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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Title:Comfort for Grieving Believers
Text:1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 16:1,3,5                                                                                                 

Ps 119:32,33

Reading – Daniel 12:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:11

Ps 42:1,3

Sermon – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

Hy 68:1,3,4,8

Hy 83:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Loved ones in Christ, when we look around this world, we see a lot of sorrow and grief because of death. When life ends—and especially when it ends tragically, or seemingly too soon—there’s a painful sense of loss. We think of those who die from cancer or other illnesses, those who have been killed in car accidents, or workplace accidents. To say nothing of the ongoing wars around this world, where at the end of every day there are more funerals to be held and more tears to be shed.

Thinking about death, and the sorrow that comes after, we realize that not many things are worse than a funeral without hope. What’s more terrible than a sorrow that can’t be consoled? What’s more ugly than a death that truly marks the end—with no hope left for change, or for redemption?

For us as believers, it’s hard to imagine being without the gospel of salvation. Maybe you’ve been to the funeral of a neighbour who didn’t know Christ. Or you’ve seen the sorrow played out on the TV news, about lives suddenly cut short. People will speak then of how so much hope and potential have suddenly been lost. So what do people do then? Where do they look? Coming face-to-face with death, what perspective can be found?

In the gospel we have a sure hope and consolation. But what is the gospel? Is it only about finding comfort from pain or loss? Is it only a way to get by, something we lean on like a crutch, when we “need” it? And what about our own death? Would we be ready, even if that hour came unexpectedly, even if it came too soon? These are the things our text addresses, which I preach to you on this theme,

Paul comforts grieving believers with our hope in Christ:

  1. our present sorrow
  2. our victorious Saviour
  3. our sure hope


1. our present sorrow: For a moment, put yourself in Paul’s sandals. Just recently you’ve been to Thessalonica, the major city in the region of Macedonia, to the northeast of Greece. You enjoyed good success in preaching the gospel there, but opposition arose and you had to leave town in a hurry. So your stay was shorter than you would’ve liked. Now the new believers in Thessalonica are on their own.

What to do? You’ve already tried to return once, but it wasn’t possible. As Paul puts it in 2:18, “Satan hindered us.” So you do the next best thing to visiting in person, and you send a colleague. That’s the immediate occasion of this letter: the return of Timothy to Paul at Corinth. Paul’s younger colleague had been dispatched to Thessalonica to see how the church was doing, and just now he’s come back—he’s come back with a good report, “Timothy has… brought us good news of your faith and love” (3:6).

Staying inside Paul’s sandals a moment longer, if you were him you’d probably sit down and write a letter to encourage these enthusiastic believers. That’s what he does for the first few chapters, exhorting them to keep doing what they were doing: walking with the Lord. And for the rest, Paul addresses a few pastoral matters, as reported by Timothy. For while they were doing well in many respects, the Thessalonians did lack in a couple areas. And one of these concerned their view of what happens to believers when they die. What does it really mean when we pass away, and what’s the hope we have when it happens?

That’s how our text begins, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren…” (v 13). Because of Paul’s shortened time among them, there were some “gaps” in their knowledge. He hadn’t been able to teach them everything they needed to know.

Sure, they had heard about Christ’s second coming, and they looked forward to that day. Who wouldn’t? But in the meantime, there was a problem. Some of the members of that church had died. Maybe an elderly brother had passed away, or a young sister had succumbed to illness. One or two, or even a handful. For the small congregation, it was of course sad to part with these loved ones. A death will always leave an empty place.

But their grief was made so much worse by their confusion. Because wasn’t Jesus going to return any day now? Wasn’t the final victory just around the corner? So why would God let these members die? Wouldn’t that brother and that sister now miss out on glory? How could they stand ready to receive the Lord, if they were moldering in the grave?

Such despair about Jesus’ delay may be hard to wrap our heads around. If anything, we make the opposite mistake! We’re used to thinking of Christ’s return as an event in the far distance, so our expectation begins to wane. His coming isn’t a front-and-centre concern in our prayers, or in our day-to-day lives. We don’t live in that “Maranatha” spirit as much as we ought to. Our hope has become sidelined by a focus on this world and everything in it, all that there is for us to enjoy and to accomplish.

