Summer in Thessalonica – Hope in Death

At seven feet and seven inches tall, weight 225 pounds, Manute Bol was the skinniest players in the NBA. He was never a great player, averaging only about three points per game, but he did manage to make a fortune playing basketball. Manute Bol went broke by giving most of his six million dollars to refugees from his home country of Sudan. After his death last week at age 47, one Twitter post summed him up: “Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals.

I grew up in the Evangelical Congregational Church, a denomination whose US headquarters and most churches are in Pennsylvania but also with many churches throughout the globe in India, Costa Rica, Liberia and Japan. The head of the American EC Church, Bishop Kevin Leibensperger, died in a car accident on June 1 at age 54. Over 1,000 friends, colleagues and others whose lives were affected by his ministry turned out for the funteral.

Both of these men were dedicated Christians who used their gifts to serve God, one as a basketball player and one as a pastor. It was not their gifts that saved them, it was God’s grace. Thus, while we grieve their deaths we also have hope. For a Christian, death is not the end. This does not mean we approach death with no emotion, it is still sad to lose somebody, as anyone who has lost a friend or family member can attest to. But grieving as Christians takes on a different flavor then grieving by those who have no hope of a life beyond this one. This is specifically what Paul writes about the the Thessalonians:

4:13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The Christians in Thessalonica were living as if there was no hope of a final resurrection, of a reunion with their Christian brothers and sisters who had already died. Paul’s desire is to teach them.

Today many Christians are still misinformed about the end-times, about our future life in God’s presence. This text is one of many places that shed light on our questions. The main point here is that we can have hope that we will be with the Lord forever (4:17). This is a hope that others who think this life is all there is do not have, they have no hope (4:13). Further, this is a hope that encompasses two groups of people: those dead when Jesus returns, and those alive when Jesus returns.

Those who are asleep in death (4:13) are with Jesus (“have fallen asleep with him” – 4:14). They are physically dead (asleep) but spiritually alive with Christ (see Philippians 1:21-23). There is a separation between the body, laying in the grave, and the spirit, in God’s presence. But this is not the final state. Many Christians wrongly think that the goal is to leave the body and go to heaven as a spirit for all eternity. This leaves out the resurrection. Remember, God created matter and it is good (Genesis 1). Jesus came as a human, with a body just like yours and mine. After his death Jesus rose from the dead in a body, new and renewed, but still a body. Just as Jesus has risen so too will we rise from the dead one day (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). This will occur at the end of all things, when Jesus returns: “the dead in Christ will rise” (4:16). The physically dead bodies will rise, made new, and be united with the spirit. Our final existence will be one as a unity of body and spirit in the new creation (new heavens and new earth, Revelation 21-22).

This may seem a bit heavy and theological, even wandering into the “what difference does it make?” category. A full answer to this is outside the point of today’s post. Briefly though, bodily resurrection from the dead is one of the central truths unique about Christianity. Just floating away as spirits to heaven in a disembodied existence was a common belief in the Greek and Roman religions of Jesus’ day. Such a message is not really “good news”, it is “old news”. Also, a belief that our body, and all of creation, will be made new, motivates us to both take care of our body and creation. There is a continuity meaning that who we are allowing the Spirit to make us into now is the path to who we will become for all eternity.

Back to our text. As the resurrection of the dead happens with Jesus’ final coming, those who are alive will immediately be transformed, body and spirit, into new creations (4:17). Both those alive and those dead will experience this resurrection together (those alive will not precede those dead, 4:15) and will be with the Lord forever in the new creation (4:17; new heavens and earth made one – Revelation 21-22).

The question then is, how do we face death? As Christians, do we react to death in the same way as those who have no hope? Or do we set an example with our hope that death is not a final goodbye, but more of a see you later (setting an example to outsiders is still in mind, see 4:11-12). We certainly grieve, even Jesus wept at the death of a friend (John 11:35). But our grief is hopeful, not hopeless.

I have been lucky not to lose many people close to me. If a close friend or family member died, I am not sure how I would handle it. Would my grief be different then those who have no hope? Honestly, I cannot answer that now. But I do like how Paul ends this passage in 4:18. When death happens, hopeful grieving cannot be done alone, rather, we must encourage each other. It is not as individuals, but as a Christian community, that we grieve with hope in a future reunion.

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