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The first century Sicilian poet, Theocritus, once wrote, “There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope.” Theocritus was not an anomaly. His worldview was widely shared by first century pagans. Ancient tombstones have been uncovered inscribed with these words: “I was not; I became; I am not; I care not.”

The worldview behind such hopelessness was one that rejected any notion of resurrection. Aeshchylus, the first-century Greek playwright (called the father of tragedy) wrote, “Once a man dies there is no resurrection.” The Latin poet Catallus added, “When once our brief light sets, there is one perpetual night through which we must sleep.”

In contrast to this bleak outlook on life and death, the New Testament presents the glorious truth that, for Christians, death is not the end. Death is but a brief sleep, which will be interrupted when the children of the living God will awaken to unending life.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, Paul wrote to a church confused about this hope. He told them that he did not want them to remain “uninformed,” a word that speaks of the failure to exercise the mind. The Thessalonians were failing to apply their minds to gospel truth, and so Paul wrote to “declare”—to set out in systematic fashion—this truth to them. He wanted them to have “hope” and rooted this hope firmly in the reality of resurrection. In systematic fashion, he laid out exactly why the Thessalonians should have hope.

First, they should have hope because of Christ’s certain return: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” At the ascension, the angels told the disciples that Jesus would return to earth in the same way that he ascended: physically, visibly, bodily. Paul affirms that truth here. Jesus is coming back and we, therefore, have reason for hope in the face of grief.

Second, they should have hope because of believers’ certain resurrection: “And the dead in Christ will rise first.” For Paul, Christian hope did not rest in an disembodied existence in the clouds but in a future, bodily resurrection secured by the bodily resurrection of Christ. Our frail bodies, so prone to disease, death, and decay, will one day be raised to glorious immortality.

Third, they should embrace the hope of a certain rapture: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” When Christ returns and resurrects sleeping saints, there will be Christians alive on earth who will be “caught up” (raptured) to the clouds with the returning Lord. In the Roman world, victorious generals would announce their return to their city by means of a trumpet. Citizens would go out to meet the returning general and follow him into the city celebrating his great victory. Similarly, resurrected and raptured saints will one day be caught up to the clouds to return to earth celebrating Jesus’ final victory over sin and death.

Fourth, they should have hope because of a certain reunion: “and so we will always be with the Lord.” Notice the plural pronoun: “we.” One day, living and dead saints will be reunited in eternal praise to Christ. “The momentary encounter will lead to an everlasting fellowship. Thus the descending Lord and the ascending saints, heaven and earth, will be united” (Stott).

Paul laid out these truths in a systematic fashion, but they were more than intellectual doctrines. Indeed, he urged, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

These are days of indescribable grief and sorrow, which leave us longing for the glorious someday:

Some day a bright new wave will break upon the shore,
and there will be no sickness, no more crying, no more war,
and little children never will go hungry any more,
and there’ll be a bright new morning over there,
there’ll be a bright new world for us to share.

Some day there’ll be an end to unkind words and cruel—
the man who said there is no God will know he is a fool—
and peace will be a way of life, with love the only rule,
and there’ll be a bright new morning over there,
there’ll be a bright new world for us to share.

Some day—we know not when—when time on earth is done,
and those redeemed from every land will all become as one,
with voices of all ages praising God, the three in one,
and there’ll be a bright new morning over there,
there’ll be a bright new world for us to share.

As a church, we have had opportunity this week to grieve with members who have experienced tragic loss. We grieve with the Gottes at Ian’s tragic death. We grieve with Tania, Sarah, and Emma at Martin’s tragic death. We hate sin and its consequences. But we are not without hope.

Instead, we embrace the hope of Christ’s certain return, of a physical resurrection, of a victorious rapture, and of an eternal reunion. Let us be encouraged by, and encourage one another with, these words.