But for the Thessalonians, this was a real expectation. For when Jesus left the earth, hadn’t He suggested that He’d soon return? And when Paul was among them, hadn’t he too, left the impression it could happen in their lifetime? On top of this, Timothy reported that the Thessalonians had endured some hardship recently, even persecution; in their minds, this probably only confirmed that the end was drawing near.

By the time we get to Paul’s second letter to this church, we see hints that for some, fervent expectation was starting to become a harmful obsession. They were so convinced Jesus was going to return at any moment, that some quit their daily jobs. Because why would you still go to work on Monday morning, if you’re not going to need things like money for much longer? Some became a burden to others in the church, and with all their spare time they’d started to become unruly. Idle hands will find evil work!

That’s where all this was going when Paul writes his first letter. He doesn’t want us to be “ignorant” he says, uninformed or misled on this teaching. Because the way we think about Christ’s coming will undeniably make a difference. His return isn’t just a theoretical doctrine, something tucked away and only pulled out for consolation when someone dies. It’s a teaching of Scripture that is daily and directly relevant.

We can illustrate that in two ways, negative and positive. First, imagine thinking that you’ll never see the day of Christ; you look at it as a fairytale, or impossibly far away. If you really think that way, your daily decisions and life habits won’t be for his honour. Why would you care about your lifestyle, if you never have to give an account?

Or second, more positively, if you genuinely believe his return could be at any moment now, then your life will gain a focus—it will have a purpose. Even if you don’t think of Jesus’ return every single day, you know that you have to be ready. You know that He’s on his way, so you aim to live in faith and holiness.

In our text, Paul wants to relate this doctrine to “those who have fallen asleep” (v 13). With some recent deaths in Thessalonica, there were questions in the air: What now? What about them? And these questions are still asked. As a congregation, we think about those we’ve loved, but who have passed on. What about our older brothers and sisters? What about this son, that parent, or this sister? What about our uncle, and Opa? What’s their hope, and ours?

Notice how the Spirit refers to them, “those who have fallen asleep.” Even if He didn’t say anything more, in that phrase there’s already a subtle comfort. Those who are dead aren’t dead forever. They’re not placed in the ground for time and eternity, to fade to nothing and be forgotten. For they’ve only “fallen asleep.”

It reminds us of Jesus’ words about the daughter of Jairus, who passed away in Matthew 9. Coming into the house and seeing all the hired mourners and the noisy crowd wailing, Jesus spoke simply, “The girl is not dead, but sleeping.” At the time they mocked him, but He showed just how true his word was. For He went to the girl, took her by the hand, and woke her up! “She is not dead, but sleeping.”

Sleep is temporary—you wake from it! As believers then, we know that death is much more than the end of brain activity and earthly existence. It’s not the last chapter, but it’s a rest from our labours, and an entrance into everlasting life. “So,” the Spirit says to God’s people, “there’s no need for endless grief or the despair of personal loss. Do not ‘sorrow as others who have no hope’” (v 13). Don’t go to the cemetery as if that’s the end of the story. Don’t lay a loved one to rest as if there’s nothing more to be said for them, or for you.

Because that’s how “others” do it, says Paul. The “others” are unbelievers, those who don’t know God. They might have “hope” in one sense; pretty well everyone on earth cherishes some kind of dream for tomorrow. But outside of Jesus Christ, what’s the value of your dream? Where will it take you? In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about how those Christians used to be without God, when they were stuck in their pagan ways. And what’s the one miserable consequence he draws out? That if you’re without the true God, then you’re also without hope (2:12). If you don’t know the Lord, there really is no consolation, no dream you can have of something better. Tomorrow’s not “another day,” but to bury a body means the end. No more hope for change or redemption.

It’s little wonder that the sorrow we see in the world sometimes seems so raw, so intense. People can be at a loss about how to process the reality of death. Sometimes they turn to platitudes about the deceased “living on” in their hearts and memories. Or they talk about loved ones becoming angels and “watching over us” here on earth. But ultimately—and we must say this with all compassion—it’s a sorrow without hope. The graveside parting is profoundly painful, if there’s no resurrection, no restoration.

