief tears life to shreds; it shakes one from the top to the bottom. It pulls him loose; he comes apart at the seams. Grief is truly nothing less than a life-shattering loss.”
Life brings losses, and when we lose we grieve, and if we do not properly handle grief we’ll be enslaved by it. And this experience of grief is not restricted to the loss of a loved one, because loss can be experienced on a variety of levels and over a range of issues (the loss of a job, relationship, etc).

The apostle Paul did not condemn grief; he understood it. He was confidently able to say that death was gain and that it was more desirable to be with Christ. But he also said about Epaphroditus: “For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Ph. 2:27).

Christians are not to employ some phony, glossy, heartless triumphalism. We may face our own death with triumphant assurance of an eternity with Christ, but that does not dispel the pang of loss in this life. It is appropriate that we celebrate the reality of Christ’s victory over death, but through our bereavement, what distinguishes us from “others” is the hope that is grounded in the resurrected Christ and the certainty of His coming again.

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