Summary: Three confident actions Christians can take in the face of death.
One of the real tests of a person’s belief system is how that belief system stands in the face of death. Consider some of these dying words of people throughout history. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas urged us to not go gently into the night but to rage against dying. The Roman Emperor Vespian said, "I am becoming a god" as he died in 79 AD. Kurt Cobain, former lead singer for the grunge band Nirvana said, "I hate myself and I want to die." 1960s drug guru Timothy Leary mumbled, "Why not? Why not? Why not? Why not?" Stand up comic Lenny Bruce’s final words were, "Do you know where I can score any heroin?" Then of course there was civil war general John Sedgwick, who’s final words were, "They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—"
These final words give us an insight into how well the belief systems of each of these people prepared them to face death. Contrast that with these final words. English evangelist George Whitefield’s final words were, "Lord Jesus, I am weary in your work but not of your work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and preach once more in the fields, seal the truth, and then come home to die." Missionary Adoniram Judson said, "When Christ calls me home, I shall go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school." John Wesley said, "The best of all is God is with us. Farewell!" And one of my favorites is Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, who died in 1329, who said, "Now my dear children I have had breakfast with you and I shall have supper with my Lord Jesus Christ." What a contrast between belief systems.
Death is the final uncertainty we face in life, the biggest and darkest uncertainty of all. How well does the Christian faith prepare people to face the final uncertainty of death? We’re in the midst of a series called LIVING CONFIDENTLY IN UNCERTAIN TIMES. In this series we’re going through the New Testament books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, to see what God has to say to us as we face a new century. Today we’re going to see three confident actions that Christians can take as they face the final uncertainty of death.
1. Confident Trust (1 Thess 4:13-14)
Paul begins by confronting an area of spiritual ignorance among the Thessalonians in vv. 13-14. Remember Paul and his co-workers Timothy and Silas had only spent a short time in the Greek city of Thessalonica before the pressure got unbearable and they were forced to leave town. One of the topics Paul wasn’t able to cover in detail was how the second coming of Jesus Christ relates to Christians who have died before Christ comes again.
Now each of the 27 books of the New Testament claim that at some future point in human history Jesus Christ will come again to this earth. In fact every chapter in 1 and 2 Thessalonians mentions the second coming of Jesus. The New Testament claims that this will be a literal, personal and visible second coming, something that every person experiences. In a Newsweek poll last year, 52% of Americans said they thought the second coming of Jesus Christ would occur within the next 1000 years.1
Because of their limited knowledge, the Thessalonians had an incomplete understanding of God’s plan for the living and the dead when Jesus comes again. The Christians in Thessalonica lived expecting Christ to return within their lifetime. The problem came when some members of their Christian friends died, and they wondered what would become of their loved ones when Jesus came again. Would they be at a disadvantage? Would they miss out on the joy?
Paul knows that a lack of knowledge about this issue leads to hopelessness and despair when we face life’s final uncertainty of death. Even though lots of people in the first century believed in the afterlife, it was viewed more as a kind of wishful thinking. One Greek writer who lived at this time put it this way: "Hopes are for the living; the dead are without hope."2 Most people back then held to some view of immortality in theory, but in the face of the real death of a real person, the general attitude was one of hopelessness and despair. Ignorance about what the Christian faith has to say about death and the afterlife leads even Christians to despair and hopelessness, so Paul knows that before he can truly comfort he must instruct them.
Now Paul’s not telling us that Christians are immune from grief here. Bible teacher John Stott’s quite right when he says, "However firm our Christian faith may be, the loss of a close friend or relative causes a profound emotional shock. To lose a loved one is to lose a part of oneself."3 Death still hurts, even if you’re a Christian. But for the Christian, we don’t grieve in hopelessness, but we grieve in hope.