And even for believers, there will be many tears. There can be an awful sorrow. Notice the Spirit doesn’t say, “Do not grieve.” For He knows that we will. Jesus promised that in this world, we will have trouble! The truth is, death ends a good thing: God’s gift of life. Though everyone at one time or another has to meet this enemy, death remains unnatural. God never intended it to be in this world. Together with sin, it runs counter to his purpose. So we miss people—we even miss them deeply. We feel the loss of their presence, even as Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. Jesus, of all people, knew that death was not the end! And yet Jesus wept.

Weeping’s allowed. Sorrow’s permitted, even expected. But the Spirit does say, “Do not grieve as those who have no hope.” We don’t drown in our tears. We don’t despair that this is the way it’ll always be. For again and again, we are moved to look up to God in heaven as a faithful, loving Father. We remember his promise, and it softens all our sorrow.

When we look at that body lying in the coffin, we’re sometimes surprised by how much it looks as if our loved one is only sleeping. Like at any moment, they’ll be woken and they’ll get up and join us. And that’s the truth, isn’t it? We don’t have to be ignorant about those who have fallen asleep, “for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus” (v 14).


2. our victorious Saviour: What makes the Christian message so different? Why did the Thessalonians listen to Paul, or to Timothy? Back then there were lots of traveling teachers, wandering philosophers who’d share their message with anyone who’d provide a good meal. Over the years, many of these teachers had also come through Thessalonica. And with so many religions and worldviews available today, why believe God’s Word? What makes the Christian message so different, so beautifully and powerfully different?

And for the answer we look at verse 14, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again.” This is the truth that no one else has. This is the unshakable foundation of our hope; it’s one based on Jesus’ own resurrection, his victory over the grave. More than a well-told story, or an elaborate philosophy, it was an historical event. It was something that happened in time, and something many eyewitnesses could testify to: Jesus died, and He rose again.

Notice how Paul says that Jesus “died.” Just in the verse previous, the apostle spoke of Christians “falling asleep,” a phrase that carries with it a subtle message of hope. But Jesus? He died. It’s emphasized that his life was over.

Because it had to be! God the Father had charged him with all the sins of mankind, and He had condemned him to death—total death, in body and soul, forsaken by God himself. His death was absolutely necessary, for it was a death suffered as payment for every transgression ever committed, and every shortcoming ever recorded.

He died. But He rose again. Peter says in Acts 2 that death couldn’t keep its hold on Christ. It couldn’t, because death simply had no more claim on him as a person. It couldn’t expect anything more from Jesus, because He had paid in full the price for sin. The bonds of the grave were finally and irreversibly broken.

The resurrection is God’s loud declaration that Jesus had done the job He was sent to do. No other religion, no other way of thinking, no other saviour can deal with sin like Christ has dealt with sin. He died for it, and so He rose again.

And the death and resurrection of Christ mean much more than the forgiveness of your and my personal guilt. That’s big, of course. Without that grace, we couldn’t survive. Every day we need to ask for God to excuse our sinful pride, and pardon our impatience, and overlook our self-deceit, and forgive our laziness and that endless stream of wicked desires.

But Jesus came on a much bigger mission than to cover our daily imperfections, as bad and as serious as they are. He came to set things right with this entire world, to relieve this groaning creation and restore this broken planet. He came to renew life itself! It begins with our forgiveness, it continues when we die and go to God’s presence, and it reaches fullness with the resurrection of the body and life eternal.

For centuries, God’s people have had this comfort of this promise. Even long before Christ came, they knew that the grave didn’t get the last word, that the darkness of Sheol wasn’t the end of the line. We sang of that in Psalm 16, and we read about it in Daniel 12, where the prophet speaks of what’s to come. He writes, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (v 2). You can hear in that a certain ring of our text: those who sleep shall awake!

Now that ancient promise has been gloriously filled out. In the person of Christ, we see just how certain is the restoration of all things, right from cells of the human body to the farthest reaches of the heavens. When He comes, He will restore all!

