Summary: What you don’t know about death will lead to unecessary grief, or even worse, unending pain.
In her mind it had gone well. She had hit all the notes. She had expressed them with passion. And she felt certain that she had connected with her audience that night. But what did the critics think of her performance? She resolved not to buy the newspaper the next morning – ignorance is bliss.
Have you found ignorance to be blissful? Does the lack of knowledge really keep worries at bay? It can. If an airplane I’m flying in develops engine trouble, I just as well not know about it. Why worry about something I can’t fix? Of course one’s ignorance can be harmful. That’s the case regarding death, says the Apostle Paul in our text this morning. What you don’t know about death can lead to unnecessary grief, and even worse, it can lead to eternal torment.
Paul wrote about death in a letter to Christians living in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Like the bride-to-be who is devastated that Grandma died just days before the wedding, the Thessalonian Christians were concerned that believers who had already died were going to miss out on the glories of Christ’s triumphant return. Not so, explained Paul. “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, 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” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14).
Christians who have died are not going to miss out on Christ’s triumphant return. On the contrary, they are going to have a front row seat for it. More than that. They are going to participate in the return for they will be at Jesus’ side. It’s no wonder Paul says that when a Christian dies we don’t need to grieve like those who have no hope. Death for a Christian means falling asleep in the arms of Jesus. Children aren’t afraid to fall asleep in the arms of their parents are they? No. They prefer it. And why shouldn’t they? In their parents’ arms they find warmth and protection. In the same way a Christian doesn’t need to be afraid of dying because it’s like falling asleep in Dad’s arms at Grandma’s and then waking up in your warm comfy bed at home.
But now what will happen to our bodies? At death our bodies will be cremated or buried. Either way they’ll turn back to dust. Does that mean we’ll never get to hold the hands of our children again? Will we never again enjoy the embrace of a mother? Listen to what Paul had to say about that. “According to the Lord’s own 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” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 16).
On Judgment Day Jesus will raise the dead. According to our Gospel lesson from John (5) this morning both believers and unbelievers will come back to life. The body of believers will be lifted up into the air to be reunited with their soul. In his letter to the Corinthians (15), Paul adds that God will change the body of believers so that they are forever free of sin and therefore will never get sick or die. You might think of the change a caterpillar undergoes. It starts out looking like a fat hairy worm but then transforms into a beautiful butterfly. In the same way we won’t be sorry to leave behind the bodies we now have.
That’s great for believers who will be raised from the dead, but what will happen to us if we manage to survive until Christ’s return? Listen again to Paul. “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” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). If you’re familiar with Christianity, you’ve probably heard of the rapture. “Rapture” means to be suddenly taken up into the air. You might think of a mouse suddenly being seized in the talons of an owl and finds itself soaring over trees. Of course the rapture for believers will not be a scary experience like that, for Jesus himself will draw us to him as he descends on the clouds. It’s important to note that the rapture will happen on Judgment Day not some time before as some believe. Not only will we float up to meet Jesus in the air and join the resurrected Christians, our bodies too will be changed so that we will be without sin, pain, or any disability.