And in him, we know that that final Judgment Day doesn’t have to be a day for terror. On that day, we could fear our total exposure. We could dread all our failings being brought into the open, seeing how even as Christians we so often have not lived up to our holy calling. But we are encouraged in 5:9-10, “God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” Already now, the Spirit is saying, you have the victory in Christ. Already now, you are free from God’s wrath. And that will not change when Jesus returns. “God did not appoint us to wrath…”

But don’t miss the condition in 4:14. Who is all this for? Who should have no fear, thinking about Judgment Day? And who’ll get welcomed into the eternal kingdom? “Those who sleep in Jesus.” That’s a picture of confident rest, when you close your eyes at the end of your life because you know Christ. Because you’re in him!

That makes it an all-important question for life and eternity. Are we in him, united to Jesus Christ by faith? Do we rest in him, his death and resurrection? When we die, will we “sleep in Jesus?” And the only possible way is if we live in Jesus. Every day, place your trust in him. Every day, make it your aim to please him. We will only sleep in Jesus if we live in Jesus!

Christians in an earlier time wrote often about preparing to “die well.” They spoke about getting yourself ready for that hour, so that it’s one of peace instead of fear. As one of the Puritans said, “He may look on death with joy, who can look on forgiveness with faith.” Perhaps we’ve forgotten that concern for “dying well.” Maybe because we live longer, and it seems death can be held at bay through all sorts of measures.

Yet the fact is, we still never know when our end will come. Death can come so quickly, so unexpectedly, whether this week or in fifty years. So we should not delay the question, waver between two opinions, or sit on the fence. Life is too short for that. So are we in Christ? We read it in 5:10, “Whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” It’s the only way!


3. our sure hope: Some in this world have no hope. But if someone asked us about our hope, what would we say? We find it in verse 14, “God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus.” The redeemed are so united to Christ that we share the same destiny as he does; as the head was raised, so will all the members.

Daniel told us that all who sleep shall awake, some to life and some to shame. And “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever” (v 3). Those who die in Christ are never lost. They are never forgotten, even if they die long centuries before He returns. They are not forgotten, because He remembers them! In him they are victorious, and they will shine like stars forever.

As we said before, the reality of Christ’s coming is very practical. Instead of pushing it to the back of our minds, it needs to change how we live. We get a taste of that in 2:12, where Paul says, “[May you] walk worthy of the God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” He is saying: “Walk worthy of the God who calls you to himself. Live in such a way that shows you have a Saviour, that shows you have a hope.”

What does that look like? When we grieve, we don’t shed tears hopelessly, but we hold onto the precious gospel of Christ our Saviour. It honours God when we find our consolation in him, and put our trust in his promises. Because He said, we believe it, and we’re confident in it.

Walking worthy of the God who’s called us gets revealed in other ways too. We don’t quit our day job, like some were doing. We don’t give up on this broken world, but we continue to do our work—and we do it in the conviction that by this too, we can honour God, that He can use us for the coming of his kingdom.

This hope also gives us something to say when a loved one passes on. The Spirit exhorts us at the end of chapter 4, “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (v 18). Take this gospel and share it freely, in the church too. Let’s remind each other of why we’re here! Remind each other of where we’re going! Speak about the hope we have in Christ.

And not just when there’s sorrow because of death. So many moments take on a different focus through the lens of Christ’s second coming. Because of it, we know any earthly suffering is temporary. Because of it, we know any present blessings aren’t for our own glory. Our whole time on earth has to be about getting ready for his return.

This also gives something to say those without hope. There’s much grieving in the world, because sooner or later death comes to every home. And such an occasion provides opportunity to speak a wise and compassionate word. Remember Daniel’s word, “Those who turn many to righteousness [will shine] like the stars forever and ever.”

It’s what the Spirit calls us to do in 1 Peter 3:15. It’s a well-known text, but notice where his emphasis falls, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you [about] the hope that you have.” In a world that knows much sorrow because of death, those who are in Christ have a sure hope! So let’s tell them the reason. For their salvation, and for God’s glory, tell them the reason for your hope.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2013, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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